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Another Year, Another Great Variety Show

There had been reports of UFO sightings over Anderson Valley for several weeks. Reports in the AVA, conversations on porches and over fences. People craning their necks to trace wispy white streaks across the sky and clouds settling on the hillside that might have been simply clouds and fogbanks, or perhaps the product of some government conspiracy. Or they might have been the after-effects of some the oft-rumored extraterrestrial presence.

This, at least, was the operating paradigm when Justin Laqua approached the podium of the Anderson Valley Grange as the lights dimmed and the hubbub subsided Friday night before the anticipated festivities of another Anderson Valley Variety Show. Consternation creased Justin’s brow, for Captain Rainbow, back in the Valley after his travels of a year ago and returned to his customary role as emcee of the Variety Show, was missing. Then it was Cob Martin racing on stage to provide a panicked slideshow of photos proving the presence of photo shopped Frisbees and bottle tops cascading across the Boontling skies, further proof of the star-sent invasion.

Then the lights began to flicker, the sounds around the building began to get, like, all eerie and stuff. And outside, through the side window of the Grange, appeared the bright yet chilling (not really) glow of the long-rumored space ship.

That’s right. After the tongue-in-cheek Shakespeare theme of last year’s show, and the political satire and other hilarity of previous outings, the Variety Show this year was dealing, finally, with real life: space people. Or, more accurately, Sheeple. The stage curtains parted, the space ship descended to hover over the floorboards, there were more sound effects, a very cool approximation of a Star Trek transporter beam, and then four spacemen and a sheep were on stage (the sheep was evidently in charge). And then Captain Rainbow was returned to us by an annoyed bunch of aliens who claimed, if I understood their accents correctly, that after they’d abducted him, he would quit jawing at them. The Men in Black showed from the government to put an end to the hilarity. I hate it when that happens. But, as I said, finally real life. I mean, does anybody doubt that Captain Rainbow’s been spending time amongst the spacefolk?

So, OK. Another weekend of AV Variety Show. We were all settled in by this point, looking forward to enjoying our friends and neighbors up on the stage. And as usual, there was quite the range of acts, enough to keep any sentient space beings entertained, or earthlings for that matter.

Happily, the show began with a straightforward, calming and lovely performance at the piano by Sara Crispin. The rolling timbre of the lovely, still sort of new grand piano vibrating through the Grange building reminded us that it was not all tongue in cheek humor to be enjoyed these two nights, but real talent and beauty as well. Sara’s lovely piano piece opened our hearts and minds to all that was in store.

But almost inevitably, what was in store next was more whimsy. Captain Rainbow is always on about animal acts for the show, and now we had one, as Sandy Paws, the Wonder Dog and her human sidekick Lea Smith took the stage to amuse the crowd with a series of charming maneuvers. Charming Sandy seemed occasionally more interested in checking out the crowd than in running the course of tricks her human had set for her, but overall, it was fun to watch Sandy hop over obstacles and jump onto giant beach balls. On Saturday night we had Boo, another fine canine with her pal Laura. Bo also seemed as interested in the audience as they were in him, but a few tricks got done and it was fun. This is AV. We love our dogs, and we love watching other peoples’ dogs, too.

One other thing we love watching is our Valley’s kids. Sometimes they are cute. Sometimes they are sly. Often they are that irresistible combination of both. Anika Ellis, nine years old had that going for her. With a simple scarf and three different voices, she went through the simple 3-way dialog called “Pay the Rent.” A villain, a damsel in distress, a hero. But then all the characters switched roles. And then again. The kids are learning these days that the damsel can be the villain or the hero, not just the one in distress. That’s all cool, but, really, it was the smile that killed.

We do love our stories, right? Here in the early goings of Friday night, we had already gone from space sheep that give orders to Anika’s minimalist dialog. Somewhere in the middle was Fred Wooley’s storytelling, which now followed. Fred, in a heavily laid on Maine accent, related the tale of the Moose and the Farmer, which gave the room a chance to laugh with the moose and at the city folk. And there was a dog that looked like a muskrat with long legs, which was a mental picture hard to forget. Later on, Bernadette offered up an homage to Anderson Valley, land of dirty cars and dirty boots, with her sweet poem, “Home.”

Exceedingly droll and immensely entertaining was young Jessica Kessenheimer’s recitation of Lewis Carroll’s “Jabberwocky,” a bit of devious tongue twistery that never grows old when done as well as Jessica handled it. And on Saturday night it was the Coast-based storyteller Oasis with a Sufi tale about the stream that wanted to cross the desert. Some philosophy to think about . . . later, because it was too much fun enjoying Evah Campbell, Jena Snyder, Caleb Devine-Gomes and Sierra Peters perform a clever skit skewering current pop stars.

This really was a show with lots of storytelling. The next story was an old and familiar one, rendered by Sarah Ryan and her daughter Harvest. Two stories, here, really. One was the repeat appearance by Harvest. That’s a theme we like, right? These young folk we watch grow year by year, sometimes through their childhood and sometimes through their teen years and into adulthood. Harvest was making her third singing appearance with her mom, and she’s growing in assurance and stage presence by the year. (Mom is a member of the singing duet, the Sarahs. More on them later.) Then there was the story they told as Harvest sang “There Was an Old Woman Who Swallowed a Fly,” accompanied Sarah on guitar and an incredible silhouette display as the actions of the song were acted out in fascinating 2D before our eyes, as the old lady swallowed progressively larger animals. I wondered how the space aliens would react to this song. If you look up this ditty on Wikipedia, the bottom of the page tells you See Also “Situational Irony.” Do aliens know from situational irony?

Another in the cavalcade of beautiful children growing before our eyes is Willow Thomas, another 9-year-old. Willow has been in the show every year since she danced with the Baby Ballerinas at age three! Willow stepped nimbly to the piano and gracefully rendered a short, lovely classical piece by modern composer Robert Vandall.

Next the stage was turned back to the grownups, and the first public performance together by Charlene Rowland (banjo) and Todd Orenick (guitar), a.k.a. Black Sugar Rose. They sang John Prine’s “Spanish Pipedream” and the White Stripes’ “Hotel Yorba.” They played well together and their singing was jolly, too, but the coolest thing about their performance was how much fun they were obviously having together. Watching a performance by people you know opens you up to that sort of “near joy experience” more than any big name show you could attend, I think.

And speaking of music and repeat performances, high schooler Riley Lemon, already a formidable country western singer, made a very welcome return to the Big Show on Friday. We’re used to seeing her guitar in hand, but she showed off her versatility this year at the piano, with a moving rendition of “The Highway.“

Another teen star is Julie Brock, who sings very well, indeed, and is also a videographer of local renown and growing talent. On Friday night she sang a song called “Lights” to a dazzling video of her own creation. Quite a one-two punch. On Saturday night Shea Alston played piano and sang her own song “Strange Birds.” Emotional without melodrama, the song seemed to be about the search for true empathy and companionship, and Shea’s singing hit just the right note.

Rachel Juster sang for the Variety Show audience all through high school. Now a young woman, Rachel continues to grace the event, this year singing with real power Sara Bareilles’ “Love Song” on Saturday night.

A Variety Show first timer on Friday night was Dr. Logan McGhan, our (relatively) new Health Clinic medico stepped between the curtains, guitar in hand, to offer up a Modest Mouse number. The doc can sing and can really play the guitar, and he got earnest with that song, which seemed to have a very serious set of lyrics. Well, Doc Logan has already learned that this valley can be a feisty spot on the planet, and we’re not above pulling a fast one, which is what the Variety Show did on Friday. When Logan’s number was over, Captain Rainbow asked him to sit tight, at which point the effervescent Patty Liddy emerged, dressed as someone’s granma and pushing a walker. Little by little, though, the old lady grumbling subsided, and the housedress hit the floor, and in a moment it was Patty in an evening dress serenading Logan, bemused but game, with a rendition of Good Lovin’ rousing enough to make a Health Clinic open board meeting seem tame.

On the list of the Variety Show ‘s many endearing qualities is the chance it gives to classes—of kids, teens and adults alike—to kick out the jams in public. First on Friday night was the Elementary School gym class, a group of junior Flying Wallendas. Shortly thereafter, it was Zumba, the craze that’s been sweeping the Valley lately. Michael Garver and his charges pounded their way through a jaw dropping routine with arms and legs a-flyin’, sometimes going in two directions at once. It was cool to see folks proud of the wind and dexterity that Michael’s classes have been affording them. I had a “near exhaustion experience” watching them. And these class efforts were balanced on Saturday night by the kids of the AV Elementary School, who sang and danced and cheered their hearts out. Speaking of the Elementary School, the tribute to retiring principal Donna Pierson-Pugh was a terrific touch, and of course well deserved times a zillion.

There’s always great dancing at the Variety Show, but it’s safe to say there’s never enough tap dancing. Suzanne and Cody delivered, though, on Friday night, with a duo tap routine to an old favorite, George Michael’s “Wake Me Up” from his Wham days. Personally, I’m always mystified and impressed that anybody can not only execute all those dizzying dance moves, but also memorize long and complicated routines. Anyway, I’m grateful that I get to watch them do it. More choreography came from the Anderson Valley Dance Team, led by Lucero Marquez with Maggie, Linda, Evelyn, Morgan, Brittani strutting onstage to Meghan Trainor’s snappy “All About That Bass” in a routine doing double duty as Lucero’s senior project.. Suzanne was back on Saturday, in fact, dancing a smooth foxtrot with her partner Rob. The spotlight on this polished pair cast their silhouette against the wall, making it seem like they’d been joined by a shadow couple. The effect was striking.

But now, speaking of dance routines, I must get serious a second. For there is Saturday night’s Strumpenhosen dance to report on. Eight beautiful women, ranging in age high school to no longer in high school dressed each in black and white split down the middle so that it looked like the left half of one and the right half of the other were the same person, and, well, it’s impossible to explain it. But they moved in unison, a routine tricky, unusual and devastatingly entertaining. It was amazing and the women, one of whom is my wife, were stunning. No, really, it was something else, and the crowd ate it up.

A group of youngsters that the whole county knows and loves are the Raging Grannies, who this year used Creedence as their jumping off point to sing about the Proud Hippies, doin’ just what they want to. Kids these days, huh?

Also Saturday night there was Joshua who spun his dancing sticks in the air, making them dance as well. But for acrobatics, there was nobody to outshine 11-year-old Viv of Circus Mecca, who did an impossible, athletic, twisting climbing routine on a hanging circus ring. She was astounding, so strong for her age. I was going to say that she made me feel old, but really there’s been no time in my life when I could have approached the ability to fly and move like that, so let’s just say we were awed.

The Valley’s history and lifestyle always seep into the Variety Show, as well. Of course each night we get a presentation about the principles and history of the Grange itself that serves as a grounding for the proceedings as a whole. The Grangers even put on some great skits to make the point. We had dancing pancakes and a mad scientist. Who doesn’t love a dancing pancake? Annually, we honor the beloved Valley stalwarts who have passed on during the year. This year, in a delightful innovation, Captain Rainbow also offered the names of our new friends who have been born since the last show. As a tradition, I’d say that’s a keeper. Plus, on Friday night this year, Bill Seekins and his young assistant Alana brought us back 100 years with a hand wheat threshing demonstration. One of these days, I gotta try that!

Toward the end of Friday night, one of the brightest lights of the year, in terms of true, professional stature and power, came when Cuban singer Marcos Pareda took the state. Marcos’ sang a haunting song simply called “Life.” He sings with the soothing if frequently sorrowful overtones so distinctive to Cuban music. Even the fidgeting kids sitting near me were suddenly transfixed, as were the rest of us. Marcos, in fact, will be offering a full concert at Lauren’s this Saturday night.

World music was well represented on Saturday night, as well by the Michael (on the quarto) and Leslie Hubbard (on accordion), who gave us the Calypso treat, “Love, Love Alone” about the romance of King Edward and Wallace Simpson. And then there was young Zephyr, who sang in Scottish Gaelic while solving a rubic’s cube. That actually happened. I was there and I saw it and it was entirely cool. And as we had Sufi storytelling, there was Sufi music as well, spun by Tara Sufiana who played guitar and sang mesmerizing Egyptian Sufi songs in Arabic. We were not lacking in international influences. And on the Americana side of the music spectrum, Dean Carroll’s cowboy blues version of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “They Call Me the Breeze” was a winner, too.

You wouldn’t expect the one of the show’s jazziest numbers to come by way of a lumber saw, but that did happen. Mitch Tomlinson’s bowed saw number on Friday night over a recorded old-time swing accompaniment was delightful and somehow otherworldly. On Saturday night, the jazziest tune was delivered by Sue Marcott, recently returned to the Valley, who played us some rollicking boogie woogie piano to open the night’s acts.

The closings for the two nights both fit their respective slots well. On Friday night, when the Sarahs were announced, we expected the duo’s lovely singing and harmonizing. But the shock came when Sarah Ryan (mother of Harvest!) and Sarah Larkin came strutting out in full 80s regalia and swung into Irene Cara’s “What a Feeling” from Flashdance! Soon there was a whole dance troupe behind them, with moves choreographed by Celia Schwenter. There was Jay Newcomer and Lady Rainbow Hill and Bill Hunter and, well, I’m missing some names, here, but the whole thing was a glorious hoot and I’m glad it’s on video. That roaring fun left us ready for more on Saturday. In gentle contract, the weekend’s closing number’s came from old Valley favorites, the Ukaholics, with Doug Read, Denver Tuttle and Dennis Hudson backed by an ensemble of guitars, bass and trumpet. With a pair of fun but thoughtful songs, dedicated to their angel member, Henry Hill, most aptly performing the Talking Heads number, “This Must Be the Place” with the sweet lyrics, perfect for closing the show, “Home - is where I want to be. But I guess I'm already there.” And we were.

The Variety Show is in transition, without a doubt. It’s a healthy process by all accounts, and it’s great to see so much new talent step up and assume responsibility, in terms of planning, writing and execution, alongside the Variety Show veterans. Positive regeneration is a beautiful thing, assuring a vibrant future for our galactically famous event. Just one more thing: apologies if I somehow missed your act, here, but man, there sure was a lot of ground to cover. See you next year, Variety Show goers!

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