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Friday, August 30, 2019


From the Vault Dept.: Speaking of comedy, and going back a mere decade this time, we find Louis C.K. peaking in his ascent to the top tier of American comedians. His terrific cable series “Louie” lay ahead – but so did his undoing. Industry power and sexual pecadillos are bad bedmates. Here’s a piece I wrote in advance of a performance of his in Albany, NY. Now the article seems more of a museum piece than ever.


LOUIS C.K. TAKES TO THE STAGE as a modern-day everyman who identifies those ingredients that make the seemingly commonplace hilarious. Such as the experience of trying to suppress an intense bathroom need as you hurry home. “And then I see my house,” he says, “and my eyes tell the rest of me, fuck it, man, let go, we’re here.” He widens his eyes, gives a little we’re-in-this-together grin, and adds, “Because my eyes are fuckin’ retarded and they don’t know the difference between the outside and the inside of my house.”

Louis C.K.
The pacing, the build-up, the payoff are all so well done that you forget he’s performing and feel as if you have a personal spokesman articulating your own folly.

“I work on a show during the summer,” he says. “I write on stage, in front of an audience. Here in New York City, there are clubs where I can do ten or fifteen minutes, and the show grows until by August or September I have something.” He’s a keen observer of the minutiae of everyday experiences – does he jot such thoughts in a notebook? “I lose notebooks. And if I write things down like that, my brain says, ‘Oh, it’s in a notebook’ and I forget it. But I record all my shows, so if I spend, say, five days alone with my kids, my brain gets wiped clean and I can go back to those recordings for the material.”

Monday, August 26, 2019

Comedy Gets Serious

From the Vault Dept.: New York’s Capital Region endured a comedy threat 33 years ago – at least, that’s when I wrote this piece about it. Otherwise, the story speaks for itself. But I should note that Janette Barber has gone on to win six Emmy Awards, including those for her work with Rosie O’Donnell; Vinny Montello became known for “Between Brothers,” “Pranks,” and “Loonatics Unleashed.” The clubs mentioned below have long since shuttered.


“COMICS AND ROCK STARS are the only people today who are talking about anything important,” says comic Janette Barber. “I mean, this country is making such an incredible swing to the right that somebody’s got to say something!”

Original Metroland art by Brian Pearce
She has just finished a high-energy set at Bicycle Annie’s in Colonie and is talking quite seriously about what drives her up on stage looking for laughs. She was all orange and white onstage – white outfit with big padded shoulders, a curly orange mane, bright cheeks. She flashed a big smile as she delivered another killer thrust: “How old are you, honey?” she asked a man in the front row. “Twenty-eight? I’m 33. I always tell my age. They say a man reaches his sexual peak at 18.” This was exhaled in a sweet Katharine Hepburn voice. “Now, a woman doesn’t reach her peak until her mid-30s. Sorry, dear.”

Stand-up comedy has been an entertainment staple for as long as people have failed to laugh for themselves. The concerns that repress laughter – careers, families, ethics – are the comic’s best targets.

Friday, August 23, 2019

Clannish Behavior

From the Vault Dept.: It was a delight to review all manner of entertainment event, and the opportunity to see Margaret MacLeod was not to be missed. Here’s my review of a 1988 edition of “The Gathering of the Clans.”


BLACKNESS. The eerie drone of bagpipes, then the plangent melody of the chanters. When the lights came up, it wasn't Brigadoon we saw but a row of four pipers in traditional Scottish garb sounding a noble tune.

"The Gathering of the Clans"
“The Gathering of the Clans” took place at Proctor’s Theatre on Friday night, but it was much more than traditional plaid and pipes. A scrim behind the players lifted to reveal an up-to-date rhythm section that gave an extra kick to the polkas and reels that followed.

There were kilts and decorative sporrans, but there were long pants as well. It was a show that moved most professionally but had the relaxed air of a good folk-club act. And it brought together some superb performers who would do well in any song-and-dance setting.

Margaret MacLeod, a versatile and moving singer (who organized the show) welcomed the audience in Gaelic and then in English, and treated us to a wedding song (“Come Along”) that was as good an excuse as any to present an ensemble of fine dancers, six women and two men who stayed aloft by almost invisible bounces on their permanently-pointed toes.

Monday, August 19, 2019

You Are a Dodge

From the Music Vault Dept.: The Schenectady-based Empire State Youth Orchestra is an incubator of amazing talent, and has seen some amazing conductors come through. One of the best was Eiji Oue, who went on to become music director of the Erie Philharmonic, associate conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic, music director of the prestigious Minnesota Orchestra, and principal conductor of the Osaka Philharmonic. Here’s an interview piece I wrote at the start of his brief Capital Region tenure.


THE LAST MOVEMENT of Beethoven’s Fifth is like the last inning of a good ball game: Tense, exciting. The Empire State Youth Orchestra is rehearsing this movement on a Tuesday in late October in preparation for a concert this Saturday at the Troy Music Hall. It is the first time they have looked at the music. On the podium is their new music director, Eiji Oue.

Eiji Oue
“This is how it should be bowed,” he tells the strings. “Down, down, up. Down, down, up.”
A few players try it. It takes some getting used to.

“Listen,” Oue exclaims. “That’s a really professional bowing, the one that the Boston Symphony uses. And we’re doing it because you can do it. And this is the hardest part of the symphony!”

This heightens the enthusiasm of the young musicians. It is nearing 10 PM, the end of rehearsal, and there are many tired faces in the room. They begin again from the start of the finale. And it sounds especially good. “Elegant, elegant!” the conductor calls out. The kids listen and respond. They obviously want to please their leader.

Where the ending had been ragged before are now some very clean touches. “I just played this piece with a major orchestra in the midwest,” Oue tells the group. “It took them 10 minutes to learn this movement. And you guys have done it in five.”

Friday, August 16, 2019

Tales from the Vienna Would-Bes

DURING THE EARLY 20TH CENTURY, Viennese operetta was always an escape. Spending a recent day with some of its highlights proved to be even more of a trip to a never-never land. Even as the genre struggled to hang on to its identity, musical fashions changed drastically, to a point that prompted the more contentious tastemakers to hoot it out of the halls. This year, the Bard Music Festival devoted itself to the life and work of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, offering a transatlantic survey of works that slyly, and in spite of critical resistence, changed the nature of American music.

Erich Wolfgang Korngold
The initial festival weekend (of two) opened with a survey of the kind of music that would have influenced the young Korngold, including some of the precocious composer’s very early works. He tasted fame early on, on the brink of his teens, and he was likened to Mozart because of the charm and speed of his output. And it didn’t hurt that his father was a noted, if not feared, music critic in early-1900s Vienna. Thus, after an opening-concert overview of the wide range of Korngold’s music throughout his career, the first Saturday program offered chamber and orchestral works from the composer’s early years alongside music by his teachers and friends.

One of the most valuable aspects of this festival is that contextualization, which is enhanced here by the talks given by the many scholars who collaborate on designing the summer’s programming.

The program for Sunday, Aug. 11, comprised three events that were bookended by programs of vocal works: a morning concert titled “Popular Music from Korngold’s Vienna” and the evening’s “Operetta’s America.” Between the two we were treated to “Before the Reich: Korngold and Fellow Conservatives,” and it’s worth noting that the featured composers seemed conservative only insofar as they were being reckoned against the atonality of the Second Viennese School.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Kovacs Land

LISTENING TO ERNIE KOVACS is a reminder that he was a storyteller above all, more grounded, perhaps, than Brother Theodore, but with a more subversive edge than Jean Shepherd. Which made Kovacs ideal for the dying medium of radio, the place where he began. The fact that he discovered television meant that he was able to apply his restless imagination to the black-and-white screen, and therefore transform the industry.

Kovacs fans know all about this, and this year, the centenary of his birth, we’re (as always) delighted to show the less-enlightened where just about everything we prize about all TV comedy originated: the mind of Ernie Kovacs.

We have some more help now in the form of the voice (or, more accurately, the sound) of Ernie Kovacs. It graced an LP issued in 1976, and has been expanded into a CD reissue with a half-dozen bonus tracks.

You get a taste of his lunacy right from the start, as “Tom Swift” puts the adverb-rich boy inventor into perilous captivity – in the tuna-salad slot of an abandoned automat, to be precise. Other sketches lance his favorite target, TV conventions, making fun of commercials, interview shows (“Welcome Transients” features a guest with a compelling story to tell who is unable to remember its key points), sentimental stories, newscasts, and, of course, a generous helping of the poetry of Percy Dovetonsils (“Ode to Stanley’s Pussycat” and “Happy Birthday to a Bookworm,” among others) recited over a shrill wordless background chorus.

Friday, August 09, 2019

Cats as Cats Can

From the Vault Dept.: Sometimes a book showed up on an editor’s desk that was unusual enough (the book, that is, not the desk) to merit outsourcing to a reviewer unfazed by such things. In fact, what they didn’t know was that I was, am, and shall remain a devoted cat person. Sorry, pooches. Myrna Milani continues to write and has added blogging and podcasting to her activities; her website is here.


DR. MYRNA MILANI, veterinarian and author of “The Body Language and Emotion of Cats,” has added a new element to a busy schedule: endorsement of cat food.

The brand name is Sheba, sold by the Kai Kan company, developed in Europe where the perception of cats is different enough to encourage the necessary research. “The European attitude accepts cats as hunters. An American looks at a cat and sees this gorgeous, graceful creature, ignoring the fact that the animal is by nature a hunter. When we see it stalking a toy, preparing to pounce, we think that's cute.

“So we don’t always understand the elements that contribute to the perception of the cat as a fussy eater. They’re susceptible to several items: sound. motion, odor, texture, and, finally, taste. What do we feed them? Something that doesn’t make noise, is still, has no odor, but has flavor and texture based entirely on what’s economical to produce.”

Not that Dr. Milani recommends an unswerving diet of anything, unless it’s rodent. “Nutritionally, the ideal food for a cat is a mouse. The two have co-evolved with this symbiosis. But nobody has really been able to pinpoint what it is about the mouse that’s so good for the cat. And keep in mind that the mouse in Los Angeles is probably eating different things than the cat in New York, causing subtle fluctuations in the co-evolutionary balance but not changing that essential relationship.”

Monday, August 05, 2019

Someone Is Interviewing the Great Chefs of Albany

From the Food Vault Dept.: Here’s a piece from 1989 that ran in the short-lived Capital Region magazine, a glossy book that died, as did so much else, in the early 1990s. The idea was to create a five-course meal woven through interviews with five superior area chefs. As was usually the case with that magazine’s nutcase editor, what ran wasn’t what I’d written, and it was changed against my wishes. So here’s the draft I prefer. As to the chefs and eateries named below, Jean Morel ran L’Hostellerie Bressane in Hillsdale, NY, from 1971 to 1996; he died in 2004. Susan Lenane died in 2016, and her husband, Bill Bensen, closed the Palmer House a year later. Selma Nemer ran Eartha’s Kitchen for five years, until 1990; she now owns and runs One Roof Holistic Center in Saratoga Springs, as well as being a noted painter. Yono’s has moved a couple of times since it was at Robinson Square, and now occupies a handsome space at Albany’s downtown Hampton Inn, alongside a casual-dining space called dp: an American Brasserie (named for his son, Dominick, who works alongside him). Dale Miller went from The Stone Ends to the Inn at Erlowest to an eponymous place in Albany to Saratoga’s Sperry’s – and now works as a consultant.


A MAGNIFICENT MEAL puts life’s lesser imperatives in their places. You quiescently float halfway home from the restaurant before you find yourself wondering how the chef accomplished those marvels. It wasn’t just a veal pistache you polished off: it was a Platonic ideal of veal. And chocolate, that child’s delight, became instead an exotic showcase of richness so compelling that in finishing your torte you surely committed a mortal sin.

A great chef owes as much to Robert-Houdin as to Auguste Escoffier because cookery is a form of magic in which a flamboyant (often flaming) result conceals a journeyman’s care and preparation. CAPITAL Region chose the five best chefs in this area and asked them their secrets. They demurred. We persisted; “Surely,” we said, “you can crack open the kitchen door for us?” We invoked a New Year’s spirit; we pleaded. We begged.

Being the best, they acceded. And in doing so provided a dream menu, a five-course meal of a sumptuousness that a person could be tempted to die for. Lucky for us we need only diet.

Friday, August 02, 2019

Setting the Table

AFTER THE DELUGE, IT WAS THE RESTAURANT. When the Mohawk Valley village of Fort Plain was hit by flooding in the summer of 2013 – four years to the day after a similar horror – nearly 90 businesses told the town’s mayor that they couldn’t afford to reopen. Aaron Katovitch had only recently opened his restaurant, The Table at Fort Plain, and he, too, faced a scene of devastation. The restaurant’s basement flooded, wiring was destroyed, and his wine collection was lost, among other damages.

Aaron’s family rallied to his side; they rebuilt the restaurant in a scant four weeks. By the time I made my first visit there, six months later, the attractive eatery was humming with good business and great food.

Photo by B. A. Nilsson
Five and a half years later, he’s still going strong. He is defying the odds. As much as New York’s Montgomery County likes to promote its villages, Fort Plain is not a tourist destination. If a single restaurant could make it so, then Katovitch’s cooking ought to be enough. 

The menu changes as often as new ingredients demand, and summer is a time when there’s fresh, local produce a-plenty to liven a dish. The chef has set himself a challenging mission: the window for fresh and local opens for a few fleeting months, but when it’s open there’s a considerable bounty.