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Dispatches

News and notes from around the world

Illustration Peter Oumanski

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Lights, Camera, Lawnmower!

Musicians from all over the world are flocking to England to play in a garden shed  / Hannah Stuart-Leach

SOMERSET, ENGLAND – Two furry-faced guys take the stage for the opening gig of their European tour. It’s an intimate one: There are roughly six people in the audience, which is about three too many for the room, a shed tucked away in a garden in a remote corner of rural England. And yet there’s a sense of occasion, even tension, as band members attempt to manipulate their instruments without knocking tools off the wall.

Jon Earl, the middle-aged man who owns the shed, isn’t quite sure how it came to be a must-stop venue for hundreds of international acts—including the likes of Pokey LaFarge, Turin Brakes and today’s act, the Florida band Radical Face, whose song “Welcome Home” was recently used in ads for Nikon cameras. Earl lives near the southern seaside town of Clevedon, hardly a hotbed of rock ’n’ roll, and makes a living running his family’s print shop.

The music thing started about four years ago, Earl says, after he set about turning his old shed into a cheese-and-cider club. A few musicians from the local pub stopped by one day, and others followed. Earl started to record the sessions, uploading the footage onto his YouTube channel “Songs From the Shed,” and things snowballed into what we have now: a marquee band bumping up against the pruning shears, a big black tour bus parked outside the garden gate.

Despite the modest surroundings, those who play here tend to take it seriously. This is certainly true of Radical Face, who, illuminated by a string of Christmas lights, stand before their tiny audience with expressions bordering on panic. Then, slowly, tentatively, lead singer Ben Cooper lifts his voice above the sound of a cello and his acoustic guitar. The set is a success, and while nobody in the room actually says “Phew,” that’s the overall sentiment.

According to Earl, this response isn’t unusual. He recalls one experienced singer who spent an hour trying to shake off his stage fright but had to leave without playing. “It’s strange,” he says. “The simplicity of one man, one camera and a shed catches people off guard.”

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High Life

Auckland’s One Tree Hill attracts a curious cross section of local eccentrics / John Scott Lewinski

NEW ZEALAND – You come across all kinds when you travel the world. Alternatively, you could stop at One Tree Hill and have all kinds travel to you.

The 600-foot volcanic cone (Maungakiekie in Maori) is crowned by a large obelisk, erected in 1940 at the grave of Sir John Logan Campbell, the “Father of Auckland.” The site has long been a gathering place for locals, who come here to take in the views of the city’s skyline, the surrounding countryside and—not least—each other.

The crowds up here tend to be a diverse lot. On a recent Sunday, a group of teens decked out in Maori garb and tribal tattoos chanted rapid-fire lyrics to a thumping soundtrack. A young boy announced, forcefully, that he wanted an ice cream.

“It’s a grave, honey,” his mother responded. “They don’t sell sweets at graves.”

 Nearby, a woman jogged rapidly along a narrow wall skirting the top of the hill, apparently oblivious to the catastrophic fall that would result if she lost her balance. “Anybody can run on a road,” the jogger replied when asked why she was doing this. At the same time, in the valley below, a couple busily arranged pumpkin-size chunks of lava rock into 20-foot letters declaring, “I love sheep,” and a small crowd gathered at the wall to watch.

One spectator, a young man who seconds earlier had narrowly avoided being run down by a motorbike, rolled his eyes and said, “One Tree Hill,” as if that explained everything.

globetrotting3Stop the Presses

Mourning the loss of an iconic newspaper / Peter Keough

BOSTON – Rain fell heavily the day of the Phuneral, causing some to doubt it would happen at all. The Boston Phoenix—an icon of alternative journalism for almost half a century—had recently ceased publication, and 50 or so ex-employees had gathered in Boston to pay their respects. A little flood wasn’t going to stop them.

The rain let up, but apocalyptic clouds filled the dusk sky. The itinerary called for a procession to follow four pallbearers carrying a Phoenix news box to the paper’s final offices, near Fenway Park, where people would sign the box and leave it in the lobby. This did not seem excessive. The Phoenix, after all, had nurtured generations of writers (Susan Orlean and David Denby among them), and its contrarian, fizz-bang style had helped reshape American journalism.

Suitably somber, the former staffers shouldered the box and set off. Two saxophonists played a cakewalk version of “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” and the rest marched in an erratic line, some jumping out to record the event on their phones.

Soon, the mourners were engulfed by rush-hour crowds, and whatever dignity had been mustered was lost amid the flurry of oopses and excuse-mes. “The saddest part of this procession,” said one veteran, “is that nobody cares.”

But those cut from one of the best—if poorest-paying—gigs in journalism did care. “I spent half my natural life at this newspaper,” said former editor Carly Carioli as the procession arrived at its destination. “And I doubt I’ll love anything as much ever again.” Pat DeGregorio, who had been the office

janitor for 30 years and was now working for the building’s new owners, was the first to sign the box. The rest followed suit. Then they milled about, swapping stories and wondering what to do next.
“Just don’t make a mess,” DeGregorio grumbled. “I have to clean up on Monday.”

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The Toughest Wham fan Around

If you’re going to tattoo a sports team on your biceps, check for double meanings / Chris Wright

SPAIN – In a small town on Spain’s Costa Blanca, on the patio of a bar named for its formidable English founder, Tich, a scattering of expats are engaging in some pre-lunch beer and banter.

One of the men, who looks to be in his mid-50s and who would not be out of place in a Guy Ritchie film, removes his shirt, exposing a lightly roasted paunch and a collection of do-it-yourself tattoos, including four fading letters on his upper arm: WHAM.

“I didn’t know you were a fan of Wham!” remarks a shaven-headed guy, referring to the 1980s teen-pop duo. To a backdrop of mocking laughter, the older man spins in his seat and begins poking at his biceps as if impatiently trying to summon an elevator.

“West ’am!” he screams. “West ’aaam!”

West Ham, as everyone here understands, is an English soccer team known for its tough, occasionally violent supporters. The name is sometimes abbreviated as W. Ham.

The men on Tich’s patio, however, are having none of this. “Wake me up before you go-go,” they sing, bobbing happily in their chairs. “Take me dancing tonight!”

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Creative Confusion

An industrial artist befuddles and captivates in the Steel City / Cristina Rouvalis

There it is, jutting skyward, a tangle of timber, cement, steel mesh, spray paint and girly ribbons. People rushing along Forbes Avenue, including a middle-aged man named Joe, stop to gape at the structure. “I thought it was a collection of giant matchsticks, but now that I’m closer, it’s something else,” Joe says. “I have to figure it out.”  

The object taking shape on this Pittsburgh thoroughfare is “Rendering of Tip,” a 39-foot-high, 131-foot-long installation that’s part of the city’s Carnegie International exhibition. Its creator, 69-year-old British sculptor Phyllida Barlow, is known for incorporating discarded industrial items into her pieces, and this one is no exception.

“Combining opposites, bright fabric ribbons with cement,” she says, creates “a highly charged concoction.”

It is also, for those passing by, a confusing concoction. “What does it mean?” they ask. “What’s it for?” Barlow seems happy with the attention. “Tell me what you think,” she says, prompting a barrage of speculation: It’s a pageant. It’s a funeral. It’s swaddling. It’s from South America. Is it Mexican?

Barlow says she is honored to be a part of the Carnegie International, the oldest contemporary art exhibition in North America, but she’s also a bit stressed—maneuvering 1,500 segments of industrial material into place is a bit like an enormous, potentially perilous game of pick-up sticks.

For Barlow, that unpredictability is a key part of what she does—to the extent that, even this late in the game, she’s still not quite sure what “Rendering of Tip” will look like. “We need to keep the spontaneity alive,” she says, directing the movement of a large beam, “right up to the last minute.”

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Time Travails

After close to 100 years, we still can’t get our heads around Daylight Saving Time / Chris Wright

This month, depending on your perspective, citizens of the United States either gain an hour of sunlight or lose an hour of sleep. We refer, of course, to the annual hour-ahead jump from Standard to Daylight Saving Time (DST), first adopted by the U.S. in 1918 and the subject of heated (and somewhat muddled) debate ever since. It’s good for the economy, or not. It’s good for your health, or not. Nobody really knows. Here, a brief look at what all the confusion is about.

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