ARKANSAS MUSIC It was a banner year for Arkansas music, as a number of these entries will hopefully demonstrate. But as far as a broad celebration of the culture, nothing matched the Oxford American's Arkansas-focused Southern Music Issue and double CD. In the debut of its new state series, the Conway-based OA skipped past the heavyweights ? names you know, like Johnny Cash, Al Green, Levon Helm and Louis Jordan ? in favor of a standout collection of unjustly forgotten or ignored acts. Should-be stars like Bobby Brown & the Curios, Kenni Huskey and Little Beaver. Could-be stars like the American Princes, Jim Mize and Suga City. Plus, all sorts of oddballs and compelling footnotes. Lots of local folks contributed articles, too (including, in full disclosure, me). Make sure you read Times contributor Sam Eifling's article on Little Beaver. It's one of my favorite pieces of music journalism of the year.
BILLYS Big, mostly bad, year for Billys ? especially Billys with compound first names ? in or from Arkansas. Billy Bob Thornton acted boorish and was a bust at the box office. A cringe-inducing video of him throwing a passive-aggressive temper tantrum in an interview with his band the Boxmasters on Canadian radio went viral and overshadowed the legit artistry of the group, and Forbes ranked him number three in its annual list of Most Overpaid Stars (for every dollar he was paid, his films only earned $4). Pocahontas native Billy Lee Riley, one of the great Sun Records innovators, died at 75. Illness forced Billy Joel to cancel a leg of dates, including one at Verizon Arena, on his co-headlining tour with Elton John. Most of the dates were later made up, but “scheduling conflicts” prevented the duo from rescheduling in North Little Rock, which was especially bitter since the show was to celebrate Verizon/Alltel Arena's 10th anniversary. Billy Joe Shaver, the great outlaw country singer/songwriter, almost redeemed his brethren with a concert at Revolution in November. The 70-year-old showed no sign of his age. Instead, he pantomimed wildly (once flapping his arms like a bird), told hilarious stories about his family (his mother, he said, had a rear end “13-axe-handles wide”) and sang in the same gentle country tenor he's hung his lyrics on since the '70s.
COMEDY Four of comedy's biggest names made stops in Central Arkansas this year. Age and experience hadn't changed Jerry Seinfeld and Robin Williams, who came to Robinson and Verizon, respectively. Seinfeld built his act around the same sort of wry observational jokes you remember from the “Seinfeld” days (“Why say a lot of things to a few people, when you can say nothing to everybody!” he offered as a new catch phrase for Twitter), and Williams, even after recent heart surgery, still spewed the same sort of unrelenting barrage of spastic free associations and impressions you remember from his coke days. David Sedaris, in Little Rock for a Literary Festival benefit, showed off his own observational prowess, noting that billboards advertising catfish and Jesus outnumber all others between Memphis and Little Rock. And Dane Cook, famous for celebrating “the shocker,” told jokes at Verizon about dropping your cell phone into a urinal. Woot, woot.
DANCE MUSIC You can't say that Little Rock's been a wasteland for those looking to get down ? local promoters and DJ crews have kept the rave kids sated for years and Discovery, the Saturday late-night dance spot, turned 30 (!) this year. At the same time, the culture hadn't exactly been thriving either. But 2009 felt like a turning point. Two new venues opened. Discovery's Norman Jones transformed the cabaret room at Off Center into a dance club, Pulse, and restaurateur Jerry Barakat reconfigured Gaucho's to accommodate the nightclub Rio's. And while venues continued to book '90s DJ heroes (like Crystal Method at Juanita's), they also managed to score not just big-within-the-subculture names like Le Castle Vania (the Village), Borgore (Revolution) and Treasure Fingers (Downtown Music), but certified superstars like Girl Talk (Revolution) and deadmau5 (the Village). Cool Shoes, the monthly dance party at Downtown Music, kept packing in young folks. Two spin-offs died, but in December, Cool Shoes' visual effects dude Cameron Holifield had huge success with a new party, Spectrum, at Star Bar.
EGYPT The much anticipated “World of the Pharaohs: Treasures of Egypt,” which cost nearly $2 million dollars and spans 3,000 years, lived up to its hype at the Arts Center. Two mummies may've inspired the hordes, but it's the little things that stand out, our art critic Leslie Newell Peacock observed in her review: “A bird-shaped palette for grinding minerals for eyeliners ? meant to deflect the rays of the desert sun ? dating to 4,000 B.C. Gold finger and toe guards to protect the digits of the dead. A faience goblet in the form of a lotus, startlingly blue. A tiny vessel in the shape of a hedgehog, meant to hold ointments.” The exhibit continues through July 5, 2010.
FASHION We're on our way to a show for every season. The Designers Choice Preview returned in March for a second year at the Metroplex. Again with celebrity hosts (Korto Momolu and her “Runway” pal Jerrell Scott shared duties and sent collections down the runway), and again with more than a thousand people in attendance. Little Rock Fashion Week debuted in August with ambition that outstripped execution, but there's potential there. In its sixth year and with a slate of designers that spanned from teen-aged tutu maker Maddie Burgess to more Momolu, the Box Turtle Fashion Show at Hillcrest's HarvestFest once again provided the highlight of the best neighborhood party of the year.
GOSSIP Speaking of fashion, Judsonia's Beth Ditto, who's barely 5 feet tall and weighs more than 200 pounds, was an unlikely It girl, sporting couture all over the world, designing a clothing line for the British retailer Evans and mugging with Karl Lagerfeld at the Paris Fashion Week. Somewhere along the way she found time to sing a bit, too. Her band Gossip (which also includes Searcy native Nathan Howdeshell) made its major label debut with the Rick Rubin-produced “Music for Men.” Even with all the new juice, when Gossip came to Little Rock, Ditto and co. insisted on playing Vino's, just as they did back when they were scruffy garage punks.
HOT SPRINGS FILM CULTURE Long the documentary capital of the South (and maybe beyond), Hot Springs broadened its rep even further this year, thanks in large part to new Documentary Film Institute Program Director Dan Anderson. In his first year in Spa City, the young Minnesota transplant worked with the Valley of the Vapors Independent Music Festival (another boon to Hot Springs culture) to establish a new weekend-long festival in celebration of avant-garde film and to land special showings of films like the Bjork documentary “Voltaic.” The Documentary Film Fest, as usual, featured a thrillingly diverse line-up (special props to the short “I Am a Man: From Memphis, a Lesson in Life”). But more than usual, it embraced counterculture, pulling in films on art cars, digital sampling, tattooing and anarchist skate parks. Surely a hearty share of credit for the new direction goes to Anderson.
INSPIRED BOOKING In a great year for live music in Central Arkansas, Chris King, co-owner of Revolution and Sticky Fingerz, gets the blue ribbon. He brought in a thrillingly diverse slate of touring acts. Bubblegum pop, DJ collage, frat-rock, Memphis rap, Red Dirt country, Southern jam, tribute rock ? name a subgenre and you probably could've seen it at one of his River Market clubs. Plus, in a way that no other local promoter has in recent years, he seized on the indie market, pulling in acts like Black Moth Super Rainbow, Bonnie ‘Prince' Billy, Dinosaur Jr. and the Dutchess and the Duke with regularity. Props, too, to the Village, where owner/booker Blake Sandifer kept booking big-name rappers (Too Short, Scarface, Snoop, Tech 9ne) attendance be damned and managed to secure two of the most buzzed-about shows of the year ? MGMT and deadmau5. And of course to Verizon's Michael Marion, who delivered AC/DC and KISS this year and always seems to know what'll fill his arena up.
JUKEBOX MUSICALS The Rep's “Looking Over the President's Shoulder,” a one-man show starring Lawrence Hamilton, starred in my year at the theater. But wildly beloved musicals ruled the box office. Particularly those built on little more than song. A traveling production of the ABBA-inspired “Mamma Mia!” at Robinson, another go of “Always … Patsy Cline” at the Rep and a wonderfully overblown version of “Tommy” also at the Rep ? those were the stage shows that had everyone talking. Special mention to Christina Sajous, whose punked-out and sexed-up turn as the Gypsy in “Tommy” made a lasting impression.
KRIS ALLEN You'd be hard pressed to name anyone else in the country to rival Kris Allen's precipitous rise in 2009. This time last year, few beyond New Life Church knew his name. In a week, he'll perform for New Year's Eve on national TV. In between, he spent five months on the “Idol” rollercoaster (remember those Tender Dawg days?), and the rest of the year touring non-stop, recording a debut album and enduring a career's worth of publicity. Here's hoping the New Year brings him a little down time.
LUCERO The Memphis band, which just about makes Little Rock its second home, released its major label debut, a horn-fueled ode to Memphis traditions that sounds as rowdy as usual, and launched a large tour. Even with all that going on, Lucero front man and Little Rock native Ben Nichols still found time to star, as a fictionalized version of himself, in Craig Brewer's MTV series “$5 Cover,” release a solo album inspired by Cormac McCarthy's “Blood Meridian” and play at least a dozen shows in Little Rock, mostly at White Water Tavern, a bar he loves so much he put it in a song. It goes like this: “White Water Tavern nights / old songs and cheap red wine.”
MOONLIGHT CRUISES The best new venue of the year in Central Arkansas floats. Thanks to the initiative of young Capt. Justin Edge, the Arkansas Queen hosted a fantastic series of nighttime riverboat cruises in late summer and early fall. With three levels and a cozy, but ample dance floor, bands can perform on the lower deck, while DJs spin on the top deck under the stars. Warm weather can't come again fast enough.
NATE POWELL Last year, in this rundown, I sang the praises of Nate Powell's luminous graphic novel “Swallow Me Whole.” This year, everyone else did. The Arkansas-raised cartoonist won the Ignatz Award for Outstanding Artist prize at the Small Press Expo and, at Comic Con in San Diego, an Eisner Award for Best New Graphic Album. There's no higher award in comics. Powell's hard at work on two new books due out in 2011 and 2012, respectively.
ODDS AND ENDS Because 24 letters isn't enough. Guitar hero Bill Frisell released an album inspired by the photos of Heber Springs' Mike Disfarmer. A bunch of local dudes made a feature film without money, skill or much equipment that still became something of a phenomenon. “Slumberland” took home the Charles B. Pierce film award from the Little Rock Film Festival and undoubtedly inspired a lot of folks to dust off the video camera. Levon Helm released his second album in three years (buy it), got nominated for a Grammy and got honored at Wildwood's annual Native Sons and Daughters celebration. Siloam Springs artist Kirk Demaris became all the rage on the web with his paintings of cinema families in family photo portrait pose (Jason Patric smolders, awesomely, in Demaris' portrait of the Emersons from “The Lost Boys”). In December, 14 local bands shared a bill at Revolution to raise money for the American Princes' Luke Hunsicker, who's battling brain cancer. It was a great show of community spirit and a fantastic showcase of local talent.
PODCASTS So what if podcasts get less attention these days in the wake of Twitter and Tumblr and videocasts? Several dudes with Arkansas connections made them wholly relevant this year. Local guitar god and co-owner of the sound studio Lucky Dog Audio Post Charles Wyrick smartly tapped into the world of niche publishing with two new projects. With “Pedal Talk,” he celebrates the most fetishized part of guitar playing ? effects pedals. And amazingly, it's not like sitting in on a Guitar Center geek-off. The first two episodes, which featured interviews with and demos from local singer/songwriter Chris Michaels and national indie heroes Real Estate, are just as breezy as they are edifying. Wyrick appealed to another nerd demographic with his mixes-inspired-by-books series (which, technically, isn't a podcast, in that it only streams from a website, but close enough). So far, he's compiled mixes that include songs featured in John Wray's “Lowboy,” Colson Whitehead's “Sag Harbor” and Nicholson Baker's “The Anthologist.” For the latter, he mashed songs like Ludacris' “Money Maker” with a recording of Elizabeth Bishop reading her poem “Rooster.” It works amazingly well. Props, too, to “The Best Cuts of Music,” a groove-oriented, mixed genre show recorded in Fayetteville and hosted by the zany duo of Robe Flax and Sam Houser, and to “Tony Tost's America,” a wonderfully weird trek through Americana hosted by former Arkansan and Walt Whitman Award-winning poet Tony Tost.
QUOTES A few favorites from the year:
“I am a Juggalette And a Nurse.. yes you can be both. Just because we are lo's and lette's does not me we can't do shit and be smart [sic throughout].” Andrea Grigsby, one of many passionate local followers of the Insane Clown Posse ? a group Times reviewer Robert Bell describes as representing a kind of “stupidity so pernicious it threatens to paralyze the mind of even the passive observer, rendering him mute with dull horror” ? in response to Bell's review of the group's concert at the Village in November.
“He drives the right car, he dresses in the right clothes, he's always in shape and of course, he's always tanned ... He's a wonderful actor. He can sing, dance, wear funny pants. He's just an amazing entertainer.” James Caan sums up Blytheville native George Hamilton at the unveiling of Hamilton's star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in August.
“I think it's horrible people have been making fun of her. Susan just wants to love Jesus and sing ? it's cute. Only I can help her out of her meltdown.” The immensely quotable Beth Ditto offers her service to Susan Boyle in The Sun. Ditto also said Boyle should hook up with her and the Priests, a classical trio of North Irish priests, to form the “world's first gospel supergroup.”
RIP Gone but not forgotten: Little Rock native and famed musician and producer Jim Dickinson, known for his work with everyone from Aretha Franklin to the Replacements to the Rolling Stones. Donald Harington, perhaps Arkansas's greatest novelist. Rockabilly hero and Jonesboro native Billy Lee Riley. Munks' violinist Bennett Ryel. And renowned blues harmonica player, leader of the Famous Unknowns and Helena native Mark Sallings.
SIX-O-SEVEN In 2009, Little Rock's greatest rapper ripped it on a half a dozen remixes of songs by blog-approved acts like Crookers and Royksopp; appeared on a panel with music industry bigwigs at Harvard Law School's Black Law Student Association's spring conference; guest-starred in a Russian rap video (in Russia); taught himself how to play the cello and released a new album (in a collaboration with his brother, under the name Ear Fear). And this was a relatively quiet year.
“TRUE BLOOD” Last year, we stuck with the HBO series out of habit. Early in the drama, in his giddiness to exploit the elastic potential of vampires in metaphor, creator Alan Ball forgot to create nuanced characters. Or hire a good dialogue coach or even ? a novel idea ? Southern actors. But, gradually, miraculously, as the first season progressed, the most loathsome characters died, a few compelling story lines emerged and Ball and co. embraced their source material for what it is ? a trash novel. In that spirit and with several inspired casting moves, the second season found its footing by wallowing in excess. It included an orgy-inducing bull-woman, big-haired religious crazies, a duplicitous shape-shifter and more vampire action. It was so fun we've already forgiven the show for its utterly stupid season finale. Meanwhile, Magnolia author Charlaine Harris, whose Sookie Stackhouse books inspired the series, saw all nine of her books from that series in the New York Times bestseller list for a time.
UNLIKELY COMBOS Note to local musicians: Playing guitar in the Moving Front might be the ticket to the next level. Just months after joining the band, Jeff Matika got recruited to join the touring lineup of maybe the world's biggest band. Since April, he's toured the world with Green Day. James Scott Cook, Matika's replacement in the MF, still plays with the Little Rock group, but only when he's not recording his debut solo release for TheRevolution, a new music company founded by Internet mogul Michael Birch. Cook and new label-mate Julian Lennon drew national attention when they released “Lucy,” a duet that pays tribute to Lucy Vodden, a childhood friend of Lennon's who provided the inspiration for the Beatles' “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” The song, written by Cook, landed the pair (and Little Rock's Charles Wyrick) on the CBS “Early Show” and “Evening News.” That screenwriter Graham Gordy (“War Eagle, Arkansas”) and actor/director/screenwriter Ray McKinnon (“Deadwood,” “The Accountant”) worked together wasn't a shock. Rather, it was how they collaborated that came as a surprise. Together, with actor Dave Parker, they made the viral video of the year, “Dwight David Honeycutt for Conway School Board.” Honeycutt's bona fides include “the biggest dreams and strongest hands in this g-d state!”
VELVET KENTE The local quartet infused the scene with a welcome burst of something-completely-different on its way to winning the 2009 Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase. Anchored by singer/songwriter and guitarist joshua (one name only), the band blended deep, traditional funk rhythms with Afrobeat into something just as meditative as it is danceable. Credit, especially, joshua's transfixing voice and drummer Jamal's almost polyrhythmic command. Follow Velvet Kente's lead; enter the 2010 Showcase online at arktimes.com/showcase.
WAKARUSA After five years outside of Lawrence, Kan., the annual music and camping festival Wakarusa decamped for Mulberry Mountain, just north of Ozark, in June. Somewhere north of 10,000 hippies and hippy-lovers climbed the mount to see bands like the Black Crowes, Lucero, Sly and Robbie and STS9. It looks like the festival's on Mulberry Mountain to stay. Tickets for Waka 2010 are already on sale.
XMAS The Dat Heat crew dropped a free holiday mixtape two weeks before Christmas. It's essential downloading if only to get Bware and X2C's “Gift Rapping 2” ? a perfect addition to any Christmas mix. It's wholesome (no cursing), nostalgic (dudes remember the Christmases when they got their first microphone) and crazy catchy. It might be the best seasonal rap since “Christmas in Hollis.” For pop fans, Nashville's the Nobility (fronted by Searcy's Sean Williams) released a hook-y EP, “I've Got a Present for You.” Little Rock's Isaac Alexander co-wrote the title track.
YEARLIES You know, like yearly events. The big annual festivals continue to evolve winningly. Riverfest expanded its boundary eastward to the Clinton Center grounds, which freed up the north side of the river for those of us who get a little claustrophobic now and again. The Little Rock Film Festival returned with another impressive slate of films, especially Scott Teems' “That Evening Sun,” and paired them with a dizzying number of parties. And to toot our horn a bit, the Times debuted the Rock Candy 500, a pinewood derby for all ages. Aside for having only beer to drink at an event that brought out a lot of kids, it was big fun. Look for the next one in the spring, though it's never too early to start whittling.
ZII It's his spot to lose. Last year, we celebrated the sometimes-Little Rock-based rapper pretty much just for being awesome. This year, he actually did some noteworthy things. He revealed the origin of his catchphrase, “Waca Waca Waca,” in an interview with Rock Candy (something to do with Fozzie Bear from “Muppet Babies” and seeing words as colors). He performed for the first time in Little Rock in ages. He put out a mixtape. And earlier in the month, he released his debut full-length, “Zii Dimensional.” It may not, as he promised earlier, redefine music, but it's fun and “Tylenole” is still as banging today as it was three or four years ago when it first leaked.