Artists of the Year

Nate Patrin is listings editor at City Pages.

Bill Buford

BY LINDSEY THOMAS

Gary Taxali

Bill Buford has had a bad influence on me. Since leaving my post at City Pages and moving to New York, I've been receiving emails from concerned friends and parents about whether I've found a full-time job yet. And the answer is generally, "Well, no. But I did make some amazing pork chops with balsamic vinegar and sweet peppers today." Call it a shift in priorities, one that I think Buford would understand.

A few years ago, he gave up his job as The New Yorker's fiction editor to work for free in one of the city's top restaurants. What started as a profile of celeb-chef Mario Batali for the magazine turned into Heat, which details the writer's transformation from amateur kitchen-tinkerer to practically professional chef. While his gluttonous mentor provides plenty of juicy material, the real story is the food itself. Driven by curiosity and obsession, Buford devotes whole chapters to the history, preparation, and cultural significance of polenta, and finding out when exactly the egg was introduced as an ingredient in pasta dough.

To counter the jealousy that amateur foodies are sure to feel over the multiple trips to Italy and the free-of-charge training with culinary masters, he's also candid about his screw-ups, like reaching into a pot of hot, spitting oil while browning short ribs or spending hours cubing carrots only to find out he's been doing it wrong and they all have to be thrown out.

Buford's story is inspiring to anyone who's ever considered a career change, not to mention maddening to those of us who can't afford to spend a couple of years without a salary. (Life with a book deal is hardly real life.) Still, you have to respect a guy who can create his own opportunities and now, butcher his own hogs.

Lindsey Thomas is a freelance writer and the former music editor of City Pages.

The Klezmatics

BY ROBERT CHRISTGAU

It was a hell of a year for old New York bands. The Dolls' stab at immortality sank even deeper than Dylan's, Sonic Youth stayed focused, and Yo La Tengo eclecticked around. Yet all three were matched by one act, which (if you count its principal spin-off) put three albums in my top 20. The 250 Klezmatics fans at Manhattan's Henry Street Settlement December 4 noticed this outpouring. You probably didn't.

Two decades after its revival began, klezmer's ethnicisms still aren't for everybody. As one Jewish-music moonlighter I know jokes: "How do you define optimism? A clarinet player with a beeper." But the boom in another Eastern European outsider music opened the door for Klezmatics trumpeter Frank London. His mostly Jewish Klezmer Brass Allstars elicited, as his notes noted, "true Ambivalent and Universal laughter which does not deny Complexity but affirms it" with the Gypsy brass record of the year, Carnival Conspiracy.

Fronting the Allstars, London is the compulsive collaborator-as-anarchist boss. At Henry Street, his imp of the perverse shared the spotlight with violinist Lisa Gutkin's nonstop MCing and singer Susan McKeown's sculpted cameos. Yet all three took a backseat to two dominating presences. One was seen: Lorin Sklamberg, whose true tenor would be recognized as one of the great American voices if he didn't sing in Yiddish. The other was unseen: Woody Guthrie, whose big book of lyrics-without-music provided the source material for the Klezmatics' Grammy-nominated Wonder Wheel and their giddy Woody Guthrie's Happy Joyous Hanukkah. Both are klezmer. Both are in English.

On the Mermaid Avenue albums, Billy Bragg & Wilco took Woody folk-rock. But as the Hanukkah record reminds us, four of the Okie's children were half Jewish, and given the Klezmatics' melodic resources, their rendering of Guthrie is equally apt and more magical. Plus, Sklamberg could out-sing Billy Bragg with a head cold. To hear Sklamberg sing Guthrie's vision of streets "laid in finest of plastics" is to know why socialism is one of the great religions. And to hear him promise kiddies Hanukkah dances and Hanukkah gelt is to realize that not all love songs are erotic.

Robert Christgau is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone.

Gary Louris

BY SAM OSTERHOUT

I've had this recurring dream since I was about 15: Gary Louris and I are best pals. We're sitting at our favorite bar, in our favorite booth, under dim, bluish lighting. Gary looks awesome.

I say, "Is your favorite poet William Stafford?"

Gary says, "Totally," and we high five.

Later, my friends are like, "Were you and Gary Louris high-fiving?" And I'm like, "Yeah. Now we're going bowling. Later, chumps."

And then we go bowling.

That's the dream. More recent versions have grown to include the two of us discussing the work of William Carlos Williams and exchanging cowboy shirts. The dreams increase in frequency when Gary Louris puts out an album that excites me, and virtually every album he's on excites me, even if I don't love it.

In July, Golden Smog released Another Fine Day, which, as its title suggests, is an upbeat work full of pop music that is guaranteed to add 20 pins to your bowling game. But it's not Another Fine Day that excites as much as it is the work of Gary Louris, in general, that excites me.

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