Happy Sad: The Cactus Blossoms' shimmering folk-rock hit a harmonious sweet spot at The Ark

MUSIC REVIEW

Cactus Blossoms at The Ark

The Cactus Blossoms at The Ark. Photo by Amanda Szot.

Why is it that sad songs make us feel better? 

Esther Rose, opening act at Thursday night’s show headlined by The Cactus Blossoms at the Ark, asked that question partway through her set as she realized that all of her songs to that point had been a bit melancholy.

A Michigan native, but a New Orleans resident for the past decade, Rose sang songs of loves lost and found. Not just people, but places too -- from her family’s farm near Flint, Michigan, to the love of the Lower Ninth Ward in her adopted hometown. Her earnest songwriting and clear vocals were paired with sparse instrumentation. She was joined on stage by Jordan Hyde, who provided backup vocals and lead guitar. Her debut album, You Made It This Far, was released in 2019 on Father/Daughter records.
 
The Cactus Blossoms are brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey on main vocals and guitar, now joined eldest brother Tyler Burkum on guitar, cousin Phillip Hicks on bass, and Jeremy Hanson on drums. Formed in Minneapolis, The Cactus Blossoms have a sound influenced by classic country, folk-inspired storytelling, and the harmonies of famous sibling duos, with some good old-fashioned rock and roll reverb from the ‘60s. The band members started exploring this style of music around 2006 while investigating their local library’s music collection and through a friend whose collection of obscure folk music and “high lonesome” sounds was particularly intriguing.
 

The atmospheric dance troupe Sankai Juku transfixed the Power Center with haunting movement

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

Sankai Juku performing Meguri

There’s an image I’ve been having a hard time getting out of my head ever since the performance of Sankai Juku’s Meguri: Teeming Sea, Tranquil Land at the Power Center last weekend:

Four dancers in an eerie semi-darkness -- bald, torsos nude, bodies covered in white dust -- stand together in a circle. They stay fixed to the floor, seemingly rooted to the spot, as their bodies turn around in a unified, slow-motion gesture. Their feet rotate in place as their limbs twist together, until legs spiral around one another and the spine and neck swivel to bring the ghostly visages directly before the audience. On the faces, there is an open-mouthed image of silent, inexpressible anguish, a sort of inaudible scream whose riveting force stops your breath. For a moment, before the contorted and gnarled bodies reverse direction and rotate back, you have unshakable certainty that this is the face of a body in pain.

It’s haunting.

Then the moment passes and the spell dissipates.

There’s no pain here, not really, just illusion and mastery.

This kind of arresting image isn’t uncommon for Sankai Juku, a Paris-based troupe that practices a Japanese dance form known as butoh, an avant-garde genre that arose in the 1960s and is recognizable by its characteristic use of white body powder and shaved heads.

The U-M Digital Music Ensemble's "Pond Music for Airports" encountered unexpected turbulence

MUSIC REVIEW

Pond Music for Airports

All photos by Christopher Porter.

I went to the pond not to fish, not to swim, but to listen to experimental music.

And all I heard was silence.

It's not because the University of Michigan's Digital Music Ensemble (DME) was performing John Cage's 4'33"The group, under the guidance of Professor Stephen Rush, had worked up a piece inspired by Brian Eno's Music for Airports, the landmark 1978 ambient record that was built by having pre-recorded tape loops of varying lengths go in and out of phase with each another.

The DME's Pond Music XVII: Brian Eno’s Music for Airports -- or more colloquially on the promo posters, Pond Music for Airports -- was created by students who wrote and performed the short music segments that were then committed to tape. The DME artists then spliced the tapes and loaded them onto old reel-to-reel machines, which were set up in front of the retention pond behind the Earl V. Moore Building, which is the home of the U-M School of Music, Theatre & Dance, located on North Campus.

Last Dance: The Bang! Must Die! is one last boogie down production for this long-running party at The Blind Pig

PULP LIFE PREVIEW REVIEW

The Bang! poster collage

It's the last dance -- last dance for love.

Yes, it's the last chance for romance Saturday night.

After 18 years, The Bang! dance party needs you to hold and scold -- and get so, so bad -- at The Blind Pig as it waves goodbye with one final blowout: The Bang! Must Die!

Founded by artists Jeremy Wheeler and Jason Gibner, the first Bang! party was held in 2001 at the now-shuttered Half-Ass Inn (Halfway Inn) in U-M's East Quad. The following year it moved to The Blind Pig -- with occasional visits to Ypsilanti and elsewhere -- and it eventually became a monthly event for a long while, getting more and more elaborate over the years as The Bang! crew went wild building elaborate props that supported the dances' playful themes.

Filtered through Wheeler's distinctive, retro-cool aesthetic -- which you can see in the posters above -- The Bang! encouraged people to dress up in outrageous clothes, shake off their everyday grime, and get dirty on the dancefloor. Perusing a photo archive on Flickr from older Bang! throwdowns, you can all but smell the PBR pouring out of the pores of the revelers. As the sweaty, open-mouthed ravers cut through the humid club air, The Bling Pig took on the look of a thrift shop on acid, where all the VCR tapes and '80s aerobic leotards suddenly rediscovered their worth on Earth.

Silly sexual japes abounded at The Bang! and the photo gallery is rich with crotch shots. One hirsute gentleman even figured out how to don a thong at most every Bang!, no matter the theme. 

We rooted through thousands of pics and chose some of our favorites, which you can see below, along with a short documentary on The Bang! and some other video footage. But first, read these two oral histories of The Bang! -- then wish it well in the afterlife by donning a crazy costume and dancing your face off on October 26:

➥ "The Bang! Must Die: the History of the Sweatiest Dance Party in Town" [Damn Arbor, October 22, 2019]
➥ "After 18 years of dance-party madness, here's why The Bang! must die" [Concentrate, October 16, 2019]

Locked-Up With Laughter: A2 Civic Theatre’s "My Three Angels" is a sharp family comedy

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

My Three Angels

L-R: Dillon Roseen, Theo Polley, Jim Sullivan, and Ellen Finch in Ann Arbor Civic Theatre's My Three Angels. Photo by Lisa Gavan | Gavan Photo.

When Barbara Mackey King proposed directing My Three Angels for this season at Ann Arbor Civic Theatre, she had two goals in mind. One was for actors and the other for audiences.

“I was in another play at Civic Theatre and everyone was talking about how there weren’t a lot of great plays for older actors,” she said. “I thought I can help with that and I remembered My Three Angels, which has some very fine parts for older, experienced actors.”

She was also looking for a play that would appeal to a diverse audience.

“I chose this play because it’s what I would call a good family comedy,” she said. “By that I mean not Leave It to Beaver or something like that, not for tiny kids. But something that the whole family can enjoy. It’s not too salacious or suggestive or anything like that. It’s something you can bring older kids to.”

She said that’s important for the future of live theater.

A Place to Resist Apathy: “Whose Streets? Our Streets! New York City 1980-2000” at Lane Hall Gallery

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Sylvia Plachy, Graffiti Under the Williamsburg Bridge, black and white photograph]

Sylvia Plachy, Graffiti Under the Williamsburg Bridge, black and white photograph.

Big town civil disobedience meets big-time photojournalism in Whose Streets? Our Streets! New York City 1980-2000 at the University of Michigan Women’s Studies Lane Hall Gallery.

The exhibit features 40 artworks by renowned national and international photographers Nina Berman, Donna Binder, Donna Decesare, Ricky Flores, Frank Fournier, Lori Grinker, Meg Handler, Lisa Kahane, Gabe Kircheimer, Carolina Kroon, Meryl Levin, TL Litt, Dona Ann McAdams, Thomas McGovern, Thomas Muscionico, Brian Palmer, Clayton Patterson, Sandra-Lee Phipps, Sylvia Plachy, Alon Reininger, Richard Renaldi, Joseph Rodriguez, Linda Rosier, Q. Sakamaki, Catherine Smith, and Les Stone.

Lending a timely coherence to this sprawling history are curators Tamar W. Carroll of the Department of History at the Rochester Institute of Technology; Meg Handler, photographer and former photo editor of The Village Voice; Michael Kamber, New York Times photographer, adjunct faculty of the Columbia Journalism School and founder of the Bronx Documentary Center; and Joshua P. Meltzer, assistant professor at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

As the Women’s Studies exhibit gallery statement tells us, “New York’s streets were turbulent and often violent in the 1980s and 1990s, as residents responded to social changes in their city as well as national and international developments. These photographs highlight both the key roles of activists and journalists in enacting democratic social changes, and invite viewers to reflect on how theses social issues, as well as social movements and the practice of journalism, have evolved in recent decades.”

U-M’s take on Gilbert and Sullivan’s "The Pirates of Penzance" zips along in swashbuckling style

THEATER & DANCE REVIEW

U-M's Pirates of Penzance

It is the very model of a modern musical comedy.

The University of Michigan Department of Music’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ever-popular The Pirates of Penzance moves along faster than the celebrated major-general’s patter song. The tiny Lydia Mendelssohn stage is alive with color, movement, and music.

Director Vincent J. Cardinal has chosen the 1980 Joseph Papp New York version of Penzance with more swashbuckling, dancing and some reinterpretation of Sullivan’s music. That production starred Kevin Kline, Linda Ronstadt, and Rex Smith. U-M’s production is filled to overflowing with musical theater stars of the future.

From the Ancient to the Future: Meleko Mokgosi's "Pan-African Pulp" at UMMA

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Meleko Mokgosi's works at UMMA

Left: Acts of Resistance, 2018, oil on canvas. Courtesy the artist. © Meleko Mokgosi.
Right: Pan-African Pulp I (detail), 2019, digital print. Courtesy the artist. © Meleko Mokgosi.

University of Michigan’s Museum of Art has launched a new program of site-specific, commissioned installations as part of a new biennial program, with the monumental work of Meleko Mokgosi. He debuted a solo commission to inaugurate the program, with a show titled Pan-African Pulp.

Mokgosi’s four works boldly fill the Vertical Gallery space at UMMA, with a larger-than-life wall vinyl that extends from the first floor to the ceiling of the third level, a series of enlarged and annotated pages from a Pan-African manifesto, which are displayed below a variety of posters from Pan-African movements, vinyl text that wraps around the second and third level bannisters, and a large painted mural.

A Botswana-born artist living and working in New York City, Mokgosi's works explore the history and meaning of Pan-Africanism, which UMMA guest curator Ali Subotnick defines as “the global movement to unite ethnic groups of sub-Saharan African descent.” Mokgosi takes this movement, which began around the start of the 20th century, and uses it as a starting point to explore themes of “power, national identification, colonialism, globalization, whiteness, transnationality, xenophobia, democracy, art history, gender, labor, and the authoritarian or institutional voice.” Each component of the exhibition engages with one or more of these themes.

Ordinary People: UMMA's "Take Your Pick: Collecting Found Photographs" asks us to help curate the everyday

VISUAL ART REVIEW

Photos from UMMA's Take Your Pick exhibit

In the University of Michigan Museum of Art’s latest photographic exhibit, Take Your Pick, viewers are asked to participate in the selection of images to be added to the permanent collection. UMMA asks us to head to the gallery and look at the 1,000 amateur photographs collected by Peter J. Cohen and decide on our 20 personal favorites. Ballots are available at the entrance of the gallery, with 20 slots to vote for your favorite photographs. On the exhibit's webpage, potential visitors are asked to “Come help build [UMMA's] collection of ‘ordinary’ American 20th-century photographs.” With an emphasis on the word ordinary, the curatorial team is asking viewers to consider how “ordinary” photographs of the 20th century may be reconsidered as objects worthy of preservation and study. 

The photographs on display are part of a larger collection of 60,000 snapshots collected by Peter J. Cohen. Cohen acquired his collection by searching through flea markets and buying online. The majority of the images portray candid American life, distilled imagery of private family life: birthday parties, family vacations, school portraits. 

Double Date in Kerrytown: William Bolcom, Joan Morris, Amy Burton, and John Musto paired up for cabaret

MUSIC REVIEW

Bolcom & Morris with Burton & Musto

Top: Joan Morris and William Bolcom. Bottom: Amy Burton and John Musto.

A crowd of concert-goers buzzed with excitement last Sunday as they packed into the seats of Kerrytown Concert House, excited for an afternoon of music with a cabaret duo that over the years has emerged as a community favorite. 

Pianist William Bolcom and mezzo-soprano Joan Morris, a husband and wife musical team, are among the leading performers of cabaret music active today, as well as having been members of the Ann Arbor community for over four decades. Both former faculty at the University’s School of Music, Theatre & Dance, they have been concertizing together for over 40 years, and even performed at the very first concert hosted by Kerrytown Concert House some 35 years ago. The duo was joined on the stage Sunday afternoon by another musical couple, soprano Amy Burton and pianist John Musto, for a light-hearted performance billed as “Double Date.”