Triad City Beat: Cultural Fusion

By Brian Clarey
July 2, 2014

Charlie Chaplin was a genius, of course. He laid the foundation for modern American cinema when the medium was a newborn thing. He created his signature Little Tramp character when he was still in his twenties, and was a household name before he was 30, in 1918.

It’s too bad that Adolph Hitler ruined that mustache because it’s great for emoting, like having a third eyebrow.

Most comedy doesn’t age well — try to sit through an episode of “Laverne & Shirley” and my point will be proven.

But Chaplin’s silent films can still make me laugh, sometimes through raw, pie-in-the-face slapstick and other times through the nuanced pathos that Chaplin’s tramp communicates behind the pancake makeup and across the grainy footage.

Ben Singer may be a genius as well. I ran into Greensboro’s resident pianist on the street last week in one of those random encounters for which cities are designed.

Singer’s always got several projects going at once, but perhaps his most intriguing is Modern Robot, a rotating crew of musicians he consigns to create live soundtracks for silent films.

I knew about the Friday night Green Bean gig for The Gold Rush, Chaplin’s 1925 Yukon feature, and that he had enlisted two scene veterans in Sam Frazier and Matty Sheets as accompanists. I didn’t know that he had scored an original soundtrack for the Chaplin film and would share leads with Frazier, a lion of the Piedmont music scene and also my son’s guitar teacher.

I love stuff like this. It’s doesn’t get much more old school than playing along with a silent film, but there’s an avant garde sensibility in staging it at a coffeehouse, with a one-off band of bold-faced names and a slate of opening acts that complemented the vibe. It’s the kind of thing that just organically happens when a cultural scene galvanizes and creativity is empowered. It’s the kind of thing that people talk about when they bump into each other on the street.

And on Friday night the bohemes showed, filling the performance space at the back of the Green Bean, filmmakers, writers, photographers, artists and genuine aficionados among them. We laughed and listened in the dark, and when the show wrapped well before midnight, we filtered back into the city to find our own muses.