It's not uncommon to see art galleries doing double duty as live music venues around town, but music and art museums still don't seem to mix. Not unless you count the unsung jazz and chamber music ensembles that give ambiance to events where guests are more into the cheese platter than the music.
That's why I was intrigued when Modified Arts/Stinkweeds owner Kimber Lanning told me about "Art Inspires Music," a new show at the ASU Art Museum that resulted from a brainstorming session with John Spiak, a curator and big thinker (credit him with much of the creative juice that flows out of ASU) over at the museum.
ASU Art Museum
"They never invite songwriters into the museum environment," Lanning explained a couple months ago, when she first mentioned the project.
So Lanning and Spiak did. Lanning asked four local performers -- Aaron Gerwien (Black Feet), Steven Reker (Reindeer/Tiger Team), Robin Vining (Sweet Bleeders and Colorstore), and Yolanda Bejarano (Snow Songs) -- to select a work of art from the museum's collection, compose a song in response to it, and record the song. She also asked each to record a cover song of their choice. Museum visitors can hear the tracks on headphones as they view the works that inspired them.
At the show's opening last week, each musician performed live. I heard Vining's haunting whistle echo through the cavernous rooms of the museum as I tiptoed up concrete stairs to the top floor, where about 80 people were seated in front of the four songwriters.
It was a starkly different environment from the dim, smoky, softly buzzing clubs where you'd usually see these musicians strumming their guitars. Instead, the lights were bright, and huge, graphic canvases surrounded a crowd that included older folks and young children along with the requisite twenty- and thirtysomethings. There was no slinking into a corner, or chatting with friends -- all energy was focused on each singer.
The gallery had a different sound quality, too: deeper silences, more poignant guitar textures, richer applause. While performing her original Spanish-language composition, Bejarano hit a high note that hovered in the space, making people almost gasp at its beauty. And when Gerwien channeled Nick Drake's near-whisper for a contemplative song that went, "Let me appeal to your heart if you've got one," I heard a baby giggle on the other side of the gallery. Moments like these felt as helplessly spine-tingling as a stab of heartbreak or the spark of falling in love.
Then everyone headed downstairs to check out the show. Vining's music accompanied a large-scale piece covered in minuscule pencil and ink drawings of satellites that resemble hieroglyphics from a distance, while Gerwien's was matched with an intricate print of some wizened, forlorn-looking people. Bejarano wrote music to go along with a portrait drawing of a man who stares right back at the viewer, his arms crossed defensively across his body. And Reker's choice was a mysterious pastel drawing of a fleshy woman whose features are almost completely faded away, except for her pink lips.
No doubt, this exhibition is not only a different twist for the museum, but a stretch for Lanning, too.
Lanning must have spring fever. The day after the opening, I found out that she recently made the decision to sell her Tempe Stinkweeds store to a young couple from Salt Lake City; they're buying the inventory and launching their own shop in SLC, called Slow Train. Lanning is still keeping the Phoenix Stinkweeds location, as well as Modified Arts. But nevertheless, Tempe is losing a favorite record store (there will be a 19-year anniversary party on May 6, and the store will be open until about May 25).
She's making the move, Lanning says, in order to devote more time to her new position as executive director of Arizona Chain Reaction, which started off as a public awareness campaign to support independent local businesses and is now morphing into something more substantial. AZCR got its nonprofit license last October, and formed a board last month. With the sale of her Tempe store, Lanning says she'll now spend much of her time educating the public about the benefits of shopping locally, including trying to persuade the Arizona Legislature to pass small-business-friendly laws.
Indeed, Lanning acknowledges the irony of selling one of her own small local businesses to find the time to promote small businesses on a grander scale, but she also admits she just had a desire for change and personal growth. "For a while I did the band thing, and then I opened Modified -- I'm constantly reevaluating things," she says. "I'm not one to settle into a comfort zone."
My wish came true. Sunday afternoon was a gorgeous day for a party: sunny, in the high 80s, and a little breezy. And so this year's New Times Music Showcase felt like an unofficial kickoff for summer, with everyone in tee shirts and sunglasses, kicking back on the lawn in Hayden Square while Drunken Immortals played the first set on the main stage. The optimistic groove continued with The BlackMoods' classic rock sounds, and with sophisticated house music from DJ Maji and DJ Senbad -- most likely, a taste of Miami from their recent trip to the Winter Music Conference -- right next door at Margarita Rocks.
There was so much to see that no amount of sprinting from club to club -- which, of course, I tried anyway -- felt like enough. Good thing I kept running into friends everywhere, who helped me cover the waterfront.
Clubs editor Benjamin Leatherman filled me in on what he had just seen: "Soul Power was rockin' -- their last song was a smokin' version of 'It's Not Unusual' by Tom Jones," he said, recommending I stop by Caffe Boa to check out Shelby James and the Crying Shames, who had just started. Sure enough, it was a crazy scene there, with Shelby belting it out like a young Bruce Springsteen while some ladies danced in between tables of diners sipping wine.
I scooted over to Hiller's show just in time to hear front man Andrew Hiller -- who sings in the most amazing, passionate, Devendra Banhart warble -- mention that the band plans on recording an LP this summer. But my attempts at multitasking didn't pan out when I ran two doors down, and apparently just missed Reindeer/Tiger Team. For all the sets that ended on the early side, though, just as many ran long, so I saw the end of Mikel Lander's gig at The Library.
Dirty Dave was rockin' The Gossip when I wound up at Tavern on Mill, and there was a decent-size crowd of people on the dance floor who looked like they were on the verge of actually dancing. Unexpectedly, I saw Mike Roberts and Dylan Underkofler from Smoky Mountain Skullbusters. Apparently they were waiting to see the next band, Job for a Cowboy, but I had to inform them that JFAC skipped out on its time slot. (I heard that they later played a set on the street outside for their underage fans.) Roberts told me that the Skullbusters are the first band signed to the new AZPX record label (which is hosting a launch party at Hollywood Alley in Mesa on April 28), and that they're making another full-length album. Since the label's affiliated with the AZPX skateboard company, the Skullbusters get their own custom deck, too.
The audience got a laugh in the middle of Andrew Jackson Jihad's quirky, fun performance when the trio paused between songs and suddenly there was a blast of Rage Against the Machine (being covered by Grime two patios down). Of course, they seized the opportunity for some self-deprecating humor, and then jumped right back into another catchy song.
Doug Quick from the Drunken Immortals tracked me down to give me a DVD with the hip-hop band's first self-produced music video for a song off Hot Concrete; they want to have a full DVD ready by the time of the CD release. (The release show is scheduled for September 15 at the Clubhouse Music Venue.) Drunken has been playing a lot of weekend out-of-town shows -- Reno and Tahoe last week, L.A. next week -- but is setting up a longer tour with Black Sheep for this fall.
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Heading over to the Bash at McDuffy's to see xrayok, I overheard a guy stumbling over the band's name -- as in, "Exrah-awk?" -- which is too bad, because these guys are like Phoenix's own little Radiohead. But not for much longer. I talked to them later that night and they said they're about to move to Los Angeles, so maybe name recognition in Phoenix is a moot point. Drummer Jack Duff is already living in L.A. None of it comes as any surprise, considering that singer TJ Hill and keyboard player Allison Smith have already tried out a few other cities before Phoenix.
The Society of Invisibles' show had a wild, house-party vibe, with about a dozen guys on the stage at any given moment, and a jam-packed audience pumping their fists. The group had five TVs onstage, all lighted up with the band's seeing-eye logo, and the Invisible Man was standing silently amid a bouncing mob of interweaving MCs. Regardless of who ends up getting the most votes in the Best Hip-Hop category, these guys deserve props for Best Marketing -- they put up posters all along Mill Avenue, handed out fliers for their showcase set, and set up a big logo banner outside The Library. I can only imagine what a circus the showcase will be if more bands catch on to this kind of promotional blowout.
Back in the beer tent, I got more highlights from Ben Leatherman: Broadway Bound and Gagged, the local Rocky Horror Picture Show cast, performing "Time Warp" in the middle of the street to a riled-up crowd, and Cut Throat Freak Show, who appeared on ABC's Wife Swap last week, doing their trademark fire juggling. Veteran house DJ Pete Salaz, another of my New Times colleagues, raved about Liar's Handshake, who packed the house with tons of fans who sang along to every song. "It was awesome," he said. "I'm definitely gonna seek them out."
Music lovers finding more music to love. I love it.