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2018 Best of Arkansas editors' picks

Exotic sodas, cool relief in July, sweet treats on the cheap and more.

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TRAVEL THE WORLD WITH A SODA: Exotic drinks, like Grass Jelly Drink and Bird's Nest Nice Look Drink, will transport you to other worlds from the comfort of your own home.
  • TRAVEL THE WORLD WITH A SODA: Exotic drinks, like Grass Jelly Drink and Bird's Nest Nice Look Drink, will transport you to other worlds from the comfort of your own home.

Best multicultural experience on the cheap

My wife loves to cook different curries, so we occasionally find ourselves at Indian Grocers, Mr. Chen's or other Little Rock Asian markets in search of certain ingredients not typically available at the neighborhood Kroger. While there, I invariably am drawn toward the beverage coolers. I don't usually drink sodas, but I lived for a year in Japan and grew fond of its delightful array of canned drinks (with names like "Sparkling Beatnik" and "Pocari Sweat"), and I just can't help myself when confronted with strange beverages from faraway lands featuring a flavor profile fundamentally different from what we usually imbibe. For example, Jeera Masala and Bisleri Spyci (both from India) seem made for people who thought the fundamental problem with New Coke was the lack of an overpowering cumin taste. And if you like your beverages with a little bit of chew, there's Grass Jelly Drink (Taiwan), which comes in an array of flavors from banana to lychee and contains little cubes of grass jelly, a tapioca-like substance. In a similar vein, the Hemani company of Thailand produces several varieties of basil seed drinks that have the consistency of loose Jello with little crunchy seeds held in suspension; my current favorite is lemon mint, but you can also buy rose-flavored. And if you need something to quench your thirst after mowing the lawn under the hot sun, try Yeo's White Gourd Drink (Malaysia), which tastes like a crisp cucumber crossed with caramel.

But let me reassure the less adventurous that there is plenty for you, too, to sample. Quice Ice Cream Soda (Pakistan) is a pleasant variant of the classic cream soda, full-bodied and delightfully sweet, while Sosyo (India) proves an odd little fruit drink just crying out for a shot of rum.

However, even my expansive cosmopolitanism fails when confronted with Bird's Nest Nice Look Drink (Taiwan), the main ingredients of which are water, white fungus, rock sugar and bird's nest. The nest in question is made by Southeast Asian swifts from solidified saliva, so you get bird spit and fungus, all in one little can! The actual experience of drinking it is nowhere near worth the bragging rights, I am sorry to report, for it tastes rather like a mushroom just sneezed into your mouth. But aside from that one, I highly recommend going out and embracing the unknown at $1.50 a can — it's a small price to pay for a glimpse into the other side of the world.

— Guy Lancaster

THE VIEW FROM HIGHWAY 71: The Boston Mountains are just one treat for travelers on the old road to Fayetteville.
  • THE VIEW FROM HIGHWAY 71: The Boston Mountains are just one treat for travelers on the old road to Fayetteville.

Best escape from Interstate 40 homogeneity

It's probably hard for the youngsters who have never known Northwest Arkansas as anything but the hurly-burly of rampant capitalism and rampant highway ramps to fathom, but the now-sleepy section of U.S. Highway 71 in the region was once the main conduit between that part of Arkansas and the rest of the world.

This section of 71 is the road to get into a literal and metaphoric lower gear — not as low as the steep, serpentine Pig Trail, but getting there. After you hit the antique stores and do the Tony Alamo trail in Alma, head north and make a pickup (or drop off) at the vacuum cleaner hospital. See Winslow — birthplace of writer Douglas C. Jones and forever the home of the Squirrels! Stop for a Mountainburger at Mountainburg's Dairy Dream; it's a loose mix of ground beef with onion and mustard, and a favorite in Crawford County and beyond since the 1950s. Get a milkshake and sit for a spell on the newly renovated patio behind the restaurant and ponder the vistas ... and is that a large, live pig roaming in someone's front yard? Yes, it is a large, live pig.

Other areas just have the skeletal stone remains of attractions like restaurants, tourist courts and artists' galleries slowly becoming kudzu sculpture, but remain just as compelling to sightseers as they were decades ago. (Brentwood in Crawford County — a once-happening burg?) There are breathtaking views of the valleys and peaks of the Boston Mountains throughout. Once you get into the ever-connecting hub of Springdale/Fayetteville/Bentonville, it's a fascinating glimpse of what were once the faces of these older parts of towns. Travelers can take U.S. 71 all the way to Canada. We hope someone we know will do this soon and take us along for the ride.

— Stephen Koch

MENTORING: The Art Department shows at the Thea Foundation support emerging artists, like Carmen Alexandra Thompson, whose work is above.
  • MENTORING: The Art Department shows at the Thea Foundation support emerging artists, like Carmen Alexandra Thompson, whose work is above.

Best venue for emerging artists

Young Arkansas artists whose obvious talent could still use a boost in the public arena have an invaluable leg up: The Thea Foundation's The Art Department, a quarterly showcase of art in all its forms. The foundation, at 401 Main St. in North Little Rock, supports Arkansas schoolchildren with its scholarships for high school students, its Arkansas A+ Schools that weave the arts into the fabric of academic work, and providing music programs and art supplies. With The Art Department, the foundation has brought high-quality work in a wide variety of styles and embodying social and cultural messages. Over the past five years, The Art Department series has shown a spotlight on the gender-focused works of Lyon College art professor Carly Dahl and the abstract, pattern-heavy work of her husband, gallery director Dustyn Bork; Emily Wood's paintings of friends and family; John Harlan Norris' fantasy depictions of people as occupations; Jon Rogers' landscapes; Guy Bell's levitating pyramid. It's shown Michael Church's surreal collages, Sandra Sells' wood assemblages and video art, Kat Wilson's "Habitat" photographs of people in their homes, Michael Shaeffer's images of drag queens, illustrator Chad Maupin's pulp-fiction-inspired printmaking. Coming up: "The Mind Unveiled," an exhibition of works by painter and printmaker Carmen Alexandria Thompson that address mental illness. In her artist's statement, Thompson writes, the work "seeks to unveil, expose and open up a discussion for everyone about the beauty and tragic workings of the human mind." Like all Art Department shows, the Friday, Aug. 3, opening reception will feature heavy hors d'oeuvres, an open beer and wine bar and a chance to win a work of art by the featured artist. Tickets are $10.

— Leslie Newell Peacock

BEST BARGAIN: Banh mih thit, at Mike's.
  • BEST BARGAIN: Banh mih thit, at Mike's.

Best culinary bargain

Mike's Place at 5501 Asher Ave. is an outpost for Vietnamese food, which is good in its own right. The bun (rice vermicelli) enlivened with bean sprouts, a fried pork egg roll and bits of pig skin, once doused with fish sauce and a dash of squirt bottle hoisin, is interesting, crunchy and filling. But here's the thing: There's a one-line item on the appetizer list that is Little Rock's single best food bargain. It's the banh mih thit, or the Vietnamese sandwich. No slice of pate here. You choose beef, pork or chicken; each comes dipped in a sticky sauce. The meat is dressed with crunchy fresh and pickled vegetables, plenty of fresh cilantro and slices of fresh hot peppers (watch out!). They stuff a torpedo-shaped bun that is served hot and crusty. They call it an appetizer, but it's easily a lunch. And it costs THREE DOLLARS. That's right. THREE DOLLARS.

Max Brantley

WITH BAILEY'S, YOU GET EGGROLL: Along with your burger and shake.
  • WITH BAILEY'S, YOU GET EGGROLL: Along with your burger and shake.

Best place to pair an egg roll with a milkshake

For the past few years, Park Avenue (aka "Uptown," aka "Highway 7") in Hot Springs has been attempting an upswing. There's a dope neighborhood community garden, the much-lauded Deluca's Pizzeria and the crisp, clean Cottage Courts tourist court, which looks freshly sprung from a time machine. The Hot Springy Dingy costume shop at 409 Park Ave. keeps it comfortingly weird. But our nation has learned that the path to righteousness isn't a straight line, and there are still pockets of Park Avenue that are ripe for renovation — former Bohemia Restaurant, we're looking at you ... with increasingly misty eyes.

But stalwart amongst the comings and goings in this funky cool section of the Spa City is the tidy and tiny Bailey's Dairy Treat, 510 Park Ave., with its distinctive neon ice cream cone serving as a beacon to those who not only tolerate lactose, but revel in it.

Every Arkansas community needs at least one of these — an ice cream and burger drive-up, hopefully from the Truman era, but at least strongly evoking the days of sock hops and cult of personality radio DJs. (Lucky Hot Springs has an embarrassment of creamy riches in this arena, with Mamoo's ParadICE Cream and a Kilwin's on Bathhouse Row nearby, crosstown rivals King Kone on Malvern Avenue and Frosty Treat on Grand Avenue, and with bougie Dolce Gelato and Scoops "Yes We Really Make It Here" Ice Cream holding frozen court on the other end of Highway 7.)

Bailey's mixes up its menu from the standard dairy bar fare with offerings of fried rice and egg rolls and the like, and they are a refreshing off-script surprise. But if you're here, you're here for shakes, ice cream or burgers, probably in that order, and that's where Bailey's shines brightest. Long may you anchor Park Avenue, Bailey's Dairy Treat.

— Stephen Koch

READY TO TRADE: Karrie Jackson and her father, James Henry, at their swap shop/antique store.
  • READY TO TRADE: Karrie Jackson and her father, James Henry, at their swap shop/antique store.

Best non-museum museum

The only place that has issued me a handwritten IOU this century sits on Grand Avenue in Hot Springs, just south of historic Bathhouse Row and the Hot Springs Farmers Market. Google Maps calls it Young's Trading Center Inc., but the business name printed in Durango Western font across the old general store-style façade — Young's Trading Post — gives a much more accurate indicator of what lies within. James Henry, the 83-year-old patriarch of the antique palace, sat in a rocking chair at the open-air entrance last Saturday, occasionally chiming in as his daughter (and Young's co-owner), Karrie Jackson, regaled a few curious visitors about the history of the place.

Jackson pulled out a color photo she says was taken sometime between 1952 and 1955. In it, a surlier twentysomething Henry stands in front of the very same storefront, dressed in a striped linen shirt and dark blue jeans with the cuffs rolled up, with what appears to be a red pencil tucked behind his ear. Beside him are his parents, Willie Matilda and Jim Henry. James, as it turns out, had gone to California to work in the logging fields for three months or so when he was called back to help run the new family business, a store the Henrys had acquired from Monroe Young, whose family was sort of a big deal in mid-20th century Hot Springs. "One set of brothers were in the law," Jackson said, "and the other set of brothers were in the moonshine business." Before their ownership, as a photo with "October 1940" scrawled on the back reveals, it was a fruit and vegetable stand, with the same corrugated tin facade.

Now, it's a labyrinthian warehouse with every square foot of its walls lined with old farm tools and wicker baskets and light fixtures and cookbooks and oil cans. Metal box fans circulate air through the corners and wooden rafters, and there's a loft full of antique furniture up a staircase with a preemptive "Watch Your Step" sign at the top.

It's more likely to smell of WD-40 than Old English — a sort of agrarian counterpart to the strain of antique shops lined with lace and chandeliers. It's a place people tend to recommend when you've searched everywhere else and still can't find a replacement for the broken ceramic radiant on your old gas space heater, or when you want to outfit your workshed with some vintage tin beer signs. It's also good for picking up slightly dusty things you weren't looking for in the first place, which could include, but are not limited to: a maroon-and-gold footstool with the Lake Hamilton Gray Wolf mascot where your feet should rest; a briefcase bar lined in coral satin straight out of a "Mad Men" episode, with its rocks glasses still in their plastic packaging; a 1920s enamel gas range by Laurel; an oversized tin sign advertising Salem menthols ("Menthol Fresh!"); a pegboard full of swing locks and cabinet hinges; a vinyl record titled "Good Times with The Happy Goodmans" next to an Oak Ridge Boys cover album subtitled "Songs We Wish We'd Recorded First" and a Ray Charles LP called "Country and Western Meets Rhythm and Blues"; cast iron skillets in all shapes and sizes; drawers of mismatched silver flatware; hacksaws; old-school stand mixers; blank Scotch-brand VHS tapes; ceramic beer steins from Pabst's and Budweiser's classier days; brass doorknobs; pedestal sinks; snow shovels; birdhouses; birdcages; a Royal typewriter from the Roosevelt era; a rack of glass soda bottles; china cabinets; a "Legend of the Lone Ranger" tin lunchbox; a tiny beige Panasonic TV with an earphone jack; empty cans of every sort of salve, remedy and household cleaner imaginable (something called "$1,000.00 Guaranteed Moth Killer," for one); myriad lampshades and wrenches; washboards; an elaborate hinged octagonal jewelry box made of popsicle sticks; box fans from the days when box fans weren't plastic; and at least a hundred items whose original intended function eludes me. One of these items, I'm certain, is the perfect purchase to make with that lingering $7.50 IOU burning a hole in my pocket, and Young's is a perfectly fine place to get lost in, realizing that you've whittled away your afternoon muttering "Look at this" and "What is it?" to yourself at turns for a few more quarter hours than you'd planned.

— Stephanie Smittle

Best summertime sweet treats under $3

There comes a time in the peak of every Arkansas summer when the heat's oppression feels historic: Lethargy sets in, the body humors are overwhelmed by choler and sweat, and even the best conversationalists are reduced to nonstop complaining about the temperature.

Treats of the sweet and frozen persuasion are the best salvation I've found for the proverbial dog days, and Little Rock has some pretty damn good ones. Here are my top three, all found at stellar local establishments, all quick, all easy to take on the road:

Paletas La Michoacana from Del Campo a la Ciudad

I was a paletas naysayer for some years, mostly because they're usually sold at top-dollar by people who don't speak Spanish and at a smaller-than-appropriate serving size for adults.

Enter Del Campo a la Ciudad, a taqueria mercado on South University with countless festive and culinary treasures — delightful paletas de hielo o crema (ice or cream), crispy chicharrón (fried pork belly) and an immaculate piñata display.

The paletas with a cream base are where it's at, particularly those de coco (coconut), arroz con leche (rice pudding), café (coffee), fresa (strawberry) and mango (mango). They are exceptionally rich and velvety, with some notable chunks of fruit or nuts of cookies dispersed throughout. Take the coconut paleta. Something about an opaque white popsicle is just plain satisfying, and the shredded coconut flakes are a welcome addition.

Del Campo a la Ciudad, at 6500 S. University Ave., is open 9 a.m. until 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday.

SO COOL: Icy lemonade at Shark's.
  • SO COOL: Icy lemonade at Shark's.

Frozen lemonade from Shark's

Sharks Fish & Chicken is a chain with a down-home feel and delicious food: Each franchise is locally owned and has specialty menu items, striking real-life shark photography, a bold teal and yellow color scheme, signature lemon-pepper dust (ask for it on everything!), and a brilliant condiment caddy that I give thanks for every time I set foot inside.

The frozen lemonade is of premium quality, and because there's a new Shark's popping up every which way in this town, they are easy to acquire. People tend to have views on ice, and they know what they like — I've heard the term "soft ice" uttered affectionately on many occasions. The frozen part of the drink is exceptionally cold, and the iciness falls somewhere on the spectrum between margarita and snow cone; it's somehow both crunchy and soft, and there's an unexpected delight that comes when the lemonade concentrates at the base of the cup. Last I asked about flavors, I was told each brick and mortar has its own selection (all have classic lemonade, my favorite), including Orange Tang, Pink Lemonade, Cherry Lemonade, Grape, Green Apple, Strawberry and Fruit Punch. I have yet to make this pairing, but I believe any aforementioned frozen drink would pair well with clear liquor.

Shark's Fish & Chicken is open 10 a.m. until 11 p.m. or midnight every day of the week at all of its locations in Central Arkansas.

Sugarcane Coke float from K. Hall and Sons

K. Hall and Sons holds a special place in the heart of the Little Rock community for a host of wonderful reasons. For me, it's a nostalgic spot, reminding me of my days of cutting class at Central High School to pick up a fried chicken to-go box and a bottle of Orange Fanta. K. Hall hosts a legendary Seafood Saturday during the hot months of the year with shrimp, lobster, crawfish and a line of customers around the block. And, for those who know where to look, it sells soft-serve homemade vanilla ice cream in Styrofoam cups.

Slide open the door on the glass-top freezer near the checkout and reach for the unmarked Styrofoam; it looks like a coffee cup with a pull-back drinking tab. The homemade ice cream somehow maintains its softness, even after being immersed in a deep freezer. I recommend purchasing a bottle of sugarcane sweetened Coca-Cola from the ice bath, consuming about half that vanilla cup, then pouring your soda inside the cup (may I suggest creating a few shallow caverns with your spoon for easier saturation?). What results is a coke float of the highest order, one that both quenches my thirst and brings me back to what it felt like to skip school looking for treats.

K. Hall & Sons Produce, at 1900 Wright Ave., is open 8 a.m. until 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. until 3 p.m. Sunday.

—Rachael Borne´

Best non-sexy way to be in the dark with strangers

High church and hot yoga are for the devout. And, while the net serenity yielded is, no doubt, commensurate to your 90-minute investment in mindfulness, sometimes you have more like ... 17 minutes. Tops. And an affinity for sleeping in on Sunday mornings. And perhaps a commitment to the idea of divinity that vacillates between lukewarm and "I'm not religious, but I'm spiritual, you know what I mean?" So, for the rest of us, there's the weekly Compline service at Christ Episcopal Church — a quarter-hour of sung prayers, short readings and silences, intoned by candlelight every Sunday at 6:45 p.m. in a 179-year-old church downtown. If you're looking to get right with the universe, and feel like that's better accomplished with psalm than with pranayama, pull up a pew (or a kneeler) at the corner of Scott Street and Capitol Avenue every now and again.

— Stephanie Smittle

The best county for cool relief

Last week, some old friends who used to live in Arkansas but now live in New Jersey came for a visit with their kids. It's somehow remained light jacket weather at night in New Jersey and our friends came off the plane in long sleeve shirts and hoodies to 100 degrees. We spent several days talking about frying an egg on the sidewalk. Then we did one of the few things you can do outdoors in Arkansas in July and feel cool, even cold sometimes: We drove to Stone County and plopped our butts into the Sylamore, the mostly spring-fed creek that originates somewhere in the Ozark Mountains. The water was so cold that, even though I'd been cursing the sticky triple-digit heat for weeks, it took me a few minutes of hemming and hawing before I let anything above my knees get wet. It was also crystal clear; you could watch little bream nibbling at your toes. Swimming kept us occupied for the bulk of three days, but on our way home we made the obligatory visit to check in on the stalactites and stalagmites and bats of Blanchard Springs Cavern, where it was a blissful 57 degrees.

— Lindsey Millar

Best pizza night shortcut

I can cook, but I can't bake. Whether that's due to some misunderstanding of the craft or some unnamable necrosis of the spirit infecting my being, I'm not sure. I've just never had success with yeast. My attempts at homemade bread or pizza always end up as airless and dead as the surface of the moon.

So, I was pleased to make the discovery recently that Vino's sells fresh pizza dough at a bargain rate. For $3, you can get a double-fist-sized portion of dough, equivalent to a large pizza. It comes ensconced in the same plastic clamshell used to package a calzone or a salad — flour-dusted and pregnant with possibilities, like some great ghostly mushroom harvested from a distant, malt-scented forest.

I like Vino's pizza. But honestly, I like what I've made at home from their dough quite a bit more — maybe from simple pride of ownership or maybe because I get to use exactly the ingredients I want. I suggest jalapeno escabeche (homemade, if possible), a little chorizo from Farm Girl Meats and a modest layer of shredded cheddar. Or, if you can get past the perversity of turning on the oven in August, a summertime Margherita with fresh Arkansas tomatoes and front-yard basil. It's life-affirming even for those of us dead at heart.

— Benjamin Hardy

Best local spat

In September 2017, the Eureka Springs Independent reported that six box elder trees in the quaint, quirky mountainside town's North Main Music Park had been vandalized. Well, sort of. The vibrant crochet coverings that decorated the tree trunks — created by crochet artist Gina Gallina for the city's "Art of Crochet" Festival — had disappeared. Rumors circulated. Conjectures flew. Letters to the editor were written. Dendrological hypotheses about whether yarn-wrapped trees are more susceptible to disease and stunted growth were formed and discussed. The breathability of yarn was called into question. "If I find out who they are, and I catch 'em," Gallina said in a radio segment on KUAF-FM, 91.3, "I'm gonna make 'em learn how to crochet!" Would that social divisions in Little Rock could be woven of such stuff.

— Stephanie Smittle

OUR TYPE OF FUN: @letterrockarkansas on Instagram.
  • OUR TYPE OF FUN: @letterrockarkansas on Instagram.

Best Little Rock collection

Earlier this summer, an anonymous local started the Instagram account @letterrockarkansas to document the wonderful and varied typography found around town. It's an essential follow for those who enjoy design ephemera or simply delight in trying to figure out where they've seen that type. Favorites include the massive wooden "Club Jimmy" sign, once wired with 255 lightbulbs, but knocked down by a storm long ago, that leans against the side of Jimmy Doyle's Country Club off Interstate 40; a modernist Church of Christ sign with a letter missing that reads "Church O Christ" with the caption "All out of F's"; and the chunky, hand-painted drop-shadow Sims Bar-B-Que sign outside the Barrow Road location.

— Lindsey Millar

Best collection of business cards

Foster's Garage, the classic, no-frills body shop mainstay at 409 W. Eighth St., has been collecting the business cards of patrons and vendors apparently since the Eisenhower administration. They're contained within the span of an arm's-length corkboard on the wall in the garage's unceremonious lobby, and the card collection is augmented so gradually and delicately that each card is gingerly tucked into the folds of the cards that preceded it; our own tiny, greasy, secular version of the Wailing Wall.

— Stephanie Smittle

Best political protest

Look, when you manage to piss off Willie Nelson — the unofficial ambassador of stoner serenity and goodwill toward men — your path is surely strewn with hubris and folly. The 85-year-old played a June 29 set at Verizon Arena — the finale to an Outlaw Music Festival that began at 4:30 p.m. that Friday — and included a rendition of his 1986 release "Living in the Promiseland." The song, sung as a trio with Nelson and his two sons, is a bittersweet anthem of an America that, theoretically, anyway, counts Lazarus' "New Colossus" as part of its ethos: "Give us your tired and weak/And we will make them strong/Bring us your foreign songs/And we will sing along." And, performed at such a crucial juncture of the family separation crisis at the nation's southern border, it read as a blistering indictment of our broken immigration policy.

— Stephanie Smittle

Best return

After a long hiatus, David Jukes, one of Little Rock's greatest — and least heralded — singer/songwriters, dropped two EPs under his Magic Cropdusters moniker this summer. "Snowfall" collects songs Jukes recorded with Jeff Matika (Green Day) playing bass and Max Recordings head honcho Burt Taggart (Big Cats) playing drums in the mid-2000s in a Denton, Texas, studio owned by Matt Pence (Centro-Matic). Joe Cripps, the Little Rock native and famed percussionist, helped pay for an album from the sessions and to distribute it. When Cripps went missing in 2016 (he still hasn't been found), the record fell into limbo. "Snowfall" represents a scaled-down version of that album. It's five songs, many familiar to longtime Cropduster fans, like "Hey Wonder," "England" and "Marry Them for Free." The other EP, "Woodstock," was recorded more recently in Woodstock, N.Y., at a studio owned by Jukes' former bandmate in The Gunbunnies, Chris Maxwell. There's a cryptic beauty to Jukes' lyrics that emerges after repeated listens. That's easy to do because his warble and general pop sensibilities will have you immediately bopping along. The records, via Max Recordings, are available for purchase at maxrecordings.com, and on streaming platforms.

— Lindsey Millar

Best, no, actually, the only music festival worth attending

The whole experience of attending a big music festival feels like participation in an overwrought performance art piece on the pitfalls of consumerism. You're looking for a special experience, a fun time, a little reward for your weeks of toil. You pay way too much money to gain entrance to a gated community that promises unique access to an array of precious goods — the bands and artists you adore — and spend hours of extra labor finagling the logistics. It'll all be worth it, though — because just look at that lineup.

You wind your way through an acre of security and get stamped with the imprimatur of elite access. Then, once inside, plot twist, YOU'RE the ones trapped in a borderline humanitarian crisis. It's hot, it's crowded, everything smells like a urinal cake. Induced scarcity jacks up the price of basic commodities (bottled water, kebabs) and you grow to loathe the hordes of fellow sweaty mammals jostling for limited resources. You retreat inward mentally, become beady-eyed and narrow-minded, jealously protect the pitiful patch of turf you've staked out in front of whatever beer-branded stage is presenting whatever performer you've come to see. You damn well better see them up close, and you damn well better enjoy yourself after all this trouble, because you paid for it with your own money, goddammit.

Then there's Valley of the Vapors, the antithesis of all that.

VoV, in case you haven't heard, is a five-day nonprofit-run festival in Hot Springs that captures bands as they travel to and from SXSW in Austin, allowing it to attract a fantastic spread of under-recognized national and international talent. This spring, a day pass was $10. The music is mostly to be found at one of two venerable venues in town, Low Key Arts — the driving force behind VoV — and Maxine's. There are also a few "secret shows" that pop up in unexpected places. Around 4 p.m. on a rainy Sunday this March, about two dozen of us crammed into a Waffle House on Central Avenue to watch a goofily too-cool-for-school Brooklyn rocker named Zuli churn out swaggering guitar riffs, occasionally using a sugar dispenser as a slide. Later, at Low Key Arts, I was treated to a succession of artists playing everything from country to bouncy indie pop to gloomy, Eels-esque bedroom ballads on a tiny electric keyboard. Some of it was good, some of it was not and at least two acts were genuinely terrific.

What makes VoV truly special, though, is the miracle of your fellow concertgoers: You don't despise them. There's just something about being crammed into a big festival that breeds contempt. At Valley of the Vapors, that sour note of impersonal hostility turns to one of, well, actual community. It's an all-ages affair, so you'll see teenagers, a handful of families, older folks. You're in it together, and you're there to hear music you'll probably never get the chance to hear again. What could be better than that?

— Benjamin Hardy

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