Jason Aldean dished out small-town imagery and described a perfect shindig, Jake Owen unleashed his passion for Southern summer nights and Thomas Rhett contemplated having a little talk with Jesus over a beer.
Welcome to the North Little Rock stop of Aldean’s "Night Train Tour." The three talented young vocalists dispensed their own brands of country — all heavy on pop and rock influences — Saturday night at Verizon Arena in a concert that ran well over three hours.
Best known among the three and the reigning Academy of Country Music Male Vocalist of the Year, Aldean likes singing about towns in the South. In this concert alone, he served up “Crazy Town,” “Tattoos on This Town,” “This Nothin’ Town” and “Hicktown,” the latter an up-tempo number that has become his signature song. It pays homage to football games, muddin’ and buying beer at Amoco.
A hologram of duet partner Kelly Clarkson joined Aldean on their nice Grammy-winning ballad “Don’t You Wanna Stay,” and he saved his anthem to good times, “My Kinda Party,” for the encore. It’s the one where he’s “in the back of a jacked-up tailgate … chillin' with some Skynyrd and some old Hank.”
Before Aldean hit the stage, fans got an hour’s worth of Owen, a past ACM Top New Male Vocalist honoree. We won’t try to say he upstaged the headliner, but with a confident and incredibly energetic stage presence, an infectious smile and a handful of hits, he more than held his own.
“Barefoot Blue Jean Night” was, of course, a crowd favorite, with lines like “we were shining like lighters in the dark in the middle of a rock show.” And he sent the crowd of 13,139 into a frenzy when he and his band mates belted out the Beastie Boys’ "(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)"
Wearing an Arkansas flag T-shirt during his stint on stage, Owen slowed it down for perhaps his best song, “Don’t Think I Can’t Love You,” and also pleased with “Alone With You,” “Southern Summer” and “Eight Second Ride.”
Opening-act Rhett, aka Thomas Rhett Akins Jr., son of singer-songwriter Rhett Akins, only had time for five songs, but he made the most of it. “Something to Do With My Hands” and “It Goes Like This” were enjoyable, but it was the curiously terrific “Beer With Jesus” — “ask him how'd you turn the other cheek to save a sorry soul like me” — that was the most memorable.
The Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s current show “Death of a Salesman” — its first production of Arthur Miller’s iconic and storied play — is a wrenching affair, a glimpse into a dysfunctional family finally confronting reality after years of failure, denial and unfulfilled promise. The story will probably ring familiar for most theatergoers: a salesman, in the waning days of his career, falls to pieces in the face of a lifetime’s worth of disappointment and delusion.
In Robert Walden’s Willy Loman, you feel the weight of the years and all of life’s thousands of disappointments great and small in every lumbering step. His posture and crumpled frame communicate nearly as much as Miller’s words to convey the brokenness of this man. He pinballs fitfully between bursts of manic optimism, convulsions of rage and rose-colored recollections of the good old days, when his sons Biff and Happy showed such promise.
As Linda Loman, Carolyn Mignini effortlessly alternates between diminutive, devoted wife and mother and fiercely loyal defender of her crumbling spouse. In one moment, smilingly accepting each interruption and shushing as she tries to chime in, in another, heaping guilt and rage on her two sons and utterly owning the famous line: “Attention must be paid.”
As Biff, Rep veteran Avery Clark embodies the directionless angst and wanderlust of his character. In the flashback scenes, he’s a cocksure and carefree football star Adonis, while the present-day Biff, 34 and still trying to figure out what to do with his life, is desperate and still deeply wounded by a scarring, long ago encounter with his father’s failings.
Craig Maravich’s Happy Loman is all libidinous id, more successful than his brother only in that he’s managed to maintain a job and an apartment, but still an emotionally stunted man-child.
The use of Alex North’s original score feels somewhat anachronistic, but this adds an unsettling layer to the production that deepens the experience. Similarly, the period-perfect costumes and props lend a preserved-in-amber visual quality to the show, but the grief and the rage and the disappointment and fleeting optimism are all alive and breathing in the moment. Mike Nichols’ set is both visually appealing and economical in its use of the space, and the lighting works beautifully with the design.
The Rep has put together a cast that brings this emotional and at times traumatic work to messy, tearful life on the stage. The play is nearly three hours long, but under Bob Hupp’s deft direction it neither drags nor feels rushed. This show seems like it will be one of those Rep productions that people will talk about long after its run has ended. It is not to be missed.
“Death of a Salesman” runs through May 12, with performances at 7 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday, 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays and 2 p.m. on Sundays. Tickets are $25-$40.
Some of the best-loved names in Southern gospel united their voices for more than three hours of music, laughter and worship during Saturday night’s North Little Rock stop of the Gaither Homecoming Tour.
The Gaither Vocal Band, joined by The Nelons, The Isaacs, Charlotte Ritchie and Gene McDonald, served up a nice mix of old and new in what was, more or less, a group effort all night long before a sing-along crowd of 4,518 at Verizon Arena. And having the Singing Men of Arkansas male choir open both segments of the show was a nice touch.
Certainly, singling out a highlight or a favorite is hard to do in a concert featuring so much talent. David Phelps and Wes Hampton have terrific tenor voices, baritone Mark Lowry is simply hilarious — the comic relief, if you will — and Bill Gaither has a great time singing bass and running the show. But if anyone stood out in the current five-man alignment of the Gaither Vocal Band, we’d have to go with Michael English, the group’s multiple Dove Award-winning lead singer.
English — who chronicled his fall from grace in the world of Christian music, his struggles and his successful trip back in his book, “The Prodigal Comes Home: My Story of Failure and God’s Story of Redemption” — possesses a powerful, soulful voice that soars on songs like “The Old Rugged Cross Made the Difference” and the traditional spiritual “Swing Down Chariot.”
Throughout his career, the North Carolina native has found success on the Southern gospel, pop and contemporary Christian charts. Listen to him lead the way on his signature song “I Bowed on My Knees (and Cried Holy)” or “I Don’t Want to Get Adjusted (to This World)” and it’s easy to see why. He delivers heartfelt performances of songs about second chances and God’s mercy.
A recent broken leg didn’t slow Lowry down. The singer/comedian kept the wisecracks coming throughout the evening — including an uproarious roll call of denominations — but showcased his serious side (and his songwriting ability) with a touching version of “Mary, Did You Know?”
With his amazing range, Phelps provided a classical touch to the group’s efforts, including a dramatic “He’s Alive” right before intermission.
It’s always great — and, yeah, inspiring and reassuring — to hear “Because He Lives.” Now a mainstay in church hymnals, it’s one Gaither wrote with his wife, Gloria, early in their careers. Joined by all the singers, he used it as an emotional finale to the evening.
Earlier in the show, “Excuse Me Are You Jesus” was a standout by the Nelons, the Isaacs delighted with “Why Can’t We,” McDonald displayed his deep, deep bass on “A Thing Called Love” and Ritchie shined on the old hymn “Down to the River to Pray.”
Based on what I knew ahead of time about the brand new musical version of "Treasure Island" that premiered last week at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre, I was expecting an adaptation of a classic children's tale that focused on the ways greed can motivate us at our own peril.
Prior to opening, book writer Carla Vitale and director/choreographer and co-book writer Brett Smock discussed the production with the Times. "We've always put greed at the front, and we've leveraged the show against what people do in the face of having more, wanting more, getting more," Smock said. While those elements are certainly examined in the production, their treatment isn't in any way distracting from the action-filled story.
And it's not that I was anticipating that the creative team had transformed the tale into some hand-wringing, deeply philosophical treatise on the nature of greed or anything. It's just that "Treasure Island" ended up being more fun, and a lot funnier, than I was anticipating.
The show will definitely appeal to musical theater lovers of all ages, but for families with children it will prove to be an absolute blast, with riveting action, soaring music, deft choreography and a cast that, by turns, makes the audience laugh, grimace and cheer. That said, this is an intense show and might be a bit scary for very young kids. The story — somewhat condensed, out of necessity — moves along briskly. But it nonetheless feels complete and satisfying.
Most audiences are probably familiar with the story of young Jim Hawkins, Squire Trelawney and, of course, the pirate Long John Silver. Even so, I don't want to give away too much, so I'll stick with some of the things that stood out the most and made this musical so enjoyable:
* Stanley Meyer's set works wonderfully in its multiple duties as The Admiral Benbow Inn, the deck of The Hispaniola and various points on The Island. Also, Rafael Colon Castanera's costumes look simply awesome.
* By nature, a historically accurate 18th-century nautical setting won't allow for too many women, but Kristy Cates is fantastic as Mother Mary Hawkins. Not only can she sing beautifully, she gets in some hilarious lines.
* Speaking of hilarious lines, there are many in "Treasure Island," including a slight variation on the original text, in which Squire Trelawney, in hiring one of the ship mates, says to Doctor Livesy, "The abominable age we live in — to have lost your pension!" That line elicited a few knowing chuckles from a post-Great Recession crowd.
* Richard B. Watson is excellent as Long John Silver, a role that calls for an actor with the chops to turn on a dime, transforming from a shifty-eyed deceiver to a snarling animal and back again. Watson does so effortlessly. There's a particular laugh that emanates from deep within his second-act Silver that will make you shudder. He shines in this production. That he does so while traversing the stage in a prosthetic peg-leg makes his performance all the more impressive.
* If I had to point to one person from this richly talented cast as having stolen the show, it would be Patrick Richwood in the role of the castaway Ben Gunn (you might remember Richwood from his role as the doorman in "Pretty Woman"). Richwood's Gunn is a tortured, slinky, space-cadet survivor who resembles more than anything some shell-shocked rodent that somehow survived Armageddon. And despite possessing riches beyond imagination, all this mousy weirdo really wants some is some cheese. That simple desire seeps hilariously from his every move. I can't overstate how physically magnetic and funny Richwood is.
Really, though, there isn't a cast member that doesn't command your attention, nor a song that falls flat or goes on too long. And again, if you're looking to take your children to a show at The Rep, don't skip "Treasure Island," because while the upcoming productions of "Death of a Salesman" and "Avenue Q" that close out this season will probably be entertaining, they're not exactly made for kiddos.
Egan has written four novels, two works of fiction and all sorts of reporting for the likes of New York Times magazine. She’s perhaps most famous for her latest novel, “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” for which she earned the 2011 Pulitzer and the National Book Critics Circle Award. The usual suspects were present: English major and MFA candidate types, professorial types with receding-hairline-ponytails and hipsters, including girl with lime green hair and ironic tattoos, who cross-stitched beforehand.
Egan began her talk by describing the genesis of the project. Before she started writing, she was in the process of neglecting a historical novel that “just wasn’t working.” After a dinner with her mother at a NYC hotel, Egan said she saw a wallet resting on top of an abandoned purse in the hotel bathroom. This brief encounter with another woman’s wallet reminded her of a time she was robbed (which Egan says has happened all too frequently in her life) hours before she was scheduled to get on a flight. Without money or identification, Egan frantically tried to save her trip and stop any money being stolen from her account. Luckily, a woman from her bank’s fraud detection service quickly called to report activity on her accounts and to try and save the day. After giving the woman her pin number, account number, and all other pertinent information one gives to banking types who are trying to save one from the distresses of fraud, they ended the conversation. Only later did Egan realize that the woman on the phone was not from the bank but rather was the actual thief who had stolen her purse. So after getting all the necessary information from Egan, she proceeded to rob her blind, leaving Egan “levitating with despair.”
Native Pine Bluffian Mark Edgar Stuart has become one of the mainstays of the Memphis music scene, playing live or recording with dozens upon dozens of folks. You would be hard pressed to find a working Memphis musician who has not played with Stuart at one time or another. You’d be even harder pressed to find one with an ill word for Stuart or his talents. Over on this side of the river he is best known for his work playing bass with The Pawtuckets and then as one of the One Four Fives, backing Tennessee Telecaster wizard John Paul Keith. He has, at one time or another, graced the stages of the majority of the music venues in Little Rock. In 2003 he appeared with Cory Branan on “The Late Show with David Letterman.”
Until now, the entirety of his impressive resume has been backing others with his bass… and why not? Stuart is, after all, a classically trained upright bass player, starting in the orchestra program in the Pine Bluff school system earning a music scholarship at what is now the University of Memphis. In early to mid-2010, during a bout with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and the resulting chemotherapy, Stuart started writing songs. He recently told me that he “never wanted to be a songwriter, but I was bored and need something to do. It was something I could do while I was stuck at the house.” Stuart eventually pulled through the illness, but then lost his father to a heart attack.
Fast forward to this week and Stuart’s first solo album, "Blues for Lou," just dropped on Madjack Records, a label that is no stranger to Memphians with Arkansas connections, having released early recordings from Lucero and Branan, who lived in Fayetteville for a spell.
More after the jump.
Opening their set with the attention-grabbing single “Backwoods Company,” the young-yet-promising group excited the crowd with their clean, homegrown rock/folk/country/bluesy sound and soothing harmonies throughout the night. While many of their songs have a decidedly country feel to them, it would be inaccurate to categorize them simply as a “country band.” A few of their slower ballads bring tire swings and swimming holes to mind, but most of their music is layered with catchy, hard-rock hooks and modern guitar riffs that are impossible to ignore.
After seeing them live, it’s hardly surprising this newly-formed group was able to secure a spot opening for Paul Simon’s 2011 fall tour, although I was pleasantly surprised by their encore — Led Zeppelin’s “Hey Hey What Can I Do.” Ya know, no big deal.
Be sure to check out the beautifully-shot videos for their debut single “Backwoods Company” (which, after the show, singer Joel King informed me was shot during an actual party in the woods) and the accompanying “sequel” video for "The Ceiling." Keep these guys on your radar, folks — they're just getting started and are likely to hit the bigtime soon. And word on the street is they’ll be hitting up Little Rock for another round of soul-baring rock before you know it.
That's it right up there. They had very nice things to say about the record, and hey — a score of 8/10? "Big Star-redolent brand of power pop?" Nice!
After the jump, check out the new video for the Cats' excellent "Don't Go," from "The Ancient Art of Leaving: Two Parts." "Each of us filmed in our respective cities and then collaged together," wrote singer/guitarist/Max Records honcho Burt Taggart.
Last week, Huntington Beach, Calif. reggae/hip-hop/alternative rock hybrid The Dirty Heads decided they would show some love to Little Rock on Valentine’s Day. Just the second stop on their month-long national tour with Shiny Toy Guns, Midi Matilda and Oh No Fiasco, the boys kept the momentum going strong from late night into the early morning, captivating the Juanita’s crowd with their infectious blend of alternative rock, Sublime-y reggae melodies, buoyant acoustic pop and spitfire hip-hop cloaked in a palpable, carefree So-Cal vibe.
The Dirty Heads are one of those bands that are nearly impossible to categorize under one genre. While it’s obvious who many of their influences are — they sound like the Beastie Boys and Sublime had a love child who grew up holed up in his bedroom listening to Eminem — there is a distinctly sunny, lighthearted feel to their music. Most of songs, in one way or another, encourage the audience to let go of the stress, anxiety and general negativity that weighs them down in the rat race of life, ignore those who don’t appreciate the unique beauty in all of us and, even if only for the night, kick back, have a drink and let the warm waves of their breezy tunes wash over you in a state of relaxed bliss.
Friday night, the one-man jam-band wonder Keller Williams (not to be confused with the real estate company of the same moniker) played an unforgettable show at Revolution. Williams or “K-Dub,” if you prefer, got his career started when he offered to play with String Cheese Incident after seeing them play in Colorado, in return for free ski passes — a gig which later morphed into the collaborative Keller Williams Incident and propelled him on his path to fame in the jam band scene. Throughout his genre-bending career, he has collaborated with a host of other bands, from the bluegrass duo Larry and Jenny Keel (Keller & The Keels) to a project dubbed The Sexy Bitches with members of moe. and Umphrey’s McGee. While each of these side projects exemplify a different facet of Williams’ mastered craft, it is his one-man show which ultimately showcases his considerable talent and bright future as an accomplished “musician’s musician.”
Arriving early, the stage setup quickly grabbed my attention. There were guitars hoisted up on stands, a lone microphone at center stage, a stash of “miscellaneous” instruments such as a triangle and bells, and a mixer surrounding the red, plush carpet in the middle of the stage, where he would ultimately “cut a rug” on during his trademark barefoot performance later that night. I couldn’t help but smile, knowing we were all about to be treated a show that would mirror the many videos I had seen of his one-man show. While I was initially shocked (or maybe saddened) by what appeared to be a small turnout, it wasn’t long before my faith in humanity was restored as fans of all ages and backgrounds began to file in for the grooviest dance party in town. Middle-aged, bearded men in tie-dye shirts, young women dressed up in cat ears dancing with glow-in-the-dark hula hoops and a clique of pre-teen girls with a chaperone in tow were among those who would soon begin to claim their stake on the dance floor. During the opening act, a funky, bass-trembling cover of the BeeGee’s “Stayin’ Alive” I asked the girls to pose for a photo, when they pointed to the beaming girl in front and squealed, “It’s her birthday!” All I could think to myself was how I wished I knew music like this existed at her age.
One of the most exciting things about witnessing Williams perform his magic live is the way the audience gets a “backstage” view of the musical production process. While seasoned fans may know right off the bat which song he has begun to piece together, the rest of the crowd can enjoy the pleasure of listening to the slow build-up of the song as he plays, records, and loops live on stage, waiting for that moment of recognition as he drops a familiar beat or lyric.
This is performance art at its best — a show you can attend with zero knowledge of the artist or his music and still dance your ass off to some of the funkiest, liveliest, most effervescent music to ever pulse through your body on a dance floor. While Williams played a few tracks from his repertoire of original music (the saccharine “She’s My Something Else,” “I Love California” became “I Love Arkansas”), some of the biggest crowd-pleasers of the night were the many covers from a wide range of musical genres and eras, among them G. Love’s “Back of the Bus,” Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart,” The Butthole Surfers song “Pepper,” and an interlude of “Crazy” during his most well-known tune “Freeker By The Speaker,” melding bits and pieces of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy,” Fine Young Cannibals’ “She Drives Me Crazy” and Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.”
For those of us who thought it couldn’t possibly get any better, Williams surprised the adoring crowd with The Beatles’ “Drive My Car” to wrap up the night, complete with trucker hat and dancing a la 2004’s “Lean Back” by Terror Squad and Fat Joe. Simply awesome.
If you are a fan of live music, dancing, feeling like you are a part of a live show, or rugs that really tie the stage together, man, do yourself a favor and buy a ticket next time Keller Williams graces Little Rock with his presence. I know I’ll certainly be there, with my dancin’ shoes ready to go. "Beep-beep, beep-beep, yeahhh!”
It’s been a spectacular year for country-rocker Eric Church, the man many consider to be the current reincarnation of so-called outlaw country. (Think Waylon and Willie in their prime, not the country pop crossover sounds of Lady Antebellum or Rascal Flatts.)
A few weeks back his “Chief” was named Album of the Year by the Country Music Association and one night before he hit Verizon Arena in North Little Rock on the Blood, Sweat & Beers Tour, Church was nominated for a pair of Grammy awards — Best Country Solo Performance and Best Country Song, both for the hit “Springsteen.”
So it was only natural that he was in the mood to celebrate Thursday night and the 9,607 fans in attendance at Verizon were more than ready to help him out. Church promised an unforgettable show and then proceeded to deliver just that during a rowdy, 90-minute performance that boasted loud guitars, frequent flashes of fire, a cup holder on his microphone stand for what he said was whiskey, beer kegs for the onstage décor and — best of all — the well-written, memorable songs that showcase his versatility.
With his trademark baseball cap and sunglasses in place along with a long-sleeved black henley, jeans and boots, he hit the stage, launched into “Country Music Jesus” and from there proceeded to rock the place out. After rolling through songs including “Guys Like Me” and “Over When It’s Over,” he traded his guitar for a banjo and belted out the unique “Creepin.’”
A clever and creative songwriter, Church sings his songs his way. What’s not to like about “Pledge Allegiance to the Hag,” about bar patrons regularly giving country legend Merle Haggard his due. “Love Your Love the Most” is his version of a love song, and he pushes the traditional country envelope a bit with songs like “I’m Gettin’ Stoned” and “Smoke A Little Smoke.”
Along the way, Church delighted with the slower-paced “Sinners Like Me” and later in the evening inspired a number of fans to take their boots off and wave them around during “These Boots.” Cigarette lighters and, these days, cell phones have long been on display during concerts, but the boots-in-the-air thing was a first for us.
Church closed the concert and his three-song encore with “Springsteen,” the wide-open ode to days gone by and memories that live on in a song. Easily one of the best country singles of 2012, its poignant lyrics hit the spot: “Funny how a melody sounds like a memory / Like a soundtrack to a July Saturday night / Springsteen.” He added a verse from “Born to Run” in his own style, much to the crowd’s delight.
If Church is country’s new outlaw in town, he certainly had a pair of suitable singer-songwriter sidekicks with him. Kip Moore opened the show, packing solid melodies about trucks, girls and drinking into his pleasing eight-song set. A few highlights: the lively “Beer Money,” the sweet and slow “Hey Pretty Girl” and “Somethin' 'Bout A Truck,” which included something about “beer sitting on ice,” “a girl in a red sundress” and “a creek around 2 a.m.”
Next up was Arkansan Justin Moore, an authentic country singer if there ever was one. He showed where he stands on songs like “Hank It” and “Guns” and at one point, right after “Small Town USA,” he paused, knelt down and enjoyed — and seemed obviously touched by — the thunderous applause from the home-state fans, telling them “thank you for making my dream come true.”
It was nice to see Moore, who grew up at Poyen, get almost an hour on stage. His satisfying 10-song set also included the crowd favorite “If Heaven Wasn’t So Far Away,” which had those cell phones we mentioned earlier out in force lighting up the arena.
More photos after the jump.
Opening night of The Arkansas Repertory Theatre’s production of “White Christmas” happened to coincide with my wife’s birthday this year. When she first saw the Rep’s schedule, she picked “White Christmas” as the one Rep production she would not miss, and so, very early this fall, we planned to celebrate her birthday watching this tremendous and heartwarming production. Afterwards, as we drove home in the balmy night, we reflected on how sweet and endearing the play remained after all these years, and we talked about the actors and their performances, and our favorite parts of the play, the way that people do, and I realized that this was one of those special birthdays with a friend that I will be looking back upon in fondness until my premature death at age 130. This was, in no small part, due to The Rep’s lavish rendition of Irving Berlin’s classic.
The first thing we saw when entering the theater was a projected image on the velvet stage curtains that read “Irving Berlin’s White Christmas” with tiny cartoon sprigs of holly framing the sides. It was a nice touch, and put us instantly in the holiday spirit, which, considering the unseasonably warm weather was a bit of a feat. But the night’s unseasonably warm weather, in fact, mirrored part of the plot of the play (nicely done, Rep folks). Soon, the overture began, the lights dimmed, and the play commenced, instantly dropping us into the final moments of a play-within-the-play stage show for the troops of the 151st Division, stationed somewhere in Europe. We, the audience, played the part of the 151st Division for the opening (and closing) scenes. Bob Wallace (Shane Donovan) and Phil Davis (Case Dillard) perform a vaudevillian (read: intentionally corny) song and dance number for us, and then a very stoic General Waverly (Charles Karel, in a great, patronly performance) gives us a farewell speech. It was a tidy quasi-prologue that neatly outlined the principle characters and set the story into motion.
The story truly begins shortly thereafter as Bob and Phil have become post-war singing and dancing stars. They perform regularly on The Ed Sullivan show, and are beloved across the nation. While setting off for a holiday trip to Miami, the two instead take a detour to a picturesque Vermont town (by way of Phil’s unchecked libido) with two bright-faced and talented showgals, Betty and Judy Haynes (Jennifer Sheehan and Sarah Agar, respectively) who are booked to perform a Christmas show at a sleepy little inn. One couple, Phil and Judy, hit it off immediately. The other couple, however — the emotionally staid Bob and Betty — keep their distance from one another, only to eventually begin to fall in love. But you probably know the story. Based on my informal research, almost everybody has seen “White Christmas” at least once, but for the two or three Arkansans who haven’t yet, I won’t reveal the outcome.
It is interesting to see the choices a director makes when tailoring a story for particular means, and it was interesting in kind to watch the Rep’s Nicole Capri’s excellent direction bring the storyline of “White Christmas to inhabit The Rep’s stage. While some of the initial bonding between Bob and Phil is omitted, and other parts of the plot truncated, the overall story — and its characters’ friendships — does not suffer. In fact, I felt that the slight deviations from the original film (which is The Standard in “White Christmas” productions) that did occur were appropriate and timely.
As the two leads, Donovan and Dillard played off each other perfectly, and my wife and I could not decide which of the two performances we liked better. Donovan’s Bob Wallace had the familiar easy charm and light-heart-in-a-cynical-world feel inherent to the character. It was easy to identify with his take on stilted love, and Donovan’s Bob was easily the centerpiece of the story. That said, Dillard’s Phil Davis was immensely entertaining, and danced like his life depended on it. Both actors are amazing talents, and their leading ladies were beautiful and pitch perfect. But the character my wife and I kept coming back to in our discussion after the show (during our drive to the eggnog store) was Martha Watson (Ann-Ngaire Martin). She was just so much fun to watch.
Cleverly, many of Martha’s lines are contemporary in intent, which affords her a slight narrative edge over the other characters. This is sweetly borne out in the character of Susie Waverly (Maddie Lentz, Ella Moody), the general’s granddaughter, who, of all the characters swirling around her, chooses Martha to emulate, performing a terrific reprise of Martha’s own “Let Me Sing and I’m Happy,” ultimately scoring the end of the night’s biggest round of applause.
Perhaps the best part of the production, however, was the singing and dancing, which was phenomenal. I’ve been a fan of Berlin’s music for years, and it was splendid to hear it so well-represented by this great cast.
The “Beethoven and Blue Jeans” event has become an annual feature of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra's season. This year Beethoven was given short shrift, his music restricted to the seldom performed "Creatures of Prometheus Overture," which was the curtain raiser. It was given a spirited reading, highlighted by spritely performances by the woodwinds.
The featured work was Rimsky-Korsakov’s ever-popular "Scheherazade," a musical exploration of the Arabian Nights tales. I had heard it in live performance some years ago, but the rendition Saturday evening was like hearing it for the first time. The ensemble work was flawless. The dynamics from the softest to the loudest sections were right on. The brass choir was as good as that in any world famous orchestra. The percussion, of which I have been critical from time to time, blended with the other instruments perfectly. And the multiple solos were all exemplary. Special mention, however, must be given to Kiril Laskarov, the orchestra’s concertmaster. His solo violin represents the voice of Scheherazade throughout the piece; and his playing was sublime, especially the double stops in the final section, which were played with a superb purity of tone.
Also on the program was Tan Dun’s "Concerto for Pipa and String Orchestra," with Wu Mann as soloist. The pipa is a Chinese stringed instrument, similar to the western lute. I must admit that I approached the work without enthusiasm, but hearing the concerto was a fascinating experience. Its four movements, played practically without pause, opens with a foot stomp by the musicians followed by a bass motif introducing combined oriental and occidental sounds. There is no percussion in the instrumentation, but percussive effects are achieved throughout in the double basses and by having the members of the orchestra shout or bump. Also the violas, usually relegated to a strictly secondary role, are given a major part to play. I found the third adagio movement particularly interesting, starting as it does with a lovely European-style melody that is later given a very Asian connotation.
The orchestra players shed their usual white ties in favor of blue jeans and ASO Razorback-red T shirts. What else? The audience, mostly also in blue jeans, seemed quite a bit larger than usual. Way to go?
The Flaming Lips have always remained a bit mysterious to me. Some people still call them a punk band based on their original sound, but most of their current audience became aware of them through more recent, less aggressive melodic pop songs like “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” and “Do You Realize??” In the early to mid ‘90s, the Lips spent a brief time surfing the pop charts with their left-field hit “She Dont Use Jelly.” But they mostly spend their time wading through experimental psychedelic musical pop art. They are a pillar of Midwestern rock, and every friend of yours in a band that wandered through the band’s home state of Oklahoma has a story about the iconic, idiosyncratic frontman Wayne Coyne. He’s been known for dropping in to do an impromptu guest spot for other bands’ albums just because he happened into the studio while they were recording. They are one of the few Midwestern bands that seems to embrace their flyover country roots, ready to prove that good art is made by talented and fearless individuals, not by a coastal location.
“The Fearless Freaks”, a documentary about The Flaming Lips that’s available on Netflix, includes grainy home footage of some of the band members in their younger days, ramping bikes off of “sweet jumps,” playing front yard football and other classic suburban activities before moving into behind the scenes footage of Coyne making “Christmas on Mars,” a bizarre, seemingly impossible film of his own called full of homemade props and sets of baffling complexity and oddity.
Midwestern as they are, The Flaming Lips still have a vaguely international air about them. So, here goes: the band is a midwestanese-punk-alternative-psychedelic-avante-garde-pop-art-space-rock outfit from our neighboring state. I’m a sucker for contradiction when coupled with good music, so I’m sold, and the two records I’m familiar with are near masterpieces of all those elements wrapped in a very listenable package. This is nearly the peak of what a rock band can possibly achieve in my book, so when I heard The Flaming Lips were playing a student show at Barnhill arena in Fayetteville, I knew I was going even though I skip most arena shows these days.
The show began with a winking vagina-eye video loop on a massive screen at the front of the stage. After a long wait, the band members surprised us by entering via birth canal in the middle of the video screen, walking through what revealed itself to be a video curtain. After Coyne entered, he fired a confetti gun over the crowd as confetti canons simultaneously fired, filling the rafters, and the band coalesced on the opening riff of “Sweet Leaf,” Black Sabbath’s classic ode to Mary Jane.
As you would expect, their show is heavy on visual effects. Some people will remember when Coyne and Co. came through Fayetteville back in the ‘90s on the boombox tour, asking participants to bring their own boombox which would be provided with a tape to be played or stopped according to conductor Coyne.
That impressive creativity is still present, but their home made props and visual toys are constantly evolving. Wayne still rolls around in the crowd in the plastic bubble. He still has the ultra-close-up camera displaying his nostrils on the large video screen above. He added oversized laser hands. It was all effective, the most thrilling moment being when the synchronized video screen began looping photos of wild animals gnashing their teeth over some wild keyboard and drum sounds while Coyne fired his laser hands off of a massive disco ball.
Not surprisingly, the student show consisted of a young crowd, and only slightly surprisingly, the not-so-young band caters their show to a young crowd with lots of looping, heavily stylized, filtered video of naked young women dancing and flailing. The stage wings were stuffed with uniformed squads of dancing rock ‘n’ roll girls. Although the young crowd was excited and generally on board to go wherever the Lips took them, the inevitable requests for “Yoshimi” were heard between less familiar, less melodic, less danceable, more aggressive songs. Coyne teased the crowd playing snippets of “Yoshimi.” He said “we love those songs, we just don’t always play them... Unless you really want to hear it.” It seemed to finally get the enthusiasm from the crowd that he was searching for, so he looked to other band members to make sure all were on board before playing an acoustic, drum-less, sing-along version of the song which, the crowd enjoyed immensely, even performing the karate sounds in the verses. It appeared to be off-the-cuff, as Coyne and the band walked each other slowly through the song, having apparently not practiced it. Coyne seemed to enjoy the moment with the crowd, and the keyboard player looked pleasantly surprised that they made it through without any flubs, although they must’ve played the song thousands of times by now.
The band and crowd all seemed in good spirits throughout the night. The only detractions were the vocals being a little indiscernible and the lack of familiar songs in the meat of the set, but the real Lips fans in attendance surely don’t share that opinion, and those who stuck around were treated to a closing version of “Do You Realize??” All in all, the band seems like they still “have it,” yet I found myself wishing I’d seen them 10 years ago. But you have to respect them for neither ignoring nor pandering to casual fans like me. They are a fantastic band that has deservingly made many “must-see” lists, but if you are considering attending any of their upcoming tour dates, I would recommend getting familiar with their newer material (or simple be in your ’20s), lest you find yourself with that familiar post-arena concert exhaustion. They promised to return and play a free show in Arkansas if Proposition 5, the medical marijuana act on the ballot this year, passes.
Last night, the Oregon-based indie-tronica group (whose longhand title is less modestly dubbed Starfucker) drew an eclectic mix of young stargazers to the Rev Room with a steady flow of synth rock and disco beats.
Truth be told, I was somewhat taken aback when boatloads of “hipsters” frolicked in wearing full fantasy regalia. It was hard to decipher exactly what I was witnessing — was this a death blow to time-tested traditional hipster fashions or simply Halloween leftovers?
Perhaps Starfucker just draws a different crowd. The obligatory skinny jeans were plentiful enough to supply an East Village restoration project. But one could also find torn hot pink spaghetti strapped tank tops — likely a nod to the group’s penchant for '80s covers. One large group — we will call them the Fairy Clan — rocked out in Egyptian-styled eyeliner and donned glow sticks, hula hoops, silver-tasseled halos, and glittery butterfly wings. Touché.
I don’t want to paint the image of a youthful hallucinogenic wonderland. Plaid shirts were also decently represented. I bumped into a rigidly carved mountain man as well, and I believe I even saw a pea coat. The scene wasn't particularly enigmatic or majestic — just refreshing, and encouraging after countless shows with worn out prefabricated styles.
Maybe this is what distinguishes the band from other popular indie-synth groups like College, Chromatics and Jupiter — Starfucker is richer in substance. Beneath the cool, wispy vocal sounds are contemplative messages on mortality. This isn’t a particularly new artistic gesture. Nonetheless, Starfucker seems to have a genuine proclivity for matching their messages with appropriate, yet counter-intuitive, expressions that expose the raunchy funkiness of human experience.
Lead singer and brain trust Joshua Hodges admits the band is philosophically rooted in what might be described as an Eastern approach to death and dying.
“I'm kind of obsessed with death,” he told Spinner last year. “It's scary, but it doesn't have to be. There can be a way in which death can not only give meaning to life, but so much more than that. Everything is dying all the time. Nothing is permanent.”
Starfucker's latest album, "Reptilians," includes multiple samples of lectures by Englishman and Zen guru, Alan Watts. In a clip at the end of "Mystery Cloud," Watts suggests "Just as manure fertilizes the plants, and so on, so the contemplation of death and the acceptance of death is very highly generative of creating life."
Starfucker opened the night with back-to-back instrumental shorts and then wasted no time appeasing the collective appetite with the 2008 hit “Rawnald Gregory Erickson the Second,” which in 2009 was featured in a Target commercial.
The group rarely ventured from its mainstay disco groove, much to the delight of star fans. The three-pronged multi-instrumental front men consistently floated between keyboards, guitars, and microphones, belting out signature anthems. The geared-up crowd unleashed when the group played the morbidly pure, “Bury Us Alive,” which was included in the 2012 film "Chronicle."
Hodges ended the show slithering on the stage floor while swiping licks at a nearby electric guitar. After a short, business-like exit, the band returned for a four-shot encore, including the evergreen '80s cover, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
Some came purely for entertainment, and a rare few likely came for a deeper experience. With Starfucker, you get the best of both worlds.
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