World of Sound: Indian, zydeco & global-folk from Michigan danced off Summer Fest's final Friday

MUSIC REVIEW

K. Jones & the Benzie Playboys by Anthony Norkus

Caution, May Induce Dancing: K. Jones and the Benzie Playboys by Anthony Norkus Photography.

Even though Top of the Park was entering its final weekend on Friday, the stage was still filled with infectious summer energy thanks to the music of Sumkali, The Ragbirds, and K. Jones and the Benzie Playboys.

All of these bands are based in Michigan, but their sounds are drawn from around the world.

Found-Object Art, Found: "Materials on Hand: The Art of Ellen Wilt" at Stamps Gallery

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Ellen Witt's Urban Bridge, 1991

Ellen Witt and Ted Reyda's Urban Bridge, mixed media, 1991

The U-M Stamps Gallery’s exhibition Materials on Hand: The Art of Ellen Wilt brings together a remarkable variety of works executed over the Ann Arbor artist's long career.

Wilt originates from Pittsburgh, PA, but moved to Ann Arbor in 1949, where she has been active in the arts community since. She attended the University of Michigan, where she obtained both her BFA and MA from the Stamps School of Art & Design.

The Stamps gallery has gathered an impressive collection of Wilt’s work, highlighting her importance in the community. Collectors have loaned the gallery many of the works, allowing a rare glimpse into works that have been in private collections for decades. The gallery space itself is opened up, allowing for the inclusion of “over 50 carefully selected works from personal and private collections that highlight Wilt’s artistic contributions to Southeast Michigan.”

Dust Never Sleeps: The Dustbowl Revival threw a party at Top of the Park

MUSIC REVIEW

The Dustbowl Revival

Zach Lupetin fell in love with the Ann Arbor Summer Festival and its free, outdoor Top of the Park concerts during his time as a University of Michigan student. Wednesday evening, some 11 years after graduating, he returned as a performer, leading his LA-based acoustic band The Dustbowl Revival in a joyous, spirited set.

Recalling his U-M years, when he led an earlier local band called the The Midnight Special, he spoke of the community’s deep appreciation for live music. “People come together no matter what,” he said mid-show. “It’s an honor to play music here.”

The Dustbowl Revival made a name for itself more or less in the Americana genre, with some flavors of old-time jazz and western swing woven in. The band’s latest album expands its sound further, and Wednesday’s set started with a trio of songs -- the sexy “Call My Name,” the clever and danceable “Gonna Fix You,” and the intense “If You Could See Me Now -- that incorporated more elements of rock, soul, and funk.

Tadd Mullinix brings the boom-bap with his X-Altera & Dabrye personas

MUSIC INTERVIEW

X-Altera

When schizophrenic super-hero Moon Knight falls into one of many personalities, it's usually due to trauma or the intervention of Khonshu, the ancient Egyptian god of the moon, who also gave Marc Spector his powers.

When Ann Arbor's Tadd Mullinix creates or resurrects one of his numerous alter-egos, it's due to musical inspiration, not mental illness. 

Whether as hip-hop producer Dabrye, EBM-techno savant Charles Manier, acid-house auteur James T. Cotton, or drum 'n' bass fiends SK-1 and the new X-Altera, Mullinix immerses himself in the persona and electronic-music genres attached to those names.

Encore Theatre's production of "West Side Story" is unnervingly timely

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Encore Theatre's West Side Story

Not all that long ago, West Side Story seemed kind of quaint.

We’d all watch this classic, 1950s stage musical twist on Romeo and Juliet, built on the talent of four iconic artists (Jerome Robbins, concept; Arthur Laurents, book; Leonard Bernstein, music; Stephen Sondheim, lyrics), and think, “So many of the characters in this story are openly, unapologetically racist and anti-immigrant! I’m so glad we’ve evolved from this.”

Cut to the recent travel ban; and campaign promises about building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico; and white supremacists proudly marching in Charlottesville last summer; and the U.S.’s short-lived, limited aid for American citizens living in Puerto Rico, following Hurricane Maria last fall; and the children of detained migrant families being separated from their parents.

So “West Side Story” -- playing through August 12 at Dexter’s Encore Theatre -- which had always felt a little dated to me, seems almost unnervingly timely now.

Top Chefs: Sumkali's new album is a delicious fusion of East and West

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Sumkali

Whether it's with food, art, or music, fusion depends on a natural blending to be successful. Adding cayenne peppers to cherry ice cream just ain't gonna work.

But the music of Sumkali works perfectly, an expert blend of East and West, the ancient and the futuristic.

The Ann Arbor band's fourth album, Dha Re Dha, is a particularly good fusion of sounds and working methods. Recorded over a three-year period, the band says the LP falls into three categories:

1). arrangements of traditional Indian folk melodies, 2) Improvised studio sessions with minimal editing, and 3) Fully composed 'hyper-realistic' original studio creations that were built from the ground up in the studio track by track.

In addition to Sumkali's core members -- John Churchville (tabla), Bidisha Ghosh (vocals), Dan Ripke (guitar), Rich Rickman (bass), Anoop Gopal (violin), and Will Ciccola (sax/flute) -- Dha Re Dha features 15 guest musicians, including tabla giant Pandit Samar Saha and local legend Peter "Madcat" Ruth on harmonica.

Sumkali has honed it sound through monthly gigs at Indian Music Night in Crazy Wisdom's tea room, but those shows focus more on traditional materials. Dha Re Dha extends the band's sound by adding studio manipulation to the mix, allowing Sumkali to turn traditional Indian music into a modern mash-up without ever killing the original roots of inspiration.

It's a legit tasty fusion.

I emailed with Churchville to discuss Dha Re Dha.

Dig This: Los Gatos swing from pure salsa to Latin jazz on their new album

MUSIC INTERVIEW

Los Gatos

Los Gatos have kept the Latin music flame burning in Ann Arbor for some 20 years, with essentially the same lineup most of the time. But there have certainly been some changes along the way.

For one, the band has outlasted two of its important homes for regular gigs, the now-defunct Bird of Paradise and the Firefly Club. It’s also undergone a shift in musical styles: Originally conceived as a purely Latin jazz ensemble, in later years the band has found itself getting deeper into salsa.
In fact, the Los Gatos recently released a new album, Guarachéate! -- its third ever, and first since 2007 -- that focuses primarily on the band’s salsa side. It’s a great snapshot of the band’s current sound and it displays their reverence for the music, their instrumental skills, and their joy in sharing what they love.

“I don’t think we could have predicted the band would last this long,” says pianist Brian DiBlassio, recently reflecting on their history.

Riveting Riveters: Purple Rose’s “Willow Run” tells the story of four strong women

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Purple Rose Theatre's Willow Run

Southeast Michigan was in the words of Franklin Delano Roosevelt “the Arsenal of Democracy” as the area’s auto manufacturers moved from making cars to making planes, tanks, jeeps, and other machinery needed to fight the Axis in World War II.

The heart and soul of that arsenal was Ford Motor Company’s Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti as it was transformed from auto production to production of the B24 Liberator bombers. Willow Run was more than just a factory, it was a place where national necessity created profound social change.

Women began to fill jobs once held by men and proved their value time and again. The image of Rosie the Riveter became iconic for the emergence of women as a key part of the wider workforce.

The Purple Rose Theatre is staging the world premiere of Jeff Duncan’s Willow Run, an affectionate portrayal of this local and historic story of social change.  

The Tea Is Lit: Arbor Teas Summer Reading Series

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Arbor Teas Summer Reading Series logo

The first book about pouring hot water over cured leaves, The Classic of Tea, was written in 780 A.D. by Lu Yu. While it's ostensibly a how-to guide for cultivating and brewing the best teas, Yu couldn't resist waxing poetic over his shrubby beverage:

Tea can look like a mushroom in whirling flight just as clouds floating from behind a mountain peak. Its leaves can swell and leap as if they were lighting tossed on wind-disturbed water. Still others twist and turn like rivulets carved out be a violent rain in newly tilled fields.

Many writers have feted tea since then, from Lu Tung and Marcel Proust to Henrik Ibsen and Alexander McCall Smith, so Arbor Teas dipping its leaves into literature with its Summer Reading Series feels like a natural fit.

Since 2016, Arbor Teas has serialized fiction on its website each summer, beginning with Lauren Doyle Owens' lighthearted marriage drama The Wintree Waltz, continuing with David Erik Nelson's "till death do we part" sci-fi story Expiration Date, and this summer's historical novella An Exchange of Two Flowers by Sarah Zettel, who reads from her work on Monday, June 25 from 7-8:30 pm at AADL's downtown branch.

To find out how a family-owned organic tea company decided to start publishing fiction, I emailed with Arbor Teas' Lea Abbott.

Performance as Art: The Black Opera at Top of the Park

MUSIC REVIEW

The Black Opera

You know you're onto something unique when you can count both Deepak Chopra and Snoop Dogg as fans.

The Black Opera, an alternative hip-hop group formed in 2011 in the Ann Arbor area, performed at Top of the Park on Tuesday, and from the moment the duo took the stage they had the crowd on their feet dancing, laughing, and enjoying the hard-hitting beats from the gritty group. The Black Opera was happy to be home and MCs Magestik Legend and Jamall Bufford showed it in each enthusiastic rhyme.

Dubbing itself “rap’s first performance art group,” The Black Opera began its set wearing striking white masks and proceeded to change portions of their outfits after each song to add new vibes and visuals. Videos played behind them with imagery ranging from the decorated streets of Detroit during the song “Beautiful City" to the Flint water crisis, and messages like “We Are One” and “Forever We Rebel” were splashed across the screen multiple times as a recurring theme of activism.