My Friday had been long and stressful. Some extremely irritating news had arrived early on. Then there was a stubborn, hours-long, two-front confrontation with software and internet to retrieve a relatively small amount of data I could really just as easily and almost as accurately guesstimate. (Such sensible logic does not register when one is doing battle!) In the meantime, my store got busy late and stayed that way right up until closing. No closing early for me, which fact occasioned a mad dash over 253—never a relaxing proposition—because I had to get to the Philo Grange for the Anderson Valley Variety Show and I had to get there on time because I was writing this article and I had to see the whole thing!
Well, the Variety Show is about community, and I had help. The Grange houselights were already down when I finally got there, but Seasha, working the front door, knew my mission and knew exactly where the lovely Stephanie was sitting with a seat saved. The high school kids had been peddling hot dogs in the parking lot, and my darling wife had grabbed one for me.
“How much have I missed?” I asked, fussing around for my notepad and pen.
“This is the opening act,” Steph said. I had made it!
Then I looked up at the stage and saw Marcus Magdaleno, hamming it up, about to emcee a fanciful cooking contest. Marcus Magdaleno onstage? Always a good sign. And suddenly I was no longer stewing over the day’s frustrations, rushing to get to the Variety Show. I was at the Variety Show! Tension drained away in a flash, other than the suspense of wondering who would win the cook-off. Would it be Julianne with her vodka laced, half-baked cake? Doug, with his feathers afloat chicken soup? Or J.D., with his road-harvested, almost dead squirrel chili? As these three Variety Show veterans smashed, stirred and chopped away at their concoctions, the portal to the Variety Show’s mansion of goofy, good-natured fun, fellowship, reassurance and, yes, talent, swung open. Stress-be-gone!
As for the bake-off, two things: 1) This being California, it ended in a tie, with everyone the not-winner. 2) The Variety Show scriptwriters had adhered to the classic Chekhov admonition about writing, that if there is a giant faux cake on stage in the first act, Captain Rainbow must pop out of it. Soon Rainbow was joined by co-host Angela DeWitt, and the show was launched!
The program stepped back from hilarity and toward thoughtfulness, as Bernadette Restuccia recited a heartfelt, moving poem about love lost and hope retained. Bernadette has been offering her poems for several years, and her imagery grows consistently more precise and evocative. As a Variety Show opener, Bernadette’s piece turned out to provide a fine contemplative starting point for the night’s endeavors. And there was more poetry just a bit later, as Torrey Douglas recited her pensively sensitive paean to her recent 10-day silent retreat. “Peel your eye away from the peephole into chaos.” This is why we all need poetry.
Later in the evening, Jamie Roberts and Alice Woelfle offered poetry of another stripe, reciting in tandem “Oh, the Places You’ll Go,” Dr. Seuss’ beloved rhymes to a life lived adventurously.
Dancing, singing and whimsy are three Variety Show staples. The next act provided all three, plus one more: miracles! The first three were intertwined with Terry Ryder and Bob Sites waltzing, with Bob in cat pajamas and Terry singing “What’s New Pussycat?” The miracle? A silent Bob Sites!
There was next more music from Trevor Gunby, who performed on electric keyboard what we were told was the second song he’s ever written. I’ve always thought it was inspirational that the Variety Show welcomes folks who are still honing their skills, or are even beginners. Trevor’s composition, sonically dramatic and sweeping, played like a movie soundtrack in the making. Keep composing, Trevor!
Following Trevor came a charming juxtaposition of generations with a common theme running between. First, local pre-teens Bella Richmond and Alana Richert, in charming period dress, performed a “time machine” demonstration life in the Valley for the women of 100 years ago, complete with a corn cracking demonstration. It was great to see youngsters with such a strong interest in local history. Much of the richness of Valley culture will be lost if that history fades away. Immediately after that lesson, we got another, as members of the local “Grand Dames” memoir-writing group, Jeannie Nickless and Muriel Ellis, plus Helen Papke’s daughter Alexis, sitting in for her indisposed mom, shared passages from their recent writing, humorous and thoughtful musings on living life and aging, loving and staying young. And while the differing perspectives of the kids and the dames were apparent, of course, the vibrant similarities of youth, in age or in spirit, were equally clear.
It was back to music, then, with coast folk singer Holly Tannen singing a genial ditty reminding us how dangerously convenient it is to let our TV screens and our inertia do our living for us. Just a few acts later the group Bellow Heart closed out Friday night’s first half with a raucous, demented blues, part Tom Waits, part Bertolt Brecht, part circus barker tempting a crowd into a fun house. Anyway, the kids in front of me were dancing in their chairs.
But between Holly and Bellow Heart we had some comedy/drama. First Keevan Labowitz teamed up with Bri Wiley for a hilarious skit in which Keevan, clad in handlebar mustache and absurd British accent, played the pompous editor, with Bri Wiley as his smarter but undervalued assistant. The philosophical point at issue was, “Why did the chicken crossed the road?” We’ve all pondered this, but probably haven’t laughed so hard before while doing it. Then, after Torrey recited her poem, we had one monologue and a 2-person skit from the high school drama class. In both, the pros and cons of fandom were investigated. First Les Clow bemoaned his William Shatner man crush. At what point does a youthful enthusiasm become a burden rather than a joy as we move into adulthood? And then Sierra Peters and Dominick Ewing waited online to meet Wonder Woman, but which Wonder Woman? And were they even on the right line? It’s just fun to see young students testing their talents in new ways.
There was lots of music in the second half of Friday night’s show. Sarah Chrisman opened at the grand piano post-intermission with Rachel Platten’s rousing, no-back-down anthem, “Fight Song.” Jose Luis’ beautiful rendition of the Mexican ballad “Voy a Volver,” (“I Will Return”) was in the same vein of determination in the face of obstacles, made personal by Jose’s telling of his family’s annual migrant-farming journeys from Texas to California and back. Steve Derwinski offered up his by-now impressive and ever-fiery baritone sax and Ryan Davis, of BoonFire fame, joined him for a Gene Krupa drum boogie as they stomped through “Topsy,” recorded by both Count Basie and Benny Goodman.
And while this year’s opening bake-off skit was all mayhem and no political satire, somewhat of a departure for the crew, the gang made up for that a bit by adding a brief skit before the nightly 50-50 raffle drawing, skewering our Mendocino County Board for voting themselves raises. (“Waddaya talking about? Ethics?”) The skit involved Angela DeWitt, Cob and Rainbow discussing skimming the lottery funds, and bringing in consultant Taunia Green. Guess who walked off with the money.
Gotta have a dog act, at least one per year, or, as I understand it, Captain Rainbow’s head will explode. This year ‘twas the Heeler Brothers, Sean and Emma DeWitt’s hounds, who charmingly wandered the stage, sort of responding to commands occasionally jumping through hoops in return for treats.
Maine native Scott Peterson, back from his 2017 Variety Show debut, once again treated us to some down Downeast humor, this year a “Bert & I” story about the body in the kelp. The stories are time honored, the humor bone dry, and Scott’s delivery superb. Then, as last year, Scott played his fine guitar and sang, both of which he’s very good at. I would like to him perform a full set around here some time.
Navarro all-star Davey Jones was next, just taking a leisurely stroll through some favorite poems, including excerpts from Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” and William Blake’s “The Tyger.” Nice to revisit some favorites, and it just goes to show how eclectic we are around here.
Now if somebody suggested you get off the couch on a Friday night to head to Philo to play Mad Libs, you probably wouldn’t do it. But slipped into the end of the Variety Show, with Seasha Robb and W. Dan Houck, it made perfect, goofy sense. Sure. Mad Libs. Of course.
The night’s finale was a mash up of musical styles, as BoonFire, currently the hardest working band in show business in Anderson Valley, kicked off their reggae rock beat, and Sarahs Larkin and Ryan (two-thirds of the Real Sarahs) slinked their way out of a stage prop hot tub and got to singing a clever-funny song about skinny dipping written by good ol’ Stevie D. Somehow, the Sarahs’ Andrews Sisters style harmonies worked perfectly with the BoonFire beat. I’m not sure how they pulled that off, but it was a swinging end to a fun first night.
Following a reprise of the jolly chaos of the bake-off, Saturday night started, after the bake-off reprise, with Lily Apfel’s always welcome singing and glass dancing routine. While singing “All About that Bass,” Lily clumps a drinking glass around a wood board to sound the rhythm, with some hand-clapping worked in. It’s impossible to describe it right, but it takes serious dexterity, and it’s cool.
A multi-family troupe, mostly of kids, was next, dressed in costume for the Middle Ages legend of the Spilt Vial. There were sword fights and celebrations and in the end the kingdom was saved forever by the magic vial falling down into the well. But what made it funny was adult picking up kids and carrying them on and off stage instead of their just walking. Why was this funny? I don’t know. But we were laughing like the dickens by the end. The rundown I got read, “Dreamed by Esther Shroeder-Levin, who played the queen. Written by Mira Bouch, who played Lady Lattor. Garnet Shaver and Onowa Kellner, warriors. Saoirse Byrne, couch potato. Eden Kellner, narrator. Tom Shaver and Michael Bouch moved the kiddos around.”
After the kids, there was music aplenty on Saturday night. A lot of people say they don’t like jazz, but there’s hardly anybody who doesn’t like a bunch of hot, swinging gypsy jazz. Uwe Jacobs came down from the mountain and brought his guitar and his wildly fast fingers and played Django Reinhardt’s “Minor Swing” and the lit the hall up.
As I mentioned earlier, the Variety Show opening was essentially politics free this year, and, in a real departure, even the Raging Grannies skipped the politics. Maybe it’s that things are so intense out there that nobody wanted to bring it into the Grange this year. Instead, the Grannies, wittily pretending to be rehearsing, reprised the Grand Dames’ message with an ode problems and wonders of aging, sung to the tune of “My Favorite Things.” They had me right from the start, when they rhymed “onions” with “bunions.”
The grand piano got played four times on Saturday night! Lynn Archambault played it with the Grannies. Then Brianna Tillman played a solo piece, a slowly expanding, expressive composition that drew me in quickly, and that I dove into. Local treasure Spencer Brewer closed out Saturday night’s first half with a playful, ragtime romp called “Sassy Sally.” And Gabriella Lena Frank, the maestro who came to the Valley a couple of years ago treated us to an improvisational Classical/Andean music fusion, shimmering swells of sound interspersed with introspective, somber passages that eventually sighed to a close.
Brianna, was followed by the one and only Mister Eleven (a.k.a. Ray Langevin), delivering his now well-known refrain, “Today is the day we talked about when we talked about this day.” Ray has been honing his routine for a while, and he is getting more laughs than ever with his observations about the way things change in a manner nobody can imagine beforehand. But, as Ray says, “5,000 years ago we all agreed to meet here on this day, and the day came, and we all showed up!”
Chris Skyhawk and the Hawkettes (Chris’ two young daughters), were after Ray to sing a folksong version of Dr. Seuss’ “The Lorax,” an anti-clear cutting song from back in the day. Who knows? Chris may soon be our singing Supervisor. He certainly sings and plays folk guitar quite well!
Chris and his kids were followed by Valerie Smith and Tom Pope sang a charming love song of Tom’s writing to each other. “It’s the Little Things that Mean a Lot.” I bet Tom’s got more songs for us to hear, but for now, it was endearing and uplifting to see their happiness with each other in that way.
Betsy & Beau, another musical couple, but with just a bit more professional polish, performed a pair of numbers just after intermission. The two have, in fact, been performing together for several years. Even their song of heartache, “Look What You’ve Done to the Sun,” was notably enjoyable for the duo’s fine singing and playing and clever wordplay. Nice!
The energy level just got higher when blues player Clay Hawkins, now a Variety Show regular hit the stage, this year with a trio. Andrew Robertson was the drummer, Jake Keller the bassist. Clay is still playing the blues of the thunder, rain and cypress swamps, and his sharply focused rhythm section made the music more intense.
Cuban singer/guitarist Marcos Pereda, joined by his partner, flutist Kristine Robin, easily maintained that level of intensity with a beautiful song dedicated to his mother, a Yoruba healer. The vocals, guitar and flute harmonies seemed to evoke Cuba and its people, even while we sat in Philo.
We took a break for some laughs, as stand-up comedian Chico Rich wondered whether Anderson Valley could use a few more wineries, and mused about the naming of the titmouse and the killdeer. Then Arthur Foltz brought his band Dork Side, starring Nate Bublitz, Keevan Labowitz and Jacob Hernandez, to the stage for a Tom Petty/Nirvana Star Wars spoof.
Local rapper KerG, was next, sailing across the stage, fluid in his lines and in his moves, rapid fire but in control. I would have loved to hear more. Boonville, hey!
The night was winding down, but not yet the energy level, as Michael and Leslie Hubbard, possessing of a wide breadth of international musical knowledge, took us back across the water, joined by their friend, Chris Bing. The trio gifted the audience with a Puerto Rican danza number, followed by a song from the Cape Verde Islands.
And finally, then it was time for the finale, and this year that honor was handed over to the Ukeholics. And what did they do? They went punk rock! It was Alice Woelfle handling the vocals for the Violent Femmes’ song, “Gone, Daddy, Gone.” They finished up with “You Are My Sunshine” which they gave a unusual tint by, I think (because I’m a non-musician, you know), performing in a minor key. Whatever it was, the crazy kids of the Ukeholics Tiny Orchestra made it just unpredictable enough to be a fitting ending to this 27th annual Variety Show. And by now, I’d forgotten my stressful Friday entirely. Long live the craziness, the emotion, the music and the fun. See everybody next year.