Arts, Entertainment, Living

Logo scouts 'The A-List'

Monday, 04 October 2010 02:00 AM Written by

A-List_poster_KEYART_onlyLooking for a new guilty pleasure? Prepared to feel dirty after you watch TV? Logo's "The A-List: New York" (10 tonight) fits the bill.

Clearly inspired by the "Real Housewives" shows on Bravo, "The A-List" forsakes ladies who lunch for gays that gossip.

Read more after the jump. ...

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cottonWe're on a roll here at BlueNotes, with good music pouring from every post like good whiskey (or so it seems). And we're not ready to quit yet.

Left over from last week is an album from an old blues harp master, Mr. Superharp, James Cotton, titled "Giant" (Alligator Records).

Cotton is another of those great blues vets whose music seems to have been around forever, but it's really only been about 65 years. Even though he's only 75.

But his harmonica skills and his blues heritage have made Cotton one of the legendary giants of the blues. He's been leading his own band for about 50 years. And he's still touring, working his magic wherever he can.

On this new CD, released last week, Cotton fronts a crackling band full of blues spunk, with his deep, sweet soaring harp. Since a bout of throat cancer in the mid-'90s, Cotton has handled fewer vocal chores, and on this album, most of the singing is left to the very bluesy and soulful Slam Allen -- an excellent choice.

The album is filled with great old blues standards like "How Blue Can You Get?" and "Since I Met You Baby" -- plus a few originals like "Heard You're Getting Married" and "Blues for KoKo," a tribute to Koko Taylor. I especially love the work between Allen and Cotton on the opening track, "Buried Alive In The Blues."

It's all filled with skin-tight arrangements, stinging guitar from Allen, along with his tough vocals. But the focus is Cotton's harp, whether it's piercing or plaintive, mean or sweet, the man still blows with primal blues power. His intro to the classic Ivory Joe Hunter tune "Since I Met You Baby" is one sweet harp lesson.

Cotton is one of the last of the blues harp giants, his skills still blazing. Enjoy him while you can.

Here's a video of Cotton and Allen:

Bluzer Spotlight up next. Just click the link below ....

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Home Free

Sunday, 03 October 2010 04:10 PM Written by


 The traffic moved slowly across the Peace Bridge until I had my one-on-one with a border guard.

 "This is all I've got, " I said, handing him my Pa. driver's license and expecting soon to find myself in a cold little room trying to explain what I was doing crossing borders without a passport.

 "They let you in, huh?" he said, betraying how he felt about the vigilance of his  counterparts protecting Canada.

 He looked up my driver's license on his computer and found out I wasn't wanted for murder or plagiarism.

Then he handed back my license and said, "There you go, guy."

 Not exactly the heavy-handed response I was expecting -- and not-so-secretly hoping for.

Nothing like the time in 1987 at Checkpoint Charlie in East Berlin, when I had to empty my pockets, take off half my clothes and watch a punk East German border guard go through my wallet.

It was the easiest re-entry into the land of the free I've had in years.

The border guard didn't even ask me the usual questions about where I had been. Or how much tax-free booze I was running to Pittsburgh.

I didn't even get to give him one of my "Travels Without Charley" business cards.

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Border Crossings

Sunday, 03 October 2010 12:27 PM Written by

 FORT ERIE, ONTARIO -- Duty Free Store parking lot

 I'm waiting here, not sleeping here, until the traffic jam clears on the Peace Bridge.

It's a game day and already yahooing Bills fans from Canada have loaded up their cars with beer, eh, and set off across the border for the Buffalo-Jets game.

I slept last night at the family compound in Port Colborne, half an hour west of here. It was cold and rainy by Lake Erie, but there was hot water, a familiar bed and I slept without fear of sunstroke or being arrested.

 My passport-less border crossing at Niagara Falls last night at about 7 was uneventful and not nearly as funny as Steinbeck's failed attempt 50 years ago at the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge, not far from where New York state Route 104 ends. DSC_2008

Steinbeck was on Canadian soil -- asphalt, actually -- for about 15 minutes on this weekend in 1960.

As he recounts in detail in "Travels With Charley," in order to save a little driving time he planned to cut across southern Ontario to Windsor/Detroit.

 Steinbeck was a world traveler and had his passport with him. But he didn't have written proof from a veterinarian that Charley had had his rabies shots, so his plan to bypass the traffic horrors of Buffalo, Cleveland and Toledo was thwarted.

For all you young people out there in the audience, as Ed Sullivan used to say, those half-dead Lake Erie cities had twice as many people living in them in 1960 and they were humming with dirty, smelly, union-waged industries that made things Americans bought.

 The Canadian border officers were OK with Charley's lack of paperwork and would have let him into their country. 291451-555594But they warned Steinbeck that when he tried to reenter the USA at Detroit, the American border guards there would make him get new shots for Charley.

Steinbeck opted to go back across the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge. Naturally, he was greeted by U.S. customs like a Soviet spy who'd been out of the country for 15 years, not 15 minutes.

 The border scene in "Charley" -- whether it's true or a composite drawn from Steinbeck's many experiences at international border crossings -- is an entertaining and accurate snapshot of reality.

 Because my family has vacationed in my mother's native land for 63 years, I've crossed back and forth into Canada hundreds of times at Buffalo.

I've had the exact experience Steinbeck had with a family dog and had to go to a vet in Buffalo before we entered Canada.

As Steinbeck showed, it's true that Canadian border cops are nicer, more welcoming and less bureaucratically tight-butted and officious than their American counterparts.

And they don't make you feel like a smuggler or a pest who's invading their over-taxed country -- which is how American border guards often manage to make their fellow citizens feel when they try to reenter their own over-taxed and over-securitized country.

 Steinbeck milked the border scene for all its irony and humor.

It also gave him a chance to impersonate a libertarian for a few paragraphs -- to arouse what he calls "my natural anarchism." He was a partisan Adlai Stevenson New Deal Democrat who loved FDR and LBJ and cheered on their big-government social programs.

Steinbeck's annoyance at what happened at the border is more of a complaint about government bureaucracy and "the fine-print men" who enforce it than it is a resounding defense of  the natural rights of man or a lament about oppressive government.

But it caused him to write such things in "Charley" as "this is why I hate governments, all governments" and "I find out of long experience that I admire all nations and hate all governments."


 Steinbeck ended up turning around at the Canadian end of the Whirlpool Rapids Bridge and traveling to Chicago via Buffalo, Erie and Toledo.

Fifty years later, I had no trouble talking my way into Canada without a passport and with only a driver's license. I had to come over at the Rainbow Bridge  because the sleepy Whirlpool Rapids Bridge is now reserved for the rapid crossing of people who commute to both sides of the border.

By the time I told the Canadian customs official what I was doing and why, she let me in her country out of pure pity. She cheerfully gave me directions to the nearby Whirlpool Rapids Bridge. 

DSC_2020There, not far from the drizzle-enhanced neon circus of Canada's side of the Falls, I met another friendly Canadian customs woman. 

She told me that if Steinbeck showed up with Charley today he would be confronted with the same dilemma.

Then, no doubt convinced by my "Travels Without Charley" business card that I was not a terrorist on a surveillance mission for al-qaida, she let me take as many photos of her end of the bridge as I wanted.

So far, I've run up 2,092 Steinbeck Miles on this trip -- about 20 percent complete.

If the nice folks at the U.S. border allow me to return to my country, I'll be back in Pittsburgh for a pitstop almost before the Steelers game is over.

Then it's on to Chicago, Montana and all Walmart points west.




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Rolling Down Rural 104

Sunday, 03 October 2010 11:04 AM Written by

ROUTE 104 -- Mexico, N.Y. to Niagara Falls

New York state Route 104 skewers what's left of the poor city of Rochester as it runs through the rural countryside under Lake Ontario between Mexico, N.Y., and Niagara Falls.

Except for in central Rochester, where its number 104 was swiped and put on a freeway, the road's signs still mark the path Steinbeck would have taken Oct. 2 or 3, 1960.DSC_1995

The highway -- like 95 percent of the ones I've racked up 2,000 Steinbeck miles on -- has barely changed in 50 years. 

The 90 miles or so from Rochester to Niagara Falls is rural, empty, old and healthy looking.

The few eyesores only add to its character. It's essentially a super-stripmall for anyone who wants to buy an antique, a pumpkin, a pickup truck, a snowplow or a unique farmhouse made of cobblestone.


Medina, the town Steinbeck says he thinks he got lost in during a rainstorm, is about 5 miles off Route 104.

It's midway between Rochester and Niagara Falls and next to the Erie Canal, which spawned the town in 1823 and turned it into a thriving industrial and fruit-exporting town by 1900.DSC_1989_copy

After Route 140's endless rurality, Medina's impressive collection of brick buildings, apparently healthy business district and large residential neighborhoods is kind of shocking.

I no longer wonder how Steinbeck managed to get lost there that rainy night.


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Rory Block breathes life into old blues

Sunday, 03 October 2010 12:00 AM Written by
Rory Block leans into a country blues. (Jim White photos)

Rory Block took the stage quickly Friday night at the Thunderbird Cafe, sat down and without a word, opened her set with a blistering version of Robert Johnson's classic "Crossroads Blues."

It's a pleasure to sit just a few feet away and watch her fingers work the guitar, slide flying (the slide, she said later, is a 14mm deep socket from a socket wrench set). The results are anything but mechanical. She uses her voice and guitar almost interchangeably, vocals bending notes like her slide, and guitar notes that contort at the limits of the blues voice.

RoryBlock_250All of this is why she is one of the best at re-creating this long-ago musical style. Re-creating is not quite right. Like others who do this exceptionally well, she's absorbed the music and made it her own. Which means that you might not get an exact duplicate of the original, you get a version inspired by her talent and passion for the music.

Block followed up the opener with Son House's profoundly grim "Death Letter Blues," and then offered a very old Muddy Waters song from his own country blues days, "I Be Bound." Then it was back to House's ironic "Preachin' Blues." There were more, including Robert Johnson's "Rambin' On My Mind" and Tommy Johnson's "Big Road Blues."

That's how the music went. She added a few originals, sort of little musical moments from her life, and interspersed the songs with stories about the musicians whose music she plays, and about her own experiences. She told an interesting story of her phone conversations with Steven Johnson, the grandson of Robert Johnson.

She closed with another R.J. classic, "Stones in My Passway," and for an encore did a chilling a cappella version of the Son House song, "Don't You Mind People Grinnin' in Your Face."

A few notes on the show:

-- As usual, I've experimented with a couple of photos -- the one at the top uses stage lighting and the moody backdrop of the Thunderbird stage. The other is a flash version, and a little more natural -- depending on your perspective. I like the top one.

-- This kind of acoustic music requires a little bit more attention than the usual electric show, and for the most part, the crowd (a full, but not packed house) did just that.

-- I love to hear performers' stories about the music they play, but I think that sometimes it breaks the mood. I think it would have been good to run three or four songs together, with maybe just a quick intro, to build and sustain some of the atmosphere these haunting old blues can generate.

An omission: In my review a few posts ago of the Joe Louis Walker CD recorded live on the Rhythm & Blues Cruise, I intended to mention, but failed miserably, that the album photos of Walker were taken by excellent blues boxman Joe Rosen, one-time Pittsburgher who seems to follow the blues everywhere.

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In My Defense ...

Saturday, 02 October 2010 12:06 PM Written by

SANDY CREEK, N.Y. -- US 11, Sandy Creek Diner

Forgive me, good folks of Lunenburg, Vt., for mispronouncing your name in front of the whole country this morning on NPR's "Morning Edition Saturday."

It's my bad all the way. But at my trial I have been advised by my attorney to plead for mercy based on temporary insanity and extenuating circumstances:

It was pouring rain so I couldn't use the town pay phone that would have let me look at the Lunenburg Variety Store sign while I spoke to Scott Simon of NPR. 

I was only in your lovely US Route 2 town of 1,300 to use the phone.  I needed a land line for my interview.

NPR did everything right. Scott was as nice on the phone as he is on the air. Mary Lou Ingalls at the variety store let me use her fax line.

All I had to do was say "Lunenburg" into a phone without sticking a "D" in it, and I failed.

Next time I retrace John Steinbeck's 10,000-mile road trip around the USA, I'll pronounce your town's name right.


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Midnight Suntans

Saturday, 02 October 2010 09:10 AM Written by

WATERTOWN, N.Y -- Nice and Easy Shoppe parking lot

I didn't sleep here last night. But I did get another good night's sleep at one of Walmart's Sunspot Inns.

No other travelers took advantage of the company's open invitation to sleep in its vast asphalt spaces, but I didn't care.

After a few hours of US 11's dark emptiness, the blazing -- and inescapable -- lighting setup at Walmart's Potsdam store didn't seem so bad this time.

So thanks again, Walmart. I'm getting to like your accommodations.

But really, couldn't you cut back on the light by a few million watts? You could claim you're trying to save the planet, like everyone else, plus your guests wouldn't wake up with suntans.

I'm now in Watertown, N.Y., angling south on US 11.

The flat foggy farmland on both sides of the highway is dotted by large prosperous dairy farms that offer pumpkins and tomatoes for sale on the honor system, plus the occasional dead motel and blink-and-you-miss-them communities like Dekalb and Canton.


But US 11 also cuts through the center of the classic American town of Watertown. The old highwy runs through a residential neighborhood in Watertown that's a textbook example of the kind of old-fashioned neighborhood they don't -- and can't -- make anymore.DSC_1935_copy

Broad quiet streets, sidewalks, large handsome shoulder-to-shoulder houses, tall old oak trees.

When Steinbeck  plied those quiet streets exactly 50 years ago, the trees were younger, thinner and shorter, but the neighborhood was already old.

At Mexico, N.Y., I'll turn west on Route 104 and eventually get to Niagara Falls, where Steinbeck tried to cross into Canada.

To save time,  he wanted to slice across southern Ontario from Hamilton and pop out at Windsor/Detroit.

Maybe he wanted to visit the birthplaace of his pickup/truck camper, which was made in Michigan by the Wolverine Co.

In any case, he was foiled because -- you guessed it -- he had a dog.

Charley didn't have the proper inoculation papers; today, it's humans who need all the paperwork to cross into Canada. Good thing there aren't border guards at state lines, yet.

I don't have a dog but I don't have a passport, either. I plan to spend Saturday night not far from Niagara Falls at my family's cottage on Lake Erie in Port Colborne, Ontario.

My mom and aunt Louise -- native-born Canadians whose average age is 90 -- are there and are expecting me.  

Getting into Canada should be no problem; it's getting back into my own country that will be the hassle.

I can't wait.

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