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The 26th Annual AV Variety Show

No matter who is in the White House, each year spring rolls around. Or at least it has so far. We don’t know what the Russians have in store for us next year. Those practical jokers dropped the Big Orange Bluster on us this year. Next year, who knows? Everlasting Winter doesn’t seem too much of a stretch for them. But despite the hail on my roof this morning, Spring does appear to be in the offing. One of the ways we know this here in our happy groove between the mountains is the advent last weekend (for the 26th time!) of that collective group hug known as the Anderson Valley Variety Show.

As always, this year’s production began with a creative and crazy Opening Skit. This year we had the always delightful Patty Liddy as the Mentalist (When, oh when, will Patty do a One-Woman Show?), debonair Keevan Labowitz as the guy working the pump and Angela DeWitt as the Subject, aided by some crazy-inventive stage craft, for a fanciful trip through Angela’s fertile inner mind, including a frantic, whirling id, a spookily dancing Skeleton in the Closet and a rich and comprehensive series of puns. There was a “Train of Thought,” a “One-Track Mind” (take a guess), “Dirty Laundry” and, of course, an “Inner Child.” It was a visual treat and a hoot. Plus, it handily supplies this year’s Anderson Valley Variety Show Overview Article Operating Thematic Metaphor!

Let’s say that the Variety Show is an annual manifestation our community’s collective consciousness where we come together to cheer our neighbors and our kids as they display their talents. It’s also where we sometimes see our concerns and, as per this year’s model, our cultural anguish articulated, even if gently and with humor. And after this two-night burst of sharing and bravado—plus some defiance when defiance is due—we feel replenished and fit for survival. This year the journey was guided with ebullience and panache by the perennial Captain Rainbow and the aforementioned, lovely Angela DeWitt serving as co-emcees.

That feeling of renewal is surely one of the reasons we love to see the kids, in their many sizes and guises, up on the stage. First, this year, were Harvest Ryan and her mom, Sarah. Harvest has performed for several years in a row, with her songs getting more sophisticated musically. James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” for all its seeming simplicity, is not so simple to sing, but Harvest, with her mom’s backup, once again delivered admirably, and we were off. Next we had a whole crew of kids, as the AV Pop Warner Cheerleader Squad energized the packed audience with a dance routine that put the whole undertaking in proper perspective: hard work, joy, camaraderie and just a tiny little misstep or two.

On Saturday night we got another early dose of youthful exuberance when the AV Elementary School Ballet Folklorico offered up a spirited Mexican line dance delivered with grace, smiles and a charming haphazard precision.

Good times now and high hope for the future. Thanks, kids!

And then there are the young folks about to step out into the world, whether that step’s coming immediately or a year or two hence.  Julia Brock has been entertaining us with her short movies for several years, and now she is off to film school. Her final Variety Show offering was a cinematic poem/homage to Boonville, called, appropriately, “Hometown.” Hey, Julia, thanks, and I’m sure the folks who watched you grow up are happy to know your associations are good ones! Also off to fame and fortune is Riley Lemons, the talented country singer who went to Nashville to study the music industry for her senior project and is now getting ready for college in Kentucky. Riley told us that Eric Church’s “Kill a Word” was one of the best songs she’d ever heard, then gave us a rendition worthy of that sentiment. When she was done, as we applauded, Riley turned and strode off the stage. One suspects strongly that Riley will be returning home someday as a Country Music success.

Then there we had E.J. Hanes, and Rebekah and Chavah Fennel along with their teacher, Matt Bullington, who stepped to the stage early on Friday night to bring us the opening number from Hamilton. It was a riveting performance, with the quickly tumbling lyrics and tricky interplay executed without a hitch. The young performers were great and that teacher can really sing, too! On Saturday night, E.J. and Rebecca were back with another number from the play, “Dear Theodosia,” about the terrors and dreams of young parenthood. There were plenty of folks in the hall who could relate to that, all right. But lots of our kids seem to be growing up just fine, so somebody did good work.

And I don’t want to leave out the high school drama turn early Friday night, as Sierra Peters delivered a comedic monologue begging her unseen partner to show better aim and/or commitment to cleanliness around the porcelain throne, and Sal Flores and Ramon Alvarez showed us the lighter side of life insurance and heart trouble.

So, yes, that part of our collective AV consciousness that strives to raise good kids, nurture their creative energy and aspirations and then kick them the hell out of the nest, was well served over the weekend fun, and maybe that part of us nostalgic for our own younger days, too.

Of course, that’s not all that was going on. Every once in a while, they let a grown up onstage, too! Ha! Actually, there was a very nice balance, as always. Kids, adults and animals. The Big Three!

Let’s talk about the animals! Because life’s not life in Anderson Valley without ‘em. We love our livestock and we love our pets. We love our predators: mountain lions, bears, bobcats, hawks and owls! So, OK, they didn’t let any mountain lions on stage this weekend, but there were dogs, almost right off the bat! (There were no bats.) Dr. Zinzoid and Tigger Dog (I may not have that spelling right). Tigger was a big beautiful service dog, a Dane Mastiff so he was, who jumped and high-fived and was mostly just fun to watch. The dog that came closest to stealing the show on Friday night was Fred Wooley’s pooch, who donned a dinner jacket and enjoyed “Dining Alone,” with Doug Read as his waiter. I’m not sure what was going on, exactly, but that dog had very human hands.

Jim Devine did a hilarious turn (both nights!) as an itinerant, miming clown, prevented by Captain Rainbow from setting a hoop aflame for his baby goat (yes, a real live one!) to jump through, but managing nevertheless to get some solid publicity in for the upcoming Goat Fest and for the Anderson Valley Foodshed! That baby goat looked good cuddling in Captain Rainbow’s arms, but the two alpacas that Jim from the Groundswell Institute just south of Boonville brought on stage would have made a tougher cuddle for the Captain. The Alpacas wouldn’t tap dance, but Jim took questions about them and the two beasts sort of cuddled with each other all the while, and it was your typical Variety Show alpaca act, I guess.

And last but not least for the dogs this weekend were Gizmo her human Gwendalyn Gidget (a.k.a Kira Hayes). Gwendalyn did a faaaaaabulous fashion show strut, dahlings, gradually losing and then replacing layers, while Gizmo did tricks, and jumped about and ate treats. The whole thing was a hoot, and it brings up another of those golden Variety Show factors: every day, somebody around yoru is saying to him or herself, “I know! This year I’m going to get dressed up in fishing gear and take my dog onstage and march around to techno music and pretend it’s a fashion show and I’ll end up in a leopard patterned outfit. Yes! That’s exactly what I’ll do!” Be careful who you give strange ideas to, is all I’m saying.

Well, Kira’s act helps us seque, sort of gracefully, into the dance numbers. We’ve already covered the kids, but we were also entertained by some fine dancing grown-ups. Just to show once again that the Variety Show is “Big Time,” on Friday night we had us a visit from Rosie Radiator, the owner of cool Guinness Book records like the one for Long Distance Tap Dancing. Rosie danced in riveting fashion and made us laugh, too, with a dry wit that topped the act. On Saturday night, Danny Mandelbaum and Benny Kolinsky treated us to a saucy tango. Danny and Benna have gained this great skill together and it was grand to have them share it with us with such flare.

A crucial element of our Valley consciousness, of course, is the history of this fascinating place. Emblematic of that history is Boontling, and the Variety Show gave us a reminder each night. On Friday night, Boonters Deekin and Tubbs, a.k.a. Wes Smoot and Rodd DeWitt, read us a tall-tale hunting story in Boontling and were kind enough to translate as well. On Saturday night, a notorious gang of four had some fun with the lingo, as W. Dan Houck, and Jay Newcomer hosted contestants Keevan Labowitz (sporting a snide Russian accent) and Paddy Liddy (back as a funny Ms. Snootypants character) in a rousing game of Boont Jeopardy, written and directed by Margaret Pickens. There were a dozen genuine and interesting Jeopardy-style questions about the lingo and the Valley, but W. Dan and Jay also used the occasion to poke a bit of gentle fun at the reverence with which the topic can get to be treated around here.

Well, speaking Boontling brings us to speaking English, and there were plenty of fine spoken-word performances this year. First was David Jones, the Bard of Navarro, who related a whimsical tale featuring a ball bearing and a mudflap that became a cautionary tale about process and first steps.

Kevin Jones (Friday night) and Bernadette Restuccia (Saturday night) recited their inspirational poetry, Kevin’s about staying positive and watching for life’s cruel jokes, and Bernadette’s about accepting love and honoring the process thereof. They both performed from memory, which fills me with awe. If I ever get up on that stage to talk, I will be reading, and you can believe that.

Sherry Glazer’s comedic, monologue on the benefits of schmoga (kin to yoga, but more utile for daily life) was truly motiviational, and a howl to boot. “Being in yoga class is stressful,” she said with a wink, “but schmoga fits whatever you’re doing.” She went on to describe the schmoga positions for driving, and for sitting and for watching TV. And all the time I was laughing, I knew that the word, “schmoga” was now permanently in my lexicon. What more can a performer ask than that?

Scott Peterson, newly moved here from Maine, delivered another hunting story, this time in the classic deadpan Down East style, about a lucky man who took a shot with his rifle and ended up with a bagful of game, a pocket full of trout and a partridge killed by his fly button. Then Scott played beautiful acoustic guitar and sang a sweet song about a succulent berry patch. He will fit in here fine.

And introduces the musical performances, which I’ve been saving up to tell you about, and which, as we’ve already seen, got very good right away. Immediately after the highschoolers sang from “Hamilton,” Gabriela Lena Frank sat down at the big, white grand piano. Gabriela is also new to the Valley and already teaching a Music Appreciation class at the AV Adult School. She performed a mind-bending version of Chopin’s Opus 114, bobbing and weaving around that music, taking it from straight classical to boogie woogie and back and making the transitions seamlessly. What fun to be surprised like that in the midst of a performance!

The next music on Friday night was Black Sugar Rose, the bluegrass duet of Charlene Rowland on banjo and Todd Orenick on guitar. Charlene in particular is beloved in the Valley, for her days teaching and her sunny glow, although the pair now live in the far removes of Point Arena. They sang Del McCoury’s “High on a Mountain” and the Carter Family’s “No Depression in Heaven” and the harmonies and playing were truly a pleasure.

Clay Hawkins, who played last year, was back for a return performance. His superb steel guitar sound evoked steel mills, coal mines and wide river deltas, and he made things fun by bringing the audience into the mix to chant on the chorus.

It was rock and roll time to close the show on Friday night, with the trio Boonfire, featuring local drummer Lee McEwen, bassist Raoul Duran (Pilar’s nephew: the talent is clearly strong across those family ties) and singer/guitarist Ryan Davis. This is the band that played New Year’s Eve this year at Lauren’s, and they are fun, rock and reggae, and represented a great rocking way to finish the night.

Real life leaked into the show quickly, and in a welcome fashion, on Saturday night, as Jose Luis, a Mexican immigrant who runs a hot dog cart in Ukiah and sings like a dream performed “Mexico Lindo y Carrido.” “Everyone naturally thinks about where they were born,” Jose said by way of introduction. “Your feelings are there. But we came here to work hard and to prosper, and we’re not going back.” The cheers were loud for Jose’s message and for his singing, which came clearly deep from his soul and from his heart.

There were two musical acts from the coast Saturday night. Rachel Lahn from Mendocino played  piano and sang “I Like Walking,” a peppy paean to idyllic country strolls. And the Seaside String Sisters from Fort Bragg sang Adrienne Rich’s “Plow to the End of the Row,” about the daily joys of small farming, and the gentle ecological satire, “Feet Wet.” (“Don’t want to get my feet wet . . . and the oceans are rising, anyway.”)

There was no shortage of musical genres at the big show. the Hot Club of Comptche brought their Gypsy Swing Jazz to the stage, led by Tom Brown on violin and the one and only Pilar Duran on guitar. They kept things smoldering through a slow-moving piece that whispered the aura of the Moulin Rouge.

Shortly thereafter, the Dirty Birds hit the stage. We know these three women as the Real Sarahs, but instead of the folk harmonies we’re come to love from the trio, tonight it was a 30s aesthetic, dresses included, and a bawdy blues: “Come Up and See Me (But Please Don’t Come Too Soon).” You gotta love it when musicians try new things and make them work so well.

Cuban music was next, in the person of Marcos Perera, with music fiery and of stern emotion, singing and guitar playing graced by a smoky, burnished tone and a profound depth of expression.

Blues harmonica/guitar virtusoso Catfish Jack, a former, longtime AV resident, gave us a much welcomed visit, bringing with local Stuart Potter for accompaniment on electric guitar. Jack had worked up a song just for the occasion, a loping blues based on Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” reprising Jack’s own memories of living in the Valley. Jack’s number even included a Steve Derwinski baritone sax solo, delivered from somewhere back stage.

Saved just about for last, here, is that sprinkling of acts that spoke directly, as I mentioned up top, to the anger and anxiety that the recent months have brought to so many both here and across the country. Certainly Jose Luis touched a spot of concern by singing about the immigrant experience.

Soon after Jose’s performance, Torrey Douglas stepped to the stage and began singing Milck’s “I Can’t Keep Quiet,” the song that became the anthem for the Women’s Marches across the country in January. It’s a riveting song, and Torrey’s performance was doing full justice, but the experience intensified as Torrey was gradually joined onstage by a dozen or so women, representing at least three generations. It is a song of dignified determination and strength that in my view delivered the weekend’s most powerful moment. So thank you to all.

Our beloved Raging Grannies have of course been refusing to keep quiet since forever. They began their annual Variety Show turn on Saturday night with hilarious take off on Ringo Starr’s “No No Song.” But they amped up the politics next, laced with their di rigour sly humor, with an anatomy-specific protest again the war on women and reproductive rights. The Grannies stayed onstage, and Stevie D came onstage with his horn, to back up activist singer Charlie Vaughan, who provided a musical reminder that if the people lead, the leaders will follow. Let’s hope so.

Holly Newstead, who we’re used to seeing whirling acrobatically on ropes and rings, instead this year gifted with a beautifully graceful offering. Holly is a sign language interpreter, and for us she signed her way through the beautiful ballad, “Let Her Go” by Jasmine Thompson. Holly’s signing was not something she did just with her hands. Even while sitting, Holly performed a holistic ballet of evocative movement and nuance.

Boogie Woogie pianist/singer Wendy deWitt has played everywhere, and she was on hand, with drummer Kurt Harwood, to close out the show. She chose a song about Sonoma, which is close enough, I guess, but regardless, the rollicking joy the duo blasted across the Grange Hall was enough to propel us out into the rainy night with all corners of our psyches sated and glad.

Long live the Anderson Valley Variety show. May we all be around to enjoy at least another 26 years worth of this festive and restorative community celebration.

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