Category Archives: Spotlight

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LTH: Storytelling and harmonies rock the night

By Ashley Kemper
ArtsPost staff writer

While most musicians get a start by writing their own material, few have the experience of roots-rocker Eric Brace. After spending the first decade of his career as a music critic for The Washington Post, Brace decided to trade his pen and paper for a guitar. Fifteen years later, the blues, pop and country blend of Last Train Home has established a widespread following, thanks mostly to Brace’s smooth-as-silk tenor and unassuming presence.

In their recent performance at Virginia’s Barns at Wolf Trap, a sold-out crowd of mostly middle-aged Americana enthusiasts cheered on the seven-member band, joined for the night by guitarist, vocalist and current fellow music critic Peter Cooper. After writing a favorable review of Last Train Home’s first album for Nashville’s Tennessean, Cooper met Brace in person at a concert, and their collaboration began.

“Playing with Peter brings out the folk singer in me a little more, where we really focus on harmonies and acoustic guitar arrangements,” Brace said in an interview with The News Leader. “The material rocks a little more in [Last Train Home], and the songs can be a little more abstract, whereas the songs I play and record with Peter all have a little bit more of a story to them.”

The duo’s story came across loud and clear on the Barns’ stage as Cooper played an opening set featuring songs that told stories of his early years growing up in the South. As Cooper strummed away on the lonely stage, it was easy to imagine the singer sitting around a campfire playing for friends rather than entertaining a crowd of hundreds. While songs entitled “Dumb Luck” and “Last Laugh” were chock full of  jokes and tongue-in-cheek lyrics, Cooper’s thoughtful chords and tender voice transformed the performance into something much more revealing.

Brace, on the other hand, employed no tricks or gimmicks in his stage show, relying only on earnest songs and a good voice to achieve his band’s richly-layered sound. Cooper returned to the stage with Brace and lent a gentle harmonizing quality to the songs, which, while not particularly necessary, seemed to put Brace at ease.

Over the past years the band has been together, they have done a significant amount of traveling, both domestic and international. As Brace pointed out, their touring van now has more miles on it than the distance to the moon. During their national tours, Last Train Home frequently picks up and swaps out musicians as they go along, resulting in a unique experience at each live show.

“There’s definitely an element of ‘we’re not quite sure how this is going to go off,’ ” Brace said in an interview before the show. “There’s a lot of communicating. It’s hard, but you try to find the right people.”

And communicate they did, as Brace frequently left his position in center stage and walked among his bandmates, giving direction or signaling an impromptu solo. While Brace clearly commanded the group’s dynamic, he was also not afraid to step back and let his band shine on their own. Electric guitarist Scott McKnight stepped out halfway through the ballad “Quarter to Three” and showed off with a solo riff that left even Brace and Cooper smiling.

Though he had played off and on with bands since college, 1996 marked the first time that Brace decided to focus solely on a music career and recruited band members of his own to record a debut album. Nearly overnight, Last Train Home was born. Throughout the next few years, Last Train Home grew in prominence, earning the “Artist of the Year” award from the Washington Area Music Association in 2003. Since that time, Last Train Home has performed more than a thousand shows and has opened for the likes of Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton.

Last Train Home will be making its next stop in Winston Salem, N.C., before returning to Virginia at the end of March.

‘Alice’ worth the trip down the 3-D rabbit hole

By Ashley Kemper
ArtsPost staff writer

Bringing together the fantastical tales of author Lewis Carroll and the creepy-cool of director Tim Burton, “Alice in Wonderland” is a treat for fans of the original creation as well as newcomers looking for an enticing 3D experience. Memories of Disney’s animated classic from the 1950s quickly fade away as Burton’s saturated colors and other-worldly creatures fly off the screen and invite viewers to join in the proportion-bending fantasy.

In this latest recreation of Carroll’s fantasy, a Victorian-era, 19-year-old Alice returns to the mystical world that has haunted her dreams for the 13 years since her last visit. After experiencing strange and vivid nightmares as a child, Alice asks her father if these visions mean she has gone mad. “I’m afraid so,” her father responds. “You’re entirely bonkers. But I’ll tell you a secret. All the best people are.” And so begins the quirky trip into a land that at once defies reality and provides a genuine sense of self for the lost teen.

Going Under

Alice’s return to Wonderland coincides with a marriage proposal from a lackluster lord with digestive problems, a proposal that everyone, except Alice, supports. When Alice, played by the demure Mia Wasikowska, spots a familiar hare donning a blue waistcoat, she leaves her suitor kneeling in front of friends and family to dash after the animal into a forest, where she falls down a rabbit hole. Upon reaching the strange world, Alice learns that she is in fact in Underland, a place now ruled by the beheading-fanatic Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), and is informed by Abosolom the caterpillar (Alan Rickman) that she is destined to overthrow the terrible queen by doing battle with her Jabberwocky.

Burton went so far in this film as to skip the opening credits altogether in favor of delving directly into the back-story of Alice’s childhood nightmares. Employing the same eerily disturbing atmosphere that served him well in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Beetlejuice,” Burton has created an environment that lends itself to the eccentricities of those inhabiting it. While the set design and intensive greenscreen work resulted in a stunningly beautiful world of desolate landscapes, adding 3D effects into the mix creates a truly engaging experience that is rarely captured on a flat screen. Though the movie will be just as entertaining to watch on DVD at home, the final battle scene alone makes the movie worth a trip to an IMAX theater.

Unlike other movies that have jumped on the 3D wagon well ahead of their time, “Alice” forgoes cheap gimmicks in favor of a subtle approach that adds layers of meaning to the storyline, leaving viewers with the distinct impression that the past two hours could have indeed been a vivid dream they had.

Familiar Faces

Johnny Depp, in his seventh collaboration with Burton, appears as the larger-than-life Mad Hatter, sporting heavy costume makeup, beady yellow contacts and a frizzy orange wig that makes even Gene Wilder’s hair look tame. “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” the Hatter posits throughout the movie, in reference to Carroll’s original, and much to the puzzlement of Alice. The rambling, riddling Hatter joins the Cheshire Cat, Dormouse and Bayard the dog as well as Tweedledee and Tweedledum in their quest to restore the crown to ghostly White Queen (Anne Hathaway).

While viewers root for the fairer queen’s return to the throne, Bonham Carter’s character provides a far more interesting and entertaining performance, complete with a bulbous cranium and screeching cries of “Off with their heads!” Her penchant for “a warm pig belly for my aching feet” and frequent use of animals as furniture might make animal activists cringe, but what the Red Queen lacks in compassion she makes up for in determinism. After collaborating with Burton, her fiancée, on five previous films, Bonham Carter has explored many levels of deranged characters and brings a delightfully twisted arrogance to the table.

Wasikowska, on the other hand, shapes an Alice who is at once timid in action and firm in beliefs. The 20-year-old Australian actress was little heard of until being cast as Sophie in HBO’s “In Treatment” and later appearing in “Amelia” with Hilary Swank.

Alice in Wonderland can be seen in IMAX 3D at Tyson’s Corner, VA. Rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar.