at the Hideout, September 13 and 14
I’ve never felt like a bigger idiot than I did on Wednesday night after last week’s terrorist attacks. There I was, sitting behind the piano at my weekly Gentry gig tossing off lightweight Cole Porter ditties while 5,000 people lay crushed beneath 50,000 tons of rubble.
Cheryl Trykv found herself in a similar spot last week: her rollicking hootenanny Energy Bath was scheduled to open on Thursday. “I felt very small,” she told me, “entirely decimated by Tuesday’s events.” She was certain she wouldn’t go on with the show, a vaudeville-esque evening more ridiculous than sublime. But the idea for Energy Bath had come to Trykv in a moment that now seemed prescient. Trykv had been on her way back from a conference, she told me a week before opening night, in a carful of strangers. “They all started complaining about the energy crisis in California, and why wasn’t there a Starbucks with a parking lot except off Sheffield? Finally I said, ‘Hey! Stop it. Just stop it right now. We are the United States of America, and maybe that doesn’t mean much anymore to some of you, but we have responsibilities. We have got to figure out how to collect our power as individuals and quit whining that something is missing. Nothing’s missing. It’s all right here, baby, it’s all right here.'”
Trykv has long cultivated a sardonic, condescending performance persona who regularly gushes neo-revivalist hyperbole in order to ridicule it. But Trykv’s trick is to allow a warm, human energy to shine through her caustic exterior. No matter how pinched and supercilious she becomes, you can always feel how deeply performance matters to her, giving her enormous power onstage–the very power Energy Bath was intended to unleash. So with the encouragement of her colleagues, she opened her show last Thursday, acting as emcee to a scrappy assortment of fringe performers who, for the most part, showed just how much power can be set free when talented people come together during a period of cultural urgency.
One of the performers who influenced Trykv’s decision to open as scheduled was country-blues musician Vernon Tonges. During a performers’ meeting, “Vernon was adamant that it was almost like a civic duty [to do the show],” Trykv said. “He did not say this in so many words, rather in the way he tuned his banjo.” And at the performance, he fired his instrument like some benevolent, all-powerful weapon. Tonges has long been the most vibrant and maniacal performer in a scene full of vibrant maniacs, and Energy Bath saw him in top form. He chewed through his songs like some barbarous clown, bellowing with an unlikely Chaplinesque delicacy that made his dense but childlike lyrics surge. As always, he kept his explosive energy tightly controlled. He may have nearly torn his guitar to shreds on “Juggernaut of the Blues,” but he held so fast to his sumptuously draggy tempo it seemed nothing could sway this towering song an inch from its course. A hulking man, he seemed an immovable force who screamed Energy Bath thrillingly to life.
Tonges was about as difficult an act to follow as there could be, yet the musical duo Missing Tooth rose to the occasion. Dressed as rejects from the B-52s, Virginia Montgomery and Diane Lena offered a goofily orchestrated collection of original pop songs, with Montgomery delivering hot licks and vocals from behind her drum set and Lena handling–barely–the triangle, organ, and Moog. Lena’s halting competence did nothing to weaken the performance, however: Missing Tooth’s savvy, threadbare arrangements rely almost entirely on Montgomery’s bouncy drumming and quirky voice, poised somewhere between Nina Hagen and Lady Miss Kier. Lena is in effect the duo’s comic relief.
Then David Isaacson took the stage, and in the most assured and meticulous performance I’ve ever seen from him, plunged Energy Bath straight into the heart of the week’s events. He dusted off an eight-year-old monologue in which he imagines himself as Vaclav Havel, newly elected as president of a free Czech Republic, remembering a visit to New York City in the days when he still lived under communist oppression. Unlike Havel’s home country, which felt dead to him, New York was full of shouting voices. “And always the shouts were alive,” Havel recalls. His cabdriver, however, detested the city as a sinkhole of filth and depravity. “Someday a real rain will come,” the cabbie says, “and wash the scum away.” Havel sees the tiny seeds he’s planted back home growing into something that looks like freedom, and he admonishes the cabbie to tend his own garden. On his second visit to New York, Havel discovers that the driver has literally planted a garden in the passenger seat of his cab: beautiful exotic flowers now twine about the man who once hated his home.
Isaacson is too smart a writer to conclude with a pat moral lesson, however. It turns out that each of the plants is highly poisonous. Moreover, they were planted from seeds given to the driver by passengers who walked through their lives with “seeds of death” in their pockets. The final image is stunning: life and death, good and evil, are intertwined. Isaacson calls us to look more searchingly at seemingly obvious conclusions, to ferret out the complexities and contradictions that grow in the most unlikely places.
Unfortunately the concluding acts did not unleash much revivifying energy; Sally Timms delivered an underrehearsed hash of folksy ballads on a poorly tuned guitar, and Starina brought the evening to a close with an awkward, lackluster belly dance. But even in its weakest moments Energy Bath was vital: 100 or so people were crammed into the back room of the tiny Hideout, taking some sort of shelter from an incomprehensible storm. The bar’s owners passed around a couple jugs of free wine, and everyone sat with unflappable patience through an evening rife with technical screwups. That night the privilege of lingering in a freely chosen, impromptu community of fringe dwellers seemed invaluable.