Sunday, May 7, 2017

The Kentucky Derby is (Still) Decadent and Depraved

The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved
The Town Hall
May 5, 2017

Producer Hal Willner was a pilgrim in the field of the tribute album. His star-studded and slightly left of center dedications to Thelonious Monk, Kurt Weill and Disney movie soundtracks set the bar for curated compilation discs. But now and again, an effort of his has fallen through the cracks.

One such overlooked project is the 2012 record The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved, a sort of radio play based on an early Hunter S. Thompson article with actor Tim Robbins in the role of the drug-addled protagonist and music by Bill Frisell.

The record isn’t exactly lost treasure; as a narrative piece it doesn’t necessarily invite repeat listens like his albums built around musical bodies of work. But with a protagonists-narrator occupying the bulk of the spoken parts, it isn’t exactly a radio play, either.

The musico-gonzo journo fable found life onstage, however, on the night before the actual Derby in a production directed by Chloe Webb with Robbins returning get in the lead role and Willner, Frisell and band all onstage for the action.

After a screening of a Sherman and Mr. Peabody cartoon (from The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show) about the first Kentucky Derby and a newsreel about Seabiscuit, the players entered then, oddly enough, to Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky” over the sound system. 

The sprightly sextet of horns was pushed by drummer Gerald Cleaver through the overture, featuring each of the instrumentalists in quick succession. They then evoked the recognizable strains of “My Old Kentucky Home,” to which Robbins took the stage, towering over everything around him. Intoning Hunter S. Thompson quite admirably, he delivered Thompson’s essay with Willner, Webb and actor Brad Hall voicing incidental characters, the latter also fulfilling the role of illustrator/enabler Ralph Steadman. 

“We didn’t give a damn about the horses on the track,”  Robbins bellowed, Steadman’s illustrations for the original 1970 Scanlon’s Monthly story projected behind him. “We had come there to watch the real beasts perform.” The tone was set for their descent into the drunken derby, looking down their own drug-filled noses. Robbins stood easily against the other Thompson portrayers, Johnny Depp and Bill Murray, acing that insistent voice, like David Brinkley on the verge of a coronary. 

The action was compelling even if not altogether acted out, while Frisell’s music was a bit too full to call “incidental.” His themes were so familiar that even without his trademark guitar tone, the music (albeit played by longtime associates) was imminently recognizable as his. It was very present but not so much as to get in the way and all of the actors – Robbins certainly but even Wilner – gave powerful enough deliveries that they could rise above the jaunty soundtrack. At times, Doug WIeselman’s bass clarinet (revising the main theme without accompaniment at Steadman and Thompson’s first meeting, for example) pulled the scenes together where they might have lacked without stage set or costume. 

An instrumental section gave the band a chance to fly a little higher while Webb, in a grotesque pantomime horse head, traipsed down the center aisle and did a quick dance with Robbins. She returned in horsehead at the end, as Thompson (himself a Louisville native) dismissed his artist associate, seeming in his stupor to choose the derby-goers over the man who would become his closest working associate. “We can do without your kind in Kentucky,” he hollered, and then had a dance with the horse as if he were at last freed of the assignment.

When Frisell and WIlner’s record of the production first came out, it fell a bit flat, an interesting novelty but far from either of their strongest work. On Derby Eve at Town Hall, however, it was a winner. 

- Kurt Gottschalk (photos by Iain Toft)

No comments:

Post a Comment