Friday, September 28, 2018

Oakland's Women in Music Festival Rebrands and Expands Scope

As Women Sound Off, the event is not just about music anymore. And it's not just an event.

by Sannidhi Shukla
Fri, Sep 28, 2018 at 4:30 PM

Carmena Woodward and Evangeline Elder founded the Women in Music Festival. - PHOTO BY KATE DASH (@BEEN.MILKY)
  • Photo by Kate Dash (@been.milky)
  • Carmena Woodward and Evangeline Elder founded the Women in Music Festival.

It started in 2017
as Women in Music Festival. Now after two successful renditions of the festival built on the idea that the most powerful alliances that women in the music industry can build are those with other women, the festival is rebranding as Women Sound Off and broadening its scope to include women creatives in every field.

Elder and Carmena Woodward, Women Sound Off’s co-founders chose the name to be more inclusive to women outside of music and media. “We decided on Women Sound Off because we sound off naturally,” said Elder. “We don’t hold back. That entire festival weekend is literally us sounding off about issues and topics we care about.”

While the annual festival will be back in next April in the same format, the programming is set to include more workshops and panels aimed at women in creative fields outside of music and media. “You’re going to see some more panels that have to do with culture, who’s shaping the culture, female changemakers, female entrepreneurs,” said Elder.

Women Sound Off also aims to shift from operating as a festival to operating as a platform with year-round events. Starting in 2019, this will mean more workshops outside of festival weekend. In the coming year, Elder also hopes to place more of an emphasis on promoting mental health and general wellness. Because she sees a lot of creative women stop short of reaching their full potential for mental health reasons, she would like to use the new platform to teach women how to balance creativity, entrepreneurship, and wellness.

For all that’s changed, the new platform still has the same mission as the original festival — to create women-first spaces, to uplift women of color and trans women, and to incorporate Oakland and Bay Area women into a broader network of women creatives. While Elder notes that, due to the size of Oakland compared to other cities with strong creative pulses, the community of women creatives can feel limited. With Women Sound Off, she and Woodard hope to show that women from Oakland and the Bay can hold their own with artists and creatives from other cities.

Saturday, September 22, 2018

Berkeley Gets a Starring Role in Final Season Premiere of Anthony Bourdain's 'Parts Unknown'

W. Kamau Bell and Next Adventure travel with Bourdain to Kenya.

by Azucena Rasilla
Sat, Sep 22, 2018 at 9:27 AM

  • Photo courtesy of Next Adventure

The news of Anthony Bourdain's death this past June shocked the world. He wasn't just a celebrity. Many viewed him as an adventurous soul whose successful TV show was not just to showcase areas of the world unknown to many, but to honor and respect the people and traditions of the places he visited.

After his passing, much was speculated about the future of his CNN show, Parts Unknown; he was on location in France when he committed suicide. Ultimately, the network went ahead and green-lighted the final season, which is set to premiere Sunday, Sept. 23, at 9 p.m.

The first posthumous episode will see Berkeley comedian W. Kamau Bell traveling with Bourdain to Kenya — the episode has quite the Bay Area connection, which is going to make it that much harder to watch.

Next Adventure, a safari company based in Berkeley and run by Kili McGowan and her husband Jeremy Townsend, was tasked with setting up the trip for Bell, Bourdain, and the Parts Unknown production crew.

“Tony [Bourdain] inspired people to be travelers, not just tourists,” McGowan said. “Being a chef, he had this appreciation for people and their cultures.”

  • Photo courtesy of Next Adventure

McGowan ended up traveling with the crew to Kenya's Lewa Wilderness. As fans would expect, McGowan said Bourdain was mindful of the conservation efforts in the African countries he visited. “He was so enthusiastic about it, and it’s extremely rewarding,” McGowan recalled.

She also remarked on Bourdain and the production crew's passion and positive working dynamics. The rapport between the late Bourdain and Bell was obvious as well. “Their chemistry is really palpable,” she said.

Bell’s admiration for Bourdain is nothing new, recently he wrote on CNN: “I was — and still am — in awe of him. It is one thing to be an experienced and gracious world traveler. It is another thing to be a writer who can seemingly easily, humorously and profoundly sum up the human experience. And it is a completely different thing to make great television. Tony did all these things."

McGowan sees similarities between Bourdain and Bell. “They both see the world in similar way. They are both very intelligent, humorous men,” she said.

She hopes that when people watch the episode, and the subsequent final episodes of Parts Unknown, their desire to continue Bourdain’s legacy awakens. “We have to be really open to experiences. For him, his lens was through food,” McGowan said. “I hope it raises awareness of conservation and ethical travel.”

Friday, September 21, 2018

Review: A Sexy, Quirky Bells Atlas EP Release Party

The night introduced fans to Salt and Soap, with a full-length due next year.

by Madeline Wells
Fri, Sep 21, 2018 at 3:35 PM

  • Photo courtesy of Bells Atlas
“It’s a sexy, quirky Thursday night,” Bells Atlas singer Sandra Lawson-Ndu announced to the crowd midway through the band’s set at the New Parish. Last night was fully both of those things, even before the band took the stage for their hometown EP release show.

Lalin St. Juste, who sings in San Francisco-based six-piece electrosoul band The Seshen, opened the night with a solo set. Her dreamy, quirky melodies were accompanied by nothing but a sample pad yet still were absolutely mesmerizing. The second opener, Chanti Darling, turned up the energy in the room. The Portland-based R&B singer, who mixes modern electronic textures with retro soul, dressed in cheetah print and urged the crowd to get funky to ‘80s throwback vibes.

Headliner of the night Bells Atlas indulged in both the sexy and the quirky, Lawson Ndu’s jerky interpretive dance moves being the visual manifestation of the band’s sea of unexpected melodies and polyrhythmic percussion. The night was an introduction to the band’s new EP, Salt and Soap — four songs that act as a preparation for a full-length sophomore album coming early next year.

On stage, Lawson-Ndu explained the EP as “a ritual to ready myself to tell those stories.” She added, “I was thinking of bathing rituals and preservation when I thought of Salt and Soap.” Fittingly, the band was selling scented soaps as merch at the show.

The set was a mix of old and new, the new songs standing out as more overtly experimental. “The Mystic,” which is the last song on Salt and Soap, sounded like a robot marching into battle with its chunky drumline and blooping synths. “Downpour,” which the band released last week, contemplates the consequences of releasing all the secrets that are weighing you down. Lawson-Ndu showed off her ability constantly to use her voice as an instrument, unafraid to experiment with syllables and sounds playfully to express emotion where clearcut lyrics might fall short.

But the highlights of the show were songs the audience seemed to actually know — some of the band’s older, poppier numbers that lent themselves better to dancing. A crowd favorite was 2016 single “Spec and Bubble,” which Lawson-Ndu introduced as a song about trying to make a relationship work and finding acceptance when it doesn’t. Bells Atlas ended the show with “Be Brave,” a song about remembering to trust your instincts, which they released in June as a bridge between their old and new material. Like many of their songs, it’s eerie but catchy — like what you might imagine hearing echoing from the distant pop radio station of an alien planet.

Review: J Balvin Proved Why He's One of the World's Biggest Latinx Acts at Oracle Arena

Long lines and delays were ultimately forgiven thanks to J Balvin's amazing performance.

by Azucena Rasilla
Fri, Sep 21, 2018 at 1:51 PM

J Balvin at Oracle Arena. (Scroll down for a slideshow.) - PHOTO BY RED EYE COLLECTION

The last time J Balvin was at Oracle arena was back on Feb. 15, 2015 when he was the opening act for Pitbull and Enrique Iglesias' joint tour. I was at that show with my mom as my date, and vividly remember her saying, “one day he’s going to headline his own tour here.” I brushed off her comment, it wasn’t that I didn’t believe that he was talented. At the time, there wasn’t this music Latinx explosion like what we are experiencing today.

Much like my mother predicted back then, J Balvin made his solo debut at Oracle for his Vibras tour. This isn’t the first tour for the Colombian sensation, last year he played a much smaller show at Civic National City in San Jose for the Energía tour.

The larger venue is an indication of the growth and success that he’s experiencing. It doesn’t hurt that Queen Bey invited him onstage during her Coachella appearance to perform the “Mi Gente” remix — the 33-year-old also appeared on stage alongside Cardi B for the song, “I Like It.”

His solo debut at Oracle didn’t go without a glitch, there were long lines throughout the different gates to make it past security, and even longer lines to make it into the venue before the show. Fans of course expressed their discomfort with waiting and not knowing why there was such a long delay.

The concert finally took off at 10 p.m., the hours long wait didn’t seem to have mattered. When J Balvin took the stage all was forgotten.

The timid J Balvin who took the stage as an opener in 2015, was long gone, on stage, fans were witnessing a certified performer.

He opened the show with the song “Machika,” that the Colombian singer recorded with Aruban singer Jeon and Brazilian singer Anitta.

The show itself was a spectacle of lights, props, and back-up dancers — all complementing J Balvin on stage perfectly. If you wanted to see a giant inflatable T-Rex swaying back and forth as the singer was performing, this show got it. The show is playfully named "Vibras Fun Park” alluding to the Jurassic Park theme of the production.

The T-Rex wasn’t the only prop that adorned the stage, during his performance of the song “X” J Balvin climbed on top of a giant orange ball with googly eyes and sharp teeth. Every song earned a different prop or light effects, as well as a new danceable choreography courtesy of the back-up dancers.

Every detail of this magnificent production was well thought out and executed to perfection. Even Cardi B and Bad Bunny made an appearance via an emoji video that was shown on stage. Unlike other shows where those who attend and are not close to the stage are only able to see the performance from small screens on each side of the stage, J Balvin utilized the entire stage and used it as one gigantic screen.

As the Colombian singer was flying to his Oakland show, he received word of the eight Latin Grammy nominations that he received, including Album and Record of the year. Can we be mad at the delay in the start of the show? He probably indulged in a much-deserved celebration, J Balvin is, after all, the hottest Latinx act since Ricky Martin broke into the anglo world in the ‘90s.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Review: Logistical Problems Abounded at Rolling Loud Bay Area

It was hard to enjoy the great music amid chaos and XXXTentacion tributes.

by Sannidhi Shukla
Mon, Sep 17, 2018 at 3:34 PM

This year's Bay Area Rolling Loud took place outside Oracle Arena. - PHOTO COURTESY OF JAMES BAXTER
  • Photo courtesy of James Baxter
  • This year's Bay Area Rolling Loud took place outside Oracle Arena.

There’s not much to Rolling Loud beyond its lineup. Now in its second year in the Bay Area, it’s hard to tell if the festival is suffering from growing pains or if it’s suffering from the pains of being a half-formed idea coated thinly in an Instagram-friendly varnish and then exported across the country before the varnish has even had the time to fully set. To put things mildly, this past weekend's festival — its first foray into Oakland — was a hot mess saved only by a handful of truly excellent sets.

Day one of the festival was for moshing. From Jaden Smith to Playboi Carti, artists moved their sets in fits and starts as they paused to tell the crowd over and over to open up the pit. No one listened, of course, but it was hard to tell if it was more because anyone had the nerve to show up to a Playboi Carti set unprepared to mosh or because festival organizers had set up VIP seating throughout the crowd making it difficult to move freely — or even just stand still — within the crowd.

In the end, no one won. Fans grew more and more impatient with Carti’s pauses. Meanwhile, the rapper refused to continue until the pit actually opened and then finally ended his set abruptly.
If there was one presence at the festival that was impossible to ignore, it was, regrettably, XXXTentacion’s, who was recently killed. His image popped up not only during other performers’ tributes to the late rapper — Ski Mask the Slump God unfurled a giant flag with a photo of the late rapper on it during his set — but also on Instagrammable photo-ops set up throughout the festival.

More than the tributes offered by friends, it is the institutional memorial of X that is disturbing. On one hand it is hardly surprising given the symbiotic relationship between the rapper and the festival. Some of the festival’s earliest iterations feature X. The Bay Area debut of the festival, too, gained traction from the rapper’s controversial inclusion on the lineup in light of the recently-leaked testimony from the victim of the rapper’s domestic violence.
And yet, just because it is unsurprising doesn’t mean it’s excusable. The history of the festival has been intimately woven with the X’s history, including his history of violence against women and queer people. And now, even in his death, resources are being allocated to preserve his memory that would quite frankly be better allocated literally anywhere else.

Lil Uzi Vert closed out the night at one of the festival’s two stages, framed by two inverted crosses and a giant glowing skull. His rapping was fine. His dancing was excellent. But it was his plaintive autotuned vocals that echoed acapella throughout the festival grounds that really made the night feel worth it in spite of everything.

Rolling Loud booked a number of local artists, including Oakland's ALLBLACK. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BRANDON NEWFIELD
  • Photo courtesy of Brandon Newfield
  • Rolling Loud booked a number of local artists, including Oakland's ALLBLACK.

First the bad news: the second day of the festival was somehow even more poorly organized than the first. As the day went on, more and more of the festival went on lockdown, limiting access to viewing areas for no stated reason. Bottlenecks abounded at every passage point and navigating the festival began to feel impossible even though it was housed in Oracle Arena's open parking lot.

The good news? Sunday’s sets made up for the total chaos by bombarding fans with pleasant surprises all night. E-40 brought out fellow Vallejo rappers and rap wunderkinds SOB x RBE for a quick performance right in the middle of his set. It’s pretty unlikely that the crossover would have worked anywhere but here — in theory the overlap in the venn diagram of E-40 fans and SOB x RBE fans is just people from Vallejo and die hards for anything that comes out of the Bay Area. And yet, it resulted in one of the festival’s most exuberant moments as E-40’s crowd sang along to SOB x RBE's “Anti” and got hyped for a run through the E-40’s most iconic songs. Unfortunately, at this point in E-40’s decades-long career, his festival-ready highlights reel most prominently just consists of a feature on a Big Sean song.

Rae Sremmurd’s set was the highlight of the weekend — and not just because the duo threw dozens of blunts into the crowd. Slim Jxmmi and Swae Lee moved across the stage and even into the crowd with a pulsing energy that never let up. The duo knows how to stir up a crowd. Hopefully it’s only a matter of time until it reaches headliner status.

With just a handful of months until the festival’s second round in SoCal, there’s a lot it needs to pull together functionally and administratively to live up to its star-powered lineup.

Monday, September 10, 2018

Berkeley Rep Names Johanna Pfaelzer New Artistic Director

She comes to the revered East Bay company from New York Stage and Film.

by Janelle Bitker
Mon, Sep 10, 2018 at 3:43 PM

Johanna Pfaelzer will take the lead next year. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BERKELEY REP
  • Photo courtesy of Berkeley Rep
  • Johanna Pfaelzer will take the lead next year.

Berkeley Repertory Theatre announced today that its long search for a new artistic director has finally come to a close. Johanna Pfaelzer will replace Tony Taccone, who will step down in August of 2019 after 33 years with Berkeley Rep.

Pfaelzer is currently the artistic director of New York Stage and Film (NYSAF). She'll plan Berkeley Rep's 2019-20 season. For the Board of Trustees, it was important to select an artistic director with local ties, and Pfaelzer fit the bill having lived in Berkeley as a child. She also worked for five years as a the associate director at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco.

"We had an illustrious field of candidates from across the country with a wide range of backgrounds," said Susan Medak, Berkeley Rep's managing director. "Johanna’s knowledge of the field and the enthusiasm of artists with whom she had worked made her our perfect choice. Her work at NYSAF in the development of new plays and musicals has made her such a good match for us. She is committed to our Ground Floor Center for the Creation and Development of New Work and our School of Theatre, as both are important pieces of our programmatic puzzle.”

Last week, the Express looked at how three major East Bay institutions — Cal Performances and Aurora Theatre Company in addition to Berkeley Rep — were looking for new artistic directors, and pointed out how this was an opportunity to diversify the local performance arts scene. Given how leadership in regional and resident theaters are often white and male, the selection of Pfaelzer is a welcomed change to the status quo. 

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Review: Sam Smith Enchanted Fans at Oracle Arena

The English crooner exudes confidence on his 'The Thrill of It All' tour.

by Azucena Rasilla
Wed, Sep 5, 2018 at 11:53 AM

  • Photo credit Noah Graham

In many ways, the Sam Smith who performed at the Oracle Arena in front of thousands of screaming fans last night is the same singer-songwriter who made his Bay Area debut back in 2014, at the Rickshaw Stop in San Francisco.

Granted, the 26-year-old is now a four-time Grammy winner and a Golden Globe and Oscar winner, thanks to his song “Writing’s On the Wall,” the theme song for 2015’s James Bond film Spectre.

But besides this impressive list of awards, Smith indeed remains the same guy with the same soulful voice. When Smith was here last, he played a sold-out show at the Fox Theater in Oakland — a legion of faithful fans waited for him on the side entrance of the venue to get a glimpse of him. Back then, he graciously took the time to sign autographs and take pictures with those who waited after the show.

This time around, it was logistically impossible to do the same thing. The English singer-songwriter instead took time to address the crowd all throughout the hour-and-45-minute show. What is different about Smith is that he is older, and perhaps wiser. He has mustered confidence, which he exuded on stage. While four years ago he was timid and reserved, the Smith at the Oracle demonstrated the opposite.

He paraded through the triangularly shaped stage, with a full band that accompanied him all throughout the show in the middle and a backup singer on each side of the stage. Behind the singer and his band, a large triangle opened up while Smith belted out “Writing's on the Wall,” the song that earned him the Oscar.

The night at the Oracle marked stop number 17th on his “The Thrill of It All” tour. The Bay Area holds a special place in the singer’s heart. During his hiatus in between his debut album, In the Lonely Hour, and his sophomore album, Smith frequently visited San Francisco. “The Bay Area is one of my favorite places,” Smith told his screaming fans at the show.

While the majority of his lyrics deal with heartbreak and unrequited love, there’s also subtle political messaging. Take the song “HIM,” a “coming out” song to God that grapples with being gay and finding no place in religion: Holy Father, we need to talk / I have a secret that I can’t keep / I’m not the boy that you thought you wanted / Please don’t get angry, have faith in me. “I wrote this song for everyone to know that love is love,” Smith told the crowd as a rainbow flag waved nearby.

Smith also reminisced about the song “Lay Me Down,” the first song he co-wrote with James Napier and Elvin Smith.

If you’re heading to his show at the SAP Center in San Jose tonight, make sure to stay after he performs “Too Good at Goodbyes,” as you surely do not want to miss his breathtaking encore.

  • Photo credit Noah Graham

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