Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
I came close. I almost ran a heartwarming essay about a live Nativity scene. Anything to escape the dreaded year-in-review roundup and all its narrow encapsulation. But I couldn't pull the trigger. Who am I kidding? I write about arts and entertainment. List making is my blood.
This year, I'm sliding even farther down the slippery slope. I've got a year-end list and a gimmick. The year in Arkansas pop culture, A to Z. (Make sure to check out the A/V version on line at Rock Candy.)
“Attraction.” If any local song was deserving of mass radio play, it was this one by North Little Rock's Riverboat Crime. Built around a bright, rhythmic guitar hook, the song shifts between Big Dumb Pop (“if you make me crazy, I'll drive you wild”) and Springsteen-ian moments (“all night we've been playing lookaway games”). Lead singer Josh Stoffer holds everything together with a voice so big and baldly full of feeling he almost sounds like he's from another era. Like maybe one where bands like Squeeze and XTC reigned supreme. Hear it on Riverboat Crime's debut “Walking Shoes.”
Boondogs. Now that Ho-Hum's on indefinite hiatus, Little Rock's favorite pop melancholics appear to be the scene's longest-tenured active band. They show no signs of slowing, either. A year and a half after the 'dogs released “A Thousand Ships,” they returned with a new one in November. “Take Shelter” continues along a similar path as previous records: Lead singers and songwriters and husband and wife Indy Grotto and Jason Weinheimer frame lyrics as if they're having a conversation, and one that often dips into dark territory. Lush pop leavens the mood. It's a timeless formula, but give credit to the Boondogs for branching out. Sonically, Weinheimer, who led the production, suns up the rhythm section, and not content to do the typical Little Rock promotional shuffle, he and Grotto hooked up with wunderkind New Orleans director Benjamin Reece to make a music video for their song “Heaven.” It's a gorgeous and naturalistic romp through the Crescent City, starring the couple's two small children. It's easily the best music video ever from a local band.
Cool Shoes. Dance music brought people together in 2008. In a town with a nightlife largely segregated by age, race and sexual preference, this monthly, all-ages get-down at Downtown Music was the picture of diversity. Call it dance floor democracy: Blonde teens in pink jeans shared the floor with college kids with nose rings and the grown and sexy. Black, white, gay, straight, rhythmic and not — everyone got down to obscure dance remixes they all seemed to know, but chances are, you would not.
Dan Penn. The legendary songwriter (“Dark End of the Street,” “Do Right Woman,” “It Tears Me Up”) served as a fitting coda to Danny Grace's tenure steering Hendrix College's Special Events program. For more than a decade, Grace, who heads the college's theater arts department, brought huge names to Conway for free shows, artists to make any music geek big-eyed: Lucinda Williams, John Cale, Bill Frisell, Howard Tate, Van Dyke Parks, Gillian Welch and James “Blood” Ulmer. In most cases, it was the musician's first time in Arkansas. Penn's performance, with keyboard accompaniment from esteemed session man Bobby Emmons, was transcendent. With just an acoustic guitar and country soul baritone that would make Charlie Rich envious, Penn reclaimed all his old hits for his own. Pick up Penn and Spooner Oldham's 1999 album “Moments from This Theater,” and you'll get the idea. And local arts organizations (Wildwood, I'm looking at you), don't forget about Grace. He's a booking dynamo.
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