Reviews | BLOGH: City Paper's Blog |
Friday, August 12, 2016

Posted By on Fri, Aug 12, 2016 at 10:59 AM

click to enlarge The cast of "Driftless" includes Trevor Butler (front) and at rear, from left, Siovhan Christensen, Alec Silberblatt, Tammy Tsai and Ken Bolden. - PHOTO COURTESY OF HATCH ARTS COLLECTIVE
Photo courtesy of Hatch Arts Collective
The cast of "Driftless" includes Trevor Butler (front) and at rear, from left, Siovhan Christensen, Alec Silberblatt, Tammy Tsai and Ken Bolden.

Performance troupe Hatch Arts Collective’s biggest show yet is an artistically ambitious take on the hot-button topic of fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas is practiced nationally, but Driftless is set mostly in Southwestern Pennsylvania, where drilling in the Marcellus Shale helped set off the fracking boom.

The two-act drama, which opened last night, uses fracking as a backdrop to the human story of one family –- though, much like horizontal drills break up rock for the gas inside, the reality of fracking keeps breaking through the narrative, imposing its own realities.

Driftless, written by Hatch co-founder Paul Kruse, is a curious mix of issue play, kitchen-sink drama and some highly theatrical experimental elements. Rare in contemporary plays, there’s also an earnest Catholicism, personified by the young priest, Father Peter (Trevor Butler).

Collin Howard (played by Alec Silverblatt) is a young man who works in the gas industry, and the job interrupts his home life by frequently taking him on the road. His wife, Sierra (Siovhan Christensen), comes to believe that their well water is contaminated by nearby drilling operations, and might be implicated in a recent family tragedy. Her parents are played by Ken Bolden and Tammy Tsai, double-cast as a sort of saints’ chorus of St. Peter and St. Barbara (the latter the patron saint of miners.)

The show’s two main sets are, literally, kitchens –- one in Collin and Sierra’s house, the other in the home of Peter’s father, in Minnesota. The latter setting is used to explore the little-discussed but highly destructive practice of mining for the sand used in fracking wells.

Like a recent novel set in Pennsylvania frack country, Jennifer Haigh’s excellent Heat & Light, Driftless gives voice to different perspectives on fracking, from its economic impacts to the environmental damage it causes; it also draws links between addiction in people and society’s addiction to fossil fuels.

That’s a lot for one play, but Driftless, directed by Adil Mansoor, is well-acted and memorably staged. (Though the volume on the sound design, which threatened to drown out the actors at some points, could use adjusting.)

Driftless has three more performances, at 8 p.m. tonight and tomorrow night and a Sunday matinee.
Tickets are $15-20 and are available here.

Hatch, whose mission includes promoting environmental justice, is hosting environmental groups pre- and post-show in the New Hazlett’s lobby. Groups giving brief talks last night were the Center for Coalfield Justice and Moms Clean Air Force.

The lobby also showcases artwork on fracking. Especially powerful were a series of photos by Mandy L. Kendall that captured the way gas flares from drilling rigs bathe rural Pennsylvania in light at night, further industrializing the countryside.

The New Hazlett Theater is located at 6 Allegheny Square East, on the North Side. 

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Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Posted By on Wed, Aug 3, 2016 at 4:50 AM

click to enlarge Rhyton - COURTESY OF JAPETH MENNES
Courtesy of Japeth Mennes
Rhyton

Despite Rhyton’s roots in New York’s noisy experimental underground, the band’s fourth offering, Redshift, is an eminently listenable affair. On it, the Brooklyn-based three-piece — comprised of Stygian Stride’s Jimy SeiTang, the No-Neck Blues Band’s Rob Shuford and Pigeons’ Rob Smith — pay tribute to a wide range of influences, from Free Jazz to Joe Walsh, whose “Turn to Stone” they cover. 

The eight freewheeling jams that result are sonically pleasing at first blush, but it is in repetition that the album’s technical riches are revealed in the form of ambitious timing, thoughtful lyrics and studio wizardry that weaves rootsy twang of the most organic variety with synthetic sound effects. The album’s title track is a good example of this: it's a playful intergalactic country number that calls to mind the lysergic spaciness of early Meat Puppets and the furtive paranoia of sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick in equal measure; and it clocks in at just under nine minutes.

Listeners can glean as much or as little as they choose from Redshift to equal enjoyment. There are plenty of moving parts to contemplate. That the band achieves expansiveness by employing such measured phrases is remarkable, especially without dulling the members' technical proficiencies or resorting to prog-rock condescension.

‘Redshift’ refers to the astronomical phenomenon of “displacement of spectral lines toward longer wavelengths often used to measure the otherwise immeasurable.” It’s a high-minded conceit, but, on Redshift, Rhyton illuminates the sacred by couching it in the profane terms of rock music.

RHYTON with SAGAS, LANDMARK TONGUES. 8 p.m., Sun. Aug. 7. Brillbox, 4104 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. $7. 421-621-4900 or www.brillobox.net

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Thursday, July 7, 2016

Posted By on Thu, Jul 7, 2016 at 12:13 PM

Two notable Pittsburgh performers successfully tackled a pair of one-person plays by Samuel Beckett.
The two-part T.A.C.T. production features Daina Michelle Griffith in “Not I” (1972) and Martin Giles in Krapp’s Last Tape (1958). Both rise to the challenge of these storied, difficult roles for a compelling evening of theater by a company in its second season.

click to enlarge Martin Giles and Daina Michelle Griffith
Martin Giles and Daina Michelle Griffith
“Not I” is a rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness monologue by an elderly woman who, abandoned as a child, has been “speechless all her days, practically speechless,” and speaks only in bursts “once or twice a year, always winter, some strange reason.” It lasts 15 minutes with only a few short pauses, a distinctly Beckettian chronicle of personal trauma and obsessive self-awareness.

Usually, “Not I” is presented by an actress raised above the stage, her mouth spot-lit, with a second, silent performer behind. However director Connor Bahr (also T.A.C.T.’s founder) presents Griffith’s mouth in extreme close-up via projected video and live video feed. It’s a curious choice, but an effective way to make us focus on Griffith’s powerful vocalization of a legendarily difficult part.

The bulk of the evening, however, is Giles’, and Krapp’s Last Tape is at first as silent as “Not I” is voluble: The protagonist, an elderly disheveled man, doesn’t speak for the hour-plus play’s first 20 minutes (unless you count gasps and sighs). Instead, he stares at the audience, fumbles in his pockets and searches through the drawers of his desk. He peels two bananas, eats one, slips on the first peel. (Fans of Beckett’s vaudeville overtones, in plays like Waiting for Godot, will find a good deal to like in Krapp.)

But most of the play is Krapp listening to, and commenting on, a recollection: himself, on a reel-to-reel tape he recorded decades earlier, on his 39th birthday, when his younger self reminisced about his life, mostly about hopeful, deeply felt moments with young women that never turned into anything more.

Regret, remorse and other bitter emotions intertwine beautifully with wistfulness in the performance by Giles, long one of Pittsburgh’s top talents as an actor, director and playwright. Bahr directs.

Three performances remain of “Not I” and Krapp’s Last Tape, tonight through Saturday.

Tickets are $10-20 and are available here.

The New Hazlett Theater is located at 6 Allegheny Square East, on the North Side.



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Thursday, June 23, 2016

Posted By on Thu, Jun 23, 2016 at 3:20 PM

I’ve said it a million times and I’ll say it a million more. Women are the lifeblood of pop punk and punk music. As the line began to wrap around the block on which Altar Bar sits, I passed a wide mix of people, but it had to be noted that so many excited showgoers were women in groups with their friends, laughing and goofing off.

For those not well-versed in the politics of the pop punk and emo scene, it can be quite trying to be a woman who loves these genres of music. In her essay about emo, “Where the Girls Aren’t”, music critic Jessica Hopper points out that emo can alienate the very fan base that keeps it afloat, and that formula translates directly to pop punk.

While women comprise a great deal of the source material for these artists, it can be somewhat difficult to find women and queer musicians making pop punk, and while many women support music by going to shows, dude-dominated spaces can feel unsafe and are unfortunately rife with harassment.

It’s reasons like these that Modern Baseball created a hotline for this particular tour and why Barry Johnson, vocalist and guitarist of Joyce Manor, notably stood up against hypermasculinity by calling out a stage diver for being too aggressive with other concert attendees. 
click to enlarge Modern Baseball - COURTESY OF JESSICA FLYNN
Courtesy of Jessica Flynn
Modern Baseball

At Wednesday's show, Vocalist Chrissy Tashjian of tour opener Thin Lips kicked off their set by dedicating a song to the women in the crowd, later reminding everyone of the gender neutral bathroom open for the show and calling for allies to “step up and be homies” in the wake of the Pulse shooting. As someone who spent their young life playing pop punk and feeling isolated for being both a woman and queer human, it was moving to hear so much emphasis and celebration for those like myself at the show.

On the musical side, Thin Lips set the tone for the evening with their unique brand of pop punk, a mixture of earworm vocal melodies and gnarly riffage. It’s the mix of upbeat punk with moments of darkness and edge that showcase just why Thin Lips is certainly a band to keep your eye on.

Showcasing a great deal from their latest effort, Riff Hard, they held it down with a Mixtapes-y musical leanings (read: not quite pop punk but too saccharine at moments to be straight punk) and That Dog levels of catchiness. It’s like a magical concoction of lots of good things that have happened in punk times past to create something entirely new and enticing.

The second act of the night was Joyce Manor, who was playing its first show in Pittsburgh. Johnson addressed the crowd during the set saying, “Sorry it took us three records to get here.” I’m sure the band had to be aware of their popularity in the ‘Burgh, as some locals had created a “Joyce Manor skips Pittsburgh again!!” event page during its Never Hungover Again support tour.

The crowd definitely didn’t hold it against the band. From the moment that it tore into “Heart Tattoo,” the floor of the venue was literally bowing and bouncing under the pressure of a sold-out crowd getting off its feet.

JM may be a noisy punk band with pop elements, but don’t be fooled by the punk image and distortion pedals; this band is musically tight and incredibly cohesive. The group’s Bassist Matt Ebert fills out the sound so well with the high-end vocals, and the dual riffing, as showcased on songs like “Schley,” comes across magnificently live.

The band members perform most songs a little bit or much faster than the recording, which kept the crowd surging and buzzing as they shouted along. The full band version of “Drainage” was hauntingly heart shattering, leaving me with goosebumps. There were moments in which the crowd almost overpowered the vocals, a sea of emotionally-charged fans crying out “Everything reminds me of you,” during “Beach Community” and belting the final verse in “Constant Headache” with awe inspiring fervor. The set was well worth the three-record wait.

Another magnificent characteristic of pop punk that Joyce Manor and Modern Baseball shows reveal is the ability for this kind of music to dismantle unfeeling machismo in favor of emotionally raw and honest lyrics about having feelings. Folks all the way across the gender spectrum were blatantly moved by Joyce Manor’s set, openly crying as they sang along.

And if Joyce Manor has the power to move people to tears, Modern Baseball has the power to make people let down their walls and be an honest version of themselves. “Holy crap!” Brendan Lukens charmingly exclaimed early in the set, shocked at the passion of the crowd. People were so consumed in the music and singing along to concern themselves with looking cool.

Modern Baseball’s live show has bit of a messier feel, but it suits the style of the music well. It isn’t sloppy, but it reminds you that you’re experiencing live music and not something that has been recorded and re-recorded over and over. Lukens mic definitely could have been louder, but the harmonies still cut through clear and full, soaring over the jangling, infectious riffage.

MoBo’s music is intimate and confessional, and the crowd responded with a raw energy and sincerity. The floor continued to bow, surging back and forth as MoBo barreled through newer tracks from Holy Ghost like “Wedding Singer” and older hits like “Fine, Great,” “The Weekend” and “Rock Bottom.” The set ended with “Your Graduation,” pulling the crowd to operate as one giant wave of passion.

While the pop punk community as a whole definitely has some shit to sort out, Thin Lips, Joyce Manor and Modern Baseball are proving that pop punk is still electric, and pop punk that is genuinely inclusive is invincible. 10/10, would catch this gig again.



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Posted By on Thu, Jun 23, 2016 at 1:08 PM

click to enlarge A scene from "Toruk" - PHOTO COURTESY OF ERRISSON LAWRENCE. COSTUMES BY KYM BARRETT © 2015 CIRQUE DU SOLEIL
Photo courtesy of Errisson Lawrence. Costumes by Kym Barrett © 2015 Cirque du Soleil
A scene from "Toruk"

Toruk: The First Flight, the latest nationally touring show from superstar troupe Cirque du Soleil, runs into problems similar to those that plagued its inspiration, James Cameron’s 2009 film epic Avatar.

Making its Pittsburgh premiere at Consol Energy Center, Toruk focuses on two young warriors among the Na’vi, the blue humanoids famous from the film, who are tasked with collecting five talismans in an attempt to attract Toruk, a giant menacing bird, to save the sacred Tree of Souls from destruction. The plot seems lifted from a hundred platformer video games but gives ample opportunity for the heroes and the clans they encounter to perform feats of acrobatic strength, particularly on ropes and vines. 

Like the film, Toruk is visually stunning, the set transforming again and again through the use of projections, plant life emerging and disappearing through the floor, and elaborate alien puppets. However, also like Avatar, one couldn’t help but notice some serious clichés: the coming-of-age ceremony; the beating of a huge drum as the Na’vi play; the powerfully intoning shaman (played with intensity by Priscillia Le Foll); a pseudo-pantheistic religion; and a soundtrack seemingly lifted from Survivor.

If this were about a native 
culture in the real world, Toruk would come off as disturbingly exploitative. But set this story on a different planet with blue people and voila! — no cultural appropriation.

Plotting and thematic issues aside, the acrobatics shine, and Giulia Piolanti, who plays Na’vi princess Tsyal, makes the aerial silks look effortless. All in all, Avatar may have been a no-brainer for Cirque du Soleil on paper, but after Toruk, a back-to-basics approach might not be so bad.

Toruk continues for six more performances this week, ending with a 5 p.m. performance on Sun., June 26. Tickets range from $38 to $130. To purchase tickets, call 800-745-3000 or visit www.cirquedusoleil.com/toruk.

Consol Energy Center is at 1001 Fifth Ave., Downtown.


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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Posted By on Wed, Jun 8, 2016 at 1:18 PM

Before doors opened, a line of eager fans had already assembled, the line stretching across the street that Mr. Smalls Theatre sits on. I usually find it a little bit tacky when people wear their band merch to the band’s gig, but the sheer number of people wearing Hatebreed gear made it alarmingly endearing. I overheard a showgoer talk about how he had seen Hatebreed six times in three different countries and two different continents, and I knew I was in the company of real fans.

And for as much as Pittsburgh fans love Hatebreed, Hatebreed certainly has love for Pittsburgh. The band was even selling shirts that read, “I survived the Hatebreed pit in Pittsburgh.”

Before fans had the chance to see Hatebreed, California metal bands Act of Defiance and DevilDriver opened the show. Act of Defiance had more of a heavier rock feel, and the ‘80s metal influence was evident, which makes sense, as half of Act of Defiance are ex- Megadeth members.
I was really loving their #longhairdontcare looks and the earnest desire to hype up the audience. (Could have done without the itchy amount of attention being paid to the two cute underage girls in the front, but that’s just me.) People went bonkers for the cover of Pantera’s “I’m Broken,” and a good percentage of the crowd was acquainted enough with the music to circle headbang and shout along.
click to enlarge PHOTO BY MEG FAIR
Photo by Meg Fair


After a long set-up time, DevilDriver took to the stage. The melodic heavy metal band was greeted with enthusiasm by the crowd, and it was clear they had fans in the house. There were lots of fists pumping in the air and shouting “Hey!” in unison, and some of the first crowd surfers of the night began to emerge.

The set started off a little stiff, but DevilDriver was fully loose and in the crowd’s face by the end of the set. While I have to admit that DevilDriver doesn’t write my favorite kind of metal, it definitely had chops and played a tight set.

As DevilDriver exited the stage, more people moved from the 21+ section and crowded into the all ages pit area. The giant Concrete Confessional scrims were hoisted and techs raced back and forth checking all the mics and guitars.

A notable number of attendees were pairs of fathers and sons, these fathers eager to share the energy and messages of Hatebreed with their kids. As Hatebreed’s techs sound-checked, a father leaned over to his son and excitedly asked, “Can you feel that in your chest?!” My heart low-key imploded.

The band kicked off their hour-long set with “Destroy Everything,” and the crowd was on its feet. While this tour is to promote The Concrete Confessional, its latest release, Hatebreed made a point to play a song off of every single record, including its first EP.

For those not acquainted with Hatebreed, the lyrics, while tough, are generally empowering or encouraging. It’s a band with All-American values—patriotism, determination and a desire to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

Throughout the set, vocalist Jamey Jasta spent time in between songs alternating between calling for pits and encouraging everyone to look out for each other. Jasta spoke about perseverance, honoring military men and women (before “Honor Never Dies”) and the importance of respect, honor and dedication, three character traits that all the fans happen to apply to Hatebreed itself. 
click to enlarge PHOTO BY MEG FAIR
Photo by Meg Fair

With over two decades of musical performance, seven studio records and rigorous tour history, it’s no surprise that the band plays an incredibly tight set. Hatebreed showed off its talent for blistering, heavy hardcore with newer tracks like “Looking Down the Barrel of Today” and “Something’s Off,” and they cemented their ability to create crowd engagement with oldie-but-goodie closer “I Will Be Heard.”

After a gig like that, I often wonder if the bands tour with a chiropractor to accommodate for all the circle headbanging and jumping around. I also wonder if Hatebreed knows it's the world’s heaviest band.

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Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Posted By on Wed, Jun 1, 2016 at 12:38 PM

click to enlarge Beyonce performs during the Formation World Tour at Heinz Field on Tue., May 31 - PHOTO COURTESY OF DANIELA VESCO/PARKWOOD ENTERTAINMENT
Photo courtesy of Daniela Vesco/Parkwood Entertainment
Beyonce performs during the Formation World Tour at Heinz Field on Tue., May 31

The buzz of excitement in the air was tangible as swarms of Beyoncé fans, lovingly named the Beyhive, descended upon Heinz Field. Her powerful presence had attendees dressed up and ready to slay, and they came ready to give it all for Bey. A young lady screamed, “I’d die for Beyoncé!” as she trucked it across a busy Reedsdale St. in an attempt to reach the field seating gate. Same, girl.

Before the main event came producer and DJ Jermaine Dupri, who formed and produced the hip hop duo Kriss Kross and has worked with artists such as Usher and Mariah Carey. Unlisted on the bill, it appeared most people were unsure what to make of him at first.

Dupri mixed hype tracks like Wiz Khalifa’s “We Dem Boyz” as well as “Panda” by Desiigner and encouraged the crowd to get up and dance so they would be warmed up for Beyoncé. Although most of the crowd was hesitant to get involved, by the end of his set people were having fun and dancing. But frankly it was more entertaining to watch the crowd dance than watch Dupri perform.

While Jermaine Dupri is a great producer, his live performance was quite predictable and didn’t challenge the crowd, but I’m not sure it was even supposed to. Most people sitting around me were just pleading for Beyoncé, and he ended his set with a remix of a Jay-Z song. While Queen B may have forgiven Jay for his alleged betrayals, I certainly have not, so I felt it very inappropriate to bring up his disloyal face in the sanctuary that is a Beyoncé concert. 

As the sun set, the visual elements of Beyoncé’s tour rig came to life. The enormous cube dominating the center of the main stage began to glow and before I knew it, it burst into life with the first of many sublime video elements of the tour, some of which were interspersed with clips from Lemonade. As soon as the first notes of “Formation” began, the entire crowd was on its feet and screaming for their ruler.

From the moment she hit the stage, Queen B’s fierce strength and honesty was on display. The concert was a celebration of self-love, unapologetic confidence and forgiveness (yuck!). Bey may have used some of the stage time to talk about forgiveness and moving forward, but she also led into “Me, Myself and I” by declaring the most important relationship in your life is the one you keep with yourself, to which me and the women around me roared with approval. 

Her most honest and vulnerable moments were the most special. Each chuckle and crowd interaction was tender and loving. She consoled an emotional fan, squeezed hands with those stage-side, offered the microphone to singing fans and consistently reminded the showgoers how special they were. Imagine, the baddest, most powerful woman in pop telling a crowd of adoring fans that they were the special ones. During a simplified rendition of “Love On Top,” Beyoncé stopped singing and teared up as the entire crowd carried the tune for her.

While Bey is a powerhouse on her own, but her team absolutely makes the show as stunning as it is. Throughout the performance were well-placed moments intended to showcase her mind-boggling backing band, The Sugar Mamas. The drum solo after “Pop My Trunk” displayed some seriously insane gospel chops, and the ripping guitar solo that riffed off of the sample in Kanye’s “New Slaves” that led into “Don’t Hurt Yourself” was, in a word, awesome.

If stunning musicianship and Bey’s perfect pipes weren’t enough, the choreography was sharp, visually enthralling and perfectly executed. Her dance troupe was not meant to be a background bonus. They felt like Beyoncé’s squad, a group of individuals with captivating personalities there to remind the crowd that powerful women travel in packs.

Nearing the end of the show, the martial drums of “Freedom” rolled out as she and her dance troupe marched out to a shallow pool of water at the end of the stage. The anthemic track burst to life as the dancers splashed, and the song climaxed with the troupe and Beyoncé shouting “God” into the air.

It felt like a baptism, each member of the crowd being initiated into a church of powerful womanhood and defiance. The segue into “Survivor,” a Destiny’s Child track, was accompanied by dancers throwing their fists in the air, an important reminder that her art is just as much about Black Power as it is about the power of women.

I had peeked at the set list ahead of time to see what to expect, and when I saw “Halo” was listed as the last song I was skeptical. I’m not much of a ballad fan, and it seemed weird to end with a love ballad when she’s touring on a record about her husband’s infidelity. I was pleasantly surprised, however, and a little embarrassed to find myself getting emotional as Mother Beyoncé reminded the crowd that the ability to love someone else is an amazing gift.

The juxtaposition of powerful images, like Beyoncé as a Pharaoh in the same show as a montage of intimate family videos displaying Bey’s motherhood and marriage, revealed the multi-faceted aspects of womanhood. While some debate the substance of her feminism, this particular performance revealed that Beyonce is doing a great deal to force people to reconcile the fact that women can run empires and blow stadiums away and also be loving wives and mothers at the same time, not to mention retain sexuality as a powerful element of your identity.

On the Formation World Tour, Beyoncé proves in a matter of hours that you can work hard, be a loving mother, a sexual creature and a fulfilled human being as long as you love yourself first and foremost. I was thoroughly slayed.

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Monday, May 16, 2016

Posted By on Mon, May 16, 2016 at 9:45 AM

The whole evening leading up to The Avett Brothers’ performance, an ominous figure underneath a large sheet sat the length of the stage. Before the bluegrass punk-rock band appeared, their roadies slowly rolled off the giant sheet to reveal the band’s entire concert setup.

People then saw what instruments were involved, but they may not have seen what was coming.
The Avett Brothers opened the night of May 12 at Stage AE with kazoos in their mouths, playing a foot-stomping, four-on-the-floor version of “The D Bag Rag.” They followed that up with “Head Full Of Doubt/Road Full Of Promise” from their hit album I And Love And You. All of the members, especially the brothers Seth and Scott Avett, looked like football players getting pumped up for a game, or like children with too much energy.

Throughout the night, Seth and Scott switched between acoustic and electric guitar, piano and banjo. At one point, Seth jumped on the mic and handed Scott the tambourine he had been playing; for a second, Scott pretended like he didn’t know what to do with it, only to start banging on it while he jumped on the other mic. The brothers weren’t the only energetic, instrument-sharing folks on stage though. The cellist, Joe Kwon, and the fiddler, Tania Elizabeth, also bounced around. During one song, each played the others’ instrument with their own bows.

The audience also joined in and acted as the “sixth man” of the night. The pit crowd took over the first verse of “Live And Die” as the brothers stepped in front of their mics to sing along. During “Morning Song,” they initiated a call and response with the crowd, singing, “I have to find that melody alone.”

“Don't sing if you don't want to," Scott yelled as he walked across the stage.

At points, the band would show its rock side, like during “Vanity” when they went off on a well-planned, Queen-like tangent of an instrumental break. Other times, they’d uncover a bit of rap skills, like in the song “Talk On Indolence,” which includes some killer bars that both Scott and Seth laid down. “I didn’t know they could rap!” yelled one man in the audience.

The last song of the band’s pre-encore setlist was, not surprisingly, “I And Love And You.” When Scott sang, “Three words that became hard to say,” he lifted up his hand making an “OK” sign, three fingers in the air. The crowd instantly followed his lead. As he sang, “I,” “love,” and “you,” every hand lowered one finger at a time.

The Avett Brothers are performers who dare to mix musical genres, but in the smoothest way possible. Pinning them down into one box or another is not something listeners can do.

They’re kind of like a mysterious figure beneath a large sheet.


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Thursday, May 12, 2016

Posted By on Thu, May 12, 2016 at 4:19 PM

Much has been made recently of Ms. Lauryn Hill’s unreliability: in the short run-up to last night’s last-minute show at the Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall (it was only announced on May 6), social media has been sprinkled with articles about, among other things, Hill’s chronic lateness (she showed up more than two hours late to a show in Atlanta and left the stage after 20 minutes). Even Questlove was peeved, and wrote a rather loopy open letter on his Facebook page, urging Hill to get it together, for her own sake.
Hill posted an apology on her own Facebook page, assuring fans that her lateness is not a symptom of indifference:

…Because I care so deeply about the artistic process, I scrutinize, have perfectionist tendencies, and want space made for spontaneity, which is not an easy process, with the many moving parts on the road. Some days we are more successful than others re time. However, the vitality that is infused into the performances is always appreciated by the audiences, who may not know exactly what it took to accomplish. What hasn't been touched upon by the media, I'm sure, are the hundreds of people who rushed the stage and stayed in excess of an hour after the show ended last night, just to connect.”

click to enlarge Courtesy of the artist - MS. LAURYN HILL AT THE BLUE NOTE
Ms. Lauryn Hill at the Blue Note
Courtesy of the artist
Given that, and the fact that Hill had already canceled tonight’s Baltimore show, I had my doubts that the Pittsburgh show (her first since 1999) would happen at all.

Honestly, I was rooting for Hill to do whatever the hell she wanted: in light of the historical celebration of temperamental, unpredictable male rock stars, attacking a brilliant artist like Hill (who has had her fair share of well-publicized struggles) for inconveniencing her audiences seems pretty unfair. And it seems rather grotesquely capitalist to demand that any artist give you your “money’s worth.” A live performance is not a trip to Starbucks: constancy is not always part of the deal.

At the venue, there was a palpable vibe of cautious excitement – signs at the entrance had Hill slated for a 9:15 p.m. performance, following a DJ set, but everyone knew that anything could happen. When Hill did take the stage it was around 10 p.m., but no one in the sold-out room seemed to mind: hyped up on the DJ’s collection of soul and hip-hop hits, everyone was already having fun, and we were  grateful to see her.

Wearing a flamboyant red, ruffled jumpsuit, Hill ruled the stage, which was crowded with a full band, including a horn section and three backup singers. In light of her rough PR week, opener “I Gotta Find Peace of Mind” felt especially poignant and showcased Hill’s profound gift for turning raw expressions of human frailness into something bordering on sacred.

Nearly every song was played at around twice the usual tempo, which at times felt exhausting but was mostly dazzling. The band kept pace with Hill’s frenetic rapping, as she moved through songs like “Mystery of Iniquity” and “Everything is Everything,” and Fugees' tracks like “Fu-Gee La” and “Ready or Not.” Anyone expecting album-replicas would have been disappointed, but almost two decades after The Miseducation … Hill’s interpretations of her own songs are fully alive: last night’s rendition of “Ex-Factor” was a fevered gut-punch that will forever change the way I understand that song.

It’s easy to see what Hill means when she talks about her “perfectionist tendencies.” Throughout the set, she continuously signaled to a tech to make minor changes, and put her entire body into conducting her band, which seemed truly immersed in the moment. At times the sound was muddy (that room doesn’t always handle volume well, and this show was certainly much louder than I expected), and one woman in the bathroom complained that, from the balcony, she couldn’t hear anything Hill said (the only other complaint I heard was from another woman who said she paid $60 to hear Hill sing, not rap — which she actually did more later on in the show with songs like “Killing Me Softly.”)

Hill rounded out the night with some reggae covers and Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good,” which she recorded for the compilation Nina Revisited … A Tribute to Nina Simone. It was indeed an evening of, as Hill would say, “many moving parts,” which all came together to create an evening that probably exceeded most people’s expectations. Hill is right that some days are more successful than others, in all kinds of ways, for all kinds of reasons. And luckily for us last night was, by any standards, a total success. 

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Friday, April 22, 2016

Posted By on Fri, Apr 22, 2016 at 11:18 AM

I know, I know, it’s all about Prince this morning, as it should be. But I hope you recover in time to check out this exceptional production of Annie Baker’s 2015 Pulitzer-winning play.

click to enlarge Sarah Silk and Saladin White II in "The Flick" - PHOTO COURTESY OF JEFF SWENSEN
Photo courtesy of Jeff Swensen
Sarah Silk and Saladin White II in "The Flick"
The Flick is a real anomaly that sounds daunting and maybe even shouldn’t work: Who these days writes a low-key three-hour comedy, played on one dingy set, where all three main characters are underpaid dorks and two of them are depressives? And which, as Michelle Pilecki points out in her review for CP, is for long passages so shy on dialogue that it's practically a dance show?

But Baker (whose Circle Mirror Transformation was staged by Pittsburgh Public Theater a few years back) is a virtuoso of the space between words: While Baker has a peerless ear for the inarticulate way people really talk, what isn’t said in this play, set in a rundown small-town movie theater, and for how long it’s not said, is at least as communicative as what is (both between the characters themselves and for the audience).

So Baker loves her silences. But because she therefore gives the cast both nothing and everything to work with, The Flick – I’d call it a discontiguous love triangle, though it’s also more – only works if the director and cast get it. And at The REP they surely do: Robert A. Miller guides an amazing ensemble cast led by Sarah Silk, John Steffenauer and Saladin White II.

Three hours is long, yes. But just bring a snack, and come ready to really watch, and really listen. You won’t be disappointed.

Four performances remain of The Flick, tonight through Sunday, at Point Park University's black-box Studio theater, 222 Craft Ave., in Oakland.

Tickets are $10-29 and are available here.

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