PREVIEW: Hobo Johnson & The Lovemakers

If you don’t know who Hobo Johnson is, you’re missing out—Frank Lopes Jr., known for his stage name Hobo Johnson, has a repertoire of wacky, sometimes-political, spoken-word, hip-hop inspired music.

When I first heard Hobo Johnson’s music, it was on Twitter. A clip from his Tiny Desk Concert instantly intrigued me. It was rap, but it wasn’t—it was something that felt so raw, perfectly messy, encapsulating my frustration and amusement with the world and the lingering longing of heartbreak. I remember showing the Tiny Desk Concert to my friends. Some were into it, some didn’t like it at all. Hobo Johnson is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea, but its unapologetic character is what draws me so much to it.

Frank’s most recent two albums, dropped this year, have signified a change in sound and style for Hobo Johnson, a move away from melodramatic scream-singing towards more goofy punk. After recently starting his own record label, Hobo Johnson seems to be moving into a different stage of his artistic career, one focusing his angst into the politics of the music world as well as his music. 

UPDATE: Hobo Johnson & The Lovemakers were scheduled to appear at the Blind Pig on Monday, October 18th, but the show was cancelled due to COVID-19 concerns.

REVIEW: Realm of the Dead

This Thursday, I attended Realm of the Dead, an installation at the School of Social Work. Comprised of more than 30 suitcases, Realm of the Dead is a reflection on tragedy, grief, and identity by Rogerio M. Pinto, a professor of Social Work at UofM.

The walk into the building was supplemented by a drumline performance, waking me up and welcoming me into a lobby where videos of the Rio Carnival played. I was handed a small, white, rectangular box with a letter and number denoting where I would be located once we moved downstairs. A suitcase full of wish ribbons lay open: curious, I peeked inside, and an usher offered to help me tie one around my wrist. The ribbons read “Realm of the Dead.”

When the performance was set to begin, the audience descended a set of stairs to the lower floor. The ritualistic feeling of moving down the stairs, down to the Realm of the Dead, accompanied by the drumline’s beat, felt sacred in a way. Hushed, the audience made their way to the suitcases, laid out in a grid. The artist, Rogerio M. Pinto, sat next to a doll in a suitcase casket, holding a rosary, murmuring inaudible words. The drumline came to a halt, the suitcases were opened to reveal insides filled with art, and Pinto began to tell his story.

“Emotional baggage—” Pinto explains. Many people in the world can fit all their belongings into one suitcase. Could you carry everything with you in one bag? How about one small box?

Pinto tells the story, in pieces, of the death of his baby sister Marilia. She was 3 when she was killed in a tragic accident. Pinto unfolds the effect of this tragedy on his family and his identities growing up. Both his words and the suitcases weave a deep exploration of grief in relation to gender, body, ethnicity, immigration, and class. 

Throughout the exhibit, suitcases filled with small items asked each viewer to take the things that reminded them of someone or something they had lost. We would fill out boxes with these things, and at the end, there would be the option to keep it or to leave it in the Realm of the Dead, allowing it to become part of the exhibit. Moving through the exhibit, I felt my box grow slightly more full with the notes and items I had collected, but I also felt myself grow heavy. Listening to Pinto’s story of grief, remembering my own.

We keep the dead with us, in us. My mother passed away 2 years ago, leaving me feeling helpless and crushed. I am still grieving her. While this performance left me remembering this loss with a heavy heart, I found myself comforted by the reminder that a part of her is in me and always will be. I choose to carry her with me. I grieve. “My sweet sister, no longer here, no longer on Earth.” Pinto holds his hands to his chest. She lives on, he says, in him—”Can you see her?” 

This exploration of grief through art and performance was so beautifully touching to me. I am thankful to Pinto for sharing his story, and in this way giving the audience a space to search their own losses. To honor the Realm of the Dead.

REVIEW: Dear Evan Hansen

Dear Evan Hansen, 

When I saw you were becoming a movie, I admit, I was skeptical. You’re the freshest in a growing list of musicals turned movies, a recent trend that I’m not sure how I feel about yet. A theatre kid at heart, I knew the music and storyline from Dear Evan Hansen before I walked into the screening. Wondering how the transition from stage to screen would play out, I came in skeptical but interested. 

My main hesitation with movie musicals is that the mashing of these forms can often feel confusing, if done improperly. When attending a musical, the audience is expecting the music as part of the storytelling. In a movie, the ability to shoot in an authentic setting can create enhanced realism, which can’t always be done on stage. When someone starts singing out of the blue in a movie, it feels especially out of place when the rest of the film feels so real. I felt particularly jarred by it in Dear Evan Hansen, which utilized silence in its non-musical parts so well, I started to wonder what this movie would look like without the musical element everyone was expecting, and if it could stand alone that way.

Another one of these skepticisms came from the age of Ben Platt, the originator of the role of the titular Evan Hansen. We are no stranger to seeing actors well out of the age range play high schoolers (ex. Grease, Stranger Things, etc.), and Platt has spoken up against critics who said he’s too old for the role. While I agree that it’s irritating to continue to see high schoolers played by much-older actors, I have to admit Platt’s performance is exceptionally extraordinary. Platt’s ability, especially repeated times a week on stage, to portray a severely anxious high schooler and snot-cry while singing, is incredible. It comes from a place of deeply understanding and embodying the character of Evan Hansen, and it times it’s hard to watch because of its rawness. 

Speaking of snot-crying… While the storyline is emotional and heavy, I couldn’t help but feel the movie was perhaps a bit too self-indulgent at times. There may have been a smidge too much screen time for tears and pensive expressions–and the removal of some of the more upbeat songs from the original musical only added to the darker tone of the film version. 

While some original songs were missing, a few new ones were added. I appreciated what they did here–it seemed, in this way, that they were moving towards making the movie its own meaningful thing, rather than a copy of the musical version. The movie slightly departs by featuring certain characters more, increasing the diversity factor of the film and touching on different ways mental health shows up in different people’s lives. (Hint: Alana gets a more fleshed-out character development, and we hear more from Connor!)

Overall: Did I cry? Yes. I’m not afraid to say that the topic of mental health and suicide hits quite close to home for me, and I’m thankful for the way DEH doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff. Did I laugh? Yes, in the brief snippets of comedic relief. In the end, I would recommend it as separate from its musical original. For those of us who need to hear it, DEH reminds us: You are not alone. You will be found. If you’re feeling up for a powerful, emotional story, go check it out when it releases on September 24th! 

REVIEW: Funkwagon || Sabbatical Bob || Midnight Mercedes

When COVID-19 was at its height, live music was the thing I missed maybe the most. Music, in my belief, has a special way of bringing us all together–whether it’s dancing, congregating at concerts, or just the act of sharing favorite tunes in the car or in living rooms. When live music as we knew it temporarily shut down, I found myself longing for the environments of concert halls and music venues. Listening to online performances kept spirits up, but when I got the chance to walk into the Blind Pig again this weekend, to feel the bass and drums reverberate in my body, something came alive in me again.

Even if you’re not a self-proclaimed fan of funk music, I believe there’s something for everyone to enjoy in the infectious drum beats and groovy bass lines. As my friend who attended with me admitted, “funk is sexy, in a fun way.” Music that invites your body to move, invites you to cheer. Music that commands your attention. Mixed with the transportational qualities of a nighttime neon-lit music club, I truly felt like I was elsewhere, in the space that the music created for us.

This night of funk music opened with Midnight Mercedes, a small Michigan funk band with killer vocals and a tenor saxophonist with an eye-catching light-up neck strap. The vocalist, draped in a rainbow giraffe-print dress, sang with soul and smiles, sending chills down my spine with her strong sustained notes. 

Next, we heard from Funkwagon, a gospel-infused funk band based in Detroit, MI and Burlington, VT. Lead keys giving equal energy to his vocals, splitting into ear-pleasing harmonies with the other instrumentalists. More often than not, I found myself smiling at the pure life radiating from the music on stage.

At that point, it was getting late for me, but I stayed for one of my favorite Ypsilanti-based groups, the incredible Sabbatical Bob. Describing themselves as “high-energy funk,” I was glad to hear them play after a year of witnessing their performances through a screen. While it was still great to hear them perform at events like Dance for Democracy, there is something irreplaceable about being there, about being able to feel the sound of the trumpet and sax, tearing up tunes while the audience around you bops along. 

It was an incredibly fun night out, and I encourage everyone to go out and support your local music venues and musicians. It’s been a tough year and a half for all of us, and we can all benefit from the arts. Get out there and get your groove on!

REVIEW: Ann Arbor Film Festival, The Room Presumed

I attended one of the free performances put on by the 2021 Ann Arbor Film Festival, The Room Presumed by Scott Kiernan. Just from the description on the Ann Arbor Film Festival website, I wasn’t quite sure what I was watching exactly, but I was intrigued by the idea of watching something created with machine learning. 

In this piece, trippy visuals set on the backdrop of a black screen are accompanied by text that appears sentence by sentence. When the performance began, I was unsure of when the “real” performance would start and assumed I was seeing human-written words appear on my screen. My confusion deepened when at random points, the script would suddenly make no sense, or repeat phrases, and then return to a seemingly “normal” cadence.

If you’ve ever played around with artificial intelligence (AI) poem generators or AI meme generators (This Meme Does Not Exist), you might recognize these glitches as trademark giveaways of tech-created text. Or perhaps it’s just an innate disposition to be able to tell when something just doesn’t sound human. Once it fully clicked that this was probably a machine-written script, I couldn’t tell if I was more disturbed or less disturbed by it.

I crashed the day’s afterparty for the Ann Arbor Film Festival on, which I had never been on–a site where participants are avatars, and your proximity to other avatars determines how much you can see or hear them. I accidentally found myself in an AAFF director chat before I found Scott Kiernan’s group and joined the conversation about what that piece really was about. 

The script we experience in The Room Presumed is created by a machine learning algorithm partially trained on an early 1980’s thought experiment at Atari. During this experiment, Kiernan explained, computer scientists at Atari imagined the possibilities of virtual reality, but without the tools to do it, resorted to improvisational acting.  

The end result of this machine learning script, as Kiernan explained, is to make fun of what we call immersion and reveal how non-immersive VR can be. As homage to this original thought experiment, at the end of the performance there flashes a picture of the Atari building today, an unmarked, bland corporate building. 

This piece caused me to truly think about my relationship to reality and to technology, and reminded me of an article I read about AI-”created” art. While an AI can turn out surprisingly humanlike (and disturbingly un-humanlike) pieces, what it creates is always going to be based off of the human-created content it is fed, yet that doesn’t in turn make an AI piece human-created. In a similar way, VR will always be a tech-warped version of our true reality, and therefore, as Kiernan pushes us to see, it cannot be truly immersive.

REVIEW: Basement Arts’ SLUT The Play

Content warning: this play and review contains topics of rape and sexual violence. 

Centered around 16-year-old Joey’s testimony about the night she was assaulted by three of her friends, Slut: the Play interweaves Joey’s interviews and the reactions of Joey’s female classmates. The play itself has a rich history, initially created by the all-girl, non-profit theatre organization The Arts Effect. Slut: the Play was eventually adapted into the Netflix Series Grand Army.

The organization of the play translated well to a Zoom format, utilizing a mix of filmed (masked) group scenes, Zoom calls, and individual recorded monologues to tell the story. The ability for monologues to be filmed in genuine locations was a powerful dynamic in Basement Arts’ adaptation. Joey’s friend Jane talking to an unseen mother in a kitchen. The sister of one of the perpetrators pleading him for answers while sitting cross-legged on her bed, laptop on her lap. 

Strong acting throughout, I was gripped by the cast’s performance. The play was difficult to watch at times, with disturbing content matter both in terms of sexual assault descriptions and some character’s reactions to the events in question. However, I think it was a brutal call to recognize the many different aspects of a toxic culture that often discourage survivors from speaking up. 

The titular word, ‘slut,’ starts off as a sex-positive term among Joey’s classmates for their dance team nicknamed “The Slut Squad,” but turns into a horrible, derogatory, blame-filled word once Joey steps forward with her story. A community reacting with victim-blaming and accusations of lying leave Joey wondering if there will ever be resolution for her, considering the way her community has responded to her coming forward. The play ends, however, with a small glimpse of hope–the words “I believe you.”

Basement Arts did a speaker series to accompany this show, including interviews with Sexual Assault Survivor Advocate Vanity Catoni-Ellis and co-creator of the play Meg McInerney, which I think was an important supplement to the show, considering the heavy content material. Overall, I believe Basement Arts handled this production well, making it work for the current circumstances in order to ensure the meaning of the material wasn’t lost.

Basement Arts asks patrons to consider donations to the following organizations in lieu of ticket prices:

First Step –
Safe House Center –