REVIEW: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson

There was blood indeed, and it was unmistakably about Andrew Jackson.

In this musical, Jackson was really developed as a character, showing just how nuanced he was as a president and as a person. Through glimpses of his personal history, we see how his past would shape his beliefs and his behaviors. The songs and scenes summarized his life and his decisions in a way that no documentary or textbook could ever do. Full of rock and unsuspected one-liners, it definitely kept the audience engaged, and the constant laughter, heavy hushed silences, and standing ovation at the end proved that.

One of my favorite songs was “Ten Little Indians.” The female soloist and ensemble were fantastically chilling, to say the least, and its grim reality resonated deeply and intensely. “The Corrupt Bargain” was also a personal favorite.  As a nice contrast to “Ten Little Indians”, this silly, upbeat number was the epitome of satire, exaggerating how politicians were mere puppets that could not be taken seriously. I thought this was brilliantly executed and while that song could have ran on the verge of ridiculous and cringe-worthy, the directorial choice in choreography made this an entertaining little history lesson with a larger societal commentary behind it that still rings true in modern politics.

The talented cast was absolutely amazing. The pacing was perfect, their chemistry with each other made me forget they were acting, and their personas and voices filled the room. Jake Smith brought the power into the entire Power Center as Andrew Jackson. The grief, the rage, the anguish, the passion for America were all so evident in his energetic performance as our great yet pained president. Garrett Forrestal provided comedic relief from this harrowing journey through history as the Storyteller who refuses to be silenced. As he shrewdly said in his resurrection at the end, “You can’t shoot history in the neck.” Maddison Rotner’s rendition of “The Great Compromise” beautifully captured the suffering of Rachel Jackson. Finally, the penultimate number, “Second Nature”, performed by Josh Strobl (Black Fox) was a stunning summary of what Jackson’s legacy would be, and Strobl’s soulful singing brought as much justice to the sorrows of the past as possible.

I was a huge fan of the rock and roll energy, even though it was nicely balanced throughout by the sensitive emotional scenes. The edgy attitude modernized this otherwise archaic story. I also really liked the backdrop and the vibe it set for the stage, as well as all the other props, including fabrics dictating all the different chapters of his life and the table that continued to stand despite losing a leg to Smith’s fiercely-flaring temper. The music was everything American rock, and the occasional breaking of the fourth wall between the four-member band and the cast was a nice change of pace as well. Particularly commendable was Erez Levin’s ability to rock out on the guitar while also channeling his inner fool as the laughable Martin Van Buren. Some directorial choices and parts of the musical were questionable, but overall, this production was really nicely performed and enjoyable to watch.

In the end, Andrew Jackson was a human being who wanted what he thought was best for the American people and the nation. His accomplishments remain extraordinary and controversial. Will there always be a debate around his presidency? Of course. And this musical does not serve as a commentary about what side you should take nor does it try to influence your opinion about him. Rather, it simply provides a look at the life of a complicated, flawed man with a great, tarnished legacy through comedy and rock and roll to help us understand American history and this complicated president on a whole new level.

If you didn’t attend on opening night, I highly recommend going to the Power Center to see MUSKET’s excellent production on November 18 at 8pm and November 19 at 2pm as they bring history alive onstage.

REVIEW: Dont Look Back

Bob Dylan is celebrated far and wide for his sense of enigma. It draws many fans to him like a magnet — the fact that he rarely, if ever, reveals details of his personal life, the impenetrable nature of his ever-changing persona. In fact, I actually went to see him in concert this October, and I was surprised by the fact that he didn’t say a single word outside of the songs that he played. This mystery is a trait that he carries even to this day, and it can be traced all the way back to the very beginnings of his fame in the 1960s.

Dont Look Back, a 1967 documentary focusing on his 1965 tour of London, England, brings its audience closer to Dylan — the “real” Dylan, if there is such a thing — than any of them are otherwise likely to get. This Dylan is striking, more than anything, because he wavers so much between different facades. At times he is visionary, playing guitar and singing straight from his heart, or talking honestly with people who see life differently from him; at other times he is downright arrogant, interrupting people often and discounting their opinions in favor of his own. Sometimes he is quiet and attentive, carefully listening while fellow musicians like Donovan and Joan Baez play music for him in hotel rooms; sometimes he is loud and angry almost to the point of not making sense, like when he demands to know who in his hotel is guilty of throwing glass into the street. He’s humble and down-to-earth, but also remarkably full of himself (“I know I’m big noise,” he taunts to a man he has accused of being guilty of the glass-throwing). Sometimes he’s very serious, and sometimes he grins and makes jokes — and what’s more, he’ll often switch between many of these attitudes within the span of a single minute.

Of course, many of these less endorsable sides of Dylan — that he is argumentative, acerbic, full of himself, etc. — are traits that a great deal of his fans will easily dismiss. They’ll say, “That’s just the way he is,” or, “That’s what makes him so great — he’s not afraid to tell people how it is!” Luckily, the film itself takes no sides; with no retrospective voiceover or imbalance regarding what footage it decides to show us, it is indiscriminate. It leaves its audience to make their own decisions.

The crowning achievement of Dont Look Back, then, is that it’s honest. It gives fans an inner look at everything they love about Dylan — the ways in which he can be at once relatable and completely, untouchably elevated — while refusing to shy away from the paradoxes of his character that at times can undercut this. I’ll admit feeling a personal pang of anger during a moment in the movie when Dylan tells a reporter something on the lines of, “I know more about you and your profession, just now from meeting you, than you will ever know about me.” But I also laughed anytime Dylan told a joke, and watched breathlessly during recordings of his live performances of songs like “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Talkin’ World War III Blues”.

Dont Look Back was filmed at the height of Dylan’s fame and at the cusp of some of his most major creative breakthroughs (a.k.a., his 1967 triple-album win with Bringing it All Back HomeBlonde on Blonde, and Highway 61 Revisited). It situates us directly in Dylan’s touring life, to the point that we feel like we’re actually sitting where the camera operator is sitting, three or four feet away from him. It is arguably the closest any film has ever or can ever really come to penetrating the eternal mystery and captivating persona of Bob Dylan, for better or for worse.

REVIEW: Dessa @ The Blind Pig

Tuesday night, which happened to be before my Math 481 midterm (a fact I did not realize until I had already agreed to review this concert), Dessa and crew came to town. Though I had been looking forward to this concert for sometime, I had also been counting on Tuesday to study. I ended up choosing the concert, but I might live to regret this decision (in approximately a week, when I get the exam back).

When I got there, the first act was already well underway though the crowd was still sparse. The song I could hear James Gardin playing as I entered the venue struck me as generic and ugly, but the next few songs he played were much better. His songs are shockingly well-produced for a local rapper, featuring soothing beats and rhythmic choruses. The lyrics, much like his stage presence, feature uplifting verses and a message for unity in times of trouble. Although the audience was clearly not there for him, he succeeded in getting people interested and vibing to his music. Furthermore, his crowd interactions demonstrated excitement and compassion for his audience, which helped to start the concert off on a positive note. At one point, he asked for two volunteers to say a bit about themselves and then freestyled based on what they told him–and as someone not often impressed by freestyle, he did quite well.

The next opening act (and also Dessa’s backing band) was MONAKR. Their music served as an interlude between Gardin and Dessa’s rapping. Their lyrics were either softly sung or gently wailed, depending on the tempo of the song. At times, there were rapid and impressive drum beats dragging the songs along, but others were almost entirely electronic, built from varied sounds slowly coming to crescendo. Either way, the tone of their set was distinctly different, and chilled the audience to a certain extent. Their stage presence featured a few too many jokes about their name (for reference, it’s pronounced the same as moniker) and didn’t have a clear speaker (both the singer and the guitarist would attempt to speak at the same time) designated to talk to the audience. Still, I would definitely recommend checking out their sound.

Finally, there was Dessa. Her performance was upbeat and her songs simultaneously rocked and soothed, featuring rapping and singing and tightly produced melodies. In between songs, she was clearly a performer who loved her fans, and the words she said seemed to come from an open and honest place, as if she were writing in a journal and not speaking to a room filled with a couple hundred. Though she played old favorites, much of her set was spent testing out new material for an upcoming album (still unannounced), and as a fan, there isn’t much greater pleasure than these concert sneak peaks. Overall, Dessa navigated her performance and dialogue well, and demonstrated a love and passion for her work, one that she has for over a decade in an often unforgiving industry.

PREVIEW: Dont Look Back

When I first got to Ann Arbor, I was amazed how many Bob Dylan fans I seemed to run into. It’s not surprising, considering how enduring his work is and how popular he remains to this day. I even remember my History of the Sixties class talking about his being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Naturally, there are a ton of movies and documentaries focusing on aspects of Dylan’s life. My favorite so far has definitely been the extensive documentary No Direction Home (after the line in his famous “Like a Rolling Stone”). But Dont Look Back, with appearances of people like Joan Baez and Donovan and a 100% Certified Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, is definitely at the top of the list of necessary Dylan-related films. It covers Dylan’s 1965 concert tour in England, on the cusp of many of the creative breakthroughs that would eventually confirm his place in history as a legend.

That’s why I’m very excited to see Dont Look Back tonight at The Michigan Theatre, as part of the theatre’s 1967 Film Series. I’ve never seen it before, and I can’t wait to see what it’s like. The film will show at 9:30, and student tickets are $8 each.

PREVIEW: Intergalactic Pops

Fan of the Star Wars movies? Never seen the films but like the iconic music in it? Just a lover of music?

If you’ve ever watched The Planets, E.T., or Star Trek, you’re also in for a treat.

The Michigan Pops Orchestra is putting on a concert that will put you over the moon. Intergalactic Pops will appeal to people of all ages as it explores the music that transcends space and time. And that’s not all! It will feature a unique combination of vocal performers, multimedia, stage antics, and special effects, which will be sure to engage and entertain the audience.

Comprised of students from all fields of study united with a common love for music, the Michigan Pops Orchestra is the country’s oldest collegiate Pops orchestra and is the only student-run, student-directed orchestra on campus.

I can’t wait to hear all the talent the Michigan Pops Orchestra has to offer. Get ready for this out-of-the-world performance on Sunday, November 19 at 7pm in the Michigan Theater. Student tickets are $5 at the door or it is free with a Passport to the Arts Voucher!

PREVIEW: Dessa @ The Blind Pig

Dessa, a Minnesota rapper known for her work with the Doomtree collective, will be performing in Ann Arbor tomorrow at The Blind Pig. Her style is a blend of hiphop and soft-spoken singing, and entirely her own. She was recently featured on the Hamilton mixtape, and is hard at work on her next record.

Tickets are $15 and doors open at 8 PM.