Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Divide by Matt Taibbi - Book Review

Matt Taibbi's new book The Divide:American Justice in the Age of the Wealth Gap (Random House; Spiegal & Grau, 2014, 448 pages, $27.00) is certain to make you angry, whatever side of the political spectrum you inhabit. The simple thesis of the book is that America's justice system is deeply divided along lines of race, culture, class, and (most of all) wealth into two distinct groups receiving distinctly different treatment at the hands of the police, the courts, and the political system. The genius of the book is how Taibbi hammers home his evidence to build an overwhelming indictment of not only injustice the system, but how much it costs all of us in lost opportunity and wealth. Taibbi builds his case by being a terrific story teller. He takes the reader into the homes, the offices, and courts with riveting interviews and loads of solidly compiled evidence to evoke, at first, some disbelief, but ultimately a deep conviction that something is wrong here, and we need to become outraged enough to do something about it. The reader is left, like Howard Beale in the Paddy Cheyevsky/Sidmey Lumet Film Network, leaning out the window screaming, “I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take any more!”

Taibbi develops his premise by telling, in alternating chapters, stories about the poor, mostly black and Hispanic people, who are systematically treated with disrespect and humiliating injustice by the police, the courts, and the government with examples from the world of banking and high finance in which the institutions are deemed “too big to fail” and neither institutions nor individuals are seriously punished for their frauds (for crimes of fraud they certainly are) because of a doctrine of possible “collateral damage” to the innocent developed by Eric Holder when he served in the Attorney General's office under President Bill Clinton. Don't let Eric Holder's name set your heart a-pounding, though, as both Democrats and Republicans, including each of our last three Presidents, come in for their well-deserved share of the blame for the current shameful situation.

Taibbi asks the reader to consider the question of why some criminals go free while others committing “the same crime suffer the full weight of the states' power?” He argues that through the 1980's and 1990's the Justice Department had brought criminal charges against Boesky, Milkken, Keating and others as well as bank fraud cases against Drexel Burnham Lambert, Suisse Bank, and Bankers' Trust. More than 800 people were sent to jail as a result of the savings and loan crisis. Eric Holder's, at the time little noticed, 1999 memo urges prosecutors to consider the “collateral consequences” (that is the possible damage to innocent employees and stock holders caught up in the crimes of corporations and individuals within the corporations) might have. Combined with globalization and the “too big to fail” doctrine, this memo made attaining more convictions increasingly difficult. In the Obama administration, this difficulty combined with a deep concern about bringing cases that would be difficult and time consuming to win in which the weak became the object of prosecution leading to jail time, while the powerful either paid fines or were left alone. In stunning detail, Taibbi tells the story of the massive fraud perpetrated against the public by the sale of Lehman Brothers to Barclay Bank, in which hundreds of billions of dollars where lost while individual bankers were richly rewarded without risk. Meanwhile, the prosecutors preen at jailing Bernie Madoff while the banks who cooperated in his fraud go scot free.

The other side of the equation is represented by a number of individuals who become victims of either the mindless or vicious application of the criminal and civil justice system to the poor and powerless. We see the effect of New York City's stop and frisk law on the poor and the black. People merely minding their own business talking to friends on the street encounter teams of police who jam them against walls and, if they find no incriminating evidence, manufacture it to obtain an arrest and fill out their citation books' quotas. Once in “the system,” they are subjected to the mindless indignities of lazy, tired judges and overworked, cynical public defenders. The system works to keep people, even those with jobs and homes, from meeting their responsibilities, leading to their being fired and even more unable to pay too large fines for being, perhaps, in the wrong place at the wrong time. While “collateral consequences” were being recognized for massive corporate misdeeds, the consequences of wholesale arrests on the families and lives of poor people were never considered in a country with over 2,000,000 people in jail, many in profit-making private prisons whose congressional lobby is one of the most powerful in Washington, D.C. Placing the two systems of “Justice” side-by-side points to an inequity in society which always benefits the white and the wealthy. The reader must sit by in disgust at the waste and inefficiency of the systematic flaws, while lives with some hope in them are ruined for behavior that would be overlooked if the perpetrator were white or lived in the suburbs.

The only way to understand the chaos of the courts and police system or the failure to achieve justice in the world of banking and finance is through an anecdotal approach, which Taibbi has mastered. His accounts of the plight of undocumented workers and even a corporate whistle blower whose life is nearly destroyed by pointing out Chase bank's fraud in mortgage foreclosures fills the reader with a realization of the hopelessness, weariness, boredom, and desperation of the residents, police, lawyers, and judges caught in a system relying on phony data. Meanwhile, the defendants in the Gen Re and AIG cases go umpunished because of mercy pleas to a credulous judge. Taibbi, because of his skill as a story teller, puts a human face on the undocumented immigrants seeking only to find work and their American born children who become “collateral damage.” Taibbi says, the “nasty anti-social behavior of Wall Street crooks went almost completely unpunished: the system failed due to a combination of corruption, regulatory capture, pusillanimity of government officials, structural biases in the civil courts, and other causes.” Taibbi argues that the only way to fully understand the differences in the way fraud is treated across the divide is to see the way different people across the social scale are treated. He presents so many well-documented and researched examples that they become overwhelming.

Matt Taibbi

Matt Taibbi is an American author and journalist writing on politics, the media, finance, and sports for Rolling Stone and Men's Journal. We grew up in Boston and was educated at Concord Academy and Bard College. His writings have been seen as somewhat controversial. He lives in New Jersey.

With the publication of The Divide: American Justice in the Ageof the Wealth Gap (Random House; Spiegal & Grau, 2014, 448 pages, $27.00) Matt Taibbi seems to have developed an increased maturity in his analysis and presentation. While his writing may be seen by some as sometimes overheated hyperbole, for the most part his outrage is controlled, his reasoning well-supported, and the case he develops deeply convincing. His argument that there is a deep divide between rich and poor, black and white in the American systems of criminal and civil justice seems incontrovertible. The Divide was provided to me as an electronic galley by the publisher through Edelweiss. I read in on my Kindle.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

HoustonFest 2014 - Preview

HoustonFest will take place on May 2 - 3, 2014 at Felt Park in Galax, VA. Unlike any other festival we attend, HoustonFest is a celebration of the life of Houston Caldwell expressing this dedication through its commitment to youth and young people's music. Houston Caldwell was only nineteen when his life was cut off in a motorcycle accident while returning from having competed in the banjo contest at Merlefest. In his short life he had made friends throughout the bluegrass world, been an active member of the Galax Fire Department, and had just completed Army basic training. All these commitments are on full display at HoustonFest. But HoustonFest is far from being a glum or sad occasion. Rather, it is a celebration of Houston's life through music, song, dance, and performance, all with an emphasis on developing young musicians who will be both in the forefront of national performers and remain the background of bluegrass and traditional music through their participation in local jams and events. As is fitting for this storied location, HoustonFest celebrates both bluegrass and old-time music in many manifestations.

Houston Caldwell

The HoustonFest team, including members of Houston's family and many local organizers, has announced a number of Special Events for this year's HoustonFest. The winners of 2013 Scholarships will be presented in a special showcase.

2013 Scholarship Winners

Take a look at the breadth and comprehensiveness of the Houston Caldwell Scholarship Program here. Another featured project will be the Close Kin: Our Roots Run Deep, blending elements of old-time and bluegrass music in a film. A headline event will present Banjo Blitz in which three previous winners of the Steve Martin Excellence in banjo award will perform. Look for Sammy Shelor, Jens Kruger, and Mark Johnson to show three distinctive banjo styles at the highest level. A donated 2004 Cadillac deVille will be raffled.  Finally, Dr. Ralph Stanley will be making his last performance at Galax during this year's HoustonFest. One of the great performers from the first generation of bluegrass greats, Dr. Ralph's appearance at HoustonFest is particularly appropriate, as his style blends elements of old-time mountain music with bluegrass in a unique fashion.

Dr. Ralph Stanley

HoustonFest is probably less about the headline bands than any other festival we attend, and yet the bands are there. The schedule is complex, featuring three stages: The Main Stage, Camp Houston Stage, and the Firehouse Stage. Featured events and performers will appear on all the stages for both days, although youth bands and workshops will dominate on the two subsidiary stages. If you want to see the music stars of the future, to be able to say that you saw a performer when just a youngster, Camp Houston and the Firehouse Stages are where you want to be. Here's the whole schedule. Nevertheless, the Main Stage will feature some of the greats of bluegrass:

The Whites

Sierra Hull

Balsam Range

Lonesome River Band

Banjo Jubilation: Shelor, Kruger, Johnson

The Kruger Brothers

Blue Highway

The Boxcars
Adam Steffey

The Details

There is limited camping available on the Felt Park site with some electric, but no water hookups available. There are several nearby full-service campgrounds. You can buy tickets online, at some Galax stores, or at the Gate. Food and craft vendors abound on site. Enjoy their offerings and support their efforts. For more details, study the HoustonFest web site.

How to Get to HoustonFest
on the map below, input your location in the o

The Scene

In the end, however, HoustonFest is about kids performing and being given opportunities to gain additional experience and training. Your support of these activities is important! Here are some views of the scene you'll enjoy when you attend HoustonFest:

Festival Merch Shop

Clogging Deck

Hayden & Tess Caldwell

Vendors Row

Come out to HoustonFest and have a great time while supporting its mission of developing young musicians. You won't be sorry.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Every Day Is for the Thief by Teju Cole - Book Review

Every Day is for The Thief  by Teju Cole (Random House, March 2014, 176 pages, $23.00) presents a sad picture of contemporary Nigeria, even now being further torn apart by destructive rioting, in a novel that reads very much like a memoir. An un-named narrator returns to his home in the port city of Lagos, the largest and fastest growing city in Africa, after a fifteen year absence in the United States, where, we learn, he has attended medical school and become a physician. We watch, as through the days and weeks of his visit, he roams the streets and encounters a society that only functions because of bribes and which is degenerating as it forgets its native culture and its colonial past. The city seems to be more in control of corrupt police and organized gangs that, actually, tend to grease the skids of commerce and society. The tone is one of tired resignation more than outrage as the narrator connects with relatives and former friends. His years in America have changed his perspective, leading him to be critical of situations which his relatives and former friends have learned to live in and with to assure their own survival. What emerges is a society for which there seems to be almost no solution leading to a happy ending.

Photo by Teju Cole from Every Day Is for the Thief

The novel opens in New York where the narrator, now an American citizen, seeks to obtain a visa to visit Nigeria. He encounters a mindlessly corrupt system which requires him to bribe officials to get the document. Landing in Lagos, he encounters the same upsetting corruption to get through customs and to exit the airport, where he falls into the arms of family members he hasn't seen in fifteen years. As they drive to his former home, he sees anti-corruption billboards beneath which police and toll takers casually demand bribes to move through traffic off the books at half price, thus also cutting into government revenues. He realizes that Lagos has become a patronage society requiring frequent payoffs to those with position and power. In a series of vignettes, Cole portrays Nigeria as a divided society with some having plenty amidst a matrix of poverty. The narrator is a writer/photographer/physician. He discovers that in this decaying society, intellectual work become nearly impossible. The smells and noise of electric generators are ever-present because electricity is so intermittent it saps concentration and the soul. The pervasive threat of violence is reflected in an episode where a boy is collared with a burning tire.

The narrator goes on a journey of discovery throughout Lagos in search of a sense of history or the intellectual life. He visits a book store, the university, the museum, and a record shop. In the record shop he seeks to purchase a CD, only to discover they only sell copied versions of the original, a metaphor for the life of the city. Only the wealthy can enjoy the wonders of a private museum called The MUSON, while a natural history museum shows no pride in the broad cultural and social history of the tribal cultures in Nigeria. In a bookstore, there are no works by Nigerian writers well known in the outside world. Meanwhile, the city is filled with the violence of competing gangs operating a quasi government within various neighborhoods. As it becomes time for the narrator to return home, for the U.S. has indeed become his home, he reflects on the changes he and his homeland have experienced.

Teju Cole

According to the biography on his web site, TEJU COLE is a writer, art historian, and photographer. He is the Distinguished Writer in Residence at Bard College. Born in the US (1975) to Nigerian parents, and raised in Nigeria, he currently lives in Brooklyn. He is the author of two books, a novella, Every Day is for the Thief, a New York Times Editors’ Pick, and a novel, Open City, which won a number of prestigious awards. He is a contributor to the New York Times, the New Yorker... and several other magazines. He is a contributing editor at the New Inquiry, and is currently at work on a book-length non-fiction narrative of Lagos. His photography has been exhibited in India and the US, and has been published in a number of journals.

Teju Cole's novel EveryDay Is for the Thief ( Random House, March 2014, 176 pages, $23.00) is a deeply evocative and discouraging novel which reads like a memoir and illustrated by his photography.. During the reading I had to reassure myself that the nameless narrator was indeed a character and not the novelist himself. There's a clear sense of verisimilitude while the novel contains a structure which builds on a growing sense of discouragement bordering on despair. Without preaching, it illuminates the problems growing out of a long colonial history and a present in which oil riches and the effects of foreign exploitation as well as tribal rivalry keep the country from discovering its own greatness in the past and the future. The book was supplied to me as an electronic galley by the publisher through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Big Lick Bluegrass Festival:Oakboro, NC - Review

 Promoter Jeff Branch can look back on the 2014 edition of the Big Lick Bluegrass Festival with a smile of satisfaction. He and his wife Tammy put on a first rate festival filled with strong bands, mostly from North Carolina and nearby Virginia clearly showing that people will come out for quality. The site, located in a small park south of Oakboro has few amenities...some electric hookup and some water, but plenty of space and a good environment for bluegrass music. 

Tammy and Jeff Branch
The festival, like many, concentrated its efforts on having a successful Friday and Saturday with the Saturday lineup designed to draw a strong day crowd, weather permitting. The weather permitted. Spring has been a long time coming, but it arrived in full for this weekend, and people came out to celebrate it and the bluegrass music. Here's a look at it:

The Renaissance Bluegrass Band
Bethel University, located in McKenzie, TN is a small, church related college located about 130 miles west of Nashville. It's Renaissance program supports the performing arts at a level similar to how athletics are supported elsewhere. Students with talent in the performing arts are eligible for scholarships that do not require them to major in music or theater. Students are attracted from all over the country to this unique environment. The Renaissance Bluegrass Band, coached for this performance by Stephen Mougin of the Sam Bush Band and directed by Ben Helsen, are a group of eight fresh-faced, enthusiastic, and talented youngsters who perform bluegrass music in churches and at festivals. Two of the current members were recruited to Bethel from last year's Big Lick Festival, and live in the area. The band is available for performances.

James Hathcock

Tori Huntley

Katie Springer, Corey Kirkland, Nicole Brand

Corey Kirkland & James Hathcock

Chelsea Rhodes

 Tori Huntley & Bryan Hollifield

Tori Huntley & Nicole Brand

Nicole Brand & Sydni York

Sydni York

 Coach - Stephen Mougin

Vendors Row

Nothin' Fancy

 Nothin' Fancy is plenty fancy enough. They can be relied on for  polished, varied, amusing, and musical performances which cover the bluegrass lot from early pioneers through the ground-breaking music of The Country Gentlemen and Seldom Scene, to contemporary songs, including Mike Andes often either touching or downright funny songs. Chris Sexton, of fiddle, provides strong performances with a touch of classical reference in them. Young Jesse Smathers, only three weeks with the band, solves the long search for a tenor to replace long-time member Gary Ferris, who was one of the founding members. Smathers' pure tenor voice blends wonderfully with Andes and bassist Tony Shorter in trios. He sang the best version of "Kentucky Waltz" I've heard recently. This band keeps its repertoire and its routines fresh, while continuing to play and sing long-time fan favorites.

 Chris Sexton & Mitchel Davis

Chris Sexton

Tony Shorter

Mike Andes

Jesse Smathers

Mitchel Davis

Emcee - Bobby Franklin

A Deeper Shade of Blue

A Deeper Shade of Blue is a regional band, based in nearby Monroe, NC, which should have a broader profile than it does.  In our travels, we often hear from local fans that a band is as good as many national touring bands. This often turns out to be more local boosterism than credible information. A Deeper Shade of Blue, however, deserves to be more widely heard. Offering a pleasing mixture of classic and more contemporary covers plus the fine Dobro material created by veteran Frank Pointdexter, there's lots of fine, hard-driving bluegrass for all fans. Jason Fraley is more than fine on the mandolin, while his Dad Jim, on banjo, is one of the best known non-touring five stringers around.

 Troy Pope

Brian Hinson

Frank Pointdexter

Jim Fraley

 Jason Fraley

 Frank Pointdexter & Jason Fraley

The Darrell Webb Band

It's hard to believe Darrell Webb is celebrating his twentieth year as a professional musician. He manages to maintain an eternally youthful look, while his music matures and develops through the years. The current edition of the Darrell Webb Band is the best yet, and well-worth serious attention for its fine blend of traditional bluegrass music and rip-roaring contemporary, deeply personal music. Darrell manages to communicate deep emotion and the joy of making music simultaneously.  With young, hot pickers at every position, this band has become increasingly tight on the road and is an exciting band to watch and hear. Their new CD contains lots of songs that are at once catchy and meaningful. 

Darrell Webb

Jim VanCleve

Jared Hornsby

Jake Joines

Jeremy Arrowood

Brandon Green

Master Sound Man John Holder & New Technology

 The James King Band

James King wears his heart on his sleeve. This has often proven to be both a huge asset to his performance and something of a problem in his life. He's a bigger than life person who comes on stage and gives often riveting performances that capture an audience. Known as "the bluegrass storyteller," his story "sad and pitiful" story songs can often evoke as much emotion from James himself as they do from his loyal fans and new found admirers. In recent years, he surrounded himself with an able and supportive band and lost about seventy-five pounds. The weight loss and associated better care of himself have resulted in his recapturing some of the best of his voice while performing with even more subtlety and nuance his great songs. He tours hard, and you're likely to find him just about everywhere. Thank goodness for that.....

 James King

John Marquess

Merle Johnson

Mitch Walker

Rodney Worley

James King

 Emcee Sherry Boyd - The Pro

Feller & Hill and The Bluegrass Buckaroos

Tom Feller and Chris Hill, both veteran performers, have come together, forming their own band and finding a unique sound they can call their own. With deep roots in southwest Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana (Tom is the Boys From Indiana Aubrey Holt's nephew), they combine solid bluegrass sounds with the classic country music that Hee Haw fans, the Buck Owens crowd, have loved and missed for so long.

 Tom Feller

 Chris Hill & Glen Inman

 Mark Poe

Glen Inman

Balsam Range

Balsam Range has emerged as one of the most exciting and able bluegrass bands on tour today. Originating in rural Haywood County in westernmost North Carolina, mandolinist Darren Nicholson quips, "We have to go toward town to go hunting." Founded only seven years ago, the band still has to tour much more widely to reach its huge potential as an audience pleaser. Meanwhile, in the past four years they have garnered two IBMA awards won (Song of the Year, Album of the Year) and three more nominations. The band communicates enormous emotional content while producing a huge wall of sound. Seven of their songs, including "Last Train to Kitty Hawk," "How Many Times Must I Cross the Caney Fork River," and the very moving "Any Old Road," have reached number one in the charts. Buddy Melton, on fiddle, a soulful and emotionally charged singer, while Caleb Smith's bluesy, rock informed singing and first rate flat picking on guitars he builds himself, help create unique band vibes. Grammy winner Marc Pruett's banjo is always a driving force. Tim Surrett brings years of touring in southern gospel to the bluegrass stage with humor and skill. Don't miss this band or (Promoters) fail to book them.

Buddy Melton

Marc Pruett

Darren Nicholson

Caleb Smith

Tim Surrett

The Busy Balsam Range Merch Table

Junior Sisk & Rambler's Choice

 Junior Sisk was named IBMA Male Vocalist of the Year in 2013, finally achieving the recognition his long record has deserved as one of the finest traditional bluegrass singers currently on tour if not ever.  His band Junior Sisk & Rambler's Choice is composed of fine traditional instrumentalists who perform with equal ease the standards this band loves and the traditional sounding contemporary songs it embraces and performs with zest and taste. Jason Davis, quietly occupying stage right, plays a blazing banjo in a precise Scruggs style banjo few on the circuit today can match. Billy Hawks, on fiddle, is another quiet, yet effective bandsman. Jason (Sweet Tater) Tomlin is bobble-head active, and effective on bass and harmony. Newly added mandolinist Jonathan Dillon brings fine work and good harmony singing to the mix. Junior Sisk himself, is not only a fine singer, but widely recognized as one of the better rhythm guitarists. What's new in this band's shows is Juniors newfound confidence and the added zest he brings to the role of band emcee. Once painfully shy, he really seemed to be enjoying himself on stage this Saturday night.

Junior Sisk

 Jonathan Dillon

Jason Davis

Billy Hawks

 Jason Tomlin

Jonathan Dillon & Billy Hawks

The Trio
Jonathan Dillon, Jason Tomlin, Junior Sisk 

Big Lick Bluegrass Festival was something of a very pleasant surprise to us. The sound, by John Holder's Blue Ridge Sound provides perhaps the best festival sound found in the east today. The environment at Big Lick is laid back, with lots of jamming going on and good crowds coming to the stage to appreciate and encourage the music. Promoter Jeff Branch has patiently developed the festival through the years and is now poised to move into a higher rank in the very competitive North Carolina festival environment.

 Tammy & Jeff Branch

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