Friday, March 30, 2012

Treefort Music Fest, Day 3 (3/24/12)

3:00 pm: Back in action.  I'm operating on about three hours of sleep.  Feel a little fuzzy, which may be from sleep deprivation or from lingering effects of the booze I drank last night (or both).  No matter.  I'll sleep when I'm dead or when Treefort is over, whichever comes first.

First thing I do when I get downtown is swing by the Flying M for an iced coffee.  I miss the chance to see In the Shadow of the Mountain doing this, but, as I'll tell people later, I need coffee more than I need prog-rock right now.  I down the coffee in about five minutes and motorvate over to the Main Stage.

3:30 pm, Main Stage: Tartufi

First up for me today is Tartufi, a moody, dreamy three-person art-rock band from San Francisco.  If you put a gun to my head, I couldn't tell you what the hell lead singer/guitarist Lynne Angel is wailing about in most of these songs.  That doesn't matter much: as with Sigur Ros or pre-Document R.E.M., the mood is the message.  Thankfully, Tartufi's music is plenty articulate.  Angel's androgynous, filtered singing voice adds just one more sound effect to this band's arsenal of melodic bass, kinetic drumming, jack-of-all-sounds guitar, clever loops and New Age-y samples, polyrhythms and textures.  While all three band members clearly have chops, they emphasize melody and groove over self-aggrandizing virtuosity.  Go with their flow and you may be surprised by how much you enjoy it.

After Tartufi's set, I wander over to the food trucks to the left of the stage and find local musician Jac Sound performing beneath a big tent.  It's nice to see this guy getting a piece of the Treefort action--he's got witty lyrics, a pleasant, breathy high tenor, a sure sense of rhythm and impressive multitasking skills (plays guitar with his hands, kick drum with one foot, hi-hat with the other).  He gigs pretty regularly around Boise.  Anybody around here who hasn't checked him out should do so.  He often doesn't charge anything, but he welcomes and deserves donations.

4:40 pm, Main Stage: Snake Rattle Rattle Snake

While listening to Jac Sound, I half-consider taking off and checking out some of the sets coming up at the other venues.  Blessed be inertia: since I stay, I see what may well prove to be my favorite (non-local) band of the festival.

With their eerie atmosphere, minor-key melodies and New Wave disco beats, Snake Rattle Rattle Snake would raise the heartbeat of any fan of Joy Division/New Order or Bauhaus (think "In the Flat Field," "Kick In the Eye" or "She's In Parties").  James Yardley's rumbling bass and Andrew Warner's angular, funky drumming provide the perfect vehicle for Doug Spencer and Wilson Helmericks' chiming, shimmering guitar/synth lines and for Hayley Helmericks' cryptic, menacing lyrics and sexy low moan.  More than almost any other group that's played Treefort so far, they pull me in and don't let go for their entire 40-minute set.  They may draw from the same post-punk sources as quite a few other bands do, but I don't know if any that I've heard do it as well.

(Sidenote: I learned later that this band played a gig at the Visual Arts Collective last October.  Hopefully, we'll get to see them around these parts again sometime soon.)

6:00 pm, Linen Building: Red Hands Black Feet

After Snake Rattle Rattle Snake finish and I buy their CD, I head over to the Linen Building to make sure that I'll get to see Red Hands Black Feet tonight.  I've seen this four-person instrumental rock band more often than any other local group.  That's partly because I'm friendly with all of its members and happy to support them.  Much more importantly than that, though, this is simply one of the greatest bands in town.

I've tried for a while to figure out how to describe RHBF's music.  The best little blurb I've come up with is "Television (the CBGB band) meets Hans Zimmer," and that's really not good enough.  Eric Larson and Jake Myers' guitars blend and play off each other as if they're telepathically linked, Joseph Myers' elegantly simple basslines add warmth and body to the band's sound and Jessica Nicole Johnson's elemental drumming grounds and powers the whole enterprise.  Together, they create music with startling dramatic power.  Riffs and grooves form out of the ether, build, gather steam, shoot into the stratosphere, explode and come cascading back down to Earth.  The band handles shifts in tempo, dynamic range and tone with such skill and rapport that their compositions seem to live and breathe.

Never in all the times that I've seen RHBF has their music felt as alive as it does tonight.  They tear into their songs like seasoned pros--they know all the sweet spots, and they hit them just right.  The band's confidence seems to radiate out into the crowd.  The audience members closest to the stage grow more and more ecstatic as the set progresses: they scream, head-bang, crowd-surf.  By the climax of the band's last song, "Sink the Bismarck," it's as if the Hindenburg has crashed into the building.  The audience applauds wildly.  Drenched in sweat, each member of RHBF looks slightly dazed, almost as if they can't believe what just happened.  This isn't just the best RHBF performance I've seen or one of the best Treefort performances I've seen: it's one of the best concert-going experiences I've had ever.

7:00 pm, Neurolux: Le Fleur

I'm a little dazed myself from this epic performance, but I press on after RHBF's set and head over to Neurolux to catch the local rock band Le Fleur.

This six-person band's drones, dirges and mournful melodies may not be for everybody--one man's hypnotic could be another man's excruciating.  Me, I find them hypnotic, and they seem to get better each time I see them.  Lead singer Ivy Meissner wails through a storm of synth noises and weeping, howling guitar while the bass and drums march solemnly, urgently onward.  Occasionally, all of these disparate elements coalesce into demented post-punk rockers (which, as an added bonus, can be pretty damn funny if you catch the lyrics).

8:00 pm, Red Room: Vagerfly

After Le Fleur's set, I'm faced with a bit of a dilemma: do I brave what I imagine will be a massive crowd to see Built to Spill or do I go check out goofy two-woman punk band Vagerfly at the Red Room?  After pondering my two options for a bit, I finally say, "Fuck it--Doug Martsch may be a great musician, but he didn't doodle in my notebook."

Sara Mclean, the drummer for Vagerfly, drew this while we were chatting at the Red Room Thursday night (sorry I spelled your name wrong, Sara).

The line I'll give people after the show is, "If Kate Pierson and Cindy Wilson decided to form a riot grrl band, you'd get something like Vagerfly."  It sounds too pat, but that's honestly what this group sounds like.  They write uproariously irreverent anthems to shaking your genitals in somebody's face and love songs with titles like "Burnt Panties."  Musically, though, this band is no joke: while Michelle Fast shoves the lyrics and irresistable tunes down your earholes with her big voice and pounds out solid, elementary riffs on her keyboard, Sara Mclean's bouncy drumming calls to mind Janet Weiss more than Meg White.  I find this a fair trade for Built to Spill.  Apparently, Josh Gross of the Boise Weekly and Eric Gilbert feel the same way (the latter pops in through the back door midway through the set, and the girls give him a big shout-out).

9:00 pm

I plan to stay around the Red Room after Vagerfly finish their set to catch Lemolo, but my stomach is telling me that Clif bars will not suffice right now.  One massive burrito with guacamole from Costa Vida later, I return.

10:00 pm, Red Room: Dude York

"Live from Dude York, it's Saturday night!" the lead singer announces at the start.  The Seattle-based, surf-tinged, punk rock power trio's set follows the same cheeky tone.  Strong tunes and riffs; charmingly ragged playing and singing; excellent lead guitar; lyrics about collecting comics, Carl Sagan, "Fuck City" and Neil Gaiman's Sandman.  Pure fun.

11:00 pm, Red Room: And And And

I never thought I'd live to say/write that the best thing about a rock band is its trumpet player.  And And And, a five-piece outfit from Portland, OR, mix some folk/country flavor into their up-tempo punk tunes.  Their playing's a little tighter than Dude York's (darn good drummer), but Nathan Baumgartner's whiny vocals are more pitch-challenged.  That's where the trumpet comes in: it brings out the charm of this band's melodies more than the singing does.  All in all, still good fun.  Hey, you've gotta like a band that comes up with a song title like "I Want More Alcohol (It Makes Me Sadder)."

Local garage band Teens are up after And And And.  I think that I've seen these guys once before and thought that they were pretty good, but I feel like branching out.  When I step outside and see this...

...I figure that I won't be getting back in here tonight.  Oh well.

12:20, The Crux: A Seasonal Disguise

I make it down to the Crux in time to catch the second half of the set by A Seasonal Disguise, a seven-person, arty, ersatz folk-rock band based in Boise.  Some of their more cutesy affectations--especially the quavery, intentionally (I think) off-key singing--make me want to gag at first.  In the end, though, I'm won over by the pretty lullaby melodies, the pretty harmonies, the steadfast drumming and leader Z.V. House's lie-giving, scorching electric guitar.  Major plus: they close out their set (and the third day of Treefort) with an ambling cover of the Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere," which they preface by inviting members of the audience to come on stage and help sing the intro.  Now that's nice.

You can find info about all these bands on Facebook.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Treefort Music Fest, Day 2 (3/23/12)

5:15 pm: Down on the street and back on the scene.  Some delays at home keep me from getting downtown earlier, but the plus side is that I can just feed the meter an hour's worth of change and be good on parking for the rest of the day.  I've got on my tight black Soft White Sixties T-shirt--thankfully, I'm still young and slim enough to wear stuff like this without looking grotesque (at least, I think so).

I take my jacket and Clif bars and head down to Grove Street and the Treefort main stage.

5:40 pm, Main Stage: Talkdemonic

First up on this gloriously bright and warm Spring day is Talkdemonic, a two-person instrumental music band from Portland, OR.  Drummer Kevin O'Connor lays down fluid mid-tempo beats while Lisa Molinaro's keyboards, loops, electric recorder and electric viola build waves of alternately soothing and dissonant textures that blend together to form simple, catchy tunes.  Makes me think of an earthier, warmer, more loosened-up Gary Numan.  A good start to Day 2.  (

6:20 pm, Main Stage: K Flay
After Talkdemonic comes K Flay, a San Francisco-based, Stanford-educated (degrees in Psychology and Sociology, according to her website) white female rapper who comes armed with some recorded beats and samples and a live drummer.  Her breathy rasp may be a little on the thin side, but damn if she doesn't know how to use it: her mind-bending, unfailing flow and rhymes are equal to (if not better than) any major-label or underground rapper you could name.  She doesn't just rhyme for rhyme's sake either: her lyrics detail, dissect and rail against social oppression, anomie, complacency and despair.  It's perfect for a Clash and Public Enemy fan like me who grew up listening to Nirvana and Rage Against the Machine.

I want to stay for K Flay's whole set, but I don't want to miss the great local band playing at the Red Room at 7.  I take off around 6:50 and make a note to remember this lady.

7:00 pm, Red Room: a.k.a. Belle

I get to the Red Room just as the members of a.k.a. Belle are going through their soundcheck.  Wuthering Heights with Laurence Olivier and Merle Oberon is playing on one TV, footage of a Red Hot Chili Peppers concert on the other.  Ziggy Stardust plays on the PA system.  Did I mention how much I love the Red Room?
Their set begins a little late (they apologize for that), but any complaints one might have are swept aside as soon as they start to play.  Since I went to their CD launch show at the Neurolux in February, a.k.a. Belle has joined the handful of local bands that I want to see as often as possible.  Their sturdy country tunes have a lot going for them.  There are the pretty three-part harmonies.  There are the funny, heartfelt lyrics.  There are Sam Merrick's tactfully raw Neil Young-ish guitar and genially sardonic singing.  Most of all, though, there are Catherine Merrick's (a.k.a. Belle's) full-bodied, bluesy, sultry lead vocals.  Highly recommened to fans of the Knitters (or, rather, to anyone who may know who the hell the Knitters are).

8:00 pm, Red Room: Cheyenne Marie Mize

"Wow, this lady kinda sounds like PJ Harvey," I think two songs into Cheyenne Marie Mize's set.  Before she and her band launch into their third song, she announces, "This next song is a PJ Harvey cover."

Mize sounds much more grounded than PJ Harvey does typically, though.  It may help that she hails from Kentucky and hence comes by American roots music more naturally (culturally speaking).  In any case, Mize boasts a voice that's both pretty and tough as well as a knack for writing sharp, no-nonsense, arty yet catchy songs steeped in blues and country.  Her fast ones galvanize, her slow ones enthrall, and her solid bassist and propulsive drummer back up her guitar and keyboard every step of the way.  Mize makes me think of what Robert Christgau wrote about Lucinda Williams back in 1988: "[S]he seems just an inch's compromise away from a hit.  But that inch is why her rock and roll traditionalism still sounds fresh."  Here's hoping that it doesn't take Mize as long as it did Williams to find an audience.

(Sidenote: I have to share this song of hers, which knocked 'em dead at the Red Room.  Go ahead and listen to it now, but be prepared to have it stuck in your head for the next few days.)

9:00-10:30 pm

I leave the Red Room to see if I can catch the Maldives at the Neurolux.  When I get there, I find this:

So, with that idea shot, I head over to Mulligans.  After a drink and some Tom Waits and James Brown on the jukebox, I head across the street to the Crux, a coffeeshop that opened just recently, and catch the tail-end of Tim Blood & the Gutpanthers' set.

As soon as I'm two steps inside the door, a wave of heat and B.O. hits me.  "Yes," I think, "this is a proper hardcore punk show."  It makes for an interesting contrast, seeing a group of younger kids moshing and stomping around in this nice, clean coffeeshop.  Don't catch enough of the band to form a solid opinion, but they seem decent enough.

When the show ends, I swing by the Pie Hole on 8th Street for a couple slices of pizza.  I've really grown to like this place: decent food, cool atmosphere, nice people.  Speaking of people, its employees include Eric Larson of the excellent local band Red Hands Black Feet (who are scheduled to play on Day 3) and Eric Gilbert.  Think about that the next time you feel like being mean to some poor schmoe in the service industry.

I check my show schedule and see that Blitzen Trapper's up next at Neurolux.  I'm not especially keen on seeing them, but I know that a couple of my friends are, so what the heck.  I go back down there and find this:

Geez.  I start thinking that I should just head back to the Red Room now to make sure that I'll get to see the Soft White Sixties play at midnight.  This turns out to be a wise move: I get back in just as it starts to get really crowded.  I watch the last 20 minutes of a set by an alt-country group called Sons of Guns.  Not bad--some Dylanesque harmonica, nice bluesy solos.

11:00 pm, Red Room: Hot Bodies in Motion
It takes balls to name your blues-funk-rock band something like Hot Bodies in Motion (not to mention give out free guitar picks with your band's name and Bill Withers' face on them).  Thankfully, this four-man group from Seattle makes good on the challenge they set for themselves (first Pickwick, now this group--what are they putting in the water over there these days?).  Ben Carson's baritone has a suitable amount of grit and drawl, lead guitarist Scott Johnson has clearly paid attention to his Stevie Ray Vaughan records, and bassist Zach Fleury and drummer Tim LoPresto lay down a solid, steady 4/4 beat.  They make the kind of music that's best heard in a hot, low-lit, crowded room.  In other words, a place like the Red Room tonight.

12:00 pm, Red Room: The Soft White Sixties

Here we go--here comes one of the bands that I'm most eager to see at Treefort.  I saw these guys when they played the Red Room last December.  By the time they neared the end of that show, things kinda looked like this.

This five-man San Francisco band plays music worthy of their hometown's history--a loud, raucous, joyous mix of psychedelic hard rock, pop, funk and soul.  Frontman Octavio Genera can croon and rasp with the best of them, their streamlined twin guitar attack makes your hair stand up and their rubbery, hard-driving rhythm section gets you up and moving.  The second time around, they don't disappoint.  They show the audience love tonight, and the audience gives it right back.  For their encore, they bust out a righteous cover of "Instant Karma," and by the time they reach the song's outro, Genera is literally swinging from the rafters.  The gentleman who chats with me about spending time in Haight-Ashbury back in the day is quite impressed.  You couldn't ask for a better ending to a great second day of Treefort.

(Sidenote: For those of you in the San Francisco area, the Soft White Sixties are scheduled to play the Cafe du Nord on Friday, April 6 at 10 pm.  Go see them if you can.  You won't regret it.)

You can find more info on these bands on Facebook and on the websites listed.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Treefort Music Fest, Day 1 (3/22/12)

I want a thousand guitars
I want pounding drums
I want a million different voices speaking in tongues
--Bruce Springsteen, "Radio Nowhere"

(Note: for those of you who don't know about Treefort or the music scene here in Boise, you can read about both here.  Also, apologies in advance for the extremely variable quality of the photos.)

5:00 pm: Neurolux

I'm sitting in a booth at the Neurolux, one of my favorite bars in town and THE hipster hangout in Boise since time immemorial.  I'm nursing a PBR, reading a bit from my well-worn copy of Leaves of Grass, listening to Democracy Now on the PA system and waiting for Treefort to kick off.

Eric Gilbert, the artistic director of Treefort and keyboard player for the local band Finn Riggins, has a busy day ahead of him (I imagine).  When I came in, he was talking with the mohawked gentleman behind the bar about festival logistics (how they plan to deal with crowds, what he's told the bands to expect, etc).  Now, he's going through soundcheck with the drummer and the bar's sound man.  The guitar player/ lead singer in FR shows up a little while later.

I'm excited.  This will be the first festival of its kind both for Boise (as far as I know) and for me.  I'm not entirely sure how it'll turn out--when I'd told some friends around town about Treefort, they'd told me that they hadn't heard anything about it.  No matter.  I've got a couple Clif bars in my jacket pocket; I don't want to waste precious show-watching time trying to get grub.

People are streaming in.  I finish my beer, gather up my stuff and move toward the stage.

6:00 pm, Neurolux: Finn Riggins

It's appropriate that Finn Riggins should be the band to launch Treefort: on top of the fact that their keyboardist organized this whole thing, they've been one of the best bands in town for quite a while.  They were one of the first bands I saw that made me realize that something really cool was happening in Boise.

As usual, they're great.  Drummer Cameron Bouiss lays down the beat--everything from laid-back skank to full-speed-ahead locomotion (their songs tend toward the latter, but not so's you can't dance to them).  Lisa Simpson's guitar jangles, riffs, shoots off perfect little solos and dips into Ron Asheton-esque distortion workouts as needed.  Her warm, strong voice is in good form tonight: she sings the songs flawlessly.  Eric Gilbert trades vocals with Simpson occasionally and provides hooks, colorings and textures with his carousel-like synthesizers.

After 40 minutes of FR's patented blend of New Wave, Garage Rock, Pop, Reggae, Disco, Fusion, Funk and I don't know what else, the gauntlet has been thrown down.  Treefort is under way.
7:00 pm, Pengilly's: Aaron Mark Brown
I head out from Neurolux and walk down to Pengilly's on the other end of downtown.  I get there just as Nampa-based indie-roots rocker Aaron Mark Brown and his band start their set.

I blame Randy Newman: every time I hear a rock-and-roller play anything that sounds even vaguely like Ragtime, I roll my eyes and think, "Oh great, they're trying to be ironic."  Nothing wrong with irony, but pulling the Ragtime card's usually a cheap gag, and it can get tiresome.  Brown isn't ironic.  Or rather, he isn't just ironic: he's also down-to-earth, goofy, slyly absurdist, defiant, pained, pissed off and loving.  He sings in a sweet, high, friendly voice that suits all of these moods perfectly, and his band ably handles material that evokes a variety of Southern and Southern-inspired artists (Harry Nilsson, Leon Russell, Lynyrd Skynyrd).

8:00 pm, Linen Building: Buffalo Death Beam

After Aaron Mark Brown, I head over to the Linen Building to check out Buffalo Death Beam, a seven-piece blues/country/folk-flavored rock outfit from Pullman, WA.  I mean, come on--how can I NOT see a band with a name like Buffalo Death Beam?
I imagine that Ray Lamontagne might sound like this group if he hired Dave Grohl to play drums and occasionally smack him out of his mushy navel-gazing.  They come off a bit arch (their first song starts as a celtic stomp and then shifts into a reggae groove), but that's overpowered by Chris Kiahtipes' drumming (believe me, the Dave Grohl reference is apt), Mike Marshall's rockin' mandolin, Caitlin Dooley's weepy fiddle and the crystalline beauty of their melodies and two/three/four-part country harmonies.

9:00 pm, Neurolux: Janka Nabay

After Buffalo Death Beam finish their set, I walk back to Neurolux to see Janka Nabay, a musician originally from Sierra Leone and now based in New York.  In a 2010 Village Voice article, Jesse Jarnow writes that Nabay "has traced an arc [in the past decade] from elbow-rubbing with African heads of state and rebel generals to working at a Pennsylvania fried-chicken joint to sweating it out in Brooklyn DIY venues with a new band."

He certainly sweats it out up on the Neurolux's stage.  Nabay sings his songs in a charmingly rough, conversational vocal style and almost never stops dancing and jumping and smiling out at his enraptured audience during his 40-minute set.  His bass player and drummer handle the African rhythms with ease and make it impossible for listeners to keep still; the atmospheric guitar, keyboards and samples call to my mind the serene, cool electric jazz of Miles Davis' In a Silent Way; and Nabay's female backup singer dances and sings joyfully along with the leader.  Between songs, Nabay gives a shout out to Sierra Leone ("It's not just blood diamonds.  It's not just civil war.  We've got music too.") and thanks the two local girls who had helped him find his way around town earlier (they're right in front of the stage).  Finally, he and his band end the set with a sweet, brotherly (and sisterly) sing-and-clap-along.  I do my best, but I've always been somewhat rhythmically challenged.  In any case, this is the best show I see all night.

10:00 pm, Linen Building: Pickwick

After Janka Nabay's awesome set, it's back to the Linen Building for what will be my second favorite show of the night: the Seattle-based, six-man, quietly twisted R&B group Pickwick.  Smooth yet sharp, their blue-eyed pop-soul sound strikes me as less Hall and Oates and more early Al Green.  Frontman Galen Disston isn't Al Green (nobody is), but he's entirely more soulful than any bespectacled white boy has the right to be.  Not only does he have perfect pitch, belting power and a falsetto that would make Mick Jagger and Bono envious, he's savvy enough to know when to deploy them and when to play it cool and stay out of the song's way.  Pickwick doesn't do straight genre homage, though: they write lyrics about prostitutes who murder their johns and guys who can channel the souls of their dead girlfriends, and they close their set tonight with a cover of the ultra-obscure Lou Reed song "The Ostrich" (not to mention take their name from the label that released it).

11:00 pm, Red Room: Dinosaur Feathers

After Pickwick wraps up, I head to the outskirts of downtown to the Red Room.  When I enter the main room, the flat-screen TV behind the bar is playing L.A. Confidential.  I look behind me and find that the other flat-screen TV on the rear wall is showing Neil Young rocking out on his electric guitar.  This is one reason why I love the Red Room.
Not long after I arrive, a four-man group from Brooklyn, NY called Dinosaur Feathers takes the stage.  Their punky pop-tunes (which detour occasionally into arty noise) get some pizazz from the lead singer's guitar, some elasticity from the bass, some muscle from the drums and some extra luster from the keyboard and the three-part harmonies.  Not bad at all.  May go see 'em again when they're back in town (their Facebook page says that they'll play the Neurolux on May 17).

12:00 am, Red Room: Mr. Gnome

Mr. Gnome, an art-rock duo from Cleveland, OH, close out my first day of Treefort.  The floor in front of the stage is jam-packed as drummer Sam Meister and singer/guitarist Nicole Barille blast out their oddball, humorous take on primal sludge metal.  From another band, such quirks as split-second tempo shifts and filtered, echoed vocals might suggest show-off virtuosity and self-involved pretension.  With this group, though, everything feels somehow light and playful.

With no more shows to see for the day, I stop by Mulligans for a drink.  My feet are on fire and my chest feels like it's going to implode.  I can't wait to do all this again tomorrow.

You can find more info about most of these bands and hear samples of their music on Facebook and on the webpages listed beneath their pictures.  For info on Janka Nabay, employ your search engine of choice and you'll find plenty.

Monday, March 19, 2012

The Naked Spur, dir. Anthony Mann (1953)

"I'm takin' him back and I'm gonna do it alone," he says.  His eyes are hard and wary as he raises the two revolvers in his hands.  He looks like a cornered, angry, frightened animal.  I almost can't believe my eyes, but sure enough: that's Jimmy Stewart.

The Naked Spur is the third and best of five excellent Westerns that James Stewart made in the 50's with director Anthony Mann.  With these films and the ones that he made with Alfred Hitchcock, Stewart got to demonstrate his range as an actor and add dimension and complexity to his screen persona.  That's especially true of this film, which features one of his best performances and probably his meanest.

From the first moment Stewart appears, he looks tense, edgy, nervous. All but gone are his trademark mannerisms: the boyish charm, the stammers, the drawl, the easy-going demeanor.  I can almost picture someone like Humphrey Bogart playing this role instead.  Seeing that nice guy from those Frank Capra movies, though, makes the viewer wonder--what the hell happened to this man?  What's he going to do?  What is he capable of doing?

Stewart plays Howard Kemp, a bitter, disillusioned Civil War veteran turned bounty hunter.  He's pursuing an outlaw named Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), who's wanted in Kansas for killing a marshal.  He hopes to use the $5,000 reward on Ben's head to buy back the cattle ranch he lost during the war.

Catching Ben isn't easy.  Circumstances force Kemp to accept help from two strangers: hard-luck prospector Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) and slick Roy Anderson (Ralph Meeker), who's fresh from a dishonorable discharge from the U.S. Cavalry.  Once they catch Ben, the two men find out about the reward and demand a share of it.  Complicating matters further is Lina Patch (Janet Leigh), a fiesty young woman who has been travelling with Ben.  As the five characters journey back to Kansas, Ben uses Lina to start turning his captors against each other.  He plants seeds of doubt and suspicion, plays on each man's fears and desires and watches for a chance to escape.

It's appropriate, given James Stewart's turn to the dark side here, that each of his four co-stars has at least one great film noir on his or her resume.  Millard Mitchell appeared as a tough, weathered truck driver in Jules Dassin's 1949 crime film Thieves' Highway (he also appeared in the first Stewart-Mann collaboration, 1950's Winchester '73).  Here, he does quite well at conveying his character's overall genial, straightforward nature.  Jesse's clearly not cut out for work like this or for people like these, but he's tired of searching for gold and coming up empty.  As the film progresses, fear and greed override his better judgment and seal his fate.

In some ways, Ralph Meeker's performance in this film feels like a warm-up for the one he'd give two years later as Mike Hammer in Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly.  He's perfect as Roy, a smug, sly, vain, cocky bastard with a vicious streak.  You wonder how this creep could've lasted in the Army long enough to become a lieutenant.  Maybe he slept with a general's wife or blackmailed the teachers at his military academy.

Janet Leigh was caught in the middle of a bitter vendetta between Robert Ryan and Van Heflin in Fred Zinnemann's 1949 film Act of Violence.  She would go on to star in Orson Welles' Touch of Evil in 1958 (and, of course, Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho in 1960).  And last but most certainly not least, Robert Ryan starred in some of the greatest noirs ever: not only Act of Violence, but Crossfire, The Set Up, On Dangerous Ground and Odds Against Tomorrow, to name just a few.  For much of the late 40's and 50's, Ryan earned his daily bread playing violent, anti-social misfits and bigots (ironically, he was an exemplary man off-screen--an ardent supporter of the civil rights movement, nuclear disarmament and the ACLU).  Ben Vandergroat could have been tailor-made for him: he's a cold-blooded sociopath who hides behind a laid-back, grinning veneer.

You couldn't get a better director for this cast and this material than Anthony Mann.  Before turning to Westerns, Mann directed a series of intense, visually stunning crime thrillers that helped define what we think of as film noir (I'll probably write about some of these in later posts).  He had, as Eddie Muller wrote in his book Dark City, "an unsurpassed feel for stories in which vile human nature put the screws to people seeking calm, rational lives."  By imbuing his Westerns with his visceral, sometimes brutal style and vision, Mann helped pave the way for the work of people like Sergio Leone, Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood.

As grim and as violent as the world of Mann's films can be, however, it isn't completely devoid of redemption, compassion and community.  Rather, it's as if, with so much darkness around, the light shines that much brighter.  This is why, while the men's performances are excellent and crucial to the success of The Naked Spur, Janet Leigh's performance may be the most important.

Leigh's character Lina originally came to Kansas hoping to live with her father.  When she found that he'd been killed (while trying to rob a bank, we infer), she was taken in by his good friend, Ben.  Smart, spunky, tough yet vulnerable, Lina serves as the moral compass for the film.  Over the course of the movie, her allegiance shifts from Ben to Kemp as she discovers the true nature of each man.

This shift begins subtly.  When Roy sets off a gunfight with a party of Indians (they started hunting him after he raped their chief's daughter), Kemp protects her.  She returns the favor by pulling him to safety after he gets shot in the leg.  She also nurses him when he falls unconscious from his wound.

As Lina stays up all night tending to Kemp, the change truly begins.  He grows delirious and starts to think that she's Mary, the woman he loved who betrayed him, sold his ranch and used the money to run off with another man.  Lina plays the part in order to soothe him and keep him calm.  Leigh's delicate handling of this scene allows us to infer that a seed is being planted in her character's mind as she takes on this role: Lina has taken one step away from Ben and toward Kemp.
In the scenes that follow, Leigh conveys largely through looks, nuances in her tone and little gestures that her character is warming more and more to this man.  Kemp responds in kind, and we see some of the Jimmy Stewart we recognize start to come back.  Thanks to the skill of both Stewart and Leigh, Kemp and Lina's deepening relationship and the glimmer of redemption within it feel not sentimental but hard-earned.  This gives great power to The Naked Spur's ending, where Kemp must decide whether to go back to Kansas to collect his blood money or to start a new life with Lina.