KA Letts (of RustbeltArts.com) has written a great review of the WSG Gallery's current exhibition.
"Takeshi Takahara believes in the handmade, the one-of-a-kind, the idiosyncratic. This might seem a counterintuitive attitude in an accomplished master of intaglio printmaking, a medium which embodies the aesthetic of the multiple and reproducible. But in his first solo show at WSG Gallery he demonstrates that his unique, eco-friendly hybrid intaglio/woodcut process for creating small print editions (often only 5 to 9 per title) can deliver artworks that pack all the punch of a one-of-a-kind painting. Imperfection, a meticulously curated and well arranged grouping of prints on the theme of the lotus, is on view in the WSG gallery from now until October 22."
Visit RustbeltArts.com to read the review in its entirety.
K.A. Letts is an artist and art blogger. She has shown her work regionally and nationally and in 2015 won the Toledo Federation of Art Societies Purchase Award while participating in the TAAE95 Exhibit at the Toledo Museum of Art. You can find more of her work at RustbeltArts.com.
Imperfection will run at the WSG Gallery, 306 S. Main Street, through October 22, 2016. The WSG Gallery is open Tuesday-Thursday, noon–6 pm; Friday-Saturday, noon-9 pm; and Sunday 12-5 pm. For information, call 734-761-2287.
The Ann Arbor Art Center’s latest exhibit is the Re: Formation to help begin all reformations.
As the exhibit’s statement tells us, the display “examines this unique moment [in history] when ordinary people are declaring a la Peter Finch [from Sidney Lumet’s 1977 film Network]: “‘I’m mad as hell and I won’t take it anymore.’”
This is indeed the precise sentiment of this unceasingly clever exhibit of art.
For Re: Formation, the latest offering of Rocco DePietro and Gloria Pritschet, founders and directors of the Gallery Project, follows suit with this artful duo’s willingness to go where most other forums fear to tread. Ann Arbor's Art Center exhibit pairs with an earlier August incarnation of the show exhibited through the auspices of Toledo, OH’s Art Commission.
As the exhibit statement continues, “What is different at this time is that people who have been silent, or silenced, are standing up, speaking out, and mobilizing for needed change. Highly divergent in life styles with broad-ranging backgrounds, beliefs, and values, these individuals are expressing justifiable anger at the accumulation of horrific events and unrelenting injustices that characterize our current era.
“They are teaming up across race, gender, politics, and social status with empathy and compassion for their fellow human beings. Their actions are reestablishing belief in a positive future based on fairness, equity, and genuine possibility for all.
“Is this a tipping point, a moment for reform, or even a revolution? Or is it just another blip before capitulation and regression?”
These are, of course, highly potent questions. The very nature of this articulation will be considered by some as transgressive. But the paradox, of course, is that the very nature of the contention leaves motivation and avocation hanging equally in the balance.
Because of course, the definition of art itself is being challenged in Re: Formation. What is the purpose of art? Is it meant to merely have a decorative function? Or is it meant to provoke and challenge one’s preconceptions?
The Gallery Project is letting us know what they think, and towards this end DePietro and Pritschet have mobilized a formidable array of national, regional, and local talent whose outlooks cut across a whole host of social, political, and cultural viewpoints. There are (to borrow from a questionable cliché) no sacred cows here. And even if there were, it would be just as many of the artists on display who would want to devour it as there are others who would hold it sacred.
Local talents on display are Ann Arbor’s Heather Accurso, Morgan Barrie, Carolyn Barritt, Ruth Crowe , K.A. Letts, Melanie Manos, Michael Nagara, Sharon Que, Jesse Richard, Meagan Shein, Ellen Wilt and Richard Wilt. Dexter is represented by Tohru Kanayama; with participation by Ypsilanti’s Nick Azzaro and Jessica Tenbusch.
Among the works on display, Azzaro gives us a potent taste of Re: Formation’s disposition. His unframed “Progress at the Ol’ Smith Furniture Building” color photograph touches on all the ideas stated in the exhibition’s gallery statement.
There are, of course, Americans who to this day think of the Confederate States of America’s second Battle Flag as a sacred totem of historic significance with as much a symbolic value as the United States’ stars and stripes. Indeed, these stars and bars—in either its peace or war confederate configuration—are still part of the symbol (and considered a venerated heritage) in parts of the American south and officially designated in three southern states.
But the flag is also a highly potent symbol of a heritage that is itself emblematic of one of the most controversial aspects of our republic’s heritage. Representative of the defense of slavery as a political institution, the Dixie Battle Flag serves as a visceral reminder of attitudes that cut across economic, social, and cultural lines. As such it’s not uncommon to find the flag on private property such as flag pole or car—now often in a setting that is seemingly as much defiance as it is supportive.
Thus Azzaro’s photograph transgresses these values by vividly appropriating the symbol and subverting its erstwhile significance. Running across a dilapidated storefront with this flag in flames, “Progress at the Ol’ Smith Furniture Building” is a straightforward, aggressive recasting of social, economic, political, and cultural American expectations.
Just like many other artworks on display in this highly emotionally charged exhibit, if Azzaro’s “Progress at the Ol’ Smith Furniture Building” isn’t a Re: Formation of American expectations, it’s hard to imagine what might be.
John Carlos Cantú has written on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.
Re:Formation will run through October 8, 2016, at the Ann Arbor Art Center, 117 W. Liberty St. Exhibit hours are 10 am to 7 pm, Monday-Friday; 10 am to 6 pm, Saturday; and noon to 5 pm, Sunday. For information, call (734) 994-8004.
Following in her illustrious parents' footsteps, Irene is a professional spy for a shadowy organization called the The (Invisible) Library * * that collects important works of fiction from all of the different realities. After wrapping up a most difficult case, she finds herself immediately assigned a new mission - to retrieve a particularly dangerous book in an alternative London while shackled with a new trainee, Kai.
When they arrive, they find the city populated with vampires, werewolves, and Fair Folk, and the book they are after, has already been stolen. Soon they realize several parties are prepared to fight to the death for the tome, one of them a handsome detective named Peregrine Vale. It also becomes clear fo Irene that Kai is hiding secrets, secrets that could prove as deadly as the chaos-filled world they find themselves in.
"Bibliophiles will go wild for this engaging debut, as Genevieve Cogman hits all the high notes for enjoyable fantasy. Intriguing characters and fast-paced action are wrapped up in a spellbinding, well-built world." (Library Journal)
I hope you are a fast reader. A much anticipated sequel The Masked City is on its way, and not a minute too soon.
* * = starred reviews
"This is like the bar mitzvah I never had," U-M art and music professor Andy Kirshner joked while standing on the Michigan Theater's stage on Thursday evening, hosting the premiere screening of his locally made, original feature film musical, Liberty's Secret.
Indeed, the quip aptly described the event's affectionate, enthusiastic, communal atmosphere. (Kirshner's last words at the mic were, "Could my wife please raise her hand, so I can find my seat?") Approximately a thousand people turned out to see Kirshner's film about an unlikely romance that blooms between a jaded, Jewish Presidential campaign communications manager (Nikki, played by Chelsea native and U-M grad Cara AnnMarie) and a sheltered, small-town pastor's daughter (Liberty, played by Oakland University grad Jaclene Wilk) whose angelic singing voice makes her not just America's viral sweetheart, but the picture of "family values" wholesomeness that Nikki's moderate Republican candidate, Kenny Weston (Williamston Theatre co-founder John Lepard), needs to win.
Clearly, Thursday night's crowd enjoyed playing "spot the local artist": There's U-M professor and theater artist Malcolm Tulip, leading a "gender re-orientation camp" number in the Michigan Union ballroom! There's former Performance Network artistic director and actor David Wolber, playing a security guard that puts the stop on Purple Rose Theatre artist Tom Whalen! There's local actor Rusty Mewha, playing Weston's cynical campaign manager! And in what might have been the most well-received featured appearance, Kirshner himself, wearing a bushy wig, played Rolf Schnitzel (?!), host of the cable news program, The Briefing Room.
Local filming locations included Ann Arbor's Millenium Club, the Vineyard Church, a former restaurant in Ypsilanti, a wedding chapel in Milan and more.
Getting the tone right for satire is often tricky, and Kirshner stumbles occasionally, making Liberty's well-intentioned father and his congregation too cartoonish at times, and painting Weston in broad, George W. Bush-style strokes. He wisely checks this impulse now and then, most notably when Liberty calls out Nikki for looking down her nose at everyone who believes in God. And there are some pretty fun touches, too, like when Weston's debate prep takes place in front of a white board that has mixed-up messages like "It's the stupid economy," and when Liberty's definition of love as self-sacrifice prompts Nikki to reply, "No, that's co-dependency."
Kirshner's original score, while varied and sophisticated, only sometimes sounds like it belongs in the world of musical theater. The most successful number by far is a tap duet between Liberty and Nikki called "Stay on Message," which not only spotlights Debbie Williams' fun choreography, but dissects the doublespeak of political rhetoric, as Nikki instructs Liberty on how to translate terms for the media ("Don't say 'intervention,' say 'keeping peace,'" etc.). In addition, the song goes some distance toward partially filling a larger gap in the narrative, which is: what makes these two very different women fall in love with each other? We're told that they do, but there's little meat on the bones of this particular (and crucial) development.
But these artistic quibbles don't detract from the fabulously fun party that hundreds of locals, students and community members both, attended to collectively celebrate a project that brought them together. The film's two female leads do fine work, and Lepard seems to have the time of his life playing a bumbling politician. Mewha's reaction shots alone earn big laughs, and Alfrelynn J. Roberts, Nikki's colleague and friend, gracefully grounds the story by way of sharing her own past with Liberty's father.
So Liberty's Secret may be destined to be more of a local hit than a national one, but in many ways, it's Kirshner's funny, sweet valentine to the community he calls home; and because of how recently the Supreme Count ruled in favor of same-sex marriage, watching a wedding with two brides - who serenade each other, no less - can be quite moving.
(Liberty's Secret is available for pre-order at http://libertysecret.com, with delivery expected in early November. Shortly thereafter, it will be available on iTunes, Amazon Prime, and other formats.)
Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.
There was a lot happening on Kendrick Lamar’s 2015 album To Pimp a Butterfly, but Kamasi Washington’s saxophone still stood out, causing him to be touted as “the high priest of sax” and “jazz’s newest savior.”
Washington seems unfazed by these dramatic new labels. The 35-year-old Californian has been playing jazz saxophone for decades—since he was 13, to be exact, when he picked up his father’s saxophone, left lying in the living room. As a sophomore at UCLA, Washington toured with Snoop Dogg and joined the orchestra of Gerald Wilson.
Over the next twenty years, Washington recorded, performed and toured with dozens of musicians and quietly formed his own band, The Next Step, comprised of anywhere between 10 and 15 people at a given time. The Next Step, along with a string orchestra and a full choir, backed Washington on his first solo album, released last year, and appropriately titled The Epic—it’s three discs and 172 minutes long. The Epic received the inaugural American Music Prize, which is awarded to the best debut album of the previous year in any genre.
Washington uses his music to get messages across, saying that the “whole point” of playing music is to convey a message. In his case, these messages are often political, supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and praising one of his early heroes, Malcolm X. An entire track on The Epic is a eulogy to the black leader.
“Music and politics are so connected,” Washington said in an interview in May. “Politics are policies that govern people. Music is the expression of thoughts that govern ourselves. It should go hand in hand, because one definitely affects the other.” Washington is influenced by early jazz pioneers like Gerald Wilson and John Coltrane, but also strives to maintain his own sound in his work and his performances, saying that he loves to play jazz music because there is always something new to try with it.
Washington’s live performances are similar to that of his album: epic. His stature and wardrobe choices (he wore a bright blue dashiki at a recent performance in Toronto, and a floor length purple coat at another) would make him eye-catching even without his mind-blowing saxophone performances. At his September 30 performance at the Michigan Theater, The Next Step will be with him, making for what will surely be a crowded and lively stage. Washington says that he is on a “lifelong quest discovering the many wonders of music”—the opportunity to join him on this journey, even if just for the night, is certainly one not to be missed.
Elizabeth Pearce is a Library Technician at the Ann Arbor District Library. Clarence Clemons is her favorite saxophonist, but Kamasi Washington is a close second.
Kamasi Washington performs at the Michigan Theater on Friday, September 30 at 8 pm, presented by UMS. Tickets range from $24-$58 and are available here.
New York actress Valerie Torrey, who has a successful run playing Bethany Fraser in a syndicated X-Files-ish TV show called Anomaly is taking her 9 year-old son Alex on a road trip to LA where his father Andrew lives.
Along the way, Val agrees to make appearances at comic book conventions. From Pittsburgh to Cleveland, from Chicago to Las Vegas they are increasingly being drawn into the lives and drama of the other regulars - artists, writers, agents, publishers and a strange world of "cosplay" (costume play), mostly young women who dress up as comic book characters.
For Alex, this world is a magical place where fiction becomes reality, but as they get closer to their destination, he begins to realize that the story his mother is telling him about their journey might have a very different ending than he imagined.
Debut novelist "Proehl has done an excellent job of integrating all of the story lines and creating memorable characters to populate them. Though not without its melancholy moments, the story is deeply satisfying and will delight both comics fans and general readers." (Booklist)
* = starred review
Mark Mothersbaugh is best known for his indelible contributions to pop music as the frontman of Devo, but his work with the darkly humorous New Wave group represents just a fraction of his diverse artistic output. Since the late '80s Mothersbaugh has composed music for hundreds of movies, TV shows, video games, and commercials. His visual art includes thousands of pen-and-ink postcard-sized drawings, rugs, sculpture-like musical instruments, and eyeglasses. This broad body of work, including the music and early music videos he created with Devo, is the subject of a new traveling museum exhibit, Mark Mothersbaugh: Myopia. The exhibit currently is not scheduled to stop in Ann Arbor, but in a way we'll be getting something even better. Mothersbaugh will appear at the Michigan Theater on September 29 for the Penny Stamps Speaker Series, engaging in conversation with Adam Lerner, who curated the Myopia exhibit and wrote the accompanying book.
In advance of his Ann Arbor appearance, Mothersbaugh chatted with Pulp about maintaining a sense of subversiveness despite corporate interference, his enduring friendship with Pee-Wee Herman creator Paul Reubens, and Todd Rundgren's enviable fashion sense.
Q: You'll be in conversation here at the University of Michigan with Adam Lerner, who curated the new retrospective exhibition of your work and edited the accompanying book. As you've had these opportunities to look back on your work recently, have you had any new realizations about your evolution as an artist over time?
A: [Laughs.] You know, yeah. You do pick up information along the way of being a human, I've found. To me, when I walk through the show ... it's kind of interesting to see what things are the same and what things never change. When I look back at the arc of all my visual art, I can say, "Well, in a way it's permutations on a theme." It really goes back to when I was at school at Kent State. I hated public school. The first 12 years of my life in school were horrid. I was at odds with other students, with the teachers, with everybody. It was just totally unpleasant and I almost ended up at Kent State on a fluke, but it turned out to change my life in a lot of ways. I gained a respect for education, among other things, and I just loved having access to tools that I never had access to before ... There was very limited art teaching in public schools in the '50s and '60s, so it was kind of this amazing world that got opened up to me when I all of a sudden found out about all the things you could do, all the empowerment that came with being in college. I loved it.
But at that time period, I was there for the shooting of the students at Kent State. We had all joined [Students for a Democratic Society] and we were going to help end the war in Vietnam and then things took a dark turn. ... That was in my sophomore year, and [I was] questioning that. I was collaborating for about a year before that with a grad student that was an artist at Kent State named Jerry Casale. Questioning what we'd seen, we decided that what we'd seen was de-evolution, not evolution. I understand that there's different ways for artists to evolve and mature and to fall apart or to build. I think in my case, I think my life as an artist has always been kind of seen through the eyes of someone that was always kind of hopeful, but paranoid at the same time. Or worried about it. Hopeful, but concerned. We saw de-evolution as a vehicle to talk about the things that we were concerned about on the planet, and I feel like my work has been sort of permutations on that theme.
Even kind of shifting into the belly of the beast and moving into Hollywood and scoring films and television, between Devo kind of slowing down at the end of the '80s, I started doing gallery shows. I did about 125 or 140 shows at mostly smaller pop-up galleries and street galleries, just because being in Hollywood made me distrustful of organized entertainment, so to speak. I've found all the smaller galleries to be, a high percentage of them, filled with authentic people that loved and were concerned about art and reminded me of what it was like to be in Devo when we were starting it. We thought we were doing an art movement. We thought we were doing Art Devo. We were like an agitprop group who worked in all the different mediums and were spreading the good news of de-evolution around the world. That was our original goal.
When we signed with Warner Bros. and Virgin Records, they kind of did as best a job as they could of shoving us into a little box that they could understand. ... Even in the late '70s, it was a struggle to convince them to let us make our short films. They had no idea why we wanted to make films with our songs. There were so many things that were a struggle that were needless. As Jerry would say, we were the pioneers who got scalped. But it was like the early days of people recognizing artists that put ideas in front of the actual techniques that they used. A technique was just a vehicle to help you solve a problem or create a piece of art. Being a craftsman was less necessary than ever before in our culture.
Now it's totally amazing how far it's gone. Kids that have ideas now about art, they don't have the barriers that we had or I had. The Internet is such an amazing, wonderful gift and tool for kids. I'm so jealous I'm not 14 right now. I watch my kids – they're 12 and 15, and I watched them make little movies on an iPad when they were even younger. It's totally transparent to them and they're laughing and running around the house. They're making a movie like a little kid would make, but they don't even know that 30 years ago – was it 30? '76, that's like, what, 40 years? Jesus. Forty years ago. It took a year of work first to make the money to pay for $3,000 worth of material and then to find time in editing bays where we could go in and make our seven-and-a-half minute film. And it's not just my kids. It's all over the world. Cell phones and iPads, things like that, are so inexpensive now that you see kids in the Amazon playing with this stuff, taking pictures of things around them and making music on iPhones. You not only don't have to own a guitar or a piano or a set of drums. You don't even have to know how to play it. My kids found this app where they could play drums by just making drum sounds into their phone and it would translate that into one of 30 different drum kits. ... Art has become so democratic. On some levels it's astounding. Anyhow, I don't know how I got to that after you were asking me about my art, but there you go. That's the danger of talking to me after a cup of coffee.
Q: That's okay. It was an interesting answer. I want to ask you a little bit more about the concept of de-evolution, since that was of course so important to the formation of Devo. How has that concept played out for you as time has gone along? Do you see de-evolution continuing to play out? Is that concept still as relevant to you as when you were younger back in the '70s?
A: I think all you have to do is look at this current election season in the U.S. It's like Idiocracy has arrived, for real. It's not even ironic or funny anymore. It's reality. It's kind of impressive and depressive at the same time, because we were never in support of things falling apart or the stupidity of man getting the upper hand. We just felt like, if you knew about it and recognized it, you could be proactive and change your mutations carefully, choose them on purpose instead of just letting them be pushed on you and accepting them.
Q: I want to ask you about a couple of more recent projects. You most recently scored the new Pee-Wee Herman movie. Did Paul Reubens bring you back in on that project personally, and did you guys remain in touch in the decades since you worked on Pee-Wee's Playhouse?
A: It's kind of funny. ... Right when he was first creating the Pee-Wee Herman character, we'd already met. This was '70 – I don't know what, '70-something – and my girlfriend at the time, her parents, her mom was instrumental in starting a comedy group out in Los Angeles called the Groundlings. Her name was Laraine Newman. She was one of the original cast members for Saturday Night Live. She would take me to the Groundlings and I saw Paul while he was working on developing this character. We kind of knew each other and he had asked me to do his first movie, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, but I was so deep into Devo and we were touring. I didn't do Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, but he called me up after that and said, "Well, okay, how about now? Would you do my TV show?" It just happened to be that Devo had signed a bad record deal with a record company that was going bankrupt. We were just like rats on the Titanic, along with about 20 other bands that were just sitting on the bow. It seemed like the perfect time to work on a TV show.
I'd been in this situation where I was writing 12 songs, rehearsing them, then go record them, then make a film for one or two of the songs and design a live touring show, and then we'd go out on tour and a year later we'd come back and write 12 more songs. When I started doing Pee-Wee's Playhouse they would send me a three-quarter-inch tape on Monday. Tuesday I'd write 12 songs. Wednesday I'd record them. Thursday I'd put it in the mail and send it to New York, where they were editing the show. Friday they would cut it into the episode of Pee-Wee's Playhouse for that week. Saturday we'd all watch it on TV. Monday they'd send me a new tape and I'd do the process over again. I was like, "Sign me up for this! I love the idea of getting to create more and write more music as opposed to spending all my time sitting around in airports waiting to get to the next venue."
So now, all these years later, [Reubens and I] have stayed friends. He's probably the only guy – other than my mom and dad, who are both passed away now – but he was the only other person who remembered every one of my birthdays and sent me something. That was kind of nice, even if we didn't see each other all the time. So we stayed friends and when this came up, it was kind of like coming around full circle to get to work with him again. I ended up recording the London Philharmonic in Abbey Road, which has kind of turned out to be one of my favorite studios. I've done maybe a dozen movies or so there. And I don't know if you saw the movie or not, but he does a pretty good job of looking like Pee-Wee did 40 years ago.
Q: He does, yeah. It's surprising. You're also scoring the upcoming Thor sequel. How did you get involved on that project and how much work have you done on it so far?
A: That's an odd one for me to talk about, and the reason is because I just happened to casually mention it in Akron. I was reminded that I had signed an NDA, a non-disclosure agreement, with Marvel, and most of the time what people are concerned about is they don't want you to give away the plot of the film. They don't want you to give away any spoilers or tell them any of the details of the movie before it comes out. Well, Marvel quickly picked up on that I had mentioned I was working with Taika Waititi, who is the director. I happen to really like his work. Somebody asked me if it was Thor and I said yes, and they reminded me that I'm not allowed to talk about the movie. So I either am or I am not working on a movie with this guy. He had a lot to do with attracting me to the project just because his movies are super-creative. I really liked his new movie, Hunt for the Wilderpeople. Musically, it's really creative. That's what really caught my interest.
Q: You've done so many different scores over the years, and you mentioned how much you enjoyed that way of working. What appeals to you about that kind of work? How much creative limitation do you feel that kind of work imposes on you and how do you respond to that limitation?
A: Much less than when you're in a band. The first couple albums with Virgin and Warners were great. They signed us just because they wanted the bragging rights of, "Brian Eno paid for this record to be recorded. David Bowie hung out with them in Germany the whole time they were recording it." [Bowie] had called us "the band of the future" in Melody Maker back before we had released anything, just based on tapes we had managed to get backstage to him while he was playing keyboards for Iggy on a tour back in '77 or '76. Where was I going with this story?
Q: I was asking you about creative limitations.
A: Yeah, the first couple albums they left us alone. Then we unfortunately had a radio hit and Warners then looked at us as gold. They had made a bunch of money off of us and then they started showing up at our rehearsals and our recording sessions. We'd be working on something and then some guy would pop up with a mullet and go, "Hey, do anything you want on this record, you guys. Feel free to do whatever you want. Just make sure you put another 'Whip It' in there!" And it changed our whole relationship with the recording industry, because where we enjoying being slightly anonymous and our feeling was that we were able to be kind of subversive, all of a sudden we had all this pressure and people commenting on our choices.
On that album that they were coming to listen to, we had done a cover version of "Working in a Coal Mine" and they fought to take it off the record. The record company pushed it off of our album. So we gave it to some movie called Heavy Metal, because we thought, "Oh, we're going to get a free ride with all these heavy metal bands when they put out their album. Our little weirdo song will get a free ride with Van Halen." We thought that was funny. Then that turned out to be the song that went into the top 20, so we pulled all these lame heavy metal songs along for a ride, which the joke was kind of on us. Then Warner Brothers panicked because right as they were about to release our new album, we had a record that was in the charts playing. They freaked out. They pressed singles with "Working in a Coal Mine" on it and stuck them inside the album as an afterthought. They just did the most nincompoop things.
So working in film and TV, you're much more anonymous as a composer. There's not a magnifying glass on you and you have so much more freedom. Pop music back then is the same as it is today. From song to song the variation is very small. It's like the fashion industry. There's like 50 pairs of the same jeans coming out from different manufacturers. The label's a little different, and some of them have a stitching thing where they put a loop in them, and then somebody else has one button that shows at the top of the pants, and then somebody else has a pocket that zips shut or something. But they're all exactly the same. It's all the same stuff. Pop music is like that to me and still is. So when I went into working on Pee-Wee's show, it was a whole different world. I could do punk hoedown music on one episode. I could do South Sea Islands goes into Ethel Merman with Spike Jones stylings in it for the theme song for the show. It was all wide open and I loved that so much, coming into this world now where you have such a wide palette. In so many ways it's superior. For me, I always had two brothers and two sisters, and Devo had two sets of brothers. So the idea of collaboration was always a part of my art aesthetic. I always liked to have people to collaborate with. So having a director that has ideas, and he tells you what he's trying to do with his film and you help him see that finally or you help him hear it, is very satisfying to me.
Q: You mentioned the broad range of creativity you were able to express through something like Pee-Wee's Playhouse. How do you manage to still express that broad range of creativity, or express that subversive element you mentioned earlier on with Devo, in some of the more conventional movies you've done, say a Last Vegas or something like that?
A: There's really super-literal ways to do that, if you have something you want to say or you want to talk about. Subliminal messages are so easy and nobody pays attention to them. [Laughs.] It's really funny. I remember the first time I was doing a Hawaiian Punch commercial. It was my first commercial and I was kind of not sure how I felt about doing TV commercials, but I liked the idea of being in that arena. It needed a drumbeat and I put, "Choose your mutations carefully." [Imitates drumbeat.] Bum-buh-buh-bum, bum-buh-buh-bum. And Bob Casale was my longtime engineer and coproducer on all this stuff. I remember we were in a meeting with Daley and Associates, the ad agency that was representing the commercial. We played the song and in this room I'm hearing, "Choose your mutations carefully." I'm looking at a guy over there tapping his pen on the table and as soon as the commercial ends I turn bright red and Bob Casale looks at me like he wants to kill me, like we're going to be in so much trouble. And the guy is tapping his pen and as soon as this commercial ends he goes, "Yeah, Hawaiian Punch does hit you in all the right places!" He just shouts out the main line from the narrator at the very end. We just look at each other and I'm like, "It's that easy?" We did it for years and then I got caught by a picture editor who said, "I know what you did." He called me out. He said, "I know what you're doing. You should take that out." I think I put "Question authority" in something like a lottery commercial or something, so this guy made me take it out. But the ad agencies never called me on it. And I even talked about it in articles before, and I still get hired by ad agencies to do commercial music. So they must not really care.
Q: So you haven't stopped that practice then?
A: Well, it depends. You have to have a reason to do it. Usually the more sugar that's in something, the better the chance that I'm going to say "Question authority" or "Sugar is bad for you." That's one I've done a couple of times. It's easy to do. They're easy to find, too. You can find them if you know which commercials you're looking for. You can look them up. And you hear it, too. Once you know that it's there, then you hear it. If you don't know it's there, your mind doesn't want to make it happen. It just goes in there like malware. What's the opposite of malware? What if it's there to help you out? I guess that's an antibiotic. It's like a covert antibiotic.
Q: A probiotic?
A: Yeah, probiotic. That's it! It's a probiotic.
Q: You certainly have plenty of non-Devo work going on and have for a long time, but Devo also still gets out there and tours from time to time. How do you feel about the band's role in your life these days?
A: I only have one really big problem with the band, and that is that we still play as loud as we did when we were onstage in Central Park or at Max's Kansas City or whatever that place was that we played in Ann Arbor. I think it was a bowling alley. I can't remember. It was some stage where it had a proscenium around it that looked like a TV screen. ... What I remember about that night also ... is that Todd Rundgren had shown up to see the band and he had a suit made out of tan oilcloth plastic. I was like, "How did he get that done? That is so awesome!" I remember being so jealous of this suit that Todd Rundgren was wearing. While we were talking I just kept staring at his suit the whole time and then looking around to see if I could tell if it was possibly a commercially made thing, which it wasn't, I'm sure, in retrospect. But it was the first time I'd seen a tailored suit made out of plastic. [Mothersbaugh likely recalls Devo's 1978 show at the Punch and Judy Theater in Grosse Pointe Farms in 1978, which coincided with a Rundgren show in Royal Oak.]
Q: You were saying, then, that today your only problem with the band is that you play as loud as you did back in the day?
A: Yeah, we play so loud and I have tinnitus. It's hard for me to go play 10 shows in a row with Devo and then go back to my studio and try to listen to the woodwinds from an orchestra. It takes me like a week or so for it to calm down enough that I can go back to work. It's not worth the tradeoff for me to go deaf just so I can play 50 more Devo shows, to be honest with you. We'll do one here and there. We did a benefit earlier this year. Will Ferrell talked us into it. It was like the worst thing for me because I'm standing onstage and they're wheeling all these drummers out onstage. Part of the thing was a joke that they had 12 drummers all at once, so not only did they have my drummer, but Mick Fleetwood was onstage and Tommy Lee was onstage. They were all playing simultaneously, like a dozen drummers, the Chili Peppers drummer and all these. I'm standing there going, "This is the worst thing that could have possibly happened." I went home from that and it was like gongs were going off in my head. So that's the thing that makes Devo where I have to draw a line. I can't do a big tour again.
Q: So if you're going to be onstage these days you'd rather be doing something like you will be here in Ann Arbor, where you're just having a quiet conversation onstage.
A: Preferably. Yeah. That's totally different. And all I ask is that people in the audience ask questions. Speak clearly.
Patrick Dunn is the interim managing editor of Concentrate and an Ann Arbor-based freelance writer whose work appears regularly in Pulp, the Detroit News, the Ann Arbor Observer, and other local publications. He exercised considerable restraint in asking Mark Mothersbaugh about anything other than Pee-Wee Herman.
Mark Mothersbaugh will appear at the Penny Stamps Speaker Series Event, presented by the Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design at the Michigan Theater, 603 E. Liberty, on Thursday, September 29 at 5:10 pm. Free of charge and open to the public.
The theme of the 2016-2017 UMS Artists in Residence program is "renegade art-making and art-makers" and the artists have just been announced. According to the announcement, the "five artists (including visual, literary, and performing artists) have been selected to use UMS performance experiences as a resource to support the creation of new work or to fuel an artistic journey."
The artists for 2016-2017 are:
Simon Alexander-Adams - a Detroit-based multimedia artist, musician, and designer working within the intersection of art and technology.
Ash Arder - a Detroit-based visual artist who creates installations and sculptural objects using a combination of found and self-made materials.
Nicole Patrick - a musician and percussionist who performs regularly with her band, Rooms, and other indie, improvisation, and performance art groups around southeastern Michigan.
Qiana Towns - a Flint-based poet whose work has appeared in Harvard Review Online, Crab Orchard Review, and Reverie, and is author of the chapbook This is Not the Exit (Aquarius Press, 2015).
Barbara Tozier - a photographer who works in digital, analog, and hybrid — with forays into video and multimedia.
Congratulations to these artists - and look for blog posts and engagement with the artists throughout their term on the UMS site.
Grateful Dead fans (or “Deadheads”) come in more colors than a tie-dyed T-shirt — from connoisseurs who obsessively trade concert bootlegs to casual listeners who mainly admire the band’s more mainstream early albums like Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. The Dead tribute band Dark Star Orchestra (DSO) aims to please them all.
Formed in Chicago in 1997, two years after the death of Dead lead singer and guitarist Jerry Garcia, the band channels the spirit of the Dead by recreating complete sets from throughout the legendary jam band’s history. The DSO uses period-accurate gear to emulate the original concerts’ nuances as closely as possible. Every few nights on tour they play an “elective set,” building their own unique setlists which draw from the many disparate eras of the Dead’s storied career.
True to the Dead’s spirit, the DSO is also notably prolific. To date the band has played over 2,500 concerts -- more shows than the original Dead performed in its entire 30-year run. Members of the Dead have also performed with the band throughout the years, including rhythm guitarist/singer Bob Weir and bassist Phil Lesh, giving the DSO implicit approval.
The DSO plays the Michigan Theater this Saturday. The band’s current lead guitarist, Jeff Mattson, formerly of The Zen Tricksters, replaced founding member John Kadlecik in 2009 when Kadlecik joined former Dead members Bob Weir and Phil Lesh’s band Further. When we spoke with Mattson last week he declined to reveal what the group has planned for their gig in Ann Arbor. He did, however, discuss performing with founding Dead members and the role his local library had in turning him into a Deadhead.
Q: How did you first discover the Grateful Dead?
A: It goes way back. I heard "Casey Jones" on the radio, and I went to the library, of all places, and I took Workingman's Dead out. I liked what I heard, and I followed that up soon after that with American Beauty, and I really liked that. I was really taken with "Truckin'."
Then someone loaned me a reel-to-reel tape of Anthem of the Sun. It was a little too heavy for me at the time. I like it, but it just kind of scared me. I said, "Oh, I'll have to come back to this" [laughs]. Because it's just a very deep, psychedelic record. Very different than Working Man's... and American Beauty.
And then I took it from there, buying the records. I saw my first show in 1973 at Nassau Coliseum and never looked back. I was really taken when I realized how different the songs were live. That can be a nonstarter for some people, but I grew up in a household listening to jazz. My father's a jazz musician. So I just kind of got improvisation, and I just dug the fact that it was different every night.
Q: Being such a big fan, what was it like to eventually get to play with Phil Lesh many years later?
A: That was my first experience playing with any of the members of the band, so it was just like a dream almost that I never dared to dream come true. He's such an incredible musician, so to play that music with him, and to play some of the songs he wrote ... I thought, "Oh my god. I've been playing this song for years, but this is the man that wrote the song!"
I've gone on from then to have played with all of the surviving members of the Grateful Dead at one time or another. I really look at those experiences as being highlights of my musical life. There's just something so exciting to play the music you love with the people who originally created it.
Q: How did that opportunity come about?
A: Actually, it was not that many years after Jerry Garcia passed away. It was 1999, and Jerry Garcia passed away in 1995. Phil got in touch with us based on hearing -- and when I say "us," I mean me and Rob Barraco, who was my keyboard player -- my band at the time, The Zen Tricksters. He heard one of our CDs of our original music and was taken by our ability to jam in the studio. He was really impressed with that. He said in his words the Grateful Dead could never really do that, jam in the studio. I don't know if I really agree with him on that. There are some really beautiful jams on some of their studio records.
But nonetheless, when I came to play with him I don't think he realized we had been playing Grateful Dead music. It was a little too close I think, at the time, to sounding like Jerry. I think that was unnerving to him at the time. He didn't say that, although he did say things like, "Oh, you don't have to play so much like Jerry." I don't think he wanted to be perceived that he was trying to replace Jerry or something like that. Of course, I was just excited to use my acquired skill set [laughs] in that context. But it all worked out fine. I got away from playing too much like Jerry, and I guess [Lesh] was okay with it.
Q: How did experience inform your work with Dark Star Orchestra?
A: When I'm in the context of playing the Grateful Dead, I have a tendency to be a little more purist about the Jerry Garcia influence. I saw from playing with Phil that he wasn't trying to recreate that. At that time he was also singing most of the songs, so he was changing the keys on them … He was really interested in coming up with new feels for them. I saw at the time that there was a lot of room for playing with the art form, although as you mentioned that's not what we're really about in Dark Star Orchestra.
Having said that, Phil sat in with us two or three times with Dark Star. That's been a lot of fun. As has Bob Weir and Bill Kreutzmann and Donna Jean Godchaux. I can't speak to how much they approve of what we're doing, but I guess we got their approval by having them sit in with us.
Q: Being that Dark Star Orchestra alternates between performing recreations of specific Dead shows and also building your own sets, what can we expect when you come to Ann Arbor?
A: About every third or fourth night we do what we call an "elective set," where we make up the setlist just to help keep it fresh and hit on the songs that weren't really getting hit on the tour. Our fans come down somewhere in the middle about what they prefer. There are some people who prefer to hear us do [purist] sets, but there are some people that love that when we do elective sets that we can cross over eras, playing songs that maybe they only played in 1969, then go into a song they played in the '90s. Things that never really happened in Grateful Dead land, we can experiment with that.
Q: How much work does it take to faithfully replicate a Dead show?
A: The difference is that when we play a 1969 show, we set up the stage and we use the gear that fits, and use the arrangements as they were in 1969. Likewise, if the next night we're doing a show from the '80s, we'll have quite a different set-up, with different instruments, all the extra percussion and stuff that was part of that set-up in those years.
We still don’t do everything exactly. It would be impossible to note-for-note recreate a show every night. Even more so, it would be quite against the spirit of the music, which is to improvise in real time. We do that, of course. The arrangement and everything else might belong to the period, but the notes are our own. We're playing how we feel in the moment.
Q: What kind of feedback do you get from your fans? Do they often pick up on the nuances you try to replicate in your performances?
A: It depends on the listener. There's a whole continuum. There's people that can spit out line and verse of the setlist of a show of any particular date. It's just remarkable how detail-oriented Deadheads can be. And then there's people who might be a little more casual listeners who might be baffled that the song sounds so different from what they're used to hearing. But I think they get it that we're trying to play it like it was played in that particular era.
Steven Sonoras is a casual Dead fan and writer living in Ypsilanti.
Dark Star Orchestra performs at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, September 24 at the Michigan Theater, 602 E. Liberty St. Tickets are $25-45. Call (734) 668-8463 or (800) 745-3000, or visit the Michigan Theater’s website for more information.
Very few local blues-based musicians have stayed in the area to ply their craft since the glory days of the late 1960’s Ann Arbor Blues Festivals, the then thriving club scene, and the alternative newspapers that promoted and supported them. Since white audiences adopted the blues as the roots of rock and roll, and Boogie Woogie Red presided every Blue Monday in the basement of the Blind Pig, venues have come and gone, while many authentic artists passed away or left town for greener pastures.
Veteran guitarist and vocalist Jerry Mack has seen all these changes, remaining in Ann Arbor to not only perform regularly with his band The Terraplanes, but to host the longstanding electric post-war blues radio show Nothin’ But The Blues on WCBN-FM, 88.3, every Saturday afternoon from 3-5 pm. He'd also added the acoustic vintage folk blues program Yazoo City Calling Monday nights on WCBN from 7-8 pm. Both presentations are highly regarded by local listeners still in search of the real thing. He also wrote a semi-monthly blues column for Current Magazine.
Formed in 1993 as the house band at the Blind Pig, The Terraplanes were named after the Essex Motor Company aerodynamic car in a song “Terraplane Blues,” written by the legendary Robert Johnson in 1936 about a pernicious female partner and her similar qualities to the quirks of the short-lived automobile line.
Even Jerry Mack acknowledges the blues has changed into a more commercially-driven entity, and readily admits to changing with the times. That does not mean he has abandoned the electric guitar-based Chicago style blues that inspired him in the first place. In fact, he’s more driven to assure the public keeps this music uppermost in mind as an influential African-American art form, still at the core of most music we hear.
There are other blues radio programs in the area, the most prominent being Joe Tiboni’s Big City Blues Cruise on WEMU Sunday late afternoons. Radio is a different animal in terms of listenability, as most people use it to complement other activities at home, or traveling in the car. Mack has been on WCBN since 1977 and in a recent interview he remembered, “I had friends who worked there, who said I had a good radio voice and was into music. Why not put those things together.”
The spin-off show Yazoo City Calling started in 1988. “I discovered this music was never played on the radio, except the King Biscuit Flower Hour in the late 1930s and early 1940s. All the race music, the artists were only noticed by word of mouth. So I took it upon myself as a mission to play the songs of the Leadbelly/Robert Johnson era. It was time to branch out because it still is relevant, and the University of Michigan later started an academic program covering the early blues artists some 15 years later after I established Yazoo City Calling.”
Mack and the Terraplanes released their independent CD Well Tuned in 2000. It was a turning point for the band. “Since then,” Mack commented, “we’ve had quite a few changes, not only in personnel but how we approach what is the blues and strongly blues-based music,” referring to rhythm & blues, rock, soul and funk. “In the club circuit that currently exists locally in Ann Arbor, you have very few people that go out to hear a pure blues band. You can do that but people want to be entertained differently.”
Since then Mack has realized the difference between live performance and any purist aesthetic the public wants in terms of entertainment and danceability. “My philosophy," he continued, “is to change the music to get people interested in the blues, to add the peripheral music which is old school, swing, and Motown that people know and dance to. Then we throw in 'Big Leg Woman' by Freddie King or 'Boom Boom Boom Boom' by John Lee Hooker. People like to dance to that - Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Eddie Cochran, and The Rolling Stones.”
Some prominent band members over the years have included well respected guitarist Rick Humesky, electric bass guitarist Gwenyth Hayes, lead electric guitarist Loren Hseih, harmonica and trumpet expert Dave Cavendar, the late keyboardist Martin Simmons and the late drummer Mike Adams. Current personnel includes electric bass guitarist Al Kalaf, keyboardist Jim Merte, and drummer George Eberhardt Jr.
Where Guy Hollerin’s, the Zal Gaz Grotto, and Mash Bar are local clubs that present blues, the Metro Detroit scene has fallen by the wayside. Some casualties include famed venues like The Soup Kitchen, Sully’s, and Tenny Street Roadhouse in Dearborn. Callahan’s in Auburn Hills and the Blue Goose in St. Clair Shores are active but a long way to drive. Ann Arbor’s Blind Pig is well past presenting any blues, Enzo’s is long gone, as are any major venues past The Michigan Theater, the Ann Arbor Summer Festival stages, and on a rare night the Necto, Live, or the Yellow Barn.
“I don’t know if it’s the fault of the media coverage, or something else in our lives coming up. The thing that I find unique these days is very few people who have made successful lives in rock have little interest in spreading the word like they used to. Eric Clapton and Buddy Guy deserve great credit, and even John Mayer does what he can, but I find there are good guitarists who lack a lot of soul.”
So at least we have people like Jerry Mack and other die-hard individuals who are doing all they can to keep this music alive and as well as can be expected.
Michael G. Nastos is known as a veteran radio broadcaster, local music journalist, and event promoter/producer. He is a former music director and current super sub on 88.3 WCBN-FM Ann Arbor, founding member of SEMJA, the Southeastern Michigan Jazz Association, Board of Directors member of the Michigan Jazz Festival, votes in the annual Detroit Music Awards and Down Beat Magazine, NPR Music and El Intruso Critics Polls, and writes monthly for Hot House Magazine in New York City.
Jerry Mack & The Terraplanes perform at the Mash Bar, 211 E. Washington St. at 10 pm Friday, September 23; and at Guy Hollerin’s at the Holiday Inn East, 3600 Plymouth Rd. at 8 pm. Saturday, September 24.