Preview: Dark Star Orchestra at the Michigan Theater



Dark Star/Bright Light

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.

Preview: Jerry Mack Keeping Blues Flame Alive


Jerry Mack and the Terraplanes

Jerry Mack and the Terraplanes still playing the blues.

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.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #611: Spotlight on Psychological Thrillers


Fabulous Fiction Firsts #611

An August pick on Indie Next and LibraryReads lists, and a runaway UK debut bestseller, Behind Closed Doors * by B.A. Paris is one of the most terrifying psychological thriller you are likely to come across.

London attorney Jack Angel - movie-star-handsome and successful, sweeps Grace Harrington off her feet when he offers to dance with Millie, Grace's Down-syndrome younger sister under her care. The first sign that things are not what they seem to be is when Millie tumbles down a flight of stairs on their wedding day. On their honeymoon, Jack made clear his psychopathic plans, using Millie as leverage to ensure Grace's cooperation.

"Debut-novelist Paris adroitly toggles between the recent past and the present in building the suspense of Grace’s increasingly unbearable situation, as time becomes critical and her possible solutions narrow. This is one readers won’t be able to put down." (Booklist)

All the Missing Girls * , the first adult title by YA author Megan Miranda, is about the disappearances of two young women a decade apart. It has been 10 years since Nic(olette) Farrell left Cooley Ridge after her best friend, Corinne Prescott, disappeared without a trace. Now a cryptic note from her dementia-ravaged father brings her home. Within days of her arrival, her young neighbor Annaleise Carter disappears, reawakening the decade-old investigation that focused on Nic, her brother Daniel, boyfriend Tyler, and Corinne's boyfriend Jackson.

Told backwards from Day 15 to Day 1 since Annaleise's disappearance, Nic works to unravel the shocking truth about her friends, her family, and ultimately, herself. "Miranda convincingly conjures a haunted setting that serves as a character in its own right, but what really makes this roller-coaster so memorable is her inspired use of reverse chronology, so that each chapter steps further back in time, dramatically shifting the reader’s perspective." (Publishers Weekly)

The Trap by East German debut novelist Melanie Raabe is a fast, twisty read.

Reclusive novelist Linda Conrads hasn't left her home since she discovered her sister's body 11 years earlier. When she sees the face of the murderer on television, the same face that she saw leaving the crime scene, she goes about setting a trap by crafting her next thriller utilizing all the details of her sister's murder. But her careful plan goes horribly awry.

Film rights sold to TriStar Pictures.

* = starred review

Preview: The Stellars Album Release at the Blind Pig


The Stellars — Band Shot


The Stellars say one of their biggest problems is convincing their friends that they’re a “real band,” but their new record Interthestellars should put those concerns to rest once and for all.

The duo is comprised of University of Michigan Juniors Erez Levin and Dan Sagher, both 21. The two met at a rock summer camp in the summer of 2004, and they became best friends through middle and high school. They formally became a musical duo in summer of 2015 after their previous band, The Euphorics, broke up. Their first full-length release as The Stellars, which will debut at midnight before the band’s upcoming CD release show this Friday at the Blind Pig, is a well earned payoff to years of friendship, enthusiasm, and hard work.

The band cites a diverse range of influences, from classic rock to funk. Their first band, Soul Transit, blended their shared love Led Zeppelin, The Beatles and Jimi Hendrix with Michael Jackson and James Brown. More recently, The Stellars say they’ve been listening to a lot of Red Hot Chili Peppers, The 1975, The Strokes, Weezer, Green Day, and John Mayer. The Stellars also have a lovably snotty, confessional punk streak, ala The Replacements. That mode is best exemplified in the lyric, “I wrote a song in 17/8, but if it’s not 4/4 then I’m not getting laid” from “Interthestellars” charging lead-off track “Don’t Wanna Sit Around.”

Last week we chatted on the phone with Levin and Sagher about how they got their new record made, what makes their live shows stand out, and trying to break into the Detroit scene.

Q: You guys play with a full band live, but you’re essentially a duo in the studio. What’s the division of labor on the new record?

Erez: About half the songs I wrote pretty much on my own, and then Dan and I arranged together. The other half we wrote from scratch sitting in my parents' basement or on the porch. We recorded the album, I played the drums and sang and played my guitar parts from what we do live, and Dan played all the lead lines.

Dan: Our friend Sam Collins played bass. He was in The Euphorics.

Q: Who rounds out the live band?

Dan: We've been playing with a bunch of different music school musicians, but it's basically show-by-show. We see who can do what, when. We have our obvious favorites, but we take it on a show-by-show basis: Who can play with us? Usually it's a pretty consistent crew, but sometimes our favorite drummer will be busy, so we find another really talented drummer, or same with the bassists.

Q: I was struck with how clean the production is on the album, especially for a debut. Where did you record these tracks?

Dan: We recorded at the U of M studios. Duderstadt Center has a really nice couple of studios.

Erez: We also did a bit of it in the attic of my house.

Dan: Erez's house he's living in has a bunch of PAT students, which is the Performing Arts Technology program within the music school. They built their own studio in their attic. We recorded some there, but the bulk of it was recorded in the Duderstadt Center. We also have a wonderful PAT student who's been by our side since the days of The Euphorics. His name is Ben Factor. He engineered, mixed and produced our entire album.

Erez: I actually met [Factor] at my freshman orientation in 2013. We found that we have really similar taste in rock music, and he mixed our high school band. We had a recording that was as-yet unmixed, and he then went and mixed it just because we became homies. He did such good work on it. With the Euphorics we hit him up for all of it, and we still do because we just love working with him. Honestly, he's the third member of the band.

Q: He’s involved with setting up your live gigs as well, right?

Dan: He takes care of all the lights and sound at our shows. He's really into elaborate light shows.

Erez: He's inspired by the light show that the jam band Umphrey's McGee has, and he's gone and had the chance to meet the guy that does lights for Umphrey's. We're lucky to have him for that, because we know that even when we play co-op shows and house parties we can give people something a bit unique, because not every band has a professional light show behind them.

Q: What formats are you releasing the album on? And is there any plan for a tour once the record is out?

Erez: We have a CD release party at the Blind Pig on September 23, which is the release date. So that will be popping up on Spotify, Apple Music, and whatever other big internet entities for streaming there are on midnight that day. And we've got CDs, we've got some shirts, stickers. We've been going all out on the merch.

Dan: Once we get music out we're going to try to play as many shows in Southeast Michigan as we can to create a local following.

Q: How supportive has the Ann Arbor scene been to you? Do you feel you’ve built enough momentum here to move on to other cities in the region?

Erez: The Ann Arbor music scene is super important to us because we're from here. We went to Community High together. We grew up playing shows at the B-Side at the Neutral Zone, which was incredibly important to our development as musicians. As professionals we know how to carry out a live show because all through high school we were practicing at this amazing all ages venue, which we're amazingly lucky to have. We love the scene here, we're really grateful for it, and we're really excited to contribute to it.

Dan: Recently we hooked up with a business dude who's really interested in music management, and I think that's what he wants to be doing. His name is Ben Schechter He's the one who's putting on our CD release show. He's the founder of the music blog What The Sound. He wanted to reach out to bands outside of the city, outside of the state, to open for us to create relationships with bands in nearby Midwestern places.

Detroit is probably the next frontier in terms of our outreach. We know a fair amount of people in Detroit, we know some bands in Detroit. The same reason we didn't play shows last year is the same reason we haven't played in Detroit. We don't want to do a cool show in Detroit and then when people say, "Hey, can I buy an album?" it's like, "Sorry, we don't have anything for you."

Q: Let’s talk more about “Interthestellars.” You’ve been working on some of these songs for quite a while. How do you feel about the final product? Are there any tracks you’re particularly proud to finally have out there?

Dan: The thing about this album is there are so many songs that are so different than the last. I'm mostly excited for a large amount of people to get their fix from this album, because it has a little bit of something for a lot of people. It's not a one-sound album. There's no song I'm particularly excited for, in that I'm excited for all of them to be released.

Erez: I'm excited to have finally released a good version of this song "Start This Over." I wrote it in high school, and this is the third time it's been recorded, and I feel like we finally got it right with this recording. And I love that song just as much as all the others on the album, but for me that one's been around for so long and I'm finally glad that we finally get to say, "We did it. Here's the song. I can write another song now," [laughs].

Steven Sonoras is a writer living in Ypsilanti.

The Stellars perform with The Kickstand Band and Andrew Solway ft. San Cristobal on Friday, September 23 at the Blind Pig, 208. S First St. Tickets are $7 18 and up and $10 21 and over. Call (734) 896-8555 or visit the Blind Pig’s website for more info.

Review: Falling Up and Getting Down, UMS Season-Opening Live Skateboarding + Music Celebration



Pro skateboarder Jordyn Barratt and UMS President Ken Fischer / Photo by Katie Alexis Photography

The professional skateboarders at Falling Up and Getting Down, University Musical Society’s (UMS) season-opening event on Sunday, September 11, at Ann Arbor Skatepark, riveting as they were, were just part of the event's attraction. Jazz trio Jason Moran and the Bandwagon, joined by saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, were improvising on a stage behind the bowl. Instruments were in conversation with each other, and the conversation included the skaters too.

The skaters’ own improvisations didn’t respond to individual musical statements, at least not that I could perceive; rather, the feel of the music infused all the skating with its particular energy. The edge of the stage proved a highly permeable boundary between music and skateboards; skater Chuck Treece joined the Bandwagon on guitar and skater Ron Allen took the mike to layer rhyme over the music. Early on, Tom Remillard launched himself up and over the lip of the pool to briefly plant a foot on the edge of the stage before hurling himself back down the steep face of the pool like a wheeled stage diver, a maneuver that other skaters riffed on later.

The skaters were the main attraction for me. Having surfed but never been on a skateboard, I imagined their ride to be like catching one constant wave. What a rush it must be, plunging down into the trough of the concrete “bowl” and then decelerating as they ride up its concave side. Sometimes they immediately cut down again, sometimes they skated along the crest, sometimes they hit a divine moment of suspension at the top—airborne, or upside-down balanced on one hand, the other hand fixing the board to the soles of their feet. There was wow-inducing virtuosity (and good-natured rebounds out of the failed attempts at that virtuosity), but what I found most hypnotic was the fact of the ride: that ongoing forward propulsion, and the pendulum energy of their recurring drops into and ascents out of the bowl.

Hot skateboarders and hot music together: that’s a lot going on. But there was still more, something about the people assembled in the park. “Community” comes to mind, but I rush to justify that worn-out word and provide examples of what I have in mind. My twelve-year-old daughter attended a girls-only skateboard session in the morning and got personal instruction from 17-year-old pro Jordyn Barratt. At the event, Barratt mugged for a photographer as she rode her board in an arc over the head of Ken Fischer, UMS President, who was seated at the bottom of the bowl. My daughter was star-struck (over Barratt, not Fischer!), telling me how cool Jordyn is and, I think, hoping to catch her eye. Meanwhile, local skaters weaved among the pros.

There was a sociable, we’re-all-here-together vibe, and that must be at least partially attributed to UMS’s desire to “give back to the community” with this event. “Community” often means connecting with audiences outside the older, wealthier population usually associated with concert halls, and if that’s the definition in operation here, certain elements of Falling Up and Getting Down were particularly effective. It was free and in a public park. The “free” part is not to be underestimated, especially given the often-prohibitive price tag on concerts in theaters. The “public park” part is also powerful; this was not just any public park with lawns and swing-sets, but a skatepark with cement hills and paths and loops.

There were also a fair number of teenagers, and tattoos, punk rock t-shirts, Chuck Taylor sneakers, and dreadlocks, alongside people with grey hair, tailored clothing, and sensible shoes. I acknowledge how odious generalizations based on appearances are, but admit that I surmised that this older set came for the jazz more than the skateboarding. The fact remains, though, that there were assembled people who looked really different from one another, and their difference was made more striking by the fact that they were side by side at the skatepark. We were all listening to the Bandwagon, and regardless of who considers themselves jazz connoisseurs or knows Jason Moran’s reputation, the sounds they conjured were bewitching. We were all watching the skateboarders fly, and regardless of whether you’ve ever heard of Tom Remillard, it was inspiring and gladdening.


Skater (left) / Photo by Kimberley Mortson // Pro Andy Macdonald with local skater Stan Baker.

My husband, impressed with the scene, commented how cool it is that our town has a skatepark, that when he was a teenager, skateboarding was on par with doing drugs, wearing black leather jackets, and generally getting in trouble. Skateboarding was not just teenagers, it was bad teenagers; any business with a promisingly inclined stretch of sidewalk posted a prominent “no skateboards” sign. Some of that has obviously changed, either with the time or the place; witness the number of people of all ages on skateboards and the family-friendly vibe at Ann Arbor Skatepark. However, skateboarding still has a reputation and often a feel of angry rebellion and intimidating cool; pro-skateboarder Andy Macdonald’s clean-cut image is an exception that the press makes much of, and I feel instantly old, dowdy, lame, and conservative when I encounter skateboarders on the street.

And the skateboarders didn’t seem off-puttingly cool; they offered one another encouraging high-fives and praise, and shared the limelight with respectful turn-taking. If the situation were reversed, I hope that the clothing and attitudes of the concert hall that might be intimidating to outsiders would be similarly mitigated by friendly and polite interaction.

Anyway, it was a situation in which people of apparent difference found common ground—a true and apt definition of community, compelling me to remove the cynical quotation marks from around that word. While the unusual combination of jazz improvisation and skateboarding—both of the highest quality—was the attraction that drew these people, I think the secret ingredient that enabled this particular instance of community was the setting: the shared public space. And so, I’m impressed with my new home, not just for bringing Jason Moran and Andy Macdonald here, but for bringing them together and for making this happen free of charge in a public venue.

From 1993-2004, Veronica Dittman Stanich danced in New York and co-produced The Industrial Valley Celebrity Hour in Brooklyn. Now, PhD in hand, she writes about dance and other important matters.

Preview: POP-X AAWA Installation


POP•X 2015 pavilions in Liberty Plaza / Photo by Tom Smith (CC-by-NC)

The second annual Ann Arbor Art Center community festival and art extravaganza POP-X is set to open on September 22. This multifaceted, multi-disciplinary, multi-artist event will run for 10 days and 10 nights in 10 pavilions right downtown in Ann Arbor's Liberty Square Park.

Each pavilion features the unique vision of an artist or art collective, ranging from poetry to video to floral installation to caricature. There's even a mini-pub serving craft beers, and as if that weren't enough, the spaces outside the pavilions will feature art demonstrations, musical performances, social gatherings, panel discussions and participatory art making throughout the run of the festival, which ends October 1.

The goal of POP-X is to present work that actively engages the community, and this year’s POP-X artists have interpreted this in their own unique ways. Ann Arbor Women Artists, a 300 member non-profit artists' organization, has chosen to implement this vision in the broadest possible way, designing and executing a comprehensively inclusive art installation that cuts across barriers of age, gender, race and disability. Their art installation, Side-by-Side, is the result of many collaborative art-making sessions where professional artists were paired with non-professionals to create the painted faces that will fill the AAWA pavilion on September 22. Project partners range from the very young children of En Nuestra Lengua to the high schoolers of Girls Group, to seniors of the Silver Club and residents of Miller Manor, an apartment for the disabled, and others. Ann Arbor Art Center President and CEO Marie Klopf attended a session held at the Art Center, as did Omari Rush, their Director of Community Engagement. Three City Council Members, Sabra Briere, Chuck Warpehoski and Julie Grand also took time from their busy schedules to be part of the project.

Workshop at Miller Manor

Workshop at Miller Manor, City Councilman Chuck Warpehoski on right.

"Our plan was to reach out to individuals in the Ann Arbor Community, despite on-the-surface differences, and to create an art installation which honors both our unique individuality and our shared humanity," –Elizabeth Wilson, Lidia Kaku, Mary Murphy (co-chairs).

Community arts projects are a strange, hybrid beast, part crafts project, part encounter group, part social club. The success or failure of any project of this kind depends on the planning and design of the installation and its constituent parts. The faces made by artists and their partners will be mounted on a framework on the interior walls of the pavilion, with mirrors incorporated to allow visitors to see themselves in the installation. A sound loop of music will be interwoven with short clips of conversations from pairs talking about the work they are doing and discovering more about each other in the process.

Members of MISSION pose with their AAWA partners and portrait faces

Members of MISSION (Michigan Itinerant Shelter System Independent Out of Necessity) with their AAWA partners and portrait faces.

Barbara Melnik Carson, a core member of the working group, maintains that Side-by-Side has been the best example of cooperative art-making in her wide experience. "Everyone worked so well together–there were no egos getting in the way, which isn't always the case," she says. "Each member of the core group has different strengths, and they have all had an opportunity to contribute in their own way."

The members of the project Side-by-Side don't see the completion of this installation as a mission accomplished. They see it as a pilot project for an ongoing community engagement program which would organize citywide pop-up events with the purpose of building lines of communication throughout Ann Arbor.

"We plan to bring the whole world together one portrait at a time," says Barbara Melnik Carson.

Members of Girls’ Group and AAWA artists model their portrait faces for the camera.

Members of Girls’ Group and AAWA artists model their portrait faces for the camera.

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

POP·X runs Thursday, September 22 – Saturday October 1, 2016 from noon to 8pm at Liberty Plaza Park, 255 East Liberty St., Ann Arbor. To learn more visit or the POP•X Facebook event page. POP•X is free and open to the public.

For more information about Ann Arbor Women Artists, visit their website.

AAWA POP-X Committee Members are: Elizabeth Wilson (co-chair), Lidia Kaku (co-chair), Mary Murphy (co-chair), Barbara Melnik Carson, Barbara Bach, Barb Maxson, Joyce Bailey, Lucie Nisson, Marie Howard, Susan Clinthorne, and Sharon St. Mary.

Preview: Wild Swan Theatre's 2016-2017 Season


Wild Swan's Rosie the Riveter

The Wilde Award-winning Rosie the Riveter returns for Wild Swan Theatre's 2016-2017 Season.

Wild Swan Theater’s 37th season includes their award-winning Rosie the Riveter from last season, plus a couple classics and a holiday favorite--all family-friendly, as all Wild Swan productions are. Each production is staged by professional actors, dancers, musicians, and ASL performers who strive to make performances accessible to audience members who have auditory, visual, or mobility impairments.

The Ugly Duckling (Ages 3-9)
Thu, Oct 27, 10:00 am; Fri, Oct 28, 10:00 am and 12:30 pm; Sat, Oct 29, 11 am

"Resident playwright Jeff Duncan puts his spin on Hans Christian Andersen’s tale of a homely little bird born in a barnyard who is looked down on by everyone around him until, much to his delight (and to the surprise of others), he matures into a majestic swan. Jeremy Salvatori portrays the Ugly Duckling, with Sandy Ryder, Michelle Trame Lanzi, and Barbara Scanlon rounding out the cast. Shelly Tocco and Erin Parrish of Synergy on Stage provide the American Sign Language interpreting. Backstage touch tours and audio-description are available for blind theater patrons. These services are free but must be reserved by calling (734) 995-0530."

A Christmas Carol (Ages 8+)
Thu, Dec 8, 10:00 am; Fri, Dec 9, 10:00 am and 12:30 pm; Sat, Dec 10, 2:00 pm; Sun, Dec 11, 2:00 pm

"Based on the novel by Charles Dickens and adapted for Wild Swan by Jeff Duncan with original music by composer Tom Schnauber, Wild Swan's version of this wonderful holiday classic has been especially created for family audiences and is appropriate for children in 3rd grade and older. A Christmas Carol tells of the astonishing transformation of miserly old Ebeneezer Scrooge after he is visited by three spirits on the night before Christmas."

Owl’s Winter (Ages 3-9)
Thu, Jan 19, 10:00 am; Fri, Jan 20, 10:00 am and 12:30 pm; Sat, Jan 21, 11:00 am

"A delightful collection of stories for young children based on Arnold Lobel's Owl at Home. A first introduction to theater especially created to draw young theater goers into the world of theater arts with these carefully chosen and shaped stories. Special activities provided by Leslie Science and Nature Center."

Wild Swan's Season

The cast of The Ugly Duckling. // Jack and Milky from Jack and the Beanstalk.

Drum Me a Story (Ages 3-9)
Thu, Feb 9, 10:00 am; Fri, Feb 10, 10:00 am and 12:30 pm; Sat, Feb 11, 11:00 am

"A delightful collection of African tales performed through storytelling, acting, dancing, and drumming. Colorful costumes, masks, and traditional music will delight and teach our young fans, with lots of opportunities for audience participation!"

Rosie the Riveter (Ages 9+)
Thu, Mar 9, 10:00 am; Fri, Mar 10, 10:00 am and 12:30 pm; Sat, Mar 11, 2:00pm

"An original musical written by playwright Jeff Duncan and composer Brian E. Buckner, Rosie the Riveter tells the remarkable story of the women who came to Michigan from all across the country and all walks of life to fill thousands of factory jobs left empty by men suddenly called to war. With their determination, strength of character, and backbreaking labor, these extraordinary women rallied a nation as they produced B-24 bombers, a plane an hour, day in and day out for the duration of World War II. This is a production that not only brings history alive, but will inspire respect and admiration for the capacity of these Rosies to accomplish more than anyone could have imagined."

Jack and the Beanstalk (Ages 3-9)
Thu, Mar 23, 10:00 am;Fri, Mar 24, 10:00 am and 12:30 pm; Sat, Mar 25, 11:00 am

"This lively rendition of a classic tale presents a humorous giant, appropriate for young theater-goers. In Wild Swan's version, Jack's journey up the fantastical beanstalk not only leads to his encounter with a very silly giant but to the rescue of his long lost father as well. Special activities provided by Growing Hope. Thank you to Domino’s for their sponsorship of Jack and the Beanstalk."

Marketplace Stories – Folktales from the Arab World (Ages 6+)
Thu, May 4, 10:00 am; Fri, May 5, 10:00 am and 12:30 pm; Sat, May 6, 2:00pm

"This new and original production developed in collaboration with the Arab American National Museum and the National Arab Orchestra is inspired by folktales from the Arab world. See this vibrant world come to life through timeless stories and music, passed on from country to country and from one generation to another."

Amy Cantú is a Production Librarian at the Ann Arbor District Library.

All performances take place at Towsley Auditorium, in the Morris Lawrence Building on the campus of Washtenaw Community College. Purchase tickets online at or by phone at (734) 995-0530. Discounted group rates are available to parties of 10 or more. Tickets are on sale now!

Preview: Neighborhood Theatre Group's "The Former Things" and "Carl, Baby" at the Dreamland Theater


Former Things

A scene from The Former Things / Photo by Lin Zhu // Playwright A. M. Dean.

I always enjoy seeing new works by promising playwrights. It’s really exciting to attend a “world premiere” of a brand new work. As an audience member, I feel that I’ve been invited to share in something very exciting and special.

Neighborhood Theatre Group, Ypsilanti’s new theater company, unveils two original one-act plays this weekend. Both of these new works center on relationships and both are by local playwright, Ypsilanti resident and Neighborhood Theatre co-founder A.M. Dean.

The Former Things, directed by Marisa Dluge, tells the story of a couple who are reunited after many years. Uniquely set during the rapture, this one-act features Eric Hohnke, Mimi Keebler, and Tom Hett.

A teenage boy meets a local girl as he vacations up north for the summer in Carl, Baby. An obstacle to their happiness may be his unstoppable and forceful grandmother. Directed by Kristin Anne Danko, this one-act features Neel Vaidya, Alice Duhon, and Colleen Cartwright.

So, why not experience something new this weekend? Neighborhood Theatre Group intends to cultivate a welcoming, collaborative environment for local theatre artists and also provide the audience with a very unique and intimate theatre experience.

Tim Grimes is manager of Community Relations & Marketing at the Ann Arbor District Library and co-founder of Redbud Productions.

Performances of The Former Things and Carl, Baby run from Thursday, September 15 through Saturday, September 17 at Dreamland Theater, 26 N. Washington St. in Downtown Ypsilanti. All shows are at 8 pm. For tickets, visit For more information, email

Review: "Manuel Álvarez Bravo: Mexico’s Poet of Light," University of Michigan Museum of Art



Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Window on the Agaves (Ventana a los magueyes), 1976, printed ca. 1981, gelatin silver print. The University of Michigan Museum of Art, gift of Lawrence and Carol Zicklin, 1987/1.174.3

The University of Michigan Museum of Art’s Manuel Álvarez Bravo: Mexico’s Poet of Light is easily going to be one of the most accurate art exhibition titles of 2016. This tidy 23-piece UMMA display shows the world-famed Bravo at his best: For he’s indeed a master of photographic light—as well as a poetic artist.

All photographers are capable of what is sometimes called a “privileged moment.” After all, it would seem simple enough to capture a moment with photography: You just point your camera and click.That's what's been happening photographically for quite nearly this last 150 years ... right?

Well, not quite. After all, you have to know what you're looking for because the most remarkable thing about photography is the camera’s utterly elastic way of recording an image. The world isn't as transparent as might seem apparent on first observation. And it doesn’t take much more than one’s last batch of photos for the confirmation.

Bravo, on the other hand, knew what he wanted to see—but the craft didn’t stop there. For the next rule consists of mechanistically knowing how to get what you want to see. And this is as complicated a task as knowing what one’s looking for.

It’s at this point that poetry arises—and was Bravo ever a masterful poet.

He’s easily one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century. For this poetry is, of course, the magic of all the world's greatest photographers. Like a mechanistic fingerprint, no two photographic styles are ever really the same. Time, space, intuition, and the very act of looking all mark the poetry latent in the photographic medium.

One glance at Manuel Álvarez Bravo: Mexico’s Poet of Light and it's obvious Bravo knew what he was looking for. Each Bravo artwork in this magnificent exhibit is an extraordinarily well thought-out composition where every visual element is accounted for; these physical elements being weighted against the tone of light, the density of light, the direction of light, the volume of light—and then there’s the poetry.

What’s left in the image is the world unto itself.

Granted, the time in which Bravo was working is romantic. Mid-20th century Mexico was a world where the natural and the supernatural seemingly melded together in a heady exotic brew and where the sacred and the profane coexist comfortably. There’s seemingly no separation between what is well and what is well-enough.

Born into an artistic Mexican family, Bravo was forced to terminate his education at the age of 12 when his father died in 1914. Studying accounting as he worked for the Mexican Treasury Department, Bravo freelanced photojournalism while learning the basics of art photography. It was through the friendship of fashion model and political activist Tina Modotti that he made contact with American photographer Edward Weston who in turn encouraged him to polish his craft.

Having lived through the Mexican Revolution of 1910-1920, Bravo was inclined to view his art through the prism of natural supernatural romanticism (and later surrealism) that marks early 20th-century Mexican aesthetics. As can be seen in the photographs of this exhibit, Bravo wrestled with the stereotypes that stamp much Mexican artistry while often using echoes of this stylization to comment upon them. Bravo's camera consistently catches these contradictions with a fluid grace that never editorializes while knowingly commenting on what’s depicted.

This means that every element of Bravo's photography is weighted against the composition's visibility as well as the reflection of Mexican culture as he lived and understood it. The result is indeed sheer poetry cum anthropology, as none of these photographs are never quite what they appear.

For example, Bravo’s 1977 gelatin silver print Señor de Papantla (“The Man of Papantla”) is a decidedly clever photograph whose background and meaning are richer than apparent in the already rich photograph of a Mexican campesino dressed in his best peasant garb. For the locale of the painting is as important as the image in that Papantla (in the state of Vera Cruz; in the Sierra Papanteca range, near the Gulf of Mexico) is famed as one of Mexico’s “pueblo mágico”—a city of particular natural beauty with historic and cultural relevance.


Manuel Álvarez Bravo. The Man from Papantla (Señor de Papantla), 1977, gelatin silver print. The University of Michigan Museum of Art, gift of Frederick J. Myerson, 1983/1.101.8

Bravo’s Señor stands stiffly with his sombrero tucked under his right arm posed in front of a nondescript stone wall. Standing under the diagonal right shade of a tree with his hair parted in the same direction to create an internal symmetry, of equal importance is his eyes cast away to the left in the same way. Averting the photographer’s gaze, Bravo’s Señor reflects the subdued unwillingness to cooperate that’s often characterized the citizenry of a country that’s seen centuries of repetitive political, social, and cultural upheaval.

By contrast, famed Mexican artist Frida Kahlo adopts an opposite stance for Bravo’s camera in her 1938 Frida with Globe, Coyoacan, Mexico gelatin silver print. Where the campesino was not directly addressing the camera, Kahlo challenges the camera by looking directly at Bravo. This act, of course, is in direct contrast to the Mexican sense of social propriety where the expectation would decidedly be a repressed feminine averral.

Even in the late 1930s, Kahlo (and by extension, Bravo) were having none of this modesty. Sheer appropriateness is drawn from her forthright respectability, as though the appropriateness of one’s behavior is as much one of correctness as it is self-respect. Seated with her left elbow propping her left hand against her cheek, Kahlo is everything she intends to be.

But Bravo is also addressing his audience in that a single subtle compositional element twitches the history of art anachronistically. For in contrast to Diego Velázquez’s 1656 painting Las Meninas (where Velázquez paints himself painting the painting), Bravo eliminates himself from his photograph because there is no photographer reflected in the globe on the table next to Kahlo’s left. Surrealism was, of course, in full force in Europe at this time and Bravo opts to magically disappear in his own artwork.

If, however, one wants to find Bravo at the height of his power as a photographer, his famed 1932 gelatin silver print Retrato de lo eterno (“Woman Combing her Hair”) seals the deal. The exact translation of the title is “Portrait of the Eternal” and while the more prosaic “Woman Combing her Hair” is certainly accurate, the fantastic inference of “Portrait of the Eternal” is more enduring.


Manuel Álvarez Bravo. Woman Combing Her Hair (Retrato de lo eterno), 1932-33, printed 1977, gelatin silver print. The University of Michigan Museum of Art, gift of Frederick J. Myerson, 1985/1.130.2

As I noted in the September 2002 UMMA Manuel Álvarez Bravo: 100 Years exhibition, Retrato de lo eterno captures Bravo at his haunting best. This darkly handsome portrait—of yes, a woman combing her hair—is everything its title says. Yet it’s also far more, as Bravo’s key lighting in this black and white photograph boldly exposes the model’s profile while also draping her in a controlled chiaroscuro where graded shadows create layer upon layer of profound mystery. The model’s self-absorbed beauty is veiled in an eternal mist.

Bravo’s Retrato de lo eterno is as much a staggering a work of genius today as it was in 2002. Just consider us lucky to look upon her likeness once again after fifteen years. If only because she’s indeed a portrait of the eternal—and this portrait will be so for a long time to come.

John Carlos Cantú has written on our community's visual arts in a number of different periodicals.

University of Michigan Museum of Art: “Manuel Álvarez Bravo: Mexico’s Poet of Light” will run through October 23, 2016. The UMMA is located at 525 S. State Street. The Museum is open Tuesday-Saturday 11 am–5 pm, and Sunday 12–5 pm. For information, call 734-764.0395.

Review: Civic Theatre spells hilarious, poignant with Putnam County Spelling Bee


A2CT's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee

Getting ready for the Spellling Be.

Oh those middle school years, we remember them well. The humiliation, the anxiety, the bullies, the stress, the dire need to be good at something, what a wonderful time it was.

The Ann Arbor Civic Theatre is presenting a happy bit of nostalgia with The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, a musical salute to all those anxiety-ridden kids who strived to be top speller.

The Lydia Mendelssohn Theatre on the central University of Michigan campus is a perfect setting. The stage is simply decorated with a banner for the spelling bee, sponsored by the county optometrists, a riser of bleacher seats, a microphone and a table for the two adult hosts.

Spelling Bee takes a quirky, exaggerated look at some gawky budding adolescents and plays it for laughs that lead to some empathy and respect for the troubled young people who often get noticed for all the wrong reasons in school. Director Wendy Sielaff has brought together a fine cast that ham it up hilariously while also delivering the goods when called on to go deeper into character.

The music by William Finn is serviceable but the lyrics are used to convey those deeper feelings, while Rachel Sheinkin’s Tony-winning book richly skewers school life, spelling bees, and the cluelessness of adults.

We know the types. Here they are played not by middle-school-aged children but by older actors in reflection of those trying years.

Emily Fishman is sweet and appropriately apprehensive at Olive, dressed in an innocent pink jumper. Olive is torn between two neglectful parents and wants to finally get their attention. Fishman has a ringing voice, especially effective in "The I Love You" trio with her parents.

Nathan King is the goofy Leaf Coneybear, the non-achieving younger brother who gets no respect at home. But then again he dresses weirdly and shouts a lot. King brings a touch of Jerry Lewis to Coneybear but also some sweet pathos to "I’m Not That Smart."

Keshia Daisy Oliver is Logainne, the daughter of two gay fathers who want her to succeed a little too fervently. Oliver also finds the spot of empathy and a sweet moment of rebellion.

Bob Cox plays Chip, a boy moving into manhood at just the wrong time. Cox is dressed as a Boy Scout with too many merit badges. He is especially funny in "Chip’s Lament," a ditty about the betrayal of puberty.

Hallie Fox is Marcy, the over-achiever, the success-obsessed Catholic schoolgirl who sums up her anxiety with the song "I Speak Six Languages." Fox gives the character that determined to demented look and snappish voice of a future politician.

Finally, we come to the most outlandish contestant, Barfee (or as he insist, it’s pronounced Barfay). Connor Rhoades goes all out in his wrinkled white shirt, tie and shorts. Barfee is a big boy and the ultimate nerd who uses his foot to help him spell. Rhoades is a giant presence throughout but takes center stage with the "Magic Foot" number. He makes Barfee both anxiety ridden, pathetic, and strangely likeable. Rhoades also plays one of Logainne’s Dads (think Modern Family, here).

The other contestants are played (filled?) by good sports selected from the audience, who on Thursday provided some gentle laughs of their own.

The adult roles are also well played. Alison Ackerman is Rona, the teacher who never got over her success at the Bee. She is every bit the prim but enthusiastic teacher who misses the limelight. Ackerman also plays Olive’s absent in India mother in the "Love Song" trio.

Brandon Cave is excellent as the droll assistant principal Doug Panch who gives the spellers their words and much more. He gets some of the shows wittiest lines and he delivers them with low-key panache.

Finally, we have Nick Rapson as the coach who fills in as the sympathetic comforter of the “losers,” and he has just the right amount of sweet toughness and skepticism about the whole process. Thursday he had some humorous improvisation during his "Prayer of the Comfort Counselor" spotlight and made it special. Rapson also plays Olive’s Dad in the "Love Song" trio and is a hoot as Logainne’s other Dad.

Musical accompaniment by an on-stage five-piece band under the direction of Debra Nichols is solid, especially on some of the humorous percussion moments. Reilly Conlon brings the right clumsy humor and daffiness to the choreography.

Sielaff says this play has long been on her bucket list and now she can check it off as a success. She mines both the outsize humor and the quiet empathy that has make this a popular production across the country.

Hugh Gallagher has written theater and film reviews over a 40-year newspaper career and was most recently managing editor of the Observer & Eccentric Newspapers in suburban Detroit.

The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee continues at 8 pm Friday and Saturday and 2 pm Sunday at the Mendelssohn. For tickets and information, go online to, call (734) 971-2228, or purchase at the theatre before each performance.