Arts & Culture Newsletter: TwainFest returns … live and in person

Good morning, and welcome to the U-T Arts & Culture Newsletter.

I’m David L. Coddon, and here’s your guide to all things essential in San Diego’s arts and culture this week.

What’s your favorite Mark Twain quote? I have many, but I’m partial to “It’s no wonder that truth is stranger than fiction. Fiction has to make sense.” How’s that for the world we’re living in now?

That’s the genius of Twain, aka Samuel Clemens: Things he wrote or said a century and a half ago are just as biting and relevant today.

San Diego actor/director Tim West knows a little bit about Twain: He’s portrayed him memorably at Write Out Loud’s annual TwainFest. The 12th TwainFest, happening Saturday in Old Town’s Heritage County Park, will mark West’s seventh year “in the linen suit.”

“It makes you feel very clever being Mark Twain,” said West, who’ll be joined by two dozen other local actors and musicians at the free festival. “Twain has a certain attitude. Once you’re in it, you have the same attitude. It’s in our birthright, in our literature. It’s the origin of the standup comic.”

West will make four appearances as Twain during the all-day festival, which returns to an in-person program (with limited capacity and reservations required) after being virtual last year.

“He (Twain) looked America right in the eye,” West said. “He appropriated an entire way of speaking, in the same way that blues artists did.”

Ask West why Twain became so popular and you get an answer worthy of the author/humorist’s quick wit: “Because he wanted to be.”

Jazz

Acclaimed jazz singer Gretchen Parlato will perform at The Alexandria at Torrey Pines on Aug. 28.

Acclaimed jazz singer Gretchen Parlato will perform at The Alexandria at Torrey Pines on Aug. 28.

(Photo courtesy San Diego Jazz Ventures)

I’m reminded of the film “Jazz On A Summer’s Day,” which documented a concert at the 1958 Newport Jazz Festival. Why? Because the lawn outside the Alexandria at Torrey Pines is the setting for a pair of shows that are part of Athenaeum jazz program coordinator Dan Atkinson’s new San Diego Jazz Ventures.

First up, on Saturday at 5 p.m. is bassist Ben Williams and his band. They’ll be followed on Aug. 28 by vocalist Gretchen Parlato.

A maximum of 250 attendees will be allowed for each performance at the outdoor Alexandria space. Tickets are $50 and $100.

More music

Musician Astra Kelly

Musician Astra Kelly

(Courtesy photo)

The San Diego Music Awards will be handed out on Tuesday at Humphreys by the Bay on Shelter Island. Among the nominees will be singer-songwriter Astra Kelly, whose “In This Life” is up for Best Pop Song.

Kelly has been a fixture in San Diego music venues and on both local television and radio (she famously hosted the “Homegrown Hour” on the bygone KPRI 102.1 for three years). Always a forthcoming interviewee, she consented to a quick, pre-SDMA Q&A:

What I’ve learned most during the pandemic: “Patience and acceptance.”

Biggest change in San Diego music scene since coming to San Diego (from Chicago): “The increase in opportunities for ‘gigging’ artists to make a living.”

Most important influences: “Stevie Nicks, Aretha Franklin … the unseen forces of the universe.”

What a good song does: “Makes you feel all the feels.”

If I weren’t doing this, I’d be … “A nomadic travel photographer.”

On the SDMA nomination: “It was a pleasant surprise and an honor to be included in the mix of such talented comrades.”

Music television

This 1979 photo released by the Las Vegas News Bureau shows David Brenner, left, and Wolfman Jack at the Riviera.

This 1979 photo released by the Las Vegas News Bureau shows David Brenner, left, and Wolfman Jack at the Riviera.

(Associated Press)

In between “The Ed Sullivan Show” and MTV, television tried to bring the energy of rock ‘n’ roll to the small screen. Don Kirshner had his late-night “In Concert” series on ABC and his syndicated “Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert.” NBC, meanwhile, trotted out Burt Sugarman’s “The Midnight Special,” which aired from 1972-1981.

It was first hosted by DJ Wolfman Jack. Remember the Wolfman? Then, Helen Reddy, that famous rock ‘n’ roller. Regardless, “The Midnight Special” featured plenty of big-name music stars, though many of them were more pop than rock. You can see and listen for yourself by spending some time on “The Midnight Special’s YouTube page, which includes full episodes and video recordings of individual performances.

The disco years are well represented, as is the emergence of the Buckingham-Nicks Fleetwood Mac and, alas, one of the nadirs in music history: the Starland Vocal Band’s noxious “Afternoon Delight.”

Television

Cast of "Gilligan's Island"

The cast of “Gilligan’s Island” included Bob Denver, seated at center, and, clockwise from lower left, Russell Johnson, Jim Backus, Natalie Schafer, Tina Louise, Alan Hale Jr. and Dawn Wells.

(Los Angeles Times File Handout Photo)

On Sunday night, CNN wraps up its eight-part series “The History of the Sitcom.” The last episode, titled “Escaping Reality,” seems to promise some profound insight into why situation comedies have endured and evolved, and what they say about “us.”

It’s that kind of ponderousness that has often diminished this series in my eyes, and I’ve watched most of the previous entries. The clips are always entertaining, of course, but the talking heads propped up to explain the “larger meaning” of this or that can be grating.

When good, as in the episode that chronicled producer Norman Lear’s socially groundbreaking changes to the sitcom, “The History Of …” is first-rate television. Too often, however, the series over-dissects and over-analyzes. Perhaps a laugh track would help?

I may just be bitter because the greatest sitcom of them all, “Seinfeld,” didn’t get anywhere near the air time I know it deserved.

Dance

Take four minutes out of your day and watch the latest virtual video from American Dance Machine for the Twenty-First Century. To the original choreography by Gene Kelly for “Singin’ in the Rain,” young dancers celebrate with graceful athleticism the famous film’s giddy “Moses Supposes” number. This has gone viral. Understandably.

In memoriam

Nanci Griffith performs during the ACLU Freedom Concert Oct. 4, 2004, in New York.

Nanci Griffith performs during the ACLU Freedom Concert Oct. 4, 2004, in New York. Griffith, the Grammy-winning folk singer-songwriter from Texas whose literary songs like “Love at the Five and Dime” celebrated the South, has died. She was 68.

(ASSOCIATED PRESS)

All respect to “folkabilly” singer-songwriter Nanci Griffith, who passed away last week at the age of 68. Anything I might say pales beside her singing, memorably heard here on Griffith’s cover of Tom Waits’ “San Diego Serenade”.

Theater

The cast of "Hair, the American Tribal Love-Rock Musical"

The cast of “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical,” by Gerome Ragni and James Rado, music by Galt MacDermot, directed by James Vásquez, choreography by Mayte Natalio, and music direction by Angela Steiner, runs through Oct. 3 at the Old Globe.

(Courtesy photo by Jim Cox)

After a 17-month hiatus, the Old Globe returned to live performances Sunday with a sense of freedom and liberation, 1960s-style, with the opening of “Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical.” A capacity crowd — with many attendees in masks and some dressed in fringed vests, headbands and go-go boots — gave the counterculture musical a warm welcome. Older attendees embraced it with enthusiastic nostalgia and younger ones with new eyes. Read this review by the Union-Tribune’s Pam Kragen.

UCTV

University of California Television invites you to enjoy this special selection of programs from throughout the University of California. Descriptions courtesy of and text written by UCTV staff:

“Research for Resilience on a Changing Planet”: The Southern California Coastal Ocean Observing System (SCCOOS) – part of the national U.S. Integrated Ocean Observing System (IOOS) – works to collect, integrate, and deliver coastal and ocean observations to improve safety, enhance the economy, and protect the environment. SCCOOS serves a diverse stakeholder community of managers and planners, operational decision-makers, scientists and the public. Join SCCOOS Executive Director Clarissa Anderson as she describes how SCCOOS technology and observational programs provide information critical to decision-making related to climate change, coastal hazards, marine ecosystems, fisheries, water quality and marine operations.

“Engineering Your Way to a Creative Life”: Saura Naderi has used her training as an engineer to turn dreams into reality. Whether building a robotic dress or developing innovative STEAM programs for kids, she has an eye to inclusivity and sparking joy. Hear how she cultivated this unique mindset and worked through trauma to allow for creativity in her career.

“’40 Years A Prisoner’ with Mike Africa Jr.”: Moderator Diane Fujino joins activist and documentary subject Mike Africa Jr. for a discussion of Tommy Oliver’s new documentary, “40 Years A Prisoner.” A riveting chronicle of the controversial 1978 Philadelphia police raid on the radical back-to-nature group MOVE, “40 Years a Prisoner” follows Africa Jr.’s decades-long fight to free his parents from prison in the aftermath. Together, Fujino and Africa Jr. discuss how Oliver’s documentary situates the MOVE raid within a longer history of police violence against Black communities in Philadelphia, and the lasting impact of MOVE’s radical philosophy.

And finally: Top events in San Diego

In this image provided by Benoit Photo, Big Fish, right,with Victor Espinoza aboard, wins the $100,000 Del Mar Juvenile Turf

In this image provided by Benoit Photo, Big Fish, right,with Victor Espinoza aboard, wins the $100,000 Del Mar Juvenile Turf horse race Monday, Sept. 7, 2020, at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in Del Mar, Calif.

(ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Here are the top events happening in San Diego from Thursday, Aug. 19, to Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2021. Read about them here.