A Mighty...What?

I'm not sure quite what I saw last night at the McCaw Hall, but it was entertaining. The cast of A Mighty Wind, Christopher Guest's gentle send-up of the 50s folk music world told through a memorial concert, has been touring essentially the front-story for the movie as a live stage show in character.It's a little disconcerting, that concert. I thought the movie was hilarious, partly because I'd grown up listening to a variety of music from that era, and have a pretty close partiality to folks like Pete Seeger. Given little provocation, I'll launch into a rendition of Greenland Whale Fisheries, so don't ask about that song. The concert was quite lovely. (Here's the preview from the Seattle Times). Guest never seems to actually make fun of people in his style, but to embrace their essential charm and warmth, and poke at the pecadillos. His character in the Spinal Tap-successor The Folksmen is such a dead-on summary of Peter Stookey of Peter, Paul, and Mary, that he can just sing the word "Welllllll...." in that quavery, folky style, and we all burst out laughing. What's great about the ensemble is that they are all talented musicians. I don't know, for instance, if Catherine O'Hara learned the autoharp for the movie or had played it her whole life, but she acquitted herself extremely well. And while the singing voices weren't all perfect, they were genuine. Take Eugene Levy and O'Hara by themselves, and they're okay -- Levy has a very nice tone -- but together, their harmony is gorgeous and moving. The songs were mostly or entirely taken from the movie, but played at full length. You had the usual repertoire of folk-like tunes, including the song devoted to the memory of those who had friends, family, "one a loved one," killed in a train crash in a coal mine. The only thing marring the event was the muddy, blurry sound in that beautiful hall. Only Michael McKean's voice cut through it and "Mitch and Micky's" duets; often, the lyrics were totally unintelligible in the kind of middle-tone blur. I've heard the hall is terrific, so it may be the difficult in getting a clear balanced sound out of a one-shot performance. We didn't know what to expect, and the closest I can come to explaining what it felt like was The Museum of Jurassic Technology. There's an irony nestled inside reality nestled inside irony. I mean, we went to see a concert derived from a movie that was a parody of period of time that only took itself seriously half the time.

Glenn Declares Victory

I win: Barnes and Noble is taking its online division private.I was working at Amazon.com in early 1997 when Barnes and Noble launched its online store. We were more worried about Borders, because folks at Amazon knew that Borders information technology operations were better run than BN. (My boss, a VP, had come from BN, and was frank about what their capabilities were.) We looked at BN's site and realized that while it was okay, that their home page was a marketing message for Microsoft and a bunch of other software makers and hardware makers. They hadn't spent the dollars to build precisely what they needed -- Amazon's approach was very Not Invented Here -- and thus they had to contend with all of the flaws at the time in Windows NT, SQL Server, IIS, and all the other crappy components which are now much more robust but were first or second generation at the time. A couple of years later, when I heard that Bertelsmann had invested a huge amount ($200M) into the spinoff of BN.com, the online division, I predicted to many friends and colleagues that the headline in about 3 or 4 years would be, "Bertelsmann admits investment was massive mistake." That happened. Bertelsmann had its shares redeemed a few months. The BNBN tickered was a staggering failure almost from day one. I read a newspaper profile of a fellow who worked at BN.com for a few years and had seen his stock go in the crapper. The irony was, I knew the guy: we had wanted to recruit him at Amazon when I was there, but he wouldn't leave New York. If he'd come to Amazon at that time and worked for as long as he did for BN.com, he would have made several million dollars in options at today's Amazon stock price or more if he'd sold some at the height of its valuation. (We never made him even an interview offer, so I'm not violating labor law here.) It was clear that BN.com didn't understand how to leverage its primacy as a bookstore and beat Amazon at that game. I thought they'd do in-store pickup and returns; in-store ordering; focus on coordinating pricing with some kind of promise like "buy it online or in our store and pay the same." Nope. They pushed some lame discounting, a kind of crappy interface that never improved much, and only recently did they even coordinate anything between bricks-and-mortar stores and the online operation. So the store will continue, but it's terrible sales performance will now be privately reported. Because BN is buying it back, that means that the chain as a whole will have to continue to absorb its losses. We'll see what happens when BN.com gets converted from a bookstore to a bricks-and-mortar adjunct like Borders' online operation, which is run by Amazon.