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Marla Mase At Arlene’s Grocery, Sunday, June 23rd, 2013, As She Readies Her Return!

(I wrote this about the the 21st century’s top spoken word cum indie rocker Marla Mase nearly exactly ten years ago and I am pleased to repost as we ready ourselves for Mase’s highly anticipated return -IL)

 Speaking of things that scare you,  something performance artist Marla Mase does on the first song of her first album, intimacy scares me, which makes me,  more or less, the worst possible audience for Marla Mase’s extremely intimate art form. At Arlene’s Grocery,  Studio Samuel Foundation Benefit Marla claims her subject matters as sex and violence before  she kneels on the ground and snarls, sits on the step of the stage and reads a newspaper, pulls out the lyric to a new song where she pleads with her mother for guidance,wants to take off her clothes, wants all of us to take off our clothes and first and foremost recites,  sings, raps and delivers songs of such a startling intense privacy it made me nervous, it felt like over share.

Marla Mase is an artist and anything  she writea should be seen within that prism and not as a self-portrait, but within that prism she is like Fosca in Iginio Ugo Tarchetti’s 19th century experimental novel who disrupts a man’s life with passion for him. At Arlene Grocery’s Mase disrupted her audience, disrupted me, and I wasn’t sure what to feel about it. With the drummer in hospital just the night before, band leader Tomas Doncker played a powerful lead guitar, throwing in a sweet solo here and there and Josh David held the band together, so the actual playing was indisputably first rate -if fraught with incident. Still the night belonged to Marla and Marla is a puzzlement.

It is hard to define Marla because she absolutely only wants to be defined on her own terms, so on her own terms “Dance The Tango” is a good place to figure her out. The story of a friend of Marla’s who committed suicide, Marla bristles at how the newspapers that wrote about her friend’s death tried to define her: single, over 50, no family or kids… oooh, that’s why she killed herself. Marla insists that there was much more to the woman’s life and I am sure there was but it still leaves the mystery of her suicide untouched. By saying, no, the woman was not this cliche of depression, she leaves wide open the question: whu then did she kill herself? It becomes harder not easier to understand the woman’s self-destruction and so by revealing, it is further hidden. It becomes a bafflement of existence. Much like Mase, there is less revelation of a woman shrouded in mystery. The more Marla reveals, the more mysterious she becomes. It is an act of female mysticism.

That could lead to a great set, both of her albums, A Brief Night Out and Speak  are excellent, but it didn’t on Sunday. The set was too brief to overcome the tech errors and loosely shaped set list. Perhaps it wasn’t the night to introduce a new song. She needed to maintain a firm grip and while I appreciate Marla’s comment that the nature of live shows is that you don’t know what’s gonna happen, that is not an aphorism, it’s a tautology: you don’t know what is gonna happen when you walk out the door but you can take a pretty good guess. Improvisation is a tough art form and it needs a very very clear set of parameters in which to function. What is needed with Marla is entire immersion for a length of time in her world, when that doesn’t happen it is hard to give in to her. Marla needed time, space and a clearer sense of what she wanted to do in her set, you can’t do that in 25 minutes with interruptions, not even a straight ahead rock band can, certainly an artist who is attempting to reach you on another entirely personal level needs time to bring you in and keep you mesmerized. Perhaps a grand futile gesture would have pushed it through, but it wasn’t the place or time…

Caveats not withstanding, when Marla got her grip on a song, “Lioness” and “Things That Scare Me” (which plays off  a “Colored Spade” type litany to immense effect)  bared at her magnificence with the taunt body and mane of hair, the glint in her eye, and the provocative closeness,  she electrified; the possibility of her jumping the barrier between art and rock and back is clear. She ended the evening with her vicious cry for world harmony, written for a UN funded concert in China, “Piece Of Peace”.

So who is Marla Mase? “I’ve made it here today to be a  mother, a sister, a writer, a daughter, an actress, a lover…” Can’t wait to see what she has planned next.

Grade: A-

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