Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Smart Girls with Good Books

Hi everyone,

I fell out of the habit of writing book reviews here, but I've been reading. Here are some great books by some lovely ladies.

Carry This Book by Abbi Jacobson
Abbi Jacobson, from the great Comedy Central show Broad City, came to Sixth and I Synagogue to discuss Carry This Book in 2016. This fun book makes me happy! Each page or two shows illustrations of the personal travel bag contents of a famous person or character, including Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Oprah Winfrey, David Bowie, Indiana Jones, and Batman. Abbi included her own travel bag and – during the interview by Mike Perry, who illustrated all of the vibrant Broad City titles – talked about how she loved packing her book bag for elementary school. Mike asked the audience to raise their hands if they felt the same way, and most people did: "This defines the audience tonight," he said, "just how everyone raised their hands!"

This book is full of illustrations that are hand drawn using Prismacolor markers. (They were drawn on 18" x 24" paper to ensure the details showed up when reduced down to book size.) I loved seeing the strokes of these markers and that the author pointed out in the book itself areas where she almost made a mistake or ran out of ink. Since my cat illustrations are also hand drawn with Prismacolor markers (and include plenty of mistakes), I felt for the first time that maybe my art could be more broadly appreciated. Our mutual love/hate relationship with Prismacolor markers connects us too: Mike Perry noted, "They're a little too expensive and they always run out sooner than you think they should." And, Abbi Jacobson agreed, saying that Prismacolor markers are not her favorite markers, but they are the best markers: "I should be a spokeswoman for Prisma markers, but they haven't called me yet."

My Love Story by Tina Turner
Dad and I surprised Mom once by taking her to a concert in Cleveland. She didn't know who we were going to see, but when she came on stage, Mom exclaimed, "Oh! Tina!" I bought Tina Turner's latest memoir, My Love Story, for my mom, but I read it before I gave it to her.

Growing up in the '80s, I knew Tina Turner best from her performance in the 1985 film Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome and her recent hits, including "Private Dancer" and "What's Love Got To Do With It." Also, I saw What's Love Got To Do With It, the 1993 film that chronicled her rise in the music business and her abusive relationship with Ike Turner.

My Love Story delves into how she survived that and so many other hurdles throughout her life, including a stroke, a kidney transplant, and the recent death of her son. Still, she climbed to the top of her profession and welcomed new adventures with a sunny, hopeful attitude. She found real love with German music executive Erwin Bach and a sense of home in Switzerland, where she still lives today. Tina Turner is a true living legend who sought and found her well-deserved happy ending.

Yes Please by Amy Poehler
I bought Amy Poehler's memoir, Yes Please, a few years ago for my sister. I borrowed it after getting hooked over the summer on Amy's latest TV show, Making It – a fun competition to discover master crafters. Before that, of course, I knew Amy Poehler from Saturday Night Live, Parks and Recreation, and any collaborations she does with Tina Fey.

Amy Poehler is funny, and she's smart. I loved that this book showcases both through quiet reflection and wisecracks. At times serious and hilarious, Yes Please is a memoir that covers Amy's early work on the comedy circuit, her star-making years on Saturday Night Live and Parks and Recreation, and her new beginning, raising two boys following her divorce from fellow comedian Will Arnett. This entertaining book recalls memorable moment – including ones we all saw on TV or film – and offers words of wisdom from a smart girl trying to navigate life in the best way, just like the rest of us. 

Becoming by Michelle Obama
My friend let me borrow Becoming by Michelle Obama earlier this year. I loved reading about Michelle Obama's upbringing that revealed how she became the inspiring leader she is today. Day dreaming during the bus ride to school while watching high-powered lawyers in their business suits enter a towering skyscraper in Chicago led her to study law at Princeton and Harvard. She made it to that skyscraper's fancy office only to realize she no longer wanted to be a lawyer.

But it was there that she met Barack Obama, an intern who changed her life, and the rest is history. Michelle quit being a lawyer and shifted into community organizing and beyond. What I loved most about this book is how down to earth and approachable Michelle Obama comes across on every page. She's just a girl with big dreams and boundless support from her parents, who instilled in her that education is the key to her success.

As a politician's wife, she kept the family's priorities straight and life as normal as possible while being supportive of her husband's ambitious vision for the future. The road to the White House was a learning experience, in which every moment was scrutinized in public. In the White House, her experiences as a mother informed her initiative, Let's Move!, which tackles childhood obesity. Reading this book reminded me how everything the Obamas did during their time in the White House supported inclusion and diversity that better reflected this country's citizens and ideals.

All the while, Michelle Obama has held herself with grace under the brightest of spotlights, traveling the world and leading by example. Now, she has reinvented herself again as a best-selling author. I can't wait to see what she does next.

Happy reading,

Monday, June 03, 2019

2018 in Review: From Movies to Musical Theatre

Hi everyone,

In 2018, I had good intentions to write my reviews in a timely manner. I started off by writing about two trips to the theatre in early January to see An American in Paris and Meteor Shower.  Then, I got sidetracked by job hunting, job getting, and yet more job hunting – so much for my plans. Here I am a year and a half later to tell you about my other trips to the theatre in 2018, to see musical versions of some of my favorite films, WaitressDave, and Beetlejuice.

Waitress at National Theatre (May 16)
Last April when my dad visited, we ended up in the Hill Center after walking through Eastern Market. This community center offers cooking and art classes, performances, and so much more; we went there to see the art galleries, populated by local artists. While we were there, I tossed my name into a raffle for two free tickets to see Waitress, the musical, at National Theatre...and I won!

I loved this musical! Based faithful on the 2007 film and directed by Diane Paulus, this show added wonderful songs by Sara Bareilles and fun dances (choreographed by Lorin Latarro). With a new book by Jessie Nelson, the story follows Jenna (Desi Oakley), a talented piemaker who works at a local cafe and dreams of winning an upcoming pie contest so that she can use the prize money to escape her bad marriage and start a new life. When she discovers that she's pregnant, her plan becomes even more urgent.

As the movie does so well, this show explores the serious topics that come with complicated relationships while keeping it funny, bright, and touching. The cast, including fellow waitresses Becky and Dawn (Charity Angel Dawson and Lenna Klingaman), created quirky, memorable characters, who kept us laughing. A particular standout was Jeremy Morse, who played Ogie, Dawn's persistent suitor, whose performance was reminiscent of Ray Bolger's physical comedy.

Go see Waitress, the musical, on Broadway or on tour. It leaves you with a good feeling and a craving for pie.

Dave at Arena Stage (July 24)
I questioned whether I'd like to see Dave, the musical, since I remember Kevin Kline so clearly as Dave in the 1993 film. I got over this unfair reason not to see something new, and enjoyed this interpretation, written by Thomas Meehan and Neil Benjamin and directed by Tina Landau.

The story is faithful adaptation of the film; it's about a guy, Dave (Drew Gehling), who impersonates the president for fun on the weekends. He does such a good job that the White House staff enlists him to fill in for the president on various occasions. However, as soon as he's brought in, the president has a medical crisis, and Dave has to fill in while the staff figure out what to do. Eventually, Dave figures out that not all of the staff members have the country's best interest at heart, so he starts making his own decisions. Don't worry, it all works out in the end.

Arena Stage put on this pre-Broadway run. I think I would have enjoyed it more if normal things were happening in the White House right now. I couldn't help but feel that elephant in the room the whole time, but I still liked the show. The writers made smart updates, changing Dave's job from temp agency manager to history teacher so that he knew how the government worked already and adding some social media elements and influence to the story. Classic moments from the film were incorporated into the show, but it became its own fun presentation, with funny songs, creative choreography, and great performances – my favorites being by Bryohna Marie Parham and Josh Breckenridge as White House staffers in charge of PR and security, respectively.

I don't see that Dave is on Broadway now, and I'm not sure what that means. Maybe someone in the White House is tinkering with it.

Beetlejuice at National Theatre (October 31)
I don't think Tim Burton was involved with this musical production of his classic 1988 film, Beetlejuice. I also worried that I'd miss seeing Michael Keaton in the title role. Still, when this world-premiere musical arrived at National Theatre ahead of its Broadway run, I was eager to see how director Alex Timbers converted Tim Burton's vision for the stage, and I was happily surprised. While the foundation of this show is the 1989 film, it has a new book by writers Scott Brown and Anthony King with twists in the storyline that makes it its own beast.

Like the movie, the main characters, loving couple Barbara and Adam (Kerri Butler and Rob Mcclure) accidentally die and haunt their home as new tenants move in. The new family's teenage daughter Lydia (Sophia Ann Caruso), who shares a kinship with the undead, is the only one who can see them and the degenerate demon, Beetlejuice (Alex Brightman), whom they'd contacted for help with navigating the afterlife. The new twist here is that Lydia, who never feels like she fits in on Earth with her dad and stepmother, tries to follow them into the afterlife to find her deceased mother.

While this all sounds heavy, it's not. Don't worry, this otherworldly adventure brings father and daughter closer together, and Beetlejuice is as over the top as ever. This show is raunchier than the original story, and I'm not sure I agree with that change: it's not as kid-friendly as the beloved film, but all the adults in the audience roared with laughter so consistently and loudly that my friend and I both commented on it afterward. (Maybe there was something in the air for this Halloween performance.)

I appreciated that this show built something new, different, and exciting out of something so familiar to fans. Everyone screamed when Lydia exclaimed the classic line, "I myself am strange and unusual," and when some of Tim Burton's memorable afterlife puppets showed up. But with catchy songs by Eddie Perfect, fun dances by Connor Gallagher, and impressive puppets of their own, this version of Beetlejuice is a fresh take.

Check out Beetlejuice on Broadway now. It's up for eight Tony Awards, including Best Musical. Watch the Tonys at 8 p.m. on CBS on June 9th to see if it wins!

Thursday, May 30, 2019

2018 in Review: Musical Notes

Hi everyone,

In addition to Sting and Shaggy, I heard lots of other musicians last year – some I'd seen before and some I hadn't. Here are the highlights:

Victory and Rodriguez at Sixth and I Synagogue (March 3)
Rodriguez, the '60s folk singer from Detroit who earned a massive following in South Africa, was the main attraction of this evening at Sixth and I Synagogue. Many in the audience knew him from the 2012 Oscar-winning documentary Searching for Sugar Man. I had just seen that over Christmas with my dad and was surprised to find his name on Sixth and I's schedule a few months later.

Rodriquez is older and needed help getting over to his stool, but he still plays and sounds the same. I enjoyed the music, but I don't know why he felt the need to wear different hats for different songs. Also, the crowd annoyed me! (This is what happens when you allow people to bring drinks into the performance space.) They yelled out song requests and commentary and tried to have conversations with him between songs. The hat swaps and the unsolicited commentary (like suggestions for which hat to wear for the next song and which song to sing) made me feel like we were watching an attraction on display at a carnival. Still, I enjoyed Rodriguez's set. His songs are fantastic, and I felt lucky to have the chance to see him.

"Crucify Your Mind" by Rodriguez on Later with Jools Holland in 2012

The best part of this show for me was Rodriguez's opening act, Victory, a local singer I hadn't heard before. She started singing, and it blew our hair back with fresh air. Everyone paid attention. She invited some family members on stage to join her, and they were equally talented. (She's in a band with them too, called Infinity's Song.) Victory told us that she was discovered by Jay Z, and he was helping her finish her debut album. She said that her EP was available for sale downstairs, and as soon as she finished her set and our roaring standing ovation died down, we all ran downstairs to buy it. Check out her album, The Broken Instrument. She is the future!

"Open Your Eyes" by Victory from The Broken Instrument

Franz Ferdinand at 930 club (April 11)
I have the first two albums by Scottish band Franz Ferdinand, both of which I memorized from start to finish. They are albums that don't require any skipping of songs. Then, I forgot to follow the band. (I need to and will catch up!) When I saw them at 930 club, I felt a little out of touch with the songs until they played ones I recognized.

This concert was almost too loud for 930's small space, and the lights were overpowering at times. (Am I getting old, or did I just have a long, tiring day?) But the band's energy is electric! I love a group bursting with guitars. The set included a disco ball, which fit this band's vibe. And, even the newer songs that were unfamiliar to me were unmistakably Franz Ferdinand, which I appreciated. Still, it wasn't until I heard my favorites like, "Take Me Out" and "Do You Want To," that I lost my mind. It was all worth it.

"Take Me Out" by Franz Ferdinand from self-titled debut album (2004)

Lisa Fischer and Grand Baton at Blues Alley (June 16)
I know Lisa Fischer from her participation in the 2013 Oscar-winning documentary, 20 Feet from Stardom, which showcased backup singers for famous rock stars. Then, I saw her in person when she started participating in the annual charity concerts for the Rainforest Foundation at Carnegie Hall. Then, in 2017, I saw that she was going to perform at Blues Alley with a band called Grand Baton. I  brought my dad with me to show her off. Now, we will always see her whenever she is in town.

Photo: C. Elliot
Lisa Fischer is otherworldly! When listening to her sing, it's hard to believe the sounds coming out of her. Her entire body is her instrument, and she makes it seem effortless. Grand Baton matches her talent. While most of the show's set is covers of songs by her more famous friends, like "Gimme Shelter" by the Rolling Stones, "Message in a Bottle" by The Police, and "Addicted to Love" by Robert Palmer, musical arranger JC Maillard makes them almost unrecognizable. Most of the time, I'd know lyrics or a musical phrase before I'd realize what song it was. (It's like when you're trying to think of a particular song while the radio is playing something else.) The Lisa Fischer versions are entirely new and exciting. Check her out for yourself this year at Blues Alley, November 7-10. She'll change your life, or at least how you hear music.

Belly at 930 club (September 29)
I first saw Belly at 930 club in 2016 during their reunion tour, when they played a greatest hits set that featured all the songs I remember from the '90s. They said they'd be back with new songs soon, and they meant it. This time around, they played a mix of new songs from their album Dove as well as classics, like "Feed the Tree." While I wasn't yet familiar with the new songs, they were promising with Belly's guitar-heavy signature sound.

While this show offered new music, the band was steadfastly fun, engaging with the crowd. Instead of having an opening act, they came right out and played for an hour. Then, guitarist Gail Greenwood explained, "We're going to play one more song – because we're douchebags and we open for ourselves. So, we're going to play one more song, take a 10-minute break, come back out, and play for another hour. So call the babysitter and get more drinks at the bar because, as I always say, 'the drunker you are, the better we sound.'" I didn't test out this theory, but the second hour sounded great to me.

"Feed the Tree" by Belly from their debut album, Star (1993)

Jain at 930 club (October 29)
I first saw French singer/songwriter Jain on Late Night with Stephen Colbert, where she made her U.S. television debut, singing her first single, "Come" from her album Zenaka. It was love at first sight! Her music is infectious, her ideas are fresh, and her style is unique (and so French). In the days that followed, I told everyone I knew about her, but she's probably known more because of the Levis commercial that features her awesome song, "Mekaba."

For her performance at 930 club, which was in support of her second album Souldier, Jain wore a navy jumpsuit that had five or six lighted buttons on one sleeve. These buttons corresponded with the DJ controller podium at the center of the stage. Jain sang and danced around the stage, using her sleeve buttons like a remote control to add layers of beats and harmonies to her songs. She had interesting lighting patterns and a large screen in the background that displayed images and graphics behind her. Her style reminded me of David Bowie in that she presented a full picture or feeling to correspond with each song.

But it wasn't all about art. It was about the music. I love Jain's positive energy and the worldly influences heard in her songs. She asked us if we were ready to do some happy dancing, and we were! We jumped around and sang along with her the entire time. It's my new favorite workout.

Edie Brickell and New Bohemians at Lincoln Theatre (November 3)
I loved Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians when they first arrived on the scene in 1989. Their 1990 sophomore album, Ghost of a Dog, is still one of my favorites. I lost track of the band, but I bought a few of Edie Brickell's solo albums over the years. Most recently, she'd been working with Steve Martin on the great Broadway show Bright Star as well as a couple of folk albums. But, now, I was thrilled that she reunited with the New Bohemians, and I brought my dad along with me to see them.

Supporting their latest album, Rocket, the band played mostly new songs. They were good but unfamiliar to me. I counted three songs that I knew from the old days – "What I Am," "Circle," and "Ghost of a Dog" – to which everyone sang along so loudly that the voices drowned out the singer. The musicianship, though, was as great as I imagined.

Unfortunately, the fan-filled crowd, at least near us, was drunk and stupid. Even though dad and I had arrived early to get a good seat up front at this general admission show, we still had to stand the entire time, peering over rows of bobbing heads because people rushed to stand, jump, and dance by the stage and in the aisles and rows just as the first notes started. I guess I should have researched and been warned all the YouTube videos that show similar enthusiasm, but I hadn't experienced this before at Lincoln Theatre and didn't expect it. The crowd kind of ruined it for both of us. Even Edie Brickell seemed baffled: "Where did that come from?" she asked, when a giant balloon magically appeared in the middle of the audience and began bouncing around the room. Where did all these people come from, I wondered.

In any case, it was exciting to see what I could of the band performing. They've picked up where they left off and still got it!

Rufus Wainwright at Strathmore (December 8) 
Rufus Wainwright's tour, All These Poses, celebrated the 20th anniversary of the release of his self-titled debut album and follow-up album, Poses. I don't have these albums or know their songs, but I still loved this concert. Serving as opening act was fellow band member, Rachel Eckroth, who could be a one-woman band. In the band, though, she served as backup singer and played keyboards, piano, and guitar.

As always, Rufus Wainwright was entertaining, funny, charismatic, and stylish. He made some costume changes throughout the show, including a pair of cool black pants that had a mid-leg section of sparkly geometric designs. At different points, he also wore an ornate black cape or a sleeveless silver sequined top. He gave insight into song origins through stories about his life and musical family too.

Commentary and fashion aside, Rufus Wainwright's hard work and startling talent are what's kept him going all these years. Whenever he performs, he commands attention, and I love how he puts his entire body into his singing, swaying with every note like an inflatable sky dancer. At Strathmore, his unique musicianship, musicality, and voice were enhanced in the fantastic acoustic-friendly space. While listening to him, I found myself leaning in so that I wouldn't miss a sound. But he also sang two covers – Joni Mitchell's "Both Sides Now" and the Beatles' "Across the Universe" – that made me melt.

Here's to another 20 years (and more)!

Meshell Ndegeocello at the Kennedy Center (April 26 and December 16) 
Dad and I saw Meshell Ndegeocello twice last year. In April, her concert showcased her latest album, Ventriloquism, an eclectic collection of cover songs. As usual, her sweet and silky voice was flawless, and the lush music enveloped the space. This show felt relaxed and intimate. The lighting was low because, she explained, the focus should be on listening to the music rather than watching her and the band perform it.

Photo: Jordi Vidal/Redferns via Getty Images
In December, Meshell Ndegeocello returned to the Kennedy Center to perform an homage to James Baldwin. Dad and I didn't know this at the time, but in 2016, she presented a stage musical inspired by James Baldwin's book, The Fire Next Time. (Check out some highlights of the stage musical here.)

This concert was a version of the stage musical (without costumes and props), titled, "No More Water | The Fire Next Time: The Gospel According to James Baldwin. The show included music – performed by her band with a few backup singers, including the wonderful Justin Hicks – and spoken word, powerfully narrated by poet Staceyann Chin. Despite Baldwin's book being more than 50 years old, his writing is as relevant today as it was in the '60s. This concert was an uplifting call to action that left us exhilarated.

At the end, Meshell thanked us for coming, saying she knew none of us knew what to expect. That may be true, but none of us were worried or disappointed.

"Waterfalls" by Meshell Ndegeocello from Ventriloquism

See you at the next concert!

Monday, May 27, 2019

2018 in Review: The Odd Couple, Sting and Shaggy

Hi everyone,

In 2017, shortly after he finished his 57th and 9th tour, I knew Sting was working on something. On Instagram, he posted images of recording sessions – in Jamaica. I didn't pay too much attention because I like to be surprised by his projects. This time, it came in the form of a reggae album with Shaggy, called 44/876. This release was followed last year by a couple more surprises that I assumed, of course, were just for me.

National Hockey League Finals, Game 3, Pregame Performance, National Portrait Gallery (June 2, 2018)
I heard that Sting and Shaggy were going to perform during the pregame show for the National Hockey League's Game 3 of the playoffs, which was scheduled for the following day. I caught this on the local news because D.C.'s team was competing. I never watch hockey and assumed the pregame show would be indoors for those who bought tickets. Maybe I'd be lucky and catch it on TV.

At 3 p.m. the next day, though I saw that Sting posted more information about it on Instagram: the performance would be filmed downtown outside of the National Portrait Gallery at 6 p.m. As soon as I walked up to the building, a little before 5 p.m., he and Shaggy walked out to begin rehearsals. Sting and I have good timing like that.

Their performance was being filmed for TV, so they played the one song that would be featured, "Got to Get Back My Baby," repeatedly to get it the way they wanted it. They all sounded the same to me, but after each version, Sting said things like, "We're going to do that one again...and we're going to do it right this time," and "I'm getting too much E in my ear." (Sting also sneezed twice and, both times, people in the crowd responded by yelling, "Bless you!" Being a celebrity must be so weird.) By the time this event was over, I knew the words to this song very well.

I found this behind-the-scenes perfectionism fascinating, but to keep everyone entertained, they sang some other songs too. They performed a mix of five or six new and old songs, including Shaggy's "Angel" and The Police's "Roxanne." And, of course, they finished with "Every Breath You Take." Shaggy has so much energy; he danced around the whole stage. Sting chilled in one spot, playing his bass. They made a good team, and this performance got me excited about seeing them on tour in September.

As soon as they finished, I got out of the hockey fan crowd. I was trapped between two hippies in a conversation about vaping. (One was vaping while the other asked if vaping was better than cigarettes.) My answer was neither, please! I moved away from them, but then I got stuck behind a tall idiot who held his iPad above his head to record the entire mini-concert performance! While dancing and swaying, and therefore ruining whatever video he was getting, he blocked the real view for everyone behind him while ignoring our complaints (even when we tapped him on the shoulder several times). Some people are dumb.

Still, it was hard to dampen my mood about this surprise visit. Sting just showed up in front of one of my favorite museums, walking distance from my apartment building,  to sing me some songs! Thanks, friend! I needed that.

44/876 Tour, The Theatre at MGM National Harbor (September 19, 2018)
When Sting first showed up at the theatre at MGM National Harbor in during his 57th and 9th tour, I complained because it's a pain to get there from D.C. without a car. Apparently, he didn't hear me, so here we were again.

Unlike last time, no numbered wristbands were distributed to secure a spot in line for this general admission show. (This option had allowed me to pick up a wristband at 10 a.m., and then do whatever I wanted until 5 p.m., when it was time to line up by wristband number for the show.) Instead, I just had to get there early and wait in line until showtime. I arrived later than I planned, around 3 p.m.,  and was third in line – behind Mike, the same guy who was ahead of me last time. (He'd been there since 2 p.m., which was my original goal.) The doors were scheduled to open at 7 p.m. for the 8 p.m. show. Don't worry, I was prepared with a sandwich and snacks.

At 6:15 p.m., the MGM staff split our long, single-file line in half and moved the bottom half up front to a newly formed line next to our original line. Mike and I were fuming because many of those people just arrived while the rest of us had been waiting in line for hours. Luckily, we are good runners and made it to the front row anyway.

I never expected to be in the front row. I've never been in the front row of a Sting concert. As a result (and without realizing it), I took an overwhelming number of photos with my phone. If you scroll through them, it's like watching a silent movie. It's practically a second-by-second, play-by-play collage. I didn't put anything about this concert on social media after I got home because I still can't decide which are the best shots to share, and I get delirious whenever I try. 

This show was fun! Sting and Shaggy genuinely like each other and have a good time together. Mixing both of their catalogues, they sang about 25 songs – most as duets. During Sting's songs, Shaggy's rapping conversed with the song lyrics. During Shaggy's songs, Sting harmonized on the choruses. During "Every Little Thing She does is Magic," for example, Sting sang his usual lines, but Shaggy interjected:
Sting: I decide to call her up
Shaggy: Did you now?
Sting: A thousand times a day
Shaggy: Dude, that's a lot.

The same happened during "So Lonely." Shaggy rapped toward the end, and Sting sang to the "So Lonely" melody, "I've been listening to you, Shaggy; it makes no sense at all!"

For a new song, called "Crooked Tree," Sting changed into a back-and-white striped shirt to play the role of prisoner while Shaggy wore a black robe and long judge's wig. He even stood behind a podium and used a gavel. (I think one of the roadies played the policeman who kept Sting in his place while they sang the song.)

In the set, I was most excited to hear old songs that Sting hasn't played in a while, like "We'll be Together" and " Love Is the Seventh Wave." They wrapped up the show with two encores. The first kept us dancing on our tired feet, with Sting's "Desert Rose", Shaggy's "It Wasn't Me," and The Police's "Every Breath You Take," and the second calmed us down with Sting's "Fragile" and a traditional song called "Jamaica Farewell." Until we meet again...

Sting and Shaggy just wrapped up their 44/876 tour. Shaggy released a new album this month, called Wah, Gwaan?! He's touring now throughout the United States. Sting also just released a new album of reimagined hits, called My Songs. Catch him on tour now, mostly in Europe, or during his Las Vegas residency next year.

See you at the next show,

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

2018 in Review: Bowie Days, Part 2

Hi everyone,

When it comes to David Bowie, I apparently can't say enough. Read Bowie Days, Part 1, to learn about the David Bowie is exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, which I visited last summer. Read on to hear about a behind-the-scenes lecture by exhibition curator Matthew Yokobosky, who made the exhibition unforgettable.

David Bowie Is: Celebrating an Artist of Startling Transformations, Smithsonian Associates, Ripley Center, July 20, 2018 
Photo: Greg Gorman (1982)
Several people who attended the David Bowie Is: Celebrating an Artist of Startling Transformations lecture by the Brooklyn Museum's Senior Curator of Fashion and Material Culture Matthew Yokobosky had not visited the exhibition. (But the people who sat next to me saw it while vacationing in Buenos Aries.) If you want to hear from Mr. Yokobosky himself, you can listen to this interesting pre-lecture preview, the Not Old Better podcast, which gives you more background into David Bowie's life and creative process. 

The lecture also focused on things I never considered before, including: 
  • What goes into planning and creating an exhibition, 
  • How an exhibition must be tailored to whatever space in which its installed, and
  • How much creative freedom a curator has in what and how exhibits are presented. 
 This was fascinating! I suddenly wanted to be a museum curator! 

To prepare for David Bowie is, Mr. Yokobosky traveled to other locations to view the exhibition and figure out how he wanted to present it. For example, in one place, the exhibition opened with a room that covered David Bowie's childhood and what was happening musically and politically at that time. Because the focus wasn't on David Bowie, Mr. Yokobosky decided against opening the Brooklyn Museum's exhibition that way. Instead, he went for an in-your-face approach that I loved. He also got to pick different items from David Bowie's archives that he wanted to feature! Can you imagine? 

Here are some interesting notes from this wonderful presentation:
  • David Bowie had archived his items since the 1960s in four different locations around the world – wherever he happened to be closest to at the time. The David Bowie is exhibition opened in 2013 with 400 items. By the time it got to Brooklyn, it had 500 items in a 14,000-square-foot space. 
    • The archive warehouses are filled with rows of crates (which made me think of Raiders of the Lost Ark). Each crate is labeled with a Polaroid of its contents. Mr Yokobosky saw one crate with a photo of a giant lighted "W" and asked the managers, "Do you have the other letters?" They did! This is what became the first item visitors saw in the Brooklyn Museum's exhibition, set up behind a glittery iconic costume that screamed David Bowie, the Showman. (Imagine walking up to this with David Bowie music blasting in your ears. It was a fitting welcome to David Bowie is!) 
    Photo: Jennifer Picht
    • These lighted BOWIE letters were used as a backdrop for the set of shows David Bowie performed in each of New York's boroughs during the New York City Marathon Tour in 2002. For this exhibition, seven of the eight LED lights were covered and the overall brightness was dimmed. 
    • One time, when David Bowie was storing a piece of fan art, someone questioned whether it was worth saving, and he responded, "Ours is not to judge; ours is to archive." (I miss this guy's sense of humor.) 
    • At one point, David Bowie's waist was 23" to 26", which is why designers loved to dress him and everything looked great. In 2002, Vogue borrowed the suit he wore in the "Life on Mars?" video, and Kate Moss couldn't fit into it. (That's right, Kate Moss!) The magazine staff had to call David Bowie to ask for permission to let out the seams a bit for the photo shoot.
    Photo: Nick Knight
    • The suits that David Bowie wore in The Man Who Fell to Earth were made by Guns 'n' Roses guitarist Slash's mom, fashion designer and costumier Ola Hudson. 
    Photo: Steve Schapiro
    • To soundproof the exhibition's concert room, special insulation was used: "It's made of blue jeans and it's reusable and it's flameproof," Mr. Yokobosky explained. "It's fantastic!"
    • One of the rooms in the Brooklyn Museum's exhibition displayed a single from each of David Bowie's albums. Mr. Yokobosky bought them all through eBay. 
    • Isn't it impressive to think how the Tonight album cover was done before Photoshop existed? David Bowie never shied away from experimenting with new things.  
    • The star pieces under the big black star on the Blackstar album cover represent how "Bowie" is spelled in stars. (There's a whole alphabet.) Do you see it?
    • After the Brooklyn Museum exhibition ended, all of the items – most of which have been traveling from museum to museum for five years – need to be put back into storage "to rest" for five years. Don't worry, you can experience the David Bowie is exhibition virtually through this app!
    • There were at least two people in this audience who didn't really know who David Bowie was. I applaud them for coming to learn, even if one lady didn't know how to say his last name and tried to correct how it had been pronounced for the last hour throughout the lecture and Q&A session. I also appreciated how graciously Mr. Yokobosky set her straight. 
    • Fans visited the David Bowie is exhibition multiple times, and some even bought museum memberships just for that purpose. Mr. Yokobosky said that everyone he spoke to at the Brooklyn Museum had a different entrance point into David Bowie's career, like Ziggy Stardust, MTV, Labyrinth, or even Blackstar. They came to the exhibition to revel in that era, full of memories of how this artist changed their lives. 
    It's still happening. David Bowie is still around and always will be. 

    Tuesday, May 21, 2019

    2018 in Review: Bowie Days, Part 1

    Hi everyone,

    David Bowie always showed up with something interesting to add to my world and a funny story to tell. He thought and did things differently from everyone else, surprising me with his music, innovation, and style. 

    Welcome! (Photo: Explore BK)
    I knew about the David Bowie is exhibition while it was in the works and then traveling to far off places, but it wasn't until I saw it mentioned online that it became an emergency must-see event: after a five-year journey, the exhibition was at its last stop in the Brooklyn Museum, just as David Bowie had planned. 

    At the time, I was between jobs. I had been laid off for the first time ever from a job that I acquired to avoid being laid off from my previous job. Now, I was working as a temp in a stress-filled office and looking for a permanent job to rescue me. 

    David Bowie knew I needed a break. I think he planted that exhibition reminder in whatever article I was reading. He still has those powers. 

    Here's a rundown of my overnight trip to New York to see the David Bowie is exhibition. My next post, 2018 in Review: Bowie Days, Part 2, will cover the follow-up lecture by the Brooklyn Museum's Senior Curator of Fashion and Material Culture Matthew Kokobosky, which the Smithsonian Associates presented in D.C. (I'm sure that David Bowie planned this event for me too.) 

    David Bowie is, Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, June 30, 2018
    Cousin John's cheese blintzes are still the best. 
    The Brooklyn Museum is in Park Slope, the neighborhood where I spent my college internship in the '90s. It was fun but felt odd, taking the familiar subway route from Manhattan and climbing the same steps out to Prospect Park. I walked by my old apartment brownstone and ate my favorite meal at Cousin John's Bakery. I had to start the day off right because it was sure to be a long one. 

    My entry ticket into the David Bowie is exhibition was slated for 11 a.m., when the Brooklyn Museum opened. I fully expected to be exploring this exhibition and shop until 6 p.m., when the museum closed. But, of course, this exhibition went beyond my lofty expectations, probably because David Bowie was involved in planning it. With access to his archives, this exhibition was a full-on Bowie-esque, immersive experience. I needed more time to read through and hear everything it had to offer, but here are some moments and thoughts from my delirious day, discovering who David Bowie is:

    • The exhibition covered the Brooklyn Museum's fourth and fifth floors, and we all followed the signs, up an elevator and through several galleries, to get there. It felt like a school field trip, and everyone was happy to be on it. 
    • The gallery entrance opened to a spacious room with sparse seating. The white walls were covered by three giant cutout orange images of David Bowie. This was your only chance to take any photos to prove you were at his exhibition. 
    These are walls I can get behind.
    • As we entered the exhibition behind the walls, we received magic audio boxes and headsets with minimal controls. Depending on where I stood in the room, it knew what relevant story to tell me. Suddenly, David Bowie was singing and talking in my ears about whatever I was looking at or reading! As soon as I put those headsets on, I thought David Bowie must have requested this unique feature. In fact, he probably invented it. I loved it! But I had to pause it often because it was hard to concentrate on reading descriptions while David Bowie and those who knew him were talking to me at the same time. 
    • The exhibition space was quiet because everyone dutifully wore headsets and was listening attentively. We were students, shuffling along from room to room and piece to piece, reading up on our favorite artist – the man behind the different personas.
    Age 16!
    • Through most of the exhibition, I read and watched everything, sometimes more than once. For example, there were several performances of "Space Oddity," like this one, that I had never seen before. It was interesting to see films of young David Bowie doing performance art as a mime. Even in photos from his teenage years, he looked so confident and ready for what's next. 
    • What I loved most about this exhibition was seeing David Bowie's creative process. He was involved in every aspect of whatever he created, from concept to completion. For example, he drew and painted sketches of album covers that ended up looking exactly like the final product. He wrote tidy, hand-written lyrics and sometimes dotted his i's with circles.
    • David Bowie carried around a small framed photo of Little Richard for inspiration. One time, he pointed at it and told his producer that he wanted his music to sound how that image looks. (They got it.) 
    • I didn't write down who said this, but this quote spoke the truth: There's old music. There's new music. And then there's David Bowie music. 
    • The galleries reflected different aspects of David Bowie's life with such titles as, "David Bowie is... a Human Being" or "David Bowie is... a Star." This was a great approach because, as we all know, David Bowie is...so many different things to so many people.
    David Bowie and Jeffrey Wright in Basquiat
    • One of the rooms covered David Bowie's time in New York. It included his costume from the Elephant Man, which he performed on Broadway in 1980-1981. (Check out his amazing performance in this video clip!) It also showcased a large bright yellow portrait of his wife, Iman, which he created while working on the 1996 film Basquiat. In that movie, he portrayed Andy Warhol, and this painting reflects that artist's pop-art influence.
      • By the time I reached the music video and film rooms, I was running out of time and steam. I skimmed through these rooms since I've seen the videos and films plenty of times before (but I still read all of the explanatory descriptions that accompanied each piece). 
      • In the film room, my favorite item was a giant black wardrobe case. David Bowie was stenciled on it in white, and it was covered in various stickers, as you would expect of any old, cherished travel case. One side of this case was filled with film costumes, but the other was fitted with shelves to carry David Bowie's 100 favorite books! He brought these books with him to movie sets (I assume because there's a lot of waiting around between shots). 
      The Blue Jean costume is on the right, but do you remember
      the others too? (Photo: Shintaro Yamanaka)
      • Costumes were displayed along the edges of and sometimes above the music video room (and elsewhere throughout the exhibition). I didn't read all of the costume descriptions because people were crowded around them, but I fought my way through to see some Alexander McQueen and other creations. One o the costumes had Japanese writing on it that phonetically read as, "David Bowie." It translates to, "One who spits out words in a fiery manner." Seeing the "Blue Jean" costume and video almost made me cry. The music video room represented how I first met this guy. Thanks, MTV!
      • After the music video room, signs instructed us to remove our headsets as we stepped into the next darkened space. In there, we watched, sang, and danced in front of a floor-to-ceiling grid of screens, blasting never-before-scene concert footage of Ziggy Stardust. That's what we were all waiting for.
      • I somewhat dreaded the next room. It summarized how David Bowie's death affected everyone and how fans rejoiced around his final gifts to us, his jazz-infused album Blackstar and stage musical Lazarus
      • The exhibition's final room was covered with fan art. He kept every piece of artwork that he received from his fans! Had I known that it was an option to send David Bowie a gift, I would have added the Kitties to his collection.
      Bowie Kitties (January 28, 2016)

      I landed in the gift shop at 5:15 p.m. I bought two copies of the exhibition coffee table book (one for my sister and one for me). It's missing the music and videos, but it's got great photos and information. I didn't consider having to lug these giant, heavy volumes to Penn Station and home, but we made it intact, and it was all worth it! 

      If you missed the David Bowie is exhibition, check out the online app, and enjoy the ride!

      Saturday, May 11, 2019

      2018 in Review: State of the Art

      Hi everyone,

      Art is hard for me to describe to people, but sometimes I leave museums and galleries feeling as if I had just been to a Sting concert. Here are some highlights from exhibits I saw around town last year.

      The National Portrait Gallery and Smithsonian American Art Museum
      The National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian American Art Museum are located in the middle of downtown D.C. and always offer something interesting to see whenever I venture inside. The two buildings are connected by an enclosed bright and airy courtyard, where visitors can have lunch, study on their laptops, or even catch a free performance.

      Last year, I saw three inspiring exhibits, including the Obama presidential portraits, Don Ho Suh's Going Home, and Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now.

      I waited a while to see the Obama presidential portraits because they drew such heavy crowds. The crowds are still there but have become more manageable since they separated the two, moving Michelle Obama's portrait to a different floor. When I was there, an older lady had a friend take a photo of her in front of each portrait. She smiled sweetly, holding up a cardboard sign that read, "I miss you so much, it hurts." Amen, sister.

      Barack and Michelle Obama were the first to request African American artists – Kahinde Wiley and Amy Sherald, respectively – to create the presidential portraits. Both works are as unique as their subjects, and they make me feel proud. See the gallery website for more information about these historic works of art (images below, courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery).

      President Obama by Kahinde Wiley
      Mrs. Obama by Amy Sherald

      Installation from Don Ho Suh's Almost Home,
      courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum,
      photo by Libby Weiler
      I'd never heard of Korean artist Don Ho Suh, but he is known for creating fabric architecture. His Going Home exhibit explored his past through everyday objects, like radiators, fire extinguishers, ornate doorknobs, and kitchen sinks, all recreated in mesh fabric and stitched with excruciating detail. Some items were as small as nuts and bolts. The largest piece was an installation that you could walk through: a hallway of an former home, complete with doors to different rooms and a staircase. This guy has patience and knows how to sew! Check out the online gallery for more information about this amazing exhibit and to see a variety of its beautiful pieces.

      Profile (new version), work and photo by Kumi Yamashita
      That same day, I walked into Black Out: Silhouettes Then and Now. In the hallways, framed paper cutout silhouettes of 19th century historical figures and everyday scenes lined the walls. Individual galleries housed large installations that presented silhouettes through the interplay of light and shadow or digital collaborations. I walked through, wondering how they cut strands of hair so precisely or how they positioned objects and crinkled paper just enough to create the perfect shadow profiles. See for yourselves in this online gallery and let me know!

      The Renwick Gallery
      The Renwick Gallery is located in the middle of D.C., near the White House. The first time I visited it, it showcased American craftsmanship in ornate furniture. Then, it shut down for renovation for a while. When it reopened, it felt like a different museum because the exhibits were installations you have to walk through, in, or under, offering a more immersive experience.

      Closeup shot of a section of David Best's Temple, 
      where visitors can add their own memorials 
      and inscriptions
      Last year's popular exhibit, No Spectators: The Art of Burning Man, was a proper salute to the annual music and art festival that it celebrates. I have no desire to attend the Burning Man festival, which is located in the middle of the Nevada desert and heat and attended by swarms of people, so this exhibit was the closest I'll get to it.

      Some art installations were planted around the city, which is a fitting match to the festival's reputed spectacle. The Renwick may have been just as crowded as the festival too but with good reason: pieces included giant colorful moving mushrooms, crafty sculptures made of scraps, outlandish costumes, intricate wooden cutout structures with lights that displayed patterned shadows on the walls, a memorial room with walls layered in similar wooden cutout patterns (where visitors could write notes to lost loved ones on blank wooden pieces and add them to the installation), and a historical timeline of the Burning Man festival itself. Visit the gallery's website for more information about this touring exhibit and to see its online gallery.

      American University Museum at Katzan Arts Center
      While waiting to cross a street, I saw an ad on the side of a city bus advertising a Ralph Steadman retrospective in D.C. at a museum I'd never heard of before. The American University Museum at Katzan Arts Center is a beautiful airy space for contemporary art. Though my friend drove us there, you can get there by Metro and then a free shuttle bus, so what are you waiting for?

      Courtesy of Ralph Steadman Art Collection
      I know of Ralph Steadman from his work with Hunter S. Thompson, illustrating his various Rolling Stone articles and flagship book, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. I also saw the 2012 documentary about him called For No Good Reason and highly recommend it. What I loved about that documentary and this exhibit is that they offer a bigger picture about the artist and his process.

      Although Ralph Steadman may be most famous for his collaboration with Hunter S. Thompson, Ralph Steadman: A Retrospective proved that he is a well-rounded artist with a variety of impressive work that continues to grow. While he documents the times through social and  political commentary, he can just as easily capture the whimsy of a classic children's story. This exhibit provided a free audio download that shared stories behind most of its pieces, so visitors could gain a clearer view of the artist's motivations and techniques. While everyone swarmed around Steadman's unflattering, accurate take on Donald Trump, my favorite pieces were his delicate and detailed illustrations of Alice in Wonderland, two of which are below. Visit Ralph Steadman's website to learn more. 

      Which are your favorite museums? Make a plan to visit one soon. You never know what you'll find.