Dances with Costner (and Modern West)
ASPEN – Kevin Costner has had at least two near-brushes with rock ‘n’ roll glory. In his 20s, he was a singer and songwriter in the band Roving Boy, which grew out of an informal acting workshop that took place in a chemical factory along the Los Angeles River and included Costner and several other actor/musicians: John Coinman and Blair Forward, both members of Roving Boy, and John Doe, who would go on to musical fame as a member of the L.A. punk group, X. The band never went far, partly because of artistic mediocrity – Costner says the songs he contributed “were not all that good” – and partly because of ambivalence about heading down the rock road – “I wasn’t in a mood to play out at that point,” said Costner, who was more interested in pursuing acting.But Roving Boy did have one moment to revel in. Two of their songs – “Simple Truth” and “Tokyo Convertible” – ended up in a Japanese beer commercial. It didn’t make them huge in Japan, but it did result in an improbably large payday: $500,000, enough for some members to buy themselves houses. “For guys who’d been in garage bands, it was huge,” said Costner.Costner’s other sort-of brush with rock fame came in “The Big Chill,” the 1983 film that hammered home the point that ’60s-era music – Three Dog Night, Aretha Franklin, and especially Motown – had become the soundtrack to American life. The point was made particularly clear in the scene where Costner’s character, Alex, is being eulogized. The funeral is in a proper church with an old and grave minister; those left behind are dressed in suits and ties. But when Karen (Jo Beth Williams) goes to the organ to play one of Alex’s favorites, the music that comes out isn’t Bach or ancient gospel, it’s the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”Costner, however, is at a distant remove from the scene. Not only is his character lying in a coffin, but the flashback scenes that included Alex were edited out of the film.At 54, and married with young kids, Costner still isn’t swinging for rock stardom. But he will very happily settle for a few nights here and there of strapping on the guitar, getting out in front of a band, and playing original country-rock songs in clubs. Four years ago, Costner – along with his long-ago bandmates Coinman and Blair – got together as Kevin Costner & Modern West, with the idea of working up material to perform live. The project has taken on more life than the actor imagined; Modern West has played more than 50 gigs, and performed recently on National Public Radio’s “World Cafe.” This past November saw the release of their debut album, “Untold Truths.”Friday, Costner, who has been a part-time Aspenite since the mid-’90s, brings the band – Coinman, Forward and Costner, plus Teddy Morgan, Larry Cobb and Park Chisolm – to a date at Belly Up. It is their second Aspen appearance; they played a fundraiser last summer at Belly Up.Costner’s return to music started with a humble observation from his wife, Christine. “She felt that was when I was happiest,” Costner said at his home, east of Aspen. “I resisted at first. I’m not immune to the idea, ‘Oh, an actor doing music.’ I didn’t need that grief.”She looked at me and said, ‘I think you’re happiest playing music.’ She said, ‘When you play music, are you happy? Are the people watching you happy?’ She looked at me in that simple way and said, ‘What’s wrong with that?'”So, while shooting “The Guardian” in Shreveport, La. four years ago, Costner called his old bandmate Coinman, with whom he was already knocking around some musical ideas, and asked him to round up some musicians. The group jammed on the set, and on Super Bowl Sunday they played a 45-minute set in a Shreveport sports bar. The performance cleared both bars Costner had set for himself: It couldn’t hinder his acting, and the music had to be good. He was back in the music scene.••••Early on in Costner’s life, there would have been plenty wrong with playing Modern West’s brand of country-rock. Music was fine in the family’s Ventura home, as long as it stayed within certain bounds. In the “very conservative environment” he grew up in, Costner was steered toward the piano, and toward classical music. He was gifted, able not only to play, but to transpose keys on the spot.”I got so good, they never told me I could play anything other than the classics,” said Costner, who also sang in choirs as a boy. “They put me right inside these lines. Nobody said, ‘If you play this song, you can get a girl.’ That would have changed the universe for me really early.”Discovering pop music – his first love was Motown, but he branched into Carole King, the Guess Who and the Doors – “was like getting into you parents’ medicine cabinet. It was illegal. And [playing] it would have been a huge waste of those piano lessons.”Costner addressed his upbringing in “90 Miles an Hour,” a song from “Untold Truths” that he refers to as a metaphor for his life. “There’s a line: ‘I thought the world was flat for way too long,'” he said. “I don’t regret how I was brought up. But it took me a long time to realize the Vietnam War was wrong, that having long hair didn’t mean a bad person.”After he established himself as a film actor, with the 1985 Western “Silverado,” Costner began to show a rebellious streak. His film choices went against conventional thinking, best exemplified by his two most artistically successful projects: “Field of Dreams,” a pastoral, fantastical baseball movie set in Iowa; and “Dances With Wolves,” an epic about a Civil War lieutenant who befriends a Sioux tribe that was directed and produced by Costner, and earned Oscars for best picture and best director. Even more, the characters he portrayed – the dreamy and defiant Ray Kinsella in “Field of Dreams”; the irrepressible, incorruptible lawmen Elliot Ness, in “The Untouchables,” and Jim Garrison, in “JFK” – ran against the grain.So, too, with his music, Costner sees himself as outside of the mainstream. He didn’t want to attach his name to the band, even though that would give the group an instant fan base. (Friday’s show, billed as Kevin Costner & Modern West, is sold out.) “I came up with Modern West. The band came up with Kevin Costner,” he quips about the band name. “They said, It doesn’t hurt our feelings, and it helps us. I understand the practicalities of the decision. But it doesn’t reflect the band – who we are, and how we operate. I’m not good enough to just get up there as Kevin Costner. I’m not Dave Matthews. It’s not that kind of situation.”A record deal – even making a record – were never part of the early plan. Costner’s big desire was to get in front of people and play live.”I was just about wanting to play live,” said Costner, who comes off as accessible, unguarded and engaged. (He conducted movie-biz phone calls in my presence, and invited me up to his house to jam with the band.) “So our body of songs had to hold an audience. If you don’t want to play live, you don’t really want to play. You just want to record and make it perfect.”The record came as a result of people saying, ‘I really like that song. I want to hear it again.’ It was like the acting: I did what I wanted to do, and I didn’t predict where it would end up.”Another desire was to play original songs. “I didn’t want to play all covers,” said Costner, who says Modern West’s songs are generally communal efforts. “If I was going to do that, I should just play in my living room. That wasn’t worth the drama of people showing up, wondering what they were going to see.”As for the style of those originals, country-rock – with traces of Costner’s friend Robbie Robertson, and Don Henley’s solo work – comes from deep in the band’s roots.”John [Coinman] and I have similar roots. He was from Clayton, N.M.; my family is from the Oklahoma panhandle, Okies who came to California,” said Costner. “Every time I did a song, it had a rural story element to it. John and I share a love of baseball, Buddy Holly, and growing up in small towns.”Costner has not shied away from putting social commentary in his songs. “Five Minutes From America” is about Hurricane Katrina, and came out of the fact that Modern West was essentially born in Louisiana. “The Sun Will Rise Again” addresses the economy. “We always think people will pull themselves up by the bootstraps in America. And that’s a fucking joke,” said Costner. “A lot of people, that’s not going to happen. Their only hope is their church, or their neighbors, or their family.”••••Costner refers to a phenomenon he called “the crossed-arm business.” It’s a guy at a Modern West show, standing still in the audience, arms folded, waiting for the actor to fail onstage. He has clearly been dragged to the show by his wife or girlfriend, who is squealing with delight over the fact that she’s seeing Kevin Costner, in the flesh, close-up.Costner welcomes this kind of scrutiny and connection. Acting, he said, is “a much drier experience” than playing music. Performing, he continued, “I feel like you can taste the chocolate.” And Costner likes that, from the audience’s side, they can get a more immediate sense of who he is.”I wanted to be more than someone spotted in the drugstore: ‘I saw him!,'” said Costner, who lives most of the time in Santa Barbara. “If you boil me down, at the end of the day, I’m a performer. A storyteller, so to speak. It’s communal.”And if people dismiss Costner as another William Shatner, the poster boy for actors-turned-bad musicians, he accepts that comes with the territory.”I understand the vulnerability. But I’m not worried about it, because of the practice we’ve put in. I’m my own worst critic. I had to get over my own bar before I’ll play Belly Up,” he said. “I’m not worried about the conventional wisdom. I’m only worried about that night, that moment. I can’t control outside cynicism. The only ones that really matter are the ones who have shown up that night.”email@example.com
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