Thursday, June 16, 2011

OPEN mics are like a box of chocolates. You don’t know what you’re going to get. Many times, I get spoilage and bitter stuff. However, last night’s open mic at Kava Bar in downtown Asheville was a subtle revelation. Although, it wasn’t near as fascinatingly active (as yet) as the demised Beanstreets Café open mic of yesteryears, it is still the most promising poets-singers gathering in my neck of the woods in the past few years.
Nestled on the ground floor of a relatively new south of Lexington Av condominium that also houses a bookshop and laundromat—Kava Bar is ideal enough for the kind of classy, cerebral, quiet dive that poet recluses like me prefer. Hardwood floors, intimate bedroom dim lighting, two handicap accessible bathrooms, patio/courtyard at rear entrance… Indeed, I just found myself a Wednesday night perch. The bar is advertised as “refreshingly elegant, Tiki atmosphere”—though I’d say, it’s more subdued and reserved beyond what we know of islander luau vibe.
I took a few minutes touring the place myself. The cork board displays flyers and business cards about new age-y, yoga, spiritual events and entrepreneurial endeavors. The wall book shelf has all kinds of radical stuff from Marx to Trotsky to Chavez and Mao. Figure that one out now… The performance room is the size of a $400/month college rental room, neatly groomed with emptied coconut husks sticking out overhead, folding chairs in attentive rows, and uniformed throw pillows upfront on the floor. Talk about bedroom intimacy… Yes, it’s wi-fi—but, of course!
I haven’t really ventured the menu yet (“delicious island and vegetarian cuisine,” the internet pitch said). The moment you step in, a perky lady-bartender with a wide aloha smile greets an unsuspecting visitor with a warm invite to try the house’s kava drink. Kava isn’t your average smoothie or fruit juice though. First timers concede it tastes like dirt, but as the bar muse offers, it’s an acquired taste. She’ll hand you a tiny dish of pineapple chunks as chaser.
But does this brew really tastes like “sweet dirt”? I mean, even a cool dude who sang pretty accessibly that night, chanted about the Kava as “dirt” drink. But don’t take me seriously on that one—I came from the islands, and I can attest this strange drink is a lot better than any of your healthcentric flavored bottled waters. It’s just that our first-world tastebuds are accustomed to anything sweet and delicious. So deal with it!
Kava (or kava-kava) is a crop of the western Pacific. The word is Tongan and Marquesan. Consumed throughout the Pacific Ocean cultures of Polynesia (including Hawaii), Vanuatu, Melanesia and some parts of Micronesia, the roots of the plant are used to produce a drink with sedative and anesthetic properties. Kava is sedating and is primarily consumed to relax without disrupting mental clarity. So there… Don’t get ideas.
And before I forget, if you are reading, you get a free Kava cup—the size of a cappuccino cup—so that’s already something that you may not respond with a “No, thanks!” After all, it costs $5. That is Pacific Islander hospitality right in the heart of beer-flooded downtown. Dig?
Back to the open mic.

QUIETLY amiable host Caleb Beissert, I reckon, unfurls the curtain each session with a few poems. Last night, he read a few of his own, plus the Allen Ginsberg cult classic, “Homework.”
I observed the young man as he set up the stage. It’s always mysteriously sublime to see people devote time and effort to these non-paying weekly gigs—assuming, of course, he’s not paid cash other than well, a Kava cup, for emceeing.
Still, he handled the show smoothly—cautiously and courteously cutting a performer or two who tended to slide past the allotted 8 to 10 minute time. There’s no radical mouthing, anti-this and that sociopolitical commentary, or boisterous cuss words that usually punctuate freewheeling open mics. Caleb does it business-like and professional—plugging other shows in town in between, as well as upcoming gigs by poets and musicians present at that time (of course, including my Tuesday, June 21, show at Firestorm).
The lineup was pretty decent. I particularly like the visiting singer-songwriter from Florida who sang about an iPhone that he just bought. There’s a guitarist (“Django”) who read a poem from his, well—iPhone (or cellphone), and another singer who did a 38th parallel, North Korea bit. Another guy accompanied another one on bongos—whose outfit reminded me of an overdressed Angus Young, minus the long hair and Stratocaster. George Glass, a veteran of Beanstreets, was even there—and, yes, this chameleonic soul never fails to confuse me with his ever-changing looks (he’s not like he alters his hair color or puts in/loses weight each month, it’s just that he looks so different each time we chance to cross paths).
That was already a cool lineup for an otherwise bored midweek. I was so thankful that I didn’t encounter drunken open mikers who can’t seem to find the last bars and last words to their songs and poems; the ones that gave me such headache at Courtyard.  You know what I’m saying… If you’re a bit wary of “what you’re gonna get” in an open mic—such as unkempt urchins who’d haggle Marlboro and PBR money or inebriated denizens who lash out at the microphone over late rent funk… nah. Kava Bar is cool as a dorm patio run by a Buddhist monk who probably listens to Pink Floyd and reads Thomas Pynchon and Federico Garcia Lorca and keeps a strict hummus and tempeh diet. You get the drift… I mean, there’s even a folkie who did an easy lazy-by-the-windowsill cover of George Harrison’s “Something.” And a beatboxer fella with a Carrot Top redhead. Oh yes, I got a few applause and handshakes for my three pieces. How cool is that?
I hope that Kava Bar’s Wednesday open mic lives till it achieves a respectable status as that of Beanstreets. Many tried to replicate or duplicate that initiative but no one came even close to it—including my previous attempts at The Dripolator-Biltmore and Courtyard Gallery-Carolina Lane. But, with more support and attendance, this tiny convergence of poets and singers and stuff and things will be the talk of the town, and destined to re-live poetry nirvana in Asheville.
And, mark my word, Kava will be the next cool brew in this side of Appalachian heaven. Dirt, whatever.

Vanuatu Kava Bar is located at 151 S Lexington Ave, Asheville, NC 28801. Tel # (828) 505-8118. Open on Tuesdays – Saturdays, 4pm to 12am; Sundays – 5pm to 12am; Mondays – closed.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

THIS blog entry is long overdue. Each day, I was meaning to get this over and done with—but like a rabid procrastinator, I always delay it, without meaning to. But here it is now… Things do work out.

IT WAS a random invite—to go check out “Scapegoat,” a debut effort by local filmmaker David Saich—in downtown Asheville’s Fine Arts Theater. Yes, it was free. “Free” is kind of scary. It meant, I needed to be nice—otherwise, if I don’t conform to neighborly niceness, then I’d be labeled an inconsiderate asshole. Imagine, how many friends I lost (and future freebies and guest-list passes that got out of my hand), just because I was blatantly, dastardly honest?
But then, I am known to be “un-nice” critic more than I’m recognized as a sweet dude, so… Besides, an hour or so in a dark room with strangers is still strange to me at this juncture. In the past few years (since moving back to the mountains from Los Angeles), I’ve been some sort of anti-social. So you get the drift, right? I do enjoy my reclusiveness, so if you dare pull me out of my shell, you gotta pay the consequences. You see, Netflix is still the handiest handle for me these days. If I really desire to let go off a few dollars for a big theater movie—it’s got to be huge. The last Fine Arts film that I saw was the excellent historical drama, “The Last Station,” and that was some cool bother.
So did “Scapegoat” come near “The Last Station’s” five-star rating? Of course not!
Anyhow, the life of my cream cheese popcorn and Amstel on my jittery, fidgety hands is only good for 15 minutes, max. Yet, I kept glued. Which means—I must concede, you ought to watch this little cinematic swig from the dude in the `hood.

THE first few frames of the movie bothered me a bit. I wasn’t sure if it’s the theater’s system or it was the film’s aesthetics. Camera work and lightning were distractive, or the editing was a tad unimaginative… And although, the audience’s impulsive reflex to each frame was largely inspiring—as in: “Oh my, that is my boy right there! Look at that, he’s so cute!!!” these can be annoying when overdone. (Enough already! I yelled within me). But then, what the hell—it’s a local movie shown in a local moviehouse, anyhow. It’s okay. Grandma and grandpa were watching…
I must say, despite its fundamental flaws, "Scapegoat" is still a compelling movie. However, I couldn't help whine: Some creativity in scene/shots selection would have been cool. Why not a chase scene right on the middle of a Friday drum circle at Pritchard Park or a clandestine chat at The Basilica in downtown or at Pack Library, or maybe at Tressa’s bar? I mean, this is Asheville, after all—why not involved the local geography, huh? Then, I could’ve also chuckled or exclaimed: “Oh my, that’s exactly where I sit on a Saturday afternoon! That’s my spot right there!”
However, sans my smartass rambling, I must admit that “Scapegoat” is still the best and most promising little locally-made movie that I’ve seen in years. The script is tightly-knit, and the acting—especially Daniel Clancy, as Charles Duncan, a white-collar worker—who found himself in trouble and had to reluctantly accede to John Capra’s (Ben Puckett) services. At least, he deserves a guest spot in a “Law and Order” episode.
The movie’s storyline despite a few circuitous turns and melodramatic takes still merits a major studio attention: About a man, Capra, who specializes in manipulating evidence and will even take the fall for whatever crime you’ve committed—for a fee… well, you got it figured out. This same deliciously convoluted premise is what makes a Hollywood crime caper work. Throw in a stubbled, sleep-deprived and harassed but eerily confident Ethan Hawke or Sam Rockwell (sorry, Mr Puckett) on the title role—plus a few steamy sex scenes, 10-minute car chase down Patton Av to Smoke Park Hwy, and computer-generated shootaround—then you got an economically-viable movie in the works. For one, that climactic shootout scene could have been staged better… but then, I digress.
Yes, this is not Hollywood. This is local indie movie… so I should lay off my Hollywood/Netflix fixations? Yes, maybe I should. But it all depends on whether Saich’s goal is just to make his local friend-actors’ families elated that they see their brood on big screen other than URTV or WLOS-ABC 13. Or, if he plans to elevate his promising work beyond Blue Ridge Mountains’ confines—I must say, go for it. Take “Scapegoat” out of the mountains and show it in bigger cities. It is a fairly credible enough pass to filmmaking respectability. All Saich requires is a few millions more and Ethan Hawke, then he’s on his way.