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Weekend Preview: Fitz & The Tantrums, Matt Stallings, Grant-Lee Phillips, Ted Rall And More.

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Aired 12/10/09

Even if you've got a lot of shopping to do this weekend, you still have to have some fun. We've got music and art options for you to consider, including San Diego artist Matt Stallings, the neo-soul band Fitz & The Tantrums, and Grant-Lee Phillips at Lestat's.

MAUREEN CAVANAUGH (Host): I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. You're listening to These Days on KPBS. Lots of folks have a lot of holiday gift shopping to do this weekend but if you are at risk of dropping from all that shopping, why not take a little time out to enjoy a little art and music? On the Weekend Preview this morning, we’re focusing on several interesting bands and a few art shows opening around town. I’d like to introduce my guests. Keli Dailey is an arts writer for the Union-Tribune. Keli, welcome.

KELI DAILEY (Arts writer, Union-Tribune): Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Seth Combs is the arts and music editor for San Diego CityBeat. Welcome back, Seth.

SETH COMBS (Arts and Music Editor, San Diego CityBeat): Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: Now our first event is not really an art show, Keli…

DAILEY: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …but it does feature the work of a very interesting political cartoonist. His name is Ted Rall and he has a new graphic novel called “The Year of Loving Dangerously.” What is it about?

DAILEY: Well, Rall’s new graphic memoir is kind of graphic. There are topless but tastefully drawn women and a good deal of sex in it, which you’d expect from the true story of Ted Rall’s homelessness in Manhattan in 1984. It’s the year he got a near-fatal wart, missed his finals, and got expelled from Columbia University. And Rall might’ve slept out in the streets if it were not for him being kind of attractive and charming and finding women to overnight with. A lot of women, in fact.

COMBS: What’s a near-fatal wart?

DAILEY: It’s a – He had a wart that grew into an artery and it exploded the artery.

COMBS: Okay, never mind, that’s okay, never mind.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, no, we believe you now.

DAILEY: It’s all detailed in the graphic memoir.

COMBS: Yeah.

DAILEY: And basically he was nearly homeless and he says if an Ivy League, educated white male can lose it all in six weeks, it can happen to anyone.

CAVANAUGH: So this is sort of like a graphic novel memoir.

DAILEY: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: I wonder if that’s the first. Did he draw this himself?

DAILEY: He did not. His autobiography is drawn by the Spanish artist Pablo Callejo. He’s a cartoonist, Ted Rall is a cartoonist but, you know, his work is kind of primitive and Picasso-esque and his publisher suggested he collaborate with someone else and at first he said he was kind of insulted but he saw Pablo’s work in a collaboration called “Bluesman,” another graphic novel. And I think it was a good decision. Rall’s story is a lot about New York in the ‘80s. There’s a lot of Keith Herring art and lots of background and texture to the story, and I think that he went with the right choice.

CAVANAUGH: Now, tell us a little bit about Rall himself. He’s quite prolific. He’s a cartoonist and also I think he writes editorials as well.

DAILEY: That’s right, he’s an op-ed columnist, a syndicated columnist as well as a political cartoonist. He’s also an angry leftist. That’s how – If you’ve seen him on “Hannity & Colmes,” that’s how you’d probably recognize him. He’s the kind of guy that the right says should be deported or Ann Coulter says should write in Iran. He basically lives by the saying, though, if you’re not angry, you’re not paying attention. And he’s done 3000 cartoons since the ‘90s. This is his 15th book. And he did one about a 2001 reporting trip when he went to Afghanistan, so he’s an art journalist also. He was nominated for a Pulitizer for his devastatingly critical year of Clinton. The 1996 comics he did were fabulous. You should really check those out as well as his Bush administration criticism. He’s got an online archive at tedrall.com. You should really see it.

CAVANAUGH: He’s not a fan of Obama, though, either.

DAILEY: Oddly enough. You know, I think Rall understands the role of political cartoonists as, you know, look, power needs to be called out. America always has room for improvement. And, you know, it’s kind of, in his opinion, cognitive dissonance for Obama to get a Nobel Peace Prize while continuing the war in Afghanistan. So he’s that voice that political cartoonists usually are that’s calling out power.

CAVANAUGH: Now I think you said that he did this memoir to basically prove anybody can become homeless, is that the idea?

DAILEY: You know, there is that larger goal, but it’s a fun read, an autobiography about a guy who, you know, isn’t lonely or alienated or the sad sack of most of the graphic novel genre. You think “American Splendor,” you think kind of the sad guy. But here he was, he says, at the bottom of his game, and he has a good time. He skirts homelessness in New York and he’s livening up the graphic novel genre, I think.

CAVANAUGH: Do we have any idea of what he’ll be talking about when he speaks at D.G. Wills bookstore?

DAILEY: Well, knowing Ted Rall, he’s going to make it political. This graphic novel isn’t very political but he loves Q&As, he’s – he wants the crowd in La Jolla to come there and talk politics. He’s going to bash Obama, he says, and, yeah, he – hopefully, it’ll be a good time. It’s this Friday.

CAVANAUGH: Right, exactly. Ted Rall will be signing copies of his new memoir, “The Year of Loving Dangerously,” at D.G. Wills bookstore in La Jolla. The signing is at 7:00 p.m. Seth, a band called Fitz & The Tantrums plays the Casbah on Friday night. Describe this band for us, if you would.

COMBS: Well, they’re an LA band with a lot of buzz right now. It’s basically, you know, a six-piece led by a very tall, half Irish, half French, sharp-dressed man. That’s Fitz. And they play ‘60s inspired soul music complete with a saxophonist and a cute little backup singer.

CAVANAUGH: Now their album is called “Songs for a Breakup, Volume I.” I love that.

COMBS: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: Because, you know, breakups can go into several volumes. Did Fitz write these songs in the midst of heartbreak?

COMBS: Yeah, it’s actually a funny story. He was going through this really rough breakup with this woman and he got a call from her and she left him a message saying that she had this neighbor who was getting rid of this, you know, this grand, vintage organ for something like fifty bucks. And so he calls her back and he tells her to tell the neighbor that he’ll take the, you know, the organ and not to sell it to anybody else. And he buys it and he gets it home and, by his account, he literally wrote the first song on “Songs for a Breakup” that night in his living room. And, you know, and I imagine it’s a rather dubious honor for the ex-girlfriend to not only be responsible for the content of the album but to be responsible for getting him the instrument that inspired him to write it so, I mean, and this is only volume one so apparently we have more to look forward to.

CAVANAUGH: More to look forward to, indeed. Now the band’s sound has been compared to a lot of different bands, apparently the Four Seasons, Hall & Oates, Sharon Jones. What comparison works best for you? What do you hear in Fitz & The Tantrums?

COMBS: I think all those associations work, though, admittedly, I haven’t listened to a ton of early Hall & Oates. I mean…

CAVANAUGH: What’s wrong?

COMBS: I know “Maneater” and a few others but I guess that song is kind of apt for a breakup. But anyway, I hear a lot of sixties Motown, a lot of R&B, the Staxx and Atlantic Records back in the sixties, Otis Redding, Aretha, Wilson Pickett. That particular genre’s had a bit of a popularity surge recently with the success Sharon Jones and Amy Winehouse and people like that.

CAVANAUGH: Well, let’s hear what we hear in them. This is Fitz & The Tantrums with the song “Winds of Change.”

(audio clip of “Winds of Change” by Fitz & The Tantrums)

CAVANAUGH: That’s Fitz & The Tantrums with the song “Winds of Change.” Seth, I wonder what you’ve heard about what they’re like live.

COMBS: I can do you one better. I’ve actually seen them.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, tell me.

COMBS: They played a free show at the Casbah back in October and they were great. You know, there’s lots of energy, lots of fire, lots of sweat, lots of, you know, for lack of a better word, soul.

CAVANAUGH: All right. All right, so Fitz & The Tantrums play the Casbah this Friday night. Moving on to an art exhibit, Keli, called “Lucy, Darwin and Me.” It opens at Art Produce Gallery in North Park. Tell us about it.

DAILEY: Well, I think of it as more of a – one of the first Darwin parties of the year. As you know the Darwin in the title is Charles Darwin and it’s the 200th anniversary of his birth as well as the 150th anniversary of “Origin of the Species.” The Lucy in the exhibit, of course, is the hominid skeleton discovered in 1975.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, of course. Yes.

DAILEY: Umm-hmm. Basically proved that…

CAVANAUGH: Yes.

DAILEY: …you know, Lucy, proved that all life came from Africa. And the ‘me’ is Michele Guieu, and she’s a French-based artist – no, sorry, French born artist, based here in San Diego and she basically created an exhibit, an installation to evolution.

CAVANAUGH: And I pronounced this Art Produce Gallery like there’s some cabbages in there. Is it Art Produce?

DAILEY: It could -- You know, it’s in the old North Park Produce…

COMBS: I’ve never thought of it that way. I – That’s a interesting take. I was like, oh, yeah.

DAILEY: Right, homonym so…

CAVANAUGH: Well, this is set up like a Natural History Museum exhibition, not like a fruit stand so tell me more about how it looks.

DAILEY: You know, Ms. Guieu, I just want to keep practicing it because she instructed me last night on how to…

CAVANAUGH: Right, yes.

DAILEY: …say it. You know, she lived in Senegal for a time and was actually in Africa when Lucy was discovered in ’75 with her geologist father and biologist mother. So there was all this excitement and this is an artibiographical testament to those discoveries. There’s inks and paper drawings of real and mutant organisms. They look like something you’d find in a biology book. And there’s snapshots taken by her parents during their trips through the Sahara that are also there. They’re are blown up prints and they give more of a sense of place, the time in Africa when these discoveries were made, and there’s this giant mural that you can see from the sidewalk of Art Produce, which there’s this floor to ceiling window which gives view into the front part of the gallery and you can see, it looks like a photo negative mural and it’s skeletons, the head of Lucy and human heads and horses and all this. It’s really a pedestrian stopper.

CAVANAUGH: Well, you’ve made me want to say it now, so Ms. Guieu has – actually, the Art Produce Gallery is holding a series of events around Guieu’s exhibit. Tell us about them.

DAILEY: Well, you know, Guieu’s a 2009 San Diego Art Prize nominee and they really throw everything into Art Produce exhibits. Like I said, this is like a Darwin party. It’s very Afrocentric. The opening reception has African storytellings, a fair trade African market from noon to four, a West African cora player during the reception, it’s a gourd – a gourd instrument. And later next month, January, Guieu has a talk about the exhibit and then she’s having scientists come in and kind of discuss Darwin’s weeds. She doesn’t know what that exhibit…

COMBS: What’s Darwin’s weeds?

DAILEY: I don’t know. I guess it’s just things you couldn’t kill like, you know…

COMBS: Ahh…

DAILEY: …organisms…

CAVANAUGH: Wow.

DAILEY: …of mankind.

COMBS: I thought it might’ve been like his private stash.

DAILEY: So…

CAVANAUGH: No. No, Seth. Thank you.

DAILEY: …a landscape architect does participate as well as a cognitive scientist. So it’s really a great time just to celebrate Darwin.

CAVANAUGH: Well, “Lucy, Darwin and Me,” it opens on Saturday. The reception is from 6:00 to 9:00 p.m. The gallery is called Art Produce—and I’m sticking with that—and it’s on University Avenue in North Park. By the way, did you see that North Park was featured in the New York Times this past weekend?

DAILEY: That’s right. The coverage will make east coasters flood North Park and drive up the rent…

COMBS: Yea.

DAILEY: …I’m pretty sure of it now that the nation is looking at something that we cover regularly on SignOnSanDiego and, yeah, I liked that they talked about a lot of independent business owners. I can’t believe that they left off Mimi and Red.

CAVANAUGH: Umm-hmm.

DAILEY: Like obviously a man wrote that because that’s where women shop.

COMBS: Yeah, I think it’s – I think it was going to be like that. I mean, it was so obvious that this was a person that visited and was, I mean, I thought – and, of course, we look at the article and think, oh, it’s like this is too little, too late. You know…

DAILEY: Ray at Night mentioned the meteors...

COMBS: Right, this was…

DAILEY: …after it started.

COMBS: …something we’d been writing about, you know, for years. Not to toot our own horn or anything.

CAVANAUGH: But it’s great to get that kind of coverage.

COMBS: Uhh…

CAVANAUGH: Let’s move on. There – Matt Stallings’ show is at Subtext. You want to recommend that exhibit? It’s opening Friday. The San Diego artist is named Matt Stallings, as I said. Tell us a little bit more about him, Seth.

COMBS: Sure. He’s a painter. He’s originally from a town right outside of Ventura, moving here a little over a decade ago and he’s been progressively making a lot of waves in the local community. He, you know – Keli mentioned the San Diego Art Prize, he was also nominated for that and he had three paintings commissioned by Murphy Design, who was putting together this retrospective book about the life of Von Dutch, not the clothing company but the man back in the ‘50s that sort of epitomized style back then. And those paintings were eventually purchased by Tony Sorenson, the guy who masterminded the Von Dutch clothing brand.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, really? The show is called “After the Bomb Popped.” Can you describe Stallings’ work for us?

COMBS: Sure. Most of his work is acrylic on wood and it’s been described as pop art but it’s much bolder and makes much more rebellious statements about the ridiculousness of American pop and corporate culture. The paintings themselves resemble portraits of sorts. Some are, you know, people like Ronald Reagan and Michael Jackson, people we know. And some are animals, and I think I once described it in an article as he seems hellbent on taking the familiar and throwing it into the flames of his id.

CAVANAUGH: That’s good. Tell us a little bit about the gallery, Subtext, that he’s showing at. What kind – Is this the kind of work that they normally show?

COMBS: It’s – Yeah, it’s – Subtext, it’s a gallery right near the corner of Laurel and Kettner in Little Italy. And to answer your second question, I would say yes. I don’t think that they limit themselves in what they show but much of their exhibitions have been fun and subversive in nature, and they had a show during Comic-Con which was really good. And it showed like comic books characters in what you’d call compromising positions, you know, Captain America getting drunk at the bar, the Hulk on the toilet, things like that. And so some of their shows have been serious in nature but I think they’re always very, very fun, these openings they have. And I’d also add that it’s literally right across the street from the Casbah, so when you go to this Matt Stallings show, you can run right across the street and see Fitz & The Tantrums.

CAVANAUGH: A whole night.

COMBS: Umm-hmm.

CAVANAUGH: The exhibit “After the Bomb Popped,” featuring paintings by Matt Stallings, opens tomorrow night at Subtext Gallery on Kettner Boulevard. The opening reception is from six to ten. There will be live music. Back to you, Seth, about singer/songwriter Grant-Lee Phillips. He’ll be at Lestat’s on Sunday night. He’s been around for a while, hasn’t he? Can you tell us about his career?

COMBS: Yeah. I tried really hard to keep this succinct but it was tough. He’s just one of these consistently underrated singer/songwriters. He’s been at it for 25 years. He was in a band back in the late eighties called Shiva Burlesque, and they were, you know, more like a straight ahead rock band in LA during this time when glam rock, glam metal was all the rage at the time. And after that, he got into – he formed a band called Grant-Lee Buffalo and they got signed to Warner Bros. and they were very popular with critics and other musicians but they never really took off. And so they broke up after eight years, and he’s just been putting out, you know, solo records consistently ever since.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we – he has a new album out. It’s called “Little Moon.” In fact, let’s hear a song from it. This is Grant-Lee Phillips with the title track to “Little Moon.”

(audio clip of “Little Moon” performed by Grant-Lee Phillips)

CAVANAUGH: So, he’ll be playing at Lestat’s. Is that a good match for him, Seth?

COMBS: Yeah, Lestat’s is a great acoustic venue in town. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone – it’s different in that nobody’s talking. I don’t think they serve alcohol even. It’s all ages, and I’ve seen a number of shows there and it’s all but understood that, you know, you be quiet. It’s very small. The stage is very small. It’s right next door to a coffeehouse. They have, you know, candles on the tables and, yeah, with the exception of the stage lights, I mean, that’s pretty much all the light there is. It’s one of the most intimate venues in town.

CAVANAUGH: Well, Grant-Lee Phillips will be playing Lestat’s on Sunday night. Now, let’s see if we can get through the two bands that we want to talk about before the end of the show. Keli, a local band called Lion Cut, playing this weekend. They actually dress like lions?

DAILEY: Yeah, people will look back at this decade and wonder what our obsession with cats were. We’re like the Egyptians. These guys, Lion Cut, they’re a married duo that wear faux furs and sing about sleek jaguars and pouncing pumas and crazy kitties, like big cats really are their subject matter.

CAVANAUGH: Is it performance art or is…?

DAILEY: It’s more like a concept band. Kind of like Kiss without the sexual content because everything – Well, they bill themselves as space travelers from the cat planet Leonid, so everything is about cats.

CAVANAUGH: I see.

COMBS: I said that they were like Thundercats and android – Andrew Lloyd Webber getting together to make a John Hughes soundtrack.

CAVANAUGH: Oh, my gosh.

DAILEY: Seth is a wordsmith, I promise you.

CAVANAUGH: Well, we’ve got a song from the Lion Cut. The song is called, well, what else, “All The Cats.”

(audio clip of “All The Cats” performed by Lion Cut)

CAVANAUGH: Wow. Also performing that night is Smile Now, Cry Later. Seth, tell us about the woman behind this project.

COMBS: Well, as far as I can tell, it’s a solo project from a woman named Lissette Santos, who, in her words, wanted to combine her passion for music and photography to create her, and I quote, life list mixed media dream. Now she’s a fairly accomplished artist and photographer who’s painted album covers and had solo photography exhibitions but I think this is her first foray into music, and apparently one of her songs was already used in a MAC makeup commercial.

CAVANAUGH: Whoa, okay, well, let’s hear Smile Now, Cry Later. This is “Just Wanna.”

(audio clip of “Just Wanna” by Smile Now, Cry Later)

CAVANAUGH: That’s the song that was featured in the MAC commercial, and does Madonna want it back?

COMBS: Yeah, she’s contacting her cabal of lawyers right now.

CAVANAUGH: Well, with these two back to back, what’s the scene going to be at the Tin Can Ale House?

COMBS: It’s going to be a scene. People are, you know, going to be partying like it’s 1989.

DAILEY: It’s actually billed as an ‘end of the decade’ dance party.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, I see. I see. Tell us a little bit more about the Tin Can Ale House. What is that like?

COMBS: It’s very narrow.

CAVANAUGH: That’s right. You were telling us about it. It’s just this very long…

COMBS: Yeah.

CAVANAUGH: …space.

COMBS: It’s very narrow. It kind of reminds me – Yeah, it’s very narrow. There’s only like one ceiling fan. But it’s – I don’t want to give it – give you the impression that it’s a dive. It’s actually a very nice – there’s nice little couches. They only serve beer, though.

DAILEY: Well, they serve a little bit of wine but…

COMBS: Yeah, right.

DAILEY: And they’ve got some food. It’s like a rec room from the seventies. Like from…

COMBS: Ahh, that’s a good description.

DAILEY: …from the Virgin Suicides. I imagine we should have a party there but the bathrooms are right by the stage, so anytime you have to go to the bathroom during a performance, everyone looks at you which is kind of cool. And it’s free.

CAVANAUGH: Good note. Good note to know. Thank you so much. Lion Cut and Smile Now, Cry Later play the Tin Can Ale House on Saturday night. We got in a lot of stuff. I want to thank you both.

DAILEY: Whew.

CAVANAUGH: Yeah. We worked.

COMBS: Yeah, thank you.

CAVANAUGH: Keli Dailey is arts writer for the Union-Tribune. Seth Combs is the arts and music editor for San Diego CityBeat. Thank you so much for coming in.

DAILEY: Thanks.

COMBS: Thanks again.

CAVANAUGH: And I want to let everyone know that These Days is produced by Angela Carone, Hank Crook, Pat Finn, Josette Herdell, Megan Burke, Sharon Heilbrunn, and senior producer is Natalie Walsh. Production Manager is Kurt Kohnen, our technical director today is Tim Felten. Our production assistants are Jordan Wicht and Rachel Ferguson. The executive producer of These Days is John Decker. I’m Maureen Cavanaugh, hoping you’ll enjoy the rest of the week. You have been listening to These Days on KPBS.

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