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A GUY WALKS INTO A SCENE: A look at the state of comedy in arkansas
by Aaron Sarlo
Published October 5, 2017
This fall, I celebrate my 10th anniversary as a stand-up comic. Much of that time has been spent here in Central Arkansas, where some welcome changes to the comedy scene are happening. Open mics are sprouting up all over the place. Smarts, hard work and good web presence are turning comedy wastelands into must-stops for national touring comedians. All of a sudden there is a ton of great comics everywhere, and Arkansas is suddenly appearing on the national map as a legit place for comedy. In a word, shitslookinggood. To find out why (and how) that came to be, I interviewed a bunch of folks, asking each the same three questions: 1) Tell me the history of comedy in Arkansas. 2) Tell me your opinion of the scene. 3) What do you think the future holds for comedy here in Arkansas?
For some context, let's look at some history. Before the arrival of The Loony Bin, the comedy scene in Arkansas was a sort of proto-scene, one of many dying embers across the country left over from the raging wildfire that was the '80s comedy boom. According to The Loony Bin's co-owner, Jeffrey Jones, before his business opened there wasn't much of a scene at all. "When I moved [to Little Rock]," Jones said, the scene "was just this weekend room at the Holiday Inn on I-40. They lasted maybe four months after we got here." This was 1993, and for nearly two decades afterward, The Loony Bin was more or less the only comedy venue in Little Rock. (There was also the short-lived Funnybone, on Markham Street downtown.) "There were no other open mics to do stand-up comedy in town, at all, period," Michael Brown, the reigning king of comedy in Arkansas, told me.
Until The Joint. When Steve and Vicki Farrell opened The Joint in Argenta in the spring of 2012, they did so with comedy bona fides and an idea to open a comedy workshop. Having run a workshop in Houston — one that had produced giants such as Bill Hicks, Janeane Garofalo and Sam Kinison — their plan was to take all that good juju and apply it here. And juju was in no short supply. The Farrells had a short film featured on "Saturday Night Live," later listed as "One of the Ten Best SNL Short Films." They had written for NPR's "All Things Considered."
Unlike The Loony Bin, which is a professional stand-up comedy club, the Farrells intended The Joint as a sort of training ground, a place for all levels of comics, from beginners on up, to practice their craft. In Steve Farrell's words, "The reason The Comedy Workshop turned out Bill Hicks and Janeane Garofalo is because it remained solely developmental. There were no headliners that ever played there with our own comics. So, it really became the clubhouse, the place where the social scene is." The Joint's mission is similar: to foster an inclusive scene for all forms of comedy, sketch, improv, stand-up and musical comedy, one of the hardest to pull off. (The Farrells, though, routinely excel at it with The Main Thing, a powerhouse of writing and performing.) It's only been five years, but The Joint has become a welcome and necessary adjunct to the Little Rock comedy scene, and its comedy workshop atmosphere dovetails beautifully with The Loony Bin's professional grade stand-up shows.
Meanwhile, in Northwest Arkansas
Before 2010, there wasn't a comedy scene to speak of in Northwest Arkansas, according to Fayetteville comic Stef Bright. "There were a few open mics, but they were mixed open mics with music and comedy," Bright said. Into this void, local comics like Troy Gittings, Brett Robinson, Zac Slusher and Brian Spence decided to create their own comedy scene — Comedians NWA. Since its inception, Comedians NWA, which now includes Bright as a member, as well as many other comedians, has grown to be a hot spot on the map. How hot? It's a scene that really can no longer be avoided for touring comics. Bright summarized this genesis: "[Comedians NWA] started with a weekly open mic and were able to grow it. They brought in some pretty big names early on like Rory Scovel, Ralphie May and Bobcat Goldthwait." Impressive stuff, and perhaps even more impressive is that the troupe doesn't have its own venue. Recently, Bright said, Comedians NWA has partnered with comics in Joplin, Mo., and Pittsburgh, Kan., setting up a "three-four night run of shows where we can get national comedians to come down. ... Every time we have a national comedian come through, they tell their friends in L.A. or New York, and then they reach out to us, and it keeps expanding. I mean, two years ago, hardly anybody would have thought to stop in Fayetteville. We're actually on the radar now of all these touring comedians."
The artist and the workhorse
So, that's our history in a very teensy nutshell, and it's been fueled by a few kinds of comedians. First, you've got The Artist. The Artist deals with the craft of the medium, largely eschewing the prickly business side of entertainment that, admittedly, can be very soul-draining. The Artist gets on stage and pushes the boundaries of what comedy can do, and is happy in this context. We have a few Artists in our state, and they make the world go around – Ozzy Jackson, Adam Hogg, Keith Terry and Zac Slusher.
Then, you've got The Workhorse, working comedians who are almost as dedicated to the craft and business of comedy as they are to breathing. I see them all over my news feeds, beating the streets, playing the game, never giving up, making comedy a worthwhile endeavor. Jay Jackson, Dee So Funny, Keith Terry, Andre Price, Michael Brown, The Kleitch Brothers, Jared Lowry, Ronel Williams, Michaela Janicki and countless others. You need not be a comedy diehard to understand that making people laugh for a living is honest work. It involves looking inside oneself and finding the saddest, most confusing parts of your own battered soul, then pulling them up out of you, showing them to a roomful of people and making them laugh at it with you. (Also, dick jokes.)
The Workhorses are largely why our scene is so strong now.
Take, for example, improv artist Brett Ihler, who hosts The Joint's Tuesday night open-mic ("Punchline") to great effect. "There's a ton of talent here," he said. LaVantor Butler, Michael Doc Davis and Angry Patrick, for example, or Josh the Devil's "Spooky Talk Show," recorded in front of a live audience in a little backyard cabin in North Little Rock. Or Paul Hodge, who hosts the Thursday night open mic sessions at Hibernia Irish Tavern. Memphis's trans queen of comedy, Lisa Michaels, said of our comics and our scene: "There is a lot of warmth. As a transgender person, that's a pretty big deal. So, I plan on coming [back] to Arkansas a lot," she said. "I guess that speaks volumes about what I think of the Arkansas comedy scene."
Sure, it's not all sunshine and gravy. Comedy is often a stone's throw away from self-loathing and depression, after all, and there are comedians who blackball or manipulate their peers to their own benefit. Or, perhaps they see the scene as a zero sum game that requires that they "see to it you don't get ahead in life," to quote Hannibal Lecter, arguably the greatest comedian of the '90s. When you distill all the love of the Arkansas comedy scene down to its essence, though, what you will find is a group of hard-working comics who love and respect one another and who have a devotion to comedy that borders on holy reverence.
Scene on the up
This fall, the venerated Loony Bin Comedy Club is entering its 25th year in business in the exact same spot where it started (10301 Rodney Parham Road). The Joint is going into its sixth year (or 40th, if you count the Farrell family's previous successes in comedy). Improv Little Rock has been a mainstay for 13 years. Red Octopus has been around for over two decades. These anniversaries add up to a whole lot of love for comedy and performing, and each institution's persistence reveals a core desire. New venues keep opening around the state, too: The Grove in Rogers, for one, run by Arkansas comic Raj Suresh, who recently opened for indie superstar Kyle Kinane at a soldout show at Vino's. Red Octopus alumnus Josh Doering said, "Little Rock, in general, I think has a huge potential for everything. It's beautiful here, the rent's cheap, and there are genuinely decent people running around. If it keeps going where it's going, people will start saying, 'Oh, yeah, Arkansas. I heard Little Rock is cool.' "
So, that's our scene in 2017 — a real, honest-to-gawd comedy mecca coming into focus here in Arkansas. If you are a burgeoning comic, there are now real, feasible paths for you to develop your jokes. Or, if you're a fan of live shows, you have a ridiculous number of opportunities each and every week so see great live comedy all across the state every night of the week. Take Little Rock, for example. On Mondays, there's an open-mic at Cajun's Wharf. On Tuesdays, you can see over 20 comics — and drink from a list of craft beer and espresso — at The Joint. Head back on Wednesday night for some world-class improv. Thursdays, head over to Hibernia, drink a Guinness and see the open mic started by local legend Billy Pirate, RIP. On weekends, catch a cream-of-the-crop, professional-grade stand-up show with a national headliner at The Loony Bin.
Also, The Lobby Bar (320 W. Seventh St.) has regular comedy showcases hosted by Jay Jackson, Paul Hodge and Michael Brown, among others, on weekends. Or, head to The Joint to see The Main Thing perform sketch and musical comedy at its finest. And that's just Little Rock and North Little Rock. All of Arkansas is booming with comedy and venues and showcases and open-mics, all born of a love for the fine art of making strangers laugh.
arkansas times to do list: The funkanites
by Aaron Sarlo
Published March 30, 2017
Fans of free jazz (meaning jazz music shows that can be attended without charge, as opposed to the sub-genre of jazz that is defined by freedom from tonality and rhythmic restrictions) can rejoice, because Jazz in the Park begins its Spring 2017 concert series in just a few days. Which band has the distinction of being able to kick off the season? None other than Little Rock powerhouse jazz ensemble The Funkanites. Sponsored by the River Market and the Little Rock Convention and Visitors Bureau, Jazz in the Park is decidedly family-friendly. Without a doubt, exposing one's children to jazz music is considered to be pitch-perfect parenting, and all the other concertgoers will look favorably upon your skills. I ask you to try to imagine a finer way to spend a balmy Arkansas spring night than by listening to jazz at the History Pavilion, watching the sun set on the Arkansas River. One caveat: Attendees are asked not to bring their own coolers and refreshments. Beverages, koozies and popcorn are available for purchase; proceeds go to Art Porter Music Education Inc. Add it all up: You can listen to sumptuous jazz for free on the banks of the river while drinking tasty beverages, supporting your community and showing off what a remarkable parent you are. Top that, Netflix and Papa John's.
[Editor's note: Fuck Papa John's.]
arkansas times to do list: brian nahlen band
by Aaron Sarlo
Published March 30, 2017
If you're one of the few who have yet to see a show (or eat a meal, or drink a beer) at Four Quarter Bar, you have yet to discover a truly great bar and music venue. Four Quarter Bar serves tasty craft suds and is a fantastic place to hear live bands. On Friday, it welcomes The Brian Nahlen Band. Nahlen, a sunny person and a good songwriter, fronts a battery of fine musicians. The group recently clocked in as semifinalists in the 2017 Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase — no easy feat for any artist, considering the river of great music that flows in our fine state. What I like the most about Nahlen's music, specifically, is his songwriting. Though the band fills the room with superb rock (and terrific vocal harmonies) at each performance, way down at the subatomic level, Nahlen's lyrics — simple, positive and ultra-catchy — are what drive the music. I've said this before and I'll say it again: Nahlen's "Better Than I Thought It Could Be," is this century's Coca-Cola song — his tunes are that catchy. If you are looking for something to do on a Friday night, might I dissuade you from your normal weed and TV binge-a-thon? This music scene is crackling with great music, and Four Quarter Bar is hosting so many good bands. Get out of your head and back into this scene. We miss you. And "Iron Fist" sucks.
Brave new host: 'Shoog Radio' begins its seventh year with a veteran rocker at the helm
by Aaron Sarlo
Published March 2, 2017
The venerable KABF-FM, 88.3, music program "Shoog Radio" turned 6 years old this year. Since its birth in February 2011, the all-Arkansas radio show has gone from a simple idea to a ratings behemoth that airs on a 100,000-watt station. The station's signal reaches almost all of Arkansas — roughly 50,000 square miles — and is broadcast live 24/7.
I co-hosted "Shoog Radio" from 2013 to 2016. One day, KABF's board president, Toney Orr, recounted a story to my co-host, Kara Bibb, and me: While Orr was visiting the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, two women spotted his Arkansas Razorbacks T-shirt and asked if he was from Arkansas. "Do you listen to KABF?" they asked. "It's a radio station out of Arkansas. You need to check out this one radio show, 'Shoog Radio.' "
From the beginning, "Shoog Radio" had a great ethos under its hood: that it should shine an unwavering spotlight on the state's music scene. Its founders, Cheyenne Matthews and Christy Ewing, pitched the idea to KABF programming director John Cain, and in no time "Shoog Radio" was on the air. The show amassed a long list of guests (musicians, actors, writers and artists) and an even longer list of listeners, boosting Arkansas's reputation as a Southern musical mecca with weekly playlists of tracks from the likes of Ginsu Wives, Sweet Eagle, The Big Dam Horns and Hector Faceplant.
But, while the show's philosophy has remained constant, its leadership has not. "Shoog Radio" has had many hosts over the years; and now in 2017, the show has a new driver behind the wheel: local rocker Scott Diffee.
For newbies, Diffee is famous here in the Natural State, having fronted myriad great bands: Go Fast, The Shallows, The Martyrs. His credentials check out like a grocery list. Born and raised in Arkansas? Check. Brought up in the Arkansas music scene? Check. In fact, Diffee played Vino's debut night show; it's hard to get more ingrained in a town's music scene than to be able to claim you played opening night at its version of CBGB.
I was able to take some time to interview Diffee recently at his tattoo shop, The Parlor. Here is some of our conversation:
How did you get the hosting slot?
Cheyenne asked me, and I'm not gonna turn it down. I'm a hard worker and I'm open-minded.
What is your plan for the direction of the show?
I want to branch out to everybody, all cities, all themes. The whole state, older stuff that shouldn't be forgotten and what's going on now. This is my chance to give back to the scene. You know, this scene has given me everything. If it wasn't for the local music scene, my tattooing wouldn't have been anything. I've been tattooing for 26 years, but I worked at Vino's before I ever opened my shop.
So, you're from Little Rock?
I was raised on Arkansas Avenue. I rode bicycles. That's how I got to go downtown all the time. If I went this way, it was all hilly, so I'd ride downtown instead. That's how I ended up at Vino's. Next thing you know, I'm meeting skaters, artists, musicians. Then I got a guitar. I had a perm and a Stratocaster and a little amp. I was in the first band that played the first night at Vino's — the grand opening night.
Someone told me you painted the famous Vino's logo on the stage?
Yep. Me and my wife painted that thing with duct tape and newspaper. We got paid $100. I took that money up to the [state] health department and took the test to get my license [to tattoo]. Six months later, I had my license.
And now you're opening a venue at your tattoo shop? What's it called? Tell me about how it came to be.
The Sonic Temple. So, we noticed that smaller venues are becoming more popular. Here [at The Sonic Temple], bands from out of town can play a show, then spend the night, wash their clothes, cook food, rehearse. We had Bask play here for the first time, and they loved it. We had kids outside watching them play by a bonfire. It was great. We want to be able to have a place where kids can come and hang out, some of the misfits who feel odd, out of place. We're gonna have some skateboard ramps out front and kids can come hang out and listen to records, watch bands. That's why I took on the radio show because, you know, I want to help.
"I want to help." That probably sums up "Shoog Radio" best. The show, conceived in the spirit of friendship and idealism, toddles past its sixth year as a bona fide radio institution. It's a testament to the blood, sweat and tears of generations of tireless Arkansas musicians, and embodies their desire to champion one another as brothers and sisters rather than compete against each other as contestants. In doing so, it attracts the very best in Arkansas music, which is why decorated music veteran Scott Diffee is now in charge of the show's future. Good luck, Mr. Diffee. The "Shoog Radio" audience is listening.
arkansas times to do list: spooky talk show benefit
by Aaron Sarlo
Published February 23, 2017
If you're a fan of the devil (and who among us isn't — the dude invented chocolate and internet porn), you have somewhere to be on Saturday because the devil will be at Vino's. Josh the Devil, to be specific. That's right: The Devil is named Josh (Smith), and he has a YouTube show, "Spooky Talk Show," that airs live Sunday nights. Season one of "Spooky Talk Show" has wrapped (the final guests were sludge rock masters Iron Tongue) and now "Spooky Talk Show" is holding a benefit to help fund a second, glorious season. And, what an event Josh the Devil has in store for us. Comedians Jay Jackson, Jared Lowry, Kit Haraughty, Kayla Esmond, Devincey Moore and Paul Hodge will be there, as well as musicians Jeremiah James Baker, William Blackart, Daniel Renfro, Chris Long and Justin McGoldrick of the P-47's. The night's featured guests are "The Colonel," and Velvetine Tombstone: R&B Psychic. According to Smith, "There will also be surprise guests and prizes!" Emphasis his, but who doesn't enjoy prizes? All of this entertainment is being brought to you in the format of a "Conan [O'Brien] on-the-road special." Smith says, "I will have the desk on stage and everything. We will be taping it to broadcast later." Read that last part? They're taping the festivities. So bring your hollering voice. As if all of the aforementioned glee wasn't enough, the event will be hosted by multitalented local superstar Michael Brown ("Brain Trust with Michael Brown"). Your $7 will get you this great night of entertainment (at a legendary venue with scrumptious pizza and even better beer), and also awholenother season of Spooky Talk Show. Best deal of the week!
arkansas times to do list: marcella and her lovers
by Aaron Sarlo
Published February 23, 2017
"What does a smile sound like?" asks the bio section of Marcella René Simien's website. I had an answer: zydeco. Turns out I was right! Well, partially right. Marcella Simien, and her band, Her Lovers, perform a fascinating, spirit-filled fusion of Creole roots music and Memphis soul. Songs tempered in zydeco accordion and Creole French buoy Simien's fierce singing voice like trade winds carrying a fine blend of aromas from uncharted regions of the imagination. Hers is not the work of a shoe-gazing novice, supplanting prefab guitar effects in place of songcraft. Marcella Simien hails from music royalty, namely her father, Terrance Simien, who dutifully featured Marcella on his most recent album, "Dockside Sessions," winning the pair the Grammy Award in 2014 for Best Regional Roots Album of the Year. To recount the highlights of Marcella and Her Lovers' career is to weave a tapestry of successes that wind through Sub Pop Records, The Oblivians, The Memphis Symphony Orchestra, Boo Mitchell and Ben Cohen of Ben & Jerry's Ice Cream. But, simply reading about a band without taking its music into your soul for judgment is like reading a menu to learn about the genius of a great chef. So, while a smile might sound like Cajun-spiced pidgin belted drunkenly over the wheeze and whinny of a Grammy-worthy band, Marcella and Her Lovers sound like something slightly different. And it's much better than just a smile.
arkansas times to do list: SELWYN BIRCHWOOD
by Aaron Sarlo
Published February 23, 2017
International Blues Challenge winner for 2013 Selwyn Birchwood is coming to the Spa City. He and his band (saxophonist Regi Oliver, bassist Donald "Huff" Wright and drummer Courtney Girlie) have enjoyed critical acclaim for their 2014 record, "Don't Call No Ambulance" (best album title ever), which peaked at No. 6 on Billboard's Top Blues Albums charts and won the "New Recordings/Best Debut" honor at the 2015 Living Blues Awards. During the same time, Birchwood and his band won "Best New Artist Debut" at the Blues Music Awards, and Birchwood himself won Albert King Guitarist of the Year in 2013. Talk about a streak. But then again, all those awards weren't simply handed to the band. The Selwyn Birchwood band earned them by stupefying audiences with good performances and by being badasses. If you are a fan of the blues, and you like to see it played with a dedication and proficiency that mirrors the greats such as Buddy Guy, Louis Walker and Robert Cray — all of whom shared stages with Selwyn Birchwood — you would be hard pressed to find a better show to attend. The evening is sponsored by the Spa City Blues Society.
arkansas times to do list: LUCERO / ESMÉ PATTERSON
by Aaron Sarlo
Published February 8, 2017
Little Rock fans of Ben Nichols' rustic brand of roots rock will be giddier than Batman with a throat lozenge to know Lucero is in town this Friday night. The Nichols brothers (Ben, rock star, and Jeff, exalted director of "Mud" and "Loving") have forged a great, glowing path in American pop culture, with raw talent, hard work and determination. Lucero's many successes notwithstanding (the band is adored among the multitudes, including one Rachel Maddow — Rolling Stone reported that Lucero was her favorite artist), the band still occasionally plays smaller, more intimate venues. Along for the ride at Revolution is Esmé Patterson, whose new record, "We Were Wild," has been making the rounds among critics and fans since its release last summer. (Ahhhh ... last summer. Remember the innocence?) Patterson is a veteran of the music biz, having spent a decade toiling in it with her criminally underrated folk outfit, Paper Bird. Four records deep into that band, and after years of exhaustive touring, Patterson decided to forge ahead as a solo artist. She had a brief partnership with Millennial catnip Shakey Graves. The press kit says, "You might remember her collaboration with Shakey Graves, which accrued over 15 million streams and landed TV performances on Letterman, Conan and Leno." I don't, but if you say so, press kit. Then, in 2016, Patterson released the "subtly charming" (Rolling Stone again) "We Were Wild," and it was off to the races, or the cold, lonely highways, as it were. The Rev Room is known for its live sound, so with these two outstanding acts, this should be a hell of a good show.
arkansas times to do list: i was afraid 7" release show
by Aaron Sarlo
Published February 8, 2017
If delicious Americana rock melancholia steeped in stadium-quality sound isn't your thing, rather than seeing Lucero and Esmé Patterson at Rev Room, you have one more good option for live music on Friday night. Oh wait. Did I say good? I meant jaw-droppingly good. Little Rock's beloved I Was Afraid is releasing a 7-inch on San Antonio's Sunday Drive Records. Numerous times across social media, and for quite a while now, I have seen people randomly post a version of this: "I Was Afraid is my favorite band." I earnestly report to you that these posts were not made by band members, nor by flunkies. These posts are being made by friends and acquaintances of mine who know from good music. Not naming names. Unfortunately, I have not seen I Was Afraid live. However, I will probably be doing so this Friday night, in part because of my friends' recommendations, but also because of the freakishly good line up, which also includes Colour Design, Headcold and Attagirl. I played each of those artists when I was the host of Shoog Radio, and I am here to tell you that they are all excellent. If you like hard rock, and I mean cinder block hard rock crashing through your face like the apocalypse, you should make it a point to be at Vino's. Carve Friday night at Vino's into the back of your hand with a box cutter, or, if you're a soft, spongy, product receptacle, put it in your iCal. Just be there.
arkansas times to do list: THE SHOOK TWINS
by Aaron Sarlo
February 1, 2017
The third of four shows in the 2016-17 South on Main Americana Concert Series looks to be an interesting one. The Shook Twins (identical twins Laurie and Katelyn Shook) are stopping by South on Main as part of their latest tour, and they are bringing their bandies Kyle Volkman and Niko Daoussis with them to play the band's eclectic brand of folk-pop. Based in Portland, Ore., The Shook Twins write and perform songs that are from the storytelling camp of songwriting, each telling a tale that draws heavily from personal life experience. These songs include stories about being potters' daughters and that time they befriended a chicken that they named Rose (earning the twins their first ever Rootsy™ award nomination.) The Shook Twins' live set features a plethora of instruments, including guitar, upright bass, mandolin, glockenspiel and banjo. If banjos and mandolins aren't your flavor, these guys also have an experimental side to their live show, incorporating "face drum (beatbox)," ambient vocal loops and "their signature golden EGG," which, if I understand it correctly, will grant you one wish if you rub it correctly. All kidding aside, songwriters Laurie and Katelyn write lovely songs that stick with you long after you've put away your phone. Interesting tidbit: The twins were born and raised in tiny Sandpoint, Idaho — a damn-near Canadian border town with a population of 7,000 and an unemployment rate that hovers around 20 percent. This sort of environment for a childhood would be a near-perfect mulch for any aspiring songwriter of the Americana genre, and it served the twins well. From their beauteous vocal harmonies, to their down-to-Earth songs, to their expansive instrumentation, The Shook Twins show looks like it will be well worth the ticket price.
arkansas times to do list: handmade moments
by Aaron Sarlo
February 1, 2017
Longtime listeners of Little Rock's excellent Shoog Radio will have heard Handmade Moments before, as their song "All I Wanted" is a staple on the show. That would be Central Arkansas fans' primary source for hearing the band, as Handmade Moments hasn't played 'round these parts in almost a year. Well, primary may be a stretch. Handmade Moments (a sort of saxophone-laden Americana jazz fusion, like Shaky Graves minus the country-fried millennial angst) is kinda literally everywhere these days. The duo formed in the wake of the Conway band, Don't Stop Please, and wasted almost zero time writing and performing new material. Handmade Moments, essentially, lives on the road, has toured all the way down to South America and back, plays venues across the U.S., and is a frequent guest on radio shows across the land. Handmade Moments is legitimately great. I suppose there is a story behind the band's lackluster name, but whatever it might be, the name woefully belies the talent and love that shines out of every Handmade Moments song. The group's at the White Water Tavern this Friday night (with touring buddies, Rainbow Girls — gah! Can't anybody name a band anymore?) and at King's in Conway on Saturday. I wouldn't miss either show because it might be another year before you have the chance to see them again.
tv review: lady dynamite, WEll-rested development
by Aaron Sarlo
June 23, 2016
It's easy in 2016 to gloss over the effect that cultural juggernaut Netflix has had on American entertainment. Future generations will look upon the concept of driving to rent a movie in the same way that we currently remember blimp travel or Anna Nicole Smith, and because of Netflix's streaming service, American TV watchers have been liberated from the indescribable horror of having to walk 11 steps to the mailbox to retrieve a DVD. Flush with drug lord amounts of cash, Netflix has launched its own production company, and its massive subscriber list affords the behemoth the luxury to take artistic chances with its myriad original projects, crafting shows that appeal not to a least common denominator (as network TV necessarily does), but to specific subsets within its viewership.
Case in point: Maria Bamford's new series, "Lady Dynamite." The good people at Netflix Studios saw fit to give Bamford her own show (produced by Mitchell Hurwitz, the genius behind "Arrested Development"), and it was a bold choice. Bamford's comedic style isn't for everyone; it's closer in tone to the metacomedy of an Andy Kaufman than, say, the middle-class observations of an everyman such as Jerry Seinfeld. I wasn't sure how her brilliant, off-putting edginess could be honed to fit a sitcom-shaped format. But, Netflix is not regulated by the FCC, and has the capital to attract the best and brightest working in entertainment today, so it can do whatever it wants. Thankfully, the studio gave Bamford total creative license to make the show she wanted to make. As a result, "Lady Dynamite" is a triumph of a comedy show, a delicious, sugary blast straight to the brain's comedy cortex. Based on Bamford's life and stand-up comedy, the show alternates between her time as a comedian in Los Angeles and her time in a psych ward in her hometown of Duluth, Minn., focusing largely on her growth as a person and as an artist.
While this synopsis may sound trite, from episode one we are assured (by none other than comedic auteur Patton Oswalt) that the show is fully aware of itself, and of the storytelling rules it intends to ridicule. Ten minutes into the first episode, Oswalt's L.A. bike cop breaks character, causing the show itself to halt, so that he can give some friendly advice to Bamford: "Give your audience some credit. They can deal with form-busting narrative innovations. People can deal with the time jump [from her time in Duluth to her time in L.A. and back]. Just don't make it jarring." Bamford responds, "Well, we definitely wouldn't do it in a way that was jar — " insert a full-screen-sized placard that reads in starry letters "PAST." It is a complex joke, delivered as quickly as it is dismissed, making room for 50 more jokes in its immediate wake. The humor in "Lady Dynamite" is lightning fast and relentless.
As if that weren't enough, "Lady Dynamite" is stuffed with terrific guest stars, including Ana Gasteyer; Mary Kay Place (who has never been better); Ed Begley Jr.; former Supermans Brandon Routh and Dean Cain; Jenny Slate; the Lucas Brothers; Mira Sorvino; Judd Apatow; Sarah Silverman; Tig Notaro ... honestly, I could use up the remainder of this article simply listing all of the show's guest stars. (Did I mention Sugar Ray's Mark McGrath?)
In "Lady Dynamite," Bamford and her team of writers and producers have delivered an immense tour-de-farce, a convention-stomping love letter to smart viewers of TV (as opposed to smart TV viewers). Fans of intelligent, rapid-fire jokes told by some of the best comedians working today, served on a bed of post-self-referential comedy, will love "Lady Dynamite" more and more with each successive viewing. I'm on my second.
singer/songwriter adam faucett is on his way
by Aaron Sarlo
June 27, 2013
Little Rock has an absolutely vibrant music scene, one of the best in the country, I believe. In fact, Arkansas has more great bands than I am allotted space in this story to list. We are overflowing with talent. But for right now, I'd like to focus on just one: Adam Faucett.
To describe Faucett for newcomers, think Mark Kozelek or Gordon Lightfoot, but with the voice of an angel that's been set on fire and the look and soul of a feral biker. Think brilliant lyrics sung by a voice that's ever-so-slightly smoky, yet shakes the heavens like Gabriel's trumpet. Think songwriting on par with your favorite band or singer, and think a well-honed, introspective sound that settles in the soul and lingers there long after the song has ended.
Faucett, 36, got his start in Benton, with his terrific (and sadly underappreciated) band, Taught the Rabbits. I was introduced to his music years ago when a friend handed me a Taught the Rabbits CD and said, "Watch out for Adam Faucett. He's really good." When that band fell apart, as bands so often do, Faucett, on a whim, decided to relocate to Chicago.
"I went there with the idea that I was gonna do folk music," he said. "Not because I listened to a bunch of folk music or anybody inspired me. I just knew I could play with my fingers and scream." He wrote an album's worth of music, and returned to Little Rock to record his first solo outing, "The Great Basking Shark."
"I recorded 'Basking Shark' in three days — two days of recording and one day of mixing. That's why it sounds like shit," he said, laughing heartily. Self-deprecation aside, "The Great Basking Shark" does not, in fact, sound like shit. It's actually a stunning debut record — lustrous, dark and soulful. After releasing the album, Faucett practically lived on the road, touring ceaselessly.
"I literally thought that I would die in my minivan with, probably 800 [copies of] 'Basking Shark' in it. It was pretty fucking punk rock." With an air of well-earned satisfaction, he noted, "I sold all of those records on that tour, and I was able to afford to put out another record, and that was "Show Me Magic, Show Me Out.' " It was Faucett's second record, released in 2008. Songs from that record like "Look Out Below!!" are full of hook-y charm and depth, and they outline Faucett's burgeoning mastery in songwriting. Immediately following the release of "Show Me Magic," Faucett returned to his life on the road, eventually selling enough records to be able to release another studio album, the critically acclaimed "More Like a Temple," which racked up accolades from coast to coast almost instantly upon its release in 2011.
In the years since he started, Adam Faucett has released three full-length records, recorded sessions for the venerable indie clearinghouse Daytrotter and for The Attic Sessions, continually toured the United States, regularly played festivals, appeared on compilation albums, toured Europe and shared the stage with some of the brightest and best in music today.
"I'm really witnessing kind of a growing coast-to-coast thing, gatherings of people here and there that are into it. It's like something's happening right now for me, or with me, or whatever," Faucett sheepishly acknowledged recently. "People are kind of coming out of nowhere with opportunities that, you know, just weren't there a year ago."
Later this year, Faucett will release his fourth studio record, once again on his own. Recently, I had the privilege of hearing some unmixed tracks from it, and it is a remarkable work. If Faucett's previous albums featured two or three unforgettable tracks draped on a backdrop of bucolic beauty, his new record is, simply put, wall-to-wall hits. It is a "Nevermind." It is a "Rumours." It is a "Soft Bulletin." It is Adam Faucett's best album yet. Songs like "Melanie," "Walking Home Late," "Daydrinker," and "Benton" are those types of songs that sound as though they already existed, and were just waiting for you to be the last person on Earth to hear them. Luckily for those of us who are familiar with Faucett's remarkable body of work, we'll all be able to hear them soon: Faucett will perform July 12 at Maxine's in Hot Springs and July 20 at the White Water Tavern.
review: 'white christmas' at arkansas repertory theatre
by Aaron Sarlo
November 30, 2012
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.
review: 'singing on a star' at arkansas repertory theatre
by Aaron Sarlo
October 24, 2012
The Arkansas Repertory Theatre opened this season with "Henry V," a play more than 400 years old, conceived more than 3,000 miles away. For its second outing, The Rep is pulling a veritable 180 with "Singin' on a Star," a production as fresh-faced and bright-eyed as its cast of young adults, each of whom was plucked from right here in the Natural State.
"Singin' on a Star," written and directed by the Rep's own Nicole Capri, resident director and director of education, is billed as being "all about the actor's journey from stardust to stardom." It is the product of the ninth season of the Rep's Summer Musical Theater Intensive, which takes in hundreds of children and young adults from around the state. A cast is assembled from this pool of applicants and then training begins in earnest. They learn, in a very short time, the full range of theater production, everything from singing and dancing to staging and beyond.
"The first year it was an experiment," Capri said. "We didn't know how it would catch on. The first year, I think we had 140 kids audition and we took 60. Now we have 500 that audition every year."
That first season included productions of "Godspell" and "School House Rock."
"We had matching T-shirts and a box of props," Capri said. "That's pretty much where we came from. And now what we do is fully produced, fully costumed. The same lighting designers you see in 'Henry V' are the ones that we use. So, what it has evolved to is a training program for people who want to do this as a career. We have seen a lot of our graduates move through to do this for a living, that are working in New York, that are on national tours."
Speaking of New York City, the stage actor's Mecca is the setting for "Singin' on a Star" and the stories within the play are largely true. How true? Many came straight from Capri's personal experiences.
"Eighty percent of it's from my diary, honestly," she said. "A lot of it is stories from friends who have worked in the business, [there are] even stories from Bob Hupp, our producer. But generally, a lot of it came from my diary from the 1990s."
There can be a nebulous, sometimes dark line between sacrifice and success in the arts. How will that element be treated in a revue show focused mainly on the success side of that line?
"You know, honestly, I think this is one of the shows where I think it's more realistic than any other. Some of the stories aren't as pretty as the others. There's that element of reality and humor, but I'm not sugarcoating anything," Capri said.
In addition to hard-knocks-style reality in the Big Apple, "Singin' on a Star" showcases performances by a cast of sharp and laser-focused young actors.
Central Arkansas native Angela Morgan, 20, put it succinctly: "We all get it. We all get the hype of doing theater. So, there's no one there with a blank look on their face."
Zach Graham, 17, of Little Rock, said the play "is my favorite show that's been written so far. ... you have a lot more dialogue and you have a set place, and for me it makes it more interesting."
The music in "Singin' on a Star" takes cues from the pop charts and incorporates video elements to help tell the actors' stories. A giant screen at the back of the theater shows videos culled from several sources, including footage from previous SMTI performances and rehearsals.
"One of the things that this production incorporates is that video element along with the musical, along with the drama, along with the dance," Capri said. "I think it's interesting how the videography tells the storyline, even the lyrics tell the storyline. ... So many theaters across the country are doing that these days. But we were the first program to do it at The Rep, and in fact, the Young Artist program has purchased all the video equipment that they use for the main stage shows here."
The Summer Musical Theater Intensive has progressed into a valuable asset for The Rep and for drama students across the state. It has spawned careers in theater and grown confidence in and inspired young actors, while providing audiences with the chance to watch some of the state's rising young stars before they take off for the bright lights and big stages of Broadway.
There will be a preview performance of "Singin' on a Star" at 7 p.m. Wednesday. Official opening is 7 p.m. Friday. The production runs through Nov. 3, with shows at 7 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Tickets are $25.
interview: rob zombie
by Aaron Sarlo
October 03, 2012
[Times contributor Aaron Sarlo interviewed singer and horror film director Rob Zombie over the phone last week.]
Hey, uh... Mr. Zombie?
How you doing?
Hi, is Rob OK? Or Mr. Zombie?
Whatever makes you comfortable.
Thanks. I want to say that I like the album a lot, "Mondo Sex Head." I would love to find out how you chose who was going to remix your songs and how the whole project got started.
I've done these records before. I've done two others, dating back, the first one I did in, like, early — I started doing [them] in the early '90s. You know, I just kinda asked around. Who do you think are the good DJs, the good people doing this? And we had the names come back and we go to those people. We ask them what songs did they want to do. We let them pick whatever they want to do and just let them run wild with it. I don't get involved in the production because that would sort of defeat the purpose of the whole thing. Anyway, I was making a new record of new material at that time, so I couldn't even if I wanted to.
Do you have a new album coming out soon, of original material?
Yes. Well, it won't be out until after Christmas. So, pretty soon.
I'd love to find out what's going on with your new film, "The Lords of Salem." What drew you to making that film?
Well, Salem is a very cool town. It's a very cinematic town. I grew up in Massachusetts, so I was always well aware of Salem, the Salem witch trials and all of the history of it. So one day, I just came up with the idea. I don't know where ideas come from. They just come sometimes. And that was about six or seven years ago. I just kinda wrote the idea down, wrote a little script, filed it away. It wasn't until about two years ago that it came up. The movie's finished. It premiered last week at the Toronto [International] Film Festival, and right now we're in the process of putting together the plan for when and how it's going to be released. It will be released theatrically sometime right after Christmas.
I'm a fan of your music, but I may be a bigger fan of your movies. I'm a mega "Halloween 2" fan. I've seen all your films, but something about the way you took those characters and made them so real. Your version of "Halloween 2" is excellent, my friend.
Aww, thanks. Thanks, yeah, actually, I think that's my favorite movie out of all my movies until "Lords of Salem." I think "Lords of Salem" might be my favorite. But, yeah, thank you for saying that because I loved "Halloween 2," and I felt that a lot of those '"Halloween'" fans just, frankly, just didn't get it.
Yeah, well, it took the world 15 years to catch up to "Vertigo," too. I saw that you are sort of branching out with a new film, "Broad Street Bullies." Are you trying to branch out of horror? Would that be interesting to you to do other genres of movies?
I would love to branch out. I mean, I just love movies. I love all types of movies. I mean, I love doing dark, gritty material. But I don't like the idea of being pigeonholed. So, "Broad Street Bullies," you know, a movie set in 1973 about a super-violent hockey team — true story — it's just perfectly made for me. I mean, I would also like to make a really gritty crime film. I like all kinds of stuff. I just want to take a break from doing horror movies for a while to try other things.
Finally, I've got to ask: What can you tell your legions of fans here in Arkansas to expect from your Twins of Evil tour?
They can expect a ... spectacular spectacle. We are bringing out the biggest show we've ever done. We're going nuts with this one. I assume that [co-headliner Marilyn] Manson is doing the same thing. So, it's just gonna be a huge, huge night. Especially for this time of year. It is the best Halloween event you could ever want to go to. It's gonna be incredible. I mean, if I wasn't going, I would still go. I would go enjoy the show for myself.
The Twins of Evil tour — featuring Rob Zombie, Marilyn Manson and DJ Starscream — makes a stop at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds Friday. Gates open at 5 p.m. and tickets are $38.
review: 'henry v' at arkansas repertory theatre
by Aaron Sarlo
September 12, 2012
Last Friday night, as many Arkansans were having trees flung into their homes by the strongest non-tornadic storm to blow through Central Arkansas in quite some time, I was sitting comfortably in a sold-out theater, watching one of the most compelling, thoughtful, well-acted, and, yes, hilarious, Shakespeare plays I have ever seen. The Rep's current take on "Henry V" is a spectacle to behold.
From the set design (brought to us by the inimitable Mike Nichols, who is celebrating his 30th year as The Rep's set designer) to the lighting, from the choreography to the sound-design, from the superlative acting right through to the final lines of the play, "Henry V" is a thing of beauty. Bob Hupp's direction is as fluid and subtle as would be expected of a man of his breadth and talent, and Avery Clark, who plays King Henry, delivers a performance commensurate with the great Shakespearean actors, bringing a realism and a contemporary slant to the character that would be identifiable to even the dullest among us. His Henry is a man of humility, honor, grace, and humor. The Rep's show overflows with perfectly-timed, expertly-crafted lines so funny that in the final act the audience was laughing too much, making it hard to hear some of the dialogue.
The Rep has outdone itself this time. As loyal fans of The Rep's many years of studious work, we have come to expect the best in stagecraft when we nestle into our seats, and as the lights dim, there is never a flutter of worry of the quality of the work we are about to see. This time, however, I noticed something more, something gleaming and bright flowing from the stage, illuminating the anachronistic language of a 400-year-old play. What I saw was acting on a level that surpassed all live performances I have yet seen in Shakespeare's plays, and yes, that surpassed the storied Kenneth Branagh film from 1989. I know that speaking ill of Branagh is blasphemy, yet I do not apologize. The actors in The Rep's "Henry V" utterly transformed the Bard's prose into a living and breathing work of glory. As I mentioned, Clark amazed, but he was not alone in that regard. The night was awash in transcendent performances.
My personal favorite was Peter Leake, who, as Lord Scrope brought a lump to my throat with his emotionally charged take on a doomed man, a rueful traitor, as he is judged by King Henry and then summarily executed. Something about Leake's face, his emotionality, tore right through the lines of dialogue and left an impression on me that lingered well into the final act. Nikki Coble effortlessly charmed as Katherine of Valois, and her (too few) scenes were a true high point. Jason Guy, as the Chorus, perfectly engendered the beauty of the text and lent an ease and familiarity to the role. Joe Menino, as Charles VI, was excellent as the contemplative French king contending stoically with the English rivalry, bringing a statesmanship that hung above his scenes like a coat of arms.
I could go on and on, delineating the superb performances, one by one, but really, you should just go watch this play for yourself. You won't even mind missing any dramatic weather, should it return. I surely didn't mind. The drama on stage last Friday night was ample.
feature: shakespeare to shrek - fall theatre lineup has something for everyone
by Aaron Sarlo
September 12, 2012
Theatergoers have much to look forward to this fall, as directors, casts and crews across the Natural State prepare for an ambitious season.
The Arkansas Repertory Theater recently opened its 37th season with a powerhouse of a play: Shakespeare's "Henry V" (Sept. 5-23). Avery Clark — who starred in The Rep's warmly received productions of "Hamlet" and "The 39 Steps" — takes center stage in the history play, directed by Bob Hupp, producing artistic director. "Henry V" is the Bard's tale of war, politics and the influence of power.
Next, The Rep's Summer Musical Theater Intensive produces this year's Young Artists Production of "Singin' on a Star" (Oct. 24-Nov. 3), with kids from around the state who studied singing, dancing, acting, and costume and makeup design with Rep professionals. Conceived and directed by Nicole Capri, resident director at The Rep, "Singin' on a Star" is "all about the actor's journey from stardust to stardom."
Just in time for the holidays is The Rep's production of Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" (Nov. 28-Dec. 30).
The Weekend Theater's season offers plenty of cerebral and emotional fare, as well. If you've got a hankering for some Tony Award-winning theater, look no further than "Good People," by celebrated author and Bostonian David Lindsay-Abaire (Fridays and Saturdays through Sept. 22). This blue-collar story centers on Margie, a Southie single mother struggling with modern lower-middle class life as she cares for her mentally disabled adult daughter.
Next up at Weekend Theater is Arthur Miller's adaptation of Henrik Ibsen's "Enemy of the People" (Oct. 5-6, 12-13, 19-20), directed by Miguel Salazar. The play, set in a small town, examines what happens when greed trumps public health, as a physician discovers that the town's lucrative mineral baths are being poisoned by local industry. In a fascinating delineation of the nature of money in politics, the work shows how the simplest truths in life can be converted by profiteers to shore up the interests of a plutocracy.
Joe Pintauro's "Raft of the Medusa," directed by Ralph Hyman, is up next (Nov. 2-3, 9-10, 16-17). The play's action takes place in a single AIDS support group session, and focuses on the scourge of AIDS and its effect on the collective psyche. Closing out 2012 is the coming-of-age classic, "The Outsiders," by S.E. Hinton, directed by Ryan Whitfield (Nov. 30-Dec.1, 7-8, 14-15).
Every fall seems to bring with it something with the word "Cirque" attached and this season is no exception. "Cirque Holidaze," with its cast of more than 30 international artists, comes to Robinson Center Music Hall (Nov. 27-29), promising, a news release says, "gingerbread men flipping midair, toy soldiers marching on thin wires, snowmen daringly balancing, icemen powerfully sculpting, penguins spinning and reindeer soaring high above a landscape of holiday wonderment."
The University of Central Arkansas hosts "Shrek: The Musical" at Reynolds Performance Hall (Nov. 5). And Reynold's "Celtic Crossroads in a Celtic Christmas" (Dec. 9), an amalgam of Irish music, jazz, gypsy, and bluegrass, is likely to keep the audience energized.
Up in Northwest Arkansas, the Walton Arts Center and its TheatreSquared company started off the season with Michael Frayn's celebrated comedy "Noises Off" (through Sept. 23) at Nadine Baum Studios. The L.A. Theater Works brings its production of Jane Austen's "Pride and Prejudice" to Baum Walker Hall on Oct. 26. Everybody's favorite big green ogre hits the stage with "Shrek: The Musical" (Oct. 30-Nov. 4). "Letters Home" (Nov. 11) uses actual letters written home by U.S. soldiers to make personal the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Billy Elliot The Musical" (Dec. 4-9), based on the hit film, is the tale of a boy overcoming enormous odds to follow his dream to become a dancer. TheaterSquared closes out 2012 with Tennessee Williams' only comedy, "Period of Adjustment" (Dec. 6-30).
review: stella fancy at The White water Tavern
by Aaron Sarlo
September 24, 2008
Stella Fancy is a seven-piece mishmash of other bands' members, a Little Rock all-star assembly consisting of players from Moving Front, Knucklewalker, Tokyo Ho's and Stankflipper. Last night at White Water, the band was instantly likable, reminiscent of a nascent B-52's, unbridled with ideas and possibility, yet still charmingly unsure. The music is paradoxical in nature. It sounds infinitely sparse, yet there are seven players on stage. Angst and derision boil out of the two singers, yet they smile serenely at the crowd like Shonen Knife singing phonetically. They played mostly originals; two stand-outs were "Nothing," which is a Brian Eno wet dream, and "In My Dreams," a tune utterly unlike its Roy Orbison homophonic counterpart, yet equally as thoughtful and haunting. And clearly in an effort to do something new and interesting, they selected their covers to make even the most jaded audiophile giggle like a schoolgirl. I can honestly say that I have now heard Brazilian uberstar Bebel Gilberto covered, and beautifully. If the songs didn't say it, if the legion of fans and supporters didn't say it, and if the little smoke-induced, cancerous buds lining the lungs of last night's crowd don’t say it, then I will. Keep an eye on Stella Fancy.
review: sideshow tramps at the white water tavern
by Aaron Sarlo
August 28, 2008
Six-inch stage? PBR loyalists? The rustic cocktail of cigarette smoke and mildewed wood? A canoe wrapped in Christmas lights? You're at White Water!
And after all these years it's still a great place to see a live band. Shows there stride that illusory line between watching your friend and witnessing a demigod. You bask in the immediacy of the moment, up close and personal, and then, because of something inherent to White Water, you drink your beer, laugh with your friends and shrug it all off. And so it was on Thursday when I went to witness the Houston-based Sideshow Tramps.
They are no sideshow, though they do reasonably resemble tramps. Scruffy and unkempt, the musicians proved that shiny packaging, more often than not, is irrelevant. These dudes make their own instruments and belt out what is best described as klezmery, jug-band, trash-grass with two fingers of Tom Waits poured on top. Drunken and gravelly yet melodious, worn and comfortable yet brilliantly brand-new, they rocked the hizzy, playing multiple instruments, singing four-part harmonies and parading into the crowd like a Baptist preacher searching for a sinner.
Glory be! They have a full-length record, “Medicine Show,” and I can report that it will perfectly season that indecisive jambalaya you call a play list. The band returns to White Water in October. If I don't see at least a thousand people there I might just lose all faith in the power that good music has over us all.