Search This Blog

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Beyond Category

Caffe Lena is the venerable Saratoga Springs folkie haven, where young Bobby Dylan was among the early-years performers. Much more recently -- back in September, in fact -- I was urged to check out a performer named Dylan Brody, and duly pitched the review idea to Metroland Magazine, for which I write many kinds of review. Space was allotted in the live music section -- but Brody is a spoken-word artist, and thus didn't belong there. A fight for more appropriate space ensued even as the immediacy of the review faded. Ultimately, it was orphaned. Brody is a difficult performer to categorize, true, but, if entertainment is the goal, why bother? Here's the piece.


Dylan Brody
Caffe Lena, Sept. 17

Shortly before he was due to take the stage at Saratoga’s Caffe Lena, I met and chatted with Dylan Brody. He said that he’d spent the afternoon visiting his native Schuylerville for the first time in 35 years. Among his missions: re-meet the bully who’d terrorized him throughout his early school years. The bully proved evasive, but Brody eventually tracked down a mutual friend. “I have his telephone number,” the friend confessed. “But he doesn’t want me to give it to you.”

Not long from now, we’re going to hear a new Dylan Brody story in which those elements are woven into a larger narrative that weaves insight, irony and just the right amount of self-effacement to make it a compelling tale.

His stories are his life, so it only makes sense that he should now seek out aspects of his life that might feed his peculiar and impressive career.

He calls himself a “purveyor of fine words and phrases,” suggesting an antique refinement wholly appropriate to his style. After all, this is a man who interrupts himself mid-story to remind us that “tack,” in its nautical sense, should not be confused (as it too-often is) with “tact.” And he’s charming about it.

Brody combines the audience-rapport skill of a veteran of the stand-up circuit (which he is) with a keen stock of stories to tell. Storytelling is simultaneously a lost art and in continual rediscovery, which probably means that it’s never gone away. But it does require a rarefied audience, one that knows not to look for a steady stream of punchlines but rather to take delight in a humorous confluences of words and ideas.

For his opening segment, Brody promised a poem. Its setup began in Schuylerville, took us into a Los Angeles producer’s office, eased around the corner to a coffeeshop and hit one of the Greenwich Village Hallowe’en Parades while stopping off several times for exchanges with chatty audience members as he persuaded them to leave the commentary to him.

And the poem itself – “Corner of Starbucks and Christopher Street” – proved to be as brief as its intro was long, yet was itself endearing, beginning, “Sharpie-marked cups play nametag/Rich dark Colombian meets slightly bitter French,” which is as evocative a view of a coffee house as I’ve ever heard.

Brody’s style harkens to the set-piece performing monologuists like Ruth Draper and Spalding Gray, but he’s not that. He’s closer to Billy Connolly, who weaves stories into stand-up, but Connolly’s shtick is still stand-up. He isn’t tiresomely pretentious like Garrison Keillor or hyper-adenoidal like just about anybody on NPR, so I’d have to compare him to Jean Shepherd, the storytelling grandmaster, who brought a very literary sense to his work – Shepherd acknowledged debts to Twain and Wodehouse.

In a long piece titled “Uncomprehending,” Brody recounts the saga of walking his exquisitely named dogs (I won’t give them away here) to a place in the neighborhood known as “the poopy lawn,” and his overwrought encounter with that lawn’s new owner. At the core of the piece is a celebration of language that delightfully sets the whole idea of language on its ear. And it also was characterized by a virtuoso discursiveness Shepherd would have admired. For me, much of the thrill in good storytelling lies in those side trips and the performer’s skill in pulling the many threads together in the end.

Language in all its silliness informed a long poem that begins “Does Neil Sedaka do Sudoku?” and finds resonance in all manner of unexpected word clashes, verse reminiscent of Ogden Nash by way of Spike Milligan.

Brody’s work gets its depth from an emotional truth that lurks behind the wit and irony, a quality he almost defies us to dig for. But it’s there, and clearly his life hasn’t been all “listening to Jimi Hendrix and weeping for my lost youth,” as one tale had it.

By the time he reached the tragi-comic (but mostly comic) story of “The World’s Stupidest Mugging,” he’d taken us on a circuitous journey that unexpectedly began coming together as an inspiring picture of how to cope with our ever-crazier environs. And the finish of the mugging saga suggested that – well, hell, maybe we all can live together somehow.

Good stories carry messages greater than the mere words that comprise them, and in the hands of skilled artist like Brody, I could listen to them all night.