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Thursday, March 18, 2010

Posted By on Thu, Mar 18, 2010 at 3:09 PM

This broke too late for our humble print edition, but radio producer and journalist Blumberg and raconteur and essayist Rakoff -- both well known to fans of This American Life -- will give a free talk at Pitt at 6 p.m. next Tues., March 23.

The talk, sponsored by Pitt's English Department, takes place in Room L9 of Clapp Hall, at the corner of Fifth and Tennyson, in Oakland.

Blumberg is a veteran TAL producer, but he's best known lately for his work with NPR's Planet Money project, and the numerous awards he won for the show's "The Giant Pool of Money" episode, about the financial meltdown. Blumberg is also an adjunct professor of journalism at Columbia University.

The urbane and drily witty Rakoff, meanwhile, has written two essay collections (including Don't Get Too Comfortable) and is a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine and GQ. He's also a frequent guest on The Daily Show. And just because he's greedy, he's also an Academy Award winner for "The New Tenant," the 2009 short film he starred in and adapted for the screen.

The talk, which is open to the public, is titled "Telling a True Event." For more information, call 412-624-6508.


Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Posted By on Wed, Mar 17, 2010 at 1:50 PM

I'll confess: I've been hitting these committee races pretty hard this week. But I want you to know that I could quit any time.

Starting right after this post. You'll be interested, I swear. And even if you're not, stayed tuned to the end of this blog for a special announcement.

Anway, remember Dennis Regan? In 2006, he emerged as the power behind the throne during the too-brief O'Connor administration, and seemed likely to play a similar role when Luke Ravenstahl took over. But, like a flabby Icarus, Regan rose too high, too fast, and plummeted to earth after accusations that he injected politics into policing. 

Ravenstahl tossed Regan out, and you haven't heard much of him since. But Regan, who now lists his position as "consultant," still serves as the Democratic committeeman for portions of Point Breeze. 

That may be about to change. 

Saleem Khan, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh's medical school, has filed to run against Regan in Ward 14, District 16. In recent years, Khan has been an active supporter for Barack Obama -- his house served as a gathering spot for loyalists during Obama's healthcare speech last summer, for example. But he's now taking the plunge by running for the local Democratic committee -- his first run for office.

"I've been an active supporter for the Democrats, and some of my friends are on the committee," says Khan, who was born in India but has been living in Pittsburgh for 30 years. Those friends urged him to run, he says, and "they told me that generally, you're unopposed in these races. But it turns out that this is the only seat in the ward that is being contested."

Party insiders say they tried to ascertain Regan's interest in running for the seat again, but got no response. I've been unable to reach Regan for comment, and will post it if I get one. 

In any case, judging from my talk with Khan, there's nothing personal about this race. Although Khan and Regan live a block apart, Khan professed to be unfamiliar with Regan's background. "I walk my dog through the neighborhood, and I think I've seen him at his house," he says, "but that's about all." He seemed unaware of, and not terribly interested in, Regan's involvement in old controversies. 

Running for committee, he says, merely "seemed like a good way to formalize things I was already doing."  

Even so, if Khan wins, I'll bet some Pittsburghers will take more satisifcation from it than Khan himself will.

OK, and now the promised special announcement. I'm going to be guest-hosting on KDKA Radio tonight -- oops, wait. I screwed up the station ID. Let me try that again: 

"Tonight I'll be guest hosting on The Voice of Pittsburgh, News Radio 1020 KDKA." 

That's better. 

Anyway, I'll be on between 10 and 11 this evening, with a special guest. We're gonna be talking a little about police accountability, St. Patrick's Day, and police demonstrations on St. Patrick's Day.

Please feel free to call. You could be the very first person -- and maybe the very last, depending on how this goes -- who will hear the words, "You're on News Radio 1020 KDKA with Chris Potter." Plus, my mother-in-law will be standing by her phone in case she feels like I'm bombing. And much as I admire my in-laws, I really don't want it to come to that. 

If you do decide to call, the number is ... uh ... wait a second. OK, let me try this again:

"The number here to call is 412-333-KDKA -- or you can get in touch with me by clicking on 'Dollar Bank Instant Access' on our Web site, KDKAradio dot com." 

How was that? Did it sound OK? 


Posted By on Wed, Mar 17, 2010 at 12:09 PM

Pittsburgh bands have just two more days to enter the recording contest sponsored by University of Pittsburgh radio station WPTS 92.1 FM, Machine Age Studios and Pittsburgh underground heroes Modey Lemon. The deadline is 5 p.m. Fri., March 19. 

The contest is geared toward "all those great Pittsburgh bands that haven't had a chance to record at a professional studio," and the grand prize is two days of recording time at Machine Age. Three finalists will also get to open for an all-ages Modey Lemon show on Fri., April 2. 

Complete rules and guidelines are here. You don't need to be a Pitt student to enter, but bands must not have "recorded at a professional recording studio, defined as an established business used for recording." That strikes me as a tough distinction to make in this era of ubiquitous, inexpensive home studio software and gear. This is not to say that someone with GarageBand and a cheap condenser mic is no different from a professional studio with an experienced engineer -- there's no comparison -- just that it must be nearly impossible to draw that line.

For more information, visit WPTS's Web site, or e-mail


Posted By on Wed, Mar 17, 2010 at 12:05 PM

Like the opening band that upstages the headliner, occasionally a runner-up in an art competition outshines the winner. I'd argue that's the case at Silver Eye's 2009 Fellowship Award Exhibition, which closes this Saturday (

The winning collection is Katrina M. d'Autremont's Si Dios Quiere (What God Wants), a series of 26 color images of her mother's family, in Argentina. All the photos were made inside what seems to be a single large apartment -- that of her grandparents -- or perhaps a couple such apartments.

The photos are wonderfully intimate; my first thought on seeing them was, "How did d'Autremont get into my grandparents' house from 1978?" (And my grandparents lived in Northeast Philadelphia.) There's the group family dinner shot ("La Mesa") but also subtle still lifes, like "Taza," with its familiarly chipped coffee cup resting on a patterned cotton tablecloth that still bears the imprint of water glasses.

Other images capture the overstuffed furniture (including a cupcake-shaped ottoman), the plush but worn carpet, the ceramic tchotchkes lovingly displayed. More formal portraits of individuals hint at the power of tradition, even as interior "landscapes," like a detail of a doorway in a shadowy hall, tell of loneliness.

Best of all, I think, is "Martin y Sofia." A teen-age girl and a toddler sit on adjacent armchairs, both facing the camera but heads turned to meet each other's gaze easily yet unsmilingly -- as only people very comfortable with each other might

Still, the familiarity in Si Dios Quiere can feel fetishized. There is nothing remarkable about the opened refrigerator, or the half-curtained view out a window, except that we know that it resonates for the artist, and that it happens to hang in a gallery. I was especially nonplussed by a shot of a disturbance in the nap of the carpeting, like something you'd notice during a dull moment in a family gathering. I doubt that was the artist's intent, but it emphasize a weakness in a generally solid show.

Meanwhile, I found more interest in a couple of the sequences of honorable-mention work playing on a flat-screen TV in the gallery. That's how Silver Eye generously exhibits the 10 honorable-mention artists' work.

If you're intrigued by a particular artists' work, it's a little inconvenient to wait through nine other artists' work for it to roll around again. But it's well worth the trouble in a few cases, in particular, Maureen Drennan's "Meet Me in the Green Glen."

The Brooklyn-based photographer documented the life of a pot farmer in California; her artists statement suggests that "Ben" and his associates live on the edge of the law and beyond the pale of social respectability. Drennan is working at a very high level of photojournalism here. Drennan deftly evokes the natural beauty of the rural surroundings with a powerful sense of socioeconomic insight, intimations of isolation, and clear-eyed character study. The subject matter and the intimacy she achieves, along with the curation of this imagery, should knock your socks off. 

Through Sat., March 20, Silver Eye also has a couple worthy smaller exhibits in its New Works gallery. Be sure espeically to catch Angela Buenning Filo's vivid, analytical images of rapidly changing urban India (like barefoot laboreres laying fiber optic cable).


Monday, March 15, 2010

Posted By on Mon, Mar 15, 2010 at 5:59 PM

Darling party people: it is Monday and that means a new MP3 courtesy generous local bands and the occasionally hard-working CP music section. This week brings us a track from Big Hurry, a poppy rock band that released its first EP last year.

Their next show is Friday, March 26 at Brillobox with another poppy local that's won me over for sure, Satin Gum. Gordy G., of Vipers/Title Town fame, spins.

Without further ado, download and enjoy "Paper Trails!"

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Posted By on Mon, Mar 15, 2010 at 3:05 PM

In the space of a little more than a year, Kevin Acklin will have gone from Republican stalwart, to independent mayoral candidate, to Democratic committee member.

As reported here late last week, while the upcoming May primary will be dominated by races for Senate and governor, there's plenty of action on the undercard as well. In the South Hills, for example, former city council candidate Anthony Coghill is using elections for the Democratic Party committee to challenge political heavyweight Pete Wagner.

And there's another familiar face running for a committee spot out in the 14th ward's 21st district: Acklin's.

Newly minted as a Democrat, Acklin is seeking to represent his Squirrel Hill neighborhood on the Democratic Party's county committee. And he's facing much better odds than he did running as an independent for mayor last November: This time around, Acklin is the only guy on the ballot.  

"I've finally found a race I can win," he jokes. 

Acklin, who shifted from the GOP to independent this time last year, registered as a Democrat in January. So did his wife -- which, as Acklin notes, translated into "one fewer signature I had to get for my nominating petition." 

Acklin says his party change reflects a mix of pragamatism and political philosophy. Echoing critiques he made in 2009, he says that he's found himself increasingly at odds with the GOP -- largely because of its hardline position on social issues like equality for LGBT citizens. And he's found Democrats to be more accepting.

"One thing I've learned -- and I didn't fully realize this before -- is that the Democratic Party in Pittsburgh is not monolithic," Acklin says. "It's much more diverse than the Republican Party. And locally, the Republicans have given up on the city anyway. To the extent that I want to create change in the city, it's about taking hold and getting involved in the local Democratic Party -- and there are already people in the party trying to do that work." 

Acklin was recruited to the Dems by 14th Ward chair Barbara Daly Danko. ("I let Kevin know he would be welcome, and I gave him a safe place to land," she says.) And he cites East End progressives like Bill Peduto as examples of serious reformers. "I talked to a lot of people about this," he says.

But as a committeeperson, he hopes to reach beyond the usual suspects. "I'm surprised by how little the various committees talk to each other," he says. "When I was running citywide, I found a lot of people in the South Hills who had the same kind of concerns of people in Squirrel Hill." And changing the city, he says, "means not just being content with having a councilman or two from the East End."

On a personal level, he adds, changing to a Democrat means that "in some way, I'm going back to my family roots." A city native whose relatives have served as city firefighters, Acklin grew up in a Democratic household. And whether it's at family gatherings or political functions, "I don't have to be the guy in the room with the asterisk by his name any more." 

Is this a step toward a future run for office? Well ... maybe. Acklin says that he might run again someday, but for now, "I really don't have any current plans. I'm back making money" -- Acklin recently returned to private practice as a lawyer -- "which is something my wife and family are very happy about."

There's one race he says he won't run for. Although Acklin lives on the periphery of Doug Shields' city council district, Acklin says he will not be running for the seat should Shields step down.

Shields, who relinquished the city council presidency at the end of last year, is widely rumored to be planning such a move, in order to run for a magistrate district judge seat. It's also widely believed that Corey O'Connor -- son of the late and lamented mayor -- is interested in that seat. Acklin appears to be content to let him have it.

"To run for office, you have to dig a well, metaphorically speaking," he says. "And after my run for mayor, my well is pretty dry." 


Posted By on Mon, Mar 15, 2010 at 1:10 PM

Once you've caught a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the circus, you never see it quite the same way again. And once you know someone in the circus, you see it a lot more often. 

Prior to writing CP's Nov. 2008 cover story, "The Greatest Job on Earth? Pittsburgh Musicians Jeremy Papay and Steve Palko Join the Circus," I'd seen the Ringling circus just once in my adult life. But after covering the "Gold Tour" show in Erie, Pa., I later caught the big three-ring production at Mellon Arena; last week, I took a roadtrip to Knoxville, Tenn., and saw the Gold Tour again -- the same touring company I'd initially written about, still featuring its Pittsburgh-native rhythm section of Papay (drums) and Palko (bass).

Every two years, the shows are overhauled, with new acts (some from the other Ringling touring companies) and a new theme or story -- the new Gold Tour show is called Illuscination, and features magic tricks and illusions. The show also has a new musical score. While the last show had some more lyrical moments, this one is pretty hard-driving throughout, and thus a good showcase for technical skills of Papay and Palko.

Visit the Ringling Bros. Web site for more information, including upcoming show dates.

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Saturday, March 13, 2010

Posted By on Sat, Mar 13, 2010 at 7:25 PM

Opera isn't a genre we often turn to for something new. Aside from the occasional new work at the Pittsburgh Opera (like 2008's The Grapes of Wrath), we're mostly talking about work from the 1800s and earlier. Which is swell, especially with the wealth of talent on display in these parts, also through the likes of the Opera Theater of Pittsburgh and Undercroft Opera.

But this fledgling venture, created to showcase the shorter, contemporary "chamber opera" works seldom performed around here, does bring something new, and it's hit the ground running. With fine productions of the one-acts "The Proposal" and "To Hell and Back" at Lawrenceville's little Grey Box Theatre, Microscopic Opera announces itself as an important player.

Milton Granger's "Proposal" is a comic work in which a woman who's just been proposed to calls a meeting of her "board" – the various aspects of her personality, from 5-year-old to security guard to Sensuous Woman, each sung by a different performer. "To Hell and Back," by Jake Heggie (who composed the Dead Man Walking opera that Pittsburgh Opera staged several years back) is a harrowing piece for two singers. One is a battered woman; the other is the mother of her husband, the man who's doing the battering.

Intimacy is the watchword for Microscopic. And indeed, there's no getting away from the grand piano sitting 10 feet behind your ears, especially when pianist William Larson pounds out Heggie's thunderous score. (A few dissonant chords shocked some listeners right out of their seats.) And Carissa Kett and Erica Olden, as mother-in-law and daughter, filled the room with their powerful voices. They were singers, moreover, who could act, too, making for an especially potent performance.

Olden is a Microscopic co-founder, along with Andres Cladera, the troupe's musical director as well as the artistic director of the Renaissance City Women's and Men's choirs. And of course the cast reflected a fair amount of overlap with the local opera community at large: Undercroft opera founding and artistic director Mary Beth Sederburg, for instance, sang Sensuous Woman in "Proposal."

The only drawback to the March 12 performance I saw was sight lines. Grey Box's lack of either a raised stage or riser seating meant that if you were in the third or fourth row (out of four), you probably couldn't see any action that took place on the floor (which was more than you might imagine). And if you sat, as I did, behind someone 6'4", it was effectively obstructed-view seating.

But Microscopic's inaugural production shouldn't be missed. There are two more perfromances, at 8 p.m. Sat., March 13, and 7 p.m. Sun., March 14. ( 


Friday, March 12, 2010

Posted By on Fri, Mar 12, 2010 at 6:09 PM

A little more than a year after its Pittsburgh show, experimental orchestra HiTEC -- short for "The Histrionic Thought Experiment Cooperative" -- will perform again, and likely for the last time. Just don't expect a reprise of what you experienced before: the event is described as an "uncert" or "uncertainty concert." The project is the brainchild of Pittsburgh-based artist tENTATIVELY, a CONVENIENCE.

Just exactly what it is and how it works takes a bit of explaining -- fortunately, Manny Theiner did just that in a feature story about HiTEC's 2009 performance. Footage from that show, at The New Hazlett Theater, can be seen here.

The performance will take place at 8 p.m., Sat., March 13 at Carnegie Mellon University's Kresge Hall. The suggested donation is $6 (CMU students free).


Posted By on Fri, Mar 12, 2010 at 5:48 PM

Anthony Coghill is back. And this time it's personal. 

There is a political maelstrom developing in the city's 19th Ward, the sprawling South Hills district that has long been the preserve of the noted Wagner family. And Anthony Coghill -- whose break with the Wagners helped define last year's city council district 4 race -- is hoping to ride the storm.

As we've noted previously, in addition to races for US Senate and governor, this year's May primary offers Democratic voters a chance to vote for new party committee members. Committee members determine which candidates will be endorsed by the party -- an especially important function in special elections. Typically, though, the committee races attract little interest.

It's a different story in Ward 19.

The 19th Ward has 38 districts, and every district is represented in the party appartus by a male and female member. Of the 76 spots up for grabs in Ward 19 this May, 48 are being contested. 

That's a lot. I mean, a lot.

"Every so often, you'll see some challengers here or there," says Jim Burn, who chairs the county Democratic Party. "But in all my years of doing this, I've never seen anything like this." 

By way of comparison, the last time these committee seats were up for grabs, I count only 5 committee races in the 19th Ward where there was actual competition.

But that was in 2006 -- before Anthony Coghill got pissed off.

Coghill is a lifelong resident of Beechview, the heart of Ward 19. You may also remember that Coghill was a former ally of the 19th ward chair, Pete Wagner. (Wagner's brother, of course, is the state Auditor General and is a gubernatorial candidate. Pete Wagner's daughter, Chelsa Wagner, is a state Representative.) But when Coghill ran for City council last year, Wagner lined up behind Patrick Reilly, a staffer in Chelsa Wagner's office, instead. And things got really ugly during the endorsement vote, when a ballot was cast by a woman pretending to be a committee member who didn't show.

A judge tossed out the vote, but upheld the final result -- in which the party gave its nod to Reilly -- because the margin was larger than 1 vote. (Pete Wagner was named in the lawsuit Coghill filed, but a judge dropped him from it, since no wrongdoing on his part was ever alleged, much less proven.) But both Coghill and Reilly ended up losers at the polls. The winner was Natalia Rudiak -- in no small part because Ward 19's votes were split between Reilly and Coghill

But now Coghill is back for round 2.

Coghill says that "for the past two or three months," he's been recruiting candidates to run against incumbents -- many of whom he faults for being Wagner loyalists. "A lot of these people have never faced a challenge," he says of the current committeefolk. "We're fielding a very strong group of candidates. Some are friends and family; others are strangers that were referred to me."

When he found interested candidates, Coghill says, he gave them packets of information, including street lists of the voters in each voting precinct, eligibility requirements, and sample petitions. If  enough friendly committee members get elected this May, Coghill could earn their votes and be chosen ward chair. If that happens, he'll have toppled one of the most prominent political names in the city. 

"If you would have told me five years ago that I'd be running for ward chair, I'd say you were nuts," Coghill says. "I had no interest. But after what happened to me? I spent $1,500 to apply for the endorsement. And you saw what happened."

What kind of changes would Coghill bring about as ward chair? For one thing, he says, the fiasco that marred last year's endorsement would never happen on his watch. "It's about leadership," he says.  But are there bylaws he would change, or party reforms he would support? "I'd have to look at that," he says. But ousting Wagner "would be a good start" to reforming the party, he adds. 

The 19th Ward "is their house" he says of the Wagners. "It's everything to them." 

I have a call in to Pete Wagner to get his response to all this. Should he respond, I'll be posting that as well, with a link here.

Is some of this about political payback? You bet. But Coghill maintains that there are broader reasons for discontent. The Wagners have been around a long time, he says, "But look at Beechview. Has it been getting any better? How many years do you need to really make an improvement?" 

There will inevitably be speculation about the politics here. Coghill is tied to state Sen. Wayne Fontana, a Wagner foe, and his council campaign was backed by Mayor Luke Ravenstahl. As Coghill acknowledges, "People wonder who is behind this. But it's really just me."

Nor, he says, is he trying to set the stage for another shot at city council. "I don't have any political ambition at this point other than to be the ward chair -- and to right a wrong." 

You'll note the language "at this point." Could Coghill imagine running for Natalia Rudiak's seat at some point in the future? "I never rule anything out," he says. "But I gotta tell you that this is where my focus is. [Rudiak] is a nice person; I'm confident she's smart, and I hope she'll do a good job."

What does Burn, the county chair, make of all this? "It was a mystery to me why there was all this activity in Ward 19," he says. "But if Anthony has stepped up and taken credit, that answers a lot of questions right there. I've heard rumors." And, he says, "If this is an organized approach -- as it appears to be -- it is an incredibly well-coordinated effort." 

Coghill allows that he can't take credit for all the challengers in Ward 19 -- just a lot of them. And he acknowledges that not all the incumbents are Wagner loyalists. "There are a handful of good ones," he says.

For Burn, what's most important is "the issues that are going to emerge in the days ahead. For as much effort as is being put into this, it has to be about more than last year's city council race. So I'll be listening to hear what sort of platform emerges." In the meantime, he says, "You do want people to get involved and engaged in the party committee." 

Ironically enough, in fact, one of the Ward 19 incumbents being challenged this May -- by Coghill's campaign treasurer in 2009 -- is Erin Molchany, the director of the Pittsburgh Urban Magnet Project. Among PUMP's latest initiatives? Getting more people to run for party committee slots