To hear Rambling Jack Elliot sing his epic talking blues, "The 912 Greens," is to travel from New York's Washington Square to the back alleys of the French Quarter, bustin' through the Smokey Mountains with Guy and Frank, looking for a five-string-banjo player named Billy Fair who lived at 912 Toulouse St. It's the stuff of legend, a verbal history that Elliot has alternately tarnished and embellished for nearly half-a-century. He's folk music's Jack Kerouac, the last of the Brooklyn cowboys, a spinner of myths, a teller of tales, protégé of Woody Guthrie and mentor of Bob Dylan. The Focal Point, now located at 2720 Sutton Ave. in Maplewood, has been bringing such artists to town for the last quarter-century. The folk-music venue, which moved from its long-established home on Big Bend Boulevard in Webster Groves late last year, is continuing the tradition. The lineup for this fall includes British folk guitar master John Renbourn, bluesman Dave Van Ronk and hometown National Steel guitarist Tom Hall. For more information about Focal Point's fall schedule of concerts, call 314-781-4200.
"Community" is a word grown obscure through inconsiderate usage. It's too often used to describe a group of people with little more than a thin thread in common -- ethnicity (the African-American community, the Latino community), common interests (the arts community, the gay community), political views (the libertarian community, the activist community), and so on. In actuality, these groups are widely diverse within themselves and, although they sometimes comprise fellow travelers, have little over which to commune. KDHX (88.1 FM) boldly markets itself as "community radio" and gets the word right. The art critic Dave Hickey talks about something he calls "communities of desire," saying that the power of art is how it can create communities -- Wilson Pickett's putting the emphasis on the backbeat creates a new style of dancing that, for a time, a select few recognize and share with one another; or a small group of aesthetes get off on the pretty silkscreen flowers of Andy Warhol in downtown Manhattan and become engaged with each other because of shared sensibilities. If one were to conduct an unscientific poll (which is the best kind) asking citizens whether there's one thing in St. Louis they couldn't live without, our bet is that KDHX would win going away -- or at least it should. It's the tie that binds this town's diverse constituencies -- and it goes out of its way in recognizing those constituencies. All kinds of crap can be heard on KDHX, and all kinds of beauties -- it's left to the community (or communities) the station generates to determine which is which. A truly receptive arts institution would not have it any other way.
Sure, KSDK's Karen Foss is the perennial readers' choice, but what about her sidekick on the 5 and 10 o'clock news? Can't he get any respect? More than anything, Dan Gray is a solid presence on the dial, delivering the news with the right amount of seriousness and style. And in a television market that has long been dominated by anchors who seemed to have been in St. Louis, well, forever, you've got to give the guy credit for having ventured outside the Show-Me State for a decent chunk of his career. The St. Louis native worked as a radio reporter and anchor for KSD from 1976-79, worked for KSDK as a reporter and substitute anchor until 1983 and worked as a co-anchor at KOVR-TV in Sacramento, Calif., before returning to St. Louis in 1992.
If art wasn't administered, would it just run amok? Does arts administration exist, in reality, to keep art contained, rather than -- as arts administrators insist -- to nurture (oh God, that word), as if artists are the eternal unweaned infants of society? For what if art were truly unleashed on civil society, the reins loosened, the bit in its teeth? What if art appeared in inappropriate formats? What if art didn't arrive on schedule or expanded beyond the allotted city block? What if it kept the neighbors awake on a weeknight? What if art turned its back on the People Project or didn't fill out the appropriate forms? What if art spent its time being art rather than looking for acceptance or recognition or funding? What if art stood on its own two feet and glared? Here's to the folks at Centro Sociale and their assorted acts of mere anarchy on the world, or at least the Hill. They bring in musicians who wouldn't otherwise be heard and deserve a hearing. They give artists a place to show work and fuck up and do better next time. They allow theater artists to come in and make do with what they have. They've defined for themselves, to quote the poet Gary Snyder, "the real work: what is to be done." And best of all, at Centro, you can dance if you want to.
Whether it's because of his easy demeanor, his longevity or his lack of pretense, Mike Bush of Channel 5 is hard to knock. A Chicago native and a graduate of the University of Arizona, the 43-year-old Bush has been in town for 15 years, after smaller-market stops in Tucson, New Orleans and Kansas City. Aside from the usual newscasts with three minutes of sports with scores on a roll, his "signature show" is Sports Plus, the hour-long extravaganza of local sports highlights every Sunday night after the 10 p.m. news. It was 13 years ago when Bush convinced the general manager to "begrudgingly delay Love Connection to let us do it." A 10-minute show grew into a 20-minute show, then 30 minutes. It's been an hour's sports fix for the last eight years, and the other stations have followed suit, with varying degrees of length and success. Sports Plus usually has better guests and bits, and "The Pit" portion can be funny and slightly insightful -- or tediously unfunny and self-indulgently oblivious to what most folks care about. But then, this is sports, so when that happens, the show still provides an hour of local sports with more highlights than the average bear needs. Still, even with all Bush's "I-love-my-job-I'm-lucky-to-have-it-and-be-in- a-wonderful-sports-town-like-St.-Louis" spiel, into each media maven's life a little rain must fall. Bush is no longer doing the radio broadcasts of Rams games this year, after doing it for just one year. Was there too much on his proverbial plate? "It wasn't that it was too much for me," he says, "it was that the people I worked for, the radio station, made it pretty clear to me that they weren't really happy with me. I didn't want to put them in a position where they had to use somebody they didn't really want to use." Jeez, with all those sportscasts, and Sports Plus, who needs to do the Rams radiocast? Although he's theoretically off Friday and Saturday, it's been a long time since Bush worked a 40-hour week. So not doing the radiocast may allow him to spend more time with his four kids, who range in age from 2-17. "Until they drag me out of here, I have no desire to go anywhere else," says Bush. "The job is the same no matter where you go. Maybe in New York you're talking to more people, and maybe in Chicago you're talking to more people. But it's the same job. St. Louis is home. We love St. Louis, and Channel 5 has been very good to me. I have four kids, and all they know is St. Louis." Bush gushes that with the roll the Rams, Blues and Redbirds are on, this may be "the best time to be a St. Louis sportscaster -- ever." So suck it up while it lasts, Mike -- you're riding the crest of this wave.
Since last summer, St. Louis has been treated to outstanding theatrical offerings, and though many folks kept the roar of the greasepaint audible, the easy winner for Best Theater Group is Opera Theatre of St. Louis. These days, a city of any size must count itself lucky merely to have an opera company. Yet the price for keeping it afloat is invariably a KETC-worthy parade of threadbare Toscas, Figaros and Carmens that make up for the once-every-two-years "experiment" that reliably plays to quarter-full houses. OTSL does not score a hit every time, but St. Louis is extraordinarily fortunate to have an institution that is this consistently daring. But OTSL is also fortunate to have such supportive and adventurous subscribers. It could -- and should -- be argued that each of OTSL's productions for the 2000 season showed flaws, but each possessed extraordinary finesse and musical insight. Mary Dunleavy's world-class portrayal of La Traviata, a ravishingly beautiful and stylish production of Handel's Radamisto, Scott Joplin's Treemonisha -- played full-tilt and without embarassment or pandering -- and the American debut of Colin Graham's lo-o-ong Tale of Genji with pipa/qin and koto. The Opera Theatre is, in many ways, the last major piece of St. Louis' long and proud tradition of support for contemporary and other rarely heard forms of classical music. It is a treasure of incalculable worth.
The climatically obsessed no doubt would love a precise gauge of TV weathercasters' prophetic abilities. Just how outrageously far off the mark were those highs and lows? How frequently did the sun brightly shine when torrents were promised? How many inches of snow actually fell (and fell and fell) when we were confidently assured of a light dusting? So wildly and -- isn't it ironic? -- predictably off the mark are meterologists, it sometimes seems they might better rely on a hard squint at the horizon, a finger held daintily aloft in the wind or the throbbing of a balky knee than the fancy gadgetry they deploy at such expense and with such empty authority. But, honestly, do we expect them to be right? Of course not -- they're scientists (of a sort), not soothsayers, and however rigorous their methods and advanced their technological means, they're ultimately just offering up a best guess. No, what most of us look for in a TV weatherperson isn't 100 percent accuracy but a soothing affability. Sure, we expect a baseline level of predictive competence -- they shouldn't always be wrong -- but a comforting persona is more valuable in the long term. Especially in times of meteorological stress -- when sweating through a prolonged heat wave, sneaking a peek through the basement window at sickly-green tornado skies or shoveling out from under an ass-deep snowfall -- we want a calm voice, a reassuring presence. A guy like KTVI (Channel 2)'s Dave Murray. Murray clearly knows his jet streams, high-pressure systems and dewpoints -- hey, he boasts the American Meteorological Society's seal of approval -- and he was the town's first degree- toting forecaster back in 1976, permanently wresting the weather report from the feeble hands of former clowns and kid-show sidekicks. But it's his warm, self- effacing, increasingly avuncular manner that makes him St. Louis' best: We trust Dave. We've even forgiven him that mid-'80s defection to Good Morning America and later flirtation with WBZ in Boston; Dave, after all, came back. And now, with pert Trish Brown finally off the radar screen, Dave Murray serves as our brightest beacon in the storm.
From its Dance Close-up faculty recital that opens the St. Louis dance season, through the big student dance concerts, to the senior recitals, Washington University's Performing Arts Department's dance program, under the direction of Mary-Jean Cowell, is consistently superior, both in concept and execution, giving students a chance to excel and audiences something to enjoy and even ponder. With faculty like Christine O'Neal, David Marchant, Asha Prem and Chiquita Payne, this should not be surprising. Remember, too, that its founder was Annelise Mertz, one of St. Louis' most important performing-arts figures.
So you switch on the TV and there's some guy in a monk's habit and Converse high-tops pontificating about bagels. What's not to like? With some three-quarters of the nationwide PBS network now carrying the recipes and gentle musings of baker/friar Father Dominic, local affiliate KETC (Channel 9), where the show is produced, has a slowly rising hit on its hands. Sure, Father Dom is a natural onscreen, but producers Mark Buckley and Patrick Murphy and a very professional team at Channel 9 have made sure that the in-studio counters all sparkle and the remote features (including several bread-related locations in and around St. Louis) are crisp and interesting.
So you're lounging on the futon, flipping channels on your cable-free TV, waiting for the commercials between 3rd Rock and M*A*S*H to run their course, when you stumble across Luther Campbell leering and lisping his way through his booty-bass magnum opus "It's Your Birthday" on Channel 58. What the --- when did the Box start playing Luke again? That's when you notice the crawler across the bottom of your throbbing TV: "We are not the Box! You are watching Retrovision -- which airs weeknights from 11 p.m.-1 a.m. -- featuring the best videos from the '80s through the middle part of the '90s. Please phone in your request." Oh, snap! You think they have Whodini's "The Freaks Come Out at Night?" Oh, they have it all right. They also have a ceiling-mounted camera in their control booth, broadcasting the goofy antics of the two middle-aged white engineers who field your calls, program your video choices and rock the mic with your "shouts going out" to all your boys and girls. Retrovision comes across like the head-on collision between a high- school A/V club production of Outer Limits and 1988-era Yo! MTV Raps!, proving that the people have a much better idea of what they want to see than the brain trust over at MTV does.
There have been some outstanding theatrical offerings since last summer, and some sad farewells. We bid adieu to The New Theatre (would someone negotiate with St. Louis University to use that handsome new space?) The St. Marcus Church closed its doors to terpsichorean and thespian tenants, and last year's promising Actors Renaissance Theatre didn't return this season. But let's talk about those companies and shows that stayed on the boards. Considering all the variables -- direction, acting, production values and so forth -- the Best Nonmusical Theater Production in St. Louis last year was Fences by the Black Rep. Held together by A.C. Smith's masterful performance as Troy Maxon, August Wilson's family drama was given a dynamic yet intricately nuanced production by director Ed De Shae at the Black Rep. Maxon is Willie Loman with a civil-service job, and this prizewinner uncovers a vanished moment in midcentury African-American history. There were other contenders for Best Nonmusical Production as well. The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis' Wit mixed cancer therapy with a literary dissertation. This drama had plenty of humanity and some healing, making for a rare theatrical evening. Never the Sinner at the New Jewish Theatre was a stunning retelling of the Leopold and Loeb story in an intimately appropriate theater. Smart, smart, smart. Walt and Roy by Midnight Productions revealed the dark side of Mickey Mouse, as this two-man show explored the Disney brothers' Cain and Abel inclinations. Walt as a gun-toting drunk -- too perfect. Finally, Endgame, presented by the Washington University Performing Arts Department, was minimalist yet timed to a naval clock -- these students showed aplomb and ability few adult performers could have maintained during this physically demanding show. Beckett would have nodded approvingly.