Saturday, October 8, 2011

If a Tree Falls

"If a Tree Falls" is a documentary that looks at a trio associated with the Environmental Liberation Front (ELF) who used arson as a political tactic. It starts with background - personal background about Daniel McGowan, one of those ELF members, and situational background as to why people railed against feelings of powerlessness.  The film begins with stomach-turning images of two, thin, all-American-looking, teenage girls involved in the World Trade Organization demonstrations in Seattle getting pepper sprayed in the eyes by the police. During their torture, the girls pleaded: "We are peaceful.  Why are you using violent methods against peaceful people?" A pigtail swings across her face as she squirms in pain.  The film also covers the story of patient environmentalists planning to persuade the legislature to save a majestic, skyscraping redwood.  And shows the turmoil as the bulldozers materialize ahead of schedule to plough down the tree for the purpose of a parking lot for a corporate building. The fast-tracked bulldozers silence any potential feedback and signal disrespect for those who stand for the trees.  Plus, a man who scaled a tree got pepper sprayed in the eyes by authorities while he was still clinging to a branch and stories above the ground.  These images and such stories incite anger.

What did the featured ELF members do?  They burned down three buildings in the Northwest in the late 90s.  They protested deforestation and slaughterhouses with fire.  Yes, they took care to ensure every person had long left the targeted buildings.  So, property, not people, went up in flames. Nevertheless, the destruction became the media focus, and the spectacle of destruction overshadowed their effort to draw attention to environmentally unfriendly industry.  After the third building, they reassessed their tactics, recognizing that they were scaring people rather than encouraging environmental responsibility.  They scattered and ended their affiliations with the group.

Skip ahead six years or so.  A breakthrough in the arson cases happens when a person who was tangentially involved with the ELF gets arrested and makes a deal by selling out his former friends.  He wears a wire, tapes confessions, and gathers evidence to stay out of prison.

The film, then, follows Daniel McGowan, one of the busted ELF activists, as he waits for sentencing.  He appears on screen as a multi-dimensional human being with a family and a fiance. CONTEXT.  During the documentary, we see Daniel as a teen, playing sports and spending time with his police-officer father.  Daniel moving away from New York.  Daniel appreciating the redwoods.  Daniel missing his family in New York and wanting to return there in search of greater stability.  Daniel feeling remorse.  The film humanizes McGowan without condoning the arsons.

The film offers balance by sharing multiple perspectives.  The filmmaker interviews the prosecutor who, instead of being a conviction-seeking, jail-pushing persecutor, comes across as concerned about McGowan. He admits that he originally expected the arsonists to all be monsters.  An FBI agent shares his excitement over the break in the case and pride in his work. A mill owner revisits his shock in seeing his business in ash and complains of the job loss related to the arson.  He regards the mill as part of his family heritage and future.

I went to a Positive Force book discussion a few weeks before seeing the movie.  We talked about the book "Green is the New Red."  The author Will Potter came.  Just like "If a Tree Falls," that book questions the government branding environmentalists as "terrorists."  Do crimes against property in which no one is killed or injured constitute acts of terrorism?  The government is categorizing people who destroy property as terrorists.   People in the discussion group divided over McGowan, though. McGowan had disassociated himself from ELF by the time of his arrest.  Any criminal activity on his part was a relic of his past.  Unlike anti-abortion activists, he never intended to hurt a single person. Why are environmentalists who only damage property categorized as terrorists while violent activists from the religious right evade such a label?  Well, burning buildings scare people.  Fire has always intimidated people, because it can get out of control.  Plus, on some gut level, a fire outside of a fireplace or campsite is threatening.  So, some people in my book group sympathized with McGowan's desire to preserve the environment, but felt that his tactics ultimately helped to portray environmentalists as radical, fringe nuts.  

Being regarded as a terrorist subjects a person to increases in potential jail sentences to be served in higher-security prisons.  Mr. McGowan was arrested in New York and sentenced to seven years at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill.; in February of this year he was moved to a similar prison in Terre Haute, Ind.  He was facing life in prison and the prosecutor's plea deal sheltered him from living longer behind bars.  Still, as a "terrorist," he landed in super-maximum-security prisons.  

The government must not erratically brand activists as "terrorists."  The government must analyze the content of a person's actions and his/her dangerousness before demonizing that person.  

Personalizing, I'll admit fire scares me.  Recently, a huge fire ravaged Bastrop, Texas and threatened to char parts of the gorgeous landscape around Austin.  I lived in Austin a long time ago and I still have friends there.  They panicked as dry grass and high winds stoked the flames.  I worried about them and their homes. 

Nevertheless, we cannot legislate based on fear.  The ELF arsonists made mistakes, which they admit.  Their cause and their motivation, preserving American treasures such as centuries-old trees, is noble.  In my opinion, their tactics weren't. 

I saw "When a Tree Falls" at E Street Cinema in August and meant to write something about it then. I'm now writing off of old memories.  My friend Rachel from Boston was there and, as a photographer, commented on the power of the images in the film.  Lush landscapes.  Enclosed spaces.  I highly recommend this film, which has now aired on PBS.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Bitter American, Sickoids, Stockpile at Wasted Dream

On Friday, Bitter American, Sickoids and Stockpile packed the basement at Wasted Dream while I took a comfortable spot on the stairs.

Bitter American played their first show, yet already have a demo. (Should I say allegedly have a demo since they forgot it at home?) They recorded it before playing live. The band features members of Deathrats, State Violence, Lotus Fucker, Mob Mentality, Hubris, Sick Fix (as of last week - taking over the bass after Jeremy quit), Zhenia Golov, and Natural Law - aka Brad, Brian, and Rob. Very busy guys (and I left out their defunct bands.) Plus, Rob is driving a trolley, which is just cool, but I'm beginning to digress. In this band, they are going for a late Black Flag sound.
The Sickoids from Philly sounded great. Before they started playing, I complimented the singer on his Necros shirt and, annoyingly, he looked at me like I was an ant. (Of course, he may not have heard my words or me appreciating his shirt caught him off guard. Honestly, though, how often do you see Necros shirts? Even on E-Bay, I only come across the one that's, in essence, a Misfits flyer.) Anyway, my friend Jason regarded The Sickoids as a clone band of Government Warning - maybe because the guitarist from Government Warning plays in the Sickoids? I wholeheartedly disagree, which I noted before Jason bicycled away. The main similarity between the Sickoids and Government Warning is that they contain good musicians. The Sickoids possess a more metal touch than Government Warning does. The Sickoids songs are complex for 80s-style punk/hardcore. I wouldn't label them derivative. The only deja vu musical moment for me happened as their set ended. A Subhumans-style riff propelled their last song.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Aloners & Face the Rail

Last night, my band, The Aloners, played with Face the Rail, Xerox Page (? - from San Francisco and weren't on the flier, but were added on Monday), and State Violence at Wasted Dream aka Dan's basement. I thought the show was supposed to start at 7:00 p.m. I rushed home from work, ate, and got there what I thought was a few minutes late. I walked into a yard empty except for Pat's guitar and pedal board. I made a few phone calls, which resulted in Pat unlocking the basement door for me and retrieving his equipment. Then, I discovered that the show was advertised as starting at 8:00 p.m. Dan said that we should go on 8:30ish.

Dan's basement was hot and humid. My strings got slick from sweat as my hand moved across them. I enjoyed playing, though.

Face the Rail from San Francisco are show veterans, sharing members with Nightstick Justice and Ecoli. They offer intensity and hooks - what more could a person want? Their sound is reminiscent of 80s punk, like a modern day Nardcore band or in the vein of NOTA. Unlike those bands, they've added fuzz to their guitars and complex bass lines. I hope I get the chance to see them play again.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Troubled Sleep from Brooklyn

Troubled Sleep from Brooklyn played a matinee show today in the basement of the Corpse Fortress. I sat on the stairs and, unfortunately, while I could see the singer's lips moving, I heard no vocals. A friend, who stood in the middle of the room, relayed to me that the singer did make a sound, which he didn't like. He criticized the singer's pitch and timing. Ouch.

Joe Mitra recorded Troubled Sleep in Baltimore and describes them as reminiscent of Sonic Youth. I agree with the Sonic Youth/Ciccone Youth comparison somewhat. Their songs showcase pretty melodies as well as a few harsh, dissonant chords. One of their songs contains blues riffs. So, musical variety.

At times, hiss or static overlays their melodies, creating an eerie sense of nostalgia like the crackle in a warbling tune as an old phonographic needle hits lint on a vinyl record. The melody remains discernible but, still, less than fully present. The band deserves points for their style and a mastery of multimeasure rests. Abrupt stops and starts give the audience a chance to absorb the musical activity and adds suspense before the song resumes full force.

Troubled Sleep sold their songs on cassette tapes, a retro medium that is difficult to digitize - denying the point-and-click status quo. Once upon a time, people compiled mixed tapes to share songs with friends. Now, there are fewer cassette tape players in most areas of the country than goats in New York City (at least based on what I've heard about goats on NPR).

I should check with other show attendees. I hope what I heard was not just a weird quirk of where I sat. Anyway, I enjoyed hearing Troubled Sleep and hope to see them play again with a properly functioning PA, microphone, and amplifiers.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Ft. Reno - Laughing Man & The Evens

Ft. Reno is a large, hilly, grassy park where bands play free concerts on a temporary stage every summer. The Ft. Reno concert series ends with an Ian MacKaye band playing - almost a decade ago the band was, allegedly, always Fugazi and, now, it is The Evens.

On Thursday, August 4th, I ate a sandwich at Sticky Fingers and joined the picnicking crowd at Ft. Reno. The road parallel to the park was lined this year by food trucks. My friend Matt tried to buy a vegan berry pie from the truck selling homemade pies, but, by the time he ambled over there, only sodas remained.

Laughing Man is a DC band that calls itself a punk-jazz hybrid. When my band The Aloners played with them in March at The Red Door, the size of the room pared the size of the band down to a traditional electric bass, guitar, and drums. The expanse of the Ft. Reno stage encouraged a literal row of brass players - trumpet, saxophone, and trombone - to join in. And don't forget the violinist and cellist. Their music flirts with a tonal center and instruments at times go off in their own seemingly improvisational path, although the path is actually planned and paved. A friend told me that they reminded him of the Minutemen, probably due to their obvious affection for jazz and their talent as musicians. They don't have either the jittery, angular progressions that mark The Minutemen or the obvious Gang of Four influence. Apparently, their album is going to come out on Dischord.

Ian MacKaye's strong personality comes through in the performances of The Evens, which is a minimalistic, drums and guitar duo. The Evens are at their most captivating when Amy Farina's soprano harmonizes with MacKaye's vocals on choruses. The PA, unfortunately, contributed an unwanted, persistent hiss to their music. MacKaye bantered easily with the crowd. For example, he asked people for feedback, they shouted, and he responded with a laugh: "I just wanted to make you feel a part of the show. I'm not actually going to do any of the things you are telling me to do." People sang along. No question hangs; The Evens engaged the crowd. The sun set and The Evens kept playing thanks to a couple of homey floor lamps with cream shades standing on stage. They created a sense of intimacy on an outdoor stage before a varied crowd of hundreds.

I don't want to look at the final Ft. Reno show of the year as a symbolic book end to the summer. I still need to go inter tubing or hiking. Of course, I sprained my ankle a few weeks ago and my current goal is just to walk down the street without limping.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Starting off 2011

2011 - frustration. No, the details are not worth blogging about. I'll just sound like I'm reciting a bad Youth Crew song in which the lyrics center around violated trust. Over and over and over, though - when does forgiving someone for the same mistake amount to denial? Fearful symmetry. I see the good in my friends and want to see it in the world. Of course, I agree with Vaclav Havel: "Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out." Maybe sometimes I refuse to see the pattern in a person's behavior and to deduce how things will turn out.

OK I'm not keeping up with show reviews. A sentence or two about multiple shows amounts to essentially a list of band names without any worthwhile commentary. Still, the Integrity, Drop Dead, Haymaker show deserves a few written words. The Haymaker part was offensive in a proving-redneck-homophobic-sexist-jerks-can-be-from-Canada way. The singer shouted out homophobic comments while fans rallied, even hitting people around them with trash cans. As the singer took the mike, some random guy punched me on the top of my head. So weird. I turned around and yelled at him. Meanwhile, when I confronted him, the flying-fist guy went literally running out of the building, which surprised me. Drop Dead put on an intense, great show and Integrity was fun. Another weird moment between bands: I stood outside shaking in the cold with my friend Maureen while she drank a slurpie. Two odd guys from Canada got super intense about small talk. They were there to see Haymaker. As the show ended, I had fun talking with people in the car from Baltimore to DC. Late night, but it was all worth it.

Oh - Coke Bust finally had their record release show, which was reviewed in the paper - check it out. Vaccine, Direct Control, and Deep Sleep also played, all solid bands with no filler. The show started with the final performance of Rations. Like a special bonus, little girls swooned over Parsons, the singer, and asked him for his autograph. Despite their requests, he refused to hug them, noting that it would be creepy. And the Fire Marshall temporarily shut down the Hole in the Sky at the Sick Fix, Government Warning show. May the repairs happen quickly!

Final quote for the day: "Isn't it the moment of most profound doubt that gives birth to new certainties?"

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Vegan Craft Brunch

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Hockey Winter Classic

I went to my friend Danae's house to watch the Winter Classic - the Pittsburgh Penguins versus the Washington, DC Capitals. No, I'm not a big sports fan, but I had fun trying to watch the game. First, Danae made amazing vegan vanilla cupcakes - and she's not even vegan. She made veggie dogs, pretzels, curry soup, sweet potato fries, fries with gravy, baked beans, and chili to top the hot dogs. She also had Oreos. Lots of food. Second, my friend Sarah handed out party favors. She made Capitals magnets. She got little hockey puck rings and noisemakers. Plus, she gave everyone red, shiny beaded necklaces. Third, Sarah and Danae decorated - a Winter Classic banner from a few years ago when the Caps won and shining blue lights all over the place. Unlike me, Sarah is obviously a die hard Caps and intense hockey fan.

Here is the "trying to watch the game" part: NBC coverage was terrible. The players moved on Danae's television screen like little, dark lines across a white rectangle and I had no idea of the location of the puck. Does anyone remember/heard of the game Pong? Ridiculous. The NBC camera crew seemed intent on providing wide-angle views. My friend Nick noted that he might as well have watched the game on Google Earth.

Anyway, the Capitals won 3-1. The hockey teams faced off in an outdoor rink and, toward the end, in a downpour. Fortunately, the rain pooling on top of the ice didn't injure any of the players.

As the Pittsburgh fans left the stadium, Kenny referred to it as a "walk of shame." They had to go down four levels of stairs to exit as they got wet from the January rain.

Pat posted something about the game on Facebook. His brother, Greg, happened to be on-line, evidenced by his decision to challenge Pat in a forceful, reprimand text. Pat grew up outside of Philly. His brother questioned Pat's seeming allegiance to the Caps.

Happy New Year

I spent New Year's Eve hearing bands play at a show at the Corpse Fortress. The show started with State Violence. And the theme: bands having slight problems. Zack's drum stand was being held together with masking tape and one of his cymbals was half gone. In the end, Zack is an amazing drummer and State Violence drew compliments.

Sacred Love from Baltimore played next with Joe Mitra as their new bassist. Technical difficulties. Joe's bass amp had problems, preventing him from playing beyond the first song. The second guitarist offered to play the bass line. Then, his equipment started having problems. Like some sort of bass curse. The singer joked that he'd be willing to continue on a cappella if the band's gear failed. No need - things moved forward smoothly; people got into hearing the band perform; all's well that ends well.

Troops of Tomorrow came on next with Gary Bird leaving the front door to sing in the basement. I must say that Gary really did a good job of collecting money from people. He showed persistence that I normally don't see, which I'm sure the touring band, No Class, appreciated.

Many people at the show were dressed up - ladies in sequins, Jake in a full-on suit with stripes. The Corpse Fortress basement was, as normal, dank and dark. The clothing made it easier for these swank-looking attendees to leave the show and go to the Clitfest benefit party, which called for formal attire. I don't drink alcohol and didn't feel like staying out later than the show, but I heard the Clitfest party turnout was great.