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Monday, April 19, 2021

Live On Stage

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The Eclectic Performing Arts Showcase of Critical Mass 9

From his bright orange sneakers to his bubbly, seemingly made-up-on-thespot pop tunes, John Martin left the kind of impression that wins contests. Indeed, Martin was selected as the best act at the Shreveport Regional Arts Council’s Critical Mass 9 performing arts showcase.

A veteran of the Shreveport music scene, Martin has been a member of such bands as the Peekers and Ouro Boar. It was his first Critical Mass appearance and the first year that participants were filmed instead of appearing live in SRAC’s basement-level Engine Room.

Martin turned himself into a one-man band with the use of a keytar and a “loop station.” The latter, newly purchased by the performer especially for the showcase, allowed him to create sounds on the fly, building each song partially from scratch in front of our eyes and ears.

The loop station acted as a recording device; Martin would clap out a rhythm, and suddenly it became part of the track. When he sang, he could also turn that into a loop, allowing him to harmonize with himself.

He looked as surprised at what was happening on stage as we were, channeling nervous energy into a series of inventive pop songs. I look forward to seeing what Martin will do with the $2,000 commission for a full evening performance next year.

Most of the nine other talented performers in the showcase, including six musicians, also found spired by a trip to the woods. The first number had a haunting mood, evoking vintage political folk tunes like “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore.”

Percussionist Ron Hardy was a bit of a disappointment. He surrounded himself with a plethora of drums and then barely struck them. Instead, he rambled about his work over performance film clips. It was like showing a gun in the first act of a play and then never firing it in the second.

Julia Clancy came to Critical Mass to promote the viola as a solo instrument. Her reading of Henri Vieuxtemps’ beautifully melodic ways to keep making relevant art despite the challenges brought on by the pandemic.

One of the best was singer-pianist and Critical Mass regular Alan Dyson, who animated Shreveport poet David Love Lewis’ beatinfluenced lyrics with a smoother version of Dr. John’s gritty vocal “Elegie,” accompanied sensitively on piano by Jeremy Yang, built to a series of crescendos that you could see play out on Clancy’s face, as well as on her instrument.

Frank Jones’ performance of a style he calls “swamp disco” was as ebullient as Martin’s. Awash in glitter I’m sure he’s still finding on style, creating his own version of soulful New Orleans roots rock.

Last year’s Critical Mass winner, Rachard Dennis, also shined, showing why he is fast becoming Shreveport’s mellow rap master. Dennis practically whispered such hypnotizing lines as, “Often times when I rhyme, it’s for peace of mind.”

Another Critical Mass regular, Joan Nerrettig, wrapped her compelling middle register around acoustic songs in his person to this day, Jones moved like a star and sounded like a man on a mission to get us up on the dance floor with him.

Although the showcase was musicheavy in numbers, a number of artists used language, movement and storytelling to interesting effect.

Kathryn Usher, a multi-faceted artist, put a story onto its feet – quite literally. In her minimally performative narrative, she read from oversized notecards a bizarre, purportedly true story about the intersection of her cyberstalker, her wrestler father and a blossoming romance.

The story itself took surprising turns, but as a performance it lacked any showmanship.

With a far-too-short spoken-word piece, Cherina Alford stood out as one of the most alluring performers of the night. The self-reflective spoken-word piece explored the dichotomy of being an artist and a woman of faith, a woman seeking self-actualization and relationships.

In many ways, it was about finding her voice, which she certainly found through this performance. By taking just two minutes instead of her allotted 10, she left the audience wanting more. In this case, that was more disappointing than tantalizing.

The showcase ended on a sultry note. In true drag-queen fashion, Su Denim lip-synced “No Stars” by Rebekah Del Rio – a voice familiar to any keen David Lynch fans. This was the most aesthetically-minded performance of the evening. A bouquet of roses – some fake and some real, but dying – was stuffed into the neck of the dazzling evening gown, and tulle covered the camera lens to give the scene the haze of a smoky nightclub. If you squinted, you were almost in that club. Maybe sometime soon we will be.

Manuel Mendoza is a Dallas-based arts journalist and former staff critic at The Dallas Morning News. He has written about virtually every art form, from visual art and music to theater and dance. Lauren Smart is an arts writer and critic. She is on the journalism faculty of Southern Methodist University.

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