Death Blues (No Time Like The Present)

Mon Nov 19 2012

Death Blues is as much about what you bring as a member of the audience as it is about taste or smell or dance or music.  You are expected to have familiarized yourself with the concept somewhat beforehand: The time of your death is unknown, so make every moment count.  You are expected to be silent throughout the event (hooray!); the result is that the performance is as much in your mind as on the stage.  Through lengthy stretches of soundlessness, your thoughts are the show. Of course, music was the main course, but first there was food.  I swear the peanut brittle was on my LEFT the first night.  However, I did notice that everyone else seemed to be picking up the jello.  The time for thinking was over, however.  It was time for action.  I bit loudly into the sugary thing, and could not for the life of me concentrate on thoughts about my first kiss.  I’m not a huge fan of being the center of attention.  I wasn’t in the best mood to begin with.  Death Blues on Friday night is a lot better in my memory today than it was in the moment.  I wasn’t particularly excited to go again Saturday, until I realized I could create something different the second try.

The first night was more adventurous; the crowd wandered en masse onto the stage to read poetry on the wall at our leisure, until Jon Mueller walked onstage to read a poem aloud, and then Molly Shanahan started to dance in our midst.  I found myself directly adjacent to the path of her improvisation as cameras clicked and whirred ceaselessly.  The performance tested the patience of dancer and observer, but the close quarters added an interesting confrontational dynamic to the exhibition.  But I recall thinking it was sad that so far, the notion of seizing the day was so somber and joyless in the Death Blues realization of it.  And then Mueller walked out to his drum kit and began to play.

It’s fascinating to watch meticulous technicians get tribal.  With the audience scattered about the stage facing the curtains, the nine-piece band created a heavy droning din, pounding and chanting and howling with Mueller’s inflamed thrashing the focal point.  A few minutes into the final piece, the curtain rose to reveal a chorus on risers facing away from the empty auditorium, lights blazing in our eyes as the layers of vocals, guitars, double bass and percussion swelled to a massive crescendo.  And that was the ostensible end; a heartfelt thank you from Mueller and lots of smiling faces.  But the Milwaukee music community was out in force; performers and crowd milled in the Pitman Theater lobby, cocktails flowed and the experience spilled over to Blackbird Bar.  The afterglow was merely the next act.  The whole concept was beginning to reach me.

Saturday night was more packed, and more organized, in a sense; the performance area of the stage was now white and we were instructed to congregate only in the black area behind a row of chairs, which made the long procession and the reading of the poetry a difficult task for those at the end of the line, and there was a noticeably uncomfortable pause prior to Jon’s poetry reading.  The separation between audience and performer combined with the bright white floor space to create a much less intimate atmosphere, but Shanahan’s routine was a bit more imaginative, and the performance by the band was noticeably more impressive.  Surely it was partially due to a more positive mindset on my part, but instead of somber it came off as defiant Saturday night.  The chaotic transitional section where all the singers in the band improvised like an atonal church choir was truly glorious.  The image of Mueller’s ferocity as he attacked his drums is burned into my memory; it was as if he were fighting off Death itself through sheer strength of will, exorcising every demon within to arrive at his thoroughly peaceful usual demeanor.  Once again, the commiseration afterwards proved to be as exhilarating as the show itself.

I sit here Monday morning still stirred by the positivity of the weekend.  It stems most significantly from the many meaningful personal bonds that were created or strengthened over the course of these two nights, but I feel this is the spirit of Jon’s vision extending beyond the five senses and into the lasting essence of community.  Above all, that essence is gratitude.  In the wake of the cynicism and discord of the latest political battle and a tough year in general, Death Blues was a reawakening for me.  The celebration of life continues on even if Death Blues is done forever.

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