Artists of the Year

Hurricanes, war, avian flu, locust plagues, that annoying song you couldn't get out of your head. It wasn't the greatest of all possible years. Nor was it halfway decent. But to prove that it wasn't all bad, we asked 29 writers to rave about the ar

Quinton Skinner is a novelist and the theater critic at City Pages.


Ant (Anthony Davis)
By Peter S. Scholtes
The best scene in Walk the Line, the scene that kids will remember when they're finding their own voices as adults, is the one where Johnny Cash auditions at Sun Studios with a shaky rendition of a gospel tune, "I Was There When It Happened," and producer Sam Phillips turns him down mid-song. That stuff doesn't sell, Phillips says. People want something honest, something felt. If you got hit by a truck and you only had time to sing one song before you died, what would it be? Played dry as ice by Dallas Roberts, this is a Sam Phillips we've never seen before, a subdued, unsmiling mercenary instead of the inspirational whirlwind of old interview footage and Peter Guralnick books. He signals his approval only with a glint in his eyes, once Joaquin Phoenix's Cash, looking a little like an alien breathing oxygen for the first time, saves the audition by leading his trio through an impromptu performance of "Folsom Prison Blues."

Who knows whether Minneapolis hip-hop producer Ant has the same effect on rappers he works with--one of whom, Brother Ali, covers Cash's "A Boy Named Sue." Who knows whether everyone walked into Sun Studios a country boy and walked out a bad motherfucker. (The anecdote is at least half apocryphal: Cash didn't play "Folsom," but Phillips supposedly told him, "Go home and sin, and then come back with a song I can sell.'') All we really have is the evidence of our ears, and the evidence of the liner notes. This year, for Ant, these included his own cool DJ mix CD, Melodies and Memories 85-89, and production credits on three great albums in collaboration with rappers: Murs and Slug on Felt 2: A Tribute to Lisa Bonet; Slug under the name Atmosphere on You Can't Imagine How Much Fun We're Having; and I Self Devine on Self Destruction--all issued by the local label Rhymesayers. The latter two are exactly what Sam Phillips demanded: Self's "Can't Say Nothing Wrong" is a tribute to something realer than Lisa Bonet, a love song for women struggling with their own youth and kids, and shit jobs and groceries on the bus. Atmosphere's "Pour Me Another" is a tribute to addiction and the ultimate funky wallow. (It meets the oncoming truck with a smile.)

For one track, Ant provided ancient reggae and gurgling wah-wah guitar. For the other, a descending piano line. But if the role of producer is mysterious, the role of hip-hop impresario is doubly so. Working with other people's lyrics, assembling other people's long-ago-recorded music, Ant's art is ultimately harder to pin down than his live DJing (he stepped out of the studio this year to tour as a DJ with Atmosphere for the first time since they formed a decade ago). I don't know why "Smart Went Crazy" makes me feel like my smarts are going crazy, its disembodied guitar squeal meeting a sampled "Yeah!" over and over like a face to a slap, before ending in a harmonica shuffle that could be straight off an old Sun side. All I know is that I want to go home and sin.

Peter S. Scholtes is a staff writer at City Pages.


Noah Bremer and Jon Ferguson with the Live Action Set
By Caroline Palmer
Making theater about life during wartime presents a delicate balancing act for director and performer alike. Dwelling too long on death and destruction leads to a shell-shocked audience, but excessive levity seems inappropriate, disrespectful. This summer Live Action Set teamed up with performer Noah Bremer and director Jon Ferguson to create Please Don't Blow Up Mr. Boban, an original work about a café in the middle of a battle zone. Performed at the Soap Factory during the Fringe Festival (with a second run at the Loring Playhouse this fall), the show captured the extremes of humanity one would expect to encounter in such a situation: It asked tough questions and featured moments of haunting terror, but it also offered moments of sweet humor and exceptional grace.

Performed in the round, with many of the actors assuming multiple roles, the show was about Mr. Boban, a café owner portrayed by the immensely likable and physically elastic Bremer, who effortlessly inserted clowning into his performance. His antic interactions at the beginning of the show with the equally winning Robert Haarmon provided a poignant contrast to the darker moments to come. I was too stunned at the end of this show to clap immediately. The sadness of the final scene was overwhelming, and it took a moment to recover--and then jump to my feet. Ultimately this was a performance about how life can be affirmed, even celebrated, in the midst of adversity. Many who have survived such experiences have done so by relying on their wit and clinging to their humanity, even in the smallest ways. Please Don't Blow Up Mr. Boban beautifully illustrated this potential while at the same time realistically portraying the horror and absurdity of war.

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