Friday, August 22, 2008

The Quest for the Sacred Burrito

Four days ago, an acquaintance on a discussion list posted remarks about a transcendent burrito, the kind of life-changing meal that causes one to stand up and scream “I’ve seen the light!” to a crowd of confused onlookers. The burrito was from the new Calexico Cart on 25th and Park, and mere mention of it ignited a passionate conversation from those who had tasted the wares of the original on Prince and Wooster. These disciples of the burrito raved about an essential ingredient, which they had dubbed Chipotle Crack Sauce. Well, as luck would have it, this new cart was located mere blocks from my office. If you haven’t noticed, I like food. Therefore, I needed to taste of this Holy Grail of Mexican street grub.

A couple of hours after reading the email, I dashed out the office door for this mythical land of burrito manna, but when I arrived on the spot, there was no burrito cart to be found. I stormed up and down Park Avenue, calling out, “Where are you, rice and beans? Here Chipotle Crack Sauce!” Alas, I didn’t get anything aside from strange looks, so I settled for a boring old lamb platter from Raffiqui, a chain of street vendors.

After politely voicing my displeasure with the situation to the discussion list, it was suggested that I try an earlier time. No problem. On Wednesday, I went to the magic spot again, this time at 12:30, but yet again there was no magic cart. However, I did find a place called Latin Thing (I’m not kidding-— that really is the name of it) on Lexington, and they did serve a fine pressed Cuban-style sandwich with braised beef, peppers, onions, Monterey Jack cheese, and spicy chipotle sauce (sans crack). As I did on the day before, I calmly informed the list of my frustration with this new vendor’s curious business practices. Apparently, I was not the only one who felt this way, and a couple of us formed a secret Burrito Watch Network, an alliance of foodies who would use a phone chain to inform one another if the cart ever appeared again. It was never said, but it was implied that if the cart tried to leave early, members of the BWN would lay down and block its path until all BWN members were served.

Does this seem like it was a lot of effort for one burrito? Absolutely. No one should have to jump through this many hoops in order to buy a rollup of beans, cheese, salsa, and meat.

Nevertheless, word broke out early yesterday that the cart was in its place, so a swarm of people began migrating to the neighborhood with record speed, me chiefly among them. I finally saw the cart and wondered why it was sponsored by a beer company when the cart couldn’t sell beer:

Then I placed my order and was told there would be a 10 minute wait. Fine. You can’t rush greatness.

As I waited, a friend appeared behind me. He had traveled from midtown on his lunchbreak. It was now clear that the hype had gotten out of control.

The two of us grabbed our burritos (which both arrived in less than 10 minutes) and we walked over to Madison Square Park to eat.

For starters, one of these burritos is a hearty meal. I am a man, and I eat man-sized portions. No, scratch that. I eat American man-sized portions. I cannot nor do I ever want to fit into those annoyingly skinny H&M jeans that are popular with the hipsters, models, and Heroin addicts. They won’t allow me into Williamsburg because my waist is larger than 27 inches. (Literally, a ironically leather-clad midget henchman steps onto the G-train with a tape measure, and he will not allow me to get near the egress until we’re deep into Brooklyn.) But I don’t care because I enjoy my food, and I need it. I walk fast and mine is an active lifestyle. Food is fuel, and I need a lot of fuel to survive these multi-borough exploits that last way into the wee hours of the morning. This engine does not run on diesel-- well, maybe sour diesel, but I digress…

Anyway, it’s a substantial log of a burrito, measuring almost 8 inches in length and nearly 3 inches in diameter.

My compadre ordered a side of rice and beans, which was totally unnecessary unless he was trying to make up for the recent lack of imports of Russian natural gas.

I ordered the Carne Asada, i.e. grilled hangar steak with rice, beans, cheese, pico de gallo and avocado salsa, although there was nary a trace of this avocado salsa. I also asked for the Chipotle “Crack” Sauce, which to my amazement, is actually called “Chipotle ‘Crack’ Sauce,” and they didn’t charge me for it. The sauce was on the burrito, and it was tasty and went well with the meat, which was a little salty and maybe a little dry but still filled with flavor. The burrito was really well-constructed, guaranteeing that you get equal parts of everything in every bite, and there were lots of chunks of steak on board.

The tortilla also had the right consistency. It was not too wet and not too dry and there was just the right amount of it. Sometimes you get burritos that are nothing but tortilla or ones that are falling apart for lack of tort, but this one was just right. My amigo ordered the chicken, and he liked it but felt as though the Chipotle “Crack” Sauce overpowered it.

For good measure, I went back again today and ordered the Chipotle Pork, i.e. pulled pork in chipotle sauce (no word on whether or not crack is involved), rice, beans, cheese, pico de gallo, pickled red onions, and sour cream.

I again asked for the Chipotle “Crack” Sauce and stressed that I definitely wanted it on the burrito. Again, I was not charged for it. This tortilla was a little dryer, which was probably a good thing because the burrito was very wet and leaking out of the bottom. The drippage was certainly there, and it was not easy to eat like the Carne Asada. However, it was much tastier, undoubtedly thanks to the delicious Chipotle “Crack” Sauce. (Have I mentioned that enough times yet?) The whole burrito had a mellow chipotle flavor, and I was not complaining about it.

I do get the sense that the guys who run this stand are a tad too laid back about things. They say they “try” to be there every day, but we already know we can’t count on it. I can see that while their flavors are good, they might not be offering the same consistency on a regular basis. Plus, God only knows what the deal is with the crack sauce and why you never have to pay for it. If they took a little more serious approach, I could see this cart doing some big business. Yes, $7-8 is expensive for a burrito, but it’s a filling lunch, and let’s be honest, most takeout lunch in New York costs about this much money, if not more so. If it tastes good, we’re all willing to pay out the ass for it.

I will now admit that people might be a little free with their hyperbole-laden praise for these burritos. I’m no burrito connoisseur, but I did think they were pretty good and probably the best non-knife-and-fork burrito I’ve had in the city. That said, I think that Calexico probably fell short of the life-altering experience that many have claimed it to be. Then again, exaggeration is the hallmark of my friends’ reviews. After all, earlier today I had to suffer through some asshole’s long winded blog entry about some show about Fela Kuti…

Go See Fela!....NOW

If you have ever heard and liked a jam, song, or note by Fela Kuti, you owe it to yourself to get over to 37 Arts for the off-Broadway run of Fela!

Musical theater people have a natural gift for screwing up a great story with unnecessary excess and schmaltz, but in this instance, they set their gift to the side and let the tremendous story of a tremendous giant among men do the talking. In fact, there is very little “musical theater” in this performance of musical theater. Thankfully, the man in charge of this show, Bill T. Jones, truly loves the life, legacy, and music of Fela Kuti, and this all comes out in the wonderfully thrilling work he has created.

The show envisions a fictional night inside Fela's Shrine nightclub in Lagos, and what you see is the real deal. Sahr Ngaujah *becomes* Fela Anikulapo Kuti, engaging the audience with radiant charisma that has you eating out of the palm of his bruised-but-never-broken hand. His really is an amazing and uncanny performance that sucks you in and never lets go. While essentially watching Fela and company put on a concert in his Nigerian club, the audience is both engaged and cleverly informed about the back-story of this world-renowned iconoclast, antagonist, humanitarian, artist, and spiritual leader, who was routinely tortured and jailed by a corrupt government that could never break this man’s indefatigable spirit.

The music is provided by Antibalas Afrobeat Orchestra, and these guys are a natural fit. In fact, they’ve rarely sounded better. For a while now, I’ve felt as though Antibalas plays best when they are pissed off. I’ve seen them give a rousing and angry performance that pumped up a genteel Shakespeare in the Park crowd, transforming the middle-aged, upper middle-class NPR-Democrats in the audience into a rabid pack of fire-breathing gargoyles who nearly destroyed the old Delacorte Theater on the cusp of the 2004 Republican Coronation of Supreme Leader and Decider, George W. Bush, and then last summer I saw Antibalas play a very pleasant show on a gorgeous, sunshine-kissed day on Governor’s Island. The former show raised some serious Hell. The latter was fun for the whole family but more than a little vacant.

Antibalas was born to play the music of Fela Kuti, and their slinking guitars, thumping bass, pounding drums, and attacking horns relish every note of these layered and meandering compositions. Fela’s lyrics are blunt but powerful, and Jones wisely projects many of them onto the backdrop, which really allows the brute force of this man’s art to sink into the deepest reaches of the brain. Visually, the entire theater is transformed into the Shrine club, and people can bring drinks to their seats. (Thank you, Musical Theater for finally waking up to this revolutionary concept; it only took you about 98 years.) Of course, I would be only telling half the story if I failed to mention the gorgeous and extremely lithe dancers (of both sexes) who sensually grind around the stage to these hypnotic compositions while showing more than a little leg. Unfortunately, there are no cold showers to be found.

This is not your normal theatrical event; it really is like a concert, and I think the show works best when people treat it as such. I don’t think I’m giving away too much when I say that at one point, the crowd gets up and dances to the music. Last night, everyone was having a great time during this sequence, but as soon as there was an opportunity to sit, 70% of the crowd dove for the seats, blowing their golden opportunity to blur the line between performer and audience. The folks in the front kept dancing, and some ridiculous old ladies tried in vain to make them sit, but the vibe was too strong and they wouldn’t acquiesce. Eventually, I said, “Fuck it,” and got up to dance in my spot, which amazingly didn’t cause a mutiny in the rows behind me. If only everyone had felt free enough to let themselves go, they would have enjoyed it oh, so much more.

I should also add that last night’s show was not without what has become a bizarre musical theater phenomenon: the union audience clap-on-every-down-beat during the curtain call. It’s like the cut-time version of a soulclap, but it sounds more like a soulless clap. I have no idea why white people do this, especially when there is incredibly funky music being played on stage. Isn’t there a way that we Caucasians can overcome our genetic deficiencies and learn to channel our inner-James Brown?

If I know my friends well enough, many will be intrigued by this review and will think “I should go see that.” Then they’ll get very lazy and never buy the tickets, waiting until the show is about to close months from now and not being able to afford the full-priced ticket. Don’t make that mistake, folks. The show is still in previews, and if you use this TheaterMania discount code, you’ll only pay $26.25. The discounted price will soon rise to $51.25, so you should get off your ass and order tickets at this bargain rate yesterday. For the record, everyone in the theater LOVED the show last night, and I expect the word-of-mouth will be tremendous. I also anticipate great reviews because not only is the show great, but I think that politically correct reviewers will be loathe to criticize it because Africa is very *in* right now, and no one wants to say something bad about a product of a continent that supplies cute little orphan babies to so many beautiful American celebrities.

In an ideal world, Fela! Will be the saving grace of the dying off-Broadway commercial scene and will run in this theater for a long time. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if it eventually makes a Broadway transfer because with some judicious cuts, it could appeal to an ever larger audience. That said, I advise you to see it now, and see it on the cheap. This is a great show for anyone who loves live music, history, or even life itself. Get your ass in the seat now…and then standup and dance!

Monday, August 11, 2008

A Great Show Withers and Dies an Uncomfortable Death - Hal Wilner's Bill Withers Project Prospect Park Bandshell 8-9-08

Saturday's Bill Withers Project season finale of Celebrate Brooklyn had its place reserved on the Great Calendar of Life for a long, long time. Whenever producer Hal Wilner assembles and creates these types of events, you're usually in for a star-studded lineup of major talents congregating to take part in a moving and thrilling ritual. Last year's tribute to songwriter Doc Pomus was a very emotional and incredibly well-crafted affair that earned its spot as the second-best concert I saw in 2007. I'd be lying if I didn't say that my anticipation was through the roof for Saturday's event.

We began our evening at Bierkraft, home of fine beer, excellent cheese, high quality meat, and impressive chocolate truffles. Because Celebrate Brooklyn is the most chill venue on Earth, they let you bring your own food and beverage inside, as long as you leave the glass and cans at home. Bierkraft sells growlers, and in a maneuver that I will not hesitate to label a stroke of genius, I figured out how to get beer from a glass growler into a plastic bottle. First, I bought, emptied, and rinsed a couple of two liters of cream soda. Then we bought the growlers, and in order to get the beer from the wide-mouth glass growler into the small-mouthed two liter plastic bottle, I used a pitcher with a tap spout dispenser as the magic middleman. Gingerly filling up the pitcher to reduce foam, the tap spout worked perfectly to load the two liters. A gallon jug of spring water worked perfectly to rinse the pitcher between pours so as not to contaminate one beer with another. After pouring the two-liter into plastic cups inside the venue, victory was ours. I knew that if anyone had tried to bust me, they would be forced to let me off the hook once they recognized the amount of ingenuity and effort that went into this operation. Its success has given me a whole new outlook on life.

The Wolaver's Organic Pale Ale and Six Point Sweet Action were complimented by a great sandwich that included some very fancy Italian ham, creamy "Naked Goat" cheese, grainy mustard, arugala, and roasted peppers on ciabatta. For only eight bucks, which includes a small bag of Louisiana’s mouthwatering Zapp's kettle-cooked potato chips (I chose the Spicy Cajun Crawtaters), this large sandwich is a phenomenal deal. Yes, you do have to deal with a bit of, how shall I say this delicately?...outer borough inefficiency. While the staff may be less than expedient, they do know what they're doing, and they deliver a fine product. This stellar meal was completed with a juicy chocolate, peanut butter, and jelly truffle.

We arrived early enough to throw down the tarp in the unofficial NYC-Freaks spot just behind and right of the soundboard. Slowly but surely, our crew amassed and morphed together prior to the 7:30 start. Steven Bernstein led a major force of a backing band that included Lenny Pickett on sax and legendary guitarist Cornell Dupree. I have to admit that I was not prepared to be hit with such funky music. I expected a lot of soul, of course, but this was some very funky soul, and vocalists like Nona Hendryx and Eric Mingus paired wonderfully with the super-tight band.

I've been admittedly slow to become absorbed by the My Morning Jacket phenomenon that is sweeping the nation, and much of my resistance can be attributed to frontman Jim James' often Kermit The Frog-like delivery of his vocals. Insulting the vocal stylings of a man who is being revered as a demigod isn't going to win me any new friends, but I don't understand why his voice frequently sounds so nasal and far back in his throat when he's also proven himself to be capable of not singing in this grating way. That said, James' "It's Not Easy Being Green" style was in full effect on Saturday, and it sounded absolutely perfect on "Ain't No Sunshine," the obvious peak of Set One. Somehow James' unique singing blended with an overabundance of soul to create an ideal fit on this classic slow burn of a tune. (Dear My Morning Jacket fans, before you fire off the hate mail, note that I complimented your idol. Maybe this is a sign that one day I will share your belief that MMJ is the bestist band ever.)

Setbreak saw a minor exodus of those who had youngins with early bedtimes. I understood their plight, but I felt bad for them because they missed one of the weirdest sets in musical history.

The set began with an introduction of Dupree, and the band laid down a nastified funk groove, as the old guitarist soloed over top. It was a righteous moment, and when Bill Withers walked out on stage, the place went nuts. Apparently moved by Dupree's soulful solos, Withers decided to surprise everyone by singing. He strode out with a mic in hand and sat down next to the guitarist while delivering a few lines of "Grandma's Hands." This sequence really sent a phenomenal musical moment over the top. Withers' voice wasn't particularly impressive and was honestly a little rusty, but it passionately oozed with feeling and relished every bit of emotion in the lyrics. The seemingly improvised nature of this slice of the show just added to the euphoria, and it became the undisputed highlight of the night. Dear Bands Everywhere, this is how you open Set Two. Take note.

The funk continued to flow deep and thick with Mingus pulling out some freestyling lyrics about war and Angelique Kidjo pumping everyone up higher and higher. She even tossed her microphone down to Withers, who was now sitting in the audience but was still moved enough to engage in another improvised, albeit very short, duet. Everything was rolling along and a good show was truly tiptoeing on the cusp of greatness.

Then the Swell Season came on stage.

I don't know what makes this indie duo "swell," but it certainly can't be attributed to the female singer's monotone leanings. Perhaps her pitch-deficient warblings can be called "European harmony," but I'd just call it "lousy." It was a damn shame because the band and the male singer sounded pretty good, but Yoko did her best to flush their valiant effort right down the drain. Lenny Pickett did have a killer sax solo.

To be perfectly honest, she sounds much better on this video than I recalled her sounding at the show, but I'd still rather hear the guy without the ball and chain:

The vibe was redeemed with a funky number or two before Bernstein brought up “co-producer” Janine Nichols to sing a song. One might think that a co-producer and co-artistic director of such a star-studded event would be able to display audible talent. One might also think that a guy can become rich and famous by waxing poetic in long-winded blog entries about food and music. So far, neither statement has been proved true.

It wasn’t so much that Nichols’ voice was terrible; it was just that Nichols’ voice was not very good. Aside from her possibly “just wanting to get into the act like everyone else,” I see no reason why anyone would give her a microphone. Her ballad was very dull and boring.

But we weren’t out of the woods yet.

The other guitarist (not Dupree) was then introduced, and he sang a song. He sounded somewhere between abysmal and God-awful. It was yet another ballad, but this one just kept going and going and going… Every time I thought he’d show mercy and put us out of our misery by stopping the singing, he went into yet another coda. At this point in the show, I seriously contemplated just walking down the aisle and asking to sing a song, as well, because I couldn’t be any worse that what we had just heard.

The consensus around us was clear: What was shaping up to be a brilliant evening had suddenly gone right into the shitter, as people were leaving in droves. From an organizational standpoint, I couldn’t understand why anyone would craft a setlist that started with such a bang and then degraded into such sludge. What was Wilner thinking?

Everyone had assumed the curfew was 10:00, but that time was already upon us, and we couldn’t see any way that this terrible song from the guitarist would close the evening with a fizzle. Thankfully, Howard Tate picked things up a little bit, but we were still far from the infectious joy of the set opener. The Persuasions then appeared for an acapella “Grandma’s Hands” reprise, which led into the expected finale of “Lean on Me.” This was the moment we all were waiting for, and the Persuasions’ opening was cool. Then Withers’ daughter sang the lead and sounded horrible, begging the question, “Why are people with pitch problems being allowed anywhere near the microphone?” Thankfully, James took over and the song was briefly redeemed before Withers’ progeny sent us spiraling downward again. The song closed with an extended we’re-not-gonna-let-it-end jam, led by the Persuasions, who successfully drowned out the young Withers’ attempts at singing. This jam went on for SEVERAL minutes, and Withers, himself, appeared on stage and walked around to shake hands with every single musician during the jam. We were all holding out hope that he would sing again, but that didn’t happen.

The show ended, and he took the mic to say a few words of thanks. When he introduced Hal Wilner, he said, “Who thinks Hal Wilner and I should sing ‘Just the Two of Us’?” Suddenly, the light bulb went off for everyone—they didn’t play “Just the Two of Us!” Withers realized he was on to something, and he immediately huddled with the band. It was clear that they were going to try to play a song that they had not arranged at all. Somewhat awkwardly, they paused for what seemed to be four or five minutes as the musicians tried to figure out how to play the tune. It was a strange but nonetheless exciting moment. Withers was going to deliver some cathartic vocals that would close this show out with the bang it deserved.

Ah, no.

The song began, and it was the younger Withers who took the vocals, which she energetically delivered without much semblance of pitch. She seems like a nice young lady, but in her case, the apple falls far from the tree. We’re talking miles and miles from the tree. I now understand why we haven’t heard anything about her recording career. As for the guest of honor, all hopes that he might join in to rescue this song and provide some correct notes were dashed when he just wandered around the stage, smiling and playing the cowbell. Finally, the song ended…but then Withers let go of his cowbell to say, “Let’s do that again!”

I kid you not, there was a very loud groan that came from the remaining people in the audience. These were not just cynical assholes like me who made this noise. There were lots of super-positive people who never say a negative word about anything who were audibly grumbling. The vibe had become incredibly sour as the ill-conceived reprise began. Some people just ran for the exits, while the rest of us just stood there in a catatonic state. I saw that the clock was close to 11:00, and I can honestly say that this was the first time in my entire life when I actually rooted for the curfew to kick in so the musicians would be forced to stop playing.

It’s a damn shame that what was shaping up to be an incredible night of musical genius descended into such an awful shit pit, but hopefully, the film crew taping the event will be able to edit out the garbage and save the moments of brilliance that occurred earlier in the show. Overall, this night did make me realize that Bill Withers created some amazing music in the 1970s, and I know that I’m going to have to re-visit his back catalog to take another listen to many of these gems.