Last Minute Shopping
The Lost Dogs and the 77s Brighten the Holidays

Thanks to everyone for your indulgence last week while I attended the wake and funeral of Albert Ferrier.

I’ve known Mr. Ferrier for almost as long as I’ve known his son, Mike. I met Mike in eighth grade, and we bonded over comics and Transformers (and often comics about Transformers). It’s hard to believe I’ve known him for more than 20 years – time just disappears when you’re not looking.

And I’ve always loved his dad, from the first time I met him. Mr. Ferrier was a kind-hearted man with a great sense of humor. He was a scientist with the heart of an artist, a musician with an analytical mind – you don’t often find those qualities in concert, but they were there. Mr. Ferrier was pragmatic and down-to-earth, but also had a twinkle in his eye that let you know he was up for an adventure.

Mike and I certainly sent him on more than one. Our last three years of high school were dominated by this massive video project we did largely in our spare time, this science fiction epic that found us dressing in funny costumes and pointing plastic guns at each other. Even then, our shared intention to never grow up was at the fore of our personalities, and while my parents often scoffed at the amount of time and energy we were investing in this thing, Mike’s dad was always 100 percent supportive, following us around and filming our exploits.

He even appears in the finished movie more than once, and I remember he cheerfully played any part we asked him to. From the befuddled pharmacist to the drop-cloth-wearing man of mystery to the hapless fortress guard, Al Ferrier was up for anything. Even if it meant donning a plastic helmet and being knocked out by yours truly.

I think it was this sense of adventure that made him such a good complement for Mike’s mom. Where she was Mr. Ferrier’s caution, he was her mischief.

Al Ferrier died in hospice care after a long battle with leukemia. He was 78 years old, and had a good long life, but that won’t stop everyone from wishing it was a little longer. His absence leaves the world a little colder, and a little less fun. I hope I learned from Al Ferrier how to grow older without growing old, and to take advantage of the adventures life brings you with a wink and a grin.

Ladies and gentlemen, Albert Ferrier. May he rest in peace.

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We’re officially in the holiday doldrums, which means new music is pretty scarce. January and February are shaping up nicely, with new records from the Magnetic Fields, the Eels, Joe Jackson, the Mars Volta, Robert Pollard (Again! I haven’t even reviewed his two albums from this year yet…), Chris Walla, Mike Doughty and Nada Surf, among others. But until then, we got nothing.

Thank God, then, for Jeffrey Kotthoff and Lo-Fidelity Records of Chicago. For years, Jeffrey K. and his label have supported that circle of spiritual pop musicians I love, and this year is no different – there are two new Lo-Fidelity releases just in time for Christmas, and both are swell. One of them is a holiday album by the great Lost Dogs, and the other is a live album from one of the best rock bands in the world, the 77s.

We’ll take the Christmas record first, since ‘tis the season. The Lost Dogs are Terry Taylor of Daniel Amos, Mike Roe of the aforementioned 77s, and Derri Daugherty and Steve Hindalong of the Choir. They’ve been described as the Traveling Wilburys of the spiritual pop set, and that’s not far off – their stock-in-trade is country, blues and gospel music, digging deep into their Americana roots with a tip of the Stetson.

Their holiday collection is called We Like to Have Christmas, and is a send-up of those bargain bin Christmas compilations you’ll find at Wal-Mart. It’s made up of old and new recordings, and runs the gamut from gut-busting to heartfelt. It opens with a holiday message from Taylor’s televangelist alter-ego, Dr. Edward Daniel Taylor, and then segues into the band’s 1999 take on “The Chipmunk Song.” This one features robot voices standing in for band members at certain times, but most strikingly, it includes their co-founder, the late great Gene Eugene. It’s nice to hear his voice again.

Several tunes from Taylor’s long-out-of-print EP Songs for the Day After Christmas get updated Dogs style here, including the delightful “Big Fruitcake from Hell.” The Choir’s contribution to the late ‘80s Christmas collection Noel, “Babe in the Straw,” is here untouched. Hindalong gets a rare lead vocal on a cowpoke take on “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and the album ends quietly, with several traditional songs performed reverently. The final track is the prettiest, Daugherty lending his angelic voice to “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas.”

If you’re not a Lost Dogs fan already, I’m not sure We Like to Have Christmas would make you one. But for those of us who love this band, it’s a treat, an unexpected holiday confection. However, it’s Lo-Fidelity’s other December release, by the 77s, that I’ve been cranking in the car. It’s called Ninety Nine (a counterpoint to the 77s first live album, Eighty Eight), and it documents a blistering show by the Mike Roe-Mark Harmon-Bruce Spencer lineup of the band.

This is the full 77s rock show, a thunderous blues-laced powerhouse led by the incomparable Roe on six-string. Many people associate Roe with the clean playing of his solo records, or the acoustic beauty of Say Your Prayers, but here he lets loose, and it’s an awesome thing to behold. The disc starts with a punked-up version of “Blue Sky,” but the early highlight is a nine-minute take on “Outskirts,” one of the band’s best blues-rock pieces.

These longer workouts are punctuated by relatively quieter strolls through “Flowers in the Sand,” “The Boat Ashore” and “Best I Had,” which is good, because after the astonishing “The Stellazine Prophecy,” you’ll need a break before diving into their extended jam on the Smithereens’ “Blood and Roses.” Keyboardist Scott Reams gets some solo sections, trading with Roe, and the whole thing comes crashing to a climax with a raucous take on “Snowblind.”

I’ve seen the full-on 77s show only once, but I remember it vividly. This is a band that should be playing sold-out stadiums, and their tight interplay and ballsy energy makes Ninety Nine leap from your speakers. You can get that and the Lost Dogs Christmas album here and when you’re done there, try the back catalogs of both groups here and here.

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So this is my last Doctor Who review of 2007.

I know that’s no doubt good news for many of you, who are sick of reading about this little show, but I’m still enjoying trekking through the available DVDs and writing about them. I’m unsure whether I’ll continue these rambles into the new year, but I haven’t burned out on the good Doctor yet, and as long as I’m still having fun, I’ll probably keep doing them.

Anyway, we’re still not done with Tom Baker’s seven-year run as the Doctor, but we are done with what many consider the golden age of his time, the Hinchcliffe-Holmes years. Graham Williams took over as producer in 1977, and while his three-year tenure started off well with Horror of Fang Rock, it didn’t take long for the rot to set in. Fang Rock is a well-made creep-fest set in a lighthouse under attack, and while it’s true that the BBC just didn’t have the money or resources to do a lighthouse story and make it convincing, the finished product holds up pretty well.

One year later, though, and we’re in the Key to Time saga, which in its 26 episodes delivers everything that’s right and everything that’s wrong with the Graham Williams era.

Season 16 was, at the time, a unique idea – an entire season dedicated to telling one story. The Doctor’s Tardis is intercepted by the White Guardian, who gives him a new companion, Time Lady Romanadvoratrelundar (Romana for short, played by Mary Tamm), and sends him on a quest for the six segments to the Key to Time. It’s very similar in structure to The Keys of Marinus, William Hartnell’s fifth adventure as the Doctor, but instead of six episodes, this one’s told over six complete stories.

With The Key to Time, I’ve come full circle to the stories that rekindled my interest in the classic Doctor Who run back in June. I must say, though, that watching them again after half a year of collecting and viewing these old shows is a completely different experience. I’m able to roll with the low production values a lot more, and I’m actually delighting in many of the things that turned me off before. But given the perspective of six months of immersion, I can see that The Key to Time is not particularly good Doctor Who – it goes through the motions, but it’s hollow, empty stuff.

Anyway, the Key to Time is this clear gemlike square that can stop time indefinitely. Its power is said to be too great for any one being to control, so it was broken up into six bits and scattered to different corners of the universe. The White Guardian needs it to do something vague and unexplained, so he enlists the Doctor (rather than using his seemingly great power to just gather the segments himself), and tells him to beware the Black Guardian, who also wants the Key for, naturally, nefarious purposes. An unimaginative, but sturdy framework for a season-long arc.

The saga starts well, with Robert Holmes’ The Ribos Operation. This is a miniature stage play about a con job on a distant planet, which comes to a bloody end. It’s Shakespearean in places, especially with the dramatic performance of Paul Seed as the Graff Vynda-K. With the exception of the $60 monster, this is a fine enough little tale, warm and funny and self-contained.

It’s with The Pirate Planet that things start going off the rails. You’d think I’d be ecstatic to see Douglas Adams’ first contribution to Doctor Who, given my lifelong fascination with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. But it’s not Adams that lets the side down, it’s the cheap effects and the way-over-the-top performance of Bruce Purchase as the pirate captain.

The standard Douglas Adams whirlwind of ideas is here – the story is about a planet that can teleport and materialize around other, smaller planets, force-mining them, and the secret reason why is pretty great, actually. There’s a very good story hiding here under mountains of plastic effects and the bellowing histrionics of Purchase, and it’s a complex one too, one that also includes a colony of telepaths and a very cool hiding place for the second segment of the Key. I just wish it looked better, and was more fun to watch.

The Stones of Blood is the 100th story of Doctor Who’s original run, and as such, it contains several diverse elements, giving a good overview of the many faces of the series. It starts off as a gothic murder mystery, moves on into a horror story with mobile, pulsing (and cheap-looking) stones as the monsters, and ends up as a sci-fi legal drama, the Doctor on trial on a huge spaceship hovering over the Earth. It’s pleasant enough, but doesn’t quite hold together as a single story.

Three segments down, and we hit The Androids of Tara, my favorite of the lot. It’s almost Doctor Who does The Princess Bride, with robots, swordfights, daring escapes and some very funny scenes. This one’s a delightful romp, giving Mary Tamm two roles to play and letting Tom Baker breeze through a lighthearted fantasy story. Thumbs up for this one.

Ah, but then it goes pear-shaped. The Power of Kroll isn’t bad, but it isn’t good, especially for a Robert Holmes script. It’s about a mining station on a planet of primitives, and about the giant squid the primitives serve. It’s also about gun-running and the environment, but the dialogue is so dull and the monster so poorly executed that any points Holmes was trying to make are lost. Some parts of it are amusing, and the hidden location of the fifth segment of the Key is a surprise, but overall Kroll is an also-ran.

And then there is The Armageddon Factor, the six-part finale. Man, is this one tedious. I haven’t had this much trouble sitting through an entire Doctor Who story since The Web Planet. Sadly, this story as well has the germ of a good idea hidden beneath its surface. The Armageddon Factor is about two twin planets at war, one run by a blood-hungry military leader and one by a computer, stuck in Mutually Assured Destruction mode. There are some good points to be made about the futility of war here, but the story makes none of them.

Instead, we follow the Doc, Romana and their robot dog K-9 as they run up and down corridors, transport themselves to other corridors, and contend with a cackling baddie called the Shadow, who wears panty hose on his head. The story completely disintegrates when we meet Drax, another Time Lord who seems more like a homeless guy, and the Doctor shrinks to six inches tall. Really. It’s terrible, it’s long, it’s boring and it borders on the unwatchable.

It also concludes with the appearance of the Black Guardian at last, and the denouement of the Key to Time saga. I suppose it couldn’t have ended any other way, really, but to press the reset button after 26 episodes is kind of a cop-out. Baker gets a good scene about the implications of the Key’s power, acting like Frodo Baggins under the spell of the Ring, but the season-long story ends on a note of pointlessness. Everything is back the way it was before The Ribos Operation.

That wouldn’t bother me so much if I felt that this story had any effect on the characters involved. But the show has become a plot-driven enterprise by this point, weighted down by jargon and conceptual ideas to the detriment of character. Mary Tamm’s Romana gets only these six stories to make an impression, and we end up knowing very little about her. The show is a plastic engine moving us from one plot point to another, and it never lingers on any of the people it parades in front of us.

There is one exception – Binro the heretic, in Ribos. He gets the best scenes in the entire saga, and I ended up caring about him more than anyone else here, including the Doctor and Romana. By this point, Tom Baker is comfortable in the role, and is playing it with humor and charm, and with almost mechanical effortlessness. This era of Doctor Who is still fun to watch, mostly, but I don’t love it the way I love most everything else I’ve seen so far.

Ah, but next time I do one of these reviews, I’ll be talking about City of Death, one of my favorite Tom Baker stories. So it does rebound. I’m still buying the DVDs one a week, and I’ve moved on from Tom Baker to his successor, Peter Davison, whom I like immensely. The Key to Time isn’t horrible, but it is one of the low lights of the original run, and thankfully, it gets better.

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Where did the year go? Next week is my top 10 list, and after that, it’s Fifty Second Week. And after that, it’s 2008. Hope your year was a good one.

See you in line Tuesday morning.