Vern Smith’s novel "The Green Ghetto" aims to be an urban Western set in Detroit

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Vern Smith, The Green Ghetto

“Overnight I found my love affair with Detroit slipping away. My worldview changed," said author Vern Smith, speaking of his experience in the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in New York City.

Growing up in Windsor, Ontario, Smith said, “Detroit was my second hometown. I started sneaking over the border when I was 11 and found my culture there.  Can’t tell you how many live shows I’ve seen there because it was so easy to access pre-9/11. Then it changed so abruptly and [the two cities] were being kept apart.”

Smith’s novel The Green Ghetto takes place a year after the New York attacks, which was about the same time the former journalist and broadcaster started working on short stories.

Joe Bauer's "Robots vs. Aliens" is a multimedia art project, concept album, and mailed mystery tale

MUSIC VISUAL ART PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Robots vs. Aliens

It may sound like a movie title ripe for a Mystery Science Theater 3000 show, but Robots vs. Aliens is the name of a new multimedia art project by Joe Bauer, an Ann Arbor-based musician and co-founder of the North Coast Modular Collective

Produced under Bauer's stage name, Verzerren, Robots vs. Aliens is comprised of a concept album featuring modular synthesizers, illustrations, mailed letters and postcards, and performances at Riverside Arts Center in conjunction with the new exhibition Towards/Past the Future, which explores "technology, society, and identity through the lens of science fiction."

Set 100 years into the future, Robots vs. Aliens tells the story of humans and cyborgs living together, but their equilibrium is disrupted when peaceful dispatches from extraterrestrials are misinterpreted. The robots revolt, aliens invade, at the Earth is devastated. But the remaining humans have a chance at redemption when intercepted messages are sent back in time in hopes that people will read them and make different choices to induce an alternative future. This is where the postcards and letters by Bauer and artist Aaron Graff come into play: participants will receive these documents in the mail over a two-week period with the object of piecing together the story and solving the mystery of how humanity can save itself.

I asked Bauer some questions over email about the inspirations and ideas behind Robots vs. Aliens, which you can also listen to below.

Theatre Nova’s Playwrights Festival lets the audience help writers find their voice 

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Michigan Playwrights Festival 2019

Playwrights begin with an idea. They imagine a setting, develop a cast of characters, and write a script. But that’s just the beginning. A director and actors will breathe life into the writer’s words. Only then can a writer get a feel for whether his or her play hits its mark.

That’s where the semi-annual Michigan Playwrights Festival at Theatre Nova provides an important service to playwrights and a great opportunity for theatergoers to see an original play in its infancy.

“Playwrights tell us how valuable it is to hear their play read out loud by professional actors in front of an audience,” said Diane Hill, producing artistic director of Theatre Nova, in an email interview. “They can see if what they thought was funny actually receives laughs or if what they thought might be a poignant moment falls flat. They also listen to the audience discussion that follows the reading concerning its positives and negatives which can sometimes lead to script alterations.”

Five new plays by Michigan playwrights will be presented March 6-10 in staged readings at Theatre Nova in Ann Arbor.

Alone in a Crowd: Pianist Gwilym Simcock performs solo at Kerrytown Concert House

MUSIC PREVIEW

Gwilym Simcock

The last time British pianist Gwilym Simcock was in Ann Arbor, it was as a sideman with Pat Metheny's quartet when the guitarist played Hill Auditorium in October 2018.

But in June 2017, Simcock played Kerrytown Concert House solo, which he'll do again on March 3.

I interviewed the pianist then and asked him how his playing changes when performing solo versus with a band:

Explosive Comedy: PTD Productions celebrates its silver anniversary with "The Miss Firecracker Contest"

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW

PTD Productions' Miss Firecracker Contest

Tessie (Cindy Franklin), Carnelle (Stacy Buck), and Elain (Mary Hopper) are a few of the explosively funny characters in PTD Productions' season debut production of Beth Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest.

Twenty-fifth anniversaries are usually celebrated with silver. 

But PTD Productions is feteing its 25th with firecrackers.

The Ypsilanti-based community theater group kicks off its silver season with Beth Henley's The Miss Firecracker Contest, a successful long-run Off-Broadway comedy that takes place in a small Mississippi town.

Ann Arbor folk-rockers Little Traps hide complexity inside a warm, inviting sound

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Little Traps

The local indie folk-rock band Little Traps brings sharp musicianship, an off-center outlook, and a distinctive sound with a banjo leading the way. Released late last year, their first full-length album, Can’t Count, is a welcome showcase of their work. 

The band charms listeners with its warm, inviting sound, but underneath lies a somewhat more complex tone. “Uncertainty, ambivalence, and second-guessing are the bread and butter of my lyrics,” singer-songwriter-guitarist Nick Bertsos says. 

In addition to Bertsos, the core band consists of singer-banjoist Annie Palmer and guitarist/pedal steel player Thomas Green. At various times other musicians help fill out the sound; on Can’t Count, Howard White plays bass and keyboards, while Ali Snyder plays drums. On New Tricks, a recently released EP of cover songs, Jessiah Hall is the drummer.

Bertsos answered a few questions recently via email:

U-M Musical Theatre offers hard-hitting drama "The Exonerated"

THEATER & DANCE PREVIEW

University of Michigan's production of The Exonerated

The acting students at the University of Michigan’s Department of Musical Theatre will be shifting gears to perform in The Exonerated, a docudrama that reveals serious problems in the United States criminal system.

The Exonerated by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen tells the true stories of six wrongfully accused convicted survivors of death row in their own words. The script was prepared from interviews, letters, transcripts, case files, and the public record.

Timeless Ocarinas: The Seven Sages interpret music from The Legend of Zelda

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Seven Sages' Korok Forest

John Coltrane on the saxophone.

Eddie Van Halen on the guitar.

Link on the ocarina.

These are giants of their instruments.

But only one of these masters will be feted by The Seven Sages, a new quintet dedicated to playing music from The Legend of Zelda video game series.

Comprised of accomplished jazz and experimental artists Kirsten Carey (guitar), Andrew Hintzen (keyboard), Neal Anderson (EWI / trumpet), Jon Hammonds (bass), and Jonathan Taylor (drums), The Seven Sages make their debut at Ziggy's in Ypsilanti on February 21 -- the 33rd anniversary of the first Legend of Zelda game being released.

Carey and Hammonds answered some questions in an email interview about how The Seven Sages materialized, which Zelda songs the band will play, and their favorite tunes from the games. The queries were posed by myself and Eli Neiburger, who is deputy director of the Ann Arbor District Library and a member of the Nintendoland Family Band.

A Genuine Act of Discovery: U-M's Juan Cole on his book "Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires"

WRITTEN WORD PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Juan Cole and his book Muhammad

Dr. Juan Cole has spent his life dedicated to the study of the Middle East, Muslim South Asia, and religion. He’s been at University of Michigan since 1984, quoted in papers from the L.A. Times to the Baltimore Sun, and appeared on PBS Newshour, Nightline, and The Colbert Report. He received a National Endowment for the Humanities grant for research on Shiite Muslim thought and history, published translations of Arabic literature by Kahlil Gibran (and later, sponsored an exhibit of Gibran’s paintings at the Detroit Institute of Arts), acted as the director of the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies at U-M, served as editor in chief of the International Journal of Middle East Studies, and wrote or translated nearly 20 books. 

This past October, Bold Type Books published Cole’s most recent book, Muhammad: Prophet of Peace Amid the Clash of Empires. The book’s publication at this particular time is in response to recent events around the world. “Extremist groups are misusing or using religious text in dishonest ways," Cole says. "North America and Europe have seen a rise in Islamophobia and the smearing of the prophet Muhammad.”

Cole originally studied early Islam and its foundations while in graduate school in Cairo and later at UCLA. “I got pulled away from the medieval studies," Cole says, "and pulled into writing about modern and contemporary issues in the Middle East by several events,” including the Iranian Revolution. “Although I had this earlier training, I didn’t put it to use in a whole book until now. I tried to tell the story as a response to this moment that we find ourselves in.”

Valentines, Funny & Otherwise: The Derrick Benford Quartet will provide the soundtrack February 14 at AADL

MUSIC PREVIEW INTERVIEW

Derrick Benford

Derrick Benford is a piano wiz who knows a thing or two about jazz. He’s been playing in the Michigan jazz scene for a while now, and this Detroit native has been involved with many groups and artists; lately, he’s been a member of the Gene Dunlap Band.

He’s also a Spirit of Detroit Award winner and has traveled across the U.S., U.K., and Asia working alongside the likes of George Clinton, Marcus Belgrave, and his brother Vassal Benford, among many others in the international jazz scene.

For his latest endeavor, the Derrick Benford Quartet, the pianist meshes jazz, hip-hop, R&B, and gospel into their own funky sound.

The quartet will be performing at AADL’s downtown library on Valentine's Day for a special show dedicated to love in all forms. I spoke to Derrick Benford about many things including his piano background, concerts at the library, his international experiences, and more.