The Rogue Festival: First weekend

The Red Rag Andy Band (from left: Barry Shultz, Terry Barrett, Barb LaRae and Andy Brown) Friday, March 5, at City Arts Gallery. Photo by Franorama World.

Fresno will never be mistaken for anyone’s cultural Mecca — especially for someone coming from New Haven, home of the Shubert (Rodgers & Hammerstein’s old tryout house), Long Wharf Theatre and the Yale Rep, and national music venues Toad’s Place and Cafe Nine, and living within two hours of New York my whole life until seven years ago.

But it would be absolutely unfair to paint the hometown of William Saroyan, his cousin Ross Bagdasarian (aka David Seville of The Chipmunks), Mike “Mannix” Connors and Audra McDonald as a total cultural backwater. To a large extent, yes — on the whole, I’ve never been in a less intellectually curious city in my life. But in this cowtown of half a million, there certainly are solid blasts of intelligent — and creative — life.

Case in Point No. 1: Some usually excellent local theater productions that include a cadre of extremely talented performers who would shine in a much bigger city but choose to stay home. I’m talking about the Good Company Players’ current production of “The Crucible” at 2nd Space Theatre, here in the Tower District, as an example. Or just about anything involving Jaguar Bennett, one of the most brilliant and funny humans I’ve ever met.

Case in Point No. 2: The big event going on right now: the 10th annual Rogue Festival. It’s an absolutely organic event — grown from a performance in Marcel Nunis’ backyard into one of the country’s largest fringe/performance art festivals, and if I’m not mistaken, still the biggest one west of the Mississippi. It draws actors and musicians from all over the country and beyond, many of whom include the Rogue as part of their annual fringe circuit through the States and Canada.

(For you New Haveners in the bloggening audience: Steve Bellwood performed at last year’s Rogue — five shows, five totally different monologues. I caught one of them. Most of Steve’s infrequent performances are back at the Neverending Bookstore on State Street. I had run his calendar listings — and occasionally his photos — in the New Haven Register’s Weekend section for years, but damned if I didn’t meet him until a year ago, and in Fresno.)

I’ve only been attending for three years now, but I’ve been sucked very deeply into this wonderful, incestuous little scene of biographical monologues and occasional musical performances. (This year, I’m volunteering for four shifts on the box-office end — my way of being able to afford much of the fest on the bum …)

I’m not one of those people who uses the word as a verb (“I’m Roguing”), but I appreciate the festival, most of the shows and the work behind them. And if I was half as smart as I give myself credit for, I’d be working on my own one-woman show.

The fest continues through this Saturday (March 12); check the website or one of the kazillion copies of the Rogue Map, the festival booklet. Anyway, I went to five shows this opening weekend, and here are my two cents on what I saw:

Carolann Valentino — “Burnt at the Steak: Prime Cuts,” Starline, Friday 3/4: Carolann’s original performance of “Burnt at the Steak” last year was breathtaking and funny as hell. She’s an Italian girl from Houston who moved to New York to make it on Broadway and beyond, and the story is about her experiences working long hours as a hostess at a high-end steakhouse in Midtown Manhattan.

I can imagine the characters she conjures were difficult — downright annoying and infuriating, actually — to deal with in real life and in the moment, but they make for great humor on the stage. She uses her very dynamic personality to bring to life several characters: Bobby, the manager with the brash New Yawrk voice, who can’t seem to get anything done without her (“CarolAAAAANNNN!”); Cliff, the slow-drawling assistant manager who dispenses his version of sage advice while fretting how to put out several fires at once without her around; several customers from hell; and her mother, who calls from time to time and is, well, the concerned mother — as well as the conscience that gnaws at Carolann as her increasing workload pushes her farther away from the dream that brought her to the City in the first place.

This year, she reprised the show with a few tweaks — most notably a few extra musical numbers and a greater degree of audience participation. (Note: Don’t sit in the front row if you don’t want to be part of the show — especially if you’re an overweight guy.) Obviously, if you’re seeing the show a second time, it’s not gonna be as funny as the first time around, though the new additions worked very well. But if you’ve never seen this show before, you’re in for the full course. Dig in.

Tommy Nugent — “American Badass Gone Rogue,” Starline, Friday, 3/4: Tommy Nugent isn’t as much of a madman as the more famous, bow-hunting Republican guitarist from Michigan, but he truly is from the Motor City. And he has, indeed, had a crazy life. Last year, he gave us one take on his spiritual and professional journey from Pentecostal minister to performance artist, “Burning Man & the Reverend Nuge.” This year, he gives us another take on his personal sojourn: from his post-ministerial career as a motivational speaker to performance artist — all couched in parallels to the career of another Detroit performer, Kid Rock.

Well, if I liked tequila or Jim Beam, I would’ve taken up Nuge when he offered shots to the entire audience at Starline at the start of the show. But nonetheless, it was an enjoyable show to take in sober. Nuge shows up in his Tigers sweatshirt and regales us with his narrative of how his post-Pentecostal rise, fall and reinvention/resurrection were similar to that of Bob Ritchie — and happening at around the same time.

The performance isn’t as intense as “Reverend Nuge,” but that doesn’t detract from the story itself. Part of his charm is that he’s very affable and self-effacing, usually telling his tales with a big grin on his face, as if he can’t believe he got away with what he did. (Or maybe that he can make a living telling about what he did.) He has some pretty wild tales to tell, but at no time does he hit you over the head with them. He kind of lets them gently wash over you. The end result is a feel-good story with a lot of tribulations in the middle — and he lets you smile and laugh at the tribulations along with him.

The Red Rag Andy Band — “Give the Fiddler a Dram,” City Arts Gallery, Friday, 3/4: Barry Shultz is one of the most unassuming musicians I’ve ever met, with a slight touch of good-natured self-deprecation, yet one of the most talented. At not one instrument, mind you, but four: fiddle, mandolin, banjo and guitar.

Barry, a local who returned a few years ago after spending years in the Bay Area and Seattle (where he remembered the young Neko Case waiting tables at a place he used to frequent), is the dictionary photo of the wandering folk/country musician: tweed jacket and sport shirt, a straw Panama, a gentlemanly air and an easy, genuine smile, a lifetime of lines on his face. And he’s living proof of a truism I learned through years as a music writer: Those who have the least reason to have an ego have the least egos and vice versa.

I’ve gotten to know him some over the years as a regular at Revue, the hangout Tower District coffee shop. It’s nothing for him to sit on the patio or out front with a coffee and a smoke and pull out one of his instruments and just play. And what else people don’t know is his encyclopedic knowledge of early country, Western swing and Appalachian folk, and of violins.

He dismisses his knowledge as “a lot of arcane stuff no one cares about,” but not true. He was one half of one of the most wonderful conversations I’ve ever witnessed, on the Revue patio one Sunday evening a couple of springs ago. One of the former regulars, Chris, brought along his friend Vaughn, an absolutely brilliant man, and somehow the conversation turned to violins, and Barry and Vaughn got into an extended conversation about bows and 17th-century Italian violins and the varnishes used on them. The two locked in on each other for the next hour or so the way two people do when they’ve found a kindred soul with whom they can finally share an obscure passion

Anyway, Barry would be a big star if he were living back East and had a circuit he could play regularly. And after getting a lot of free performances out of the man, I was more than glad to pay him for his efforts Friday night, and I grossly underpaid at four bucks.

Barry doubled on fiddle on banjo, Terry Barrett doubled more than capably on fiddle and mandolin, Barbara LaRae singled on the double bass and the group’s resident Andy (Brown) played guitar. And for nearly an hour, they gave us a spirited music lesson.

It seemed as if Barry had an interesting musicological story to preface each song. Case in point: “Lynchburg,” a tune that dates back to 1867 and survives largely in part due to a 1928 “Grand Ole Opry” radio transcription of a performance by the show’s very first performer, Uncle Jimmy Thompson. Standing alone, minus the narrative, the song is an upbeat, old-timey tune. Given a historical perspective — the song was already ancient by the time of Thompson’s performance — we get a glimpse of Reconstruction-era American life. (Makes you wonder how many great songs were lost to the sands of time before the miracle of sound recording.) And along the way, names that we would never have known of — virtual virtuosos of their times who’ve been dead from a few years to decades, such as Arthur Smith — were given new life.

Imagine that — a show where you can feel entertained and get an edumacation. And in a perfect world, they would get more than the baker’s dozen people who turned up for Friday’s performance.

Blake Jones & the Trike Shop — “Big Show or Bust,” Starline, Saturday 3/5: I’ve spieled about Blake in this blog before — one of the first two non-Fresno Bee people I met in Fresno, at Spinners Records while on my job interview trip in January 2004. One of my favorite people, period. He’s an artist who would be recognized as the extremely talented pop songwriter he is if he lived in a much larger, or at least much hipper, city. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t get any recognition from the outside world; he and his Trike Shop (Leland Vander Poel on keyboards, Martin Hansen on bass and John Shaffer on drums) are regulars at the International Pop Overthrow festival in L.A., and four years ago, he and his Trike Shop played at Liverpool’s Cavern Club. And they’re heading back to England in a few weeks for shows in Liverpool, Manchester, Bolton and London — and this new Rogue show is part of the fundraising efforts for the trip.

While it’s no shock to see Blake on the Starline stage (he was there in a reunion gig with his old Fab Four cover band, The Beetles, a couple weeks back), this is a Rogue departure for him; his recent festival shows — such as his “Ill-Advised Solo Show” and last year’s two presentations on the history of the Fresno music scene — were on the patio at Veni Vedi Vici. Also, he doesn’t focus strictly on the music here. Instead, it’s a cute and goofy little stage show with music. The premise is the band hires a manager who’s supposed to get them The Big Show that propels them to the bigtime. Well, one thing happens on top of another — anyone who’s ever been in a band has encountered some variation of their litany of misery — and, well, hilarity ensues, or at least a few well-timed laughs, as Blake goes from hopeful to worried to frustrated (says so on the signs around his neck).

The show’s not big on substance, unusual for Mr. Jones, but it serves its purpose. In addition, the band is joined by two dancers from the Baba for Now troupe, along with Jaime Holt as the hippie-chickish manager and Josh Tehee, often wearing devil’s horns, as several broadly brushed characters: an opening-act singer who gets five encores, a “Free Bird!”-yelling drunk, a cop who breaks up a show, and a loudmouth record producer who brings another show to a premature halt. And in the end, the band discovers the True Meaning of Performing.

If you’re going expecting to hear a lot of music — well, you should probably wait until The Trike Shop plays its next gig. But if you want some light diversion — and want to help the guys raise some needed fundage — go see them.

Josh Tehee & Jaime Holt — “Birds & Bees … a cost benefit analysis,” Broken Leg Stage, Saturday 3/5: Caught the aforementioned Josh and Jaime an hour and a half after their performance with The Trike Shop. Josh, singer of songs both acoustic (mostly solo) and hardcore (fronting It’ll Grow Back) and one of Fresno’s true men about town, teams with Jamie at the tiny Broken Leg space (about 50 capacity) to present the tale of two artistic young Fresnans who meet, mate and move in together. Occasionally, the pair pick up their acoustic guitars (Josh’s Takamine adorned with an Alice Cooper “Elected” sticker) sit on stools and break into song.

Early on, it seemed as if this were gonna be one of those narcissistic, “Oh, God!” roll-your-eyes shows about a lovey-dovey relationship. But wrong! It’s not. It grows on you. The two fall in love, have great sex (well, not quite, at least on stage), get a bit neurotic, get a little selfish, get a lot pissed off at each other. And anyone who’s ever been in a relationship, whether they want to admit it or not, has gone through this. And, in an added twist, depending on the charity (and vote) of the audience, the show will play out with one of three endings.

What makes this little production succeed is that the two play off each other quite naturally. The conversations flow when they’re supposed to, and they stammer and stall and get awkward when they’re supposed to. Nothing rings phony or forced about the dialogue. If they’re not a real-life couple (and I’m not sure whether they are, and they wouldn’t give an answer when one of the audience members asked at the end, and it really doesn’t matter), then this was one hell of an acting job. And if they are, they still conveyed a great deal of honesty.

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