Schubas 12-28-02
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"[This] is something better than perfect:  It's thrillingly alive."
                                                                    Peter Travers, Rolling Stone

     In a local newspaper recently I came across a bit of information that is probably common knowledge among Art History majors...and very likely of little or no interest to the public at large.   Be that as it may, it struck me as both fascinating and yet, as I stepped back momentarily to consider what I'd read, somehow not at all surprising.  The entry simply stated:  "Renoir was nearsighted.  Rembrandt was farsighted.  Van Gogh had glaucoma.  Monet had cataracts."
    "Okay," you may well be saying.  "But what on earth did you find so hugely intriguing about that?" And, moreover,  "How in the world does it relate to Michael McDermott's 12/28 show at Schubas Tavern?"
     Well, as always when attempting to explain any aspect of great art in mere words, it seems there are a myriad of thoughts swirling around my head, and a shortage of adequate descriptions with which to characterize them.  And so, this is the problem once more staring me all too clearly in the face as I endeavor to unravel the various threads of meaning this discovery implies, and at the same time rework these very threads into a cohesive garment that incorporates the past, the present, and the many other seemingly unrelated circumstances inherently woven into each of us as human beings.
     Anyway, the point is that while we're all familiar with the monumental internal struggles of famous artists throughout history -- certainly Van Gogh's highly publicized madness, if nothing else -- how often do we really consider the "smaller", if you will, mere physical "imperfections" -- the overly shopworn or damaged tools such figures were forced to work with in creating their most "perfect" masterpieces?  And, of course, in just whose eyes are these creations deemed so perfect to begin with?  Are the individuals making such determinations indeed viewing the works with 20/20 vision?  Or, are they perhaps likewise plagued with nearsightedness and cataracts?  (Surely, depending on who you ask, you're likely to even find it asserted that what's considered "beauty" in the eyes of the most enthusiastic "beholders" of "great art" makes it clear they're just plain blind.)
     But, if we can't necessarily "see" it ourselves...nor merely trust the sight of experts in determining what constitutes great art, how are we supposed to recognize such a thing even when we do meet it face to face in lifesize form?  Good question.  And it's precisely this conundrum that brings us to the quote (borrowed from a film review) that stares at us from the top of this page.
     Perfection is, it seems to me anyway, very difficult to define.  In fact, given that we live in a less than perfect world inhabited by less than perfect creatures, I daresay one might well successfully argue that such a definition doesn't exist.  But, even if that's true, what does it mean?
     Well, to me, what it means is that art is not about perfection.  Instead, it's about communication...commiseration...commonality in dealing with and striving to overcome the perhaps very different specific imperfections that ultimately make us so alike.  It's about the human condition in its most exalted and debased forms.  It's about victories and defeats, including sometimes even the victory of growth purchased at the expense of defeat -- or, to put it another way, the wisdom attained as we come face to face (with an all too disturbingly perfect vision of) our own imperfections.  It's about life.  More importantly, it's about living.  It's about being alive.
    But, what then -- specifically -- is the goal of the "great" artist?  And again, I must respond, "good question."  Because if you ask a dozen different people, it's very likely you'll receive a dozen different answers.  Some want to see in art that which as nearly as possible emulates their idea of perfection.  Others may wish to merely be presented with an alternative to their reality, a fairy-tale world unlike anything they have ever or will ever experience in their everyday existences.  
     To me, however, great art is created by those who "hold a mirror up to nature" by looking inside themselves...those who reach while holding that mirror into every crevice of their being, even those spots that require exceedingly uncomfortable stretches to fully explore...those who in the process of recording this journey are able to create from it a blueprint of the entire human animal. 
     And yet, the mere recording of this information is more like the work of science.  Art, by contrast, goes a step beyond mere recording by interpreting for us the visions artists encounter, and sharing these interpretations as the artists relive their joy, dismay -- indeed sometimes even sheer horror -- at these discoveries before our eyes.  It is this process, then, that the quote above refers to.  For, to me, this quote speaks of those artists who perform the aforementioned task at the highest level...those who in their art capture not merely an imitation of life, as art has oft been called, but who use as raw material their own lives to capture, create -- and indeed share -- the stuff of life itself.
     That said, at last it becomes clear what this lengthy dissertation has to do with Michael McDermott's 12/28 show at Schubas.  For in the space of approximately an hour and fifteen minutes, and in the form of an eclectic mix of 16 songs, Michael McDermott created something both nearsighted in its attention to detail, and yet farsighted in its reach...something truly "better than perfect"...a performance, a collection of art that even one plagued by Van Gogh's glaucoma or Monet's cataracts could quite easily "see" was...and remains in the eyes of us who beheld it...unmistakably...beautifully...indeed "thrillingly alive".  

     Schubas Tavern

     After offering the crowd a brief, "Hello", Michael once more opened with the beautiful and meaning-filled brand new song, "One Way To Go"...

      "The last train of faith 
          will be leaving

        The day your flag of
           defeat is raised...

        The way that we were
            when we were so sure

         Which way we wanted 
             to steer...

        There's only one way
          to go,

        One way to go from here."


...after which again came "The Darkest Night of All", for which TJ (who had been waiting contemplatively in the wings through the first song)...


...joined Michael on bass...

"Martha, I
        know what

    And I can't
        say that I

Next came what a fan at a show a few months back deemed a "new McDermott classic", "The Sword of Damocles"...




     "It's the same damn battle
              that you fight every

      You don't want to leave
              and you don't
              want to stay..."




...and another song that could as easily share that title, "Hellfire In The Holyland"...and on this night Michael prefaced the tune by singing a heartfelt plea for "Surrender...surrender"...



      (pointing heavenward
       as he reached these

      "Pride's relentless stronghold

        Is banished by my
             Father's door..."



This was followed by the first deviation from the setlist of the night intense performance of the tortured, and yet beautifully hope-filled, "Oh Baby I"...

   "Somewhere down Division St.,
        come a day my love we'll meet...

     Anywhere that I roam,
        know  your heart still is
        my home..."


...a place of seriousness from which Michael moved on to a bit of (albeit unexplained) levity.  Prefacing the song with an outburst of the urban expression "Yo!", Michael then went into this sort of two-chord repetition reminiscent of the old Split Enz song, "I Got You"...and once he'd become all business again, if you will, still interspersed "A Wall I Must Climb" with various hip-hop style gestures. Not quite sure what that was all about, but it seemed everyone present was indeed having a good time with it...

After this, Michael announced that because someone had requested it he would "reluctantly" play the darkly humorous "Unemployed"...


                   "I know how to turn water to wine,

                     I'm filthy rich but I haven't a dime.."




...before again returning to a newer song I'd heard for the first time myself only the night before.  In introducing this song, Michael took a moment to explain the inspiration behind it, a story about a family that one day, essentially without warning or aforethought, decided to move to Abilene, TX.  Gradually, however, the carelessly positive spirit in which they had set off became more and more eroded by the challenges of the journey... car trouble, bad weather, "locusts" (a slight embellishment on Michael's part, I believe...well, geez, at least I hope!).  As a result of all this, finally each character began asking why they'd come in the first place, whose idea it had been, etc., at last arriving at the conclusion no one had an answer to these questions.  It seems they had just allowed themselves to be carried along by what each thought the other wanted, a lack of real direction of their own, etc.  
     As an addendum to the story (which I would actually interpret as more a contrast than a corollary), Michael added that he often talks about "surrender" in his songs, clarifying that this is something "people always seem to think of as a sign of weakness...but I try to think of it as a sign of strength".  The Road To Abilene, he says is a song about surrendering to the forces around you. 
    To throw in a bit of my own interpretation about the whole "surrender" matter before leaving the subject (which I feel is a very important concept to consider), I firmly agree with Michael's image of surrender as a sign of strength...though certain impressions of it as a weakness aren't wholly incorrect.  And, as there are several meanings listed under this word in most dictionaries, I think it's important to point out that the strength aspect is found in the definition of surrender that refers to "letting go" or "a giving up" (of oneself) opposed to "giving in", which in my book represents weakness indeed.  Essentially, the difference is that the positive aspect  is about abandoning oneself to forces that should really never have been challenged in the first place (i.e. abandoning a struggle against that which one somehow knows is "meant to be", if you will -- or abandoning the struggle to attain what one knows isn't).  And the negative aspect deals with a failure to continue struggling when engaged in a worthwhile fight...such as a fight for something that one knows is meant to be.  And, perhaps the most tempting form of surrender is to simply "give in" to  the confusion of trying to sort out which of these is the proper course of action at a given time...all truly understandable circumstances to make one feel they've been too long on "The Road To Abilene"...



   "The moon looked like the 
      half-shut eye of a jackal

     In an El Paso night...

     Does your indecision 
        always lead to your

     And leave your face
         freckled with fright?"


In light of such ponderous considerations, it's not hard to believe there are a lot of "insomniacs out there", and Michael therefore dedicated "Can't Sleep Tonight" to these individuals...


    "This place is on
          fire, babe,

      And WE built 
          this bed...


       Lord, I can't 
          sleep tonight..."



As I'd hoped might be the case, next Michael once more included in his performance that truly amazing cover of Prince's "When Doves Cry"  (and while, in light of my preface to this show regarding the word, I'd be hesitant to say this night's version of it was "perfect", I've gotta admit it came about as close to my idea of that concept as anything I've ever witnessed).  And, again of course, he was so ably accompanied by Lance on the bodhran...



 "Dig, if you will,
      the picture

   Of you and I 
      engaged in
      a kiss..."



A very rare treat (a great song he's seldom played at shows I've attended, anyway), "Bells" prompted Michael's return to the piano...



     "Though the lines have been drawn,

       In the breaking of the dawn,

       I will cross this bridge prepared 
              to fight..."


Switching back once more to the guitar, Michael offered another bit of rueful commentary, this time about "his" notice in Entertainment Weekly...that proved instead (as he saw it anyway), pretty much a photo layout of "Johnny Rzeznik, Jakob Dylan...and Lance".  Ah well, you know how these rock stars are...I swear, they've gotta be the center of attention every minute!  (Only kidding, Michael!!!)  Be that as it may, one of the most exemplary songs about the positive form of surrender followed..."Leave It Up To The Angels"...


   "And you tell me
      that you're feelin'
      so confused...

     I've finally realized
       that the only thing
       that we can do 

     Is to leave it up,
        leave it up, leave
        it up to the 


After this Michael noted that the next song he was about to perform had been partially written in Paris...adding with a sly grin, "It's all written in French so I have no idea what it says."  Be that as it may, he was able to convey the meaning of the compelling "Dimestore Mona Lisa" pretty clearly to the audience...



     "And I wake from this dream
           at least a couple times
           a week...


       I've been alone so long now,
           I still get startled when I 



Michael then noted that, as per the arrangements with the venue for both this and the prior evening's shows, he had "a curfew".  Glancing at the clock, he said, "I've only got about 10 minutes more, so I'm gonna do these songs really fast."  And, without any further fanfare he launched into a journey "Around The World"...


"So come down from your altar,

And, baby, I'll come down from my throne..."


...only to arrive at a destination with an apparently very damp climate, one which prompted longings he used a tune by the Eurythmics to describe. And, as a result, "Here Comes The Rain Again" proved for me yet another highlight of the show...

    "I want to walk in the open wind,

      I want to talk like lovers do,

       I want to dive into your ocean,

       Is it raining with you?"


And, on that beautiful note, Michael prepared to close the show, adding a sincere offer of thanks to Paul, the sound tech, and Mike Hanisch.  Then, glancing back at the large screen (on which Mike had again projected various images to augment the performance) only to be startled by a computer-altered photo of himself that appeared in abstract-painting-like form, Michael immediately uttered (with more than a touch of dismay), "That's pretty much how I see myself every morning".  Hmm, could it have been this unflattering sight that prompted such self-discontent as to make Michael once more seek "A Closer Walk With Thee", and his heading off into the night while still singing of this quest?  Nah, I'd say it had a bit more to do with arguably the utmost positive form of surrender...abandonment of one's self to the "Grace of God"...



          "I was blind but now I see,

            I was bound, but now
                  I'm free...


             I'll be satisfied as long
                as I walk, dear Lord,
                close to Thee."



Once more, however, he soon reappeared to share a bit of laughter and camaraderie (as well pose for a photo or two) with fans and friends...

      (Ah, there's the picture with
       the real artist...but I still really
like this one with another
       artist's namesake...)








And, on that note, I can only once more conclude...


For everything,

Thank You, Michael!!

(And, again, 

I warn you, Chicago...

I WILL Be Back!!!)


 P.S.  While I very much enjoy reviewing shows, and I likewise hope you enjoy reading about them, there's still nothing like experiencing them "in person".  And, thanks to  you can listen to this show "live" for yourself, as it's available by following the above link as a part of their Michael McDermott archives.  So, what are you waiting for.  Go there NOW and listen to this great artist at work! 



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