Friday, November 27, 2015

48 Hours in Detroit

Appear, Appease, Applaud by Xavier Simmons
from the Exhibit 30 Americans
     Where to go for a little cultural getaway?  This time our road trip was based around three exhibitions at three midwest art museums—Detroit, Toledo, and Cleveland.  Beginning with Detroit, we arrived   in time for a late lunch at El Barzon, a combination of Mexican and Itlaiian cuisines in Mexicantown west of downtown.  For those that are squeamish (i.e. afraid of exploring downtown CIncinnati), driving around Detroit neighborhoods may prove to be anxiety-ridden.  For us, it was sad and hopeful.  Covering complete neighborhoods that have been deserted for years was a bit like a bombed European city after World War II that we've only seen on the news.  Our questions were numerous with few answers, but we were there to celebrate their determination to make a great city great again.

Motown's Studio A
     Our second stop was Motown Museum in New Center district, a row of early 20th century homes purchased by Barry Gordy as offices for his music empire from 1959 to 1972.  After hearing about how most of the artists grew up in the same neighborhood, we were on a mission to find Diana Ross' family home.  A fast google research came up with a street, but not a house number.  Photos showed the home we were looking for, but we never found it.  In the process, we did pass Florence Ballard's home.  Later, after digging deeper into google, we found the addresses for all three Supremes
Florence Ballard's Home
discovering that Diana Ross' house was right across the street from Florence's and Mary Well's was a mere four blocks away.  It took us through some startling neighborhoods, but theirs was amazingly left untouched.  

The Henry Lobby
     Our "home" was The Henry located in Dearborn.  It's a lovely oversized boutique hotel with artwork lining the corridor, all for sale to guests.  Our dinner that night was at TRIA adjacent to the lobby.  We opted to share the Duck Cassoulet since our lunch had been quite hearty.  Eric started with the Pumpkin Soup and I had the Arugula Salad.  However, the main reason we were there was for the
Soufflé with Grand Marnier Sauce
Soufflé served with a Grand Marnier Sauce and vanilla Ice cream.  We were hoping for a Commander's Palace/New Orleans experience and that is exactly what we had.

     I had checked out the website for dining options.  It's a great idea with 38 restaurants that are briefly reviewed and updated quarterly.  Our stop for lunch was Rose's Fine Foods, a small diner committed to totally local food that even these foodies found amazing.  A short drive
Pewabic Pottery
down Jefferson Avenue was Pewabic Pottery known locally and beyond.  We found it akin to Rookwood. The quaint tudor
Pewabic Potteryware
cottage looked out of place in the neighborhood, but contained some pieces that we just couldn't resist for ourselves and as gifts.  

Detroit Institute of Arts. 2007 addition
     Next on our itinerary was the reason for our visit, the Detroit Institute of Arts.  Located on a city block just north of downtown, the original 1885 building was surrounded in the back by a contemporary addition from 2007.  What looked like a modest museum on the outside proved to be enormous once inside.  The collection was stellar and the Diego Rivera murals in the courtyard are not to be missed.  Walking through what
Diega Rivera Murals
became a history of art, it was hard to imagine that such a collection was actually proposed to be sold a few years ago to bail out the city.  From the surprisingly generous attendance on a Friday afternoon and into the evening, it would have been an unbelievable blow to a city already struggling for stability.  We were there four hours and only made it through one of three floors.

Shinola Store in Midtown
     Shinola (of shoe shine fame) has become a bright light to the Detroit creative class in the past couple of years.  Taking a mundane product, the new owners decided to turn it into a model for "made in America" with handmade leather products and gift items that epitomize quality with price tags to match.
City Bird
We visited their store in Midtown, an obviously trending area for young millennials.  We particularly liked  our visit to City Bird across the street.  Its prices and offerings were more in line with our style.

Fox Theatre
     A trip further downtown toward the river brought us into more congestion that was actually a pleasure to confront.  Everyone seemed to be drawn to Ford Field, and for good reason.  Luke Bryan was performing at the outdoor stadium, which seemed to be a risky premise for the end of October.  Finally, we had found the heart of the city and it was beating heavily.

Dinner at Polish VIllage Cafe in Hamtramck
     From our trusty dining guide, we found the Polish area of the city—Hamtramck.  Virtually a city within a city, it was a working class area with a vibe.  Following the crowd to the downstairs Polish Village Cafe, we joined the line forming for a table.  The wait was much longer than indicated, but the experience was purely cultural with locals speaking Polish and Hungarian.  We were definitely not in a tourist spot.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

30 Americans at Detroit Institute of Arts

Very impressive and coming to Cincinnati

"30 Americans" Exhibit Featuring
MickaleneThomas and Kehinde Wiley
     We went to Detroit in a gloomy October because we wanted to visit the Detroit Institute of Arts to see 30 Americans.  It was also a way to preview a major exhibit that will travel to Cincinnati next year.  The Rubell family has put the collection together over the past four decades and it’s been exhibited at a couple of other museums over the past few years.  All the artists are black, but each displays an individual style and subject matter.  

Sleep by Kehinde Wiley
     All deserve attention and discussion.  I’ll focus on a few of them.  The pièce de resistance has to be anything by Kehinde Wiley and he’s well represented here by a smaller triptych as well as two other heroic pieces.  Sleep (acquired 2007) is 11 x 25 feet, both breathtaking and intriguing because of its almost completely smooth surface. Wiley’s portrayal of young black
Detail of Sleep
men in Flemish, Baroque, and Neo-Classical settings points up both the necessity for inclusion, but also a primary method to make the art crowd actually look.  It helps that they’re extraordinarily beautiful.

Detail of Portraits of Quanikah
by Mickalene Thomas
     Mickalene Thomas, a figurative painter I hadn’t encountered before, places women in somewhat confrontive positions referring to historic earlier works as well as head shot poses that are about identity and self-empowerment.  The flatness of the figures’ palettes (achieved with acrylic and enamel) is offset by wild fabric patterns on the clothing and furniture and the rhinestones she uses as a focal point.  

Camptown Ladies by Kara Walker
     Kara Walker, who works in enormous paper silhouettes of images based on 19th century photos, engravings, and even Br’er Rabbit stories, shocks me once I really take in what’s happening in her visual epics.  Sculptor Nick Cave presents
by Nick Cave
contemporary mythic liminal figures that are playful, sexy, and somehow unsettling.  Having seen their work in other venues, I have to say that their presence in this exhibition broadened political and visual literary boundaries provocatively.  

Fast Eddie
by Barkley L. Hendricks

     I saw a couple of Barkley L. Hendricks’ realistic portraits back in college in the 1980s.  The works in this collection are from that period even though he has continued painting and teaching, but the effect felt like time freezing.  He’s a precursor to both Wiley and Thomas in presenting proud, naturalistically rendered male figures dressed and nude.  On the other hand, Jean-Michel Basquiat combined lettering with childlike imagery on heavily brush-stroked backgrounds; they’re almost like impasto.  Because of how the work was shown, I was able to come away with a new appreciation for his art, even though I don’t like it.  

A Visitor Contemplates
Duck, Duck, Noose by Gary Simmons
     I could go on about each of the artists because all of them provoke thought and intrigue.  Figurative painting may dominate, but there is also sculpture, video, and conceptual pieces that are symbolic or abstract.  The audio (and visual) tour was the first time I’ve seen perspectives on specific works by the curatorial staff, the artists discussing with board members in what looked to be a green room, and high school students of various ethnicities.  All three groups had intelligent, original viewpoints.  The book of the exhibition was worth it and I look forward to seeing it again closer to home.

A Gallery of Black American Artworks
     The rest of the museum was unexpected.  For one thing, it’s enormous – the size of the Chicago Art Institute or the Museum of Modern Art.  We spent four plus hours there and covered the exhibition and the second floor.  There’s a very strong emphasis on black American artists from the 18th century through the present, including Robert Colescott, one of the 30 Americans.  

The Atrium with Diego Rivera's Murals
     The justly celebrated crown jewel of the museum is Diego Rivera’s Detroit Industry (1932 – 1933), twenty-seven fresco panels that surround an inner atrium.  They speak of factory workers and capitalist bosses, the developing airline industry and pre-Columbian agrarian culture.  It’s a place to stand and stare.  However, there was also a group dancing performance to celebrate the Day of the Dead.  It’s certainly a museum I would visit again.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

El Barzon:Terrific MexiTali in Detroit’s Mexicantown

     El Barzon (to saunter or stroll around or the strap that yokes oxen to the plow beam), located in Detroit’s Mexicantown, features two menus:  one Mexican, the other Italian.  This is not a fusion concept, but rather two cuisines offered by the same establishment.  Pretty much everything, but the tortilla chips, is made in house.  It’s a place where you don’t park on the street unless you want the giant rottweiler next door barking crazily at you – was he named Satan?  I don’t know.  Instead, there was a parking lot behind the restaurant if you see the sign to turn into the alley.

The Mexican/Italian Interior of El Barzon
     Once we were in the quiet, darkened interior with Big Band and American Songbook standards sung by the great generation of saloon singers, we were treated to friendly, professional service and one-of-a-kind food.  We devoured the chips with the spicy red sauce and the lovely green sauce.  It was cream based and it had a smoothness that must have originated with a roux.  Yes, we had a second round of chips, which was a mistake when we saw the size of the entrée portions, but we didn’t go so far as to lick out the salsa bowls.

Tomato Pasta Soup

     We shared a tomato pasta soup, which was broth based with diced potato.  Surprisingly delicate, it was a nice way to prepare for the Chile Relleno with Beef and the special, which was Gnocci in Pesto sauce served with grilled chicken.  
Chile Relleno
The relleno was the best version of this dish I think I’ve ever had.  The batter was very light and was a complement, not an overwhelming blanket, to the vegetable that was cooked perfectly – neither tough nor falling apart.  The beef filling was generous and all meat.  The red sauce was sweet and smoky, the black beans creamy, and the rice freshly cooked.  It was a total winner!  The creamy pesto sauce was beautiful, thick, 
Pesto Gnocchi with Chicken
and plentiful.  The gnocchi were pillows filled with cream cheese.  It was a great touch, revealing ingenuity and effort.  Neil liked the chicken and thought the grill taste set off the smooth creaminess of the sauce very well.  I didn’t think the chicken was needed and one of the strips I ate was stringy.  Otherwise, this was really good.

     The parking lot attendant was friendly and shared his story as a Cuban refugee and it was fascinating.  It’s an unexpected and worthwhile place to visit, though it’s off the beaten path from the Detroit “that’s come back” according to the ads.

El Barzon Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Burnt: Why the Dislike?

     We’ve wanted to see Burnt since the ads started appearing about six weeks ago.  Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller generate electricity together and it’s because they share an ease together after American Sniper, rather than a cozy familiarity.  The story centers on a chef whose hard work and ambition turned to arrogance before he flamed out in a combination of drugs, alcohol, and a failed romantic relationship.  The movie starts with that character ending his penance by shucking his millionth oyster and deciding to travel to London, start a restaurant, and earn a third Michelin star.  

Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller
     It’s easier to get that restaurant off the ground in a glamorously established space when that chef has a lot of contacts, of which many have complicated histories with him.  There are some wonderful European actors cast as those earlier friends and loves (some turned enemies) including Daniel Brühl, Omar Sy, Riccardo Scamarcio, Alicia Vikander, and Matthew Rhys.  
Daniel Brühl
It makes a great point for bilingualism and multilingualism as a means to a career and circle of colleagues and friends.  I could have done without the character sniffing another character’s clothes as shorthand for unrequited love.  It seems borrowed from Brokeback Mountain.  I thought that Emma Thompson’s therapist character must have been extremely successful since she lived in a beautiful house in central London with an enormous courtyard garden.  Uma Thurman provides a hoot of a cameo as an important London food critic.  

     Steven Knight has written some gritty London-set screenplays in the past and this is no exception, which seems to have been a major sticking point.  Critics have harped on the unpleasant main character and I think audiences may have been looking for a slick romantic comedy, which this is not.  Cooper possesses the charisma to attract an audience even while playing an asshole, albeit a brilliant one trying to overcome his nature.  He doesn’t turn sentimental or cute, which is gutsy.  The earlier incarnation of his character could have been the one he played on TV’s Kitchen Confidential (2005), which I liked, but no one else watched.  

The Dish That Won the Michelin Third Star
     As Neil said in regards to Burnt, it’s all about the food; it’s also about the esprit de corps that can exist in a work environment among people dealing with stress.  It ends on a realistic note, but not the feel-good one that Jon Favreau’s Chef did last year and that may have also gone against it.  

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Cleveland Shows "The Garden in Modern Art: Monet to Matisse"

A range of styles and movements cover a seminal period in Western art

The Cleveland Museum of Art Atrium
     We hadn’t been to The Cleveland Museum of Art since 2006 when the addition was begun.  It’s added an enormous wing and a stupendous atrium, which had formerly been a large courtyard.  The blend of styles is seamless and it’s been a way to maintain Cleveland as a pre-eminent American art museum.  Both Sister Wendy and Robert Hughes visited Cleveland for their TV documentary series.  The Garden in Modern Art:  Monet to Matisse makes only one North American stop, which should be a major attraction for the museum.

Monet's 3-Panel Agapanthus
     The Garden in Modern Art begins with works from the 1860s and concludes in the 1920s, though there is a later Matisse from 1940 that comments on his (and the other artists’) earlier work.  The major Impressionists (Monet, Renoir, Pissaro, later Manet) and Post-Impressionists (Cézanne, Gauguin, Bonnard, who seemed like a neo-impressionist) are presented as well as other leading artists and art movements of that era.  There are 150 paintings and many of them are immediately recognizable.  The penultimate room features a collection of Monet’s water lilies that reminded me of L’Orangérie in Paris and our friend Cindy of a gallery in the Pittsburgh Museum of Art.   Although I had a sense that there’s Monet and then everyone else, there are surprising works by artists that aren’t usually included in wall calendars.

Louis Comfort Tiffany by Joaquin Sorolla
     I’d never seen Joaquin Sorolla’s work before; Cindy had, but only in books.  His portraits of his wife Clothilde and Louis Comfort Tiffany feature the sitters in gardens, but the palette features shades of white with pops of color emanating from the faces.  It’s in a naturalistic style, but suggests a fresher approach influenced by the Impressionists.  John Singer Sargent moved from a romantic naturalism to an overlay of impressionism and then to symbolism.  Henri Le Sidaner, one of Proust’s favorite artists, actually was a Symbolist and his outdoor winter scenes showing only white and gray vibrate with interior warmth.  There was also Santiago Rusiñol,
Santiago Rusiñol
one of the Els Quatre Gats, who utilized jewel tones and stark lighting to off set the subject matter.  His gardens represent the end of Spain’s era as a world power.

     The only drawback about this exhibition is that is ends the beginning of January.  It’s worth the trip to Cleveland.  The museum also features extensive collections of Asian art as well as 20th century American and European works.
Gray and Gold by john Rogers Cox

The Garden in Modern Art:  Monet to Matisse runs through January 5, 2016.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

The Lone Bellow Live

The Lone Bellow
Wow!  We saw The Lone Bellow in concert at the 20th Century in Oakley and their sound is as pure and grand in a hall as it is recorded.  Although louder live (there’s no volume control, after all), their intensity remains the same.  This integrity rarely carries over for most groups – country sounds like rock live, rock sounds like heavy metal, heavy metal sounds like a monster truck rally.  We’ve reviewed their latest album Then Came The Morning, but hadn’t heard their earlier The Lone Bellow (2013).  The best place we heard them was on the main floor of the venue, rather than the balcony because the sound was distorted and the lighting threw the performers into garish shadows.

Brian Elmquist, Zach Williams and Kanene Donehey Pipkin
     The group is basically a trio of Zach Williams as principal front man and acoustic guitarist, Brian Elmquist on electric guitar, and Kanene Donehey Pipkin on mandolin and bass.  Though Williams handles most of the lead singing, they also trade off on some songs.  Their first album focused more on acoustic and some alt-country arrangements, which Elmquist handles with sincerity and grace, while Pipkin displays a powerhouse keening quality on those with a Celtic feel about them.  However, Williams has the star voice because it’s big, impassioned, and has that nasal note redolent of contemporary groups.  The blend of styles results in alchemy.  They may be the closest group we have today to The Band in the late ‘60s.  They marry country, alternative rock, and roots into a complex sound that’s inimitable; Alabama Shakes creates a similar idiosyncratic stew from blues, psychedelic rock, and jazz.

After the Show
       The Lone Bellow performed an almost two hour set after Anderson East, which was a good, though chameleonic, cover band and an earlier singer opened for them.  They brought Anderson East on stage for the final encore, which was a loose, wondrous take on Prince’s “Purple Rain” (they’d toyed with Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” a half hour earlier).  They and East were charming, though tired, while greeting fans after the show.  Thanks to the forward thinking WNKU as a major sponsor of the show, but must the yakky guy with the signed guitar show up at every show and hog the artists’ attention when they’re trying to connect with their fans?

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Pop Evaporation: Walk the Moon, fun., and Foster the People

     Walk the Moon’s “Shut Up and Dance” played during the spring on our major Contemporary Hit radio station, Q102, and the extraordinary WNKU, which is Adult Album Alternative, though they’re trying to mix in more mainstream material.  It’s a catchy, cute number that wasn’t too distinguished until I saw them play it in a concert on Palladia.  Their energy and attractiveness were more appealing on TV than in their pictures on the CD or in the recorded performances of their songs.  What set them apart was that they were from Cincinnati and they were gaining national attention.

     Their album Talking Is Hard (2014) has some strong singles, especially “Different Colors” and “We Are The Kids.”  With their focus on youth and what it craves, Walk the Moon both celebrates and subversively critiques its largest listening demographic.  What surprised me about my students was they knew the songs, but didn’t realize the band was local, and they were mixed in how they felt about them.  I don’t know if that was because they picked up on the ambivalent thematic undertones of the album’s lyrics or if they just didn’t like some of the songs.

     Walk the Moon has a similar sound to two other recent groups that hit it big:  fun. and Foster the People.  fun. started around the same time (2008) as Walk the Moon, though the members had been in other bands and had a few years on the Kenyon College students inspired by The Police’s “Walking on the Moon” (1983).  Some Nights (2012) vaulted fun. into major stars and lots of Grammys, which are awards somewhat indicative of little that lasts.  Foster the People formed in 2009 and leapt out of the commercial and critical gates almost immediately with Torches (2010) and its first single “Pumped Up Kicks.”

     Nate Ruess, lead singer and songwriter for fun., possesses a signature voice that’s nasally and feels sharp.  He’s been a proponent of auto-tune, which was pragmatic, but it surprised me.  He’s also working on a solo album, which concerns me.  Some band lead singers – Grace Potter, most recently, and Mick Jagger – need the interplay with the rest of the group to generate the greater excitement.  Others have gone solo to success (Paul McCartney, John Lennon) or a far greater profile, such as Michael Jackson or Chaka Khan.  Pete Townshend and Stevie Nicks were able to do both, but they’re still better known for their group work over their solo careers.  Will Ruess’s career take off and will he keep fun. going?

     Foster the People, led by former jingles writer Mark Foster, hit its peak with “Pumped Up Kicks” because the subject matter of a school shooter was off-set by the bright, cheery melody.  The moment I first heard them on Saturday Night Live, I wanted the album.  However, I didn’t give their second album much more than a cursory listen in a record shop.  That sense of moving on to the next thing, which doesn’t sound any different from the last, big thing, is the downfall for pop.  Country, hip-hop, Americana, and rock generally thrive because fans are attracted to the artists and the genre sound, rather than the beat and a specific single.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

When a Solo May Be a No-Go: Grace Potter

     Grace Potter recently released a solo album Midnight.  She has been the lead singer and multi-instrumentalist for Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, who’ve been around since 2002.  After a decade of touring and releasing independent records, they hit it big commercially and critically with Grace Potter and the Nocturnals (2010).  It featured two killer singles, which were “Paris (Ooh La La)” and “Oasis.”  They returned two years later with The Lion the Beast the Beat, which had “Stars,” but held together probably better as an album, rather than as a collection of singles.

Grace Potter On Her Own
     Potter was responsible for most of the songwriting and the press focused almost exclusively on her because she’s physically very attractive and she exudes a positive, almost relentless energy.  There was controversy because she changed her look from jeans to dresses, but like Sheryl Crow pointed out years ago, John Lennon changed his look constantly and that never seemed to be such a big deal.  Although Potter has been compared to Janis Joplin, Bonnie Raitt and other blue eyed blues rock singers, her most apt forebears are Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart.  VH1 shrewdly put them together for Divas Salute the Troops in late 2010.  

     The Wilson sisters, while stars, have always placed themselves within the context of a band.  That give and take musically has been a primary reason that they’ve moved between the rock, blues, and pop genres.  Grace Potter and the Nocturnals have also covered these styles.  Here’s the rub:  Potter collaborates with Eric Valentine as a songwriter and producer on this solo album, but it doesn’t possess any sense of interplay. While bands record their albums through a series of tracks in the studio, they still generate a collective energy.  This has been true for Potter’s work with the Nocturnals, but the back-up players on this album sound generic; they might as well be computer generated.  

     The songs are catchy and “Hot to the Touch,” “Your Girl,” and “Let You Go” have a late ‘70s early ‘80s rock vibe, which is attractive in a retro sense until I remembered that it was also the high point of ‘corporate rock’:  the period when most major rock-pop bands sounded almost interchangeable as they battled in the Top 40.  I felt I knew where each song was going in the first twenty seconds and found myself singing along.  Neil said everything sounded like something he’d heard before.

Grace with The Noctournals
     In conclusion, it’s a salve to Potter’s artistic ego to try something on her own, but she comes alive when she’s the front woman for a band, rather than with a solo spotlight. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Cuban Pete Sandwiches…Robust, Hot and Sweet

Cuban Pete Sandwiches on Court Street
     When one takes over a space once occupied by Tom + Chee, one must have the hope that the business will have the 
same success.  By borrowing the same menu format and applying it to some Cuban family recipes, the potential is certainly there.  The interior has been splashed with lime green and orange to erase all the red and yellow.  A friendly staff added to the appeal.

El Cubano
     Eric and I met on a Friday for lunch (it's open for breakfast also) to check out one of my favorite cuisines.  Our go-to for Cuban food has been Havana Rumba in Louisville, so our standards are high.  However, on a recent visit there I sampled their El Cubano Sandwich and I wasn't wowed.  So, I was ready to put Cuban Pete to the test.  I found his to be what i consider the perfect Cubano.  There were two things that were key…the bread and an unassuming mustard lightly glazing the cheese.  Eric wasn't as happy with his Special 

Apple Butter Cuban
Apple Butter Cuban with turkey and goat cheese substitutes.  It made me wonder about Pete's other variations including one made with goetta.  We'll leave that one for another visit as well as the other sandwiches and salads.  The side of Plaintains was on par with HR, but the Cuban Missiles (Croquetas) were a mouthwatering filling of puréed ham and mozzarella.  I could have made a meal out of them.  They reminded me of the ham croquettes at Bill Knapp's.  Each sandwich is served with a handful of lightly caramelized popcorn adding to the sweetness present in almost everything we sampled.  Our Café Con Leches were no exception.  I asked for mine sweetened, but Eric confirmed that even the regular was sweet enough.  This was my kind of place! 

Cuban Pete Sandwiches Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato