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Writers’ Block Retrospective Extended Cut

The thrust of the story and the definitive version of this is in Columbus Underground here, and I want to thank my editors in CU for commissioning it: https://columbusunderground.com/writers-block-poetry-walks-into-the-sunset-rs1/

I also want to thank everyone – yes, again – for being so generous with their time. I go into a little more detail and let some folks run on at a little more length in this extended cut, and I hope the die-hards enjoy it.

When I heard the Writers’ Block Poetry Night –  with a rich history across seven venues going back 24 years – was calling it quits (at least as a weekly event) after the December 21 show, I knew it was something I had to write about. 

As someone who grew up in Columbus and turned 18 around the time the night started, I watched the poetry scene blossom into something that would have been unrecognizable just a few years later. And while I wasn’t the most regular attendee, I was always grateful when I made my way through those doors; I always left inspired and usually left with another poet I was checking for. If anyone from out of town was here on a Wednesday looking for something “Columbus,” it was one of my very first suggestions.  

I made it to an event recently,  and it’s as irreverent, moving, and powerful as ever – glowing with community and affection for its regulars but encouraging to newcomers. I intended to stay for an hour and get a few photos, but I ended up pushing my other plans back, getting a second drink and staying for the last poet; I was having that good a time. Do not miss these last shows.

I was lucky enough to talk with the three current runners of the event, Kerouac’s owner, and two poets from different periods of the event. I want to thank each of them for being so generous with their time and memories.  conversations were edited for clarity and length.

People interviewed:

Vernell Bristow: Poet and Co-Founder, Originating MC.
Scott Woods: Poet and Co-Founder, former President of Poetry Slam Inc.
Louise Robertson: Poet and Coordinator.
Sidney Jones, Jr.: Poet and Teacher.
Zach Hannah: Poet.
Mike Heslop: Owner of Kafe Kerouac

Pre-History

So, how did you originally meet? At [legendary downtown venue] Snaps and Taps?

Bristow: I had been to the poetry forum at Larry’s a couple times. And one day I saw a flyer in the Black Cultural Center, and I said, “Oh, maybe I’ll give it another try. It’s Black people.” I went to [the reading] and met brother Is Said [acclaimed Columbus poet and playwright]. He used to have a series: Poetry in the summer was his thing at Hot Times [Festival]. And poetry in the winter was always on campus in the Frank Hale Black Cultural Center. He introduced me to the series at the Marble Gang [restaurant].
I credit brother Is Said with starting me on my way with poetry in Columbus.

Woods: He was carrying the torch for Black poetry since the late ’60s, at least, early ’70s. And he was doing that pretty much by himself, I guess until Snaps came along. But he always crossed worlds. He was always at Larry’s. Always at Hot Times. He was known throughout the city. He was carrying the torch for us.

Bristow: Before Snaps & Taps, in the same location, was [James Chapmyn’s Living the Dream] theater company, and they had a weekly open mic poetry reading. When it was time for his theater company to go on their college tour, I started hosting it. [Is Said] saw me host. He was like, “Oh, you’re pretty good at that.” So, when Snaps opened and they were having a weekly open mic, they naturally asked Is Said if he would host that open mic. And he said, “Oh no, I’m too old for that commitment. You need somebody young for that. Sister Vernell can do it.” 

And one day, this guy, Scott Woods, came walking in with some love poems tucked under his arm and the rest was history.

Early Years

When did the series begin?

Woods: This is always the point of contention. Here… It was ’98. It was the year that the movie Slam came out. Because one of the first gigs that came through Snaps & Taps was getting poached to do a reading at the Drexel Theater for the opening of Slam.

Bristow: When we were at Snaps & Taps, the room was packed every week, but never the same people. Repeat poets would come out. But the audience was never the same people. It was more like people would come out maybe once a month, once every six weeks. Just bunches of people on the same schedule, but on different weeks.

Woods: That’s because it wasn’t a good time. Snaps didn’t serve alcohol. It didn’t serve food. And when it was packed, it wasn’t the most comfortable place to be. And you were subjected to three hours of poetry on a Wednesday night.  Those shows were long. 

Jones: [Coming to OSU after graduating from LSU,]  Snaps & Taps [was] the place to be. It was Love Jones but with way better poetry in a lot of ways. 

Bristow: That’s funny.

Woods: Highly debatable, but that was definitely the vibe. And then somewhere along the way, we started caring about what the show was doing.

Jones: Almost anyone I consider a friend today, I met at Snaps & Taps or through Snaps & Taps. I met Scott there, I met Vernell, [I met] a lot of the early poets and a lot of my early associations [moving to town]: Kim Brazwell, Jason Brazwell, Ed Mabrey, people like that.

Slam

For many years, this open mic was heavily associated with Slam in a way I don’t remember having seen in Columbus beforehand. When did that start?

Woods: Not long after we got going. For the record, we were not the very first slam event in the city; OSU used to put on these things they called slams. But technically, we were the first actual poetry reading to put on a slam. We were slamming not too long after we got going; maybe a year. We did our first regional slam in 2000. The first time we sent a team to nationals was in 2001, Seattle.

And I remember I had gotten hip to it online, and I was like, this sounds wild. And at some point, I saw [the documentary] Slam Nation. I kind of got hip to it on the internet, which was tough because back then, all there was, was, like, forums. There was no YouTube, there was no social media. So, I joined an email listserv for slam, and it was dope because back then, like everybody at the national level was tied into the same source. We just kind of did them for kicks. 

Bristow: It was just like bragging rights. Like, [Snaps and Taps owner Todd Tuney] he has like 20 bucks [as a prize].

Woods: And they were really rough affairs. Like again, like the poets didn’t really know what it was. We didn’t really know what it was. People were getting really invested in it, which made it appealing to us as a program.

Jones:  There used to be a Midwest poetry slam league. Columbus had a team; Dayton had a team. Let’s see. Detroit, Chicago, Kalamazoo, places like that. It was cool. 

Woods: Marc Smith, the founder of poetry slam of Chicago had become very uninvested in what was happening at the national level. I met [Marc] in 2000. And he had this idea: “Yo, the Midwest has this really special energy. Slam came out of the Midwest. I want to create a league. It’s basically like a bowling league. I want it to be fun again. I don’t care about all these points and all the stuff they’re doing at the national level. I don’t want to do any of that. But I want to keep it in the Midwest where we have a certain value.” And so, he started the Midwest Poetry Slam League, and basically venues in different cities would have a bowling team of poets.

Jones: This is how crazy we were, right? And this is how crazy I was as an early teacher: the Midwest slams would be during the middle of the week, right? And it would always be some time like… I don’t know. Let’s say 8:00 at night in Detroit. Everyone would get off work, leave school, meet at Snaps & Taps or carpool, drive the three hours or so to Detroit.

Slam would last like… I don’t know. Maybe an hour and a half, two hours. And you’ll slam off against at least Detroit, and maybe another team might be there. And it’s all about like bragging rights. And so, you would have that. And then you would drive back home. So, you get back home at God knows what hour, then I’m up for work the next day. Maybe I got papers graded. Maybe I didn’t. Luckily, I was conscientious about always having lesson plans. 

 There was a friendly rivalry between Columbus and Dayton. Sometimes Columbus and Cleveland, you had that going back and forth. There was also the Rustbelt Poetry Slam, that was a regional slam, that was an invitational that Columbus has hosted a couple times, Dayton hosted. 

Woods:  We had rules, but they were very short and not intense. But you had to do group pieces and stuff like that. It was a beautiful thing. Short-lived, because ultimately there was no money to be made in it. And so, it’s very hard to give people gas money. And our team was like 10 folks deep.

Bristow:  I think we even had a couple of Dayton people that ended up on our team, Columbus Thunderpants, in the second year [when their team folded].

Robertson: Rustbelt is a single tournament, and the Midwest Poetry Slam League was like, “Go here and then go here.”

Woods: Rustbelt was a two-day competition that would change cities. It was created by [Dayton Poetry Slam founder] Bill Abbott, and then it started bouncing. It was in Dayton for a few years. Then Columbus at least four times [some run by Ed Mabrey].  those were good times, good shows, good showcases of the region: when it comes to performance poetry, the Midwest’s got chops. Especially back then.

Jones: When [school slams were] first announced in the district, my department chair is like, “Hey…” Because they knew I was involved in slam in the past and I had done open mics. Like, “Hey, we’re going to send a team. You want to do this?” And I resisted. I was like, “No. I don’t know if I want to do it.” Because as much as I love poetry itself, I do have a love-hate relationship with slam. 

You love the competition, you love poetry events, but the thing about slam is the best poem sometimes, and maybe a lot of times, does not win, right? That’s the nature of the game; there are a lot of other factors that go into what an audience wants. I’m not going to be so bold as to say the audience is wrong. They like what they like. But if you are a listener and a poetry nerd of sorts, you’re like, “There’s no way this poem is as well-crafted as this thing that won.” Sometimes the audience and the judges want more entertainment than they want craft. 

 And my thought was, “I don’t know if I want to do this to kids.” I don’t know if I want to subject them to this because I know it gives and it takes. And it can lift you up, and you can have some heartbroken times, right? But they talked me into it, and we had a group, And I remember telling them our first meetings, “Look, guys, I’m going to tell you right now: we’re not going to win. We’re not going to win this. So, my job is, at the very least, I want people to know that you can write good poetry. I want you to be good poets. I want you to present good poetry.” 

In a lot of ways, I tried to model myself after the way that I was coached by Scott, right? And the things I had learned and seen from my experiences with especially Snaps & Taps, especially the slam team coming out of that venue, just pushing the craft and challenging them. Challenging [the students] like, “Hey, don’t use cliches. Give me something other than an angsty teenage poem about a breakup. And if you give me a breakup poem, make it original. Show me the breakup in a way I’ve never seen it before. This isn’t good enough. Try it again.” I tried to push craft more than anything. And then we worked on delivery. I think we spent probably 80% of our time working on the poems, beating the poems up, 20% of our time working on delivery.  

And maybe that’s me, because I never memorized anything, right? But I push that with the kids. I’m like, “If you want to memorize, I will help you with that. You don’t have to [but] if you decide you want to memorize, then I’m going to make sure you do it and I’m going to push you that way.” 

And the kids, by and large, they responded. They loved it. They became critical listeners themselves, of poetry. our first team, I think we tied for eighth, out of like 16. I think every school in the district had a slam team that first slam. Then we just kept getting better and better each year; kids got more into it, it got more competitive at the school level to make the team.

National Poetry Slams

Writers’ Block was the first Columbus reading to send representation to the National Poetry Slam (nationals) and sent teams every year from 2001 through 2013.

Jones: I was somehow lucky to be on that first slam team. I don’t know how, because it was a team of heavy hitters. I squeaked by. I don’t know. 

Columbus hosted the Women of the World Poetry Slam [another event run by PSI] twice.

Bristow:  It was amazing to experience what I had experienced in other cities that had hosted national events. But I got to experience them right here, in my city. Poetry Everywhere. People who weren’t a part of it, but were like, “What is happening?” Seeing the frenzy of everyone wondering what would happen. 

Robertson: [At one show, there] was a huge breakdown. [A slam] judge left the room to go to the bathroom, think. And Vernell flawlessly – seamlessly – kept the energy up; kept it even, because if you get too high or get too low, the poets are grumbling they’re not going to get points.

Woods: That [tourism piece] is important, too. The WOW events were not local events; they were not regional events. They were national events. Poets from all over the country, poets who’d been on television, poets who had been in movies, poets who had won prizes, name poets.

Robertson: A few of them international, Canadian, Caribbean.

Woods: [They] came to our city and walked away with this amazing impression of the city. That was like not easy to do, right? Because Columbus is Columbus. But we had to think really hard about putting [this on]. Because we only have a couple of local poets participating in that competition. Everybody else is from somewhere else. We’re talking like 60, 65, 70 poets, All from different places. All the side events, right? We were showcasing our city. Right? We were the reading that did that. We are the people who did that.

Poets, The Audience, and Community

Robertson: [In 2004, when the show was in] Barrister Hall, I had not been writing: job, kids, all that. I had started writing again, and they had a virgin night. I wrote a note to them saying, “I haven’t written in 10 years. Does that mean I’m a virgin?” Then Scott gave the most Scott answer ever. “We’ll see.”

Bristow: That is so Scott.

Robertson: I show up, and I just thought it was great. Then a couple weeks later, I came again and  I haven’t looked back. [Staffing came] about a year later; they needed press releases written. Of course, me, kids, jobs, everything, I’m like, “I could write a press release in the middle of the night.” And since I’m a web developer and email developer, I would do web stuff [because] you could do that in the middle of the night too. [When] we had a fundraiser, I set up the digital money [collection] and the microsites with the poets [pictures, bios]. Then I just insinuated myself. Because you really do need three people. You could do [run a show] with two. You can even do it with one; on those very rare weeks where it’s only one, you draft somebody to do the door, greet people when they come in, and you can do it, but it’s like hanging on with your fingernails.

Jones: There’s polite applause. You get that. But you earned the respect for your work too. But you always have to earn your spot too. That’s another thing about Snaps & Taps. even at Writers’ Block, [has] this idea of earning respect through your work. You earn your applause.

Hannah: I came at a time where I probably needed it more than anything else in my life. I needed community because I was a wild one. I had lots of wrangling with language over the years but never had really applied it to any one form or format or medium. Never really put anything into the ether. [About 10 years ago,] I Googled open mics in the city, and Writers’ Block came up. I never had community outside of, like, childhood church. I’d never even been a part of anything [that was] borderline community. Partying doesn’t count.

Robertson: We had a writer by the name of Rick Forman come through and drop these little two-line truth bomb poems that rhyme. Scott, every week would introduce him with a fantastical long, sometimes marathon, 12-minute introduction. And he could always weave into that fantastical castle of words, a lot about poetry. And both Vernell and I had moments when we could introduce Rick, and we had our different shticks and things, but we would also weave structure words. So in an ongoing way, Rick provided a way, not only to be fun and something people expected. It was funny. But we could talk about art overtly and have a great time with this really sweet guy who came every week. 

Bristow: When I first got involved, I wanted to celebrate poets. That’s why I loved Scott’s introduction of Rick. We celebrated Rick every single week [and] the essence of poetry. I wanted people to try to find community. Knowing Rick confirmed to me that we did what I wanted to do: create a community. I started running into Rick, outside of Writers’ Block. Rick was like in his seventies, and he had relocated back to Columbus. I would run into Rick’s younger sister. She never came to Writers’ Block, but I would run into her at the Jewish Community Center. One day, she stopped me and thanked me for giving Rick a home when he moved to Columbus. 

I think probably my most memorable moment is near the end of Rick’s life. He had been in the hospital  I went to go see him. Here he is with cancer, and he is so concerned about how Scott is doing, how Louise is doing, how Marshall [another poet] was doing, how I’m doing. One time, I went to go see him after a long day, and I was so tired. He was like, “Take a nap. I am.” I took a nap in his room. He took a nap in his bed.

But one night, one day when he was in that Wexner [Medical] Center, he was so concerned about poetry that he wrote a poem right there for me to share at open mic. We were his people. I think for me, he symbolizes what I hope Writers’ Block would accomplish, one of the things that it would accomplish, that it would give poets a home and a place to feel comfortable about sharing.

Hannah: Rick had me finish his feature. He brought me onstage to finish his feature for him. I didn’t know it, but it was about Herman the Worm. He didn’t know I had a speech impediment. But I went up there, and Rick probably slapped me in the mouth harder with the last poem he made me read for his feature. I’m reading it for the first time onstage to other people, and one of the last things of his feature is, “You don’t have to hurt for your art.” It was like, I’m reading that, and I’m like, “That’s it.” The crowd was clapping, and I’m like, “Oh, Rick just bodied me.” It was the community that pushed me in the right direction.

Robertson: We talk a lot about fostering good poetry, but we also make sure that [when] somebody comes, they don’t have to worry about the thing they might feel self-conscious about. That’s not the business here. Sometimes readings give a certain vibe, or a certain kind of person does a reading. [Here,] you see a lot of different ages, different groups, different backgrounds. 

Hannah: One of my good friends, one of the guys I started poetry with here, Dug of Happy Tooth & Dug, I watched him. It was when we were new. This might have been his fifth or sixth time onstage. He said a word that no longer is used as much – an ableist word – in a poem, and Izetta [Thomas] yelled out from the back and said, “You can do better.” And Dug is like, “What?” She explained to him why and how he can do better. Dug learned from that and Dug came back. Now, Dug is one of the more forward-thinking people I know. 

Hannah: I didn’t mention Izetta [yet]. That’s a shame. Jesus Christ, Izetta is one of the best, 

Robertson: It’s a community; you end up caring about everybody, no matter who they are. We’ve lost a couple other poets, and it’s just heartbreaking.

Bristow: Gina Blaurock. Oh God. [Gina Blaurock passed in 2015] Bill Hurley.

Hannah: Bill Hurley’s reading of “The Raven” every year, it wasn’t “The Raven,” but it was The Raven.

Hannah:  Gina Blaurock was one of the reasons why I felt like I started to gain community here. [She and] Vernell Bristow would go out to pizza with me after Writers’ Block for some five, six, seven months. I don’t know if I would have ventured outside of the stage here if it were not for those two. I had many features change my life on that stage, but the community I definitely got, through the crew: Scott and Vernell and Louise and at that point Gina, were just inseparable, [and] Ed Plunkett [Columbus poet  who wrote a beautiful tribute to Blaurock here.]

Woods: [A] definite one is when Marc Smith, founder of Slam, came to our show.[Him] being at the show, seeing the open mic, we did a slam that night. He got up, did his poem. But he said to me that he loved our show because it had the energy and the vibe of what he originally created.  “This is what slam used to be like; this is what the old-school stuff felt like.” He was just very proud of the show. I was like, “We’re doing it. This is it. This is the mountaintop. That’s it.”

Hannah: I know it had been going on for a few years beforehand, the murderer’s row of hecklers that used to be at the back. If it doesn’t get mentioned in the story as a part of the culture here, something’s wrong. You could hear the criticism of some of the less careful with their language onstage. You could be listening to both. You could hear the poets say some pretty unacceptable things and hear them in the back going, “What the fuck?” There was always that mid-level to where you could hear it. 

That was one of the wilder things about this place as opposed to other shows and other mediums, and other art forms that I’ve seen over the years. Because at a comedy show, a heckler gets singled out. At a music show, if you interrupt the music, if you stop the music, you are enemy number one. Burlesque, drag,  so on and so forth. But to have the poets be like, “Fuck him,” from the back as a guy’s reading a poem, that was where it was at. The judgment happened live.

Scott said this is not a safe space to make speeches over the years. I mean, because so many young, heart in a good place, generally white kids would really think like, “Hey …” They all have this knee-jerk reaction that you should not be allowed to say certain things on the stage. Scott proved them all wrong and why over the years because if you had something messed up that the court of general opinion did not agree with, you would find out. 

You know, poets aren’t quiet types. People sometimes pay money to hear us speak, you know what I mean?  that definitely happened years ahead of the conversation [about] safe spaces.  Way before Roxane Gay [and] articles are being shared on the internet, Scott is saying, “This is not a safe space.” I’ve run events over the years and if there’s any influence that Scott had on me was the idea that this is not a safe space, “Say whatever you want, but we’re going to hold you accountable.” 

Hearing young cis men poets use the word rape pretty [flagrantly] but to hear afterward over the years in different contexts and settings, different faces or whatnot, to hear them being told afterwards, “Okay, the poem is cool, but that actually hurt me.” To hear how they took it because some have learned. Some have moved forward, and some of them have realized the power they wield with their language. Then others just, again, wouldn’t last because they weren’t welcome here. Sign up. Go up onstage. We’re just not going to listen. 

[Once] a kid asked Scott, after Scott had given people some just history of things or whatnot because somebody had asked. A kid said, “If you’re so famous, why are you still a librarian?”

Scott laid into the kid verbally and then laid out a challenge. He said, “You want to write some poems and have a little showdown?” The kid very, very reticently – he was not excited about it – said, “Okay.” Honestly, my memory doesn’t serve me if it was that night or the next week. But they went outside, and I’ve been in a lot of poetry ciphers and people reading around. A lot of sex noises coming out of people listening. I have never heard like, “Ooh. Damn,” so much as when Scott obliterated that kid. 

He murdered him. It was violent. The very last line of that poem says that the kid is dead from the neck up. People lost their shit. They were spilling out into the road. So poetry got taken to the streets like rap battle style, sans mic.

Woods: We gave Hanif [Abdurraqib] his first feature.

Robertson: Gave a lot of people their first feature.

Woods: Yeah. But you know, only one that has a [MacArthur] genius grant.

Woods:  One of the purposes of the Writers’ Block Poetry Night, very specifically, is that I’ve always wanted to be a place where people could go in Columbus, and you don’t know what’s going to happen. I wanted it to be a place where you can still be surprised by art.

Venues

Between the early gestation period at Snaps and Taps and the stability of Kafe Kerouac, Writers’ Block went through five other venues, to mixed reception, growing pains, and sometimes scant audiences.

Woods: [We went through downtown coffeehouse] Skambo, Casablanca, which was an African owned bar…

Bristow: Down by the Courthouse. We showed up one day with their bartender, and we found out together that it had  permanently closed  the week before.

Woods: That was extremely short-lived. After that, we were in Barrister Hall [storied Columbus jazz and cigar bar, now closed] for a while [where Louise joined]. And then [we moved to] Columbus Music Hall [which was] like, “Y’all got to…” The show was almost dead at that point in the water.

Bristow: They had scheduled something else. We were on their website noticing that they had something else scheduled for our time [without telling us].

Woods:. In all fairness, nobody was coming to the show at that point. 

Bristow:  we had like eight people, 10 people [in a 100-capacity room]. 

Woods: I immediately hit up Mike at Kerouac because he’d been hitting me up at that point for at least a couple years. Kafe Kerouac is like the fourth Beatle here, right? There’s something to that space that lets you get away.

Heslop:  I  saw Writers’ Block back when they were in Barrister Hall. When I started Cafe Kerouac in 2004, I always wanted to get Writers’ Block involved in having a show there. It took a couple of years to lure them over. I think Writers’ Block poetry was a big part of helping us create our identity and expand our customer base to a lot more people around the city because they were able to draw in poets that may not have heard of us otherwise.

Woods:  I’ve always loved trying to figure out what we can’t do in Kafe Kerouac. I haven’t come across anything. Kafe Kerouac is very punk to me. Right? It’s very “old campus.” Once those doors close, we make no promises. We won’t physically hurt you. That’s all. 

Robertson: It makes you feel like you don’t have to be worried about breaking something. You can do your thing, and you can throw the paint, and you will not be a bull in a China shop. You will not be hurting anything. We really have to give a round of applause, and we do every week, for Mike Heslop. [He] is the most gracious [partner]. I’ve been around since Barrister Hall, and the relationship with the venue owner is sometimes rocky, sometimes filled with restrictions, because they’ve got a business to run. But Mike has been, do what you want. You are good for business. We have just found some degree of home.

Heslop: I opened Kerouac to have that old vibe where it was disappearing. There used to be other venues like Larry’s Bar that used to host poetry and things like that. I grew up at OSU campus, I went to Ohio State, and all those independent little quirky spaces have disappeared over time and been replaced by Targets and Starbucks and those type of things. I  see Kerouac as “Let’s push the limits a little bit; let’s have fun with it,” in the sense of art and simplicity of it, but I don’t take it too seriously. It’s supposed to be a casual artist hangout, and I think Writer’s Block did and does a great job in making everyone feel welcome.

Woods: For a long time,  as an MC, I was always trying to make this show more entertaining and engaging. I was always adding these games and little tricks to the show. And then eventually, it was just like, why does this feel like work? I was doing those things since I thought it would add audience. And the audience would fluctuate wildly. 

Ultimately, I just had to sit down and break everything down to its last compound and say, why do people go to poetry shows. Why that’s presumably to see poetry. Instead of trying to create this experience, I was like, “Yo, we got to strip this thing back down to the poetry, and then we can sprinkle some stuff on top.” And that would be the show. 

That’s essentially what we have now. We make it look easy, but that took years to learn. And a lot of people come to our show, and they see us engaging with the audience and the banter. But they think that we are like doing a process, right?  it’s not. We’re just greasing the wheels for the people who are actually here.

Robertson:  The modifications we make intentionally all foster better poetry in very subtle ways. We’ve gotten down to a system, and the introduction of the [one poem] rule was one. I don’t know if the rule came – it didn’t come first. But we made people only read one poem [instead of the standard poetry reading two-poems-or-five-minutes]. Two magical things are: if you have to pick one, you go for the good one. Like, not to say that there’s not good ones.

Bristow: And that one poem [rule], it kept that show moving really fast: get them up, get them down. You can get more poets, you know? Because when we were doing two poems, it would be a three-hour show, and sometimes we would have to tell poets, “Come next week, we’ll put you up early.” It would just be exhausting. I think one of the things [that led to that] was when we created a monthly show called First Draft [you could only bring new poems to].

Robertson: It changed the culture of the show. See that guy with that poem you heard 22 times, and you’re like, “It was a good poem the first time.” But it fostered the culture of writing. And now, sometimes I feel like we’ve gone too far. Because people are afraid to repeat, and you’re like, “No, no, no: good poem. I want to hear it again.” 

Woods: Which is why we killed First Draft.

Woods: We seem unassuming. If you’ve been around the block a little bit, when you walk in there, you don’t get the vibe like, “Oh, this is like the nationally lauded Writers’ Block Poetry Night. You’re just like, “This looks like just a regular poetry reading situation.” People who don’t really know what we’re about, they learn really quick that there’s something under the surface happening there. We’ll go pound for pound on the poems, on the awards, on whatever you want, publications? Like, how many books you got? Blam! Blam! We will run it all night.

Bristow: All night, all night. Every now and then, someone like that will come in, and they have no idea who we are. They will come in wanting to educate us about poetry slam. One of the most ridiculous moments is this young person gets on the mic and says, “I’m going to read a poem by another poet. You guys have probably never heard of him. His name is Buddy Wakefield.” It was just all out laughing. He’s like, “What? What?”

Woods: It’s like, you mean the Buddy Wakefield who slept on my couch? Is that the one you’re talking about?

Hannah: I tattooed myself [on that stage] during MeatGrinder. I’ve been in a gimp suit during a poem, being beaten and shocked and flogged. I wielded a chainsaw to my baby nephew.

Legacy in Columbus and the Poetry Scene

Bristow: Because people met at our nights, got married after meeting at our nights, spawned children after meeting at our night, sometimes got divorced after coming to our night.

Woods: So many things, probably an incalculable number of things, have sprung out of a little silly Wednesday night show, right?  Holler, because of what we do on Wednesday nights. Writers’ Block made all of that possible. The things that we brought, the things that we made possible in this city… You probably won’t even get those stories until we’re done. People will feel the impact of not being there, and they’ll recall it.

Woods: Half of the readings that have ever existed in the last 20 years are because of that show. Certainly, I would say 90% of good poets in this town have had to come to [our] show. I think most poets set out to change the world. The Writers’ Block Poetry Night didn’t set out to change the world, but it did change the city.

Robertson: One of our regulars, Su Flatt, had a project with Columbus State. She was creating an online resource of people reading Shakespearean, all the sonnets. She recruited from Writers’ Block and elsewhere and people were assigned or chose sonnets. Right in this room, they did a big day of recording. You had Scott, you had me, Vernell like all these different styles of writers and readers. That came out of Writers’ Block. She had that go-to resource of dozens of poets who could just come in and give their all to it. It was great.

Woods: It’s important to note that Streetlight Guild wouldn’t exist without the Writers’ Block Poetry Night. It’s a direct line because Glen Kizer, the guy who made this investment possible, was a regular attendee at the Wednesday night shows. He’s not there trying to be a better poet or anything. He just wants to connect with people. Be a part of a community. Every once in a while, he might read a little poem or something, but mostly he would just watch the shows. It was a place for him to kind of connect with people and laugh and be himself. He would get up and read these poems that were very personal, and he would occasionally cry. There was a place where you could do that.

Jones: There is no way I would have been a slam coach [in the Columbus City Schools] without first doing it through my experiences with Snaps & Taps and Scott. I think a lot of that is a stepchild of Snaps & Taps and Writers’ Block. And he would never admit this, but [the students] are like the Grandchildren of Scott Woods to a degree, just in the way they’ve been coached. A lot of them have found their way to Writers’ Block, right? They’re like, “Hey, I’m going to Writers’ Block. And Scott said hi,” or whatever, because Scott would ask them where they went to school. They would mention me. Then he would give him hell.

Robertson: Columbus got a reputation for being a fantastic place not only to put on an event, but how many times people have used the cliché: is there something in the water? Because of the number of just phenomenal writers that are here. Writers’ Block is a big part of the ecosystem that welcomes poets, meets them where they are, doesn’t force them anywhere, and yet somehow lets them flourish.

Hannah: Writers’ Block is my glue. This was the lab. This is where I tested all the crap that I do. I’m on a circuit of punk houses and such in the Midwest. I’ve built a pretty sincere network across these punk houses in the Midwest or whatnot of people who know that I will actually listen and engage with them if they need it. When I do these punk shows, I will start off being loud and catch their attention. Then make them feel things, which they’re not accustomed to. Bucking expectations is definitely something I learned there on [the Writers’ Block] stage.

Saying Goodbye and What’s Next

Woods: It was my idea. I had flirted with the idea of ending it in the past, but it was only an idea. And usually, I was coming from a place where I was really burned out. Usually, Louise would talk me off that ledge. But this time around, it just felt right. Columbus has changed a lot over the years and especially the arts scene. Once we got settled in Kerouac, you could pull a pin on a grenade in that room, and we would still do the show. You know what I’m saying? The audience would still show up, poets would still show up, and one of us would MC. Even when there was no power in Kerouac, we did the show. That show was basically indestructible in that way.

Jones: I don’t begrudge him for this, but it is going to leave a vacuum. It’s definitely going to be missed. And it’s something that I would like to think that someone or someones would follow this example, at least pick up the baton, and go forth  like, “Hey, let’s build on this legacy.” [So it doesn’t] just live on in people’s memories but lives on in someone taking this blueprint of what a good poetry night could be and maybe going in a different direction but still having some of those same elements. That’s my hope. And there are a lot of young and new poets who are doing similar types of things as Writer’s Block.

Woods: I’ve spent a lot of years doing stuff for everybody else. And I’m just in this season of my life where I really want to do certain things as an artist, as someone who creates things for myself. I have a lot of titles, but I am a writer. As a writer, it doesn’t take much to knock you out of your lane. An email knocks you out of the zone, a phone call knocks you out of the zone, social media knocks you out of the zone, taking the trash out knocks you out of your zone.

I  needed to get out of several commitments so I could get down to what I’m doing. Because I’ve got four books sitting on the table looking at me like, “When are you going to finish us?” I’m like, “Well, I think I’m going to finish one of you this year. Or maybe next year.” We’ll see what happens.

Hannah: The way Scott runs this show would prime the audience to be accepting of many different ranges of entertainment. At other open mics where the poetry largely runs the show itself, and a host just brings people up, the audience, I could see getting tired or having low expectations; they don’t pay attention. I think Scott and Louise and Vernell were the magic. They kept this space what it was, the irreverent open mic because of the essence of all the irreverent poets that kind of gathered here over the years didn’t hurt. But that irreverence is why the stage kept being fun.

Bristow: In previous times when Scott would bring it up, I would be like, “Yeah, I don’t want to hear that. No.” And then it was brought up at the beginning of the pandemic when we couldn’t gather and all that stuff. And I was emphatically: no

For all the reasons that we talked about. While Writers’ Block was wonderful, I did not want it to go out like that. I did not want it to be a casualty to COVID like so many other things in the city. Louise was like, “Let’s do Zoom.” And I was like, “yeah, girl,” because I thought at that time, we owed it to this thing that we created

Then we came back this April of 2022, and it was great. Every show has been great. And a couple weeks ago after a great show, the next day Scott [brings it up]. And I was like, “wow, we had such a great time last night.” But I thought about it for a second. And I thought about for me personally, what that would mean. 

My life has changed a lot in the past couple of years. I’m working full-time. I’m also earning a doctorate degree, and I don’t know what wonderful things will await me when I claim that degree in a couple years. For the first time when he said that, I wasn’t like, “No.” I was like, “Why do you want to end it?” And we had a conversation, the three of us. At least for me, every goal that we had for Writer’s Block, we had already achieved it. . I liked the idea of going out on top. I wouldn’t want to see it die on the vine. I wouldn’t want to see it trickle off with five, six people in the audience. Nothing lasts forever, let’s move on to the next thing while we’re still young enough to make it happen.

Woods: Wednesday night is awesome. It’s obviously working, but I’m like, “what are we waiting for? We’re not going to hand the show off [to someone else]. What are we waiting for? Are we waiting for one of us to die? We’re all 50 or older. I’ve been doing this show for half of my life. Louise was almost a completely different person when she started into the show. Let’s go out on top. Whatever it is that we have to offer, we have nothing left to prove.

And I will tell you that I still like doing poetry shows. If one of us gets an itch to do it, then we’ll go posse up, and we’ll do it. Every once in a while, Writers’ Block will poke its head up, we’ll do something that nobody else can do. We’ll do some wild, crazy show and then we’ll go home. We won’t have to move the chairs. We’ll just leave.

Let Columbus figure it out. It’s okay. We’ve been doing it for longer than a generation. I think it’s okay for another generation to figure it out.

For more information about Writers’ Block poetry, visit their Facebook.

Categories
theatre

Sweets By Kate Preview Outtakes

The OSU School of Music is bringing a fascinating-sounding new opera from composer Griffin Candey, Sweets By Kate, under the auspices of director Lara Semetko-Brooks. One of the productions I’m most excited about this season.

I wrote a preview for Columbus Underground and the conversation I was lucky enough to have with Candey, Brooks, and music director/professor Ed Bak yielded what I thought was some interesting discussion on what this kind of new work means to students and the current state of opera. It ran too long for the outlet but I didn’t want it to be lost, so continue reading for those outtakes.

OSU Page: https://music.osu.edu/events/opera-sweets-by-kate-sp22

Columbus Underground preview: https://columbusunderground.com/opera-preview-opera-theatre-at-ohio-state-presents-ohio-premiere-of-sweets-by-kate-rs1/ 

Categories
Best Of theatre

Best Of 2021 – Theater/Opera/Dance

God, it felt good to be back in a room with people sharing the vibration of other humans on a stage, the feedback loop of energy and – dangerous as it sometimes felt – sharing breath. Starting literally two weeks after my second shot, I was lucky to see 30 shows and miracle of miracles, none of them were bad.

Every company that’s returned, making work, is bringing it right now – playing to their core strengths and stretching their muscles. Beyond what made this list? I saw crisp, vibrant shows from Evolution and Gallery. Otterbein and Short North Stage’s sister/adjunct company Columbus Immersive crafted productions that fully turned me around on shows I actively didn’t like previously. All four of the Actors’ shows and all four Red Herring productions left me talking about them into the night if not for weeks. MadLab and CATCO revealed the fruits of the energy and enthusiasm of new artistic directors (in the latter case after a year’s preview of fascinating streaming work). Imagine returned with a brand new, original musical with 19 cast members.

This town rang with the echoes of gauntlets dropping and examples of exactly what keeps me going out night after night. I enjoyed every minute of that energy and enthusiasm being back, even when the finished piece didn’t work for me. But the 10 here would have blown me away in any circumstances and it was a hard call whittling down to them.

Back to NYC for Under the Radar and sundry in January, great stuff on the books for the Wexner Center in Spring, fingers crossed we get closer to “back” with every month.

That NYC trip in January includes the reopened revival of Company we originally had tickets to for my 40th birthday in 2020 – there will be more in my year end music playlists, but I can’t imagine my cultural life without the shining influence of Stephen Sondheim who passed away the day before I started assembling this. I grew up steeped in musicals – the heavy influence of my mom and my grandmother – including some of his, including A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, West Side Story and Gypsy. But when I discovered his mature work – starting with my massive love of Sweeney Todd and Assassins, it felt like I found musical theater pitched directly at me – this also gives me a chance to acknowledge and publicly express gratitude for the friends who opened that door: Doug Smith, Sean Klein (who we also lost this year, barely a week after we texted about getting the old gang together), Matt Porreca, and Robin Seabaugh; nothing would have fallen into place without each of you.

That said, I want to acknowledge the stellar online work that helped get me through the months beforehand, that gave me a taste, a little hint of the electricity that kept me going. Everything here is in chronological order and everything in person is in Columbus (except otherwise noted doesn’t apply this time, but I’m thirsty for when it does).

Online

Alicia Hall Moran, from her website

Online 

  • Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran by Javaad Alipoor (The Javaad Alipoor Company, presented by Public Theatre’s Under the Radar) 
  • The Motown Project by Alicia Hall Moran (Presented by Public Theatre’s Under the Radar) 
  • Fragments, Lists, and Lacunae by Alexandra Chasin and Zishan Ugurlu (Presented by New York Live Arts) 
  • Blue Ridge by Abby Rosebrock (Presented by Play Per View) 
  • Revenge Porn by Carla Ching (Presented by Play Per View) 
  • Hymn by Lolita Chakrabati (Presented by Almeida Theatre) 
  • A Fire Shut Up in My Bones by Terrence Blanchard, libretto by Kasi Lemmons (Met LiveinHD) 

In Person 

Don Giovanni, photo by Terry Gilliam
  • Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte (Opera Columbus), directed by Eve Summer – I’m not sure I could have picked a better return to live theater than this super-charged, intense reading of one of the very first operas I loved by a revitalized Opera Columbus. The safety measures had a fascinating thematic thrust and the performances, especially Jorell Williams in the title role and Amber Monroe’s Donna Elvira, singed my eyebrows off. I said “They amplify the deep loneliness of the libertine and his victims and the teeth-gnashing frustration of attempts at revenge and forgiveness… Having been 14 months since I’d been inside a theater, the longest stretch since I was 16, it was probably not unlikely I’d cry anyway. But it’s hard for me to imagine a better return to live performance than this dazzling Don Giovanni,” in my review for Columbus Underground
  • Carrie, book by Lawrence D. Cohen, music by Michael Gore, lyrics by Dean Pitchford, after the novel by Stephen King, directed by Edward Carignan (Columbus Immersive Theater/Short North Stage) – Growing up in awe of Stephen King’s debut novel, setting the tone for his character-focused horror novels to come, and simultaneously steeped in the lore of this musical adaptation, this came with the deck stacked against it. But Carignan and company not only hit every mark, they crushed those expectations. I took my mom as my plus-one, the reason I read Stephen King in the first place, and she was as dazzled as I was. In my Columbus Underground review, I said, “Carignan, Williams, and the cast never lose sight of the deep sadness at the heart of Carrie and the lesson that we can all be monsters with less of a nudge than we want to admit. And they make that uncomfortable identification into a riotous, quick-witted, wild carnival ride of an entertainment. It’s an alternately sticky-hot and brilliantly cold look at humanity perfect for the depths of summer.” 
  • Various Artists, Columbus Black Theater Festival (Mine4God Productions, presented by Abbey Theatre of Dublin) – One of my favorite events of the Columbus calendar returned in a slightly streamlined version, and resulted in one of my favorite conversations, with artistic director Julie Whitney Scott (I didn’t capture it as well as I would have liked in the article, a reminder to keep trying harder). After writing a preview, I paid to see this on my own dime. And while I didn’t see it all – I didn’t quite allow myself enough time for the rich marathon – the two hours I was in the Abbey sent me back into the night reeling and bending the ear of Anne and whoever else would listen. 
  • Eurydice by Sarah Ruhl, directed by Beth Josephsen (Actors Theatre of Columbus) – The classic Orpheus and Eurydice story was heavy in the zeitgeist this year and Sarah Ruhl has long been one of my favorite playwrights (her memoir Smile is on the bedstand as I write this). In the strongest Actors’ Theatre season in recent memory – I was also blown away by a Much Ado About Nothing, The African Company Presents Richard III, and a childhood favorite of mine The Secret Garden – this lovely, incisive meditation on memory kept rippling in my mind for weeks.  For Columbus Underground, I commented, “The modifications to the climax land with the thud of inevitability and surprised the audience enough at the performance I attended I heard gasps spring up around me. Josephsen and her cast balance the abstract and accessible elements of this modern take on one of the western world’s classic tragic love stories in a way that feels fresh, exciting, and powerful.” 
The Children, photo by Jerri Shafer
  • The Children by Lucy Kirkwood, directed by Michael Herring (Red Herring) – This locked-room drama, balancing intimate, personal apocalypses with a shadow growing over the world, featured blistering performances by Harold Yarborough, Nancy Skaggs, and Josie Merkel, and stood out in a season where I didn’t see anything weak from Red Herring. I said, “At every level, the characters face snowballing consequences of thoughtless choices, wounds never disinfected, from the contaminated water flowing in the power plant to old slights among each other, and have to deal with what they owe the next generation up to and including their use as sacrificial lambs,” for Columbus Underground
  • Let’s Hope You Feel Better by Samantha Oty (MadLab), directed by Sarah Vargo – MadLab came out on fire this year, taking some interesting chances. And this bitterly funny, whiplash-inducing sex farce was one of the best things I saw all year. Boasting killer – *rimshot* – performances by McLane Nagy and Tom Murdock at the center of a stellar cast, this crackled with reminders of the crucial energy MadLab brings to our theater scene. I commented in Columbus Underground: “The serious themes here – does a person have a right to die with dignity, what are the limits on the Hippocratic Oath’s “do no harm,” what do we owe the people in our lives – get a strong, thoughtful workout in Let’s Hope You Feel Better but nothing gets in the way of the play as a sharp, molten-hot, and sub-zero cold, often at the same time, entertainment.” 
  • Life Alert by Chris Sherman, directed by Michelle Batt (eMBer Womens Theater) – eMBer Womens Theater returned with a lovely series of shorts, Muses, and then this dazzling, delayed world premiere boasting a stellar cast with particularly strong performances by Melissa Bair and Josie Merkel. I said in Columbus Underground, “Sherman’s play is deeply concerned with who society considers disposable, whose work matters and whose doesn’t, and how demoralizing that gets. How deeply baked into so many of our consciouses those biases are, how they feel like pollution in the air we breathe and how a woman saying ‘Am I expected to sacrifice my life’ for others’ needs, putting it in the world out loud, is still a radical and necessary act. The ending gets a little more obvious and underlined than anything else but it’s a minor blip after two hours – with one intermission – that rang so true.” 
Mr. Burns, photo by Terry Gilliam
  • Mr. Burns: A Post-Electric Play by Anne Washburn with music by Michael Friedman, directed by Leda Hoffmann (CATCO) – More than anything else this year, this was the experience I missed so badly.  A play I’ve wanted to see since the Off-Broadway run but never made happen, and the first in-person taste of new CATCO artistic director Hoffmann’s work, this slapped me around in all the best ways. Crystallizing thoughts I’d had about storytelling, the strange era of the 20th century where we build art upon allusion on top of allusion, exploding the metaphor at the heart of all history and language. A tribute to the community of our actors, with standout performances by Scott Douglas Wilson, Jonathan Putnam, Acacia Duncan, and Shauna Davis leading a terrific cast. The production’s also – using the three spaces effectively – a reminder of the symbiosis of audience and performers. Anne and I spent the next two hours, right up until an excellent Chuck Prophet show you’ll be hearing about on my live music list, going over this in delighted detail. For Columbus Underground, I commented: “Like the best Simpsons episodes, Mr. Burns bulges with references and easter eggs but in the best sense: I felt a frisson of delight whenever I caught one – as I write this, the example jumping to my mind is Wilson delivering the play’s Sweeney Todd nod “Life has been kind to you” – but it didn’t bog me down looking for them. More, nothing felt tacked on or inessential. Everything adds to a piece I wish I could find the time to see again.” 
  • The Thanksgiving Play by Larissa Fasthorse, directed by Mark Mann (Red Herring) – Red Herring closed 2021 with a wild, ribald farce that reminded my how good their ear is for plays that have achieved some acclaim but might never have made it to Columbus otherwise. Fasthorse’s play made me laugh until my sides hurt, with a cast full of wild energy, especially Todd Covert and Elizabeth Harelik Falter. As I said in Columbus Underground, “Fasthorse’s play finds the perfect tenor for it, without getting too meta or cerebral, grounding the comedy in the ambitions and insecurities of a classic group of misfits, and it’s hard to imagine this getting a better production than Mann and Red Herring provide.” 
  • Hadestown by Anais Mitchell, directed by Rachel Chavkin (Broadway in Columbus) – I’ve been a fan of Anais Mitchell for many years, her song “Cosmic American” lighting the fire, and I loved the original Hadestown concept album when it came out. I hadn’t managed to catch this expansion on Broadway but my return to Broadway in Columbus with the touring production – featuring Audrey Ochoa who you’ll see on my playlists – reminded me how great, and how specific, that kind of big stage theater can be. How marvelous it is to see something in a packed house. So beautiful Anne and I had conversations about it with different people in different bars for the next two weeks, the only other play I kept wanting to dig into to that extent was Mr. Burns. For Columbus Underground: “Chavkin’s expansion of Mitchell’s song cycle takes one of the quintessential stories of both the transformative power of art and its limitations, its ability to change – and not change – the world and the hearts of both audience and creator, and imbues what could be a heavy slog, with all the fun of a carnival ride or a night at a wild party. As Marable sings while leading the cast in the curtain call, ‘We raise our cups to them.’” 
Hadestown, photo by T Charles Erickson

As always, thank you – to everyone who helped make these shows happen, who joined me for them, who talked with me about them after, and who reads this. Thank you so much.

Categories
"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 03/22/2021

Amina Claudine Myers, taken from livestream and edited

Amina Claudine Myers Solo

Keyboardist Amina Claudine Myers is the beating heart of the soulful Chicago avant-garde that enraptured me as a teenager and shaped so much of my tastes then and since. Arts For Art, the organization that helps present Vision Festival, has done more to keep the flame of this music strain alive when we can’t gather than anyone else. They outdid themselves with a birthday set by the great one herself on solo piano.

In the same room they’ve used for other streams, Arts for Art deployed their typically excellent sound design and production values. Every vibrant note rang out of the piano and washed over me, almost making me forget I was so many miles away, watching it on Youtube.

A long ballad with sparse, affecting lyrics floated on chords that seemed to play in the dappled Sunday sunlight when I watched this. A speedier, percussive, swinging piece used clusters of notes to make me feel the pounding in my chest a little more deeply. 

For this hour of her birthday, Myers treated us to gorgeous conversations with the universe, her intense history of the piano, and with the core goal of turning personal expression into a deeply felt sense of connection with her chosen community. I was lucky to even be in the room, virtually, for this reminder of everything I love about music.

L-R: Ashton Lambert and William Porter in the Otterbein Departments of Theatre & Dance and Music production of “Into a Lamplit Room: the Songs of Kurt Weill.”
Photo By: Mark Mineart; provided by Otterbein

Into a Lamplit Room: The Songs and Life of Kurt Weill produced by Otterbein University

I hadn’t checked in with Otterbein University’s virtual offerings this season until now, and I regret I wasn’t able to make my schedule such to write a full preview of their delightful Kurt Weill tribute, which aired last week.

I’ve long been a fan of Weill, in my case going back to a Grandmother who loved standards (and placed “September Song” so high it was practically the star on the Christmas tree) and the Hal Willner compilation Lost in the Stars I found on a campus record store run during High School. 

And I love what Otterbein does. Their focus on very traditional, entertaining storytelling with rock-solid standards for singing and dancing occasionally lines up with my more idiosyncratic tastes for some of my favorite experiences in town – in recent years they gave us a Top Girls and a Fiddler on the Roof I still talk about. 

Into a Lamplit Room, a 2013 revue devised by CCM Musical Theatre chair Aubrey Berg with arrangements by Julie Spangler, soars. I hadn’t realized how much I missed what they do until watching this a stellar young cast of Emily Baggarly, Lucy Breedlove, Nijah Dent, Ashton Lambert, Kate Maniuszko, Victoria Mesa, William Porter, Max Pinson, Hannah Schmidt, Tru Stites, and Dean Yurecka splash a new coat of paint on these time-worn chestnuts. I apologize I didn’t capture who sings what – my press data just says there are no named characters. If someone wants to fill me in with the comments or in an email, I’d appreciate it.

Under the expert hands of director Thom Christopher Warren and musical director Lori Kay Harvey, Into a Lamplit Room balances the rat-a-tat-tat percussiveness and wordplay of these songs with a necessary acid irony befitting the times they were written and just as useful a tonic today.

 The former glows like a knife on finger-snapping romps through “Schicklgruber” (with expert use of split-screen), “Economics,” and a riotous “The Trouble With Women” sung by the women in the cast. 

Not every experiment works. There’s an off-kilter “Mack The Knife” that tries too hard to put the sociopathic narrator in a social context and falls flat – though the gorgeous black and white footage of the cast at Westerville hotspot Asterix made me miss that bar with a visceral pang.

At its best, Into a Lamplit Room summed up what I love about these songs and gave me fresh ears. The cast’s women harmonizing and trading off on a brittle, wrenching “The Soldier’s Wife” stunned me. A breathtaking “Pirate Jenny” made the line “And you yell, ‘Why the hell do they spare that one?’” hit like an acid-tipped dagger. A duet on “Moon Faced, Starry Eyed” was ribald perfection and a crackling showcase for Stella Hiatt Kane’s always dazzling choreography. A bravura “Cry. The Beloved Country” excellently used footage around the Short North without detracting from the jaw-dropping singing.

I want to take a moment to highlight the stellar production values. Otterbein takes deserved pride in the technical side of their theatrical education department and Warren, Harvey, Kane, scenic designer Rob Johnson, and costume designer Rebecca White, with special attention to Avery Barrett’s stage managing, T. J. Gerckens’ lighting and the sound design team of Doc Davis and Kailey Miller, made something that sounds and looks every bit as good as it does in their big concert hall. It’s a tremendous achievement and a hell of a lot of fun.

Categories
"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre visual art

Things I’ve Been Digging – 03/01/2021

Clockwise from top left: Sarah Hollis, Chris Gardner, Naïma Hebrail Kidjo; taken from stream and edited

Iseult et Tristan by Pia Wilson

One of the great landmarks of New York underground experimental theater, La MaMa ETC, continues bringing exciting, vibrant work as it transitions to a digital space. Monday’s entry in the Experiments series was a brilliant example of how classic, almost archetypal stories can be repurposed and still resonate in our shared here and now.

Writer Pia Wilson resurrected the centuries-old love triangle of Iseult (Naïma Hebrail Kidjo), Margot (Sarah Hollis), and Tristan (Chris Gardner). She placed these old-as-time feelings in the milieu of contemporary New York with Iseult as a boxer, fresh out of rehab, under the tutelage of her retired boxer sister and her sister’s man struggling with some issues of his own.

Sympathetically directed by Susan Dalian in this zoom reading, the specifics of the setting hit with the concentrated fury of targeted punches as the characters danced around each other and their own pain. Lines drew blood like Iseult’s devastating “How do you do your life sentence in a cage of skin and blood? I don’t know how to do this life sentence.”

This is still viewable at http://lamama.org/iseult-et-tristan/ for I don’t know how long.

November at CCAD’s Beeler Gallery

My first art exhibit of the year and it felt like the first air in my lungs after being submerged in dark water. All the art institutions here are doing a great job with capacity limits, timed ticketing, contact tracing. Those steps make me feel mostly comfortable doing an activity that gave me the most joy before the pandemic even while I’m not as at ease doing it, always watching to see who is in the room and how close we are to one another. 

For the last several years, the Columbus College of Art and Design’s main exhibition space, Beeler Gallery, has carved out its own vital, unique space in our crowded art world. This multi-artist exhibition, November, was curated by alum Heather Taylor for the uncertainty and challenge of the 2020 election and pushed back due to a record-high wave of cases. 

These works stand up to the different but still present anxiety and tension of the moment because they were built already dealing with the layers of historical rage, sadness, and mistreatment. The unifying thread among these pieces is the sad certainty that what we all went through wasn’t a blip but a coalescence, a locus, a culmination; a clear-eyed desire to understand and respond to move forward.

Each of the artists brought something personal and sharp to this call and Taylor’s curation – and whichever preparators she worked with – shines in the way they speak to one another. Benjamin Willis’ gripping self-portraits in a warm, textured light played with Dawn Kim’s punching layers of The Apprentice soundtrack over a C-Span litany of contenders walking into Trump Tower in early 2017. 

Some of the highlights were full-room installations. Bobby T. Luck’s Drapetomania, or The Disease Causing Negroes to Run Away presented a breathtaking collage knocking the breath out of my lungs. Luck plays with our inability to connect and the sea of media buffeting us at every step and forcing a hard look at who chooses the prevailing images of a group – in this case, specifically black Americans – and why. 

Calista Lyon used old-school overhead projectors to dive into colonialism’s impact on the Crimson Spider Orchid, stitching together history and an almost apocalyptic warning in deep duende, amplified by the nostalgia of that humming light and the pink cast of the walls. 

There’s so much to unpack in this triumphant exhibition and it runs for one more week (through March 6, 2021). For details and to reserve timed tickets, visit https://www.ccad.edu/events/november 

Farewell, Ace of Cups: Muswell Villebillies on 02/27/2021

Anne rightly points out that one key to not losing your mind in this time when we can’t see each other up close is finding ways to mark the things we’d usually get together to celebrate or mourn. The value of that approach was affirmed and its limits tested this Saturday as Marcy Mays said goodbye to her time owning Ace of Cups.

For the last decade, Ace made itself indispensable to the Columbus rock and roll scene, filling a specific gap. We had great clubs since Little Brothers closed but we missed that size of room with a rock-centered booking approach but casting a wide tent (and using the best existing bookers in town) while also being open for bar hours and serving as a central clubhouse for many of us.

Ace of Cups’ greatest successes came from its unshakable faith in and deep love for our shared community – Columbus’s and the larger rock and roll scene. I lost count of the number of birthdays (including Anne’s and her Mom’s) we celebrated, the people we mourned, the out-of-town friends who wanted to come back, and the great times we shared. I also lost count of the number of musicians who wanted to play Ace – sometimes hadn’t been to Columbus in many years – because of their longstanding friendship with Marcy going back to her days in Scrawl.

That sense of community was all over this final show as Ace transitions to a new owner – Conor Stratton who comes highly recommended by every friend of mine involved and with a proven track record including the exciting Yellow Springs Springfest. First, by continuing a long partnership with neighbors Lost Weekend Records, owned by scene stalwart (and the gold standard for stage managers) Kyle Siegrist, for Lost Weekend’s 18th-anniversary celebration.

That community pumped through the veins of this show in the people playing too. The core of two of this town’s favorite cover-bands-for-people-who-hate-cover-bands, The Randys (Dave Vaubel and Jon Beard) and Popgun (Joey Hebdo and Tony McClung) teamed up with guitarist and producer of too many bands to count Andy Harrison in a gloriously fun Kinks tribute act, the Muswell Villebillies, aided by key members of New Basics Brass Band, Tim Perdue on trumpet and Tony Zilinick on trombone and sousaphone, on key tunes.

The players had a great time leaning into some of the great pop songs of the middle of the 20th century and the Kinks’ wide-ranging appetite for fusing disparate, sometimes discarded styles and making something new out of them along with the almost ravenous taste for melancholy in these songs made for an appropriate sendoff to a place we love so much.

That hunger for connection in tunes like “All of My Friends Were There” with its lines about “I’m thinking of the days – I won’t forget a single day, believe me;” “Picture Book;” “Party Line” with its warm paranoia, “I wish I had a more direct connection,” cut deeper than I expected, watching from my couch. 

The set drove home that longing – not being in the room to hug people and give it a proper goodbye as I did with other rooms I loved so much in their last days, Little Brothers and Larry’s here, Lakeside Lounge in New York immediately come to mind – on tunes tailor-made for it, Ray Davies’ wincing look at childhood on “Come Dancing” and a wrenching turn through one of the most beautiful songs of the 20th century, “Waterloo Sunset,” with guest vocals by Mays.

Part of what made this band work so beautifully is the best work of most of these players comes in reconfiguring and enlivening structures. There weren’t a lot of deconstructionist impulses on display and you don’t want it for this kind of repertory band. The key to breathing life into these classic songs is trusting them and loving them on their own terms and the distinct players’ skillsets and ability to find space within both the song and the unit of the band shone brightly.

McClung’s heavy post-Elvin Jones drumming – I’ve compared him to Columbus’ “Tain” Watts a few times – snaps everything into place here, with the supple rhythm section rounded out by Vaubel’s crisp, melodic bass and Beard’s blood-pumping surges on barrelhouse piano, silent-cinema organ, and beer-garden accordion. 

Within that framework, Hebdo leaned into the aggressive affectation of Davies’ phrasing, not making the mistake of trying to make things more natural to our ears, turning over the words and their rhythm as they were set in stone. Harrison’s crackling guitar and gets space to play as the horns lift everything up with punctuation and announcement.

I’ll miss you, Ace. I look forward to seeing what you bring us in the future. And I look forward to catching this band when I can dance with my friends and sing along in the open air.

This is still viewable for an indeterminate length of time: https://youtu.be/-6oNhPm-Yj8 

Categories
"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 02/22/2021

Seth Soulstein from Hotel Good Luck, image taken from official website of the production

Hotel Good Luck by Alejandro Ricaño, presented by Cherry and New Ohio Theater

I’ve liked New Ohio’s work for a long time – they’re always on the short list of companies I check for whenever I’m in New York – and they have taken their ethos of brand new work that simultaneously vibrates with the pulse of the avant-garde and packs a deep emotional punch and found a path to present that vital work in our distanced environment and sacrificing very little in translation.

The newest, striking example of this crucial work came in partnership with the Cherry Artists Collective. Hotel Good Luck, from acclaimed Mexican playwright Alejandro Ricaño, hit hard in a stream from an empty theater in Ithaca, with an empathetic translation by Jacqueline Bixler and directed by Samuel Buggeln.

Hotel Good Luck uses the vibration of that empty theater to braid the metaphors of parallel universes and the solitary DJ for maximum loneliness. Bobby (Seth Soulstein) hunches over his turntables, spraying patter into the void and spinning records like a French version of “My Generation” when he discovers a gateway into other universes.

The irrevocability of death is baked into the Minotaur’s maze Bobby runs, backed by haunting cello lines and the confounding guidance of his psychologist and quantum physicist Larry (Desmond Bratton, also composer of the original music he plays). 

The work also teases the frustration of figuring out where in the world – which world – any of us belongs. As Bratton declaims, right as answers start to appear in front of our hero but without solidity, “You be a disc jockey without listeners and I’ll be a therapist without patients! There is no original universe, Bobby. There is a universe you belong to but I don’t know how you get back there.” 

The two performances and Buggeln’s beguiling direction, creating enough space to drift through but always knowing when to focus, made this dazzling play sing.

From left: Adrian Lester, Danny Sapani, from Hymn. Image taken from official website of the production

Hymn by Lolita Chakrabarti, presented by Almeida Theater

My first – alas, so far only – trip to London made me fall in love with so much I expected to (The Tate Modern, The V&A, Southbank) and things that weren’t even on my radar before. Almeida is top of that latter list, a contemporary theater doing everything right, from the cafe to sightlines to starting on time to their selection of work.

Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti hit my radar through one of my favorite institutions, St Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. In 2013, St Ann’s presented the American premiere of Red Velvet, based on the true story of Ira Eldridge, the first black American to play Othello on the West End, starring Chakrabarti’s husband Adrian Lester, fresh off a smoking-hot London run.

Rolling the dice on an actor I was a fan of and a presenter who’d never let me down, I was enraptured. Later, I saw and reviewed a very good production at Ohio State’s theater department, proving the play wasn’t reliant on just that symbiotic relationship between star and writer.

Almeida’s transitioned to virtual shows that pack almost the same punch as being in their theater and I was overjoyed to wake up in time to catch the new Chakrabarti play, Hymn, streamed at 10 am my time (3 pm in London), starring Adrian Lester as Gilbert, the only known son of a local dry cleaner and upstanding member of the community, and Danny Sapani as the half-brother he didn’t know he had until a notice of their father’s funeral brings their orbits into collision.

In a taut 90 minutes, Hymn delves into what family and friendship mean, and the tracks left by the enormous shadow of a charismatic and loved father. Those impressions hit the two men in different ways but confirm presence and absence can both be suffocating and everything we live through has to be navigated.

The piece is bookended – after a whiplash prologue of Benny (Sapani) at the end of his rope, roaring at a bartender – by two eulogies, each delivered by one brother. The struggle to sum up a life in a few well-chosen words reverberates through the acid-burned snapshots that string the rest of the play together.

Music strings together this sudden, late-life friendship, staring from Sapani’s righteous takes on an evocative “Lean On Me,” and a furious read of the ominous Temptations classic “Papa Was a Rolling Stone,” through ‘80s classics like Full Force’s “Alice, I Want You Just For Me,” “Rapper’s Delight,” and a big UK hit I had to look up, “Street Tuff” by Rebel MC and Double Trouble, even into an ironic twisting of “Gettin’ Jiggy With It.”

The script brilliantly lets the physicality of these two men imply whole lives we only see glimpses of and highlights how little we – especially men – know each other, how hard we have to dig. McIntyre (who also directed The Writer which I saw at Almeida) uses the sparse set to evoke space and time, melting the scenes together organically with almost imperceptible transitions until suddenly the transition is a crash.

Grappling with self-awareness sparks heartbreaking moments at the end of the play. A haunted Lester saying “It’s the silence that breaks your heart,” looking at a suit in plastic. Sapani, summoning all his strength, sums up his brother with “The pieces of your life you think are missing are not necessarily the right ones…Gil tried so hard to play his notes in the right order but there is no right order, is there?”

We all have to reckon with that lack of a right order to find any semblance of peace. Hymn knows the joy in trying to live, if we let ourselves, but never forgets how much work it requires.

Frank Lacy’s Trombonivers at Smalls, image taken from stream and edited

Frank Lacy’s Trombonivers at Smalls

One of the great things about Smalls in its public incarnation was – through their late-night jam sessions – they provided more public showing-your-ass stage time for young players than anywhere else in the current state of moneyed Manhattan, while still having the core house band be professional enough that if things went south it didn’t go on so long it drove the post-midnight crowd back up to 10th Street.

Great trombone player and bandleader Frank Lacy also has a reputation as a great teacher and encourager of young talent. For a vibrant Smalls set that brought tears to my eyes and made me dance around the room, he convened 8 fellow trombone players across the spectrum of experience – Corey Wilcox, Rashaan Salaam, Corey Wallace, Colman Hughes, Alevtina Wilcox, James Rodgers, Jacob Melsha, Maxine Troglauer – along with a sizzling rhythm section of Felix Moseholm on bass, Evan Sherman on drums, and Jon Elbaz on piano.

Appropriate for Fat Tuesday, that instrumentation soared through strutting New Orleans material with teeth like Ellis Marsalis’s “Nostalgic Expressions.” They also played with dynamics, harmonies like slow molasses seeping into a holy river then evaporating into colored smoke on a ballad original of Lacy’s. That ballad, with an insinuating, punchy bassline from Moseholm melted into one of the great ballads, Monk’s “Crepuscule for Nellie, with the horns capturing all that kaleidoscopic color, bouncing back and forth between dramatic punctuation and a silken waltz.

Probably my favorite – or at least most surprising – tune from the set was a funky dance take on Wayne Shorter’s “Palladium,” a highlight from the first Weather Report record I bought as a kid. Explosions of dive-bomb harmony with a thick, sultry bottom and a particularly smoking drum solo from Sherman which hinted at the Latin elements of the original without falling into cliches.

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"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 02/15/2021

Livelabs: On Love by Mfoniso Udofia presented by MCC Theater 

I saw a reading of Mfoniso Udofia’s In Old Age in a Chelsea rehearsal space as part of a Page 73 reading series. I’ve never been so glad I made one choice over the carnival ride multiplicity of delights on a New York City afternoon; within five minutes, I knew this is one of the great voices of my time.

For all its troubles and difficulty, this enforced streaming age – at its best – makes these voices available to a wide range of people all at once. MCC’s Livelabs series does a great job bringing new work at affordable prices through its youtube channel. I got reacquainted with Udofia’s crackling writing with its layered depth of feeling via On Love, expertly directed by Awoye Timbo.

These vignettes turned the prism of love around and played with different refracted light, between Eros and Agape, from Ludus to Mania, exposing the very different impressions these loves leave and how thin the barriers between them are. With a crackling cast spanning superstars like Keith David to Broadway heroes like Anastacia McClesky and rising Off-Broadway mavens Antwayn Hopper, everyone delivered.

Using perfectly carved moments. On Love opened us to these characters hinted at whole worlds and lives. There wasn’t a person I met for these few minutes I didn’t want to know for a full-length play. I want to see every person in this – especially those new to me – in something else. And more than anything else, this made me hungry for more of Udofia’s writing.

Tim Easton, taken from stream and edited

Tim Easton – The Truth About Us 20th Anniversary

In early 2001, Columbus’s treasured son Tim Easton made his entrance onto a wider national stage with his second solo album, The Truth About Us. For this debut with ascendent alt.country label New West Records, Tim Easton recruited an all-star lineup, including producer Joe Chiccarelli (Lone Justice, Steve Wynn, Oingo Boingo) and the core of Wilco at the time (multi-instrumentalist Jay Bennett, bassist John Stirratt, and drummer Ken Coomer as the backing band. 

Easton and Chiccarelli augmented that sturdy core with guests of the highest order – Mark Olson and Victoria Williams singing on one track, Petra Haden’s haunting violin, Bruce Kaphan’s pedal steel, Kat Maslich on vocals, and local confederates like Chris Burney (who’d been playing bass for him on the road and would soon lead underrated Warner Brothers rock act The Sun).

Like many songwriters, Easton uses this pandemic to webcast from his home – including trying out new songs and dialoguing with old friends like JP Olsen. Last week, in honor of its 20th anniversary, he revisited The Truth About Us from front to back. He peppered the set with reminisces about its making – including fond recollections of everyone who worked with him on it.

That hour and a half was a powerful nostalgia trip, remembering trudging through the snow to Little Brothers for the release show – great Cleveland band Rosavelt backing and opening for Easton – with my roommate at the time. It also reminded me how well the songs hold up two decades later.

At its best, The Truth About Us grapples with the very concept of truth and its value. Trying to understand people’s motivations, and his own, to get out of the writer’s own way, while also trying to find their place inside an “us.”

Around the time of this record, I saw many shows – frequently local – and listened to a lot of records with my friend Heather, now based solidly in LA. Easton’s deceptively easy-going manner and charm put her off, feeling like its truths weren’t as hard-fought as her favorite writers: “It’s all good, but it comes too easily to him.” 

The one song she made an exception for was the second song on The Truth About Us: “Carry Me,” a plea for forgiveness and an accounting. The tune hides a knife in its gentleness: a catchy, fingerpicked lilt that drifts from “People love you like a diamond in their hand, but they don’t know that diamond like I do” through “It was selfish to think you’d be better off just ‘cause I wanted to be further along,” into “Here comes that old devil midnight and I have not slept in days.” Hearing him do this one again, with just that acoustic guitar, chilled my blood.

“Happy Now,” always one of my favorite hooks Easton wrote – in a period he wrote more jangling, haunt-your-sleep choruses than anyone else in town – reasserted a psychological weight I didn’t give it credit for at the time. I’d never seen a Rauschenberg combine when I heard that song, and I’d barely graced the surface of cut-ups as a form, so the accretion of collaged emotional details took me a while. Stripped from the Byrds chime of the guitar and the grooving Kinksish organ on the record, the depth of feeling hit harder. 

Verses paint people in crisis, a tattoo parlor owner’s wife screaming at him, “You’re ruining me somehow”; a man jumping a roof to find the same callous disregard in death – “He wanted them to miss him, that was part of the plan, but nobody ever even gave a damn. Are you happy now? They were laughing as you went down;” a woman in her front yard praying with the prayers answered by, “Nobody knew what to do or what to say; the traffic light changed, and we just drove away.” s the chorus taunting “Are you happy now” with the sinking suspicion the narrator’s turning on himself.

The obsessive ramble that always recalled Elizabeth Bishop to me, “I Would Have Married You,” retained its keening, searching power in this format. Easton rightly called out the magnificence of Petra Haden’s violin – this was the first I’d heard of her, and her playing drove me to pick up my first That Dog record – Maslich’s harmonies and Kaphan’s moaning steel.

Easton’s affection for people and memory for detail is the not-so-secret engine that’s powered his career and created the longevity he enjoys. This evening was a reminder of that joy, as much as the record is. Nowhere does that manifest more than in his long-running friendship with JP Olsen. The two songs on The Truth About Us not penned by Easton come from Olsen: “Bad Florida,” a standout on my sleeper pick for best Columbus album, Burn Barrel’s Reviled!, and last-call promise from Olsen’s band The Beetkeepers, “Don’t Walk Alone.” The latter closes the record and imbues Olsen’s razor-sharp words and sly melody with a greater earnestness as he  bolsters the anthemic qualities of the chorus with surging backing vocals and my favorite Haden string parts here. That anthem recast clings to his arrangement, even with the elements stripped away.

This is still viewable on Tim Easton’s official Facebook page.

Categories
"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 01/25/2021

Blue Ridge from the Atlantic Theater Company website

Blue Ridge by Abby Rosebrock, directed by Taibi Magar, presented by Play Per View

Play Per View made their name earlier in the pandemic with some of the best Off-Broadway plays of the last few years, often reuniting their original casts. They scored another winner with Rosebrock’s Blue Ridge, assembling the stellar actors of the Obie-winning Atlantic Theater’s 2018 production for a Zoom reading.

Blue Ridge singed my damn eyebrows off. Marin Ireland’s Abby is a heartbreakingly relatable character – a portrait of someone getting in her way, so good at some things it lets her not acknowledge her toxicity radiating into the people around her. Whip-change moves underpinned by simultaneously a steely reserve and tragic desperation.

Under Magar’s direction, the rest of the cast crackles, with Kyle Beltran’s Wade, a fellow resident of the sober living house to which Abby was court-appointed, and Kristolyn Lloyd’s Cherie, Abby’s close friend and further along in her path to sobriety. Those two characters’ take the program’s lessons seriously, and their struggle is easier to relate to without the main character’s causticity. But Rosebrock is too canny a writer to let the audience rest in the easy moralistic dichotomy; everyone here is a person, and we’re all broken with varying degrees of self-awareness.

This pitch-black comedy set in the tip of Appalachia grapples with the difficulty of getting help and the often Sisyphean task of getting better, of treating your fellow humans with the love it’s hard to even see ourselves as deserving. 

Questlove 50th Promo Picture from Youtube

Questlove’s 50th Birthday Stream

I was delighted to take a breath on January 20th for the Biden and Harris inauguration, and both Garth Brooks’ a capella “Amazing Grace” and Amanda Gorman’s stirring poem moved me. But when work ended and the night rolled around, the celebration I wanted to partake in from my couch – the closest representation of America I want, I have to choose, to believe in – was a celebratory birthday takeover of a scheduled Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson broadcast on The Roots’ YouTube channel.

Questlove’s been the heart and engine of some of my favorite music of all time. Without question, he was among the driving forces of most of my favorite music of college and immediately after. I’m in the middle of my third re-read of Creative Quest, trying to kickstart my brain out of a winter slump. His DJing is also rightly legendary – anyone watching him rock a massive crowd at Brooklyn Bowl knows we’re in the presence of someone hitting an apex of that form.

In the five or so hours of #Questo50 Anne and I were lucky to see a tribute to Questlove’s wide-ranging network of friends and influences on both sides. And each DJ – without trying too hard, they frequently overlapped a song or two – took up a distinct space. They treated that evening as a great party, even if we were all in our own houses. The latter also presented a heavier version of the usual Wednesday night problem: no waiting for champagne and whiskey that have already been paid for.

DJ Rashida’s infectious set played a greatest hits of Questlove’s work – classic The Roots, Erykah Badu, D’Angelo, Common – and his compatriots Q-Tip and Dilla. She served a burst of the best parts of memory, dancing to those songs in clubs and basements, probably not surprising since she’s within a month of my age.

DJ Sasara from Tokyo spoke to his international presence and the flow of ideas. She worked local floor-fillers like DJ Kawasaki into smooth ‘70s soul and hard-driving Colombian and Brazillian tunes. Stones Throw general Peanut Butter Wolf worked with the record nerd side. Having picked a crate of 45s he thought Questlove would enjoy, he chose them at random, delighting in the sensual, sometimes incongruity of the way they sparked against each other.

DJ Tara was that modern East Coast party, smoothly and seamlessly beat-matched and the perfect mix of stuff I already knew and loved and great surprises that all made me want to move. And the headliner, as only seems right, was Philly giant DJ Jazzy Jeff.

Like a real club night or warehouse party, I wanted to check in and still have a full night’s sleep for work. I couldn’t turn away – I was happily hooked on this until 1:00 am.

Categories
"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 01/17/2021

Immanuel Wilkins Quartet, from left Kris Davis, Daryl Johns, Immanuel Wilkins, Kewku Sumbry; taken from stream and edited

Immanuel Wilkins Quartet at Smalls

I mentioned APAP in last week’s writeup. Generally, in one of these years when I’d be in New York for mid-January, soaking up the remnants of arts presenters’ bounties, I’d be catching between 6 and 20 sets over a few days of Winter Jazz Fest. WJF’s excellent pivot of panels and performances is going on through March, but I caught a few streams that gave me some of that feeling.

The set that gave me the heftiest dose of that energy came from a stalwart of the classic NYC clubs and at the vanguard of this new digital era, Smalls. Immanuel Wilkins (also a standout on Joel Ross’ astonishing record last year) and one of our finest alto players, lead a striking quartet with Kris Davis (who closed out my previous New York trip with an explosion) on piano, Daryl Johns on bass, and Kweku Sumbry on drums. 

The group wove together songs into unbroken suites, building landscapes and shifting them. Simmering, glistening ballads jostled with ecstatic classic fire music. Long, screeching cries curled like smoke into gorgeous melodies. Textures played out and expanded, then splintered and came together. 

This set was everything I want from a band coming out of the jazz tradition. It made me miss New York, it made me miss walking down to Dick’s Den on a good night, and it made me miss being in the room; at the same time, it reminded me how lucky I am to have this option.

From left: Vijay Iyer, Arooj Aftab, Shazad Ismaily; taken from stream and edited

Love in Exile at Jazz Gallery

Jazz Gallery continues to present a wealth of fascinating programming in its streaming iteration and I was enthralled by their trio this week of pianist Vijay Iyer, multi-instrumentalist Shazad Ismaily (both of whom I’ve seen many times) and vocalist Arooj Aftab whose name pricked my consciousness when she played a Big Ears but I’d never seen.

This was an astonishing, glowing hour of music. Mostly working in these slow, unfolding oceanic tempos, the trio displayed an uncanny telepathy. On one piece, Iyer’s exploded flurries of his classic diamond hard-and-glistening attack into spaces left by Aftab’s silky melodies and Ismaily’s circular, hypnotic bass. Another used that tempo to expand into a rich, cinematic, baroque ballad, riding accumulations into a majestic cascade. 

Other pieces had Ismaily bringing in a droning keyboard tone to underpin a dual longing between Aftab and Iyer. Beautiful and beguiling.

Espíritu; shot taken from stream and edited

Espíritu at Under the Radar

Caught up on the rest of the previous week’s Under the Radar and my favorite piece, Espíritu, came from the Chilean company Teatro Anónimo and the pen of Trinidad González. 

It focuses on – mostly young – people grappling with the deep sickness of ennui and hopelessness. As one character says early on, “We are just a group of useless people with a great plan to stop the destruction of the world.”

That plan staggers and stumbles, people are wracked by cruelty and driven into impoverished fantasies that pass that cruelty on through jagged vignettes. Lines like “People yell at me and that makes them happy…Sometimes they think they’re making love but it’s something different from love. Do they dream?” and “If I were your father I’d burn that notebook and send you off to fight a war,” haunted me for days after seeing this.

If I were managing a company, I’d program a double bill of this with Matt Slaybaugh’s The Absurdity of Writing Poetry but there are probably dozens of plays about fighting despair with art, even, especially, when it feels hopeless, this would productively spark against. It made me miss UTR, made me miss NYC, and made me miss the theaters where I first loved work like this in the Wexner Center and at Available Light.

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"Hey, Fred!" live music theatre

Things I’ve Been Digging – 01/11/2021

My TimeHop reminded me that last year, and three years ago, I was in NYC for festivals around APAP, which is always one of the most invigorating parts of any year I work it in. 

From left: Kirk Knuffke, Gerald Cleaver, James Brandon Lewis, taken from stream and edited

James Brandon Lewis, Kirk Knuffke, and Gerald Cleaver at Arts for Art Inc, 01/06/2021

Of the overlapping black music traditions, relatively few hands dig into the fertile intersection between R&B and free jazz. Arts for Art – a storied non-profit that hosts the annual Vision Festival among other services to the culture – kicked off their 2021 with one of the finest examples of the sparks that fly when those two forms hit one another: a trio of sax player James Brandon Lewis, cornet player Kirk Knuffke, and drummer Gerald Cleaver.

As Lewis said in the post-set discussion, “Charles Gayle and Grover Washington, Jr. both came from the same place I did, Buffalo.” This trio wove excerpts of the Bill Withers classics “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and “Just the Two Of Us,” the latter a collaboration with Washington and a massive hit, along with Donny Hathaway’s “Someday We’ll Be Free” into an unbroken 45-minute meditation and exultation.

Lewis’s liquid tone and Knuffke’s sharp, jabbing punctuation aligned on deep hooks like the revolving “I know” section of “Ain’t No Sunshine,” building up the tension and exploding that feeling into a bonfire of abstraction. That jousting coiled into a mournful funeral march before clicking into a more urgent, insistent gear.

Through all of these changes, Cleaver’s drums commented and steered the ship. The one section where he slid into head knocking funk beats felt like an unexpected blast of sun cracking velvet clouds, then as soon as I grasped it, he and the trio were onto something else. 

Everyone in this trio intimately understood both musical forms and used the tropes for their cathartic power as well as misdirection. They didn’t shuffle free playing and dance music; they burned them into something fresh and personal.

Under the Radar, presented by The Public Theater

One of the brightest lights in my personal APAP – and the conduit for many of my favorite things at the Wexner Center every year – is the Public’s Under The Radar fest. This international sampling of moving, riveting performance art and theater pivoted brilliantly to online this year. I’ve checked about half of it so far and there hasn’t been a dud in the bunch. 

Best of all, these are available on demand through the 14th, at https://publictheater.org/programs/under-the-radar/under-the-radar-2021/

Highlights for me so far:

From the innovative Instagram component of Rich Kids

Rich Kids: A History of Shopping Malls in Tehran by Javaad Alipoor

This two hander – which won a prize at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival – featured Alipoor and Kirsty Housley narrating – with dazzling imagery the self-destructive microcosm of the idle rich in Tehran. In doing so, they draw out heartbreaking truths about the decline of civilizations, the scars of colonialism, and the blur between long-term consequences and immediate decisions. 

Full of poison-dagger lines I was still chewing over days later like “There isn’t an anthropocene that connects us, there’s a scar that divides;” vaporwave summed up as “A ghost made of bits and pieces of a past that never quite was;” and a description of Dubai as “It’s like long generations of the past returning eternally to party with them.”

From left: Jason Moran and Alicia Hall Moran. Taken from stream and edited

the motown project by Alicia Hall Moran. 

One of our finest American singers, plumbing the rich terrain between Opera and popular music, Alicia Hall Moran assembled a ferocious band for this, including her husband Jason Moran on piano, Reggie Washington on bass, LaFrae Sci on drums, and Thomas Flippin on guitar, alongside fellow powerhouse singers Barrington Lee and Steven Herring.

Moran drew connections between the Motown songbook and classical “art music,” giving both sides equal weight without sanding down either’s essence, and wove them into a crushing portrait of desire. An aria from The Magic of Figaro sparked off the Holland-Dozier-Holland classic “Sugarpie, Honeybunch.” A torturously slow “Heat Wave” was a languid blast from better seasons. A “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” drew every nuance out of that Stevie Wonder classic without bogging it down. If I see something better this year – even after theatres open – it’s been a good damn year.