Arts, Entertainment, Living

Good Roads, Good women

Thursday, 30 September 2010 08:08 AM Written by

FARMINGTON, ME. -- McDonald's 

Unlike Steinbeck, I never did find a potato farm on US 1 in Aroostook County that looked like it was harvesting or processing spuds with Canuck migrant workers or even machines.

Maybe next time.

In Ft. Kent I reached the northern end of US 1 about noon on Wednesday and turned south on state Route 11 for the long drive back to New Hampshire and the way West. DSC_1932_3 

On the map, Route 11 looks like a boring north-south highway stuck into the top half of Maine. 

For some reason -- maybe because Steinbeck said nothing about the road itself -- I dreaded Route 11. I imagined running all day long through pine trees over a marshy flatland.

In reality Maine's longest highway is prettier and far more interesting and fun to drive than foggy, flat US 1 -- until the sun sets, anyway.DSC_1941

 After it leaves the top of Maine, Route 11 runs over, around, up and down and through hills and low mountains in deepest, darkest, woodsiest Maine. 

There was so little traffic I began to suspect the smooth wide two-lane highway was built just to prove how empty the middle of Maine truly is. Or to give highballing' double-trailered logging trucks their own speedway.

Other cars were almost as rare as the towns, houses and farms. Steinbeck saw moose on Route 11. The only mooses I saw were painted on warning signs.DSC_1925_copy

Route 11 took me longer than it should have.

I pulled over too many times to take photos of sagging abandoned farm houses or the cute little rest stops that MaineDOT has built to provide a quiet place for  picnics or the couples who arrive separately in their pickup trucks.

When I stopped at a rest stop to snack on some peanut butter and crackers -- I wasn't counting on finding a restaurant for a another day or two -- there were three cars and only one person. Then a couple stepped out of the woods and got into their vehicles.

Maine people -- Mainers? Manians? Mainsters? -- couldn't be nicer and they've obviously been brought up to be kind to strangers.

In the little burg of Patten I turned around to go back and photograph a weed-strangled home that was obviously inhabited when Steinbeck hurried through there 50 years ago so he could get to a motel in Lancaster, N.H., before nightfall.DSC_2001_copy

As I got out of my car, a young woman who had seen me turn around pulled over and asked if I needed any help.

She thought I was lost, of course, which it looked like I was. But I was just driving the way I usually do -- as if traffic laws don't apply to journalists (or ex-journalists).

She quickly filled me in on the local history, said her town has about 1,000 inhabitants and suggested I take a picture of the corner store "because it's going to be torn down tomorrow."DSC_2009

She wasn't the first woman in timeless/spaceless/changeless Maine to think I was in distress; she was the fourth in less than 24 hours.

In Calais -- was that Tuesday? -- after I talked to the people in Karen's Main Street diner and the town bookstore, I stopped along the side of the road on my way out of town to file a blog item.

I wanted to take advantage of the sudden surge in Verizon's cell phone signal. (It was from Canada and roaming charges will apply until I call Verizon and plead my case; it happens all the time, warn the locals.)  

I was twisted around backwards, squeezed between my two front seats, typing on my laptop, which sat on my "bed." 

Since I am journalism's worst typist even when sitting up straight in a booth at McDonald's, it took almost two hours to write my blog item and load and send it and photos to Pittsburgh.

My first visitor was a U.S. Customs and Border Control officer, who pulled up behind me in her patrol car. I thought it was a local cop coming to arrest me, but she couldn't have been sweeter.

She had passed me three times and saw me in the same stupid position, so she naturally thought I had had a heart attack or had been the victim of a mob hit.

 I told her, apologizing as abjectly as possible, I was fine and explained what I was doing and begged for mercy because I was an ex-journalist and didn't know any better.

She believed every word of it, wasn't the least bit mad or officious, and left me to my pathetic typing. I didn't dare take her picture.

Ten minutes later I looked up from my keyboard to see two cars parked right behind me and two women with worried faces hurrying toward me.

They too thought I was dead or dying and were genuinely relieved, and not the least bit annoyed, to be told I was physically fine, just mentally challenged.

I finally came to my senses and pulled into a parking lot farther up the road, where I should have been in the first place. 

It felt comforting to know the good women of Maine were looking out for me. 

Where the Calais police force was all this time, I'll never know.  I'm not complaining, mind you. But based on my five-day, nearly 1,000 mile loop through Maine, police are as rare as moose. 

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'American Dad' marks 100 episodes

Thursday, 30 September 2010 02:00 AM Written by

Sc636-0039Fox's "American Dad" reaches its 100th episode in its season premiere Sunday (9:30 p.m., WPGH) and with that comes a sense of greater ease among the writers for all three of executive producer Seth MacFarlane's Sunday night series ("Family Guy" and "The Cleveland Show" are the other two.

All three shows inhabit the same universe and future episodes of the programs will include more crossover appearances from characters on one of the other shows.

Read more after the jump. ...

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juniorI want to mention two new CDs today that are not really new, but contain great old music, newly released. And they should both be a real treat for classic Chicago blues fans.

Both are from Delmark Records, the great jazz and blues label in Chicago and feature two legendary Chicago blues figures -- Junior Wells and Floyd McDaniel (sadly, I can't find a good web site for him, but his obituary speaks volumes about his life).

The Junior Wells CD: "Junior Wells & the Aces - Live in Boston 1966" is a never-released club set from a reunion of Junior (Amos Blakemore) and the Aces -- Louis Myers, guitar; Dave Myers, bass; Fred Below, drums -- the band that got Wells started in 1950, and probably one of the best blues bands. Ever.

The band members play, talk and wisecrack their way through the set, with emphasis on "play." The songs, a mix of some Wells originals and blues chestnuts, form a framework for Junior's tough, soaring harp, and crisp, bluesy guitar from Myers. Songs like "Feelin' Good,""It's A Man Down There," "Worried Life Blues" and "Look On Yonder's Wall." Classic songs, classic treatment.

And listen to the guitar, please, and learn how the blues was meant to be played -- not an extra or wasted note. Time and space between the notes that say just as much as the notes themselves. Rock solid rhythm from Below and bassist Myers.

One drawback here is the somewhat muddy sound. It's live, and probably wasn't recorded in 1966 with posterity in mind. But don't let that stop you from enjoying these historic blues.

floydThe Floyd McDaniel CD: "Floyd McDaniel with Dave Specter and the Bluebirds - West Side Baby." McDaniel spent most of his life in and around Chicago, and was an important, if unheralded, figure on the music scene.

This is a live recording from Bremen, Germany, in 1994, with a band that included Dave Specter on guitar and Tad Robinson on harp.

This is another set of crackling good Chicago blues with T-Bone Walker grooves led by jazz/blues singer-guitarist McDaniel, who was 79 at the time, about a year before his death.

And its another set of classics: "West Side Baby," "Mean Old World," "Route 66," "Everyday I Have the Blues" and more. McDaniel wasn't the household blues name that Wells became, but in his own way contributed just as much over a much longer career.

I couldn't find a McDaniel video, but here's an audio clip from the CD:  "Everyday I Have the Blues" --

And here's a video of Junior Wells from 1966, even though it's not with the Aces:

And don't forget: Lil' Ed tonight at Moondog's, Rory Block Friday night at the Thunderbird Cafe.

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Potato Country

Wednesday, 29 September 2010 10:11 AM Written by

VAN BUREN,  Me. -- 929 Steinbeck Miles

Aroostook County, famous for potatoes, is said to be bigger than Connecticut and Rhode Island combined.

No one behind the wheel of a car traveling north on US 1 from Calais is going to challenge that fact.

Steinbeck came all this way armed with only an AM radio and his own imagination, though he had Charley to talk to.DSC_1932_copy_copy

Probably 50 years ago today, Steinbeck headed north on US 1 from Deer Isle to the top of Maine after staying for two days at Eleanor Brace's spectacularly beautiful house on the edge of the sea.

He probably slept there in Rocinante the nights of Sept. 26 and Sept. 27. A Sept. 28 letter he sent from Deer Isle to Adlai Stevenson mentioned that he had seen part of the first Nixon-JFK TV debate (held Sept. 26) and was disgusted by the excess of courtesy the two candidates showed toward each other.

Steinbeck's long-time agent, Elizabeth Otis, had been vacationing at Brace's place for 30 years, renting a rustic cottage on the grounds straight out of a Disney movie. DSC_1940

Otis insisted that the island and the house were too beautiful for Steinbeck to miss.

It's easy to see why.


Take a video tour of the Eleanor Brace house, where Steinbeck parked Rocinante for two nights in late September 1960.

After Steinbeck left Deer Isle, he said in "Charley" that he slept in Rocinante under a bridge one rainy night and also camped overnight by a lake somewhere in Aroostook County, where he entertained a family of French Canadians at a little party in his camper shell.  

The Canucks had come across the border from Canada, as they always did during potato harvest time, to pick potatoes.

Machines do most of the picking now, and, as with most everything else that was once hard and back-breaking slave's work, human muscle has been replaced by brainpower and the magic of technology.

Not every wooden white church in New England is blazing white.

Last night I behaved like an adult and slept in the Aroostook Hospitality Inn here on US 1.

I rolled the motel-room dice from 60 miles away and I didn't lose. It's a good place with all the important amenities I need -- strong wi-fi, lots of wall plugs and a good shower.

It's an independent mom & pop, has a lot of character -- not to mention the character who manages it -- and it cost $69.

Today I set out on the long haul back down to Lancaster, N.H., on state Route 11, as Steinbeck did.

First I'll  see if I can find a big potato farm -- or big potato factory  -- or big whatever it is that potatoes come from these days. 


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IFC introduces 'Todd Margaret'

Wednesday, 29 September 2010 02:00 AM Written by

ToddMargaretAs long as you're OK with comedy-of-the-uncomfortable, then IFC's "The Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Margaret" (10 p.m. Friday) is by far the funnier of the two David Cross-Will Arnett series airing this fall (the other being Fox's "Running Wilde").

Read more after the jump. ...


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New Eden Brent CD - "Ain't Got No Troubles"

Wednesday, 29 September 2010 12:00 AM Written by
Eden Brent at the 2009 Wheeling blues festival. (Jim White photo)

I got to see Eden Brent at the 2009 Wheeling blues festival (photo above) and was thoroughly dazzled by the Greenville, Miss., native's bombastic personality, enthusiastic style, and most of all, her vocal and piano talents.

Now she has a new CD -- "Ain't Got No Troubles" (Yellow Dog Records), that puts all of those fine qualities on display, plus it tickles the BlueNotes fancy for rocking, bluesy, New Orleans-flavored piano with vocals to match.

51EyUdjKbNL._SL500_AA300_Brent spent 16 of her formative piano years under the formidable wing of the late Abie "Boogaloo" Ames, another Greenville resident, earning the nickname "Little Boogaloo." It all shows up in her music -- tough, swinging piano and vocals to match, like the opener, "Someone to Love," except when the music turns tender and thoughtful, as it does on the final track, "Goodnight Moon."

But mainly the CD romps through bluesy, soulful material. The title track hints at the joy of a New Orleans street parade. "Blues All Over" is a torchy lament to lost love caressed by a soulful, moody vocal. "Right To Be Wrong" is a hard-driving blues with a roadhouse pedigree. "Let's Boogie-Woogie" is just that - down and dirty boogie piano.

There's sly songwriting ("In Love With Your Wallet"), lusty songwriting ("My Man") and a voice that's smooth as smoke on a layer of Southern grits. And Brent plays a mean piano around it all.

There's not much that this excellent CD doesn't have. I even like the moody black and white cover art. Best of all, it's got Eden Brent, who deserves your attention. And darned if you can't dance to it.

Here's an unusual living-room video of Eden singing "My Man," after explaining how she was inspired to write the song:

And here's another very nice video of Eden with Boogaloo Ames, part of a documentary. It seems to me that one of the benefits of their relationship is that it will help Boogaloos Ames' legacy to survive.:

Chicago blues fans should be aware that Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials will be appearing at Moondog's in Blawnox tomorrow night (9.30).

And fans of Rory Block should know that she'll be at the Thunderbird Cafe in Lawrencevill on Friday night (10.1).


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Fox cancels 'Lone Star'

Tuesday, 28 September 2010 06:24 PM Written by

Fox’s critically acclaimed “Lone Star” fared even worse in the Nielsen ratings in week two than it did in its premiere so Fox canceled the show this afternoon, replacing it with “Lie to Me” effective next week.

After the premiere ratings, this does not come as a huge shock but it is a bitter pill for fans of quality TV.

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Of Eggs & Books

Tuesday, 28 September 2010 01:32 PM Written by

CALAIS, Me. -- 100 miles north of Bangor

We'll never know if John Steinbeck stopped at the US 1 border town of Calais.

Pronounced callous despite or perhaps in spite of its French origins, the town in 1960 was a lot healthier than it is now.

Population is down from about 4,000 to around 3,000 since 1990, according to the local downeasters/upeasters/overeasterns/fareasters eating breakfast at the counter in Karen's Main Street Diner.


It's a familiar story. Hundred of jobs have been lost in the paper mill. Young people are leaving.

If it weren't for the fact that the department of homeland security beefed up the three border crossings with Canada after it learned one of the 9/11 hijackers entered the States at Calais, there'd be even fewer jobs around.

Calais is in Washington County, which has about 33,000 people and is the state's poorest county. Across the St. Croix River is New Brunswick, Canada, so there's a lot of interaction of all kinds with the Canadians, including marriages.

One side of Calais' Main Street's business district was foolishly destroyed long ago in the name of urban renewal/progress.

But the old red brick buildings that survive include two good reasons for Steinbeck -- or anyone following his trail -- to stop:  Karen's diner and the Calais Book Store.

DSC_1959_2 Karen's is one of those priceless local eateries where getting a breakfast of two eggs over medium, sausage and home fries is a routine of perfection, not a matter of chance. The prices were good and the diner was doing a steady business, as it's done for five years.

Its owners, Karen and Lou Scribner, do homey things like cook their own turkey each week. Unless you go all exotic and go for the fried fresh clams, you can't spend more than $9 on something sensible like a hot turkey sandwich.

A few storefronts up the street is the Calais Book Shop. It's not something you'd expect to find in this part of the world -- especially after driving for what seemed like days through pine forests just hoping for a place that served coffee.

Carole Heinlein, 59, owns and operates the bookstore, which she started five years or so ago with the 8 tons of books she trucked up from Florida. Unlike half the Maine folk around here who head for Florida for the winter or for retirement, she came north and started her own business.


She's hanging on, without being able to afford to hire any help, running a semi-funky place overflowing with thousands of old and new good/classic books of all genres. A copy of "Travels With Charley" sat two feet inside her front door.

It's "Banned Books Week" this week, and Steinbeck would get the importance of that fight against bluenosed censorship. Two of his biggest/greatest works -- "Of Mice and Men" and "The Grapes of Wrath" --  are perennial  victims of America's nuttier local school boards.

Carole grew up in Key West, Fla., and worked for almost 20 years at various newspaper jobs including reporting.

She loves books, old or new. She doesn't have much good to say about TV or radio, but realizes she has to get an Internet site and go global, if she is ever to survive in her tiny market.

She hasn't made her initial investment back yet, but she's not about to give up, despite the economic downturn. 

"I opened a bookstore in the poorest county in Maine -- on April Fool's Day," she laughed. "The joke's on me. But I'd do the same thing again in the poorest county of any state."

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