Artists Of The Year

Phil Anderson is a Minneapolis writer and regular contributor to City Pages.

THE WOODY GUTHRIE CONFERENCE MUSICIANS

by Dave Marsh

The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame's first academic event held on September 28-29 presented a half-dozen of the finest performances I saw all year and convinced me that something like a new folk revival really might be brewing. The predictable great ones were by Ani DiFranco (below), whose "Do Re Mi" opened the Sunday concert with an arrangement so personal, bitter, dissonant, and beautiful that it threw all the experts off their bearings, and by Bruce Springsteen, not for his Guthrie interpretations but because of his rendition of his own "Across the Border," the most poignant I've ever heard him do.

The surprises came on Saturday, at the club show ("hootenanny") where Alejandro Escovedo, Jimmy LaFave, John Wesley Harding, Billy Bragg, Jorma Kaukonen, and Jimmie Dale Gilmore, among others, made a singer-songwriter revival seem less a possibility than a reality. Escovedo's version of "Deportee," in which he talked about his own father's pilgrimage from Saltillo to Texas as a teenager 70 years ago, not only blew away Springsteen's--it was probably the best rendition of that great tune ever done, certainly the only one where "Los Gatos Canon" was pronounced properly. At a singer-songwriter workshop that afternoon, Escovedo (below) told of writing his first song after the father of some of his Rank and File bandmates told him that Mexicans should forget their history. His response, "The Rain Won't Help You When It's Over," flattened everyone in the room, converting centuries of insulted dignity into a mesmerizing burst of poetry and melody (the same kind of thing that led Woody to write "This Land") while evoking a magnificent love of family.

To close the workshop, an unbilled Dan Bern showed up, borrowed John Wesley Harding's guitar, and played "Oklahoma," his rewrite of Woody's "Dust Storm Disaster" as a parable about bombing and racism. Would Woody have been proud? Hell, he would have loved Bragg's UK-specific rewrite of "This Land is Your Land," and he might even have finally understood why he's in the Hall of Fame.

Dave Marsh is editor of Rock & Rap Confidential.

DAVID FOSTER WALLACE

by Michael Tortorello

Naming an artist of the year can seem an exercise in energetic punditry. Last year, for instance, I picked the Unabomber. But when I learned that no one else at this paper planned to name author David Foster Wallace, I knew that Teddy K. could not get the nod a second time--however great the temptation and ingenious the explanation.

I falter here to attempt any synopsis of Wallace's second novel, Infinite Jest. I will say that it involves pubescent tennis prodigies, various addictions, Quebecois wheelchair assassins, family dynamics, and a society with an itch for universal pleasure stimulation... and I'll leave it at that. Infinite Jest is big and difficult and expansive and generous and it had me hemorrhaging superlatives for the better part of six months. Like me, many of the arbiters of "quality" culture purported to like this book a lot. For a while, Wallace was receiving TV invitations, Rolling Stone was trailing him, and everything was a little out of joint media-wise.

Then, just as suddenly, the moment had passed. Madonna was pregnant. Liv Tyler was young and beautiful. Onward Capitalist Soldiers! But I still found myself thinking about the book. Talking about it with Stoop-Sitting Steve across the street at night. Swapping e-mail with El Gato's ex-girlfriend Vanoose, whom I have never met. We all sought each other out. There was idle talk of a study group. The book--however tortured and intentionally obscure it sometimes seemed--had captured something that was true for us. "I feel like I have a special book on my hands," Steve said this summer, smiling self-consciously at his adjective-choice. He was right.

Michael Tortorello is a Minneapolis writer and regular contributor to City Pages.

LARS VON TRIER

by Rob Nelson

Every artist is God of what he or she creates. But cinema, of all mediums, seems the most conducive to artistic divinity, as it allows for omniscience, manipulation, judgment of character, and the invention of a self-contained world. The Danish filmmaker Lars von Trier commands all these forces in his new movie, Breaking the Waves (opening here on January 10)--not to exercise a form of directorial self-worship, but to emphasize our fragility. No wonder von Trier hates to travel; it would mean putting his fate in the hands of a higher narrative power than his own. And not for nothing did he name his previous film The Kingdom, and set it in a hospital--a waystation between God and man, the living and the dead.

Breaking the Waves is even more spiritual and melodramatic. As in Todd Haynes's Safe and Krzysztof Kieslowski's Blue, a woman is faced with a seemingly insurmountable crisis: Bess (Emily Watson), a "susceptible" newlywed living on the north coast of Scotland in the early '70s, prays that her husband (Stellan Skarsgard) will return from his stint on an oil rig, which God seems to answer by sending him home as a quadriplegic. Thus, Bess's maker--which is to say von Trier--puts her (and the viewer) to the test.

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