"History is always happening" at Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site
A is for "Antivenin Suite," Isaac Alexander's latest solo album. Alexander's last solo record, "See Thru Me," was an Arkansas favorite, landing at No. 6 on the Arkansas Times Music Poll's best Arkansas albums list. In every way, "Antivenin Suite" lived up to the promise of its predecessor, with some of the most rewarding listening of the year. The album is streaming on Alexander's bandcamp page right now.
B is for The Big Cats. The long-running Little Rock band unleashed the second part of a two-album set in December. "The Ancient Art of Leaving" also came out as a 180-gram triple LP on singer/guitarist Burt Taggart's Max Recordings. Despite its length, the album never weighs down. It's the best example yet of the band's effortless command of driving, melodic power pop.
C is for Cody Belew, the singer who hails from Beebe and made it all the way from the 45,000 who auditioned into the top eight on NBC's "The Voice." Belew was the final contestant selected in the blind auditions. CeeLo Green chose Belew, and together they created some memorable performances that allowed Belew to show off his amazing vocal acrobatics. His version of Queen's "Somebody to Love" was fantastic.
D is for "Devil's Knot," the book about the West Memphis Three case by Times contributor and journalist Mara Leveritt. In February, it was announced that director Atom Egoyan would helm a film adaptation of the book, starring Reese Witherspoon and Colin Firth.
E is for Epiphany, the longtime Little Rock MC who released his long-awaited full-length album "Such is Life." Times editor Lindsey Millar wrote that if the album "doesn't push him into the national conversation, there'll be one explanation: Only the lucky succeed. That's because for more than a decade the Pine Bluff-raised rapper has made all the right moves." In addition to the record, Piph and producer Ferocious acted as musical ambassadors, traveling at the behest of the U.S. Embassy to Gambia to teach kids about hip-hop. They later traveled to Mauritius to bring the music to that tiny island nation. Next stop?
F is for festivals. This year saw quality acts at the established festivals, such as King Biscuit Blues Festival, Wakarusa and Yonder Mountain Harvest Festival on Mulberry Mountain, Valley of the Vapors and Hot Water Hills in Hot Springs, The Johnny Cash Music Festival in Jonesboro, the growing-by-leaps-and-bounds Fayetteville Roots Festival and of course good ol' Riverfest right here in Capital City. There were also new ones like the Butler Center's inaugural Arkansas Sounds Music Festival, and a new one to look forward to with the recently announced Thunder on the Mountain country music festival, which will be at Mulberry Mountain June 6-8, 2013, the weekend after Wakarusa.
G is for Glen Campbell. The Delight native and musical legend played in his home state several times in 2012, including shows at Robinson Center Music Hall and the Walton Arts Center. It's the final tour for Campbell, who last year revealed his Alzheimer's diagnosis. The Robinson show was, by all accounts, fantastic. Times contributor Bill Paddack wrote that it was an emotional concert and that Campbell "looked good, sounded terrific and proved he's still one heckuva performer by belting out his best-known hits in an 18-song set that lasted almost 70 minutes."
H is for home, which the Little Rock Film Festival will have next year after the completion of The Arcade, the three-story, 51,000-square-foot building under construction at the corner of President Clinton and River Market avenues. The building — a joint project between real estate developers Jimmy Moses and Rett Tucker and the Central Arkansas Library System — will house a restaurant, space for the Clinton School of Public Service and the Arkansas Studies Institute and a 310-seat theater that will offer LRFF programming as well as other events.
I is for The Iron Man, a.k.a. Michael Burks, the electric blues guitarist who lived in Camden and had an international following. Burks, 54, had just returned stateside after some European dates when he collapsed at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport of an apparent heart attack. Blues fans were understandably devastated at the sudden loss of one of the genre's best performers. In August, Alligator Records released Burks' final album, "Show of Strength."
J is for The Joint, the new comedy venue/live music club/coffee house that opened in Argenta in May. The folks who opened and operate the club are also the in-house comedy team "The Main Thing." Vicki and Steve Farrell and Bret Ihler produce and perform original two-act comedy plays that run twice a week. So far, they've performed "Little Rock and a Hard Place," which skewered local politics; "Electile Dysfunction," ditto but on a national scale; and "A Fertle Christmas," a holiday satire about the small-town Fertle Family and their attempts to impress their big-city kinfolk. Along with the comedy, The Joint also hosts live music of pretty much every genre and beer and wine tastings. It's a welcome new offering in the Central Arkansas club scene.
K is for Kevin Kerby, who released the understated "Apostles' Tongues" this year. It's a family album, with Kerby's son Gus contributing on the fiddle, and it's a much quieter record than some of his previous work. The songs tackle Kerby's sobriety, faith and other issues that fall more on the somber end of the spectrum. That's not to say it's a downer. Despite ruminations such as "I Should Have Gone to the Funeral," Kerby's wit, wordplay and sharp sense of humor shine through.
L is for Levon Helm, native of Turkey Scratch, drummer and heart and soul of The Band and one of the finest musicians Arkansas ever produced. Helm passed away April 19 of cancer. The Times spoke with several musicians who'd known and played with Helm over the years, including Ronnie Hawkins and Earl Cate, who said Helm "was a one-of-a-kind person and just an unbelievable musician. His feel at the drums was something. I've never experienced anything quite like it."
M is for "Mud," Little Rock native Jeff Nichols' third feature-length film. The film, starring Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon, with Nichols muse Michael Shannon in a minor role, wrapped principal shooting in Southeast Arkansas in fall of 2011. The film debuted at Cannes, with Los Angeles Times blogger Steven Zeitchik calling it "perhaps the most accessible and unabashedly crowd-pleasing movie to play among the roughly dozen English-language films here." It's set for a wider U.S. release sometime next year.
N is for "Nitetime," the latest from Little Rock rapper Pepperboy, who we featured back in September. He was recently praised by The Fader and Spin and was given a mixtape shout-out by Lil B. He dropped the album on Dec. 12 — 12-12-12, a day he commemorated as "Pepperboy Day." I noted on Rock Candy that "Nitetime finds Pepperboy dishing out some 100 percent truth about the big issues: Life, love and death; drugs; the streets; the game; staying out of trouble."
O is for Oxford American, which had a ... well, let's just say the storied "Southern Magazine of Good Writing" had an unusual year, in which the board of directors fired founding editor Marc Smirnoff and managing editor Carol Ann Fitzgerald over allegations of sexual harassment and other misbehavior. It all got pretty weird. There was some foot photography and (alleged) attempted literal hand-holding of interns and so forth on the part of Smirnoff. Smirnoff started a website to tell "our story of losing the Oxford American," which involves taking a lot of 47,000-word potshots at Warwick Sabin and various others affiliated with the magazine. Anyway, the OA hired former Harper's editor Roger D. Hodge to take over. He's from Texas and lives in New York City.
P is for Parrotheads, who swarmed North Little Rock in March. Their inspiration and undisputed leader, Jimmy Buffet, sold out Verizon Arena in less than an hour and a half. The booze-fueled, epic tailgating more than lived up to our expectations.
Q is for Queer Prom. In a relatively short span of time, Little Rock's Queer Prom has grown into a bona fide annual tradition, offering a big night out to LGBT folks and straights alike, with dancing, music and all the good times that eluded many of us misfits the first time around, back in the bad old days of high school. Times contributor Blair Tidwell went to the 2012 "Roaring '20s" shindig, and wrote that "the real difference from the quintessential teen-age experience was being in a room full of people completely comfortable with themselves. An assortment of characters filled the dance floor, many dressed as flappers in fringe and sequins or in suspenders for the party's prohibition-era theme. Some donned experimental drag — girls with drawn-on handlebar mustaches and boys test-driving skirts and tights — some in professional drag, with exquisite wigs and fluttering false eyelashes. Others went for personal preference, a unicorn here, an '80s prom queen there, plus a '40s pin-up gal or two."
R is for Reel Civil Rights Film Festival. The festival was founded in 2004 by Spirit Trickey, a playwright and activist whose mother, Minnijean Brown Trickey, is one of the Little Rock Nine. This year, it joined with the Little Rock Film Festival and the Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site to pay tribute to the 55th anniversary of the Central High desegregation crisis and honor the Little Rock Nine. The festival brought in an impressive array of programming and special guests, including Olympic Gold Medalist Tommie Smith, motivational speaker Kevin Powell and musical icon Harry Belafonte.
S is for "Sorrow & Extinction," Pallbearer's incredible debut album. Bonus extra "S" for this listing: Songwriting. Songwriting! Pallbearer is as heavy and doom-y as they come, with downtuned riffage and funereal fuzz galore, but the band also writes moving, memorable tunes that have an emotional core that resonates even after the song is over. That's one reason why this album stands way, way out ahead of the pack, landing it on many best albums of the year lists, including NPR Music, Spin, Decibel (No. 5!) and no doubt several more to be released over the next few days as 2012 winds down. The band is streaming the album on its bandcamp page for free. Go listen now. So, so good.
T is for Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, who sold out Verizon Arena in April for a fantastic, two-hour concert, his first in the state. I'm not gonna lie: It was awesome. Petty and Co. played pretty much every song you'd wanna hear from their incredibly rich back catalog. Standouts included "Free Falling," the utter classic "American Girl" and a raucous, ripping version of "Runnin' Down a Dream." The crowd inside the arena was deafening and Petty promised that he would return. Let's hope he keeps his word.
U is for Unexpected, which is exactly what comedian Dave Chappelle's show at Robinson was. He wasn't on tour; aside from a show the night before in Memphis. By now, Chappelle's disappearing act is nearly as big a part of his story as anything else, but no matter what else he does from here on out, his Comedy Central show cemented his legendary status and remains enormously popular even though the last new "episode" was aired six years ago. Times editor Lindsey Millar reviewed the show, which he found meandering and funny, but overall very loose, with Chappelle leaving plenty of long gaps that the crowd filled by, among other things, calling the Hogs. Fair to say the Hog Call was a new one on Chappelle. "Ladies and gentleman, I've done a million shows in my life," he said. "I've never heard a crowd make that noise before."
V is for "The Velvet Bulldozer." That's the nickname of legendary blues guitarist Albert King who was finally inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 20 years after his death. King grew up in Forrest City and started his long musical career in Osceola. He was all sorts of influential on other blues wailers, like Eric Clapton and Mike Bloomfield, and he released several classic albums on Stax. He's buried in Edmondson (Crittenden County).
W is for actor Wes Bentley, whose comeback gained traction in 2012, most notably with his role as distinctively bearded villain Seneca Crain in the teen blockbuster "The Hunger Games." The Jonesboro native had a rough patch after his breakout role in the seemed-really-serious-and-meaningful-at-the-time film "American Beauty." He's recovered from drug addiction and seems to be on the rise again. Along with "The Hunger Games," Bentley also starred opposite Frank Langella in the indie drama "The Time Being," and he's also starring in Terence Malick's upcoming "Knight of Cups," alongside Christian Bale, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett and several others.
X, in addition to being a letter that very few words start with, is also the Roman numeral for 10. So in addition to the other 25 alphabetized items, here, in no particular order, are 10 more cool Arkansas entertainment-related things that happened in 2012: 1) The Half Japanese Weekend that Thick Syrup Records founder Travis McElroy put on at Maxine's in October. 2) Laundry for the Apocalypse put out a fantastic debut album (full disclosure: band member Aaron Sarlo freelances for the Times). 3) War Chief released a very satisfying full-length, "Letters from Prester John." 4) The first ever Root Cafe/Arkansas Times Beard Growing Competition, which kicked off this month and concludes in February at the South Main Mardi Gras event. 5) The White Water Tavern Holiday Hangout, a three-day extravaganza organized this month by Last Chance Records, the WWT and Tree of Knowledge distribution. 6) Hollywood producer Courtney Pledger was named executive director of the Arkansas Motion Picture Institute, an umbrella group devoted to promoting cinema in the state. Her first major was to serve as interim director of the Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival, which might not have continued without the joint leadership of her and HSDFI board chair Susan Altrui. Together, despite financial obstacles and being forced from the Malco Theatre, they helped put together one of the strongest festival line-ups in years. 7) Bonnie Montgomery released a fantastic EP and went on tour with Gossip, opening for the band across the U.S. and Europe. 8) Mary Steenburgen was uncanny as right-wing Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in a hilarious Funny or Die! skit about undocumented immigrants "self-deporting," in the words of Mittens Romney. 9) Filmmakers and Little Rock Film Festival founders Brent and Craig Renaud won an Edward R. Murrow Award for a piece they filmed in Haiti for the New York Times. 10) The Holy Shakes won our 20th Musicians Showcase and released a cracking debut. Unfortunately, the band broke up this summer.
Y is for "YIK3LIF3!" 607's follow-up to last year's "YIK3S!" which careful readers will no doubt recall as the "Y" entry on last year's A-Z list. But hey, as long as Adrian Tillman keeps releasing albums of this quality, he'll have a spot on this list no matter the title. Standout tracks from "YIK3LIF3!" include the withering "AK-47 Percent," the synth-heavy "Puppy Breath" and "Just a Man" and the eerily minimalist "Pit Bull Gums," which recalls Terry Riley or Philip Glass and ends with a "that's what she said" joke.
Z is for Zero, as in that was how many tickets were left for the inaugural Arkansas Times Craft Beer Festival. Not to toot our own horn too much, but the event was a huge success, with 800 people sampling 150 labels brought in by 30 breweries from around the country. They ranged from Arkansas favorites like Diamond Bear and Vino's to giants of craft beer, such as Sierra Nevada, New Belgium, Anchor, Goose Island and Sam Adams, as well as smaller but highly respected brewers like Ommegang and North Coast. Add in food and live music, and what you've got is an annual event to look forward to every fall.
Congratulations Tara, beautifully written!