Saturday, December 31, 2016

My Favorite Shows, 2016

The Blind Boys of Alabama at Shannon Hall  © SKepecs 2016
by Susan Kepecs
Twenty-sixteen, except for Smokey Robinsin getting the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song, and, of course, the Cubs, was an absolute bust.  The grim reaper took two of my family members this year, yes he did.  And if that’s not enough for one 12-month span, the elephants, emboldened, have stocked the swamp with nitwits and kleptocrats.  It’s enough to drive anyone to binge on booze, pop Prozac like peanuts, or jump head first through the icy shards of late December Lake Mendota. But the arts, without question, are restorative tonics, and here, in no particular order, is what zapped me out of my slump this year: 

Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet returned to the Wisconsin Union Theater’s Shannon Hall, April 11.  King’s a master deconstructivist who strips the artifice from ballet and renders visible, with his marvelously trained dancers, the full spectrum of its historical, spiritual, spatial, and musical components.  Two major works comprised the bill.  With Concerto for Two Violins (2013), King took the tremendous risk of creating a new ballet to the eponymous Bach score that Balanchine used for his most beloved work, Concerto Barocco (1941).  King’s vibrant, postmodern sense of time and space pushed this ballet toward the future, but it was sprinkled liberally with winking references to the twentieth century masterwork.
While Concerto comes from King’s formalist side, the other piece on the program, Biophony (2015), with its score of natural soundscapes recorded by Bernie Krause, author of the wonderfully titled The Great Animal Orchestra: Finding the Origins of Music in the World’s Wild Places (Back Bay Books, 2013), was organic, unchained, utterly new – but also very balletic, filled with artifice-less saut de chats, coupe jete turns and pirouettes.  King’s dancers, moving to, through, and around this ecological, endangered score in their diaphanous threads, were like nature spirits – ancient ancestors of the fairies and satyrs from nineteenth century Russian ballets.

Madison Ballet’s had a difficult year, kicked off by a financial fiasco from which the organization’s
Reikersdorfer and Brooks  © Kat Stiennon 2016
still recovering.  But parts of its Oct. 14-15 repertory program at the Bartell, “Black/White,” stood out. Three short pas de deux extracted from Balanchine’s 1946 avant-garde Four Temperaments, set on the company by Balanchine Trust répétiteur Michelle Gifford, are little gems, each revealing a different facet of the master’s revolutionary neoclassical style.  They were impeccably danced by Kristin Hammer and Pablo Sanchez, Annika Reikersdorfer and Jacob Brooks, and Shannon Quirk and Shea Johnson – testimony to the company’s resilience.
Also on the “Black/White” bill, “2+3,” an ode to Balanchine by frequent guest choreographer General McArthur Hambrick, popped with movement and light.  And Johnson’s bravura variation in Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith’s “Street" (2013) was a show-stopper.  Johnson swept through space, tossing his hair, whipping off strings of pas de chats en tournant – you could imagine him snorting fire as he flew through the air, like some ancient mythological dancing beast.

The great Cuban flautista Orlando “Maraca” Valle and his Latin Jazz All Stars played Overture’s Capitol Theater on Oct 7, proving, as always, that there’s no music like Cuban music, even when it
Press photo courtesy of Descarga Productions
comes from an international lineup.  And what a lineup it was – besides Maraca, Steve Turre on trumpet and conch shells, Robby Ameen on drums, Orlando Poleo on congas, Mario Canonge on piano.
There were a couple of small flies in the ointment.  Milwaukee homeboy Brian Lynch, who was listed on trumpet, didn’t make it – flights out of Miami, where he teaches, were suspended due to Hurricane Matthew.  It’s almost not Cuban if there’s no trumpet, but the rest of the players had so much saoco it turned out OK.   And the first set suffered from an unfortunate sound mix – why does Overture always over-mike?  
Nevertheless the All Stars played some sexy tunes, mostly Maraca’s own compositions – “Afro,” “Balada de Marzo,” “Danzon Siglo XXI.”  And the second set – sound problems resolved – was pure bliss: a long, lush fusion á la Emiliano Salvador; an inspired arrangement of Miles Davis’ “All Blues,” with Turre on shells; and, for the finale, the perfect homage to Cuba’s most famous, longest-lived charanga, Orquesta Aragon – “Guajira con Tumbao.”  A bailar.

The performance by the Blind Boys of Alabama with emerging gospel / R&B singer Liz Vice, at Wisconsin Union Theater's Shannon Hall on Dec. 1, was transformative. Vice and and her backup band on this tour (Jackie Miclau on piano, Derek Winkley on drums) were a surprise – a triple whammy of sparkling new talent. Vice, who started out in film, is a natural-born backbeat diva.  She plied her rich alto pipes on a selection of tunes from her sole album to date, There is a Light (Ramseur Records, 2015), her songs interspersed with simpatico stories about her unexpected career in music.
The Blind Boys themselves – their origins date to 1939 – are deacons of R&B-imbued, old fashioned hard gospel.  Only one of the original Blind Boys, Jimmy Carter, 85, wearing dark shades and a burnished aura of revered elder leadership, still tours with the band.  “I don’t know about you, but the Blind Boys came out here to have a good time tonight!  I gotta get up!  Do you feel it?  If you feel it lemme hear you say yeah!  Alright!” he exhorts the crowd.
The rest of the Blind Boys cross-cut generations, but their old school sound – the harmonies, the falsetto, the call and response, the sheer, wailing joy – is the mother of black American music.

Ben Sidran’s Salon for Secular Humanists, Arch Democrats, and Freethinkers – in its sixth year at the Cardinal Bar, Tuesday happy hours June / August – has become one of the city’s great
Sidran's Salon  © SKepecs 2016
traditions, featuring a quartet of top-tier players: Sidran on keys, Nick Moran on bass, Louka Patenaude on guitar and Todd Hammes on percussion.  “We’re beyond politics this year,” Sidran says, announcing the philosophical shape of this summer’s salon.  “It’s all existentialism now.  The situation we have today, the most radical thing we can do is be happy.” 
The 2016 playlist was based on Sidran’s about-to-be-released album, Picture Him Happy, which I think you can only get at  These are songs in pure groove, edged with razor-sharp intellect.  Most were penned by Sidran, though Leo Sidran co-wrote one, and a couple are by Mose Allison, who died this fall.  The lyrics hit on Mose, Sisyphus, Trump, and the ‘60s, epitomized in a tune called “College” that tells the true story of the graying intellectuals packed into the Cardinal’s back room, boppin’ their heads, tappin’ their feet. 

As usual, the Cardinal, that bright Bird of happiness, hosted more musical magic than anyplace else in town, so here’s what else made my Greatest Hits list this year.  On April 15, New York- based tenor saxophonist Russ Nolan had a CD release party for his fourth album, Sanctuary from the Ordinary, on his own Rhinoceruss label.  With Nolan were Madison-based jazzmen Johannes
Russ Nolan at the Bird  © SKepecs 2016
Wallmann on keys, John Christensen on bass and Keith Lienert on drums.  I caught an echo of something loved and familiar in the set of agile, Latin-inspired fusions this quartet put out, and I asked Nolan if he could play a tribute to Argentinian saxman Gato Barbieri, who died two weeks prior.  “I don’t do ‘Europa,’” Nolan said, referring to Barbieri’s most famous track, the tune actually written by Carlos Santana.  “But I’ll do something Gato-like.”  I can’t name the tune he played – one of his own compositions – but it was sabrosísimo, y super bailable.
Golpe Tierra  © SKepecs 2016
Afro-Peruvian outfit Golpe Tierra didn’t play much in 2016, since cantante / cajonero Juanxo Martínez spends a lot of time in Spain these days.  But fans of the band’s earthy, complex cumbias and landós were euphoric on Oct. 16, when Martínez, Nick Moran on bass, Richard Hildner on guitar, and, this time, Tony Barba on sax, returned to the Bird.
Tony Castañeda Latin Jazz Quartet © SKepecs 2016
The Tony Castañeda Latin Jazz Quartet – Castañeda on congas, Dave Stoler on keys, Henry Boehm on bass, Anders Svanoe on saxes – regularly plays happy hour at the Cardinal on first Fridays.  Castañeda and company cook up the real thing, straight from the heart – the clave-based sound of the Latin street. 
The Bill Roberts combo with Bob Corbit on sax played its good-time jitterbug blues at several Cardinal happy hours this year.  On May 27, halfway through their second set, Hanah Jon Taylor showed up, instruments in hand.  And so it came to pass that two consummate saxmen engaged in a spectacular sax showdown, challenging each other to go bluer, swing higher.  And that’s the truth. 

Taylor (L) and Corbit  © SKepecs 2016

Thursday, December 22, 2016

Dance Review: Madison Ballet's 2016 Nutcracker

Quirk, as the Sugarplum Fairy.  © Kat Stiennon 2016
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s very traditional Nutcracker, choreographed by artistic director W. Earle Smith, is a bright, lavish production, filled with music, color and movement to delight the senses. Last winter the company was composed of polished performers, most of whom were at least in their second Madison Ballet season.  The troupe, fresh from its fall production of Smith’s campy Dracula, had gelled to perfection.  Thanks to that, plus Maestro Andrew Sewell and the Madison Chamber Orchestra, with their light, crisp take on Tchaikovsky’s legendary score, the tired old holiday ballet sprang to life.  This year, as last, the production was flashy, the MCO wondrous. But the dancing fell a bit flat.  The organization’s still digging out of its spring, 2016 slump. While many of the dancers in the slightly thinned ranks are Madison Ballet veterans, new company members and apprentices have yet to hit their stride in terms of Smith’s demanding neoclassical style.
And no matter how sparkly the show, the party scene – that long, dull, Victorian, 20-minute prelude to the parts that makes Nutcracker a bona fide ballet – fills me, an annual audience member, with dread.  It relies, for the most part, on community members to play the parents; it’s only fun if you’re in it, or charming if you’re the real-life parent of one of the little ballet student tots, for whom Nut is a first onstage opportunity.  This year’s “Dance of the Parents,” despite some choreographic changes, looked disorganized, and I was more annoyed than usual by the nineteenth century conceit of sweet little girls waltzing gently with dolls while wild little boys careen around on hobby horses, wielding swords.  This action is built into the score, but dancers are taught to dance off the music as well as on it; in the twenty-first century, can’t girls go a little nuts, too?
The only real ballet in the party scene comes from the dancing dolls (company veterans Kristin Hammer and Jackson Warring, who’ve done these parts before), wheeled out to entertain the guests. Hammer has grown a lot in her three years with Madison Ballet; she was inspiringly lithe and graceful as the ballerina, and Warring excels at soldierly cabrioles and tours en l’aire.
Like a bad hostess, though, I’m immensely relieved when the party guests are gone.  The rats in the second scene of the first act bring a welcome blast of imagination – I love them for their ratty tails, their leaping feet, their red button shields.  But Nut’s real magic, at least in theory, is what happens post-rat.  Smith’s choreography for the corps de ballet – the “Dance of the Snowflakes,” and “Waltz of the Flowers” – is lovely, sweeping, eye-enticing.  Because Madison Ballet’s a small company, a few advanced students from the School of Madison Ballet have always filled in, to make a corps of 12.  These dancers in training generally blend into the mix, but this year the corps was choppy. Except for Hammer and Kelanie Murphy the snowflakes and flowers were all newcomers, apprentices, or students.  I tried to transcend the decidedly uneven dance quality by squinting my eyes and concentrating on the lyrical swirls of color and movement.  Most of the time, that helped.
Similar problems plagued the divertissements.  Only the Arabian dance stood out, done as a pas de deux (by newcomer Michaela King, who was appropriately limber, partnered by Jacob Ashley) when I saw the matinee on Dec. 11,  and – even better – as a solo variation for Murphy (because the company is low on men) when I went again on the afternoon of Dec. 18. You wouldn’t expect the good-natured, sunny-faced Murphy to be a sultry, seductress type, but she’s great at it onstage – her slinky Arabian, with its sensual, arms-up arabesque turns, rivaled her bawdy performance as one of Dracula’s brides in 2015. 
And Madison Ballet, despite the tribulations of its transition, still has Shannon Quirk and Annika Reikersdorfer.  The small company isn’t ranked – everyone gets a shot at solo and corps work – but these two bright ballerinas almost always get the lead female roles.  For this year’s Nutcracker run, Quirk and Reikersdorfer alternated weekends as the Dewdrop (in Waltz of the Flowers) and the Snow Queen / Sugarplum Fairy.
Reikersdorfer is a natural fairy princess, born to do parts like Dew and Sugarplum.  She’s a perfectionist; the impeccable, slow attitude turn in her Snow variation was proof.  She’s lithe and twinkly, a true Balanchine dancer; she embodies even the smallest nuances in the music, her feet are fleet, her arms expressive and articulate. 
The strong, elegant, long-limbed Quirk is, in some ways, more at home in contemporary works.  But she’s found her perfect cavalier in former Arizona Ballet principal Shea Johnson, who came to Madison Ballet last year.  Johnson’s not just good at partnering – he’s the best male bravura dancer the company’s ever had.  He can literally fly through space, as he did in this fall’s repertory show, “Black/White” – and in his Nutcracker Sugarplum variation.  Quirk, dancing the Snow and Sugarplum pas de deux with Johnson, flung herself into lifts and dips with the full confidence a great partner inspires. The two do tour jetes in unison in Sugarplum; you could see how beautifully matched they were.  At the end of that final, pre-coda sequence, Quirk flew into a perfect, long-lined fish dip.  The audience cheered. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Tell Everybody the Blind Boys are On Their Way

photo courtesy of

by Susan Kepecs
The Blind Boys of Alabama – deacons of R&B-imbued, old fashioned hard gospel – bring the good news to the Wisconsin Union Theater on Thursday, Dec. 1.  And if there was ever a time when we needed some good news, this is it.  You know what I mean.  
When the Blind Boys started out, times were even worse.  The original singers were pre-teens when they began their career at a segregated institution for the blind in Talladega, Alabama.  The year was 1939 – the Jim Crow South at the tail end of the Great Depression and the start of WWII.  These conditions, plus the weighted legacy of black American history and the young men’s tremendous talents, gave rise to one of the deepest, most soulful sounds in the world.   
The Blind Boys appear on this tour with emerging gospel / R&B singer Liz Vice (, whose rootsy music, honed in Portland, Oregon in better days (she’s 33, but she only started singing a few years ago and just launched her first album, There’s a Light, on the obscure Ramseur label last year) promises sparkling complement to the Blind Boys’ ageless resonance. 
The Blind Boys of Alabama started out as the Happyland Jubilee Singers, known for their tight, jubilee-style harmonies carried over from nineteenth century spirituals, but there’s no permanent record of those early tunes.  A decade later, though, they were recording – and they were among the originators of the R&B-based, back beat driven, irresistable hard gospel sound you might know better, unless you grew up in the black church, from those beloved secular recordings of the ‘60s by the likes of the Staple Singers, or Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions. Here’s a gorgeous (pirated off the internet, so please forgive any ads that pop up) Blind Boys track from around 1948

 – and here’s how I remember them from Chicago soul radio station WVON, 1450 on your AM dial, in the mid-‘60s, when the Civil Rights movement was at its peak.

This video dates to 1965, the year Lyndon Johnson passed the Voting Rights Act.  Yes, that law, the one the conservative Supreme Court, an artifact of the W. Bush years, essentially gutted in 2013, leading to a wave of new voter restrictions in states across the country, including our own ).
Around the turn of the new century the Blind Boys of Alabama hooked up with British rocker and world music mogul Peter Gabriel – a partnership that’s opened up vast new avenues and audiences, and netted them five Grammys for Best Traditional Gospel plus a Lifetime Achievement Grammy.  The group’s done Tom Waits tunes; it’s worked with a diverse array of secular musicians including Taj Majal, Willie Nelson, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. Running with the mainstream lends a subtle, updated edge to their sound – drum kit, more guitars – but the Blind Boys’ gospel heart and soul are miraculously intact. 
Only one of the original Blind Boys, Jimmy Carter, still tours with the band.  The rest of its members cross-cut generations.  I had the great good fortune to speak with Rickie McKinnie, blind singer and the group’s former drummer (he joined the vocal heart of the band in 2012) on the phone last week. 

CulturalOyster: I think Jimmy Carter is the only original member of the band who still performs – how is Clarence Fountain [the legendary leader of the original group] doing? 

McKinnie: Clarence is still alive and well in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.  He’s not traveling any more, he’s on dialysis.  But he keeps up with everything we do.  Jimmy Carter is the only original member still traveling.  But I’ve been close to the group for 40 years and a member for 28.  I met them when I was four.  My mother, Sarah McKinnie, sang gospel with the Reverend Gene Martin, who used to travel with the Blind Boys back in the ‘50s.  I was born in 1952, and I met Clarence in ’56.   

CulturalOyster: You’re actually from Georgia, not Alabama.  Tell me about your history before you joined the Blind Boys, and how you came to be a member of the group.

McKinnie:  I’m from Atlanta, Georgia.  My career started with Troy Ramey and the Soul Searchers out of Atlanta.  And then I was the Gospel Keynotes from Tyler, Texas.  We were awarded a gold record for a song entitled “Jesus Been Good to Me” in 1975.  And then I had my own group, the Rickie McKinnie Singers of Atlanta.  My mom still sings with them.  If you want to know more, go to my website,

CulturalOyster:  I recently intervewed Bishop Jones, of the Jones Family Singers.  I asked him if he sees gospel as part of the ongoing struggle for Civil Rights.  His mission, he said, is entirely dedicated to spreading the good news.  But right now our civil rights are being trampled in new ways.  Do the Blind Boys, with their history of being involved with Martin Luther King, keep on pushing?

McKinnie: We’re still going in the same direction.  We still sing traditional gospel.  It’s always been about the good news.  We realize that if you keep the faith God will make a way for you.  We’re not dealing with politics, but right now the world is going through a transition.  We sing a song about that, “There Will Never be any Peace Until God is Seated at the Conference Table.”  It features Paul Beasley, our tenor – he’s the best in black gospel, often imitated but never duplicated. 

CulturalOyster: Since the group became a Grammy-winning phenomenon it reaches a way different audience than the soul radio stations of the 1960s.  Does that change what the group does?

McKinnie:  No.  We believe that people need people and workin’ together works.

CulturalOyster: Your show in Madison is billed as a Christmas tour, so I guess it’s based on your 2014 holiday album Talkin’ Christmas [Sony Masterworks] that features Taj Mahal [on guitar and harmonica, and he sings on a couple of tracks]. Liz Vice is coming with you instead of Taj Mahal, but – will you be doing all Christmas songs, including the originals the band wrote?

McKinnie:  It’s not just the Christmas tour.  It’s gonna be a mixture. This concert will consist of traditional gospel songs like “Amazing Grace” and “People Get Ready” and more songs from our other CDs.  But we will do some songs from Talkin’ Christmas and Go Tell it on the Mountain [their first holiday album, a Grammy winner released in 2003 on Real World].  

CulturalOyster: Is there anything else you want to say?

McKinnie:  Jut tell the people that the Blind Boys are on their way.  Tell everybody to tell somebody that Madison will not be the same when the boys are back in town.  

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Madison Ballet's Black / White Reveals Resilience

Quirk in Sonata © Kat Stiennon 2016
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s black / white, at the Bartell last weekend (Oct. 14-15), had its flaws – but it also established clearly that the organization, which suffered a financial crisis and cancelled most of its spring programming this year, is on the road to recovery. 
Black / white was based on the idea behind Balanchine’s “black and white” ballets, those iconic, stripped-down masterpieces of balletic modernism that dismiss all distractions of costume and set, placing the viewer’s focus entirely on the dancing body.  Appropriately, the program opened with three pas de deux extracted from one of twentieth century master’s earliest black and white ballets, The Four Temperaments, from 1946.  These utterly sophisticated little pas de deux belong to the hopeful days right after WWII, when America was poised for new possibilities of invention.  As Balanchine was choreographing “Four T’s,” as the ballet’s affectionately called, Jackson Pollock was making his first action paintings and bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and Cuban percussionist Chano Pozo created Latin jazz.
The three Four Temperaments pas go by in the blink of an eye, but they’re textbook studies of the way Balanchine seamlessly meshed classical elegance and angular, modernist, off-center moves.  Seventy years on these dances are miraculously fresh, still avant garde.  And they were performed impeccably.  In the first, danced by Kristin Hammer and Pablo Sanchez, a regal port de bras startled atop flexing feet that break the nineteenth century line.  The second is staccato and industrial; Annika Reikersdorfer and Jacob Brooks crossed each other in space, elbows bent at right angles; when hers were down, his were up.  In the third, the ideally paired Shannon Quirk and Shea Johnson were luxuriously fluid – a single, four-limbed creature.
Frequent Madison Ballet guest choreographer General McArthur Hambrick’s 2+3, an ode of sorts to Balanchine, just popped with movement and light.  The title refers to the cast of three women (Quirk, Reikersdorfer, and Kelanie Murphy) and two men (Johnson and Brooks), who moved in and out of view in varying combinations.  The men lept, spun, thrusted their hips and cabrioled.  In one memorable pas de deux Johnson swirled Quirk off the ground, her legs out to the side parallel to the floor in a magical demonstration of centrifugal force.  For Reikersdorfer and Brooks there was an
Brooks and Reikersdorfer in 2+3  © Kat Stiennon 2016
adagio jitterbug – she fell backward into his arms, then was carried across the stage on his back.  The women pirouetted in an open semi-circle as the men, coming from behind, lept through them.  Quirk, in an elastic variation, swept her working leg up to a 90 degree second position and, resisting gravity, wrapped it marvelously into attitude. Murphy had a saucy little solo built on chugs, pique turns and little sissones, arms waving joyfully overhead.  Johnson and Brooks, who’s never looked stronger, challenged each other in a bold, playful duet.
Madison Ballet artistic director W. Earle Smith revisited two of his earlier works.  Sonata #1 in F Minor, a three-movement piece, reveals his  deep-rooted musicality and his strong sense of neoclassical vocabulary.  But the work enticed me less this time than it did when it premiered in 2014.  The middle, presto movement is an absolutely lovely piece of choreography, and it looked breathtaking on Quirk.  Breaking the black / white theme in a bright blue leotard, she was, as always, the consummate ballerina, flowing through the music, celebrating her long, luxurious lines.  The andante and funebre movements surrounding this dance were disappointing by comparison, especially the latter, which sat unevenly on the corps (Reikersdorfer, Hammer, Murphy and newcomer Michaela King).  The relentless adagio looked long and repetitive, and lacked some of the strong presence and extraordinary physical control it would need to really work.
The program finale, Street – a piece for the whole company, plus apprentices – has a violin score that mixes Bach and Beethoven with contemporary urban street music.  Like everything else on the program it’s based on neoclassical vocabulary, though here it’s mixed with street gang struts and a twerkish booty roll that shows up in various forms.  It’s an odd step, neither sexy nor balletic, but it served at least one good purpose – a handful of mid-sized kids gleefully mimicked it out in the street after the show.  There’s an overdose of filler in this piece, but there was compensation for its flaws. A little pas de trois for Reikersdorfer with Jackson Warring and Andrew Erickson was flirty and spunky.  Reikersdorfer sparkled with confidence, hitting a perfect arabesque on pointe, partnered on each side.  When they let go she stayed, impossibly suspended, for a breathtaking moment.  And Johnson’s bravura variation, to an excerpt from Für Elise, was a show-stopper – he swept through space, tossing his hair, whipping off strings of pas de chats en tournant – you could imagine him snorting fire as he flew through the air, like some ancient mythological dancing beast.