whatzup2nite • Tuesday, May 31

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Things To Do

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National Shows

Jason Isbell w/The 400 Unit — Singer songwriter at Embassy Theatre, Fort Wayne, 7:30 p.m., $29.50-$49.50, 424-5665

Music & Comedy

Chilly's Talent & Tacos — Open mic at Latch String Bar & Grill, Fort Wayne, 9 p.m.-12 a.m., no cover, 483-5526

Stage & Dance

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Movies New and Improved!

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Art & Artifacts

Art Cislo: Expressions of the Heart of Man — Woodblock and monotype prints convey his fascination with the heart of man in all its mysterious complexities and myriad expressions, Tuesday-Sunday thru July 10, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467

Beaux Arts & Blueprints: The Allen County Courthouse, a Treasure Among Us — Dozens of the original blueprints from it’s 1902 construction, Tuesday-Sunday thru June 12, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$10, 422-6467

Elemental Attraction: Works in Iron and Steel by George Beasley and Susanne Roewer — Small and large scale sculptures, Tuesday-Sunday thru July 10, Fort Wayne Museum of Art, $5-$7 (members, free), 422-6467

Small Art Show/Sale — Works on exhibit, Tuesday-Sunday thru May 25, Artlink Contemporary Art Gallery, Fort Wayne, 424-7195

Tossed and Found — An invitational exhibit of recycled, re-purposed and re-imagined art featuring works from Sayaka Ganz, Dianna T.M. Auld, Branden Thornhill-Miller, Dan Sigler, Jerry Lawson, Art Farm, Mark Phenicie and Jennifer Hart Sunday-Friday thru June 5 , First Presbyterian Art Gallery, First Presbyterian Church, Fort Wayne, 426-7421

Featured Events

Fort Wayne Dance Collective Spring/Summer Workshops — Workshops and classes for movement, dance, yoga and more offered by Fort Wayne Dance Collective, dates and times vary, Fort Wayne Dance Collective, Fort Wayne, fees vary, 424-6574

IPFW Community Arts AcademyArt, dance, music and theater classes for grades pre-K through 12 offered by IPFW College of Visual and Performing Arts, fees vary, 481-6977, www.ipfw.edu/caa

Sweetwater Academy of Music — Private lessons for a variety of instruments available from professional instructors, ongoing weekly lessons, Sweetwater Sound, Fort Wayne, call for pricing, 432-8176, academy.sweetwater.com

TekVenture Public Workshops: Interconnecting Imagination, Technology and Community — Access to tools; Saturday hands-on workshops for making things in machining wood and metal, 3D printing, electronics, robotics, CAD design and more; ages 12 thru adult, TekVenture, Fort Wayne, fees vary, membership discounts available, 432-1095


Jason Isbell

Truckers in the Rear View

These days, it’s good to be Jason Isbell. A talented songwriter blessed with guitar-playing skills to match, the Alabama-born Isbell belts out country-flavored rock songs straight from the heart, leaving no doubt that much of what he has written down has come from firsthand experience. One can find a clean perforation in the artist’s career arc: before and after sobriety – and before and after his breakthrough solo album, Southeastern. As he continues to tour in support of his latest (and arguably best) record, the Grammy Award-winning Something More Than Free, Isbell reflects on starting over, his influences, his approach to the new album and the value of experience. Isbell and his band, the 400 Unit, perform May 31 at the Fort Wayne Embassy Theatre. The 37-year-old Isbell started young, picking up the mandolin at age 6. He established himself as a formidable musician and songwriter by 22, when he joined southern rockers Drive-By Truckers and contributed to several albums and tours. He also fell into a rock n’ roll lifestyle that nearly ran his career off the rails. After releasing well-received but relatively obscure solo records in 2009 and 2011, Isbell cleaned up. And his star began to rise. Two thousand and thirteen’s Southeastern was released to near-universal acclaim, and Isbell’s profile grew. NPR featured his record. He and his band appeared on Austin City Limits and made the late-night talk show rounds. It’s been an upward trend ever since. When asked about his new album and how he approached making it, Isbell says, “I’m in a better place personally. Southeastern was a good time making that record ... it was not very difficult, even though I had a lot of things going on during the making of that record. I was getting married, had a little bit of health trouble – not anything major, but I was in a pretty good amount of pain during the recording of the record.” He credits his sobriety (and his adjustment to it) for a better-adjusted outlook. “After Southeastern came out, things got a lot better. I became more assured in the world. I got more comfortable with being sober, which had taken some time. It took at least a year after I got cleaned up for me to feel like myself again, to feel normal. And I think that’s reflected in the new album. I think it sounds probably a little bit more joyful. I still write sad songs; I think that’s what storytellers do more often than not. That’s what I’m drawn to, what I like to listen to. But I think Something More Than Free probably records a time in my life when I was a lot more comfortable.” Something More Than Free debuted last July at the top of Billboard’s folk, rock and country charts. Isbell and The 400 Unit took to the road to promote it. Though the album is dominated by acoustic guitars and understated band arrangements, Isbell points out that the live show brings out another side of the songs. “I look at the recording of the album and the performing of the songs as two completely separate things,” he says. “A lot of people in the studio – especially if they cut primarily live, like we do – won’t put something on a record if they can’t re-create it live. But I don’t work that way. These are two different purposes. “We’ll record the album first with out giving any thought to how we’re going to play this onstage, and then we’ll do a few rehearsals and figure out a way that seems to convey the same emotion from the songs,” he adds. “But the live show is always more of a rock n’ roll show than people expect because we are a rock band at heart. So it’s a louder experience than most people are prepared for if they only have experience listening to Southeastern or Something More Than Free.” Though he doesn’t go out of his way to discuss his sobriety, he’s open and candid when asked about its role in his success and growth as a songwriter. “When I cleaned up, I wound up having a lot more time to spend working on each individual song,” he says. “I think that was probably a big reason for the success of those two records. There’s less filler. They’re more consistent from start to finish, and that was a big thing for me. Because I realized that, after getting sober and started writing Southeastern I thought, ‘I really have the opportunity here to write a document, a record that doesn’t make you want to skip ’til you get to your two or three favorite songs.’ It’s meant to be listened to all the way through.” The early influences that inform Isbell’s songwriting won’t shock anyone. But here is an artist who has clearly grown into his own voice, one who is quick to point out where to draw the line when it comes to taking inspiration. “I started writing songs listening to people like John Prine and John Hiatt, of course Bob Dylan and Randy Newman, Patti Griffin, Lucinda Williams. That was the first songwriting that appealed to me lyrically. But I do still hear things that stand out. It’s a difficult thing, because you don’t want to directly reflect current influences on the work you’re doing. I don’t want to follow any kinds of trends or try to hard to immediately sound like something that I’m currently digging. I try to mix it all up as much as possible.” When it’s jokingly suggested he add modern beats to his solidly Americana style, he responds in kind. “I think maybe if I were broke and the baby didn’t have any diapers, I might collaborate with some EDM folks.” However, here’s where Isbell displays an open-mindedness and curiosity that many artists in his musical neck of the woods may not share: “But I like going to those shows. If I’m at a festival and Diplo or Skrillex or somebody is performing, I’ll walk over and check it out. These people are having a whole lot of fun. But I wouldn’t know where to start. I can barely work my computer; I couldn’t build an entire song out of just computer noises. I can record demos of me playing acoustic guitar into my cell phone, so that’s about as much as I need at this point.” In addition to managing a higher profile and promoting his latest album, Isbell is also adapting to his role as a father He clearly relishes it. “It takes a lot more scheduling, which I was never really good at, but I’m getting better at it now,” he says. “You have to make time for certain things. That’s fine with me; I had a whole lot of free time before, so it’s good to have that occupied by family. And really, the little girl’s not a lot of trouble. She sleeps well; she travels well. We took her to a Lucinda Williams show and she was able to behave herself – didn’t scream all night, so that was good.” Tellingly, Isbell is able to view his daughter’s experiences from a writer’s perspective. “I’m definitely inspired by watching her have to learn everything from scratch. That’s something that’s opened my eyes a lot. A good friend of mine, Will Johnson (a great songwriter who lives in Texas), told me that having a baby is a very psychedelic experience. It really is! You see things in a very different way, and notice things you’ve forgotten about ... having to start from the ground up. You take that for granted as an adult, but when you see it firsthand, it makes you notice a lot more things. I think anything that makes you more aware of the world is good for a songwriter, for sure.” Having found balance in his life after over 15 years in the music business, Isbell finds himself at a point where he can, with clear eyes, observe the path that’s led him here. “I don’t regret the things that I did when I was younger. I think that was a great time,” he says. “We made a lot of good music together and had a whole lot of fun. As you get older you learn how to treat people, so there’s always things you wish you hadn’t said or things that you wish you hadn’t done, but it’s all led me to where I am now.” And if he were somehow able to go back in time and visit a young Jason Isbell, just starting out with the Drive-By Truckers, what would he say to the younger man? “If I

D.M. Jones

Grand Designs: The Music of Carl Verheyen

Sweetwater Hosts Film on Guitarist

Sweetwater Sound brings a lot of very cool things to Fort Wayne. For one thing, it brings us the opportunity to tell people well familiar with the name that it’s a Fort Wayne business, thank you very much. Good for our cred. But it also brings Gear Fest, special guest artists and the opportunity for many of this city’s most talented musicians to work in the industry while playing at the local venues in their free time. Basically, Sweetwater rocks. If you’ll pardon the pun. One more reason to appreciate Sweetwater this month is an upcoming documentary film which will run at Sweetwater’s Performance Theatre on June 1 at 7 p.m. And it’s free. The film, Grand Designs: The Music of Carl Verheyen, highlights the career of the session guitarist and the recent recording of his solo album, titled The Grand Design, right here in Fort Wayne at Sweetwater’s recording studios. The album is produced and engineered by Sweetwater’s own Mark Hornsby. The film runs about an hour and includes interviews with familiar names like Simon Phillips, John Jorgenson, John Helliwell, Albert Lee, Mitch Gallagher, Tim Simonec and others. For those not acquainted with his work, Verheyen is listed among current members of Supertramp, and his session work has included many of music’s biggest names, including the Bee Gees and Cher. He’s an accomplished jazz guitarist who is equally adept at other musical forms. For this documentary, he works again with video director and filmmaker Nigel Dick, who also directed Verheyen’s 2011 DVD The Road Divides. Dick has directed more than 400 music videos, including one which he filmed here in Fort Wayne this past month. His other credits include videos for Guns N’ Roses, Celine Dion, Black Sabbath, Tears for Fears, Britney Spears and Cher. Following the screening of Grand Designs: The Music of Carl Verheyen, both Verheyen and Dick will be available for a Q&A session which will likely be as fascinating as the film itself. All area musicians (and we know there are many) and music fans will want to include this in their plans. Space is limited (because did I mention it’s free?) so visit the Sweetwater website (sweetwater.com) for details and registration.

Michele DeVinney

Arab Fest

Arabian Delights

Organizers of last year’s inaugural Arab Fest expected about 500 people to attend. What they got, said festival organizer Barbara O’Connor, was roughly 2,500. The turnout and the undiluted enthusiasm of the attendees was a testament to a city that has always been able to separate people from politics. “We were hopeful that it would be an accepting community,” she said, “and we weren’t disappointed.” The second annual Arab Fest happens June 4 and 5 in Headwaters Park East. Arab-American people have been part of the warp and weft of northeast Indiana for more than 100 years. But examples of Arab culture have been hard to find. Until now. Last year, attendees were treated to camel rides, traditional dance performances, henna art, a Western Asian/North African marketplace known as souq and examples of Arabian cuisine such as tabbouleh, falafel, shawarma, baba ganoush and hummus. This year will be more of the same, but it will be better organized, O’Connor said. Long lines for food are pretty much a standard feature of untested festivals, and last year’s Arab Fest was no exception. “We were totally thrown off,” O’Connor said. “We had no idea that we would have that kind of response.” This year, O’Connor said, the layout and organization of the food stations will be much improved. “We would like people to know that this year we will have the same quality food coming from the same vendor, but we will be more efficient in providing service,” she said. Even though there were long lines in 2015, no one seemed to mind much, O’Connor said. “Honestly, that’s one of the biggest takeaways I had from that,” she said. “In spite of the long lines, I didn’t notice any grumpy, grouchy people. They came to converse. When people eventually got to the food table, nobody really complained.” O’Conner said the number of dance performances will be increased this year, a calligraphy artist will be on site writing people’s names in Arabic and there will be an oud player. An oud is an ancient string instrument with a sharply angled pegbox. The camel will return this year (not without a lot of encouragement, one presumes). Camel rides will only be available on Saturday, however. Admission to Arab Fest will be free again this year, O’Connor said. As for the near and distant future of the event, Arab Fest organizers try not to think too far ahead, O’Connor said. “We take it by year by year,” she said. “Most of our financial support is through donations. Trying to get grants for something like this – it’s too edgy. They don’t want to touch it.” O’Connor said last year’s festival lost money, which it was expected to do. “We’re hoping to break even [this year], she said. “The first one was a learning experience.” Arab Fest is and always will be celebration of a heritage shared by a sizeable portion of Fort Wayne’s citizens, O’Connor said. It is an opportunity to increase understanding. “We really strive to make it a strictly cultural event that is apolitical,” she said. “It is family-friendly, children-friendly and free. There’s no admission, and that is a big deal for us. It’s just a cultural celebration of a group of people that haven’t really been celebrated here.” O’Connor said Arab Fest is really no different from other festivals in Fort Wayne that celebrate its citizens’ diverse cultural backgrounds. “I think the main goal for this thing is just to celebrate that culture,” she said. “Let people know that it’s right up there with the German culture and the Irish culture. They also had their times of stress in this country and lack of acceptance up to a point.”

Steve Penhollow

Alec Johnson

Artist in the Digital Age

No paintbrush or chisel will be found in Alec Johnson’s studio. He works with pixels microprocessors and flat screens. During a recent show that brought life back into the space Artlink used to inhabit, now the Cinema Center Spectator Lounge, patrons enjoyed watching the displays that brought ordinary flat screens to life. Along with artist Carey Shafer, Johnson, guided by Jennifer Ford Art, filled the space with sculpture caught in perpetual change. Shafer, a world class stone carver and sculptor, collaborated with Johnson, and together they created a room filled with cutting edge pieces displayed on screens married with heavy steel chain and limestone. The pairing of these two artists happened as a result of a slowly developed friendship and working relationship that began when Johnson, also a city landscape architect, started to render a plan for a sculpture park in Fort Wayne. When Shafer pitched his sculpture ideas to the parks department, Johnson quickly shut him down, stating that there would soon be a call for artists and that Shafer should wait to move through the established process. Johnson looked the artist up online and discovered Shafer is a classically trained stone carver with a curriculum vitae that includes restoration work at the White House. Johnson and Shafer started working together on other public art pieces across the country. A lot of the projects involved landscape architecture, as thought had to be given how to place certain sculptural pieces within the landscape. “His work started to become more abstract by adding steel,” says Johnson of Shafer’s work. “We started to work together, even if it wasn’t for a competition project. We just started working on projects together and that sort of ‘metamorphed’ into the work for the Bytes and Pieces show.” Johnson’s digital artwork sprung from his interest in computers, but that’s only part of it. An explosion of ideas came to him after attending the opening of the black box theater on Main Street. “The first time I was in there I was looking around at these 30-foot walls and imagining what kind of performances you could do in there.” He started to think about doing surround animation that could wrap around the audience. “I walked out of there thinking that would be really cool but how do I do that?” For most people that is where an idea ends – but not for Johnson. His curiosity drives him to act. “I just started researching digital technology and wondered how do you do that. How do you create the technology to do that?” he said. Johnson learned about different ways to create digital animation and that led him to the new art form of generative digital art where the computer is used as a tool like a digital paintbrush. “I found that all of these things feed into each other. I learned a technique for projection mapping and found that the software I was using for landscaping architecture comes into play in many different ways. The work has mostly been a byproduct of me being super curious.” Johnson isn’t afraid to just jump into a project. That attitude has been a guiding force that navigates him through life. “I never set out to become a super successful artist. It’s always just been thinking how do I satisfy this curiosity.” According to Johnson, he always needs a creative outlet just to stay sane. “Landscape architecture is in some ways very technical but also very artistic because you have to sketch, draw and convey designs in a way to convince people it is a worthy thing to build,” he says. The digital art form that Johnson has made the current focus of his creative outlet is in its infancy. “Ever since there have been computers, there have been people who have tried to use computers to produce art, but because the technology hasn’t always been so successful, it didn’t always work out,” he says. Today the technology allows for the artistic freedom that so many have been waiting for. Johnson is one of those artists and he is excited about what the future holds. “Technology is going to make it possible for new forms of art that we can’t even imagine,” says Johnson. He is quick to note that just because the computer is the platform for creating digital art, it is still a skill that must be learned and mastered. Just as a painter must master the use of paint and brushes, a digital artist must learn the material to execute an idea properly. By learning the material, an artist also learns its inherent boundaries. Rules and parameters are important to Johnson. Without limiting himself, the options offered by digital creation can be overwhelming. “I still have to create a framework for my work. I still have to make rules for my work. I have to limit the possibilities some way otherwise the options are just way too vast. I have to say I’m only going to use this color palette or I‘m going to use these shapes. You are still limiting yourself to a small parameter. Otherwise there are too many things to think about and it won’t be effective. I don’t think digital art replaces traditional art. We just have a new tool now. ” To Johnson, it is important for all art, traditional and digital, to evoke emotion. He doesn’t care if the emotion is adverse or joyful; he simply needs to ignite something in people with his work. Johnson’s current work has been described as feeling alive. With pulsating lights and shapes, he can transform a common screen into something that appears as though it is breathing. Undulating shapes seem to grow organically. An interactive piece encourages people to swipe a touchpad that changes the colors and patterns of the work. There is a sense of playfulness that immediately overtakes the viewer. There is actual dialogue happening between the computer and the viewer as the shapes change and take on a life of their own. “Technology is changing so rapidly it is impossible to even know what the vast options are,” says Johnson who will keep bringing this cutting edge art form to our area. Art lovers and collectors are the ones who will benefit from the curious spirit that drives him forward.

Heather Miller

Embassy Theatre

New Life for a Landmark

The people who saved the Embassy Theatre from oblivion in the 70s, 80s and 90s never solidified a plan for revitalizing the adjacent Indiana Hotel and they may not have had any solid interest in solidifying a plan. “The founding fathers, like Bob Goldstine – they didn’t really want the hotel,” said the Embassy’s marketing director, Barb Richards, “They were focused on the theater.” The seven-story hotel, which once catered to traveling businessmen, closed in the late 60s or early 70s. It had 250 tiny rooms, and there have been at least 250 casual proposals across four decades for what to do with it. Now, the Indiana Hotel is no more. It has been transformed into something that would surely please the late Goldstine and his partners in reclamation. The four remaining, undeveloped floors of the dilapidated hotel are gone, and in their place are a grand ballroom and a number of things the theater has been badly in need of, including classrooms, conference rooms, rehearsal rooms, a copy room, a break room and proper office space. The former offices have been turned into a lounge, a new suite of dressing rooms has been added in the basement and there’s a rooftop terrace overlooking the city. None of this was easily achieved. Because the Embassy is a historically protected landmark, Weigand Construction couldn’t knock out any walls, as it might otherwise have been inclined to do. Debris had to be carried out in wheelbarrows, and steel beams had to be brought in through windows and maneuvered down long, narrow corridors. And the theater could not close, said Executive Director Kelly Updike. The renovations had to be accomplished without disrupting business. Final cost of the project is $10 million, she said, $8.2 million of which has been raised. One of the wonders of the grand two-story ballroom, apart from its photogenic staircase, is that it has been made to look like it was created at the same time as the rest of the theater, circa 1926. “That’s a high compliment,” said Updike. “Moake Park Group is the architect. They are thrilled when people say that, that it looks like it’s always been here.” The process to create the textured walls required nine laborious coats, she said. The need for the ballroom went beyond the merely decorative. Before this expansion, one in four people who wanted to rent a portion of the Embassy for a private event had to be turned away because of space or logistical constraints, Updike said. Now the Embassy will be better able to earn its keep. Updike said this expanded roster of private events should net the Embassy between $100,000 to $150,000 a year. The ballroom is already booked through February 2017, she said. The new rentable spaces will help ensure that the Embassy will never again need to be “saved.” For the most part, the rooftop terrace will be available for use by people who rent the ballroom. But there will be a series of Wednesday night summer concerts on the terrace, crowdfunded by Arts United’s Amplify Art! They start May 25. “There will be music up here and a portable bar,” Updike said. “People will maybe pay a small cover fee, and they’ll be able to come up here and sit.” There’s really nothing else quite like the rooftop terrace in downtown Fort Wayne, and Updike thinks it is spurring some competition. “I think other people who are building things are saying, ‘Hey, maybe we should do something like that with our rooftop.’” Two permanent bars were added to the theater lobby via a one-story expansion into an alleyway, she said. “We owned half of the vacated alley and the parks department owned the other half,” Updike said. “We had to obtain that from them.” The mobile bars that the Embassy used to use meant that inventory and equipment constantly had to be shifted around. “It’s nice to have a home for things,” Updike said. There are new homes for a lot of things in the theater, and this has meant that the staff has had to devise new migratory patterns, so to speak. They have had to come up with new workflow paths. Efforts at the end of the last decade to link the new Courtyard By Marriott with the Embassy and the Grand Wayne Center accelerated movement on Indiana Hotel rehabilitation. The Courtyard’s requirement of a covered walkway to the Indiana Hotel launched other refurbishment plans. If no agreement on the walkway had been reached, the entire Harrison Square project might have collapsed. For years, Updike said, people looked up and saw four floors of perpetually dark windows. Everyone knew something needed to be done. In the 90s, many of the people who’d helped save the Embassy thought it should almost be a museum, reserved for high culture and closed to the public many more nights than not. But people have come to understand, Updike said, that the Embassy needs to be a living, breathing thing. If future generations are going to care about, and care for, the Embassy, they will need to experience it in visceral ways. Richards said she believes the Embassy’s saviors would approve of what it has become. “We’ve taken every single inch of this hotel and made it into something that benefits the Embassy Theatre Foundation,” she said.

Steve Penhollow

Jon Durnell

Chaos and Clarity

Don’t be too concerned by the title of Jon Durnell’s new album. Although the album’s songs offer plenty of clarity, there’s very little chaos to be found anywhere among the 10 tracks. Instead, Durnell writes about the clarity that comes after chaos, and by the time he gets around to singing about the hard times, he seems certain that better times are just around the corner – if they aren’t, indeed, here already. The album’s opening cut, “Good Thing,” exemplifies Durnell’s look-on-the-bright-side aesthetic; in it, he sings of disruptive change on the horizon but can’t help expecting that the change is going to bring a better day. The same goes for “Hoppin’ a Train” in which geographical change is the impetus for positive life changes. When Durnell writes about the challenges of relationships, he does so from an optimistic perspective. In “All the Things I Lack” he celebrates the complementary nature of his and his partner’s relationship, and in “The Way That I See You” he tries to inspire confidence in her with his unflagging support. Even the bittersweet reminiscence of “Remember When” comes at loss with the expectation that it’s all part of the plan, and that things will get better. True chaos is not in Durnell’s musical vocabulary, whether in his lyrics or the smooth, saxophone-embellished flow of his music. When he calls for revolution in “Wake Up,” he’s not talking about anarchic revolt. His revolutionary message is one of positive thinking and hope, and he delivers it gently.

Evan Gillespie

Mark Allen

Mark Allen

Mark Allen has modest goals for his self-released, self-titled EP: he just wants to sell the CDs he’s having produced. Despite the opportunities offered by the digital world, Allen isn’t concerned with taking his music online right away, and for this EP release ahead of a planned full-length album this summer, he’s going old school in terms of distribution. That’s an approach well-suited to Allen’s music, which is 100 percent old-school rock. Allen’s influences are crystal clear from the initial chords of “Hit the Road,” the first of the EP’s three songs. After a slow, chiming intro, the song kicks in with a chugging distorted guitar riff that underpins the rest of the tune. Allen acknowledges that riff’s similarity to The Guess Who’s “American Woman,” but there’s just as much of Ted Nugent’s “Stranglehold” in the song’s vocal melody and unwavering tempo. There is, too, a touch of early Kiss in the song’s heavy simplicity, but Allen’s vocals never reach the extremes of Paul Stanley’s wail or Gene Simmons’ growl. The moderately lighter “Baby I Got You” finds a spot for Allen within the Kiss cosmos, however, as the song’s janglier melody and mid-range vocal fall into line with the band’s Ace Frehley-fronted material. If any of the three songs are incongruous, it would be “No More Yesterdays,” a song that pairs the grimy guitar from decadent 70s rock with an inspirational Christian refrain. Otherwise, the song toes the same tempo line as the other two, keeping the EP solidly consistent in its reverence for old-time music.

Evan Gillespie

Shoeshine Tommy

Shoeshine Tommy

Funk is in the middle of a resurgence right now, no doubt about it, but funk of the slick, uptown variety is not the kind that Shoeshine Tommy play. The Defiance, Ohio-based quartet calls its hybrid sound “the fluezz” – that’s a combo of funk, jazz and blues, not this year’s newsworthy virus – and that term comes pretty close to summing up the moody mixture on the band’s debut album. At the same time, it perhaps understates the album’s rock influences. Maybe “fluekzz” would be a better, more comprehensive hybrid term for the music, but you can’t blame the band for not choosing it. Like funk should, these songs depend heavily on the band’s rhythm section – drummer Jon Spencer and bassist Edward Mason – and the blues often rears its head, too, sometimes even wearing a swampy cap as in Robert Chase’s acoustic slide guitar on “Baby Boy.” Jazz figures in, thanks to Chase’s wandering keyboards, although his synthy touches also sometimes bring to mind prog rock. Underlying all the genre-melding, though, is an urgent darkness that could only come from the realm of rock, specifically metal and punk. Even if songs like “Good Times,” “Sunshine,” “Stop” and “Move Your Feet” turn a superficially happy, funky face to the world, there’s turmoil in the songs’ hearts. Often the darkness is lying right there on the surface – the grief of “Baby Boy,” for example, or the heartbreak of “Get on That.” There’s very little smoothness in Kevin Eis’ vocals, and if that makes his voice not quite right for uptown funk, it’s perfect for the edgier stuff that Shoeshine Tommy play.

Evan Gillespie

Jill Bixler

An Actor’s Life for Her

When it comes to musical theater families, Jillian Cook Bixler’s definitely qualifies. She has been performing since childhood, she married a fellow performer and now their children are well on their way to careers in performing as well. Raised in Grove City, Pennsylvania, Bixler grew up happily in a home filled with music. “My mother was very musical,” she says. “She played a little piano and violin and was in high school orchestra with her twin sister Lois. Her younger brother John played a mean piano. Mom used to play records of Broadway musicals while she was ironing, and we would sing along.” The music never left her head and even followed her to school. “My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Phillips, had to remind me several times not to tap dance or sing in class,” she says. “I don’t know that I was a born performer, but I know there was always music around and in me.” When she was in third grade, her parents brought home an upright piano and she began taking lessons. “One of the local piano teachers had a music club and we would do recitals and perform for civic meetings in town,” she says. “My friend Julie Hodge and I sang ‘Edelweiss’ from The Sound of Music. We thought we were the biggest thing ever.” She attended Grove City High School and was active in theater there. “One of my first auditions was for The Velveteen Rabbit in high school. I was scared out of my mind.” She credits her two theater teachers, Tony Naples and Kaye Pollock, as helping her feel comfortable onstage. Their encouragement worked, and she was cast in the lead role. Her small town high school allowed her to participate in many activities. In addition to being a theater performer, she was a majorette and sang with and played piano accompaniment for the school choir. After graduating in 1977, she attended Ohio University in Athens, where she was a vocal performance major. After a year and a half, she switched her major to theater. “At the time, schools didn’t have musical theater degrees. You were either a music major or a theater major.” Before she had taken all of her general courses required to graduate, she moved to Orlando, Florida, to live with her Aunt Lois for a summer. There she performed in Damn Yankees for a summer theater program at Rollins College and playing Catherine in Pippin at the University of Central Florida. While there, a friend told her about the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre Apprentice Program in Jupiter, Florida. One of the requirements was an associate’s degree at a Florida institution. She finished her associate’s degree by taking her general courses at Valencia Community College in between performing. She auditioned for the apprentice program and was one of a dozen or so accepted. She was placed into not one, but two apprentice groups from 1981 to 1982, and at the end of the program she and the other apprentices received their Actor’s Equity union cards after earning Equity points while performing in shows at the dinner theater. “I realize now how lucky I was to have this experience,” she says. “I got to work with many prominent actors and see how they developed their craft from the rehearsal process to the stage.” One of the most prominent actors, she says, was her teacher, Mr. Charles Nelson Reilly. “That is how he always introduced himself – Mister Charles Nelson Reilly,” she says. “He always referred to his friends by their proper names, as well. Mr. Reynolds, Miss [Julie] Harris, Mr. [Vincent] Gardenia. It was very important to him to show respect to those he loved.” Reilly, who died in 2007, was a prolific TV, film, and stage actor in the 1960s and 1970s, although he was perhaps best known for TV game shows, Match Game and Hollywood Squares. “Above all, his favorite thing to do was teach,” Bixler says. “He loved us completely.” His humor made him a favorite among the apprentices. “He asked me to perform the song ‘Is it Really Me?’ from The Rainmaker for one of our apprentice shows,” she recalls. “One rehearsal he came over to me and said, ‘Just sing the [expletive] out of it!’” During the program, she understudied the role of Chava in Fiddler on the Roof for the Burt Reynolds Dinner Theatre and performed in three mainstage shows, including The Music Man. Reynolds himself also taught, including a very popular late-night class, which met from midnight until 4 a.m. “We didn’t care,” Bixler says. “It was exhilarating.” One particularly fond memory she has involves the graduation of the first group of apprentices. Bixler was set to participate in the second group, so she just sat on the far end of the first group’s graduating class. “When Mr. Reynolds came out, he introduced all the graduates,” she says. “When he got to me, he didn’t say anything. He just reached down, took off my shoe, and tossed it off stage to the stage manager.” She sat through the entire graduation ceremony wearing only one shoe. At the end, Reynolds asked the stage manager to bring out the shoe, which he did, carried on a pillow. “Mr. Reynolds took the shoe, kneeled down, and told everyone if the shoe fits I would get to stay,” she says. “It was really sweet. My father was in the audience and I know he told that story many times.” She went to work on a cruise ship after the program ended, spending the next three years on three different ships, both as a performer and as an assistant cruise director. “It was a great thing to do when you are young and have no other commitments,” she says. “It was fun, but three years was definitely enough.” A fellow performer on the ship was Kent Bixler, whom she had met through mutual friends. In 1989, Kent and Jill left life on the open sea to return to college. Kent received a second bachelor’s degree in communication, and Jill finished her degree in elementary education. They married in 1992 between semesters and had two daughters, Darby and Dana. Their daughters are also actor/singers, and the family has performed together onstage in different combinations through the years. Kent was in Les Misérables at Civic and Violet at Arena with both girls, and Jill was in White Christmas at the Civic with Darby. “The girls came with us to church choir and performed in church productions,” Bixler says, “so they’ve always been involved with music and theater. Both girls performed for the Fort Wayne Youtheatre. Harvey Cocks has been instrumental in encouraging the girls to continue to grow as performers.” Darby recently graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in New York and will work with the Missoula Children’s Theatre in June, Bixler relates proudly, and Dana will be a sophomore at Wright State University studying music theater. After a long break from the stage, she spoke with director Suzan Moriarty, who talked her into auditioning for her current project, the Arena Dinner Theatre comedy Always a Bridesmaid. The biggest challenge Bixler has found has been learning all the lines. “I just figure it’s age and menopause,” she jokes, “but my director and cast mates have been so supportive and helpful.” She says it’s been fun to take ownership of the material after a long rehearsal process, now that the show has opened, and she finds the experience of working in an all-female cast “empowering.” “Women relate to each other differently,” she says. “Suzan is very creative, and she encourages us to go to the next level.” By day, Bixler works for Southwest Allen County Schools as an assistant teacher for the ESL (English as a Second Language) program. She also has 20 private piano and voice students and works a few hours a week for Dave’s Music Den at Sweetwater. Now that she has gotten her feet wet in theater once again, she is looking forward to what comes next. One of her plans is to get new headshots and to do some commercial auditions. In the meantime, she is enjoying the freedom of being an empty nester back on the Fort Wayne audition circuit. “We’re so lucky

Jen Poiry-Prough

Dragon Boat Racing Comes to City

Fare Warning

our summer vacations were always in Fort Wayne, Indiana. Not the typical resort hot spot – I didn’t have any friends whose families similarly planned trips to northeast Indiana – but since we had grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins and such to see, it was an exciting place to come. Especially if we came during Three Rivers Festival. My grandparents had a house one block from the St. Joe River, and often there were activities there we could enjoy right on the riverbank. Of course the floods led to walls being built which made the riverbanks less accessible. Fortunately, in recent years there seems to be a renewed passion for our rivers as not just a means of identifying geographic locations but as a way to enjoy our city more fully. The Three Rivers Festival has even brought back the Raft Race, one of the most iconic of all Fort Wayne river fun. But there’s something new afoot in our rivers this year thanks to Riverpalooza (and you can’t go wrong making anything a palooza): a new twist on the popularity of raft racing. With Riverpalooza on Saturday, June 25, Fort Wayne gets to try out Dragon Boat Racing. That sounds extremely cool. What is Dragon Boat Racing, you may ask? That’s actually a good question because I had no idea myself. But, as someone who really enjoys folklore and traditions, I decided to look into it. Sure enough, there’s a great story involved, and I’ll just share what it is directly from the Riverpalooza website (riverpaloozafw.org). “The origin of Dragon Boat Racing dates back more than 2,000 years ago and is tied to the story of a Chinese statesman and poet named Qu Yuan and his ritual suicide,” the story goes. “According to legend, after being cast into exile due to a disagreement with the king, Qu Yuan threw himself in and drowned in the Miluo River. While he was drowning, local fisherman frantically attempted to rescue him by racing to the scene in their traditional long boats. While en route to Qu Yuan, the fishermen beat drums and splashed their paddles into the water. This was an attempt to scare dangerous fish and water dragons away from his body. Additionally bags of rice were thrown into the river as well. It was believed that the rice would nourish Qu Yuan’s weakened spirit.” Now that we’re all properly versed, there are probably many of you who might want to reenact this ancient tradition, and the good news is you can. A team consists of 20 paddlers and one drummer, and each team must have a captain. There are all-male, all-female and mixed teams (the mixed team must include at least eight females), and each team will be provided a steerman. Team registration runs through June 13, and all rosters must be submitted by June 15. For information about cost and registration, you’ll find all you need on the Riverpalooza website. So start recruiting your teams, and get ready to hit the water!

Michele DeVinney

Atomic Sharks

A Couple of Ukuleles

They have songs about doing the limbo and chicken chimichangas. They’ve got a mobile app. They’ve got a series of TV spots that are poised for airing nationwide. But most importantly, they’ve got Hawaiian shirts and ukuleles. The Atomic Sharks are the ukulele-playing duo of Kris Hensler and Kenny Taylor playing child-friendly music and adding in a dash of education for good measure. They’re the brainchild of Hensler, the program director at WFWA, who came up with the concept and name. Hensler then asked Taylor, a full-time musician and educator, to come aboard, and the Atomic Sharks were born. Both Atomic Sharks are veterans of several well-known local bands and knew each other from playing together in some of those previous bands. Hensler and Taylor initially got together in 2014 and began songwriting using a simple guideline: they wanted to play Jimmy Buffet-style island music that’s kid-friendly, but that adults could enjoy as well. “The biggest point that I try to tell people is that we don’t pander to kids,” says Hensler. “If you just listen to it casually, it doesn’t sound like kids’ music. But the lyrics, the themes are kid-friendly.” Of course, humor and fun are a big part of the Sharks’ repertoire, which shows through in their songs, image and mascot. They typically dress in Hawaiian shirts and have a 70s style ukulele-playing cartoon shark named Vinnie. Their graphics have a retro, tiki-style theme. Vinnie even has a mobile game developed by a Monroeville, Indiana-based company Their goal is to get kids not just into the music, but into playing music as well. While they don’t try do much educating onstage, they do invite kids to come up to the stage after the show, where they have five or six ukuleles on hand to introduce kids to the instrument and to playing music in general. “If there are some kids who want to pick up the ukulele, we can show them a couple of things. We can show them enough to play a simple little song,” says Hensler. “The idea of that is not so much to teach them a whole bunch, but just to kind of inspire them to go home and become interested in music. We do it as much for inspiration as anything else. To show them that they can make music is part of the concept” As for their choice of instrument, the ukulele was chosen in part because it’s relatively easy to play. But it’s an instrument that has some serious adherents. Anyone whose only association with the instrument is Tiny Tim’s 1968 novelty hit “Tiptoe Through the Tulips” would be surprised to learn that the instrument has been experiencing a resurgence since the late 90s. While that Tiny Tim song may have seemed like the final nail in the coffin of an instrument whose popularity had been in decline, indie bands began using it in the late 90s, most notably on the Magnetic Fields’ 1999 opus, 69 Love Songs. Since that time the instrument has become practically ubiquitous. “More and more bands that utilize a ukulele player are becoming popular, so I would say it’s a trend,” says Hensler. “One of the ways you can tell is that almost every major guitar manufacturer has started building a line of ukuleles, and they don’t do that unless there’s money to be made.” Hensler was able to use his knowledge of the PBS system to conceive of another outlet for their music: a series of short educational videos that will air between children’s programming on public television. Aptly entitled “Music Minute,” because all 10 are a minute long, the series was sponsored by Sweetwater and shot at WFWA. They videos introduce kids to basic music elements like tempo, melody and chords with the help of a bongo-playing puppet named Jimmy Bouffet. The videos are already available online, and they’ll likely start airing later this year nationwide. “Every adult in the world knows what a melody is, but a four-year old doesn’t. So we’re trying to introduce some of those basic ideas that a four-year-old doesn’t understand that other people might assume they already know,” says Hensler. “So for me it’s been fulfilling to be able to introduce some of those ideas to kids and then send them on the same path that I was sent on because my dad was a musician. I learned a lot of those ideas early on, but a lot of kids don’t have that, so I feel that’s something I can provide.” As for their choice of musical style, it may have been Hensler’s fandom for Jimmy Buffet that gave him the idea to play island music in land-locked Indiana, but their tunes offer a sunny escape from the sometimes very cold Midwest. “We’re offering fantasy more than anything else,” he said. “I don’t want to say it’s tongue-in-cheek because, obviously, we are in Indiana, but we’ll take it all with a grain of salt,” says Hensler. “We’re the Atomic Sharks and we play ukuleles with Hawaiian shirts on. We don’t take ourselves super duper seriously, but we do take the music seriously.”

Ryan Smith


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