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Letters of Acceptance: One Chapter Closes, Another Opens

In some ways, “LOA 3”, the latest EP by Lexington rockers Letters of Acceptance, feels like a departure. Unlike the songs on prior releases “LOA 1” and “LOA 2,” which each had a consistent feel throughout, “LOA 3” shifts gears willy-nilly, jumping tonally from track to track. It gives the impression of late-era Beatles, when the band knew what it had earned musically and started to spend that coin with experimentation.

The surprising note, however, is that “LOA 3” is not the result of a shift in a new direction musically, but a planned final act in a trilogy of EPs that both caps off an era and starts down a new path. The first three songs on the release are the final songs recorded as part of the same process which produced the first two EPs – recordings cut at home by the core duo of singers/songwriters/band founders John Norris and Clint Newman.

L-R: John Norris (guitar/vocals); Scott Whiddon (bass); Clint Newman (guitar/vocals); Tim Welch (drums) – Photo by Andrew Brinkhorst

“John and I have been friends for a long time but spent a lot of time nowhere near each other geographically and periodically losing touch,” said Newman. “So the first batch of recordings, which was us holed up in an attic or basement, was like time we spent getting to know each other again. I loved spending that time with him, just working on our little project like it’s a secret.”

That process, recording a full project as a twosome (chronicled back near the end of the last decade here), produced nearly three EPs worth of music, culminating in “LOA 3.” Now, here’s where all the heavy-handed metaphors about endings and beginnings find their purchase: the kernel of change on “LOA 3” is the fourth track on the EP, “150 Ways to Play Solitaire,” in which Letters of Acceptance members drummer Tim Welch and bassist Scott Whiddon get in on the action.

In other words, after nearly three EPs as a duo, now witness the firepower of this fully armed and operational rock’n’roll band. Also, the…sorta goofiness, since “150 Ways…” seems to be rooted in how much fun one band can have recording a tune (and, hey, the Kinks made a career out of this).

“It is a decade-plus-old song that Clint and I made a home recording of long ago, then we re-recorded it with Scott and Tim in a recording studio with Otto Helmuth. So it is the first recording to introduce the full band, yet is also our oldest (and perhaps silliest) song,” said Norris.

The song would be an outlier on any other album, but it fits here on an EP where every song is an outlier, and the musical jumps could give one whiplash. The third track is “Zip Up Your Pockets,” which starts as something of a bleak meditation and then builds to an epic finale, right before “150 Ways to Play Solitaire” cuts in with a Beatles-esque goofy zeal, complete with an intro whistle solo.

“It’s really fun to be in a band that can put such a silly song next to something far more somber like ‘Zip Up’. I think that’s part of what we want to do – have freedom to go in lots of different directions, nor worry about some kind of sound or concept….” said Norris.

“Part of the reason we settled on our band name was because from the beginning of this project, we decided that we weren’t going to lay an overall concept on the sound and instead just trust that whatever comes naturally to us will be good,” said Newman. “Try and work quickly, though not necessarily in a rush.  Accept (!) whatever comes up and run with it.”

Scott Whiddon (bass); Tim Welch (drums)- Photo by Andrew Brinkhorst

Those instincts serve the band well, and the evident enjoyment had by all on the final track portends what may be an even more fully realized musical vision. To date, there have really been two versions of Letters of Acceptance – Newman and Norris recording alone, and the full band playing the tunes live in a flurry of shows from houses to festivals.  Now, with “LOA 3”, these entities have merged into a single recording band. 

“I think that we’ve grown to trust each other more and to listen to each other as players and writers,” said Whiddon, of the evolution of the group. “What hasn’t really changed – maybe deepened or grown? – is that we like each other’s company.  We get each other’s jokes.  And we can kinda predict each other a bit more now, and that’s great.”

LOA with engineer/producer Otto Helmuth (center) – Photo by Andrew Brinkhorst

This new unit brings about new possibilities but, for now, the recording process retains the same ethos: keep plugging away without looking back.

“I think some bands write songs and “workshop” them by playing them live a lot before recording, so that they really understand what the song can do. That makes sense,” said Newman. “But the other approach that bands often take, and that we’re taking, is to write the songs, work them up just enough so we can record basic tracks, and try to capture the magic that happens when a song is still really fresh.  After playing something live a lot, it can get a bit stale quickly, and that’s what you don’t want when you’re recording.”

“I think we just want to keep recording while the material is coming and keep trying to capture it while it’s fresh,” said Norris. “Then maybe in the summer we’ll start figuring out how to shape it all together.”

Contributing writer Brian Powers is a freelance writer, bassist, legal writer and amateur home remodeler originally from Clearwater, Florida. He lives in Lexington with his wife and at least four children, and his favorite band is Def Leppard, for which he refuses to apologize. 

Top photo by Andrew Brinkhorst.

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Arts Tasting Menu

Hand-cut cultural delicacies from the Bluegrass region and beyond.

More worthwhile museum shows in the region.

Appetizer

Picasso: From  Antibes to Louisville. KMAC Museum, Louisville. Through March 22nd, 2020.

About fifty of the artist’s works in ceramics and on paper from the Musée Picasso in Antibes, France, are exhibited for the first time outside of Europe. Might be wise to purchase advance tickets for this one.

Entree

Something Over Something Else: Romare Bearden’s Profile Series. Cincinnati Art Museum. February 28th through May 24th, 2020.

Romare Bearden (1911–1988), United States, Profile/Part I, The Twenties: Mecklenberg County, Miss Bertha and Mr. Seth, 1978, collage on board, Collection of Susan Merker. © Romare Bearden Foundation/VAGA at Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo by Paul Takeuchi.

The work of African-American artist, writer, and composer is featured in this important exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum. One of America’s greatest collagists, this exhibition features thirty collages from Bearden’s Profile Series, which is both autobiographical and also addresses the scope of the African-American experience in this country.

Dessert

Loose Nuts: Bert Hurley’s West End Story. Speed Art Museum, Louisville. Through April 19th, 2020.

Bert Hurley (American, 1898–1955), Loose Nuts: A Rapsody in Brown, 1933. Pen and black ink, brush and black ink, crayon, watercolor, and graphite on wove paper.

Louisville artist Bert Hurley was know almost exclusively within the African-American community. He was known in Louisville’s West End as a talented visual artist and musician. Much of his work has been lost but this exhibition features a handwritten and illustrated novella which takes place in the vibrant West End of the 1930’s.

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John Brooks Unknows Through Painting and Poetry

When visiting John Brooks’s studio on Lytle Street, one must pass through several rooms before arriving at the inner sanctum of Brooks’s creative practice. First, one enters the ground floor of the Lytle Street building, an industrial warehouse in the Portland neighborhood of Louisville. Then, up the stairs to the second floor, one finds a cluster of different studio spaces occupied by the loose collective of artists who, like Brooks, occupy Lytle Street, among them Letitia Quesenberry, Chris Radtke, Denise Furnish, Dominic Guarnaschelli, Rosalie Rosenthal, and Jacob Heustis. Through a foyer of second-hand furniture and down the hall, there is a door to the first location of Quappi Projects.

Brooks founded this gallery in 2017 with the aim of furthering the artistic conversation amongst artists and art-lovers in Louisville. Named after the affectionate nickname of painter Max Beckmann’s second wife Quappi (a derivation of Kaulquappe, German for “tadpole”), Quappi Projects hosted numerous exhibitions at Lytle Street before moving during the summer of 2019 to its current space on Market Street. Brooks now operates Quappi Projects out of Market Street and continues his studio practice on Lytle. There, tucked within the bright, white-walled space of the former Quappi Projects, one finds a curtain. And behind that curtain is Brooks’s studio: an enclave for his paintings, collages, easels, and gathered sources of inspiration.

John Brooks, studio view.

As an artist Brooks is at home with the unknown, the ambiguous, the subtle, and the fleeting. His education had various chapters, from studying politics at the University at Charleston, to studying art at the Central St. Martins College of Art & Design and the Hampstead School of Art while living in London, England. The most lasting conceptual impact, however, came from his time spent visiting Berlin over the years and a summer spent studying under the figurative painter Norbert Bisky in 2015 at Berlin’s AUTOCENTER Summer Academy. Brooks’s admiration for Germanic artistic influences and Germany’s sensitivity to its own dark history finds its way into many aspects of his practice. He often returns to the Max Beckmann quote: “All important things in art have always originated from the deepest feeling about the mystery of Being.” He explains, “I came across that quote some years ago and it stuck with me because that is how I look at the world. We understand a lot, but there is also so much that we don’t understand. Or can’t comprehend…I aim to imbue my work with that sense of unknowing. My creative impulses come from that place, and from a place of longing or missing. There’s a great German word for this feeling: Sehnsucht.”

Brooks’s promotion of expansive thinking connects to his work in curation (as the director of Quappi Projects he steers the gallery’s exhibition program), and to his interest in poetry. He describes himself as “a person who writes constantly in my head as I move throughout the day.” Though it felt natural for him to eventually connect his painting to his poetry practice, the result was nonetheless transformative. The titles for his most recent body of paintings are all drawn from his poetry. His series of work, “A Map of Scents,” on view at Moremen Gallery during the summer of 2019, employs this strategy of poetically titling his pictures, as well as a fresh aesthetic that Brooks explains came from integrating his process of collage-making into his painting. Brooks previously felt he could create more freely in the medium of collage, without the historical weight of painting upon him. He had a breakthrough moment when he realized he could combine his collage and painting techniques: “After nearly a decade of almost exclusively creating expressive faces, my painting practice had reached a standstill. I did not see a way forward until it occurred to me to utilize my collages—during the making of which I do not suffer from compositional frustrations—to help facilitate composition in my painting. Through this change in method and approach I feel unbounded.”

Whereas in recent years a dreamy haziness surrounded Brooks’s figures, in his most recent works he articulates a more defined aesthetic of modeling people in light touches of black paint, with striking clarity in their gazes. These newer figures reside in a world of free-floating images pulled from magazines, websites, social media, and gestural textures of paint.

John Brooks, You Were a Night Owl But it Doesn’t Matter, 47 x 39.5 inches.

Collage allows for unexpected juxtapositions. We see this in the layering of eyes, body, faces, and limbs in Brooks’s paintings, as well as distinct swaths of color: a zone of pink, a backdrop of green, an abstracted touch of olive. Collage’s unprescribed form also allows for the use of empty space. Brooks compares the deliberate, blank areas of his canvases to the restraint used in poetry. “Good poetry says the most it can with as few words as necessary,” he reminds us. As readers we must fill in the gaps between words, accordingly there are unpainted areas between the images in Brooks’s paintings. These gaps allow the poetic elements to breathe.

John Brooks, Dark Breakfast, 47 x 39.5 inches.

This “push and pull” between the extravagance of oil painting and the discipline of poetry parallels another abiding question in Brooks’s work: how much narrative and explicit (i.e., political) content to include? While the meanings of his paintings might seem open-ended to his viewers, for Brooks the politically motivated inspiration for the work is clear. He cites making works about subjects as diverse as the legacy of World War II (Hürtgen Forest; Berlin is a Dirty Mirror), spousal abuse (Elizabeth in the Same Hour), polyamory (An Abyss of Thighs), and the consequences of queer sexuality in our culture (Constant State of New Sorrows (Orlando Boldewijn)). In the Boldewijn painting, Brooks captures the tragedy surrounding his subject’s death in the penetrating melancholy of Boldewijn’s eyes. Only nineteen years old, the Dutch teenager Boldewijn was found murdered in 2018 following a Grindr date. Violence experienced by young queer men carries a personal significance for Brooks, who lost a friend in 2014 under circumstances to similar to Boldewijn’s (foul play following a Grindr date). Brooks explains that the name “Orlando” also reminds him of the horrific mass shooting in 2016 at the gay nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida. While friends and family inspire many of Brooks’s themes, not all the subjects in his painting and poetry are autobiographically inspired. Some works (and texts) speak more generally to the state of our country, society, and the environment, aspiring to the time-honored tradition of the artist articulating universal truths.

Studio view with Constant State of New Sorrows (Orlando Boldewijn) in foregound.

Brooks’s calculations in deciding what to reveal and not reveal through the titles and content of his work reminds me of contemporary painter Keltie Ferris’s approach to sharing parts of her queer identity. (Ferris, coincidentally, was also raised in Kentucky.) Regarding her body prints she explained, “There is something about disclosing and not disclosing, or revealing or not revealing: the unfolding…You see everything, but you don’t. That kind of controlled unfurling is queer.”

Growing up in Frankfort, Kentucky, Brooks describes espousing “a certain timidity as a way to cope and make my way through small town life in Kentucky in the 80s.” As a practicing artist, however, he argues that his work “has never been apologetic.” It’s all there for those who care to probe deeper. He describes wanting to take his stance further, saying, “Moving forward with my practice I plan to continue integrating politics and political ideas and current events into my work, but I want to do it in a way so that the work functions in a variety of ways, that it touches not just on ideas of politics but also ideas of art, too.”

Paul Valéry once described poetry as a “language within a language.” Poets nestle ideas into words in ways that defy literal and succinct description. Continuing with my Russian doll theme of rooms within rooms and languages within languages, I’d like to conclude by calling attention to micro-passages of paint that Brooks pointed out to me within his paintings. Within his newest works he inserts shapes and color that are influenced by the painters he admires. “I am thinking about specific artists when I’m pondering colors,” he explains. “Max Beckmann and Marlene Dumas with black, Cy Twombly and Ferdinand Hodler with white, Kirchner with purple and green (and Hockney) and Peter Doig, Matisse and Guston with pinks.” Floating within the paintings Bisky Says Joy Comes from the Action and The Collectors are small, variegated strokes of color comprising green leaves, crafted in the style of David Hockney. It’s a quiet, knowing gesture, an intimacy born of looking and (as Bisky says) joy.

The following three poems by John Brooks are published here for the first time, on UnderMain:


November

Morning is ministry,
birdsong homiletic.

Finespun bruise
of autumn on this

newest day. You slip
into a susurrus

of fog, become
indigenous, mute

to the now.
Leaves are lime

of Osage orange,
drop without

gasping. In rain
this slope is slick,

full of snakes aching
not to be seen

scraping in the dregs
of summer’s last

honey. Heron, Snowy
egret, Sandhill crane

forage and hover
as a trio in a shy

pond. Departing geese
are a cadent scene

in four acts. You exult
in the urgent quality

of this dying light.
Tomorrow is already

another goodbye, almost
the deep black lake

of November when
winds get wild,

hailstones cover
the road, and dark

is a song stuck
in your head

or the mood
as you head

to the polls.


Alarm

Wojnarowicz said
what’s happening

now is cause for
alarm. And that

was then. We
are even more

entrenched
in our comfort

now. You know
where I live out

in the middle
of nowhere

all sunsets look
like bad paintings.

My kids think
I’m pretty

at least. I float
on blue song.

Joni resisted
guile, gave into

vivid Ellingtonia.
She was nocturnal;

for me morning
is always a hymnal

but by midday
I remember

who we are. Empires
collapse out of fear.

It’s uniform in a Kubrick,
it’s uniform in a Hitchcock.
I can’t get the monarch
to agree; he’s after

milkweed, goldenrod;
a guest in my garden

or is it the other
way around?

Who belongs
and who leaves

and who remains.
Even friendships

sour into
oblivion

so of course
a culture does.

This is kind of
an old story

but we thought
ourselves immune.

Our coal trucks, our
cobalt plunderings;

we have cornered
ourselves into erasure.

Rockets red glare
in an elephant eye.

Rain hopes to be oil,
oil hopes to be oilier.

I don’t think
the future will be

careful with us.
The present, obviously

not. Today we are
weeping; tomorrow

we are empty.
Where I live

a monarch is a
summer thing.

To summer is
a moonview

of twilight.
David said

keep close
to dark so

it can’t
surprise or

he might
have if he

had lived.


Elizabeth in the Same Hour

In a forest daylight is
melodrama, distance

a drawback. Here is this
photograph of Elizabeth

in the same hour, head
encircled by hair as

black as wood char.
She called herself

an Indian, hesitated
to marry. Marriages

are the regrets
of spooky girls.

What tribe had
she wed? Bill

spoke to horses,
came on foot

from Missouri, drank
too much, went blind

from bile. She learned
how good touch

and bad touch
were parallel

but never touched.
Her children seized

the river in her
and gave it one

noiseless dress.
She kept it spotless,

whether in town
or picnicking.
For generations,
her women had known

how to silo scars
and trespasses;

they understood
just how to manage

difficulties. Disappointments
were chiseled into and out

of their lore. Her own
mother liked to say

she looked beyond
weather to commune

with a musical future.
After Bill, she could see

in total darkness
while carrying only

a vacant lantern.

All Photo Credits: Miranda Lash

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The Spirit of Gurdjieff Lives on in Two Guitars

Bert Lams has come to recognize the look. It’s the one he receives when audience patrons think they know what is in store once he initiates a concert with fellow guitarist Fabio Mittino.

“It’s funny,” the Belgian-born Lams remarked. “Being a guitar duo brings a connotation for people that what we do is always going to be about ‘guitar music.’ They expect to hear flamenco, Spanish guitar music or some kind of virtuoso music. What we do is totally the opposite of that.

“You’ll see it when we start our first piece. You can see the surprise on people’s faces. They have no idea. ‘What is this? What are they doing? This is not what we expected.’ I enjoy that because it still draws people in, but in a different way, from a different angle. A lot of that has to do with where this music comes from. It was created under special circumstances in difficult times. It is very spiritual music with a lot of folklore elements mixed in.”

The Gurdjieff connection
What distinguishes Lams and Italian guitarist Mittino from other duos and ensembles – even the celebrated California Guitar Trio, which Lams has toured and recorded with extensively for nearly three decades – is the source material. The core of the duo’s repertoire revolves around G.I. Gurdjieff, a journeyman whose music was as diverse as the many occupational hats he juggled.

Born from Russian, Armenian and Greek descent, Gurdjieff was, at various times, a merchant, author, philosopher, spiritual teacher, mystic and more. He wasn’t a composer in any traditional sense. Instead, he absorbed songs, melodies and meditations throughout travels in Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East in much the same way ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax did in collecting tunes of mid-19th century folk music in rural America.

Lomax preserved the music he found through field recordings. Gurdjieff stored what he heard in his head, then hummed or plucked out single-string recitations on guitar to one of his most trusted proteges, Russian composer Thomas de Hartmann. Much of that music was then “composed” for piano. What Lams and Mittino did, at the latter’s suggestion, was rework it for two guitars.

“Gurdjieff was not a musician,” Lams said. “Still, everything he touched turned to gold. He could sell carpets at the market early in the morning. He could open a restaurant. He was a great businessman, but was also a teacher. He wrote books. He could kind of do anything he wanted, really.

“His father was a professional storyteller. I think that’s where the nature of this music comes from. His father had it in his blood, that oral tradition. He did not write any of these stories down. They were passed on from one person to another. That was his job. I think Gurdjieff inherited some of that gift.

“When he went on his travels, he was able to somehow memorize these melodies and hum them to de Hartmann. There were Aremenian songs, Egyptian songs, Syrian songs. There were these different songs from all over the East. We play a lot of those.”

Movimenti
So what does the resulting music sound like? Well, on “Movimenti,” a newly released second album of Gurdjieff/de Hartmann music by Mittino and Lams (the first, “Long Ago,” came out in 2016), the guitar sound is subtle yet exotic with a strong Eastern accent. It is delicately dance-like but powerfully emotive. And short. The duo glides through 11 compositions on the recording in under 20 minutes.

“Yes, these are short pieces. Most of the ones on the second album are designed for movement. There is sort of a dance choreography that Gurdjieff came up with. Fabio and I experienced this last summer. We were invited to Greece to play for participants at a ten-day seminar where they studied these movements every day. They kept repeating these pieces as they studied the movements. Some were repeated for half an hour. Most were played on piano and were played a lot slower.

“Since we’re guitar players, we make this music more of an adaptation for the guitar. It just seems to sound better when it’s played a little faster on the guitar. On piano, you can play one note and it can ring forever. Not on guitar. On guitar, the note is played and it is over, so we have to kind of play it a little bit differently and adapt it somewhat. That’s why most of those pieces are played faster.

“This music is like a painting. It takes me to a place, but I think it also speaks to people in a way that is simpler, a way that is more innocent, than Gurdjieff’s teachings. Even if people don’t know anything about the music, you can tell that it speaks to them when we play it. You can tell that there is something that touches them in the melodies. There is a lot of emotion in this music, a lot of longing.”

Enter Fabio
Lams’ journey to Gurdjieff landed him in two countries before the alliance with Mittino began. In 1987, Lams made his first visit to the United States to take part in a course called Guitar Craft overseen by King Crimson founder Robert Fripp. The studies took him to Claymont Court in West Virginia, a mansion that was (and still is) home to the Claymont Society, which offers retreats centered largely around the teachings of Gurdjieff.

While Lams was focused on Guitar Craft, the Claymont Society and the grounds it called home remained a profound inspiration for a young guitarist just getting introduced to America. Ironically, Lams and Mittino will perform at Claymont Court only two nights after a January 15th concert at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café in Frankfort.

“That’s where it all started for me. It was a big thing, coming to America for the first time, not knowing what I was in for. This country changed my life. Now I live here and work here.”

But it was while residing in England that Mittino entered the picture. Hoping to also become a Guitar Craft student, he reached out directly to Fripp. While courses at the time were unavailable, Fripp referred the Italian instrumentalist to Lams for lessons. That led to an extended friendship, professional alliance and a fascination with Gurdjieff.

“Fabio is about 20 years younger than I am,” Lams said. “He is actually the one who instigated this whole project on the music of Gurdjieff because he had already been arranging it for solo guitar. He made an album of the music and asked me to write something in the liner notes. But I think he felt it would sound a lot better in a duo because some parts were missing with one guitar. That’s when he started having the idea of playing this music with me.”

Gurdjieff in the house
The majority of the performances during the brief tour Mittino and Lams are undertaking this month – a series of nine shows in ten days – are house concerts. The Frankfort outing at the Coffeetree Café, where Lams has played several times before with Mittino as well as with the California Guitar Trio, is one of the few exceptions. But the café’s atmosphere, he said, very much possesses the proper living room atmosphere.

“The house concerts are a perfect situation for this music, because they are very intimate and very much like at the Coffeetree where people are in a smaller space. They’re close by, close up. There is no division of stage and lighting system and sound and all that. We’re in the same space, so we hear what the audience hears and they hear exactly what we hear. Normally, when we do a regular concert with the trio in a larger room or a theatre, for instance, you’re in a separate space than the audience. It’s much easier to connect with the audience with a house concert because you’re right there in the same room.

“The house concerts are like heaven for me. When there are just 20 or 30 people there listening closely to you, it’s special. It’s special every night.”

Fabio Mittino and Bert Lams perform at 7 p.m. on January 15th at the Kentucky Coffeetree Café, 235 W. Broadway in Frankfort. Admission is $20. Call 502-875-3009. For reservations, go to www.kentuckycoffeetree.com.