Eye-opening experiences at South by South Orange festival

The logo for the South by South Orange festival.

The logo for the South by South Orange festival.

The first South by South Orange festival, which took place at the South Orange Performing Arts Center and other nearby locations from Friday through Sunday, offered more than 30 events, and I was able to get to six of them, Friday night and Sunday afternoon. Of the events I saw, the one that best evoked the festival’s guiding principle — “Creative Collisions” — was the “Band Slam” that closed the festival on Sunday.

On SOPAC’s main stage, three talented Jersey bands — Deena & the Laughing Boys, Five Cent Philosophers and Big Big Radio — were featured, with two unconventional twists.

First, they let three spinning wheels, one prepared for each band, determine the song order: The wheel would stop on a song, and they would play it.

This, honestly, was a gimmick that didn’t add much to the show. But more crucially, the bands set their equipment up side by side, and stayed onstage while the others played. This changed the vibe of the show much more than I thought it would. The bands seemed to feed off each other’s energy, or perhaps they were just amiably trying to outdo each other. Watching the musicians watch each other in action — and maybe strum a few chords or sing along when the spirit moved them — became part of the show. It was like bringing the spirit of a guitar pull to a band show.

I’ve never seen that done before. And while not every venue has a stage large enough to make this kind of show possible, I’d love to see it attempted again.

Two Sunday panel discussions were also highlights for me.

In one, music journalist Alan Paul of Maplewood discussed the wild story of how he became a successful musician in China (which he wrote about in his 2011 book, “Big in China: My Unlikely Adventures Raising a Family, Playing the Blues, and Becoming a Star in Beijing”). As you can imagine, he underwent plenty of creative collisions of his own, in the process. At one point, he said, he was struggling to convey to his Chinese bandmates the concept of playing “tight but loose,” but then had a eureka moment when he realized all he had to do was give them Allman Brothers Band CDs to listen to.

Later in the day, the panel “How to Combat the Notion of the Struggling Artist” offered suggestions on how to do that, via the life stories of five New Jerseyans — curator, gallery director and visual artist Jeanne Brasile, jazz bassist, composer and producer John Lee, blues bassist and festival organizer Mike Griot, dancer, choreographer and educator Bethany Pettigrew, and photographer, filmmaker and curator Micha Hamilton. All have managed to carve out careers for themselves in the arts, sometimes in very unconventional ways. I particularly liked what they said about things like having a second career to fall back on if they didn’t make it as an artist (a very detrimental concept, they seemed to agree) and the problem with calling artistic pursuits “dreams.” That implies they’re unattainable or unreal.

Griot in particular wanted no part of that. “Never an avocation. Always a professional pursuit,” he said of his own aspirations.


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