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Portland’s August occasions

The great playwright August Wilson takes the spotlight in Red Door's high-school monologues and PassinArt's gala and "Two Trains"

We’re in the middle of August Wilson Week in Portland, which is a very good place to be.

On Friday, PassinArt: A Theatre Company opens the great American playwright’s Two Trains Running at the Interstate Firehouse Center.

On Monday evening before a packed audience in the Newmark Theatre, the August Wilson Red Door Project held its fifth annual high school Monologue Competition, choosing two winners and an alternate to move on to the nationals at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway in New York.

On Saturday evening in a ballroom at the DoubleTree by Hilton near Lloyd Center, PassinArt celebrated its annual gala, Sweet Taste of the Arts, with a healthy crowd that included, among many others, Two Trains Running director William Earl Ray and the superb veteran actor J.P. Phillips, who is also riding the trains.

And with just a little patience, the August Wilson celebration extends: On May 2, Portland Playhouse will open its revival of his Pulitzer- and Tony-winning Fences. It’ll be the seventh of Wilson’s “American Century Cycle” of ten plays, each from a different decade of the 20th century, that the Playhouse has presented for Portland audiences – a gratifying and illuminating feat. Those plays – in addition to Two Trains Running and Fences they include Gem of the Ocean, Joe Turner’s Come and Gone, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Piano Lesson, Seven Guitars, Jitney, King Hedley II, and Radio Golf – constitute one of the great achievements of the American theater, and for that matter, of American literature and culture.

Wilson’s plays are vital historic documents, and they are still urgently current, as a story by Tracy Jan earlier this week in the Washington Post makes clear. Report: No progress for African Americans on homeownership, unemployment and incarceration in 50 years, it’s headlined, and it underlines both the disturbing intransigence of America’s racial divide and the continuing need for honest, revealing, compelling stories about ordinary life in all of the nation’s communities.

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Jump for joy: August Wilson monologue winners, from left: third place winner Alyssa Marchant, first place winner Noreena McCleave, second place winner Kai Tomizawa. Wade Owens Photography

Both the August Wilson Monologue Competition and PassinArt’s gala were intensely community events, art growing from the connections among place and people and time. Communities, of course, are both fluid and interlocking, and can be expanded or carried with you when you leave. In Wilson’s case it begins in the Hill District of Pittsburgh, the economically teetering but culturally vibrant African American/Jewish/Italian neighborhood where he grew up and where most of his plays are set. But really, it begins further back, on the slave ships, in the fields and plantation houses (his great and mystical character Aunt Ester is 285 years old when we first meet her in Gem of the Ocean, and lasts through several plays and about 60 more years beyond that), along the route of the Great Migration that brought so many emancipated but not fully free African Americans out of the rural South and into the urban North, bringing their hopes and songs and stories with them.

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Where sound meets vision

Eric Isaacson's Mississippi Records Music and Film Series unites the music film with live performance

Pick an art form, any art form: Eric Isaacson could give you an enlightening, hilarious impromptu lecture on it. The proprietor of the Mississippi Records store and its accompanying record label is an encyclopedia of cultural knowledge; music, yes, everything about music, but also visual art, literature, film, and all their cross-disciplinary fringes. Last year, the Hollywood Theatre wisely tapped his labyrinthine brain for the Mississippi Records Music and Film Series, a monthly event curated and hosted by Isaacson.

On January 22, the series kicked off its second year of programming with a screening of the 2004 documentary, Unknown Passage: The Dead Moon Story, a profile of Portland’s most venerated grassroots punk band.

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Mississippi Records Music and Film Series poster

In their day, Dead Moon (husband and wife team Fred and Toody Cole, plus drummer Andrew Loomis) was popular in the Pacific Northwest, but cultishly adored in Europe, where they were fervently embraced by the European festival scene as emblematic of a certain breed of fiercely individualistic, self-determined American artist. As an Austrian rock journalist explains in a broken English interview in the documentary, “No one who wants Dead Moon can buy Dead Moon.” They chose against affiliating themselves with an outside label – ever. Fred and Toody live in a rambling self-built house in the wilds of Clackamas. They infamously cut their own LPs on an ancient, precarious record lathe once owned by the Kingsmen.

The film, by Kate Fix and Jason Summers, explores the multifaceted musical career of two artists for whom ‘against the grain’ is a massive understatement. It’s the unlikely journey of four decades of Portland-based rock devotion, chronicling Fred’s roots as teenage rocker ‘Deep Soul Cole,’ to decades of psych/garage/bubblegum band involvement, to founding Dead Moon with Toody in the ‘80s as they both edged up on their 40th birthdays. By their own admission, they missed the Summer of Love – they were too busy homesteading and raising a passel of kids. When the kids were grown, they dove back into music, embracing stripped-down punk rock and the touring life. One of the most impressive things about Fred and Toody is how deftly they defy expectations about advancing age. As another European fan says in labored English, “They give me hope about being old. Because they are old, but they are still cool.”

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Toody rocks.

It’s also the tale of Toody’s inspiring transition from the stay-at-home wife of a rocker, to a reluctant stand-in bassist, to a musical force in her own right. A longtime friend describes her timidity on the stage in the early days of Dead Moon (and its precursor band, the Rats). But in Unknown Passage’s present-day footage, Toody out-Patti Smiths Patti Smith as a savage punk rock priestess, with a wiry frame, a snarl of dark hair and mesmerizing stage presence.

And finally, it’s a love story. Married couples are not exactly uncommon in rock, but it feels special to see creative chemistry that flourishes unabated over decades. Watching Fred and Toody, I was put in mind of another punk rock power couple: Lux Interior and Poison Ivy of the Cramps. Like the Cramps, Dead Moon lays its foundations on a lifelong love affair chiseled out of the living rock of art and performance. The Coles stand out as a pair of freaks whose freakishness completes one another, who fan one another’s creative flames into a towering inferno. Post-screening, they took the stage for a mellow two-person set, plucking highlights from their 40-odd years of musical collaboration to a sold-out crowd.

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Isaacson – photo by Jill Samish

I talked to Eric about his abiding love of Dead Moon, his plans for future installments of the Mississippi Records Film and Music Series, and his mainstream movie tastes:

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The Kingsmen play the FBI’s favorite song at the Oregon Historical Society. Credit: Kelsey M Curtis.

“Ladies and gentlemen, our national anthem,” proclaimed Kingsmen singer Dick Peterson as Thursday afternoon’s version of Portland’s legendary garage band exploded into the riff that launched a zillion dance moves of questionable sobriety. The band’s hit version of “Louie Louie” was recorded almost half a century ago a few blocks from the Oregon Historical Society’s Oregon History Museum, where this concert kicked off Oregon Rocks!, a retrospective exhibit surveying the history of the city’s music scene. The group for this performance included Phil Volk, of Paul Revere & the Raiders, who also recorded “Louie Louie” in the same Portland studio around the same time.The Kingsmen’s set was preceded by a deliciously lively and smooth performance by veteran Portland R&B singer Ural Thomas, who glided around the mike stand in OHS’s plaza under the afternoon sun like a musician a third his age. His voice sounded every bit as clear as it must have four decades ago when he was opening for the likes of Otis Redding and James Brown at Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theater, or before that with his 1950s Portland group, the Montereys.

Although I did get to hear Portland Mayor Sam Adams read a proclamation about Portland music, I had to miss later sets by Quasi and Pierced Arrows. But Thomas and the Kingsmen’s performances alone were worth the admission price, especially considering that the latter had no doubt played the rock standards (“Little Latin Lupe Lu,” “Money,” “Twist and Shout” etc.) in this set hundreds of times, and the drummer was apparently a last minute fill-in who had to make a quick duct tape repair of his drum head. The rockers delivered familiar chords with real enthusiasm and punch, and the crowd smiled appreciatively.

One of the broadest smiles adorned the visage of filmmaker Marc Moscato, the 35-year-old visionary behind Portland’s Dill Pickle Club, which spearheaded this tribute concert. I hereby nominate Moscato for honors in the Civic History category of the mythical Most Valuable Portlander Awards I think should be given out each year. (Admittedly, competition is stiff in that particular slot: the Architectural Heritage Foundation, writers Randy Gragg and Brian Libby, et al.)

Over the last couple years, Portland’s DPC has sponsored tours about Works Progress Administration-era art in Portland, where our food comes from, how the city works, the history of Old Town/Chinatown (in partnership with Friends of Portland Chinatown), where power comes from, and more. DPC has also created Oregon History Comics, published books (including Northwest Passage: 50 Years of Independent Music from the Rose City), started the PDX Re Print lecture series that celebrates out-of-print books about the city, and partnered with Portland public schools. The tours and events I’ve attended attracted participants across the age spectrum, with most probably in their 20s and 30s.

DPC and OHS deserve kudos for focusing this time on Oregon’s arts scene. And it underlines the importance of preserving, celebrating, and reactivating that history. Thanks to this event, I would pay money to hear Ural Thomas, who I missed during his Jumptown glory days, sing again, but history lives on even when its protagonists don’t. The extinct bands and performers showcased in OHS’s Oregon Rocks! deserve to be recognized because they brought joy and contemplation and pathos and dancing and so much more to thousands of Oregonians.

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