Way, way too often, the blues is reduced to a cliché. Too many folks think if it ain't old and black, or at least Southern, then it ain't no good. Ride, Sally, ride... again and again and again.
Cats like acoustic picker and grinner Keith Harden lose those shackles and keep it fresh. The Champagne, Illinois native wasn't on the lam or ridin' the rails when he wound up here a year-and-a-half ago --- his wife got a job at Hobart and William Smith College.
The blues' long association with barbeque is at least one standard I can tolerate. For the past eight months, Harden has played the blues, minimally equipped with a guitar and harmonica, every Tuesday night at Beale St. Café (689 South Avenue). And though he digs deep into Blind Lemon Jefferson, Jimmy Reed, Robert Johnson, and originals of that ilk, he doesn't push overt gruffness or antiquity. Harden picks sturdy and steady, with a sound more akin to a folk artist --- which is what, in reality, blues musicians are anyhow; brushing the singer-songwriter idiom over a lonesome blues base.
"I sort of live in both worlds," Harden says. "I play the blues, but mix in stuff in the singer-songwriter vein." This mix makes Harden pleasant, refreshing, and a hit at his Tuesday night gigs.
Harden comes off as an affable, polite host, perched on his stool, blending his music with the din of silverware, glass, and endless possibilities. He greets coming and going patrons, and tolerates the drunks' interpretive dancing and incessant requests.
Though Harden is a stripped-down, blues-playin' machine, he wouldn't mind bringing a few more cooks into the kitchen. "I just don't have the connections yet," he explains. Given that Harden is an easy going character with talent to spare, it's just a matter of time.
--- Frank De Blase
The recently closed Village Gate Café --- a smoky mini-cafeteria on the urban mall's second-floor that time (and almost everyone) seemed to have forgotten --- will re-open in mid-February as The Upstairs Café. Sushi kingpin Tom Beaman, owner of California Rollin' (located on the lower level of Village Gate Square), will be at the helm, but don't expect sushi-and-egg combo plates. Beaman will be serving traditional American breakfast fare in the remodeled space weekdays from 7 a.m. to 11:30 a.m.
"Let's reform and refinance the Superfund, and let's work to reduce greenhouse gases by adopting the carbon dioxide emission standards for motor vehicles which were recently proposed by the State of California." This was Governor George Pataki's environmental two-fer in his recent State of the State address.
Emission standards aside, the quick reference to the Superfund got some blood moving at two statewide watchdog groups, the Citizens Environmental Coalition and the New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). NYPIRG noted Pataki has made such "reform and refinance" references several times before. In each case, says the group, the governor has masked his own attempts to weaken the Superfund law "with business-friendly 'reforms.'" The group also charges that more than 800 toxic sites in New York State "are stranded without funds for cleanup because the State Superfund has been bankrupt since March 2001."
Why the lack of movement? Basically, a difference of opinion over who pays how much --- and about what constitutes "clean." As for the latter: For some years now, the governor has pushed reforms that would allow a less stringent clean-up standard for "brownfields" and other sites that are destined for certain industrial or commercial re-uses. Environmentalists want a strong clean-up standard to apply across the board --- that is, to remove the toxic threats to the extent possible.
"One in four New Yorkers lives within a mile of a state Superfund site," said NYPIRG staffer Laura Haight in a prepared statement. "Communities are tired of being held hostage to this process." But to judge by the governor's near brush-off in the State of the State, progress may be slow.
As war against Iraq looms, the Rochester Friends Meeting (a.k.a. Quakers) has passed a "minute" that contains the seeds of peace.
The minute, or statement, reads: "Friends are available to support those who wish to undergo the process of discernment regarding their actions in response to war." This means the local congregation will counsel and support people wrestling with personal decisions regarding military service or "searching for clarity regarding their willingness to commit civil disobedience..."
The soft language is matched by a tough commitment to pacifism and, if necessary, anti-war resistance. "Quakers have been opposed to war since their founding 350 years ago," says a backgrounder to the minute. "Friends have traditionally held that there is that of God in every person. Participation in war is inconsistent with this belief." Moreover: "Quakers are called to root out the seeds of war in unjust economic and social practices." The backgrounder says, too, that Quakers have counseled their members to refuse military induction and, during the Vietnam era, helped resisters on their way into exile in Canada.
You can contact the Quaker Discernment Committee at 325-7260; or e-mail Fred Halley, firstname.lastname@example.org; Ken Maher, email@example.com; or Lucinda Sangree, firstname.lastname@example.org.
In last week's Winter Guide, the conductor of the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra's upcoming concert, Oliveira Plays Brahms, should have been identified as Christopher Seaman. Imagining Freedom February Break Week takes place at the Rochester Museum and Science Center, not Strong Museum, from February 17 to 21, and features daily performances (at 2 p.m.) by the RMSC Players. And the guide's cover photo was taken by Kurt Brownell.
For decades, America's premier skin magazine ran a series of ads called "What Kind of Man Reads Playboy?" It was shameless self-congratulation. The guys featured in these ads were rich, good-looking, and had lots of expensive toys, exactly the kind of men who didn't need to "read" a girlie rag.
We hereby begin our own self-promotional campaign. What Kind of Person Reads Way Below Radar?
There's no big graphics budget, folks, so you'll just have to imagine a brilliant, rich, sleek sybarite snarfing down a big plate of grits.
That's right, grits. Hominy grits. White flint corn with the germ and hull removed, cooked and ground and reconstituted with plenty of hot animal fat.
Plumbing the depths of hominy lore, we were overjoyed to discover that the Quaker Oats company provides a grits hotline for its inquiring customers. When we spoke with the grits maven (she also covers the Rice-a-Roni and Aunt Jemima hotlines), we learned just enough to keep the mystery alive.
Yes, there's a bored-sounding lady, sitting somewhere with headphones, ready to take your grits questions. But no, she will not tell you how many calls she gets a day. Nor will she divulge which product generates the most calls. And if you suggest that her previous job was working the phone-sex lines, she will pretend not to understand.
Phone 1 800 MY GRITS during off hours, and you'll be given another number "in the event of a medical emergency." What kind of grits-related medical emergencies has the Quaker telephone staff faced? They're a little cagey about talking on that subject. The Way Below Radar staff actually spent some time trying to hurt ourselves with grits, and besides a nasty brush-burn induced by scrubbing the uncooked cereal on the tender spots of our bodies, we walked away unscathed.
Now here's where the sneering stops. Seriously, this is our recommendation for a top-notch nosh. When you cook grits, make extra. Put them in the fridge (they get a delightfully clammy, pasty texture). Next day, fry up some bacon (the best to be had in Rotch? Heiden Valley Organic or freshly sliced from Swann's Market). The meat part is great, but the grease --- that's the gold.
Fry up leftover grits like pancakes, in bacon grease, and you will experience the food of the gods. Now, what kind of gods are we talking about? Gods who don't take themselves too seriously. Gods who say "hog and hominy? Let me at it." The kind of gods who read this column.
--- Th. Metzger