Best Of :: Arts & Entertainment
It all began here in 1993: salsa classes on Monday and Wednesday nights at the spacious and charmingly down-at-the-heels Blue Banquet Hall. By now the place is packed four nights a week, and Salsa Lovers is a huge enterprise, having expanded to two more locations. But the West Miami-Dade scene has a festive, nightclubby quality all its own, and it just keeps getting hotter (sometimes literally; the AC is erratic). Monday through Thursday a large and varied crowd descends on the hall, everyone from senior citizens to families to middle-school students, though the 20- to 30-year-old crowd dominates. The sheer energy generated by hundreds of slaves to the salsa rhythm is irresistible. Some people skip the classes and instead hang out, flirt, or practice moves with a partner. Between classes (three levels, each one hour long, beginning at 7:00 p.m.) the DJ spins a "practice song," and a gigantic circle of couples fills the entire main dance floor, so big the instructors have to call out the turns on a microphone. Oscar D'Leon blares from the speakers, and pretty soon everyone's in a whirl -- dile que no, dame una, hips going and fondillos shaking, abrázala, abanico, arms rising and feet pivoting, montaña, balsero, and sometimes the lights will dim and the tacky disco balls will turn. For seven dollars (price per lesson) you get all this, and you might even learn the paseo por el parque.
A South Florida native who rocks, singer/songwriter DeNisco has been playing guitar since childhood and performing professionally for thirteen years. Now living in Dania Beach, she's a regular on Miami-Dade stages. Riding the wake of her first CD, 1995's On My Way (which garnered two Billboard songwriting awards for the ditties "I Belong with You" and "Mystic Tune"), she's now pushing her latest release, Winds of a Dream. A six-song disc she simply calls "pop-orientated acoustic rock," it's a perfect platform for her to showcase a clear, touching, sometimes raspy voice. You can catch DeNisco performing in local clubs about four times a week. Sometimes it's just her and a guitar. Other times she's with her full band. No matter who she's with, you won't be able to resist the rock or the voice.
No other Miami frontman can carry you through a tune like Endo's Gil Bitton. First, understand the jet-fueled rock Endo belts out lands somewhere between Rage Against the Machine and Limp Bizkit. Second, realize Bitton puts everything he has into a performance, prowling the stage and gesticulating to each break-neck beat, delving deep into his diaphragm for a sound that pushes the band's already aggressive music to a new-found intensity. After a set he's spent -- drenched in sweat and exhausted. Bitton's energetic presence and distinct voice have helped Endo create a bit of a stir around the country. Late last year New York's Concrete Management began to represent the group (in addition to famed clients Ministry and Pantera). Impressed as well were the folks at the very-selective South by Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, who invited the band to perform this past March. Judging by the recent release of Endo's second album, the rousing Evolve, featuring Bitton's searing vocals, who knows what the future will bring?
This welcoming second-floor rabbit warren of rooms located in the heart of downtown Miami was ahead of the pack in the area's renaissance. In fact it's still way ahead of everyone else. Opened in the late Nineties by David Haskin, the Wallflower was strictly art based at first, with the occasional cultural gathering. The art exhibitions -- sculpture, paintings, and what-have-you displayed and dispersed throughout the various spaces -- continue. But as a music-listening venue, the Wallflower began to bloom in early 1999 when Flash, former funkfinder at Lincoln Road's defunct Funktional Funk, assumed the programming and managing reins. Since then the place, so desolate and deserted from the outside at night, has come alive inside every weekend showcasing a who's who of talent in several genres. Spoken word events occur on a monthly basis. Workshops devoted to holistic health are plentiful too. But it's the performances by nearly every local band active in Miami -- Sixo, Swivel Stick, the Square Egg, Mantra, and the Gabe Dixon Band, to name a few -- that really draw crowds. The six-buck cover buys entry into an all-ages show, sans alcohol. Coffee, tea, juices, and healthy snacks are served. Smoking is allowed -- in one room. Music aficionados can purchase CDs on the premises or settle on the comfy furniture, watching or listening from almost anywhere. Just about the entire gallery is wired for video and sound. And the sounds, well, they're the best reason of all to be there.
Forget everything you've heard about Lynyrd Skynyrd's snarling Floridian frontman dying in a fiery 1977 plane crash. He's alive and well, just as pissed off as ever about the sorely maligned Southern Man, and presently heading up local outfit the Holy Rollin' Hellfires. That Dixie-steeped flavor of old is still there, complete with stinging, barbed-wirelike guitar work and a country blues sense of twang. But it's been accelerated, dragged through the punk-rock blender, and come out the other end angrily distorted. Of course as anyone who's seen the Hellfires perform live can tell you, it's best not to spend too much time analyzing the group's sonic spin on white-trash harmonics. Instead stand back. Way back. Lead singer Billy McKelvy has some novel ideas about breaking down that fourth wall, and his impassioned growling, howling, and frantic arm-flailing isn't always safely confined to the stage. Rock and roll may have become a spent cultural force in Miami, but the sight of its death throes can be an impressive thing to behold.
Music by the light of the moon -- an intoxicating combination. Certainly something that's gone on forever and a day. But on a regular basis in Miami? Apparently not. That is until 1995, when Barnacle State Historic Site park manager Terry Coulliette and friends dreamed up the idea for the Barnacle Under Moonlight concert series. The idea: Once a month, on or near the full moon (except during July and August), host a concert on the expansive back lawn of the charming Vernacular-style house built on five acres of waterfront property in 1891 by Coconut Grove pioneer Ralph Middleton Munroe. A serene setting, which calls for relaxed sounds. Various acts have been in the folk or blues vein, such as Ukrainian bandurist Yarko, local pair Outta d'Blues, and eclectic acoustic duo Tammerlin. A Celtic thing happens in honor of St. Patrick's Day, and the Top Brass Quintet plays Christmas carols in December. Florida songster Grant Livingston, the first musician ever to perform there, now traditionally closes the series each year. Listeners are invited to lounge on blankets or chairs, have a picnic, and frolic in the grass as long as they fork over five bucks (kids under age ten get in free) and leave their pets at home. Another thing they can't bring along: booze. But that's okay. The moonlight, music, and atmosphere are more than enough to make them drunk.
There was much trepidation about the coming of this monster movie theater to our much-treasured Road. Would this cold and corporate megaplex shoveling out Hollywood hits put an end to any remaining pretense of funkiness that the mall had? Surprise: The Regal on South Beach has fit in more snug than many thought. First, it lived up to its promise to show alternative movies. At least two screens per week show foreign or gay-theme films, or films that otherwise might not have unspooled here. Second, the theaters themselves are comfortable: medium-size rooms, plush seats, and good views from every one of them (so often not the case at a megaplex). Parking hasn't been a problem, either; in fact you can often find a spot right on Alton Road, just a block away. There is a good selection of food, a café, even an outdoor patio and balcony, and absolutely no loud video arcade anywhere on the premises. Finally, before or after the movie you can stroll down the street that, while it has lost much of its counterculture vibe, remains Miami-Dade's most people-friendly urban area.
The usual kudos go to perennial winner Fusión Latina at WDNA-FM (88.9), but for those whose tastes are not exclusively tropical, the University of Miami's Invasión Latina with Liliana Rodriguez is the only outlet in town for Latin alternative music. The vibe is very late-night-in-the-dormitory, with Liliana laying out groovy new tracks for her friends and whooping with joy as she hands out concert tickets. That the rock, hip-hop, ska, reggae, R&B, and electronica of a whole hemisphere is confined to a spare three hours per week on a Monday night on a student station is a testament to the sad state of Latin pop radio in Miami. DJ Liliana does her best to pack in a far-ranging set of tunes while interviewing visiting musicians and plugging upcoming live shows. French-born iconoclast Manu Chau's philosophical neo-son brushes elbows with the Chilean group La Ley's electro hip-hop and the Colombian pablum pop of Shakira. The breadth of the material to cover in such a limited time makes it impossible for this "invasion" to provide any more than a sample of burgeoning developments on the Latin scene. The show does a great service for local acts, however, exposing listeners to the latest from favorites such as Fulano and Volumen Cero.
As hip-hop continues down its path toward world domination, cash registers ringing loudly all the way, it seems in increasing danger of calcifying. For more and more up-and-coming rappers, pursuing their art often appears simply to be a matter of choosing a role: Gangsta thug? Macked-out pimp? Or smooth balladeer? Pick your category, don its stereotypical wardrobe -- and often its just-as-formalized set of musical rules -- and voilà! Instant rap star! All of which makes the aesthetic flowering of Lee Williams such a welcome breath of fresh air. From his hysterically surreal choice of tattoos (yes, that's a World Wildlife Federation panda emblazoned on his right pec) to his inventive, humor-laced, and honey-voiced flow (one that draws equally upon Q-Tip and Gil Scott-Heron), Williams is evolving into an original. And with his new multiculti live outfit, the Square Egg, churning out the music behind him (no rote programmed beats here, thank you), he looks fully primed to head off in whatever unique direction he wants. We'll most definitely be along for the ride.
There's an easy way to weed out the musical heavyweights from the merely mediocre. Regular songwriters craft works about love, loss, and universal experiences. Boring. True visionaries turn their attention to more pressing matters: their own trials in the spotlight. Witness the navel-gazing tunes of Van Morrison ("The Story of Them"), the Beatles ("The Ballad of John and Yoko"), and, of course, that pop titan Ricky Nelson ("Garden Party"). To those illustrious ranks add the Trash Monkeys, who have not just one song dealing with the ongoing tribulations of, well, Trash Monkey-dom, but a half-dozen. Of course the band's concerns are a little more downmarket than hordes of groupies, intrusive TV cameras, and piles of cash. As singer Lloyd Johnson croons over a stumbling acoustic lurch, if you enter the "Casa de Trash," be sure to mind the exposed wiring and don't forget to carefully hide your stash. Oh yeah, try not to step on the blow-up doll either. "Casa de Trash" is just one of the many country-inflected odes the group recorded back in the late Eighties, only now rescued from samizdat cassette editions and enshrined on the Pass Out CD. Elsewhere there's the cowpunk dirge "Puppies, Puppies, Puppies" (delivered in a milk-curdling faux-Scottish accent, of course), the fuzzed-out jauntiness of "Clairvoyant Housewife" (the bouncily twee theme song to one of the many bizarre sitcoms that seem to exist only in the band's collective mind), and the Merle Haggard-on-ludes ballad "Hamburger Girl" (a heartfelt tribute to the greasy spoons of South Florida). Finally compiled for a public audience, Pass Out stands as a gloriously whacked tribute to creative genius left out in the Miami sun a little too long. It's also thankfully still a work in progress; the second half of the CD contains new songs from the recently reformed Trash Monkeys. If anything they seem even more deranged with the passage of time. Long may they stagger.
Gaby Gabriel is best known as the long-time leader of the house orchestra at the Fontainebleau Hilton's Club Tropigala on Miami Beach. The exuberant Cuba-born singer/percussionist has developed a musical repertoire to match the diversity of his audiences, which range from Latin-American tourists to sunbirds and celebrities. But Gabriel hasn't done much recording. Until last year, when Miami's powerhouse car dealer Gus Machado offered to sponsor sessions at Hialeah's Sound Booth Recording Studio. Gabriel gathered some of the best singers and players he knows, many recently arrived from Cuba. (He is constantly besieged with calls from musicians all over the world looking to break into Miami's music scene.) Con Alma y Vida was in production most of 1999 and released in January 2000. It sounds great, a mix of original and established songs and Puerto Rican and Cuban styles. Gabriel's duet with Cubana Ilumin de Leon on José Luis Perales's "Una Locura" is beautiful. The CD was a big hit on the Internet music site mp3.com; one cut, "Cafe con Leche," stayed on the Top 10 for weeks and now is in the Top 30. Makes us wonder why the local salsa stations won't play it.
If ever an album title seemed appropriate, it's Ischemic Strokes, the moniker Phoenecia slapped on its most recent collection, which gathered up kindred souls recording for their own Schematic label and placed them alongside the duo's own skittering, frazzled creations. After all, an ischemic stroke -- a sudden, sharp cutoff of the blood supply to an internal organ -- aptly ascribes the flavor of the music Romulo Del Castillo and Josh Kay fashion as Phoenecia: beats that reject a metronome lockstep in favor of an epileptic fit; manic buzzes and frantic clicks that evoke a computer's motherboard melting down; and an overall aural quality akin to the sound of plugging one too many power cords into an electrical outlet. 2001's Hal would most definitely approve. Of course there are hundreds of budding mad scientists all tweaking dance music into strange new forms. What elevates Phoenecia is its uniquely visceral "machines come alive" vibe. The sounds may not always be pleasant, but like a highway car wreck, it's hard to resist slowing down for a gander.