Thursday, December 29, 2011

In Den Haag

The venue for Baby Dee’s show on December 17th in den Haag (which in English we call The Hague, and is much easier to pronounce than the Dutch) was Paard van Troje (Trojan Horse), site of the State X–New Forms Festival. I have been trying all this time to figure out why it is called Paard van Troje . . . The entrance is deceptive: you go up a flight of stairs to what looks like a grand old town house on Prinsengracht, a wide street with a trolley running along it, knock on the door, and nobody answers. (I was early.) I entered through the stage door, around the corner, and was led down a hall and through a door and along a ramp behind a screen, on the other side of which was … Baby Dee!

Dee and the band were in the midst of their sound check. For this gig, Dee had reassembled some of the musicians who played with her at the Holland Festival, two years ago: the drummer Alex Neilsen, from Glasgow, and the bassist Joe Carvell, from Coventry, as well as the cellist Matthew Robinson, who had come from Brooklyn earlier that week and rehearsed with Dee in Rotterdam. (Dee will do a show in Rotterdam on January 24th, which will include an exhibit of work by Christina de Vos, who did the wonderful snail paintings for “Regifted Light.”) The performance space at the Trojan Horse was decorated with white tuffets that looked like big marshmallows and smaller black tuffets that looked like licorice Dots. There were also black and white dots on the floor. Dee lamented that she had not worn her Dalmatian pants. There was a piano at stage right and the harp at stage left. Dee’s inestimably valuable friend and producer Richard Guy, of Tin Angel, had driven all the way from Coventry with the harp and the bass.

Dee was not playing till 11 P.M. I had thought we would explore den Haag and have dinner somewhere before the show (den Haag was cute; I especially liked the garden houses that I saw from the train on the way there, and the outdoor cafés featuring tiny braziers in glass cases), but the festival organizers had other ideas, and the musicians and their friends were escorted across the street to an upper room, where caterers had set up a buffet. Afterward, we kept Dee company in her dressing room upstairs at the Paard van Troje: Christina, her friends Hans and Marleen (who maintains Dee’s Web site), Matthew, Rich, and me. Dee was sharing the dressing room with Jóhann Jóhannsson, whose group the Apparat Organ Quartet, from Iceland, plays all sorts of organs, really LOUD. Dee did her makeup at a mirror surrounded by light bulbs. She drew on eyebrows. She put on blush from a kit with a tiny brush. She sprayed stuff in her hair, brushed it upside down, teased it a little, and, still upside down, drew it up with a comb on either side: when she stood, her hair looked like the fabulous red plumage of some mythological bird.

“I’m going to struggle into my outfit,” Dee said. Baby Dee has lately been taken up by the fashion world—before leaving Europe, she would be playing at a party for Fiorucci, in Milan—and her outfit consisted of layers and layers of dyed tutus and a pair of velvety black high heels. “Rotterdam,” she said, showing them off. She also had a new hot-pink fake-fur hooded jacket, made for her by Christina’s mom, Anneliese de Vos, a.k.a. Mrs. Foxy. It literally stops traffic—at least bicycle traffic (remember, we were in Holland).

“Do you have a set list?” I asked.

“A set list!” Dee said. I tore a few sheets out of a notebook and gave her a pencil, and she consulted with Rich about what to play. She would start with the accordion, then go to the piano and do “Brother Slug and Sister Snail,” finishing with "The Pie Song," before moving to the harp to do a set-within-the-set with Matthew on the cello, and then go back to the piano. She included several songs from “Safe Inside the Day,” because “people like them,” she said. She decided against some longer ones from “A Book of Songs for Anne Marie,” because the set could last only an hour. She was going to end with “The Earlie King,” and I had to bite my tongue, because that’s a scary song, and I have a weakness for the silly, stupid songs, but nobody asked me, and "The Earlie King" is a great song, certainly one of the best on the new live CD, “Baby Dee Goes Down to Amsterdam,” which was for sale in the lobby. (It sold out.)

Showtime! More friends of Christina’s had arrived, and my friend Ella, from Amsterdam, came with her niece, and we all perched on tuffets. Dee entered in her tutu and heels, and played a beautiful show. The set list had evolved until the last minute. I realized that Dee’s choice of instruments (bass, cello, drums) brings out the darkness in her music, though the drummer, Alex, has a wonderful feathery touch. The audience grew as she played; we had to move our tuffets to make room behind us. The sound system was great—very sensitive—and so was the lighting, from big aluminum cones, like outsized reading lamps. Dee played an encore, ending with “Teeth Are the Only Bones That Show,” and made her exit in her stocking feet, then came back to reclaim her shoes. (She had to take them off to work the pedals on the harp.) By the finish, her hair had shaken loose and she looked gorgeous.

When it was over, we partied until the wee hours, first in the Trojan Horse and then in the hotel, and the next day we all went down to Amsterdam.

Thanks to Marcel Musters (above, with Dee and me) for letting us stay in his place, and for the video shown here (shot in New York on Christmas Day). Here are some pictures taken by the official photographer for the festival (note Nos. 20-25).

Happy New Year! And Happy Birthday to Dee!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

In Dutch

Somehow it had escaped my notice that the festivities surrounding the celebration of the hundredth birthday of the artist known as Ele D’Artagnan at Post I Perdu, a theatre belonging to a poetry foundation (adjoining a bookshop dedicated to poetry in many languages) in the university neighborhood of Amsterdam, would be in Dutch. Three large works by D’Artagnan floated against black velvet drapes while Ella Arps, owner of the gallery Arps & Co., which handles his work in the Netherlands, led the audience through his incredibly colorful life “on the margins of La Dolce Vita.” Ella has absorbed the biographical details as well as anyone: how the child born an orphan in Venice and given the name Michele Stinelli rented a room in the home of Pietro Gallina, in the ancient Forum of Rome; acted in films by Fellini; painted; pursued the question of his parentage (mother, of the Lombardi family, a harpist with La Scala; father unknown but believed by D’Artagnan to be Toscanini); died homeless in Rome; and, through the efforts of Pietro, his lifelong friend, came to be represented at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and to underwrite a school in Savador de Bahia. Although the artist has yet to be recognized in Italy, celebrations of his centenary went forward on three continents: in Amsterdam and Limburg, Germany; in New York and Chicago; and in Salvador de Bahia, Brazil.

In Amsterdam, two poets read, in Dutch, which sounded easier to understand in verse than in conversation. One of them was a young man with a bottle of beer who accepted as a stipend a photograph of D’Artagnan reproduced on metal. It was lovely to see people crowding to get up close to the paintings, which are full of charming, minuscule details. Ella introduced me as a collector. Just for the record, I am not a collector, though I am the proud of owner of a drawing that D’Artagnan did on a matchpack.

My stay in the Netherlands began at dawn yesterday (I am not sure of the exact time of sunrise in Amsterdam so near the winter solstice, but it was raining when I arrived and stayed dark until about ten in the morning) and continues tonight in The Hague at a concert by Baby Dee to celebrate her CD, “Baby Goes Down to Amsterdam,” a live recording of a concert that took place during the Holland Festival in June, 2009. I think you could say that D’Artagnan and Baby Dee are both outsider artists, in that they are more celebrated outside their own lands.