Wednesday, September 26, 2007

BruceFest: Music Seen at Bubba's Sulky Lounge, September 22, 2007

Published in the Portland Phoenix

On Saturday evening, Bubba's filled with fans eager to hear tributes to the heartland-rocker-in-chief, the gravel-voiced singer wrapped in the American flag. No, it wasn’t Toby Keith at the Tweeter Center (though that, we hear, was a great show, too). It was Portland’s fourth annual tribute to the Boss, Bruce Springsteen, on the occasion of his birthday (he turned 58 Sunday).

Founded and hosted by Phoenix scribe Rick Wormwood and his band, the Rumbling Proletariat, the night kicked off with “Blinded by the Light,” the first track from Bruce’s first disc, Greetings from Asbury Park, N.J. (1973), performed by Elf Princess Gets a Harley, whose frontman, Brandon Davis, drunkenly slurred half of the song’s lyrics. Few noticed, though: the words are pretty unintelligible anyway.

Next came Handsome Dan Knudsen, whose performances of “My Hometown” (off 1984’s Born in the USA) and “Brilliant Disguise” (from 1987’s Tunnel of Love) had a touch of Weird Al Yankovic. It was a great lead-in to the Peter, Paul, and Mary–influenced quintet Chipped Enamel, whose three-song set started with a cruise in a “Pink Cadillac” (the B-side of the 1984 seven-inch single “Dancing in the Dark”), moved through “Fire” (the oft-covered song not released by Bruce until 1986’s Live/1975-1985 compilation), and ended with “My City of Ruins” (from 2002’s The Rising).

But nobody was quite ready for reverb-heavy An Evening With, who started a disco-fest on the floor with “Dancing in the Dark” (Born in the USA), slowed down with “Streets of Philadelphia” (from the soundtrack to the 1993 Jonathan Demme film Philadelphia), and echoed their way through “Thunder Road” (Born To Run).

By then, the floor was packed for a seven-song J. Biddy and the Crossfire Inferno power-set: “Atlantic City” (Nebraska, 1982), “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” (Born, again), “Prove It All Night” (Darkness on the Edge of Town, 1978), “I’m on Fire” (Born in the USA), "Trapped" (The Essential Bruce Springsteen, 2003), “It’s Hard To Be a Saint in the City” (Greetings), and “Born To Run.” The “Free Bird”-like interlude between the last two, however, meant it was time to burn on down the road.

Speak now, or forever pay for copies

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Last month, the Maine court system forbade the public to photograph court documents — a practice it had allowed for more than five years. The order, issued by Superior Court Chief Justice Thomas Humphrey some time in August, was secret . . . and never put in writing.

But after inquires from the Portland Phoenix, the state’s top judge, Chief Justice Leigh Saufley, has promised to revisit the change, and perhaps to formalize permission for the practice, which helps members of the public save money and time when reviewing court documents.

Reversing Humphrey’s order would likely have more impact on poor people involved in legal cases than on journalists or lawyers. According to Gregg Leslie, legal defense director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington, DC, “non-media requesters [for court documents] are often people who are having a case brought against them . . . or they’re trying to bring a suit” to protect their rights or property. He also says that many states ban photographing documents to protect court-system revenue that comes from photocopying fees.

Saufley says one reason people may want to photograph court documents more than other government papers is because many agencies provide records electronically on their Web sites. The Maine courts do not. And they do charge photocopying fees — $2 for the first page and $1 for each additional page — that far exceed the actual costs.

By contrast, the federal courts have an online system that costs users eight cents per “page” viewed online, or, for in-person services at the courthouse, 10 cents per page of a computer printout and 50 cents a page for photocopies.

For years, people — including me — have avoided the state courts’ fees by bringing cameras into courthouses to photograph documents. When I was recently barred from photographing documents (based on Humphrey’s verbal order) a member of the Superior Court clerk’s staff told me it was because the courts want the revenue from photocopying.

State court administrator Ted Glessner said that’s not true: “We don’t get to keep or use any of the money” paid for copying fees.

He is technically correct. Court revenue goes into the state’s general fund, but that’s the same fund out of which the Legislature appropriates money for the court system. Lawmakers and court officials regularly talk about both the costs of the system and its revenue to the general fund.

In 2006, Maine’s court costs were $55 million, while revenues were an all-time high of $43 million, up from a meager $32 million in 2002. Of the 2006 record haul, $6.3 million was in “fees,” of which only $155,000 was for photocopying.

It used to be that photocopying was a service provided for the convenience of people who wanted copies of court records. The fees were instituted to cover the costs of photocopying, such as buying toner and paper, and paying for staffers’ time to make the copies (though all of that is already paid for by taxpayers). Now, though, photocopies are treated as a profit center.

Saufley takes pains to say that court-system revenue “has nothing to do with how much the Legislature should spend on access to justice,” but only after saying she might need lawmakers’ approval if the courts reduce their expected photocopying revenue.

She ends on a high note. In words suggesting she leans toward allowing the photographing of court documents, Saufley promises that at the very least the state’s advisory Committee on Media and Courts will discuss the matter publicly, and may recommend allowing the practice. If the practice is to be restricted, she says there will be opportunities for the public to weigh in, including — if it does go to the Legislature — public hearings before lawmakers.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Say anything: A Scarborough man’s new movie shows a lot, but tells little

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Surfers aren’t an especially verbose or articulate bunch, really. They punctuate their sentences with “y’know” and list a lot of things “it’s all about.” But the problem is not a lack of vocabulary or even a reluctance to communicate. It’s that they have a connection that’s hard to put into words.

The surfers and other oceanophiles in BlueGreen, the new film by Scarborough filmmaker and surfer Ben Keller, struggle repeatedly to describe how they feel about the sea. Keller’s first feature-length film, Ishmael (2004), explored the motivations of wintertime surfers who brave near-freezing water and icy wetsuits to ride tiny waves on the New England coast. This time he’s trying to dive deeper, asking why surfers feel what they feel about their watery playground, and — though almost as an afterthought — trying to convince the film-viewing public to get involved with ocean-conservation efforts.

Keller will show the latest cut of the film (narrated by him, for now, for lack of money to hire a professional speaker) at SPACE Gallery on Sunday at 6:30 pm, to raise money to finish the project.

While the people in BlueGreen do articulate feelings merely suggested by other surf films, they still don’t answer the fundamental questions. Describing your testiness after days away from the ocean (as two of the people interviewed in the documentary do) is not an investigation into the nature of your connection with the sea.

The closest anyone comes to an eloquent explanation is Rabbi Nacham Shifren (a/k/a “the Surfing Rabbi” — really), who talks in vaguely clerical terms about how surfers’ attitudes toward life differ from other people’s because they regularly deal with overwhelming power, and manage to connect with — and ride — positive energy in the world around them. Shifren talks of “a drive to make the spiritual physical” that moves surfers off the beach and into the waves.

Less satisfying are clinical observations from scientists (such as Don Perkins of the Gulf of Maine Research Institute here in Portland) about how the health of the ocean is crucial to the health of the planet, and the interview of a woman who lives on a sailboat, in which she discusses her ocean-centered, water-borne life — while she’s sitting under a tree.

The bulk of the film’s joy, where it is to be found, is in the surfing scenes. This is not an adrenaline-filled giant-wave surf movie in the vein of The Endless Summer or even North Shore. Surfing in BlueGreen is ponderous, soulful, full of swells that aren’t even chest-high, and long, slow runs with the occasional turn. Only one guy in the entire film hangs 10. Even the surfboard cameras (including one underneath the board) are used in slow, relatively calm waves, giving a meditative feel. (Jarringly, one more conventional shot-from-the-shore scene features a very clear plumber’s crack on a surfing California lifeguard.)

Underwater footage appears pretty frequently, and again is brooding and slow — not colorful and bright like David Doubilet’s work for National Geographic and its video partners. All of it has a mellow, soulful soundtrack — much of which is supplied by Maine bands such as Seekonk and the appropriately named Harpswell Sound, Cerberus Shoal, and the Baltic Sea.

Watching is relaxing, calming, even soporific. When, 55 minutes into the 90-minute film, several speakers (including Jim Moriarty, executive director of ocean-conservation group the Surfrider Foundation) begin exhorting viewers to get involved in protecting the sea from (unnamed) threats, it’s like face-planting into the surf and getting cold seawater right up your nose.

No wonder Moriarty — in a voiceover for footage of a litter-strewn southern California beach after a holiday weekend — says “it’s hard to get into people’s heads that the problem is as bad as it is.” His own participation in the film comes across as more whiney and lamenting than inspirational.

It’s clear that Keller and those with whom he speaks see the ocean as a friend. But without finding the words to inspire others, they’ll continue to have it to themselves. And maybe that’s what they really want.

On the Web

Music industry unites to help Portland artists

Published in the Portland Phoenix

If Austin, Texas, is any indicator, in five years’ time, Portland’s music scene may be even more vibrant than it is today. The Portland Music Foundation (PMF) is taking shape, based on a community non-profit in Austin that has helped boost that city’s bands and musicians into the national spotlight.

Founded in 2002, the Austin Music Foundation (AMF) currently has two full-time employees and one part-timer, plus a vast array of volunteers from throughout the music industry. The organization hosts classes, discussion forums, and small-group seminars about the music biz. AMF’s goal, in the words of executive director Suzanne Quinn, is to help musicians “become entrepreneurs” working to “create sustainable businesses and quit those other three jobs”

The PMF will be the beneficiary of a “Speakeasy” night of hoity-toity drinks and food hosted by booze maker Diageo on Wednesday, September 26, at 58 Fore Street in Portland.

The local group is led by Adam Ayan, a Grammy-winning recording engineer whose involvement with the foundation was inspired, in part, by his mentor at Gateway Mastering, Bob Ludwig. Ludwig lives in Portland, but makes annual trips to Austin’s SXSW music festival, where he works with up-and-coming Austin musicians.

Ayan, who holds the Sinatra-like title of “chairman of the board,” says the PMF will use the money from the Speakeasy event to support its first set of programs, which will teach musicians how to interact with the press, recording professionals, and club booking agents.

“These are three topics that local musicians would benefit from learning more about,” says Ayan, who adds that future forums will address topics suggested by local musicians, who can join the group for $20 for a calendar year. Membership benefits will include discounts at local businesses, and free admission to PMF events and workshops.

At the Speakeasy and at the PMF’s official “launch party,” slated for October 18 from 6 to 9 pm at One City Center, Ayan and the others on the group’s board (who include local radio personality Mark Curdo, music-booker-about-town Lauren Wayne, and Portland Phoenix music writer Sam Pfeifle) plan to do a lot of networking. “We’re hoping that we can just hang out and talk to a lot of people,” he says.

Down the road he sees involvement with area schools’ music programs, scholarships for musicians to help develop their skills, and perhaps even a library of local music (see “Let’s Make History,” by Sam Pfeifle, January 6, 2006).

Austin’s example says that a lot is possible. According to Quinn, the AMF’s most recent gathering drew 330 people to learn about licensing and publishing their music. Twice a month, music-industry types gather at an “Austin Music Mixer” to get to know each other, generating collaborations, ideas, and new business for members. The AMF has received grants from the city of Austin and from the Texas state government (in addition to corporate and private donors), and is applying for money from the National Endowment for the Arts.

AMF co-founder Nikki Rowling has visited Portland to meet with Ayan and others, and says the Maine group is “really quite self-sufficient and doing fantastically well.” She has given information on starting music foundations to people from more than 100 cities, but “the Portland Music Foundation is the first one to really materialize.”

On the Web
Portland Music Foundation:

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Enjoy the air show — you paid for it

Published in the Portland Phoenix

Let’s move beyond the $320 million in aircraft you have bought that will be performing at this weekend’s Great State of Maine Air Show at Brunswick Naval Air Station. And let’s forget the roughly $12 million in annual salaries you’re paying for the people whose entire, year-round, full-time jobs are to use those aircraft to show off the military prowess of the United States by, um, flying really really fast very close to the ground.

The real concern is, and should be, the attitude of the government toward your money. John James IV, director of public affairs at Brunswick Naval Air Station, originally told the Phoenix no tax money was being spent on the show, in which five of 13 performance groups are funded by the US military. (Two of those are the biggest attractions, the Blue Angels — the Navy’s precision-flight team — and the Golden Knights — the Army’s parachute team.)

James relented under questioning, later saying that “the cost to taxpayers is negligible.” And he kept trying to steer our interview toward what he called “the important things” about the air show — such as its “family atmosphere.”

It’s that kind of cavalier attitude toward taxpayers’ money — and toward America’s military personnel — that has led the US government to spend, according to 2006 Defense Department statistics, $100,000 a minute in Iraq, and $18,000 a minute in Afghanistan. Maine Veterans for Peace members and supporters will be protesting the military’s appetite for money and bodies when they march from downtown Brunswick to the air station starting at 9 am on Saturday.

In case you care about your tax dollars more than the feds do, here’s what you’re buying.

BLUE ANGELS $276 million for 13 airplanes; $5.6 million in annual salaries for 114 personnel.

GOLDEN KNIGHTS $4 million for two airplanes, undisclosed lease payments for two more; $5.1 million in salaries for 90 soldiers.

F-15E STRIKE EAGLE DEMO TEAM One $31 million airplane; $630,000 a year to pay 13 crew members.

US AIR FORCE HERITAGE FLIGHT Older Air Force planes originally purchased for purposes other than air-show performances, with a group of pilots, most of whom are former military personnel; plus the Air Combat Command’s demonstration team, with a $9.8 million airplane and $360,000 in annual payroll for the eight crew members.

MAJOR JOHN KLATT His custom-built Staudacher S-300D airplane (custom-painted with the graphics of the Air National Guard’s “Guarding America, Defending Freedom” aerobatic team) is hard to price; so is the contract he has for his services and those of his three-man team. But his rank and years of service mean his annual Air Guard salary is around $75,000.

Those numbers don’t include the 20 or more military aircraft on display on the ground, training all the people to fly or do their flying-related jobs, or the salaries and budgets of the military recruiters whose efforts these events are intended to support.

The air show does get some financial help from people who attend — who pay reserved-seating fees and buy food, drinks, and souvenirs — and the companies who hawk that stuff, who pay for the privilege. Some of that money goes to pay aerial performers, though not nearly enough to offset their actual costs; rather, James says, it mainly covers food, lodging, and local transport.

What about jet fuel? James says civilian performers buy their own, using some of the money they are paid for performing, but he didn’t know whether the fees paid to military groups are used to reimburse the Defense Department (er, that’s you and me) for the fuel used in the military aircraft.

Related links:

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Peace + Justice Center shutting down

Published in the Portland Phoenix

The Peace and Justice Center of Southern Maine will close in December, after 10 years as an incubator for fledgling socially-minded nonprofits. The closing displaces several groups, who are looking for new space to replace the small offices and the shared meeting room on the fourth floor of the Cinamon Building at 1 Pleasant Street.

“The [center] offered a low-cost way for small nonprofits to have their own office space,” says Betsy Smith of Equality Maine, one of the founding groups in the center.

Last summer, Equality Maine “graduated,” moving down two floors in search of more room than it had available in the center (see “Equality Maine Moves Uptown, Downstairs,” by Tony Giampetruzzi, July 21, 2006).

That left a sizeable hole in the center’s tenant revenue, which has yet to be fully replaced, though founding member and coordinator Sally Breen says another reason for the closing the center is mission related — member organizations have been so busy with their own projects that they never actually got around to fulfilling the institution’s primary goal of combining forces to host larger-scale peace- and justice-related events.

Other tenants of the four-story complex also face uncertainty: the 12,500-square-foot building, valued by the city at just shy of $700,000, is for sale, with an asking price of $1.3 million, according to its listing with Fishman Realty Group. Ground-floor Indian restaurant Hi Bombay, and second-floor tenants Equality Maine and the League of Young Voters, have no plans to leave, and will wait to see what happens following a sale. One small business on the third floor moved recently; another did not return calls.

The Peace and Justice Center is currently home to Physicians for Social Responsibility (opposing weapons of mass destruction, and promoting environmental stewardship), the Maine Animal Coalition (which works to prevent cruelty to animals, including in agriculture), Maine Interfaith Power and Light (selling renewably-generated electricity to Central Maine Power and Bangor Hydro customers), the Campaign to Defend America (an anti-Iraq-war group), the Environmental Health Strategy Center (fighting toxic chemicals in the environment), and Portland Organizing to Win Economic Rights (POWER, working to abolish poverty). It also provides space for meetings of groups like Maine Veterans for Peace and World Can’t Wait (an anti-Bush group).

POWER has told Breen it will move out shortly, but Breen did not know to where, and POWER organizers didn’t return calls. Most other groups in the center are looking for new spaces at the moment, but haven’t found anything yet.

One solution may be finding another building in which to share space again, which is what Physicians for Social Responsibility executive director Melissa Boyd is hoping to do.

Some local nonprofits have already banded together as part of the Community Building Collective, which has proposed using the former Adams School building as a shared community building with residences, gathering rooms, and — you guessed it — shared office space for nonprofits.

Former Peace and Justice Center tenant Peace Action Maine has already arranged to share space with the Foglight Collective (formerly People’s Free Space), in the site of the former Tea Time Antiques and Collectibles store at 644 Congress Street.

The groups have named their office the Meg Perry Center for Peace, Justice, and Community, in honor of the People’s Free Space organizer and Frida Bus leader Meg Perry, who died December 10, 2005, in a bus crash while on a Katrina-relief trip to New Orleans (see “N.O. Peace for Perry’s Mourners,” by Jeff Inglis, December 16, 2005).

The Meg Perry Center offers a library and free Internet access, workshops on various practical skills, showing videos, art shows, and musical performances. When the relevant city permits come through, “we also will start selling more things,” starting with books and coffee, to help pay the rent, says Foglight organizer Johan Fertig.

On Friday, for the First Friday Art Walk, the Meg Perry Center will open to display works from local artists and musicians addressing the themes of peace and community, from 5 to 10 pm.

On the Web
Peace and Justice Center of Southern Maine: | |