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Gospel music vets Knapp, Becker unite for Christmas album, tour

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Jennifer Knapp, Margaret Becker, gospel music, Immigrant's Daughter, Simple House, music, gay news, Washington Blade

Margaret Becker and Jennifer Knapp
‘The Hymns of Christmas Tour’
Monday, 7:30 p.m.
The Birchmere
3701 Mount Vernon Ave.
Alexandria, VA
$25

Jennifer Knapp, Margaret Becker, gospel music, Immigrant's Daughter, Simple House, music, gay news, Washington Blade

Margaret Becker (right) a veteran of gospel music with classic albums like ‘Immigrant’s Daughter’ and ‘Simple House’ in her canon, just finished a Christmas album with Jennifer Knapp, a gospel artist who emerged in the late ’90s. (Photo by Heidi Groff; courtesy Jay Jones Music)

Any touring musician will tell you life on the road — even when you can afford first class all the way — can get to you after years of going through the endless recording/promoting/touring/repeat cycle.

Two gospel music veterans who, at different times and to varying degrees, each spent years out of the limelight, are back with a wildly unexpected joint project — an album called “The Hymns of Christmas.” On it, Margaret Becker and Jennifer Knapp trade leads and harmonies and enjoy what they say is great musical repartee. They’re half-way through a 14-date mini-tour to support it and play the Birchmere in Alexandria, Va., Monday night.

Knapp, 38, released her first major label album to the Christian market in 1998 and worked solidly touring and recording through 2002 at which time she went on a long hiatus, moved to Australia and pretty much gave up any thoughts of continuing her career. She came out as a lesbian in April 2010 and released a comeback album called “Letting Go.” She maintains her Christian faith but says, though she doesn’t claim to be a theologian, she believes many of the scriptures traditionally used to condemn gays have been misunderstood and misinterpreted.

Becker, 53, was practically peerless among Christian music women rockers in her heyday. She released her first album in 1987 and though she recorded plenty of ballads and exhibited tremendous songwriting prowess, Becker always rocked harder than her contemporaries like Amy Grant or Twila Paris. Becker enjoyed a great run throughout the late ‘80s and ‘90s but slowed down tremendously by the ‘00s. Her new effort with Knapp is her first new album since 2007’s “Air.”

During a lunch break last week between back-to-back shows in Canton, Ohio and Indianapolis, Knapp fields a bevy of questions on how she has settled into being an openly gay singer, the collaboration with Becker and how it came about and what fans can expect from their show next week at the Birchmere.

It’s a highly non-glam tour and Knapp makes no attempt to hide it. They’re sharing a van and Becker is in line getting lunch at a Subway while Knapp answers Blade questions. Though the interview is with Knapp, Becker quickly follows up with e-mail inquiries later in the day.

“It’s just gonna be Margaret and I with a couple of acoustic guitars, but don’t let that fool you,” Knapp says. “It’s one of the most fun times I’ve ever had and it’s not gonna be some pared down girly acoustic thing. It’s gonna be a really good, full-voiced night. It shocks me when I look over at her and see how much she gives each night.”

Though not as active as she formerly was, Becker still speaks at religious women’s events and participates in hymn recording projects. Her audience is very much part of the Nashville-based contemporary Christian industry, the ranks of which both she and Knapp came through.

The two met in about 2000 when they both participated in a pair of multiple-artist projects and became friends. Knapp, who long has admired Becker, says it took no arm-twisting to convince Becker to record and tour with her, though many gospel fans turned their back on Knapp.

“Fortunately it’s not really an issue we’ve had,” Knapp says. “Tonight’s going to be a prime example. We’re playing at a United Methodist church in Indianapolis. It will be a lovely Christmas evening and the last thing we’ll be talking about is our sexual orientation. It’s a huge step for that church to host somebody like me and just proceed as if it’s business as usual but I think we’re seeing that more and more in terms of the public consciousness. I think we saw that in this last election. It’s great that people can take that and not draw this unusual amount of attention to it. That’s really the extraordinary part of it.”

Becker, in an e-mail exchange, says she’s not finding fans and those coming to the shows to be inferring anything about her life or ministry by her collaboration with Knapp.

“The audiences who are supporting this are music lovers who recognize when the work is symbiotic and complementary,” Becker says. “We’ve played this tour to those people, groups that I consider to be overlapping supporters from both of our bases. They are respectful and come for the music and spirit or the art of the material. I don’t think they give it much more thought than that and to me, that’s perfect. That’s how it should be.”

For the record, Becker declines to comment on her own sexual orientation. “My personal life is private and I’m very happy,” she wrote in an e-mail via her publicist. “I am very supportive of Jennifer and this musical partnership we’ve created and look forward to sharing it with her supporters and mine.”

The album features mostly acoustic arrangements of traditional church classes like “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” “The First Noel,” “What Child is This,” “Silent Night” and more. Neither artist had recorded a Christmas album before and now that both are again living in the Nashville area, they decided this summer to go ahead and make it happen.

“We finally said, ‘Let’s just do it, let’s just get it done,’” Knapp says. “There was no pressure to write anything new, they’re all hymns so there’s a great wealth of material there and lots of opportunities for us to harmonize. We just decided to put our money where our mouth was and go ahead and do it.”

Becker concurs.

“One night we just got serious and realized we’d both put off making a Christmas record over the course of our careers, at least the kind that was indigenous to us. That’s where the idea came from. Making music with a dear friend who is also an awesome talent was the catalyst for me. It was fun top to bottom.”

The indie album was recorded on a shoestring with, Knapp says, basically “one mic and one computer.” She says the advance of user-friendly recording software made it possible to do the album without spending thousands. They did some spring rehearsing, hit the studio in July (when most Christmas albums are recorded) and did most of the work in a four-week span. The mixing and packaging came soon after and the project wrapped in October.

“It did feel a little weird at first singing all these Christmas songs while you’re just dripping in sweat in the middle of the hot Tennessee summer,” she says. “So at the beginning, yeah, it took a little time to wrap my head around a Christmas project but pretty quickly it really did start to feel like its own project. It didn’t feel kitschy or Christmasy really to me. We approached it in a very honest sense and didn’t want to make it kitschy. Maybe it’s just because I was involved with it but I really was thinking, ‘Wow, I could listen to this any time of the year.’”

The first half of the show is basically the new album. In the second half, the two revisit their hits, trade harmonies on each other’s songs and keep it loose enough that the set list varies from show to show.

“We’ve sort of got this telepathy thing going on for the last two or three shows,” Knapp says. “We’ll just kind of riff on a theme for a bit and it’s great knowing you don’t have to play it exactly the same way every night or carry the full weight of the evening by yourself.”

Knapp ends the conversation weighing in on a blaze of topics. On whether or not Christians in the U.S. are becoming less rigid on homosexuality, Knapp says there “will always be people who aren’t going to change their minds no matter what.” She says she finds encouragement in the Mainline Protestant denominations that are making gay-friendly strides more and more as time progresses.

Why then, one wonders, have those kinds of churches not spawned their own cottage industry of gospel music the way the evangelical/Bible Belt world did starting with “Jesus music” in the late ‘60s?

“It’s a question I’ve been asking myself for years,” Knapp says. “There are thousands of singers who write about their faith from very different viewpoints but I really think a lot of it has to do with the circumstances in that world where the people who run the industry really see themselves as the gatekeepers and a great emphasis is placed on how the individual artist acts and who they hang out with and how you think about your faith. We’ve seen a lot of strong artists pulled from shelves because they’ve gotten divorced or had an alcohol problem or whatever. As a songwriter you really have to keep writing true and honest stories. If you’re only writing music for Christians, by Christians to make more Christians, you kind of lose out.”

Lee Tucker, a long-time gay gospel music fan and Alexandria, Va., resident, says Knapp deserves enormous credit for being brave enough to come out, despite what it might cost her in lost airplay, space at Christian retail and fans.

“I think it’s amazing she took the brave jump to come out,” Tucker says. “It was a big jump for Chely Wright too because a lot of country music is in the Midwest and in the Bible Belt, but it’s even more of a leap for Jennifer because it will totally change her market. If you went into a Christian bookstore right now, you wouldn’t find any of her stuff on the shelves at all.”

For LGBT teens who might be coming up in evangelical households, Knapp says hang in there and remember there are faith-based Christian groups out there that affirm gays.

“Absolutely get online, there are so many people out there waiting with open arms,” she says. “The Christian Network, Believe Out Loud, Soulforce, Inside Out Faith — there are a lot of people out there offering very compassionate, faith-based support. It’s not longer just churches being the bad guys here. A lot of them are starting to get the message.”

 

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At 15, restored ‘Shortbus’ is still a movie ahead of its time

Depictions of real sex among actors raised eyebrows

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Paul Dawson and PJ DeBoy in ‘Shortbus.’ (Photo courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories)

When it debuted in 2006, John Cameron Mitchell’s “Shortbus” – which this month receives a special 15th anniversary re-release in the form of a sumptuous new 4K restoration – was described by Variety as being “unquestionably the most sexually graphic American narrative feature ever made outside the realm of the porn industry.”

That description arguably still holds true, and it was not hyperbole. Mitchell, fresh off the success of both the stage and film versions of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” had deliberately set out to make a film exploring “the language of sex as a metaphor for other aspects of the characters’ lives.” He solicited videotaped submissions from would-be cast members – whether they were trained actors or not – who were open to the experience of performing in sexually explicit material, then collaborated with the chosen players over a two-and-a-half-year process of improvisational workshops to create the story and script. When the cameras finally started rolling, the cast had already developed a level of emotional and physical intimacy that allowed them to deliver unprecedented authenticity. Almost all the sex scenes were un-simulated – and indeed, according to Mitchell, all but one of the many orgasms that take place in the film are real.

It’s not surprising that “Shortbus” would garner a lot of attention 15 years ago for its bold approach to onscreen sex, considering that real sex on film is still largely considered a taboo in the mainstream. What’s surprising is that it generated relatively little outrage or backlash from the conservative crowd. There were detractors, of course, whose pearl-clutching reaction to the idea of such a film was simply to decry it as “pornography,” and it was banned in some foreign markets with draconian censorship laws regarding sexual content; nevertheless, thanks to Mitchell’s established reputation as an artist and the enthusiastic response it received at the Cannes Film Festival, the movie managed a reasonably widespread release across major markets in the United States without raising too many eyebrows, meeting with a mostly favorable response from both critics and audiences – at least the audiences who weren’t too squeamish to go and see it.

Those who did quickly found themselves drawn into the lives of a collection of young New Yorkers, all struggling to find meaning, connection, and gratification in a city still reeling from the tragedy of 9/11 and the frustrations of Bush-era politics. There’s Sofia (Sook-Yin Lee), a sex therapist who has never had an orgasm, and her attentive but increasingly bewildered husband Rob (Raphael Barker), whose own sexual needs are not being met, either; there’s Jamie (PJ DeBoy) and James (Paul Dawson), a former child TV star and his ex-hustler boyfriend who are looking to open up their relationship to others, and Caleb (Peter Stickles), a voyeuristic neighbor who lives vicariously through stalking them and obsessively following their lives; and finally, there’s Severin (Lindsay Beamish), a professional dominatrix frustrated over her inability to make emotional connections. Along with other sexual pilgrims of the New York underground scene, they come together at Shortbus, a weekly “salon” dedicated to art, music, politics, and polysexual carnality.

At the time of its initial release, “Shortbus” felt for many – perhaps even most – like a glimpse into another world, an erotic utopia where sexual freedom and experimentation were not only “normal” but incorporated into a holistic view of life and used as a valid avenue for achieving personal growth. Seen today, what strikes the viewer most is just how far ahead of its time Mitchell’s purposefully transgressive movie really was. Though we haven’t quite reached a cultural place where the freewheeling and permissive sexuality it depicts has been fully embraced by all, many of the then-arcane sexual concepts it presents – polyamory, BDSM, “pegging” – no longer carry the same sense of transgressive danger they once did in the mainstream cultural imagination. More importantly, the attitude of sex-positivity it champions has become far more widespread in our modern world, thanks in no small part to the increased visibility and acceptance of “non-traditional” sexual practices in popular media.

There’s also an unexpected – indeed, almost eerie – resonance to be found in the underlying zeitgeist of the film’s post-9/11 New York, as reflected in the existential crises with which its characters resignedly grapple. This is particularly notable in the secretly depressed James (Dawson’s sensitive portrayal of his mental health struggles provides the emotional heart of the movie), but any of the characters could easily be transplanted into the COVID-exhausted world of 2022 and seem just as much at home.

For all that looming heaviness in the air, though, “Shortbus” remains as refreshingly upbeat and unexpectedly joyful as it was 15 years ago – and that’s not just because of the sex. Mitchell, in talking about making the film, says he did not “necessarily seek to be erotic.”

“In the years I was making ‘Hedwig,’ he says, “I welcomed the fact that movies were exploring sexual frankness again, as some had in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but I regretted the fact that most of the new ones were so grim and humorless. Sex seemed just as connected to negativity as it was for, say, Christian conservatives. I guess it’s understandable. I was brought up in a strict Catholic/military environment where sex was the scariest thing imaginable, which, of course, made it fascinating. I decided to make a New York-style, emotionally challenging comedy that would be sexually frank, thought-provoking, and, if possible, funny.”

True to that goal, “Shortbus” feels for most of its running time like a light-hearted romp. Justin Vivian Bond, playing themself as the host of the film’s titular salon, brings a buoyant sense of humor to the movie that pervades even when they’re not onscreen, and the colorful community of background characters – including an Ed Koch lookalike who confides in a young potential hook-up that he was “once the mayor of New York City” – provide a constant stream of memorable comedic moments throughout. There’s even an overtly farcical sequence involving a remote-control orgasmic egg, which would not seem at all out of place in a 1960s screwball comedy from Blake Edwards.

Still, to downplay the sexiness of “Shortbus” would be to ignore its most enduring legacy. After all, it’s a film that features graphic sex between various combinations of gender, including extended scenes of three-ways, orgies, rimming, cunnilingus, fellatio, self-sucking, and full-on penetration of multiple orifices. Yes, some of it may arouse you – but the real power of sex in this film has to do with the fact that, unlike porn or even most “tasteful” Hollywood sex scenes, the intention is not so much to turn us on but to help us get over it.

As Mitchell puts it, “In the current and important campaign to correct social wrongs, sometimes sex itself gets a bad name. To some today, any kind of sex on screen is exploitation… Let’s not let our need for safety and justice boomerang us back to our default American Puritanism. Sex between consenting respectful adults is one of the great joys and mysteries of our lives. No need to panic. 

“Let’s just lie back and think of each other.”

The new 4K restoration of “Shortbus” opens theatrically in New York City on January 26, followed by an expansion to other cities across the US. You can find information about theatres and dates at the Oscilloscope Laboratories Website.

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Arts & Entertainment

Amy Schneider’s Jeopardy! winning streak ends at 40 games

Transgender contestant is the highest-earning woman in competition’s history

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(Photo Courtesy Casey Durkin/ Jeopardy Productions, Inc.)

Amy Schneider‘s record-setting Jeopardy! winning streak came to an end on Wednesday’s show after getting tripped up on the Final Jeopardy! clue.

Schneider is the first transgender contestant to qualify for the Tournament of Champions, and she’s the highest-earning woman in the competition’s history, with a total of $1,382,800 from 40 wins.

Schneider was leading by $10,000 as the contestants headed into the all-important “Final Jeopardy!” category, she failed to answer the clue. It was, “The only nation in the world whose name in English ends in an H, it’s also one of the 10 most populous.” Contestant Rhone Talsma managed to overtake Schneider when she answered, “What is Bangladesh?” the correct response. Schneider ended up with $19,600 versus Talsma’s $29,600.

“I think that the best part for me has been being on TV as my true self, expressing myself and representing the entire community of trans people,” Schneider told Good Morning America this week. “And just kind of showing a different thing than maybe some people have seen, of just being a smart, confident woman and just doing something super normal, like being on Jeopardy!.”

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A Revolution for Women in Baseball

Last week, they announced that Rachel Balkovec will become the first woman to manage a team in minor league baseball.

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Rachel Balkovec was hired as a hitting coach in the Yankees’ system in 2019. She will now manage the Class A Tampa Tarpons.Credit. Photo Courtesy of Rachel Balkovec/Instagram.

The Yankees were late on introducing an African-American player to their roster, adding Hall of Famer Elston Howard to the team in 1955, eight years after Jackie Robinson starred for the Brooklyn Dodgers.  The Yankees seem determined not to repeat that bad history.  Last week, they announced that Rachel Balkovec will become the first woman to manage a team in minor league baseball when she takes the helm of the Tampa Tarpons this spring. 

It has been just over ten years since Justin Siegal threw batting practice to the Cleveland Guardians and five since she was the first woman to coach a MLB squad with the Oakland Athletics.  Two years ago, Kim Ng became the first female General Manager of any of the four major professional sports when the Marlins hired her to run their team.  In the two years since then, the dam has burst.  Women have been hired to important on-field positions with professional baseball at an impressive clip.  As baseball has lagged behind other professional sports in bringing women into the game, the current pace of hires indicates that baseball’s embrace of analytics and objective measures have finally penetrated the walls of one of the most enduring old boys clubs in the U.S. and given talented women opportunities they have long been denied.

Ten women will be coaching with major or minor league teams in 2022.  In 2021, Bianca Smith became the first African-American woman to coach in the minors when the Red Sox hired her. Alyssa Nakken became the first woman in uniform during a Major League Baseball game when she coached first base for the Giants in a July 2020 exhibition against the Oakland A’s.  Her jersey now belongs to the National Baseball Hall of Fame.  Cuban-American Veronica Alvarez is not only the coach of the U.S. Women’s National Baseball team, she also served as a spring training coach for the Oakland A’s.

The proliferation of women in baseball is not an accident.  More girls than ever are playing baseball.  Here, in the DC area, 160 girls participated with D.C. Girls Baseball in 2021.  Baseball for All, an organization that supports and promotes girls in baseball, held a tournament last summer that drew nearly 600 girls who play baseball.  There are more women than ever on collegiate baseball rosters.  Major League Baseball has also devoted significant resources to girls and women in baseball, running several development camps for girls in baseball.  Six of the women now coaching professional baseball participated in MLB’s Take the Field initiative, which is designed to help place women into baseball positions. To top it all off, the classic film about the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, A League of Their Own, is getting a reboot on Amazon Prime this year.

The pace of hiring is exhilarating.  Unfortunately, every report of a woman being hired is followed by predictable hateful commentary on social media.  Many cannot imagine that a woman may be hired for a baseball position on merit and resort to making sexist and derogatory comments.  As women in baseball, the coaches are used to that vitriol and have developed thick skin and sophisticated defense mechanisms.  However, also reading are thousands of girls who are inspired by the achievements of these women and they are, sadly, learning that to achieve in baseball means enduring the sexist taunts, gross come-ons, and hurtful comments.

Baseball has a long way to go.  Other leagues have women officiating games, so it should be reasonable to expect that baseball will have women umpires in the near future.  The possibility of women playing professional baseball is tantalizingly close as 17 year old Genevieve Beacom made history last week as the first women to play Australian professional baseball, when she threw a scoreless inning against the Adelaide Giants.

We are watching a revolution in baseball unfold before our eyes. 

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