Sunday, August 27, 2006

Hank Dogs (Dirty Linen)

Just now, trying to find out whatever happened to these folks, I found someone else's blog that mentions them:

Supposedly they have a Web page at, but I couldn't get it to come up.

From Dirty Linen #86 (Feb/Mar 2000).

Hank Dogs

Deeper Than a Hat

by Pamela Murray Winters

In a smoky American bar, under strings of old license plates from the 50 states, I’m talking to a man in a Stetson. The subject is Joe Boyd of Hannibal Records and his prowess for finding talented and innovative musicians: the likes of Maria Muldaur, 10,000 Maniacs, and now this man’s band, Hank Dogs.

To the remark “Joe Boyd is really batting a thousand,” the Stetson tips up to reveal a startled face. “What does that mean?” Andy asks crisply. “That’s an Americanism.”

Americanism” is not a foreign concept to Andy, nor to his companions in London's Hank Dogs, Lily and Piano. (They prefer not to use their last names.) Offstage, they listen to Steve Earle, John Hiatt, and Nanci Griffith.

Onstage, and on the superb debut album Bareback (released by Hannibal in early 1999), the trio blends the sounds of its homeland with those of American roots musicians and a generous infusion of imagination. As the band finishes its second album, it seems clear that Hank Dogs’ status as citizens of their own peculiar and magical world will not change. They can't claim loyalty to a single heritage.

The Englishness comes from my guitar playing,” said Andy. “It’s not exactly blues, and it’s not exactly Celtic. I learned to play guitar on a six-string. I was listening to John Fahey and John Renbourn.

Maybe 10 years ago, I suddenly got struck by all this new country music,” Andy continued. Steve Earle is a perennial favorite. (The Dogs also admire his sister Stacey, and on this recent U.S. tour they regretted that they kept just missing her; in Arlington, Virginia, she was playing the night after them.) In alt-country music, Andy and friends found a kinship. “They weren’t entirely accepted by Nashville. That’s how we felt. We weren’t accepted by the folk establishment [in the U.K.]. We didn’t feel like a folk band. And they don’t feel like country bands. They just play the songs the way they like to hear them,” Andy explained.

Piano was quick to point out that “folk music” isn’t a slur. “We don’t have anything against it. We just haven’t really crossed paths with it.” Hank Dogs (the name is an homage to Hank Williams, as well as a tribute to Andy and Piano’s late Labrador retriever) handled its maverick status in a sensible way: Andy and Piano started their own club. The Easycome Acoustic Club in South London features “English acoustic indie” music.

One of Easycome’s inspirations was the club where Hank Dogs was born in the late 80s. At London’s legendary Troubadour, the late-night come-all-ye’s provided on-the-job training. “It’s like an open mike night, but without the mike,” said Andy. “You’d wait all night to play one song, and you’d be terrified, but you’d really learn the art of going up on stage.”

The standard of people playing [at the Troubadour] was so high, it made you think you’ve gotta be that good,” Piano said.

This experience was crucial for the shy Piano, who had been “terrified to get out and do it. You have to get over that,” she said. “Get out there and do it.” She first faced a Troubadour audience, alone, about 9 years ago. “It was awful, but it was a start.” But it took years for her to conquer her stage fright, her sense of “what could people possibly be interested in here? I’ve got nothing!”

Andy played rock guitar for a time, including a brief stint in a late incarnation of the Sex Pistols. “I stopped when I met Piano, because Piano was just learning guitar and thinking about writing songs. She really brought me back into music. Lily [Andy’s daughter] was only, like, 10 when we started.

So you hadn’t done any gigs yet, right?” Andy teased his daughter, who was too busy with a pre-show meal to offer a reply. “At school you had. You used to sing in the choir.” He recalled Lily singing the Suzanne Vega song “Tom’s Diner,” unaccompanied, at a school assembly.

Lily and Piano were both drawn to the poetic lyrics and natural phrasing of artists like Vega. Piano cited the simplicity of Vega’s delivery: “It’s not that warbling country vibrato. It’s like speaking to a tune.” Piano also lists Maura O’Connell, Tracy Chapman, the Bangles, and Sinead O’Connor as favorites.

Lily and I started singing together, not thinking it was going to go anywhere, just because we liked the same sort of music,” said Piano. “Andy and I were living in the same house. I was trying to impress him. It worked!” she laughed.

I’m more impressed every day,” Andy said staunchly. Critics are impressed as well; Time Out London said, “This is deft acoustic music with a rare soulful ache and a powerful twisted beauty.”

Most gratifyingly, this seductive, atmospheric music, rooted in the organically twining harmonies of Lily and Piano, is finding its audience. Hank Dogs opened for Joan Baez on a U.S. tour last year and later toured the States as a headliner. “We didn’t know up until that point that we actually had a following in America. In certain areas loads of people turned up to see us,” said Piano.

Andy added, “It’s a good feeling to be three thousand, five thousand miles away from where you live and to find that people have been buying your record and listening to it.”

They credit their record company and their agent for getting their music to the right ears, but they also acknowledge the unknown. “We’ve been incredibly lucky in our careers, certain things falling into place,” said Andy. “We’ve never really pushed it; we’ve just let it happen in a natural way. Piano has a philosophy that you don’t make mistakes in life; everything happens for a reason. You have to have faith.”

That doesn’t mean you don’t have to work,” Piano added.

As they travel the American road making their music, Andy likes to muse on the Western legend. “I’m fond of cowboys, that whole idea of the outdoors, the outdoor life. I never knew how Americans would react to that.” He pondered possible rejection: “What are these upstarts doing — they’re English!” But the authenticity of the band’s vision has largely won out.

To doubters, the definitive word comes from Lily. “People might think the hat is an image thing,” she grinned as she looked at her dad’s Stetson. “But he used to pick me up from school with that on!”

Morris dance (Dirty Linen, 1996)

I've just been reading Colin Irwin's excellent book In Search of Albion, about British customs. Is there a word for the sort of nostalgia one feels for something one never had? Because that's the way I feel about so much of English and Scottish tradition.

This story was submitted with a whole lot of quotes as section dividers. The layout changed the presentation of them; some were just sort of floating in the article. I've tried to put them in their proper places, but here are two orphaned ones:

In the Morris-dance proper we have a dance of grace and dignity, instinct with emotion gravely restrained in a manner not unsuggestive of its older significance, full of complex co-ordinated rhythms of hand and foot.

--Cecil Sharp and Herbert C. McIlwaine, The Morris Book, 1912

Morris dancing is one of the Great English Mysteries, like cricket and warm beer.

--Rosemary Edghill, mystery writer, in Book of Moons, 1995

For more on the Bristol Morris Men, see

From Dirty Linen #64, June/July '96.

The Merry Mighty Morris

by Pamela Murray Winters

In the village of Long Ashton, on the edge of Bristol, England, Paul Woods lives among green fields where cows lean over the fence to sniff at the pineapple sage bushes in his garden. He and his wife, Sandra, share their home with a number of small animals, some living and some ceramic. The ceramic ones, collected on his travels, parade across his mantel. All of them play melodeons, a testament to their owner’s love of music.

Most work days, Woods instructs other University of Bristol librarians in the mysteries of CD-ROM technology, the internet, and other modern practices. He is never at work on May Day. Instead, he rises at 4:50 a.m., dons the garb of his brotherhood, and ties straps of jingle bells around his calves. And precisely at daybreak, he and the other members of the Bristol Morris Men greet the sun and the summer with the peculiar steps and turns of a half-dozen centuries.

Great Britain has well over 500 morris teams, or sides, with perhaps 5,000 to 7,500 dancers, according to Tom Keays, creator of the frequently asked questions file (FAQ) for an Internet group of the ancient art. The latest edition of the American Morris Newsletter directory lists about 150 sides in the United States and Canada. Co-editor Allen Dodson said “that translates into 1,500 to 2,000 people, since many people dance with more than one of these teams.”

A morris dance is not a sock hop, though there is revelry. It is not a ballet, though it includes carefully choreographed feats of nerve and grace. It is not a square dance, though the dancers form figures and move to lively music. A morris side contains some or all of the following: (1) between six and 12 identically dressed dancers, usually of the same gender; (2) a fool, who may be dressed like the other dancers but who is distinguished by being, well, foolish; (3) other characters of the sort found in folk plays — a horse, a king, a queen (often all portrayed by men); (4) many wonderful noisemakers: drums, concertinas, fiddles, and those bells; (5) handkerchiefs, ribbons, and garlands. Mix well, add a little magic and a lot of beer, and you have morris, or a mess.

The kicks and hops, the waving of white handkerchiefs and bashing of sticks, and the varying tempos of the music baffle and amaze first-time viewers. The handkerchiefs and sticks are said to be artifacts of swordplay. And the bells? They’re to scare off evil spirits, as legend has it.

The fool, the odd card among the matched dancers, keeps the audience from getting in the way; in addition, the fool reminds the audience, usually not subtly, that it’s all right to enjoy themselves.

Antony Gay, the Bristol Morris fool, stirred up trouble at a dance weekend a few years back, recalled Woods. “Kemp’s Men of Norwich did a version of the Fieldtown stick dance ‘Balance the Straw,’ which they embellished by tossing the sticks to each other across the set and catching them. They were so intent on watching their own synchronized stick throwing that they failed to notice Antony tossing an extra stick into the middle of the set. They all thought, ‘Oh, God, I’ve missed catching the stick’ and went for it simultaneously, causing all the sticks to be dropped. They still didn’t realize what had happened until they counted the sticks afterwards.”

Who was this Morris fellow anyway? Many theories about “morris” draw a connection between the blackface some dancers (such as Shropshire Bedlams) wear and the notion that the dance is “Moorish.” Elaine Bradtke, a dancer, ethnographer, and wearer of more hats than your average morris side, says morris may come from a court dance “representing the Christians’ defeat of the Moors,” although it’s certainly changed in the intervening centuries. (Theories that the dance steps derived from the frustrated attempts of a group of jazz age Cambridge students to beat a Morris Mini into life are probably a bit farther from the truth.)

The Bristol Morris Men, founded in 1951, practice Cotswold morris, the best-known variety. (Others include Northeast sword dances and Border dances, out of which the Shropshire Bedlams evolved.) As the group’s squire, Woods is responsible for deciding which dances the group will do. “We have created many of our own dances within the styles of [various village] traditions. It really is a living tradition in this way.”

Some traditionalists would prefer that dancers like Woods be less creative with what they see as a British treasure as solid and enigmatic as Stonehenge. Both credit and blame have been laid at the non-dancing feet of folklorist Cecil Sharp: credit for reviving a near-dead art, blame for keeping the steps, dress, and music in a rigidity at odds with the wit and energy of the dancers themselves. While Sharp’s English Folk Dance Society demonstration side kept order, renegade dancers like the Ilmington side (called “uncouth and untraditional” by Sharp) and fiddler and solo broom dancer Samuel Bennett added new dimensions to the tradition in the earlier part of this century.

Written references to the dance date back to at least the 15th century. Morris shares certain elements of fertility and harvest rituals: animal sacrifice is suggested in some processions by a cake carried impaled on a sword; plays (like mummers’ plays) contain seemingly emblematic characters like shepherds, doctors, and royalty; and women, particularly brides, are sometimes passed around by the dancers in what seems to be either a fertility rite or (Woods implied) an excuse to handle strange women.

All over England our town and village communities have developed strange traditions...In most cases the communities have forgotten the original reason for continuing the custom. It is enough that the custom must be observed.

--The Morris Tradition, booklet, from the Morris Ring (1991)

No one is sure why the arcane customs of morris persist. In a 1989 interview with Colin Irwin of Folk Roots, musician and Shropshire Bedlams morris man John Kirkpatrick claimed that little evidence exists for the pagan-ritual origins often ascribed to the dance: “Morris appeals to a very primitive part of people which is difficult to express; and when you have this powerful energy going on, it’s easier to give it some ancient origin rather than admit that it’s part of you inside that’s uncivilized.”

Clearly, Paul Woods has found his inner morris man. At any given moment this mild librarian can become an agile dancer, a forceful caller, a persuasive educator, or an incorrigible punster — or several of the above. Asked by a BBC radio interviewer to describe a fellow dancer’s morris wear, he offered: “He’s wearing black britches, white socks, white shirt. He’s got a very colorful hat on. He’s got baldrics [sashes crossed over the chest] with a seal of Bristol in the middle. This was from the days before ecology went wrong — you used to get seals in Bristol.”

Woods says morris was developed by traveling farm laborers who, finding themselves short of work and in need of funds and entertainment, repeated a mix of ritual motions and passed the hat afterwards. However it evolved, it persisted, handed down in families and villages, until the end of the 19th century. By the beginning of this century, urban growth had emptied many village sides. War carried off many morris men: “Between 80 and 90% of the male population of the Cotswold morris village Ascott under Wychwood failed to return from World War I,” said Woods. The tradition would have vanished if Cecil Sharp had not traveled from village to village, seeking the surviving members of the local sides. Watching the old men patiently repeat the morris steps and play the old airs, Sharp noted, in detail, what he saw; in turn, his readers reclaimed the customs.

Morris is still a mystery to many Americans, but in England it’s a source of strong feeling, from local pride to broad derision. Among dancers, controversies rage; some charge the Morris Ring, founded in 1934, with inflexibility and a tendency to promote “wimpy” dancing, while conservative types are more likely to complain about mismatching tunes and dances or allowing women or mixed-gender teams.

I showed Woods a passage from World Music: The Rough Guide which begins: “Morris dancing is at the very heart of clichéd English imagery,” and goes on to sneer at hanky-waving, bell-jingling eccentrics. According to Woods, “some namby-pamby morris you see around” has given morris a reputation for silliness that doesn’t tell the whole story. Kirkpatrick has called morris “sexy,” and those who have seen it done well will agree.

Come you young me, come along

With your music, dance and song

--”Staines Morris,” traditional morris song, from the album Morris On, 1972

I’m not a natural dancer, by any means,” said Woods, a robust, red-bearded fellow whose appearance does not suggest Mikhail Baryshnikov. But when he was in his late 20s, a visit to the Bath Festival changed his life.

In the 1960s, the English folk revival sent young musicians out of the clubs and into the study rooms of the Cecil Sharp House in London in search of inspiration from the old ways. One such group, the Albion Country Band, had its own morris side. Around 1974, Woods, who grew up on the Ronettes, Bob Dylan, and Jefferson Airplane and had recently discovered British folk-rock, saw Albion Morris at Bath and was “knocked out,” he remembered. “How could anyone dance so skillfully and with such obvious enjoyment?”

Despite his love of the morris music, Woods was reluctant to dance: “It never occurred to me that I could do anything like that — me, Mr. Inepto!” He first attended festival workshops with “the master” Roy Dommett. Then, overcoming his shyness, he approached the Bristol Morris Men and asked to join. Over the two decades since, he has strained legs, back, and elbows and bruised his knuckles, though he hasn’t broken any bones. He has studied dancers from across the country (“always on the lookout for a good dance, figure, or tune to nick”) and has traveled all over Europe, collecting those ceramic animals and teaching dance. He has become one of the most experienced members of the hometown side he was almost too timid to join.

Naturally soft-spoken and introspective, he now calls all of Bristol’s dances in a booming baritone and has done numerous BBC interviews. He’s even danced on the radio.

Morris dance “transformed my personality,” said Woods, then qualified: “Mind you, it’s the uniform shielding me.”

They always say that morris is a ritual dance. I think sometimes it's an excuse for a good piss-up, really.

--Woods, BBC interview, 1982

A lusty, macho, ale-soaked mystique pervades many morris sides. Each week’s Bristol Morris practice concludes with an hour in the local pub. The exploits of Woods’ cohorts upon the occasion of his wedding cannot be recounted in a family publication. “Bristol Morris Men stag nights are...” Woods paused to think. “Different.”

There are now male and female sides, and mixed sides of both sexes, in Britain and the United States. “Many of the older clubs are still violently against women dancing,” said Woods. “We’re not, though most of us dislike mixed Cotswold morris on purely aesthetic reasons. It rarely looks good, whereas single-sex teams can get an energy and unity of purpose which look great.”

Bradtke, who dances and/or fiddles with three teams in the New Jersey area, noted: “In some ways [morris] is a ‘manly pursuit’— and like other manly deeds such as shoveling snow or changing a tire, a woman can do it as well if she puts her mind to it...To do the dance properly, one should be able to leap and caper about with wild abandon (in time to the music, of course). Because morris dancing doesn’t require a great deal of upper body strength, women are quite capable of doing the dance properly.”

The Bristol Morris Men perform at “weddings, circumcision ceremonies, parties, anything,” says Woods, but May Day is the pinnacle of the morris year. Although morris dancing wasn’t originally done on May Day but rather on Whitsunday, a movable spring holiday, the better-known holiday has become associated with morris. Teams start early in the morning and traverse their cities the rest of the day, dancing at pubs, churches, and shopping centers. Woods’ side once performed 104 dances on a single May Day.

Why go to so much work when pranks and beer can be had for so much less? Allen Dodson grows philosophical: “The world at large doesn’t understand or do morris, and that’s okay. The world at large is preoccupied with competition, making money, and gauging the worth of things by their popularity or money-making potential. Morris is anathema to all that...There’s a lot of joy in the morris — in the sounds of the bells, in the color of the kit, in the waving hankies — that is really beautiful.”

Q. What's the hardest part of dancing for you?

A. My body wearing out, being too fat, and not being able to dance as well as I used to when younger.”

--Woods, January 1995

On May Day 1995, just before lunch, Woods was dancing when he noticed that something wasn’t quite right with his foot. He massaged it during lunch, but upon resuming the dance “I heard a sort of slapping sound, and it felt like someone had hit the sole of my heel with a stick. They hadn’t, though. I crumpled.” Ever loyal, Woods didn’t shorten his May Day: “I carried on the tour, non-dancing, going to one more school, a sports center for a sauna, a pub, a curry, a long interview on cable TV, a paid booking at a hotel, and a pub... Then when I got home I asked my wife to take me to the hospital.”

The stress fracture kept Woods from dancing for two months; he did limited dancing through the summer until October, when the condition worsened. Weight loss and painkillers are keeping him on his feet, but he’s not sure when (as he might say) the jig will be up.

Said Bradtke, who had an ankle rebuilt to continue dancing, “Some [older dancers] take up less strenuous forms of dance; some take up a musical instrument. Some keep dancing ‘til they keel over dead... I heard of one old gent in England who was in his 80s and still teaching the new guys on the team. He had two hips replaced and before the surgery he would support himself by leaning on a table while showing the stepping!”

Bristol Morris Men are all getting older together,” Woods — who’s only half the age of Bradtke’s “old gent” — mused. “The nucleus of the side hasn’t changed greatly in 20 years. And soon the others will start to get the joint aches like me. It’ll be much harder for me to come along and not dance.” Still, he said, “Shouting is important too, and I think I do that quite well.”

Woods declared (not shouting) that he wishes to be buried in his morris kit, with the Bristol Men dancing at the funeral, and he’s chosen the dance: “Maybe ‘Getting up the Stairs’ (Ascott)?”

There was an old woman tossed up in a blanket

Ninety-nine miles beyond the moon

And under one arm she carried a basket

And under t’other she carried a broom

Old woman, old woman, old woman,” cried I,

O whither, o whither, o whither so high?”

I’ve gone to chase cobwebs beyond the sky

And I’ll be back with you by and by.”

--Morris On

It was past midnight on a summer night, and the librarian from Long Ashton was in a pastoral town much like his own, only this one was 20 miles west of Philadelphia. The occasion was the 40th birthday of an American friend. Woods had corresponded with Charlie, who is not a morris man, for over a year via the internet. Three days earlier they’d finally met face to face.

Now Woods was in Charlie’s living room, limbered by American friendship and British gin.

Thumbing through the CDs, he came to an old favorite, Morris On. “Play ‘Princess Royal’,” he commanded. He moved to a clear spot in the dining room. Charlie set his CD player, and the music, a mid-tempo jig, began. After a moment, Woods began to hop and tilt and kick and fly in a most surprising manner. He could be called a bearlike man, but his is not a lumbering grace. He moved as if gravity were some droll American fad he had every right to ignore. His arms and legs and trunk and head seemed to create the notes as they moved. He looked up, red-bearded and red-faced. “Of course, you have to imagine the bells,” he said. But he didn’t need bells.

A Mini-Morris Bag O’Discs

Morris music is “lively, bouncy jig tunes, reels, hornpipes, mostly all very articulated and rhythmic,” according to fiddler Elaine Bradtke. “We tend to accent the upbeats a lot. The tunes are often in the key of G, sometimes modal and very beautiful, sometimes major and kind of dippy.”

I came into the dance through liking the music,” said Paul Woods, who does not play an instrument. “The dance gives it an extra dimension. But I always get a kick when I hear a morris tune out of context, such as when Martin Carthy plays one on guitar.”

Jennifer Cutting, best known as the arranger, composer, keyboardist, and squeezebox player for The New St. George, recalled that when she joined New Esperance Morris Women in Islington, North London, the musicians were required to have dance experience so that the rhythms became ingrained. (Coming from the Ilmington side in Britain, Cutting had no trouble fulfilling this requirement.) Bradtke concurred: “It’s very important the musician know how the tune should feel to the dancers. There’s a common adage among dancers that the music will tell you what to do.”

Traditionally, morris tunes were played on a small wooden pipe (or “whittle”) and a shallow drum called a tabor (or “dub”). In the 19th century, many dancers resisted the the growing use of the fiddle and concertina for accompaniment, according to Sharp, but now both are often seen in morris bands.

Asked for favorite morris tunes, Cutting cites one from the Sherborne tradition, “The Orange in Bloom,” which The New St. George played in the pre-High Tea era. “I love it because the melody is so regal and stately.” Bradtke likes ones she doesn’t get to play often: “The Fieldtown version of ‘Shepherd’s Hey,’ ‘Staines Morris,’ and the minor version of ‘Princess Royal’.” Woods said, “Most of the tunes used by the Bampton dancers are brilliant, so infectious, so full of movement. I like particularly ‘The Quaker,’ to which we do an Oddington-style dance called ‘The Quinton.’ I knew I wanted to perform a dance to that tune one day when I first heard it.”

Listeners with one or more left feet may enjoy the following selections:

Morris On [Carthage CDCD 4406] and Son of Morris On [EMI CZ 535]: This rowdy pair of Ashley Hutchings projects “was especially influential during the 1970s,” said Bradtke. Although some dancers find the tunes too fast for dancing, they’re great for listening. I discovered morris music as a result of buying Morris On in my quest to own every sound Richard Thompson’s guitar ever made; he’s especially fine on “Cuckoo’s Nest.”

John Kirkpatrick’s many recordings, especially Plain Capers [Topic TSCD 458] and Sheepskins [Squeezer SQ125]: Perhaps Britain’s most famous morris man, Kirkpatrick proves that dancers make the best morris musicians.

Ashley Hutchings, The Compleat Dancing Master [Island HELP 17] and Rattlebone and Ploughjack [Island HELP 24]: The former, the morris Internet list FAQ points out, is not really morris; but its arrangement of dance tunes interspersed with quotes about dancing is great morris mood listening. The latter album is out of print, but Allen Dodson of the American Morris Newsletter thinks rerelease by Hannibal is imminent and recommends it for its morris field recordings.

The Old Swan Band, Gamesters, Pickpockets and Harlots has “some fine and unusual morris tunes,” said Dodson. “The same can be said for English Melodeon Players, which has three or four morris tracks.”

Over the Water [from Cottey Light Industries, 1710 Owensville Road, Charlottesville, VA 22901; 1-800-225-6409] is useful “for a feel of the American morris scene,” said Dodson.

Pamela Murray Winters

Paul and Storm, Opening Band

I set the bar high for "funny music." Paul and Storm (whom some of you--I mean, if anyone's actually reading this stuff!--might know as one half of Da Vinci's Notebook) make funny music, no question. I just re-listened to their wonderful fake commercial for Pillsbury cookie's on this album, and more of their work can be found at

This little piece is from a Washington City Paper feature called "One-Track Mind," which covers new releases by D.C.-area musicians.

Published Nov. 18, 2005.

Opening Band

Paul and Storm

Standout Track: No. 5, “Epithets,” an educational number— “An epithet’s a word or phrase that people can use/When ordinary words and phrases simply won’t do”—that would be rendered even more so without the 28 bleeps effacing much of its verbiage. The third verse goes local: After “the mayor” discovers that his hooker friend was “working undercover/Then Hizzoner started utterin’/Epithets!” Cue Greg “Storm” DiCostanzo’s spoken part: “Bleepdamn bleep set me up! Bleep bullbleep this is bleep bleep bleep…”

Inspiration: “Epithets,” says DiCostanzo, stemmed from “our love of Schoolhouse Rock. Paul [Sabourin] had wanted to do something like ‘Interjections.’ We blatantly ripped it off, but they were ripping off Handel anyway.”

Actually, “Epithets” is like Handel’s “Hallelujah,” reimagined by whoever wrote the zippy old Maine-to-Mexico Texaco jingle—and embellished with DiCostanzo’s creative “scatting.” “I would never say some of those things,” the Arlington-based singer protests. “But I’m still proud in that playing-a-character kind of way.” DiCostanzo praises sound engineer Alan Johnson for his bleeps: “Comedy is about timing.… He leaves in little tiny shards of [the] words.”

Technical Constraints: For live performances, the studio bleeper is replaced by a buzzer from the game Taboo. “We don’t really curse in concert—that could be dangerous,” admits DiCostanzo. “But I’m feeling it. And my lips are doing it.”—Pamela Murray Winters

Bold Girls, Becoming George

From the Washington City Paper, May 5, 2006.

Laugh During Wartime

By Pamela Murray Winters

Bold Girls

Written by Rona Munro

Directed by Mark A. Rhea

Produced by the Keegan Theatre

At Gunston Theater II to May 13; at Church Street Theater, May 18 to June 11

Becoming George

Book and lyrics by Patti McKenny and Doug Frew

Music by Linda Eisenstein

Directed by Brett Smock

At MetroStage to May 28

Having forsaken my hearth three times in the past eight days to witness tales of other women protecting theirs, I can attest that the goddess Hestia is alive and well and casting her magic feather duster over us. In A Bright Room Called Day, Tony Kushner’s protagonist gives up her career, her loved ones, and possibly even her soul in defense of her Berlin flat. When the lights come up on the Keegan Theatre’s Bold Girls, we see another homey, almost aggressively normal family room. But this one is cluttered, full of the colorful detritus that follows in the wake of children. And it occupies only one-third of the stage: To its right are a chain-link fence, anti-IRA graffiti, a destroyed car, and a road that, more often than not, is blocked.

Sound designer Tony Angelini helps set the scene, even before the lights, with explosions, sirens, and a cacophony of newscasters announcing the latest deaths and maimings. The people onstage yell a lot as well: When Marie (Ghillian Porter) is too busy to discipline her son for buying an illicit sweet, her best friend Cassie (Helen Pafumi) is only too happy to bellow at the kid about what happens to people who eat raspberry ice cream: “Their intestines get eaten away.”

So Belfast circa 1990 isn’t all that different from the gothic South of Flannery O’Connor. In Belfast, though, the violent do bear it away. Marie’s husband has been killed by British soldiers. Her brother and Cassie’s brother and husband are in prison. Marie, Cassie, and Cassie’s mother, Nora (Linda High), along with the younger women’s children, have been left to form a family unit, which convenes in Marie’s home. They seem happy to bicker and reminisce, fold laundry and make tea, and think about the future—provided the future doesn’t go beyond their next trip to the social club.

Rona Munro’s script has many light moments, and those set against the dark backdrop of civil unrest are especially striking, as when the women, dolled up for their night out, fidget their way through the latest of many obligatory minutes of silence for a war victim. A cheery outlook keeps them going: When Nora talks about an assault by the goon squad, she declares, “Oh God, that was a terrible night”—all the while laughing. And when one of them begins to sink, the others buoy her.

The conflict amid what might otherwise be merely a series of vignettes is a mysterious girl who’s been following Marie around. She’s also seen Cassie in a car with a man, doing things a married woman ought not to do. She looks familiar to Marie, who soon invites her in. Ultimately, she brings an end to both Cassie’s dream of escape and Marie’s veneration of her perfect marriage. She dresses in white, but it’s a dirty, torn white. She’s a beautiful waif who talks of a knife as “a wee bit of hard truth you can hold in your hand and point where you like.” Her name is that of a figure from Celtic legend, Deirdre, and it means “dangerous one.”

Deirdre is played by Carolyn Agan, in her professional debut. She’s a physical actor, wearing this role down to her bones. If her line delivery is less remarkable, it’s only because Munro’s script leaves the character dangling for much too long: We’re not sure, at first, whether she’s even really there or whether Marie has seen a ghost. The script’s tone, and that of Mark A. Rhea’s production, is accordingly shifty: from magical realism to realism to something perilously close to kitchen-sink melodrama. It takes until very late in the game for us to see why Deirdre is so slippery and why Cassie is so moody.

But the actors make up for any such deficiencies. Pafumi brings to Cassie a lanky, pouty-lipped sexiness: You can see why the meek Marie would pair up with her. High is solidly believable as the feisty Nora. And Porter is charming, geeky, maternal, and, ultimately, heartbreaking as Marie’s heart is broken. She seems to be someone who will endure, picking up stuffed animals, dishing out stew to the neighbors, and feeding the birds, no matter how many times her rose-colored glasses are ground underfoot. That she, unlike Nora, will never laugh at her own sad stories is why Bold Girls is both poignant and powerful.

Whether Munro’s characters deserve the title “bold girls,” it’s certainly an accurate moniker for another woman on the boards of local stages: George Sand. To hear Becoming George tell it, this semi-cross-dressing literata saved Sarah Bernhardt’s career, women’s below-the-waist couture, and the republic of France—and in MetroStage’s production, all in under three hours.

Yes, it’s a musical, and one shouldn’t look to musicals for history. Honestly, most of the time one shouldn’t look to them for plot—it’s about the music. And if you enjoy a well-written libretto exquisitely performed, Becoming George is a must. Making its world premiere, George offers the sort of strong songs associated with the best of mid-20th-century musical theater, from the rousing “Where’s the Fire?” to the country-dance-like folktale “Black Valley Dragon” to the sentimental closer “Leave Green.” They’re demanding melodies, and the MetroStage cast, all six of them, is up to the task, as is the six-person orchestra. A small ensemble makes sense for the story of one woman’s struggle to shape not only her way of life but also the ability of others to shape their own.

The traditions of hero and heroine, ingénue and juvenile, and comic-relief oldsters are upended here. Sand (Kat’ Taylor) has a lover, Gérard (Jason Hentrich), but he’s more of a plot device than a hero. (In fact, he’s more of a heroine, in the traditional model, since he’s ultimately in need of rescuing.) And although Bernhardt (Meegan Midkiff, she of the astoundingly big voice) and the Prince (Brian Childers) flirt charmingly in “How to Dance With a Prince,” their twosome is soon sacrificed to bigger things.

Sand, nearing the end of her life, simply wants to live simply, with Gérard and her servant, Marthe (Mary Jayne Raleigh), in her country house in France. She’s already an icon of freedom and equality, not to mention a workhorse writer. Her theatrical adaptation of Faust, which was never produced, seems to have been a rare dud, at least in the production we see in rehearsal here, with Alexandre Dumas fils (Greg Violand) at the helm. He wants Bernhardt to swoon and simper instead of opening up the whoopass on the devil, as Sand and, ultimately, Bernhardt would prefer. They journey to Sand’s estate for a working vacation; then the Franco-Prussian War gets declared, and the script’s attention shifts from justice for women to justice for everyone.

The ending is simplistic and silly, so the triumph of the last rousing number, “Cri de Coeur,” isn’t firmly earned. But gosh, is it a nice-looking revolution, from Jen Price’s efficient yet evocative set design to Howard Kurtz’s lavish costumes. Sounds nice, too, especially when the three women sing sister-perfect harmony on songs like “Go Where the Girls Can’t Go.” Michael Flohr keeps the music at the right level: It’s not trying to mimic the sound of a pit orchestra and a cast of dozens. If the blocking is sometimes a bit dodgy—so much bustling around—it’ll probably get streamlined over time.

Best of all is the chance to spend time with Taylor’s Sand, a mature woman who’s neither daffy nor doddering, who swaggers and smokes cigars (pungent ones, be warned) but is never a mere drag king. Taylor’s contralto perfectly matches Sand’s maternal warmth and subversive wit. “My heart goes out,” she says, more than once, “to anything dawning or growing.” What better way to grow old, this feminist-friendly production affirms, than to participate in the revolutions of the earth?

Indian Larry

From the Washington City Paper, Aug. 26, 2006

Indian Larry

By Timothy White

Merrell, 192 pp., $49.95

By Pamela Murray Winters

I’d like to know what the guys down at the Swamp Circle Saloon, our local pub for two-wheeled clubbers and their four-wheeled wannabees, think of Indian Larry, the man and the book. But damned if I’m venturing in there with this gorgeous, gold-and-purple-foil-embellished coffee-table book to ask. Larry Desmedt, who got his nickname from the Indian motorcycle line—one of western Massachusetts’ big three exports, along with singer-songwriter folk and lesbians—apprenticed with hot-rod customizers Ed “Big Daddy” Roth and Kenny “Von Dutch” Howard when he wasn’t getting drunk or, later, sober. And as with Big Daddy and Von Dutch, his image threatened to eclipse his actual work: Can someone who frequented the Discovery Channel be an outlaw? Was his street cred dented when he rode with Harrison Ford? However rock-star he might have gone, Desmedt’s skill as an artist is undeniable. Indian Larry welds together the work of two artists: Larry, of course, but also Timothy White, the celebrity portraitist who was his friend. The text is limited to brief tributes from collaborator Paul Cox (barstool-affectionate), Matthew Barney (haute-poetic), and White, who offers the closest thing to a written bio here: “Indian Larry was a motorcycle artist. He built rolling sculpture. He worked as a stuntman, an actor, a model. He was a philosopher, a sage, and a clown. He had known homelessness and drug addiction. He had been a bank robber and a convict. He became sober and spiritual, a visionary. He was insane and brilliant.” Larry’s 2004 death, from a relatively innocuous stunt—standing on his moving bike, he fell, perhaps distracted by glaring sunlight, and hit his head—is handled economically, with a short remembrance by Choppers Inc. founder Billy Lane, but the photo that follows, of a makeshift shrine at Larry’s East Village studio, speaks more eloquently. Throughout, White uses the language of photography with a poet’s skill, offering a variety of perspectives on Larry’s custom creations: not only his motorcycles but also his tattooed body and tender-tough persona. The full-color depictions of Larry’s bikes would probably have the guys at the Swamp drooling all over the slick, heavy pages, admiring the gold trim and Roth-inspired painting on “Daddy-O,” the faux bamboo of “Tiki,” and the Escher-esque helices he forged out of the downtube of “Rolex,” a bike he built for White. There are a handful of action shots—none of them showing any Knievel-type stunt work, just Larry having fun—and a few celebrity-infected glamour poses, most regrettably one in which Larry stands next to Liza Minnelli as she lifts her shirt to reveal a tiny heart-shaped tat under her tit. The glitz is balanced by photos that might have been taken at a family reunion, Sturgis-style: Larry cuddling a Chihuahua, mirroring the profile of the Indian figurehead on one of his bikes, and wading bare-assed into a pond. In one masterful black-and-white triptych, a sequence of overhead shots, Larry autographs the left breast of a young woman in sunglasses as a couple of choppers and the jean-clad legs of viewers encircle them. He writes; he sticks out his tongue like a benign Gene Simmons; he gives the camera a radiant smile. She beams the whole time. As did, it seems, the admirers and friends who put together this lavish, if not comprehensive, encomium.