Staff Picks

Get out and about with CityBeat staff, who explain the city's best off-Broadway theater, best art project that's like a cult, best reason to dance to live music, best local band buzz, best arts promo and much more.

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Best Off-Broadway Theater:
Ensemble Theatre of Cincinnati is way off-Broadway, but if you go regularly you see some of the finest, most provocative works on their stage in regional premiere performances, often right after they’ve been hits in New York City. In September 2009 it was Moises Kaufman’s 33 Variations (pictured), not long after its New York run starring Jane Fonda that garnered several Tony Award nominations. Artistic Director Lynn Meyers asks subscribers to trust her, and they do. She offers money back to anyone who’s dissatisfied, but she seldom has to pony up. 1127 Vine St., Over-the-Rhine,

Best Way to Celebrate 50 Years of Great Theater:
Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park’s celebration of a half-century of work onstage featured a great burst of creative productions, including world premieres and shows new to Cincinnati audiences — half the season, in fact — with a first-time script by best-selling novelist Walter Mosley, a new translation of Chekhov's Three Sisters by hot writer Sarah Ruhl and a monologue only onstage once before (in Seattle) by NPR commentator Kevin Kling. They didn’t miss some old favorites, either, from Sleuth to Ain’t Misbehavin’ to The Fantasticks. That’s show business that makes sense.

Best Way to Celebrate 90 years of Grand Opera:
Pull out all the stops with Cincinnati Opera’s plus-size staging of Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg in June 2010, a veritable orgy of music (about six hours, in fact) conducted by Cincinnati native James Levine, who mostly hangs out at the Metropolitan Opera, the only company in America older than ours here in Cincinnati.

Best Theatrical Balancing Act:
Cincinnati Shakespeare Company keeps presenting classics with a fresh approach, mixing the essentials of Shakespeare with great historic works that don’t often get produced — from William S. Gilbert and Oscar Wilde to Samuel Beckett and Eugene O’Neill. Encore! Encore!

Best Way to Fill Up Music Hall:
In February, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra put several hundred musicians and singers onstage for Carl Orff’s lusty choral work Carmina Burana. It sold plenty of tickets and had people hanging from Music Hall’s rafters. With that kind of programming, it makes sense to renovate Music Hall.

Best Arts Supporter:
Louise Nippert, who established an $85 million trust to sustain orchestral music from the Cincinnati Symphony and their performances to accompany Cincinnati Opera and Cincinnati Ballet.

Best Local Music Weekend Ever:
The MidPoint Music Festival continued its trend of getting better with each year in 2009 as thousands of music fans braved the rain undaunted and checked out hundreds of the best bands in the city and country, including the successful tent venture at Grammer’s. The “more bands, more venues, more fun” promise is in for 2010 — keep an eye out for the latest exciting developments.

Best New Band:
Do you believe in magic? The Kiss Me Everlasting made us believe in the kind of magic that can be felt but not touched. Swirling guitars and heartfelt harmonies dominate some of the best Indie Rock you’ll hear locally. Ever had a euphonium solo ripped right up in your face? Stand up close and feel the magic.

Most Creative New Art Gallery:

CS13 Gallery in the Over-the-Rhine/Pendleton area has made a mark in its first year with both its ambitious programming and vivid imagination. It’s inherited Publico’s mantle in bringing the best of new, alternative musicians to town, like the Brooklyn-based experimental group Extra Life and many others. But its creative ideas have included an arts discussion/run and the Creative Economy Grant Dinner, in which attendees submitted a short proposal for why they needed an arts grant and the best one received the proceeds from the fundraising dinner. 1219 Sycamore St., Over-the-Rhine,

Best Reason to Rock Cowboy Boots:
If a band made a better album than local rockers 500 Miles to Memphis’ We’ve Built Up to Nothing this year, we haven’t heard it. We can’t help but root for these guys. Fist-fights replace fiddles in this booze induced square dance. Rarely does country rock this hard. This group gets more ambitious as they go yet their edge remains razor sharp. They’ve built up to something alright.

Best Use of Reverb:
The Harlequins. Nine out of 10 times, reverb can ruin a guitar solo. If you hate it, wait until you hear this trio, which has a sound so big Fountain Square can barely contain them. Sweet crooning over reverb-drenched Rock makes you blackout and wake up in a paisley wonderland. These guys play music that you’ll wish was it’s own genre so you could hear even more of it.

Best Kanye West Moment:
At the 2009 Cincinnati Entertainment Awards music ceremony in November, a member of Brian Olive’s band bum-rushed the stage and pulled a Kanye on Taylor Swift stand-in The Seedy Seeds, who had just accepted their award for Album of the Year. Alas, fists didn’t fly, nor did Brian Olive suffer any major backlash in the tabloids.

Best Off-Season Use of a Swimming Pool:
Symbiotic Gallery, which has no permanent brick-and-mortar location but rather organizes shows in alternative locations, sponsored “Six Feet Deep” last October inside the empty Ziegler Park Pool at 13th and Sycamore streets. Four acts, including The Sundresses and Matthew Shelton’s Picnic, played in the deep end while spectators were free to sit or walk around the pool and the park, where short films were projected. You’d be surpised how good music sounds in an empty pool.

Best Brand New Heavy:
Oxford Cotton. Who knew a supergroup could be so super awesome? Members from Pearlene, The Greenhornes and Heartless Bastards come together to make the soundtrack for drunken sorcery. The band’s heaviness was a welcome surprise.

Best Reason to Dance to Live Original Music:

Daughters & Sons is the real deal. No matter how many times you see them, you’re always blown away. At the end of every show you half expect Sly Stone to come out and high five each member. If you can imagine early Aerosmith with a horn section doing some Funk songs, you’re on your way to imagining what Daughters & Sons sounds like. They never tell you to get down because it’s all about coming up.

Best Art Import:
Deborah Emont Scott spent more than a decade at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, and now she’s landed at Cincinnati’s own Taft Museum of Art. The expert in contemporary art with a deep appreciation of earlier periods will oversee the Taft’s staff of 24. Look for her curatorial experience to enhance the use of the Taft’s renovated and expanded space for exhibitions that will keep you coming back to see fine art in an historic downtown home.

Best New Use for an Old, Old Park:
As part of its experiment showing outdoor movies in the parks, the Cincinnati Park Board, working with the neighborhood, brought E.T. to historic Over-the-Rhine’s 155-year-old Washington Park (just across from Music Hall) on a hot night in July and found that, rather than this being an alien concept, the public flocked to it like a flying-saucer landing. Other films at Eden Park’s Seasongood Pavilion and several neighborhood parks also did so well that the program will return this year. Keep an eye out for titles and locations.

Best Debut of a New Public Art Collection:

Cincinnati Art Museum, which had a great year exhibition-wise in 2009 and seems to be continuing in 2010 with Starburst, debuted its new Robert A. Lewis Collection of (largely) outsider/self-taught art with a scintillating show called Isn’t It Great to Be an Artist, featuring work by, among others, Rev. Howard Finster, Mose Tolliver and Minnie Evans. One surprise: The show had some substantial work by more traditional contemporary artists like Roy De Forest and Roger Brown.

Best Tribue to a Cincinnati Outsider Art Legacy:

Raymond Thunder-Sky, a beloved figure who would frequent Cincinnati construction sites — sometimes wearing a clown get-up — drawing fantasy versions of what he imagined would be built hasn’t been forgotten since his death in 2004. Bill Ross and Keith Banner’s new Thunder-Sky gallery in Northside is devoted to his colorful, visionary work as well as to information about him. It’s also branching out with shows by other of Cincinnati’s many outsider/self-taught artists, including the extremely talented Antonio Adams. 4573 Hamilton Ave., Northside,

Best Use of a Tough Space for Art:
The downtown Weston Art Gallery’s street-level exhibition space — with its glass facade and high ceilings — just seems to swallow up and make puny so much of the art shown there. But Cincinnati’s Thin Air Studio (Christopher Daniel and Kirk Mayhew) solved the problem last summer by turning it into a sort of indoor forest with their sculptural installation made of tree limbs and branches that swerved and swooped throughout the space.

Best Bookstore/Coffee House:
Iris BookCafe is the model for the Main Street revival — it’s not a noisy bar or a grungy coffeehouse still living in the Nirvana-loving 1990s but rather airy, clean and, well, bookish, with a selection of carefully curated volumes and some nice tables to sit and peruse the goods. The vinyl selection is impressive, and there are also photo shows on the walls. 1331 Main St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-381-BOOK

Best Surprising Place to Hear Local Music:
So you’ve mastered “Walk This Way” and “Helter Skelter” on your Rock Band video game. Now what? Why don’t you jam with some Cincinnati bands? A new technology allows private game developers to use the Rock Band format and create downloadable songs for players. Cincy music fans can now grab songs by local like The Pinstripes and 500 Miles to Memphis and see if they could ever fill in should one of their members get sick before a gig (and assuming they’ll let you use those little plastic toy instruments).

Best Person to Show You What the Music Looks Like:
Scott Beseler is out there getting it done. Cincinnati musicians should be honored that such a talented photographer has taken an interest in documenting their shows and lives. You’ll see Beseler at local shows every weekend and then go to his Web site and wish had been to the concert he saw. He has a great sense of what rocks.

Best Jazz Resource:

Cincinnati’s Main Library had been the recipient of the great jazz announcer Oscar Treadwell’s local radio programs, but the design and liner notes of the CDs were so minimalist it was barely worth the effort to find, say, the show on Albert Ayler featuring his version of “Summertime.” Under the direction of librarian Brian Powers (above), however, volunteers went through every show and indexed the songs and the discs now have attractive packaging. Treadwell deserves nothing less. Cincinnati Library Main Branch, 800 Vine St., Downtown. 513-369-6900

Best Person to Make a Band Look Cool in Pictures:
Emily Maxwell has taken pictures of some of our most promising bands and made them look like the world needs to take notice. Her photos of Bad Veins should be used for the announcement that they’re being inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of fame in 20 years.

Best Place to See People Play Music:
Did you ever think you’d see local, original bands playing until midnight on Fountain Square? Hell no, you didn’t. The fact that it happens in front of giant, enthusiastic crowds warms our local-music-lovin’ hearts.

Best Northside Rebirth:

Once upon a time, a bar opened where Spring Grove Avenue skirts Northside and the cool kids rejoiced at having a hip off-the-path hangout spot with good music and cheap drinks. Then the Gypsy Hut slipped after an ownership change. It’s shifted again with yet another management switch, and now Mayday (as it was re-christened) has returned the club to its glory days, hosting good local and touring bands as well as specialty dance nights. And it still has those dark little hiding places on that giant patio, making it a great summer spot. 4227 Spring Grove Ave., Northside. 513-541-0999

Greatest Happy Hour, South Side:

Brothers Bar and Grille, recently opened at Newport on the Levee, has happy hour deals that might force the other Levee drinkeries out of business. Can’t wait to check out the river-view outside patio, complete with fire pit, when the weather gets nice. Those of us who work in Newport might never go home on time again. Newport on the Levee, Newport. 859-291-2767

Best Photography Shows:

Starburst, at Cincinnati Art Museum through May 9, is a beautifully installed and intellectually conceived show about color photography in the 1970s that teaches as much as it pleases. Rather than an excuse to drag out pretty nature images, it shows how edgy and mysterious color can be. Michael Wilson’s Day of Small Things, at Weston Gallery last summer, on the other hand showed how mysteriously ethereal and alluring good black-and-white photos can be, like a film-noir mystery. and

Best Show at Contemporary Arts Center:
We all know the most popular one is the hip, user-friendly street-art prints of Shepard Fairey currently setting attendance records. But the best contemporary art challenges and perplexes as well as pleases and bedazzles, and Albanian artist Anri Sala’s fascinating video-art environments in his Purchase Not by Moonlight exhibition did that in a hypnotically fascinating way. He deserved Fairey-level crowds.

Best Art Project That's Like a Cult:

A couple of years ago, local artists Denise Burge and Lisa Siders began collaborating on videos, installations, collages and drawings under the alias Maidens of the Cosmic Body Running. Their work considers humans and their relationship to nature and the possibilities for transcendence, ecstasy and altered states of mind between the two. They’ve shown in any number of local galleries (Artworks, Aisle, U.turn to name a few) and around the country. But the Maidens are adding to their numbers. In December, the women met up in Germany with Tracy Featherstone (an Oxford-based installation artist and teacher) and Jenny Ustick (co-located in Cincinnati and Grand Haven, Mich.) to produce work in and near the Black Forest. One of the resulting videos was recently shown alongside performance art by Tenthaus — another collaborative comprised of Abby Cornelius and Wyatt Neihaus — in U.turn Art Space’s exhibition COLONY. Now the collaboratives are collaborating with each other, and 2010 will certainly include the combinations of Tenthaus’ music and the Maidens’ art projects.

Best Karaoke Return:
Maryoke at Hamburger Mary’s. Not sure why it’s taken so long, but with Hamburger Mary’s back open it was only a matter of time until Maryoke returned. DJ Will Corson is the best in the business. This time, he spins the hits for the discerning karaoke fan on Friday nights instead of his old gig on Thursdays. Probably just means more people will be there to hear me end the night with a drunken Tom Jones ballad. Apologies in advance. 909 Vine St., Downtown, 513-421-6279

Best Alternative to the Drive-In:
Head to Grammer’s for their weekly movie night. Each Tuesday the bar screens two cult classic movies like The Breakfast Club or Dazed and Confused inside the Tarbell Room. The action has been indoors, but in the spring the movies will be projected “bike-in” style outside in the beer garden. 1440 Walnut St., Over-the-Rhine, 513-421-8300

Best Place Not to Get in a Bar Fight:
Tap and Go, the new Cincinnati Wolfhounds rugby bar in Mount Adams. Have fun, have some drinks, but don’t even think about getting into a pissing match while there. Literally and figuratively. 950 Pavillion St., Mount Adams. 513-381-3584

Best Printmaking Hub in the City:

Along with really masterful studios at both UC’s DAAP program and the Art Academy of Cincinnati, the independent Tiger Lily Press is a co-op of brilliant local printmakers who work in a broad range of styles. On top of that, Cincinnati’s “blue chip” Carl Solway Gallery deals in a lot of artists’ prints; in the past year, we’ve seen prints there from Joan Miro, Fred Tomaselli, Lynda Benglis, Jay Bolotin, Polly Apfelbaum and more. But most of all, there’s nothing like visiting Clay Street Press in Over-the-Rhine, managed by Mark Patsfall. The staff is usually more than happy to show you what they’re working on, and they produce prints for an international set of glamorous contemporary artists. Just the smells of the Intaglio inks sets my heart beating faster. Clay Street Press also mounts monthly exhibitions in their gallery space. 1312 Clay St., Over-the-Rhine. 513-241-3232

Best Place to Watch the Big Game with Your Dog:
So little Rover is a huge Browns fan but hates watching the games with you on the couch on Sunday because you’re boring. Besides, at a bar, chances for ear-scratches multiply exponentially. The B-List in Bellevue welcomes you to bring your canine in for some communal drinking/sport watching. Just remember: Gambling on games is illegal, even if it’s just for a handful of Scooby Snacks. 343 Division St.,
Bellevue, 859-261-7033

Best Live Music in the Stockyards:
Stockyard Cafe is a cool little spot, a hop, skip and jump away from the hipsters in Northside and miles away from the pretension. Amongst the warehouses along Spring Grove Avenue, Stockyard began hosting live music of varying stripes (from Punk to Roots Rock) this past year and drawing increasing crowds. 3112 Spring Grove Ave., Camp Washington. 513-591-2233

Best National Indie Label with a Cincinnati Fetish:
The long-running independent label Deep Elm Records has sure taken a shine to Cincinnati-area bands. Roots/Rock/Pop faves 500 Miles to Memphis put out its second Deep Elm release this year, and Cari Clara and The Lions Rampant also have deals with the label. Now there’s a record company with taste!

Best Cincinnati Band Buzz:

Dramatic, psychotic Rock/Pop crew Foxy Shazam took its first indie record deal and toured the country non-stop. The hard work paid off in the form of a deal with Warner Brothers/Sire Records, and the buzz has reached international proportions, with the band performing high-profile shows in the UK, landing a song on the Super Bowl broadcast and finding its singer in collaboration with Meat Loaf on the classic rocker’s next album. And the album isn’t even out yet! It drops in April, at which point we predict Foxy Shazam will be on its way to becoming a household name.

Best Classic Fun … with Lasers:
Entertainment options have changed — indoor fun is almost limitless. But unless you really use your imagination (and some loud music and about 100 friends with laser pointers) there’s one classic fun-night-out that can’t be replicated on your own. Drake Planetarium’s Laser Show Series gives you full surround-sound music from bands like Metallica, U2, Pink Floyd and The Beatles set to laser and light choreography. Just like in the ’70s … minus the quaalude dealer in the parking lot.

Best Bar-Hang Flashback:
Not only are the drinks and food always elegant, unique and delicious, but the atmosphere at Orchids at Palm Court in the Hilton Netherland Plaza is breathtaking. It’s like being in an old Hollywood film from the 1930s. Even the bar is what used to be an old Union Station ticket booth. They have an amazing happy hour too, including melt-in-your-mouth sliders, perfect to snack on while sitting at the bar. And live jazz on Friday and Saturday nights to boot. 35 W. Fifth St., Downtown, 513-421-9100

Best Extra-Curricular Art Class for Youth:
Artist and illustrator Christian Schmit and installation artist and fashionista Lindsey Whittle have been pioneering and exploring what experimental art classes with youth can look like for several years over at the Baker Hunt Art and Cultural Center in Covington. Their popular Inspiration Nation class invites children and teenagers to explore object making and installation art through a resourceful, recycling technique that can make art out of just about anything. Baker Hunt offers three sections of an Open Studio class on Saturdays.

Best Arts Promo:

The Fine Arts Fund’s “flash mob” event in September led to Splash Dance, an impromptu piece of choreography on Fountain Square. It was a way to demonstrate the impact of the arts, and it’s being used to promote this spring’s fundraising drive. Everyone involved loved the activity, and the crowd on the Square gearing up for the ensuing MidPoint Music Festival, despite a rainy day, had a great time. (See more in the feature story “Cincinnati’s New Car Smell," including a behind-the-scenes "making of" video.)

Best Animal Painter in Cincinnati After the Harpers:

No, not pet portraits. Since the loss of Charley Harper and the recent passing of his partner and art contemporary Edie Harper, two of Cincinnati’s finest examples of Modern artists looking to nature and animals as subjects, Eric Ruschman steps up. A painter and installation artist who studied at the Art Academy of Cincinnati (like the Harpers before him), Ruschman’s solo exhibitions at Semantics Gallery and Carnegie Visual Performing Arts Center in 2009 gave Cincinnati a taste of the ambitious directions he’s moving in his work. At the core are an ongoing series of paintings in enamel and oil on panel that look at the marvelous secret life of his pet cat and other animals.

Best Subculture of Monikers Since Wu-Tang Clan:
If you can think of two words put together, it’s probably a band name somewhere. But in Cincinnati’s subculture of Noise music known as Circuit Bending (that hacks and re-tasks their equipment to unpredictable effect), most of the individuals go by code names that mutate and evolve. And they almost exclusively refer to one another with these names. For example, we’ve run in overlapping circles with a performance artist and photographer known as Nebula Girl, who people also call Nebbie Loon and Nebs, but never actually caught her given name. A musician and artist known as Mark Mang is going by Thriftsore Boratorium in collaboration with Karl the junkyardcatalyst. Hanging around the music venues they perform (such as Art Damage Lodge) is a little like attending a costume ball or wandering into Wonderland, where nothing is quite as it is called.

Best Music Video Stars:

Garage Pop faves The Lions Rampant are known for having fun, something that comes through in their raucous music and even more raucous live shows. But the band also lets the love flow via a format that some have pronounced dead while other work in the underground to keep alive: the music video. In both “It’s Fun to Do Bad Things” and the earlier clip for “Lights On,” the band emits an infectious charm that’ll have you front and center next show.

Best Celebration at the CityBeat Building:

No, not the one we had when we heard CinWeekly was folding (we’re not that mean, yo). On the day of the Cincinnati Entertainment Awards in November, CB’s headquarters — a six-story rectangular building at 811 Race St. — received a plaque out front thanks to the building’s place in history. The marker was placed to honor the Herzog recording studios on the building’s second floor, where Hank Williams recorded the legendary tracks “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “Lovesick Blues” and artists from Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs to Rosemary Clooney also recorded. For more information on the legacy, swing by CityBeat sometime and check out the marker!

Best Drive-By Art Gallery:

The brothers Wainscott, Clay and Jim, reworked the facade of their building in Brighton on the corner of Central Avenue and Freeman Avenue to feature large lit windows and a shallow art gallery presentation. They mostly show recently completed works from their own studio, but day or night, you can drive through this industrial neighborhood and get a fix of colorful, intense paintings.

Best Buckets in Art Galleries:
In an exhibition that received almost no press whatsoever, Carmel Buckley’s exhibition Trace at the Weston Art Gallery presented challenging and poetic updates to the “Readymade” idea. To further encourage a sense of mystery, all the works in the exhibition were left untitled (with only occasionally a descriptive note in parentheses). But through thoughtful choices of what should be there, atten-tive placement of the installation and subtle manipulations of her found objects, Buckley made objects like 5-gal. buckets, weathered fencing and cinder blocks operate in special visual experiences.

Best “Shark Week” in Two Separate Local Galleries:
In November, Jessie Bowie, an artist based in Miami, Fla., painted two 3-foot-long sharks across the gallery walls of U.turn Art Space alongside her exhibition of surreal drawings and stuffed sculptures. At the same time, Individual Artist Grant recipient Casey Riordan Millard presented Virtue in the Struggle, a solo exhibition at the Weston Art Gallery that centered around the “Shark Girl” character that Millard frequently uses to tell stories in her art.

Best Art Allusion to Hook-Ups With Bearded Men:
In the packed second exhibition at one of Over-the-Rhine’s newest gallery spaces, Museum Gallery/Gallery Museum, curators Alan Wight and Reid Radcliffe looked at the semiotics of masculinity through nearly 20 artists’ work. Among them were the slick, queer works of Matthew Dayler. His two photographic images “Untitled Trophy 1” and “Untitled Trophy 2” at first seemed to only be drawn curling marks intersecting in front of a white surface. But they were actually snippets of beard hair trimmed off of men from the artist’s night escapades. As Paris might say, “That’s hot.” And smart and even a little tender that these would be collected and then presented for consideration.

Best Place to Meet the Bearded Man (or Woman) of Your Dreams:
Last year, just across the river in rustic Morning View, Ky., several music (and beard) enthusiasts put together the three-day Whispering Beard Folk Festival, an expansion of a smaller 2008 concept. With followers dubbed “Beardos,” the event showcased top-notch music with a Bluegrass/Folk slant like The Tillers, The Turkeys, Jake Speed & the Freddies and national heroes Peter Rowan and The Hackensaw Boys. (The Buffalo Killers’ beards were too much to ignore, apparently; the Cincy Psych Rock trio also performed.) The fest is set to return this August.

Best Conjuring of Animal Eyelashes and Marie Antoinette in One Musical Set:
Baby Alpaca’s live performances are getting more costumed and elaborate — not surprising since Chris Kittrell, the only regular performer under the moniker, is a fashion design student at DAAP. At the band’s video release party, Kittrell appeared with his blonde mop of hair and chiseled face heavily powdered and sporting a pair of sunglasses outfitted with curtains of thin chain to resemble Alpaca eyelashes. The adorable mental images conjured by the band’s name, paired with the free-love, it’s-all-good lyrics of recreational drugs and cocktails made for a feel-good alternative heaven.

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