An e-zine for happenings of local culture in Milwaukee and elsewhere

Archive for March, 2011

Sowing Seeds, Amaranth Bakery & Cafe

Recently, I mentally noted that Lisbon Avenue leads a perfect and direct route from Milwaukee’s Northside into downtown. For that matter, as an old “milk road”, Hwy 41 will take you all the way from Green Bay, WI to downtown. Overlooking the park lands of Washington Park, I welcomed the familiar left turn off of Sherman Boulevard now free of orange construction water barrels that for the past five years prominently guarded Lisbon Avenue. Not far out of the turn, in my periphery a series of parked cars line the street in front of a quaintly adorned building, with classic storefront display bay windows endemic to older Milwaukee neighborhoods. Turns out Amaranth Bakery & Cafe forms the honeycomb attracting these local bees on 33rd and Lisbon.

From Dust

Opening in 2005, Amaranth Bakery & Cafe brings flavorful baked delicacies and Anodyne coffee to an area of Milwaukee that not 10 years ago could have been mistaken for the setting of an episode of The Wire. Sandwiched between Washington Heights, Sherman Park, and Walnut Hill, the cross-road neighborhood of Washington Park gets passed by everyday with little notice.

At the turn of the millennium, while Washington Heights and to some extent Sherman Park maintained their class as stable Northside neighborhoods, Walnut Hill (which anchored the heart of the Black community in the 1950’s and ’60’s and encompasses Lindsay Heights) and Washington Park faced tribulation. Like many other neighborhoods, the spillover of years of divestment in Milwaukee’s central areas ripped these neighborhoods’ social fabric. In the mid-1990’s, partnerships in the Walnut Hill and Washington Park neighborhoods, initiated through grassroots organizations like Walnut Way and New Hope Project, sparked the revitalization seen today.

Budding Taste

The beauty of Amaranth Bakery & Cafe, which is still somewhat out-of-place even with Washington Park’s make-over, goes beyond its external appearance. The proprietors, life partners Dave and Stephanie, don’t commute from a remote part of town. They put roots down right in the Washington Park community and cast a civic presence there. Amaranth and their founders support neighborhood efforts to promote constructive activities that do justice to the residents that subsist contrary to prevailing media images. They also publish a print-only monthly newspaper called The Washington Park Beat, which for Milwaukee’s concentric easterly neighbors circulates at Whole Foods.

Amaranth’s innovation also has a taste. The fare at Amaranth keeps a “buy local” ethic, with many ingredients produced locally or regionally. Even the sweet treats supply reasonably healthy nourishment, including only sensible amounts of food group essentials. Take the pecan pie out of the bleached flour crust and corn syrup-based filling and you have a delicious flaky crust with a custard bed comforting glistening and slightly sweetened pecans (friendly to my gluten sensitive stomach, although likely not free of it). The serenity found in Amaranth’s atmosphere encourages thought; over-sized comfortable chairs would betray the humbleness and spirit of ingenuity exuded here. A stash of boards games give motivation to embrace this theme.

Amaranth Bakery & Cafe offers environmentally and socially conscious soups, salads and baked goods without the snot. Daily soup options have updates found on the newly launched business page. Amaranth Bakery & Cafe is open Tuesday through Saturday 7am – 2pm, and definitely on my must support list.

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Borders hoarders leave Aceyalone

Cold rain deepened my resolve to visit the Grand Avenue Borders blow-out sale, a trip that I plotted and canceled several times. Who am I to separate the uncanny combination of books and rain? The partially burned out ‘O’ in the marquee sign atop the building also helped. Until Borders announced its closing  I never noticed, but since that point my fascination with the failing sign would not relent and in part prompted my want to take photos of downtown (along with the scenery on Michigan Avenue one night, which my camera couldn’t make look as cool as my eyes could).

A bit jostled by wind and spattered by inclement droplets, I opened the glass door guarding the entrance. The critters attracted by corporate carrion had done their worst already picking through many of the still pricey items, especially in the cafe where all of the chairs, tables, serving dishes and equipment sold at lower cost, except for the red coffee mugs going for $10 a piece. I move past the music section knowing that it is hopelessly retail, circling back when I realize the Plankington Avenue side of the store is void of media merchandise, with price tags on everything but the store windows and the bubbler.

The R&B section is closest to the aisle, since a lot of ‘urban’ music listeners have a hard time finding music suitable to their taste when they are shopping in high-end bookstores.  I take a quick once-over glance and I notice that apparently Mike Epps has an album out. I got a little closer and saw ‘Accepted Eclectic’ scribed on the simple cover layout. Damn, my fault Aceyalone I can’t blame you for re-releasing a terribly slept on effort. I held maps of Park City, UT and Washington D.C. I willingly swapped, keeping the Grand Canyon and 5-Borough Maps, so that I could save this album from further cd wasteland disgrace and stay on budget. Shame on me, I had not bought it earlier.

Old Aces

I ‘acquired’ the only Aceyalone album I own back in 2001 from the UW-Madison student government office boom box scratched-up cd pile, figuring it in place there only because of the Hip-Hop Conference that the campus used to host. It was a quality promo sampler with 7 full-length tracks from then recently released Accepted Eclectic (2000), A Book of Human Language (1998) and previous albums from beyond. His sound, somewhat missed placed for Leimert Park, goes against the grain of the stereotypical South Central Los Angeles environment that birthed it.

Aceyalone not shy about mentioning his stomping grounds, has a line in the song Accepted Eclectic “…down in Leimert Park hanging with the hooligans…” that rung recall in my head while I numbed my mind with The MTV “reality” show The Buried Life one night. The Buried Life dudes lamely went to Leimert Park trying to learn how to ‘Krump’ (a dance) to fulfill a bucket-list wish. They eventually received love from the Krump scene, but 1:45 – 4:20 of the episode were basically rather comical. I thought “…oh okay, that’s Leimert Park…”

Cellar Voice

To Aceyalone’s credit, time can’t age a great song. It’s somewhat bad form, but worth it to share a couple standout tracks that demonstrate why Aceyalone is the Furious Styles of the LA underground rap scene.

He further solidifies his status as a pioneer of West lyrical delivery in Project Blowed , with a classic pot shot at the Hieroglyphics MCs (Even though Tajai does recognize Aceyalone on a track during the same time period as Accepted Eclectic‘s release)

Aceyalone performed at SXSW this past Saturday, with DJ Babu, Alchemist and Oh No. A quality line up for one night under one roof, that no doubt upstaged Wu-Tang’s Thursday night performance. Although a tad bit harder, add Aceyalone to your oldies but newbies list usually reserved for A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul.

I am a fan of the bricks and mortar bookstore but the Grand Avenue could use a better tenant anyway. Borders liquidation will likely continue until several UWM off campus housing units get a carpet transplant. I also saw a 3-gallon Kool-aid jug and a slow drip coffee maker still available.


Boom is Back, Codebreaker

I was listening to Radio Milwaukee Tuesday morning and heard native MKE band Codebreaker getting spin. Might not be the first splash they made on the radio waves, but it’s the first I heard leading in with band name announced before the song.

True to Milwaukee form, I first heard about Codebreaker in winter of 2008 while in Chicago, from Chicagoan Leah Pietrusiak a free-lance journalist with a knack for sniffing out new cool stuff. When asked, I couldn’t put a finger on the sound. It wasn’t getting air time locally. Radio Milwaukee was too busy still heavily rotating the Phoenix song 1901.

Codebreaker had a set that I missed later that summer in 2009 at Turner Hall, warming up for Tortured Soul (a mellow yet tenacious three-piece band who play so hard they are kinetically bound to their instruments). After hearing Follow Me from Codebreaker’s new album The Space Chase, I’m surprised a couple of Turner Hall bricks didn’t shake loose that night.

In the 20-0’s music atmosphere, Codebreaker inspires praise for their willingness to reintroduce the cryogenically frozen genre of dance/disco to all the spring chickens out there. Codebreaker is making rounds, currently breaking sound barriers in Austin, TX at SXSW playing last night on Patty’s Day.  Codebreaker tramps back to the Midwest April 10th scheduled to play at Smart Bar in Chicago.

Here’s an extra great Codebreaker music video via Boing Boing.

Fire (Jimmy Edgar Remix)-Codebreaker Feat. Kathy Diamond from Erik West on Vimeo.

You Late

2008 Press via ExpressMilwaukee, Press via Radio Milwaukee, Press via On Milwaukee


Talent transplant: Riverwest: A Rhapsody!

‘Once upon a time’ used to draw readers into prose insatiably, thankfully, that just won’t do anymore. Young playwrights like Eric Theis take a different route. A native of Wisconsin’s thumb-pit region, Theis traveled and lived his share of the States, settling in the-now-a-days-oft-mentioned Riverwest neighborhood for 5 years. Having had it with the place, referred to as New Brunswick by a friend of mine from New Jersey, Theis made his way to Madison, WI. Before leaving the bitter-sweetness of his experiences in Milwaukee behind, Theis etched a tale of two ‘hoods in his original work Riverwest: A Rhapsody! Yes, exclamation point Rhapsody!, not just ‘rhapsody’. Yes, musical Rhapsody!, with singing. Yes, exclamation point, musical Rhapsody, with singing about a neighborhood in Milwaukee, performed in Madison.

I saw the play last Sunday and before I give due, let me begin by reiterating Riverwest: A Rhapsody! is an original musical play about a neighborhood in Milwaukee. David S. Ward filmed Major League in Milwaukee, Milwaukee inspired Kentucky Fried Movie (I made that up, fine, not really), and the Fonz has a bronze statue down by the river… but has there been…? No there hasn’t so you can stop racking your brain about it. These sort of efforts make Milwaukee shine (on Madison), and not on account of solar panels on five houses within the City limits.

In My Neighborhood

The play centers on Audrey (Sabra Katz-Wise), a witty and gritty twenty something processing her loss of naivety living life in an urban neighborhood on the fly. Bryan (Collin Erickson) and Dre (Odari McWhorter) revolve around Audrey juxtaposed as focal characters with opposing modus operandi, both with their own crosses to bear. Tensions surface when Bryan and Dre’s differing ideologies collide. The unsubstantiated love triangle the three players form infuses a significant-other versus paramour layer to the underlying drama.

Older supporting characters Clyde (Chuck Mielke) and Lois (Betsy Wood) lend balance to the extremes found in the struggles we witness Audrey, Bryan and Dre encounter in the throws of their youth. Introducing a third dimension, Thies incorporates a common enemy into the story with which the youth must deal. The portrayals of conceivable actions, clear contradictions, conventional wisdom and no-win situations, do not let the audience’s conclusions go here, nor there, very far without challenge from the action in the next scene.

Inquisitive Motions

Complexity in the interplay of character types tweaks the audience’s expectations. The story craftily escapes traditional theatre’s four walls, decorating them with great performances of song. Theis’ work, rooted with intent to promote social justice, displays strength in taking on big social justice issues such as how does one escape terrible life circumstances with limited resources and maintain their dignity? How does one authentically advocate for justice and avoid Radical Chic? Where does one’s commitment to causes end and self-righteousness begin? How can you truly empathize with others’ experiences in a society with deliberate and institutionalized social structures that predetermine status and privileges based on phenotypical qualities beyond one’s control?

The resolutions presented at the conclusion of Riverwest: A Rhapsody! to a degree play into social fantasies and preconceived notions. However, since fictional works carry no requirement to transform accepted realities (and if only a tad “campy” at times) good stories and innovative dramatic presentation, with quality performances from actors, are well worth the extreme value offered by Broom Street Theater’s price of admission.

In Solidarity

The issues of injustice Riverwest: A Rhapsody! deliberately tries to address are unfortunately over shadowed by the current political climate in Wisconsin. Even so, Theis’ work ties quickly to disenfranchised peoples’ fight for rights, from all walks of life. At the performance I attended, Theis offered a talk-back with the actors as an added bonus for those, like my-self, who enjoy idea sharing.

The players of Riverwest: A Rhapsody! take the stage Friday and Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm until April 10th at Broom Street Theater.


Riverwest Follies: Staying true

Conversations about neighborhoods will inevitably take verbal exchanges past the landmarks of Riverwest, the neighborhood no one can agree upon. Known traditionally as Milwaukee’s melting pot, Riverwest’s legacy of community engagement, activism and acceptance of anti-mainstream lifestyles faces escalating jeers complaining of endemic crime and infestation of suburban social apathy. Saturday night at the Polish Falcon, the 6th annual Riverwest Follies put much of that controversy to rest. A loosely assembled group occupied the Polish Falcon gathering hall for Riverwest Follies, a variety show benefit for Riverwest Currents.

Clad in a tuxedo and rabbit fur hat one performer, a local music engineer Pauly S (“The only Pauly you need to know”), enacted a futuristic rendition of Scott Joplin’s Maple Leaf Rag and The Entertainer while modulating his voice with a midi device. Unfortunately, the preceding description does not do the performance justice, as some experiences one must witness first hand.

The Riverwest Ninja made a stealth appearance dressed in a snug all black clothy “ninja suit” to lead chants of the protest mantra “Tell me what democracy looks like!” Not quite a crowd at the State Capitol, those in attendance obliged replying “This is what democracy looks like!” Shamelessly making her point visually, the Riverwest Ninja’s medium was the message. She proposed using force of will to overcome inhibitions, while making your voice heard; a needed departure from the affective domain of social interaction. Among other performers Astral/Subastral provided upbeat melodies for reveling frolickers. To their credit there is little doubt the coming of the spring is at hand, but enough about the performers. The people supplied the real grist of the Riverwest Follies.

Parents with their kids, romantic items clutching hands, costumed characters, modest bakers and craftspeople alike tossed aside being hip, image-conscious, oblivious, paranoid and/or cynical and embraced having a good time. The kids helped clarify the people part of the neighborhood equation, by collectively declaring “to hell with being entertained!”, freely running around during a skit promoting Riverwest Currents. The kids get it right most of the time: the running never ceased. The next time Riverwest comes up, know that the modest and socially conscious working-class roots of the neighborhood still thrive without pretense.

Riverwest Currents is a monthly print and online news publication focusing on issues affecting Riverwest and its neighbors.

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