Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
Miami may not have much of a reputation as a haven for bibliophiles, but you'd never know that from spending time in the backroom of Books & Books's Coral Gables store. John Grisham may rule the Beaches, but the caliber of talent holding court in this intimate spot is strictly topnotch. Week after week store owner Mitchell Kaplan shepherds authors here and in his Lincoln Road shop from around the nation, where they read from their work, scribble their John Hancocks, and best of all, banter directly with the audience. Ever wonder what makes Robert Stone tick? What makes Salman Rushdie run? Just where does Elmore Leonard get those twisted ideas? Here's your chance to put the question to them, face-to-face. With an admission price that's (almost always) zip, you've got one of Miami's best bets for highbrow, low-budget entertainment.
The reggae cover bands of Miami probably don't like getting up there and grinding out "No Woman No Cry" for the eight-millionth time. Alas, that's what the mainstream market demands. This is a tough town for an original reggae band, particularly one with a political consciousness, but Benaiah continues to fight the good fight. Vocalist Joseph Williamson, with help from songwriting partner Carlton Coffee (ex-Inner Circle), has led his outfit to modest success, independently producing two CDs and doing a bit of touring. Bucking the dancehall-DJ trend in reggae, Benaiah delivers smooth harmonies and slickly produced roots grooves in the tradition of vital Eighties groups Steel Pulse, Black Uhuru, and Third World. With stirring tunes such as "We Nah Give Up" and "Babylon Soft," Williamson wails against the social ills plaguing modern Babylon, and lauds the back-to-Zion messianic vision of Rastafarianism. Still crucial after all these years.
Chugging along for the past eighteen years, this itinerant studio can claim more identities than a fugitive on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted list. Known in North Miami and on the Beach as Sync Studios, and in downtown Miami as The Studio, MBRS is now comfortably ensconced on Lincoln Road. The nomadic existence may seem a bit unstable, but its owners -- Frank "Rat Bastard" Falestra, Luciano "Looch" Delgado, Ariyah Okamoto, and Dan Warren (all musicians/engineers/producers) -- have managed to establish long and tangled roots in this town. Through word of mouth their co-op has permeated the underground music scene while enjoying a reputation as the place to record noise, pop, progressive rock, electronica, hardcore punk, and then some. A short list of notables who have crooned their tunes through the studio's hallowed mikes includes Marilyn Manson and the Spooky Kids; the Mavericks; Diane Ward; the Holy Terrors; King Felix; Tom Smith; Harry Pussy; Trip Theory; The Beat Dominator; Space Men; Raw B Jae; Manchild; Snatch the Pebble; Ho Chi Minh; Dr. Yao; Loki; I Don't Know; Maria; Bobby Thomas, Jr.; and, of course, Alex Fox, the King of Ocean Drive. Recordings made at MBRS or one of its alter egos range from numerous albums for local acts (including several live compilations tracked at Churchill's and the defunct club Washington Square) to commercial jingles for international soda pop conglomerates. MBRS's latest evolution: upgrading equipment to become a full service, state-of-the-art computerized studio. Nowadays that's where it's at.
For one sweet, sunny spring day Bayfront Park became Utopia, a symbolic song of freedom and unity you could dance to. Haitian, Jamaican, Cuban, and American flags waved together above 15,000 fans of Fugee chief Wyclef Jean and his rainbow coalition of talent, the Refugee Allstars. The ensemble included fellow Fugee Pras, rapper John Forte, tap dance wunderkind Savion Glover, a crew of DJs, and a Haitian ra-ra band performing an inner city-immigrant hybrid of anthems: Creole ballads, old-school soul, raunchy rap, driving Soca, even a hip-hop version of "Guantanamera." The music rang out all through the afternoon and, later, the power of refugee music electrified the night as all-American fireworks topped the exhilarating evening. In this microcosm freedom reigned.
"The tyranny of the beat" is an apt description of Miami's club culture, a world where creativity, envelope pushing, and soulfulness are increasingly being shoved aside in favor of generic four-on-the-floorisms. Phoenecia stands as one of a handful of local electronic acts bucking that trend, and Odd Job is an outstretched middle finger aimed at the dance floor. You can hear the influence of breaks and early Eighties electro classics such as "Planet Rock" (Phoenecia band members were born and reared in Miami, after all), but these familiar grooves are buried beneath a blanket of electromagnetic radiation. Rising to the top is the sound of a stuttering, buzzing modem, frantically trying to make a connection with someone, anyone. Despite its disjointedness (or perhaps because of it), the approach adds up to an infectious slice of skittering noise. John Travolta-esque body pops may not be the appropriate visceral response; instead try the Monster Mash.
If human evolution had taken this long, we'd still be monkeys. Already celebrated for their intensely engrossing live shows, the Baboons have neglected to record, opting at one point to put their efforts into a video but never making their mark on disc. Patience paid off this year with the arrival of their seven-tune mix of Miami influences, which captures the group's lively originality while also reflecting elements of Angélique Kidjo, Bob Marley, and Santana, with a few touches of Esquivel for good measure. The marathon jams that leave live crowds happily exhausted come across within the ten-plus minutes of "The Temple" and "Made in the Shade," which runs about eight minutes. But the album also contains enough dynamics to obliterate any tendency toward tediousness. Diverse, birring, and tropical as an August day on Virginia Key, Evolution is pure Miami and pure pleasure.
One thing those crusty old scenesters never mention about the punk-rock heyday of the Cameo: For a while there, the movie-theater seats were still in place! Sure puts all those "I got my ass kicked at the GBH show in '86" stories in perspective, don't it? Okay, so the concrete floor these days makes it kind of echoey, but sound-guy quibbles aside, if this town had more venues like this one (converted movie theaters regularly hosting loud live music), the show-going scene would be far healthier. Although DJ events continue to be a big draw at the Cameo, any venue that has booked altrockers Everclear, acoustic hip-hopper Everlast, punkabilly stalwarts the Cramps, and Colombian genre benders Aterciopelados within the same twelve-month span is providing an invaluable public service. For those who continue to rock, we salute you.
Rob Elba has distinguished himself as an incisive songwriter and riveting performer both with his former group the Holy Terrors and as a solo artist. This outfit, which also includes members of Radio Baghdad, is something else altogether. In typically ferocious style, Elba and company tear up classic (ahem) tunes by Cheap Trick, Ramones, Buzzcocks, the Dead Kennedys, the Damned, and Elvis ("Presley," the droll Elba quips). The cheese factor of covering others' tunes is mitigated by Elba's song selection and the Clap's edgy, cool delivery. Elba says it's about "the sheer joy of playing." For audiences it's about the sheer joy of listening.
Classically trained on the bass, Don Wilner may seem like a musical nerd. He holds a doctorate in music from the University of Miami (where he taught for many years) and he has published numerous articles about jazz performance and pedagogy. But when he plays in the Van Dyke Café's upstairs bar, he reveals himself to be the heppest of hepcats, a jazz man through and through. As the Van Dyke's musical coordinator, he keeps the room humming seven days a week. As in-house bassist he's there more often than not, playing along with some of the hottest names in the jazz world: Mose Allison, Mark Murphy, Johnny O'Neal, and Grady Tate to name a few. Whether accompanying greats, performing with the members of his own hard-bop ensemble (currently fielding offers from major record labels), or letting loose on a solo during a performance by his trio (James Martin and Mark Marineau), Wilner swings, sways, grooves, takes it seriously, takes it fun, grimaces, smiles, sweats, and gives the impression he's loving every minute of it. His recently released album, the eclectic Mysterious Beauty, features jazzy takes on classical tunes (themes from Georges Bizet's opera Carmen), standards (Hoagy Carmichael's "Stardust" and Harold Arlen's "Ill Wind"), and bebop classics (Charlie Parker's "Dexterity") and recently earned a rave review from the esteemed Jazz Times magazine.
Calling the University of Miami's WVUM-FM (90.5) uneven is being more than charitable. One minute you're listening to a blistering set of drum and bass, the next you're being aurally assaulted by frat boys and giggling freshmen. Such are the consequences of WVUM's unfortunate charter, which bars not only community members but UM's own graduate students from joining the air staff. Accordingly, with the average DJ's age being nineteen, it's not surprising there's such a lack of depth in the station's lineup. Which makes Suburban Harmony Joyride such a surprising treat. From 7:00 to 10:00 a.m. Mondays, hosts Roy Silverstein and Tom Wilson romp through a gracefully un-Catholic sprawl of underground rock and postpunk squall. The duo may be young, but they maintain a vision that extends far beyond the campus dorms. Recent on-air faves such as Tortoise, Built to Spill, and Eric's Trip, may not yet be familiar to Miami clubgoers, but at least everyone has a regular reminder about what they're missing.
It's after midnight and, three songs in, the ButterClub has mesmerized the outdoor crowd at a local music festival. Before the next selection, singer Rhett O'Neil asks the technical crew to turn off the stage lights. "We're all friends here," he says. For the next 90 minutes a couple of hundred of the band's friends stand like trees, engrossed, a few mumbling, "These guys are amazing" to no one in particular. Through two stunning albums and plenty of magical live performances, the Club, which employs two guitarists and a hard-hitting percussionist to go with the singing and the rhythm section, has perfected its trippy, trance-inducing rock sound even while carrying the onus of the inescapable Rolling Stones comparisons. Like the Stones the ButterClub is composed of edgy, intelligent rockers. Unlike the Stones the members of the Club disdain pretensions and are far from retirement age. More notably the ButterClub is relevant. It's time for them to come out of the dark.
Singing since age three. Playing guitar since age eleven. Writing tunes in her teens. Pursuing her dreams of rock and roll stardom in Los Angeles. Becoming a wife and mother. Retiring from music. Relocating to Miami to start a new life. Picking up her guitar again. Wowing them at her son's preschool talent show. Performing at open-mike nights. Getting gigs. Getting divorced. Getting encouragement from friends. Writing more songs. Winning the songwriter competition at the 1997 South Florida Folk Festival. Recording Songweaver, a full-length album of dazzling pop-folk tunes. Persevering to attract new fans and delight old ones. Those are a few highlights from the Amy Carol Webb story. Passionate, perceptive, exceptionally gifted, she sings to the listener's soul.