- VODKA IN THE SANGRIA: Julia Reed, contributor to the Wall Street Journal, Garden and Gun and six-time author gives the J.N. Heiskell Distinguished Lecture Thursday evening at the Ron Robinson Theater, 6:30 p.m.
6:30 p.m. Ron Robinson Theater. Free.
There's an episode of "King of the Hill" where Hank, in a health food store in need of remedying an "unmentionable problem," is introduced to a product called "faux-fu, a tofu substitute for the tofu-intolerant." He thinks a moment and then asks, "Do you have anything here that tastes good?" It's that simplest of culinary criteria that inspired a young Julia Reed to forgo ostentatious cooking when she was starting out as a journalist-turned-food-writer in the Washington bureau of Newsweek magazine, throwing parties in the ham-biscuit-and-deviled-egg-style she'd dragged along with her from her native Greenville, Miss. She often quotes her mother's motto in interviews, "Why don't you serve something that tastes good?" To that end, Reed's six books are filled with recipes for baked Saltines and yams and squash casseroles and mock cheese souffles made with packaged sponge bread, and her accompanying book tours are filled with quips about serving a pot of seafood gumbo with a bucket of Popeye's chicken while summering in the Hamptons. Reed's made a career of contributing her dry wit to the likes of the Wall Street Journal, Garden and Gun and the New York Times Magazine, and she'll share some of it Thursday evening for this J.N. Heiskell Distinguished Lecture. And, because Reed's mother would likely feel the same way about hosting a lecture without refreshments as she would about faux-fu, there will be a reception beforehand, 6 p.m. SS
THURSDAY 12/8-SATURDAY 12/10
RED OCTOPUS THEATER: PAGANS ON BOBSLEDS
8 p.m. The Public Theater, 616 Center St. $8-$10.
For those among us who need to temper our red-and-green Christmas humor with a touch of blue, there's Red Octopus Theater's "Pagans on Bobsleds." The bawdy Christmas special, a tradition that the sketch comedy ensemble says "started long before any of the current cast was in Red Octopus and before a few of them were born," turns 25 this year. Longtime cast members Jason Willey, Jason Thompson, Lesley Dancer and Drew Ellis perform, as well as the company's prodigal-son-returned, Josh Doering. The cast reports that this year's show will include "timeless favorites like Santa-man, Fruitcake, Frosty, the Choirs and the 'Pagans on Bobsleds' song," as well as "new material from The Old Lady, Hermes the Elf and a special tribute to Santa" — all of which will likely incorporate profanity, nudity or some combination of the two. Red Octopus will have refreshments available for a donation, and as always, recommends that the little ones be left at home due to the mature content of the program; children's tickets are $377 each. SS
2nd FRIDAY ART NIGHT
5-8 p.m. Galleries downtown. Free.
Photos by the multitalented Richard Leo Johnson — acclaimed both as a musician and photographer — that were once thought lost in a fire are on exhibit at the Butler Center Galleries in a show called "Once Was Lost" (more in item following). The Butler Center will host an opening reception during the monthly after-hours gallery walk downtown with music by Reade Mitchell. Intoxicating art and drink will be served up at the Historic Arkansas Museum, which will hold its 12th Ever Nog-Off, its famed competition for best nog in town. New competitors this year include Luiggi Uzcategui of Big Orange Midtown, Merrick Fagan of Trio's Restaurant and Dillon Garcia of the Arkansas Mixology Associates; they take on former champs from the Capital Hotel, Stone's Throw and others. HAM also debuts "Eclectic Color: Diverse Colors for a Diverse World," portraits by Central High School teacher and noted artist Rex Deloney. There will be live music by Charlotte Taylor at HAM. The Arkansas Chamber Singers will give a concert, "Heaven Down to Earth," at the Old State House Museum (more about this event in the following item). "B Sides," two- and three-dimensional art by Robert Bean and Michael Warwick, continues at Arkansas Capital Corp., and the Cox Creative Center hosts "Art from the Row," paintings, drawings, sculpture, models and more by men on Arkansas's death row. Outside the River Market district, McLeod Fine Art is holding a holiday show and you'll find ceramics by Amber Lea and chocolates from Cocoa Belle at the Lafayette Building. LNP
BEN MILLER BAND
9 p.m. Rev Room. $10.
If you're a dude with a Mohawk standing on top of a stomp box preaching a pre-war blues gospel hybrid into a harmonica — held up to an old school telephone receiver for maximum fuzz — and your longtime washboard guru leaves the band, you've got a Jurassic hole to fill and you're gonna need some reinforcements. That was the case for Ben Miller about a year ago, and those reinforcements came by way of Smilin' Bob Lewis and Rachel Ammons, a couple of luthiers whose tripped-out Delta stomp duo Tyrannosaurus Chicken elicited comparisons to an "enormous monster moth of flame and dirt" and "Damn, son! This shit's for real!" sorts of hallelujahs from the audience at the 2011 Arkansas Times Musicians Showcase. The two bands had shared stages for years and jammed together as a sort of supergroup before Doug Dicharry's departure from Miller's "Ozark stomp" outfit, and though both groups could boast a stunning voltage-per-person ratio all on their own, "the potential was so far off the charts that if we didn't do it we'd probably always wonder what might have been," Miller told New West Records. The sound the newly formed quartet toted around Europe this fall expands on Miller's churchified fuzz, inventively shifting the percussive elements to Ammons' fiddle and Lewis' slide guitar. Lewis and Ammons' penchant for instruments with "found object" elements, like Ammons' "electric cactus," shines through, and like T-Chicken, the new Ben Miller Band drives and thumps in a relentless trance, a la a supercharged "When the Levee Breaks" or "Black Betty" (which the band frequently mashes up with "John the Revelator"). SS
FRIDAY 12/9-SUNDAY 12/11
ARKANSAS CHAMBER SINGERS: 'HEAVEN CAME DOWN TO EARTH'
7 p.m. Fri.-Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. Old State House Museum. Free.
In the world of televised singing competitions like "The Sing-Off," there's a pretty reliable chance that at some point, the camera will cut away to the audience, showing a patron with her hand over her mouth, or another with a jaw dropped, and I'd suspect the reason for that sense of awe has a lot to do with tuning. Whether or not we're musically inclined — or maybe especially if we're not — we tend to have a gut reaction to a flawlessly aligned sound, one that happens when singers have learned to match one another's vowels so uniformly that their voices meld and become indistinguishable from one another. That sort of pristine clarity is exactly what conductor John Erwin's been snakecharming out of singers for decades, particularly from the 62 singers in the Arkansas Chamber Singers group, which he's led since 1999. For this concert, the Chamber Singers perform the Bach chorale "Break Forth O Beauteous Heavenly Light"; Praetorius' street carol "This Day Is Born Emmanuel" — rowdy in comparison to his delicate (and deservedly ubiquitous) arrangement of "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming"; Luboff's arrangement of "Still, Still, Still," cleverly paired with the lively Parker/Shaw setting of "Fum, Fum, Fum"; the Parker/Shaw arrangements of "The Cherry Tree Carol," "So Blest a Sight" and "Ya Viene la Vieja"; and more. If you're looking to hear some seasonal music sung by a polished local ensemble, check this one out. Seating is limited, so make a reservation at ar-chambersingers.org, and ask the Old State House Museum about validating one hour of parking at the garage by the Doubletree Hotel for the concert. The three concerts at the Old State House are free and open to the public, but if you can't make it then, the group will perform the same program Tuesday, Dec. 13, at Trinity Presbyterian Church, and again Dec. 15 at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Catholic Church, 7:30 p.m., $10-$18. SS
DANA LOUISE AND THE GLORIOUS BIRDS
9:30 p.m. White Water Tavern.
There are some vocations and avocations — think "teacher, "political activist," "sports fan" — that allow one the chance to mark time by watching different generations of family members come into their own. My generation of Arkansas music fans grew up seeing Trout Fishing in America at every state fair and festival, and now get to mark that time with the enchanting emergence of Dana Louise & The Glorious Birds. Dana Louise is a self-taught guitarist/singer, former member of the Fayetteville Collective and the daughter of Trout Fishing in America's Ezra Idlet (Idlet, fellow Trout member Keith Grimwood and Adams Collins make up the Glorious Birds). The band has come together gradually since 2011, with various band members joining and bringing extra texture to the current sound. Don't come to this show expecting raucous barroom rock and wailing guitars. DL & the GB's music is spare, with interlocking bluegrass and jazz elements giving it a quiet foundation that complements Louise's rootsy vocals and finger picking style. Think of Arkansas's own Dana Falconberry, backed by an excellent, multilayered group of musicians intent on letting her vocals and lyrics shine. GH
RICHARD LEO JOHNSON
8 p.m. Ron Robinson Theater. Free.
Looking at the Martin guitar that El Dorado native Richard Leo Johnson used to record his 2014 album "Celeste" is a bit like looking at one of those magazine puzzles where something is amiss and it's the viewer's job to figure out what that something is. Spoiler alert: The neck's on the wrong side and there's a theremin in there, inside the guitar. Sculptor Michael Brolly, after having caught the attention of Martin's CEO, was commissioned to make a one-in-a-million guitar after the company had fashioned its millionth guitar, and the resulting green-glazed "alien" was loaned to Johnson for eight weeks, during which time he recorded a collection of 12 ... transmissions? Sound poems? "Celeste" is ethereal in the true sense of the word; it sounds like neither a guitar nor a theremin, and unlike the Shavasana-and-massage music that probably gets unfortunately filed in the same section of the record store as Johnson's album, "Celeste" is very much a product of Johnson's hands and his preternaturally complex sense of rhythm. Even when he's playing a more conventional guitar (which is to say, any other guitar in the world), Johnson thumps on the instrument's body, rolls his fingernails across the glazed finish and strikes the strings above the frets to take advantage of the panoply of sounds the guitar can make if the person behind it is imaginative enough to see it as more than something to be strummed. What's more, Johnson is self-taught. He sorted out strange tunings on his own after, as his website says, "briefly taking lessons from a hard-drinking oilfield worker before deciding he'd learn more on his own." His guitar work emerged from those "found" tunings, "junk percussion" collaborations with the Mahavishnu Project's Gregg Bendian and the exploration of an alter ego, "Vernon McAlister," extrapolated from the name etched on a 1930s National Duolian steel-bodied guitar Johnson procured. All of that's to say nothing of Johnson's career in photography: His architectural photography has appeared in publications like "Savannah Homes" and "Coastal Living," and before that, he created a prolific body of black-and-white photographs depicting life in southern Arkansas and rural Louisiana and contributed to the late C.D. Wright and Frank Stanford's Lost Roads Press. Tragically, in 1995, nearly his entire body of work was lost in a fire in Eureka Springs, where Johnson had stored his art in a shed on a friend's property. Then, 20 years later, Johnson got a call from his former assistant, Russell Powell, saying — after he asked Johnson whether he was "sitting down" — that a cardboard gin box full of Johnson's negatives had been unearthed in Powell's parent's basement. Those photos formed an exhibition called "Once Was Lost," and inspired Wright to pen "What Do You Think's in the Shed?" — a poem to accompany the show that was delivered to Johnson only a couple of weeks before she died. For the first time in Arkansas, the "Once Was Lost" photographs will be on display at the Butler Center Galleries through March 18; Johnson will attend the opening just before he plays this concert as part of the Arkansas Sounds series. Check out our interview with Johnson on the Arkansas Times' entertainment blog, Rock Candy. SS