Review: John Mellencamp at the Township Auditorium

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For most of the 24 hours leading up to John “Cougar” Mellencamp’s performance last Tuesday at the Township Auditorium, I made jokes about his name change. You would think that the joke would be stale, given that now-legendary rock and roller dropped the manager-demanded stage moniker in 1991. But, somehow, it still seemed to suggest some critical distance, as if, even if I liked Mellencamp’s songs, I still recognized them as the fluffier, commercially friendly flip side of the alt-country underground that emerged in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

In truth, such a critical distance isn’t really necessary. Yes, Mellencamp had some rather dominant pop hits (“Hurt So Good,” “Cherry Bomb,” and “R.O.CK. in the U.S.A” among them) that felt like water-downed Springsteen, ready to be force-fed to an eager nation in the wake of Born in the USA’s mammoth sales, even if some of them preceded that blockbuster. But, by and large, Mellencamp wrote some of the best straight-forward roots-rockers of all-time, full of elegant small town details and genuine populist fervor, over the course of his career, and he’s continued to write and record solid records, with 2014’s Plain Spoken greeted with critical if not commercial acclaim. Yes, he can come off as a poor man’s Springsteen, but really what he does is strip a lot of the excess from The Boss’s approach, writing with a keen sense of detail and little wasted in his spare lyrics. He arranges his songs similarly, balancing acoustic guitar and fiddle against understated electric guitars and organ with little in the way of soloing bombast or orchestral pretension. And I’ll be damned if the chorus to “Jack & Diane” isn’t the most perfect catchy-bleak-honest sentiment of any heartland rocker I’ve ever heard, Bruce be damned.

Plus, the whole Springsteen thing has probably followed him around enough as it is. If anything, generations of Americana singer/songwriters since the 1980s owe more to Mellencamp than he ever owed to his Jersey counterpart. Seriously, listen to folks like Ryan Bingham or Chris Knight and tell me they aren’t just pale imitations when you compare them to the real thing.

So how was the show you ask? Pretty good. Mellencamp opened with a couple of tunes from Plain Spoken as if to prove his songwriting hasn’t lost his step and each was full of his characteristic populist anger and cynical regret. He then proceeded to move smoothly between big hits and deeper cuts, keeping the crowd happy without devolving into pure nostalgia. His solid backing band was as unflashy as his recordings, with only violinist Miriam Sturm truly stepping out and showing off virtuosic chops. And although he was in fine vocal form throughout the evening, punctuating most every song with an energetic yelp or a holler, he seemed mostly bemused, as if he’s a cantankerous-yet-energetic young grandpa who is surprised to find himself surrounded by grandchildren given what a gruff he’s been throughout much of his life. The only time he addressed the crowd directly was to speak vaguely of history and aging, warning that “time is the only critic without an agenda” and delivering a cryptic parable about eating your eggs. It all felt vaguely like a performance Michael Keaton might riff on, Birdman-style, in the next few years.

While the hits might seem the obvious highlights (the acoustic “Jack & Diane,” replete with a gentle chiding of the karaoke crowd for prematurely jumping to the chorus, was genuinely moving), my favorite moments were on newer introspective ballads like “Longest Days” and “The Isolation of Mister” where Mellencamp’s weathered voice and wizened perspective were perfectly matched with the jaundiced philosophy of his earlier material. The other big surprise was when he went into full on Tom Waits-mode, playing up the cragginess of his voice as he sauntered around on stage with maniacal glee on bluesy romps like “The Full Catastrophe of Life.”

At the end of the day, a few people with me were still a bit bummed about some missed hits, but a set featuring “Small Town,” “Pink Houses,” “Cherry Bomb,” “The Authority Song,” and “Rain on the Scarecrow” can hardly be faulted for not giving the crowd what they wanted. For myself, I was just glad to see a legend who was still vital and creating new music while finding a comfortable way to please his audience and put on a good show. As we’ve too often seen, a 60-something rocker can do far, far worse. –Kyle Petersen

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Revived Magazine Auntie Bellum Provides an Outlet for Southern Women to Speak Once Again

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by Kirby Knowlton

Thirty years ago, there was a magazine for South Carolina women and their art, ideas, experiences, and concerns. This magazine was called Auntie Bellum and was first published in 1977. The founding editors wrote in the inaugural pages that “this kind of publication is long overdue. Women here have lacked some necessary tools for examining what experiences they have in common with those of other women.”

Today, Auntie Bellum is being revived by a new group of Columbia women. Though the original magazine only ran for four issues, it featured women of all different backgrounds and covered many different subjects. Auntie Bellum was a place for artists, activists, hair stylists, and beauty queens to write about everything from women’s history to health, politics to poetry. Meeghan Kane, the new editor, aims to pay homage to the original publication and grow a community for southern women.

“Like the original,” says Kane, “we’d like to focus on arts and culture, politics and health.” The magazine wants to show particular attention to the issues of domestic violence and reproductive rights, especially how they are being debated in the South Carolina State House. As a safe space for women to talk about all subjects, Auntie Bellum will “publish survivors’ stories from a broad range of experiences, including rape and assault, and struggles with sexual orientation, harassment, and discrimination,” says Kane. Auntie Bellum is looking for article-length content about any subject pertaining to southern women, including “the music and art they’re creating, the jokes they’re telling, and the stands they’re taking.” Not to leave the original publication in the past, the magazine also to include a great deal of southern women’s history.

Auntie Bellum is as necessary a resource for women today as in 1977. The original issues give evidence that there were more abortion clinics open back then than there are today. “Equal pay, sexual harassment, and domestic violence are all, unbelievably, still hotly debated topics,” says Kane. Auntie Bellum’s mission is to amplify voices who have the ideas and will to bring about changing the inequalities still affecting southern women. Kane hopes to include podcasts, photography, videos, and art in the publication and its website, “to get a bunch of women involved, and give us a broader reach and a longer run.”

The magazine will have a website up in early April, and plans on having its first print issue by the end of the year. The women involved are Meeghan Kane, Roxy Lenzo, Heather Green, Courtney Phillips, Sara Kennedy, Jenni Brennison, Brittany Braddock, Karla Turner, and Betty Benns. Auntie Bellum aims to be an inclusive publication, inviting anyone to speak who has a story to tell, regardless of age, gender, or sexuality.

For more information about Auntie Bellum, check out their Facebook page at facebook.com/AuntieBellumMagazine or email them at auntiebellummagazine@gmail.com

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Director Bakari Lebby and Workshop Theatre Tackle Race, Class, Gender & Privileged with Stick Fly

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by: Haley Sprankle

“I originally pitched this show as The Cosby Show with a sex scandal.”

Bakari Lebby definitely adds his own quirky spin on Lydia R. Diamond’s Stick Fly, the fourth show he has directed this season at Workshop Theatre. No rookie to the stage, Lebby has been involved a myriad of productions for the theatre, but this is his debut as a main season director.

“It has been cool. It feels like home,” the young director says. “I brought over a show that I directed at Carolina for a two-night run about two years ago and that was my first time working behind the scenes there. I did two [productions] last year with two directors that I really respect, Chad Henderson and David Britt, so that was cool, but yeah, Workshop is home.”

While his theatrical home has changed a bit, Lebby adapts to working and staging in 701 Whaley’s Market Space where each of the previous shows this season were produced.

“Theatre can be done anywhere. The only thing is the time constraints,” Lebby elaborates. “We’ve already pretty much built everything, and it all has to go up in about a day which is totally cool because we have a great set designer, Billy Love. It’s a cool space. It’s pretty intimate, so I’m excited for close contact with the stage.”

The play itself revolves around the LeVays, a wealthy African-American family who come together for a weekend vacation. The conversations focus on the issues the family faces with race, gender, and privilege.

“They’re like any other family,” Lebby explains. “Loving, protective. There are secrets. But they  are also extremely wealthy. Martha’s Vineyard homeowners wealthy. Homes in Aspen and New York and Atlanta wealthy. On the surface, they could seem like the Huxtables [The Cosby Show] grown up.”

Lebby brings the audience into this world through his eccentric style in performance and design.

“Well, the play is set in Martha’s Vineyard, so it will all be on the first floor of a beach house,” he says. “It will be like watching a Wes Anderson-type set (mostly thinking of in The Life Aquatic) where each room is very specifically different, but the actors very easily flit from one room to another while all still feeling like one all-encompassing space.”

“I wanted the set to be a bit sitcom-y. I’ve accelerated the dialogue a bit to match my style more. Actors are occasionally interrupting each other mid-conversation. That’s also more my style. We’ve also taken the script and used it to make any character the protagonist or antagonist depending on the viewer’s opinion or emotions.”

These opinions and emotions address very real controversy in what may be perceived as a surrealistic life.

“The play not only addresses race, but also class and gender roles. There are relationships where race is an issue more than class, race is an issue including class, class is an issue more than race, and so forth. Even within race, there are colorism issues which are still prevalent in current society,” Lebby points out. “It also brings up the whole point that racism is still alive, but no one wants to talk about it past pleasantries. Kimber [a character in Stick Fly] has a line that rings true, ‘They don’t even want people to say that it still exists.’ It does, and I think this play brings up the point that the only way to make it better is to talk about it.”

Stick Fly opens March 27 and runs through April 4 and 701 Whaley’s Market Space. Call the box office at 803-799-6551, or order online at workshop.palmettoticketing.com for tickets.

“I wanted to take a play that could have been only entertainment and turn it into a piece that makes people think and consider their relationships with family, friends, lovers, and strangers,” Lebby eloquently adds. “Oh, and I want you to be able to laugh also. Gotta have some laughs. And there are definitely some laughs.”

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