What is a human being? Is a human a collection of parts, an accumulation of memories? A smile, a dance, a bundle of eccentricities?
These are a few of the questions pondered in Brian Letscher’s new comic drama Smart Love, being given its world premiere at Chelsea’s Purple Rose Theatre.
It’s a tightly focused family drama which is also a brainy sci-fi take on the limits of science and the consequences of going beyond those limits.
History is a mystery, even when you have direct access to media coverage of an event.
The first Ann Arbor Folk Festival was held June 13, 1976, headlined by John Prine and Leon Redbone. The show was hosted by the Power Center and, as always, it was to benefit The Ark, which was just 11 years old at that point and still in its original location, a house at 1421 Hill St.
Doug Fulton’s June 14, 1976, Ann Arbor News review of that first fest really only covers the early part of the evening -- newspaper print deadlines, you know -- and Prine and Redbone are mentioned with no commentary.
But Fulton did write a sentence that would reappear -- in slightly altered forms -- through much of The Ark’s existence: “The occasion was a benefit for the Ark, one of the few remaining 'coffee-houses' in the country still specializing in folk music of all kinds, and lately in financial trouble.”
In fact, The Ark could have just changed its name to Financial Trouble since the venue was constantly in jeopardy through the mid-'80s until this 1986 article declared otherwise: "The Ark No Longer Needs The Festival To Stay Afloat".
Since that first festival, and two moves later, The Ark is one of the most respected and well-oiled folk- and roots-music concert venues in the country, though the nonprofit still counts on the Ann Arbor Folk Festival for part of its operating revenue. This year’s edition, held January 27 and 28 at Hill Auditorium, has one of the festival’s biggest lineups yet, featuring headliners Kacey Musgraves and Jenny Lewis on Friday and the Indigo Girls, Margo Price, and Kiefer Sutherland (yes, him) on Saturday. (If you're somehow still undecided about going, The Ark has also compiled playlists for night one and night two of the fest.
But if the festival started in 1976, why is this weekend’s celebration its 40th, instead of the 42nd?
Fred Thomas is like a library. The Ann Arbor-raised musician has lent his talents to approximately one billion recordings, from his own to his friends' and the many bands who have hired him to produce their records.
When the Montreal-based artist lived in Tree Town, the Ann Arbor District Library frequently lent Thomas assets from its Music Tools collection when he recorded his numerous solo records or those of his various bands, including Saturday Looks Good to Me and Hydropark.
So, when Pulp and the Music Tools crew decided to record musicians performing with instruments from the collection, Thomas was the perfect person to launch the video series: Tools Crew Live.
Thomas was back in Ann Arbor over the winter break, and on December 15, 2016, he came to the library’s Secret Lab makerspace and recorded “Echolocation” (from his new record, Changer) and “Cops Don’t Care Pt. II" (from 2015’s All Are Saved), using six instruments from the collection, including synths, effects pedals, and a guitar.
We also interviewed Thomas about his instrument choices and his amazing new album. Changer combines all the elements of Thomas' past work -- raw emotional insights, indie-rock stompers, and electronic evocations -- and manages to be the most personal and cohesive record of his long and creative career.
The leader of the Kelly Jean Caldwell Band is constantly juggling creative endeavors, be it leading the alt-country band behind her name, playing in the occult-metal group The Wiccans, or raising two little ones.
“My kids are going crazy right now,” Caldwell wrote in an email to Pulp. “I have a 1-year-old and a 3-year-old and they are freaks.”
Caldwell was fending off the kids while answering questions to preview her concert at the Elks Pratt Lodge in Ann Arbor on Friday, January 27. Her third album, Downriver, was recorded six years ago, but it finally came out late last year on The Outer Limits Lounge, a new label run by her husband, John Szymanski (vocalist Johnny Hentch from long-running garage-rockers The Hentchmen).
The album’s delay was due to a number of reasons, not the least of which is Caldwell and band bassist Brian Blair divorced, then she got remarried to Szymanski, with whom she has the two rugrats who helped her with this interview. After a break that allowed Caldwell to focus on family life, she eventually called up her old bandmates -- including her ex -- and the Kelly Jean Caldwell Band was born again.
On the surface, Downriver’s music sounds familiar enough to label it alt-country, but underneath the twangs are dark and humorous lyrics delivered by Caldwell’s powerful voice. She brings real personality and presence to the songs, elevating them above their rootsy origins. The tunes were written when former Ann Arborite Caldwell was living downriver with Blair, and the album is a chronicle of their time together and the eventual dissolution of their marriage.
The new play Popcorn Falls is an energetic romp, full of impressions, wit, and (slightly manic) charm. Written by James Hindman and directed by Daniel C. Walker, Popcorn Falls features two men riffing off one another in the style of comedy duos like Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello. The time breezes by as the actors take on fifteen different roles, bringing to life the citizens of an entire small town.
The play focuses on Ted Trundell (Jeff Priskorn), the mayor of Popcorn Falls, and his friend, Joe (Jonathan Jones). When Mr. Doyle -- also played by Jones, a grinch-like role similar to Mr. Potter from It’s a Wonderful Life but with the lilting accent of a villainous Jimmy Stewart -- tells the mayor that he plans to take over the town and turn it into a sewage treatment center unless they can successfully put on a play that the town agreed to many years earlier. Ted decides that he’ll do whatever it takes to save his home -- even writing and directing a play despite having practically no familiarity with theater whatsoever.
SINGING THE BLUES AGAIN: "Ann Arbor has an incredibly rich history and tradition when it comes to the blues," James Partridge told MLive -- and he's right, from the Blind Pig's regular booking of big names in its early years to the establishment of the Ann Arbor Blues Festival in 1969. Partridge's new nonprofit, the Ann Arbor Blues Society, is trying to continue A2's blues tradition by bringing the music to senior centers, schools, and local venues, but its long-term goal is downright grand: to revive the Ann Arbor Blues Festival, which was last held in 2006. (➤ MLive)
FOR THE BIRDS: U-M adjunct Keith Taylor and Ann Arbor artist Tom Pohrt have teamed up for a new book of poems and illustrations that meditate on nature. The 49 poems that comprise The Bird-while, which is part of Wayne State University's Made in Michigan Writers Series, is Taylor's 16th collection of verse, though not his first to explore the natural world. Nature has always been an important part of Taylor's work; check out "The Day After an Ice Storm." Literati will host the book launch for The Bird-while on Friday, January 27 at 7 p.m. (➤ Wayne State University Press)
200 CENTS OF SENSE: This year’s Washtenaw Reads book selection is $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer. The authors are coming to Rackham Auditorium on Tuesday, February 7, and the Ann Arbor District Library is hosting several events related to the book. Get the full scoop here: (➤ AADL)
Christopher Porter is a Library Technician and editor of Pulp.
YES, ’MO: It’s been 7 years since the Ann Arbor-formed band Nomo released its last album, Invisible Cities (Ubiquity Records), but a few photos posted to the avant-Afro-gamelan-funk band’s Facebook page in August indicate a new record’s been made. We reached out to the band for info on when it might be released and haven’t heard back, but perhaps all secrets will be revealed when Nomo plays the Blind Pig on Saturday, January 21. And even though Nomo has been quiet for a long while, the band's core nine musicians have kept busy. Most prominently, saxophonist-leader Elliot Bergman moved to Chicago and released two pop-dub albums as Wild Belle (which includes his sister, Natalie) and formed the experimental Metal Tongues, whose sound is built on his hand-made kalimbas with synths and drums. Meanwhile, trumpeter Justin Walter has released a number of recordings under his own name, including the great 2013 LP Lullabies & Nightmares (Kranky), and saxophonist Dan Bennett leads his own jazz groups. (➤ Blind Pig event) (➤ Nomo)
It's Showtime: Japanese Prints of Kabuki Theater from the Collection of the University of Michigan Museum of Art
There are only a handful of art exhibits of such sophisticated complexity that they can absorb the viewer’s attention for an indefinite amount of time. Japanese Prints of Kabuki Theater from the Collection of the University of Michigan Museum of Art is one of those treasures.
This display, mounted in the UMMA’s spacious second-story A. Alfred Taubman Gallery, represents a level of sophistication that could only truly be appreciated by two audiences: Those for whom these colorful prints were originally intended and subsequent experts who can identify the identity of the portraiture as well as the work’s iconography. The rest of us will have to take what we can get.
It doesn’t mean that one has to be an expert in Japanese theater or have an advanced degree in the history of that country’s culture to appreciate Japanese Prints of Kabuki Theater -- although it sure doesn't hurt. Rather, appreciating this imaginative display requires a unique kind of patience that will allow the show to open up to the viewer at its own pace and in its own way. But that seems to be the intent of kabuki all along.
If the American ideal is defined by the coming together of various cultures to create a unique whole, then ragtime is the country's first musical example of that worldly synthesis.
Developed in African-American communities in the 1890s, the music combines African rhythms and syncopations, European harmonies, marches, and a Latin tinge to create a sonic brew that the King of Ragtime, Scott Joplin, described as "weird and intoxicating."
Detroit loved that weird intoxication and was a hub for ragtime during the music's peak period in the late 19th and early 20th centuries before it gave way to jazz. In fact, the Remick Music Shell on Belle Isle is named for Jerome Remick, one of the biggest publishers of ragtime music. (Read a history of Detroit ragtime here.)
Now, a hundred years after ragtime's apex, and 47 miles east of the Remick Music Shell, the sixth the annual Ragtime Extravaganza aims to recreate the look, feel, and sound of the music's classic era at the Michigan Theater on January 21.
Extravaganza organizer William Pemberton has always loved ragtime music and founded the River Raisin Ragtime Revue in 2002. He’s served as its president -- and tuba player -- ever since.
The Revue has grown to be one of southeast Michigan’s most respected performance groups, featuring musicians from across the state, including professors from Central Michigan and the University of Michigan’s music departments. And the Ragtime Extravaganza is the Revue’s biggest event each year -- and by far "the most fun," Pemberton said.
“I love that it takes place in a 1920s vaudeville house," he said, "and the whole idea of it is to re-create a feeling of the golden age of American entertainment: the ragtime, the vaudeville, and the burlesque eras. And it’s just perfect and you can just feel the energy in the house.”
NEW KICKS: When a musician gets asked to compile a mix for the DJ-Kicks series, it’s like a baseball player making the All-Star Game. Since 1993, the German !K7 label has had some of the world’s biggest electronic music artists, including Carl Craig, Hot Chip, Actress, and 54 others create DJ-set albums -- ones that still sell really well even though virtually every music website offers approximately 273,000 mixes to download for free.
Now it’s Matthew Dear’s turn to boot-up a mix, and the Ann Arbor artist and co-founder of Ghostly International is celebrating his DJ-Kicks album with a party at the Blind Pig on Friday, January 20. (UPDATE: Fellow Ghostly star Shigeto has been added to the gig.)
Dear will be DJing and dropping cuts from the 57th DJ-Kicks comp, which includes his new song, “Wrong With Us,” plus 24 more jams from the likes of Simian Mobile Disco, Pearson Sound, and Audion (aka Dear’s more dance-oriented alter ego).
Not familiar with Ghostly International or its sister label, Spectral Sound? If you’re an Ann Arbor District Library card holder, you can download almost everything the labels have released, free of charge, including many Dear and Audion classics. (➤ !K7) (➤ Blind Pig) (➤ AADL’s Ghostly/Spectral collection)