Lexington Music Awards: And the winners are …

Lexington Music Awards emcees Bill Meck and Kristen Pflum with founder and organizer David McLean backstage Sunday night at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. Photo courtesy of Heather Parrish.

Lexington Music Awards emcees Bill Meck and Kristen Pflum with founder and organizer David McLean backstage Sunday night at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center. Photo courtesy of Heather Parrish.

While the Oscars were being handed out in Hollywood, the inaugural Lexington Music Awards were held Sunday night at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center.

The awards were the brainchild of Lexington musician and music teacher David McLean, who originally intended it to be a small gathering at Natasha’s Bistro and Bar, until interest in the event exploded. He told Walter Tunis beforehand that it was a challenge wrangling all the nominations and logistics of a multifaceted awards show.

Now that No. 1 is in the books, McLean reflects, “It was chaos, with imperfections and stumbling and threatening to fall apart at the seems at any minute … but it held together with a little duct tape and luck, and we pulled this baby off!

“It was fabulous.”

And he and others involved such as musician Heather Parrish, who gave one of several performances Sunday night, say they are already looking forward to the second edition and raising awareness of local music.

“I think people are starting to see what I’m really after with this in a way that words alone can’t express,” McLean wrote Monday. It “took putting 400-plus people in a beautiful room, five bizarrely different musical acts, and a lot of energy and emotion to open the door. But the light is creeping in.”

Here is a look at the winners:


Best Americana/folk: Michael Johnathon

Best blues: Tee Dee Young

Tee Dee Young  was named best blues artist. © Herald-Leader photo by Charles Bertram.

Tee Dee Young was named best blues artist. © Herald-Leader photo by Charles Bertram.

Best classical: Lexington Philharmonic

Best country / bluegrass: Scott Said & Backroads

Best funk/R&B/reggae: G-Funk Allstars

Best hip hop/rap: Hybrid the Rapper

Best jazz/world: DOJO (DiMartino-Osland Jazz Orchestra)

All the Little Pieces --  (clockwise from left) Rhyan Sprague (singer, keyboards, guitar, songwriter), Thomas Suggs (guitar), Billy P. Thomas (bass) and Chris Jones (drummer) -- were named best rock act. Lexington-based band All the Little Pieces has released its new album, "Broken Little Soul," Nov. 1. This photo was taken at a rehearsal Nov. 4, 2014, in Lexington, Ky. © Herald-Leader photo by Rich Copley.

All the Little Pieces — (clockwise from left) Rhyan Sprague (singer, keyboards, guitar, songwriter), Thomas Suggs (guitar), Billy P. Thomas (bass) and Chris Jones (drummer) — were named best rock act. Lexington-based band All the Little Pieces has released its new album, “Broken Little Soul,” Nov. 1. This photo was taken at a rehearsal Nov. 4, 2014, in Lexington, Ky. © Herald-Leader photo by Rich Copley.

Best pop: Sydney Cubit

Best rockAll The Little Pieces

Best singer-songwriter: Maggie Lander

Best cover band: See Alice

Song of the Year: Black Horses by Avery Crabtree and Josh Brock


Best female vocal: Mandy Reichert

Best male vocal: Vincent Grino

Best drummer/percussionist: Vincent Grino

Best guitar: Ben Lacy

Best bass: Jason Groves

Best keyboard: Kevin Holm-Hudson

Best brass/winds: Miles Osland

Best strings: Ben Sollee


Best live venue: Natasha’s Bistro and Bar

Best music store: Doo Wop Shop

CD Central owner Steve Baron. The store won best music business. © Herald-Leader photo by Rich Copley.

CD Central owner Steve Baron. The store won best music business. © Herald-Leader photo by Rich Copley.

Best music company: CD Central

Best recording studio and engineer: Sneak Attack, Jason Groves

Jay Flippin Music Educator Award: Paul Felice

Best live sound tech: Phil Osborne

Best radio DJ: Joe Conkwright, WUKY-FM 91.3

Best gear repair, customization, builders: Willcutt Guitars


Community Service Award: Woodsongs All-Volunteer Crew

Lifetime Achievement Award recipients:

Jay Flippin

Michael Johnathon

Loretta Lynn

Bill Monroe

Posted in Lyric Theatre, Music | Tagged , | Comments

UK sends two singers to Met Auditions semi-finals

Matt Turner, who won the Mid-South Regional Round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions on Feb. 21, 2015, in rehearsal for the UK Opera Theatre's October 2014 production of "Sweeney Todd." © Herald-Leader staff photo by Rich Copley.

Matt Turner, who won the Mid-South Regional Round of the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions on Feb. 21, 2015, in rehearsal for the UK Opera Theatre’s October 2014 production of “Sweeney Todd.” © Herald-Leader staff photo by Rich Copley.

University of Kentucky bass Matthew Turner won the Mid-South Regional Round of the Metropolitan Opera Council Auditions Saturday at UK’s Schmidt Vocal Arts Center, and has advanced to the audition’s national semi-finals, March 15 on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

Reginald Smith Jr. Photo by Lynn Lane.

Reginald Smith Jr. Photo by Lynn Lane.

Turner will be joined by UK alum Reginald Smith, Jr., who advanced to the semi-finals out the Southeast regional round in his hometown of Atlanta, last weekend. Smith is currently in the Houston Grand Opera Studio Program for young artists and has appeared in numerous Houston Grand Opera productions.

Turner, 27, earned his bachelor’s degree in accounting and vocal performance at the University of Kentucky last year. He is a native of Jackson and currently resides on Lexington. Last fall, he shared the title role in the UK Opera Theatre production of Sweeney Todd.

The dual UK bass-baritone delegation to the Met National Semi-Finals is reminiscent of 2001-02, when Corey Crider advanced out of a regional round in Lexington and Mark Whatley advanced out of another regional. Whatley went on to the national finals. The last UK singer to advance to the national rounds of the Met Auditions was soprano Afton Battle in 2008.

This was the first regional semi-final in Lexington since 2008. Regional rounds used to come to Lexington, which always hosts the Kentucky District round, on a rotating basis. After a realignment of the competition, the Mid-South Regional was regularly held in Memphis. A change in the Memphis organization that hosted the auditions prompted the national organization to ask Lexington to host this year, according to regional co-chair Dr. Clifton Smith.

The audition was supposed to be open to the public, but due to inclement weather, it was moved from UK’s Memorial Hall to the UK Opera practice facility and closed to the public.

The runner up Saturday was Huanhuan Ma, a soprano from Philadelphia who earned a master’s from the Peabody Conservatory last year. Encouragement award winners were Josh Quinn, a bass from Tampa currently studying at the New England Conservatory of Music, and Christopher Kenney, a bass from Hawley, Minn., who is pursuing a master’s at UK.

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Weekend arts and entertainment cancellations

After pretty much wiping out the week in Central Kentucky, Old Man Winter has not given up, and a number of arts and entertainment events are getting out of his way. Here’s a look a cancellations and postponements due to weather.

Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras: Sunday night’s Teen Arts I concert at the Singletary Center has been canceled. A rescheduled date will be announced this week. Tickets purchased for Sunday’s concert will be honored on the rescheduled date.

The Lexington Music Awards: The inaugural music awards will go on as scheduled at the Lyric Theatre (and in an amusing twist, WLEX meteorologist Bill Meck is one of the hosts).

Jim Gaffigan: The Singletary Center for the Arts has officially announced on its Facebook page that tonight’s Jim Gaffigan show is on as scheduled. They do advise patrons to leave plenty of time to arrive and park. Doors open at 7:30 p.m. and showtime is 8:30.

Tequila Tasting: Sunday’s night’s Oscars event presented by Dress for Success and Coba Cocina has been moved to 5:30 to 8 p.m. March 12. It will, of course, no longer coincide with the Oscars and will be geared as an after-work, networking event.

Musicland: Saturday night performance canceled.

Meadowgreen Park Bluegrass Music Hall, Clay City: Saturday performance by the McLain Family Band and Mountain Music Ambassadors has been rescheduled to April 19.

Metropolitan Opera National Council Mid-South Regional Auditions: Location changed and no longer open to the public. Results will be posted on this blog as soon as they are available.

The 39 Steps by University of Kentucky Theatre: All weekend performances canceled. Will open Wednesday.

The UK Choristers: Night on Broadway concerts scheduled for Friday and Saturday have been canceled and will be rescheduled.

Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra: PB&J concert scheduled for Saturday morning has been postponed until March 28.

Art Museum at the University of Kentucky: The curator tour scheduled for Friday night has been canceled. The museum is closed Saturday, but hopes to re-open Sunday.

Tall, Dark and Handsome: Performance scheduled for Friday night at Natasha’s Bistro and Bar has been canceled.

Senora Tortuga: Lexington Children’s Theatre production at the EKU Center for the Arts Sunday has been rescheduled for March 1.

The Listening Room at Maxwell Street Presbyterian Church: Performance by Grover Mollineaux rescheduled to March. 6.

These are all the cancellations and reschedulings we are currently aware of. We will post additional information as we receive it. If you have an arts or entertainment event  cancellation in Central Kentucky you want to share, email me at rcopley@herald-leader.com. 

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Oscar picks: My favorite in the ‘Boyhood’ – ‘Birdman ‘ race, and why it will lose

Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in a scene from the film,"Boyhood." Arquette is nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in the film. AP/IFC Films photo.

Patricia Arquette and Ellar Coltrane in a scene from the film,”Boyhood.” Arquette is nominated for an Oscar for best supporting actress for her role in the film, which has eight nominations, including best picture. AP/IFC Films photo.

The best picture race in the 87th Academy Awards, we are told, has come down to two movies: BoyhoodRichard Linklater’s 12-year-project to tell the story of adolescence through a cast all aging together through the course of the movie, and Birdman Alejandro González Iñárritu’s meditation on celebrity, art and relevance focused on a one-time blockbuster actor trying to gain “legitimacy” on the Broadway stage.

Both of these are brilliant movies in their own ways.

In Boyhood, Linklater — a favorite director of my generation for movies such as SubUrbia (1996), Dazed and Confused (1993), School of Rock (2003) and the Before … romantic-comedy trilogy with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy — has pulled off an astonishing feat, crafting a movie over the course of 12 years with the same cast and beautifully natural progression of story and time. (It is a recurring theme with Linklater, also seen in a different way in the Before trilogy.)

It is easy to get caught up in the gimmick of Boyhood, looking for the points where we jump a year, usually in the hairstyles of leading man Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and his mom Olivia (Patricia Arquette). But in the course of two hours and 45 minutes, we get drawn into this life, and this astonishingly natural film. It starts to hit you that major, dramatic turning points you expect to happen don’t, like when Mason’s girlfriend shows him a picture on her phone while he’s driving, shortly after his dad (Ethan Hawke) has lectured him about distracted driving, and he doesn’t get in a huge wreck when he looks up. There are warning signs that do come to fruition, like when Olivia’s second husband’s drinking turns him abusive and violent. But the outcome is simply the domestic drama of a woman regaining her family and trying to put her life back together. The drama was in living, not in the dramatic moments.

This really hits home watching Mason’s high school graduation party, as millionaire movie stars like Hawke and Arquette portrayed regular folks celebrating one of life’s important passages in a simple middle-class, single-parent home. Shooting 12 years may have been the gimmick, but coming up with something incredibly real was the result.

birdman-posterBirdman, on the other hand, only has a tangential tie to reality. Riggan Thompson is a former star of a superhero film franchise played by Michael Keaton, the former real-life star of a superhero franchise: Batman (1989) and Batman Returns (1992). Riggan is haunted by his superhero alter ego and seems to possess superhuman powers to mentally command objects to move and, later, fly. Or does he?

While he goes through the career-validating task of trying to mount a Broadway production of his adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story, which he also directs and acts in, he is criticized by the Birdman who he imagines talks to him, and he doesn’t get much more validation from co-stars, critics or even his own daughter, brilliantly played by Emma Stone. At one point tells him, “You’re doing this because you’re scared to death, like the rest of us, that you don’t matter. And you know what? You’re right. You don’t. It’s not important. You’re not important. Get used to it.”

It’s a pretty fierce, brutally honest scene, particularly for a character who has depended on his sense of importance for validation. And if you contemplate issues of art and its relevance, the impact of culture, it is quite interesting. It is also an engrossing story of what will ultimately happen to Riggan, who becomes increasingly unhinged as the movie goes along. It is little surprise it’s resonated with Hollywood talent, who have honored the movie at recent fetes such as the Screen Actors Guild Awards and Producer’s Guild.

And it stands a good chance of taking home the Oscar for best picture, though just a month ago, Boyhood was considered the frontrunner.

Here’s what will doom Boyhood: It’s way too normal for Hollywood mythmakers.

One thing that exemplified this for me was a Hollywood Reporter “Brutally Honest Ballot” by an anonymous female voter who said she would give Arquette best supporting actress in part because she didn’t have any cosmetic surgery done in the 12 years she made the film, aging from 33 to 45.

“Patricia Arquette probably was sorry she agreed to let them film her age over 12 years,” the member of the Academy’s public relations branch said, adding later, “It’s a bravery reward. It says, ‘You’re braver than me. You didn’t touch your face for 12 years. Way to freakin’ go!'”

Honey, that’s how most of us go. We age. We are wrinklier and lumpier than we were a dozen years ago. Only in cosmetically fixated culture like Hollywood would aging into your 40s without getting “work” done qualify as an act of bravery.

And that’s why I think Birdman will beat Boyhood. Academy voters probably won’t get Boyhood the way a lot of viewers did. But exploring the cultural legacy of your work portraying a superhero? Right in the Academy’s wheelhouse. And it has a showy brilliance with the extended shots, blends of fantasy and reality and explosive performances, particularly from Edward Norton. It’s also something else the Academy loves: A movie about movies, as evidenced by recent best picture wins for Argo and The Artist.

Boyhood’s brilliance is much more subtle, but no less astonishing. It broke so many rules and blazed so many trails, all while staying rooted in its Texas locale. Watching that journey in just under three hours exemplified how, in a few incredibly short years, the core history of lives are written. I can think of few other movies that brought me such an awareness of myself and my loved ones.

That’s why it should win, but it won’t. Will win: Birdman.

While I’m at it, a quick trip through other categories:

Best Actor: In the only truly competitive acting category, we have another tight race between Michael Keaton’s tortured movie star in Birdman and Eddie Redmayne as young Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything. As much as the Academy likes movies about movies, it likes actors playing historic characters and characters with disabilities even more. Will win: Eddie Redmayne.

Best Actress: Julianne Moore is a five-time nominee Oscar is dying to send home with some gold. It will this year for her performance in Still Alice as a brilliant woman slipping into early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. Will win: Julianne Moore.

Best Supporting Actor: J.K. Simmons scary drum teacher in Whiplash breaks him out of anonymous character actor land and into the Oscar-winning actor club.

Best Supporting Actress: No, this is not for avoiding plastic surgery for 12 years. Geeze. It’s for being the heart of a 12-year project and playing a mom a lot of us recognize. Will win: Patricia Arquette.

Best Director: I’m seeing more sentimental than practical fingers pointing toward Linklater. Iñárritu is getting a lot of love for brilliance. But I just get the feeling (and hope) voters will honor a director with the brilliance to pursue a crazy plan, and the talent to pull it off beautifully. Will win: Richard Linklater.

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Not going anywhere? Catch up on Oscar nominees

Michael Keaton is nominated for best actor for his performance in "Birdman," which is up for best picture and seven other Academy Awards. (c) Fox Searchlight photo.

Michael Keaton is nominated for best actor for his performance in “Birdman,” which is up for best picture and seven other Oscars. (c) Fox Searchlight photo.

With officials in Central Kentucky advising us to stay home unless we have jobs that deal with life or death, we are left to fend for entertainment at home. Fortunately, we have twenty-teens technology, and this light, fluffy snow isn’t knocking out power everywhere. So, if you have a high speed Internet connection, you have video stores at your fingertips and can do things like catch up on Oscar movies.

The 87th Annual Academy Awards are Sunday night, and a number of the major nominees are already available for streaming, primarily at Amazon Instant Video. Here’s a look at what’s available without leaving home, which you probably are not doing anytime soon. Grab a Snickers and the remote.

Birdman, the newest nominee to become available, is up for nine awards, including best picture, best actor Michael Keaton, best supporting actor Edward Norton, best supporting actress Emma Stone and best director Alejandro G. Iñárritu. It is available on Amazon Instant Video to purchase for $12.99 to $14.99.

Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s 12-year project, is up for six awards including best picture, best supporting actor Ethan Hawke, best supporting actress Patricia Arquette and best director and original screenplay for Linklater. It’s on Amazon Instant starting at $3.99.

The Grand Budapest Hotel is up for nine awards, including best picture, best director for Wes Anderson and best original screenplay for Anderson and Hugo Guiness. It’s at Amazon Instant starting at $9.99.

The Theory of Everything, the story of young Stephen Hawking, is up for five awards including best picture, best actor Eddie Redmayne, best actress Felicity Jones and best adapted screenplay for Anthony McCarten. You can purchase it at Amazon Instant Video for $14.99.

The Judge features Robert Duvall’s performance nominated for best supporting actor. It starts at $3.99 on Amazon Instant.

Gone Girl is a nominee for best supporting actress for Rosamund Pike’s performance. It’s on Amazon Instant starting at $4.99.

The Boxtrolls is up for best animated feature and at Amazon starting at $4.99.

How to Train Your Dragon 2 was a surprise Golden Globe winner for best animated feature and it’s up for the same Oscar. At Amazon, it starts at $4.99.

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Notebook: Kayoko Dan makes a dramatic return to Lexington

Former Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra music director Kayoko Dan, now music director of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera, returns to Lexington to conduct the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra Feb. 13, 2015. She is shown in the Chattanooga Orchestra's home venue, the Tivoli Theatre.  Photo by Brad Cansler.

Former Central Kentucky Youth Orchestra music director Kayoko Dan, now music director of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera, returns to Lexington to conduct the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra Feb. 13, 2015. She is shown in the Chattanooga Orchestra’s home venue, the Tivoli Theatre. Photo by Brad Cansler.

Former Central Kentucky Youth Orchestras director Kayoko Dan returned to the Bluegrass Friday night, directing the Lexington Philharmonic Orchestra in a cinematic concert that highlighted several of the group’s principal players.

Dan said Monday that the program was completely chosen by Philharmonic music director Scott Terrell, but it certainly played to her flair for the dramatic, evident from the first selection, Claude Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, through actual film music in Tan Dun’s Crouching Tiger Concerto for Cello and Orchestra and Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 2.

We first heard Dan conduct Tchaikovsky in 2007 — his Suite from Sleeping Beauty — when she was the first candidate to succeed George Zack as the Philharmonic’s music director. Even then, it was evident that she liked driving the big Tchaikovsky machine, a composer she returned to several times during her two-year tenure with the Youth Orchestras from 2009 to 2011. There were no hard feelings, as Dan says in reality she was not ready to take up the baton for a professional orchestra at the time.

The CKYO gig gave her grounding for her current post as music director of the Chattanooga Symphony and Opera, just four hours south on I-75.

Looking at programs there, she has operated much like Terrell here when it comes to programming, mixing in contemporary work with classics. The Crouching Tiger Suite, culled from Tan Dun’s Oscar-winning score to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, was quite modern, employing amplified cello and frequently bombastic percussion. But was still a crowd pleaser with its mix of drama and fascinating technique from all players.

Benjamin Karp.

Benjamin Karp.

The Concerto is a fun piece to listen to. It’s even more fun to watch, particularly as soloist Benjamin Karp, the Philharmonic’s principal cellist, seemed to coax sound from his instrument in every way possible, including bowing, strumming, tapping, chords and amplifier effects such as feedback. It was a marvelous challenge for Karp, dressed appropriately in a silky red shirt for Valentine’s weekend, to take on in front of the hometown crowd. But he was hardly alone.

Principal percussionist James Campbell and principal flutist Pei-San Chiu were also featured in the work, Campbell at one point coming to the front of the stage and Chiu switching between flute and piccolo.

Chiu was a prominent player throughout the evening, somewhat appropriate as flute is Dan’s instrument; she in fact pulled out her flute in a January Chattanooga concert.

The one thing that seemed to be missing was an on-stage acknowledgement that the guest conductor was a returning former leader in the Lexington music community who has gone on to her own success. Granted, orchestra audiences tend to prefer playing to talking, but a greeting, introduction or some kind of acknowledgement from someone with the orchestra was in order. The evening felt a tad chilly without that.

But Dan’s direction was warm and empathetic, ending the evening with the early Tchaikovsky symphony, which relied more on the composer’s trademark charm than power. Dan had to head back to Chattanooga Friday night after the concert to conduct rehearsals for a Sunday Symphony and Opera concert. That meant driving well into the early morning, but she could probably ride off the energy of the Tchaikovsky symphony’s last few bars.

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Appreciation: Media critic David Carr, 1956-2015

In this Nov. 21, 2011, file photo, New York Times journalist David Carr poses for a photograph as he arrives for the French premiere of the documentary "Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times," in Paris. Carr collapsed at the office and died in a hospital Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015. He was 58. Carr wrote the Media Equation column for the Times, focusing on issues of media in relation to business and culture. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)

In this Nov. 21, 2011, file photo, New York Times journalist David Carr poses for a photograph as he arrives for the French premiere of the documentary “Page One: A Year Inside The New York Times,” in Paris. Carr collapsed at the office and died in a hospital Thursday, Feb. 12, 2015. He was 58. Carr wrote the Media Equation column for the Times, focusing on issues of media in relation to business and culture. © AP photo by Michel Euler.

This may be somewhat inside baseball-ish, and for that, I apologize. But I did want to take a moment this morning to remember the most inspiring journalist I have followed this century, New York Times media critic David Carr.

Carr, who collapsed last night in the Times newsroom and was later pronounced dead at St. Luke’s-Roosevelt Hospital, first came to my attention as the Times’ awards-season correspondent, The Carpetbagger. It was a must-read stop for those of us who have an unhealthy interest in the Academy Awards and other self-congratulatory Hollywood contests. It was a multimedia reporting experience that combined insightful and informative journalism with Carr’s huge personality and trademark gravely voice.

That drew me to Carr’s far more vast portfolio, particularly after he left the red carpets and drilled down on media, culture and journalism today in his Media Equation column.

To his credit are meticulous analyses of the changing media landscape, searing critiques of flat-footed business models and visionary writing about the roles of social media and other emerging media. Just this past week, he wrote a terrific column about the news anchor culture that helped fuel the deceptions that led NBC News to suspend anchor Brian Williams without pay.

NightoftheGunAnd then there was his incredible book, Night of the Gunan investigation into his own drug addiction and it’s consequences. It colored all that he did with the perspective of someone who knows all about failure and redemption.

But what I found really inspiring was that in this field, particularly newspapers, where there is a bit of tendency to grouse about how new media is eating our lunch, Carr was embracing it; consuming it, using it, acknowledging his shortcomings but then just saying they were things to overcome. I have this distinct memory of him describing his early efforts at video as looking like hostage recordings. But he worked at it and grew.

“We are entering a golden age of journalism,” Carr told NPR’s Terry Gross in a 2011 interview on Fresh Air. “I do think there has been horrible frictional costs, but I think when we look back at what has happened, I look at my backpack that is sitting here, and it contains more journalistic firepower than the entire newsroom that I walked into 30 to 40 years ago. It’s connected to the cloud, I can make digital recordings of everything that I do, I can check in real time if someone is telling me the truth, I have a still camera that takes video that I can upload quickly and seamlessly.”

I remember listening to that interview twice in one day while traveling between Christmas and New Year’s and desperately wanting to get back to the newsroom and acting on this flood of inspiration. Not only was he a fierce critic of media, particularly some corporate structures which have rewarded executives while gutting their products, but he was  a fierce defender of the role it plays in informing and illuminating the public. And he thought it was a great job.

In a letter to his staff last night, Times executive editor Dean Baquet wrote Carr, “was our biggest champion, and his unending passion for journalism and for truth will be missed by his family at The Times, by his readers around the world and by people who love journalism.”

And he is absolutely right.

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Jon Stewart’s ‘Daily Show’ legacy more than comedy

Jon Stewart. AP/Invision photo by Victoria Will.

Jon Stewart. AP/Invision photo by Victoria Will.

For the better part of the last decade, I had the same reaction to most major news stories, particularly if they were of the political or ridiculous variety: What is Jon Stewart going to say about this?

For 15 years as the host (anchor?) of The Daily Showhe became a wise, insightful, pointed and, of course, hilarious voice on the events of the day. In the Stewart era, we got the news earlier in the day, and then we’d tune in at 11 p.m. for perspective and a few good laughs before bed.

That’s why, following tonight’s announcement Stewart will be leaving the show later this year, it is so much harder to imagine replacing him than some of the other late-night desk changes lately. When David Letterman announced he was stepping down from CBS’ The Late Show last year, we had laundry lists of potential successors before the rather quick announcement Stewart protogee Stephen Colbert would take the job. It was a much more open position: simply someone who could make us laugh.

When we consider who can succeed Stewart, we add in factors such as who can make us think, who has insight, and ironically, given some recent network news anchor stories, who can we trust?

The list shrinks, and that is all due to Stewart.

It is hard for all of us to remember, but there was a Daily Show before Jon Stewart. It started as a celebrity gossip show in 1996 with Craig Kilborn that I didn’t give two thoughts. Stewart took over in 1999, and soon after, friends started telling me something really cool was happening over on Comedy Central, so I tuned in.

I didn’t necessarily expect much, because my clearest memory of Stewart pre-Daily Show was seeing him open a concert for the B-52’s in Athens, Ga., in the mid-1990s. It was a performance that wasn’t terribly funny and frankly was so graphically R-rated it teetered on offensive — and I don’t consider myself a prude.

And Stewart definitely brought some raunchy humor and plenty of bleeped profanity to The Daily Show anchor desk. But he ironically became something of a national conscience, yanking down the trousers of the hypocritical and dimwitted in power, really demanding more from our leaders than the mindless rhetoric and self-serving positions they spewed and mainstream journalists often let them get away with.

Elephant in the room: Yes, the politics of Stewart and thus The Daily Show are liberal. He’s pretty openly pro-gay, anti-gun proliferation and a number of other liberal positions you can name. What separates Stewart from the choir preachers like MSNBC and Fox News hosts is he doesn’t suffer hypocrisy of any stripe. Those who say he simply preaches the Democratic Party line blithely ignore moments such as his stinging interview of President Barack Obama, his campaign to improve the Veteran’s Administration, and even Kentucky moments like his lampooning of Kentucky U.S. Senate candidate Alison Lundergan Grimes campaign. Overall, blatant liberal shortcomings have hardly been given a pass on Stewart’s watch.

As a media critic, Fox News has been his favorite target, but Stewart has had no qualms about going after liberal outlets like MSNBC and fawning coverage of Democratic politicians. Stewart’s greatest contribution has been calling out the media for lazy, non-critical, sensational reporting that often focuses on the manufactured-scandal of the week.

In his tenure, we have seen suitable successors. Colbert has Letterman’s old job, come September. And John Oliver, who subbed for Stewart when he took the summer of 2013 off to direct Rosewater, parlayed his outstanding work in that post into his own HBO show — though there is already a Twitter clamor for him to come back to The Daily Show.

To me, the most likely suspects — like Colbert and Oliver — come from the ranks of Stewart’s Best (bleeping) News Team Ever, with a lean toward Samantha Bee or Jessica Williams.

But  it is a credit to Stewart’s tenure that whoever takes over The Daily Show chair will have to earn the audience’s trust and do more than just entertain.

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A kinder, gentler Kanye West at the Grammys? Nevermind

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West are interviewed at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards Official After Party on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015 in Los Angeles, CA. Invision/AP photo by by Colin Young-Wolff.

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West were interviewed at the Grammy Awards after-party on Sunday. Photo by Colin Young-Wolff | Invision

Early in Sunday night’s Grammy telecast, we we observed that, despite the jokes about Kimye and North West, marriage seemed to have calmed Kanye West down. He seemed to be more of a colleague and less of a rabble-rouser. The focus shifted from his antics back to his music.

And that played out during the evening. He gave a good, understated performance of his song Only One and participated in one of the evening’s true highlights, performing with Paul McCartney and Rhianna on her new single FourFiveSeconds. Twitter lit up with photos of him arm-in-arm with Taylor Swift, whose 2009 MTV Video Music Award win he had famously interrupted, demanding that the award instead go to Beyonce.

Bygones. Nice Kanye.

Beck accepts the award for album of the year for “Morning Phase” at the 57th annual Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015, in Los Angeles. AP/Invision photo by John Shearer.

Beck accepted the award for album of the year for “Morning Phase” at the Grammy Awards. Photo by John Shearer | Invision

Then Beck’s Morning Phase won album of the year, and Kanye again took the stage uninvited, apparently once again advocating for Bey, whose self-titled album was expected to win. But he simply grinned and stepped back.

Maybe it was a joke? Maybe new Kanye was having fun at the expense of old Kanye?

No. His interview with E! after the show cleared things up. Beck was his new Taylor.

“I just know that the Grammys, if they want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us,” West said on the entertainment network. “We ain’t gonna play with them no more. And Beck needs to respect artistry, and he should’ve given his award to Beyoncé.

“Because when you keep on diminishing art and not respecting the craft and smacking people in their face after they deliver monumental feats of music, you’re disrespectful to inspiration. And we as musicians have to inspire people who go to work every day, and they listen to that Beyoncé album and they feel like it takes them to another place.”

You’d think Morning Phase was a collection of cookie-cutter covers played by a marginally talented hack, instead of an inspired album by one of pop’s most accomplished musicians of the past quarter-century.

Maybe West should have said that to Beck’s face, although according to Rolling Stone, Beck took the high road in response, saying West is an amazing artist and he had expected Beyoncé to win.

And there was reason for that. The award is called “album of the year,” not “best album,” and if you want to talk about an album that had a resonant impact in the span of the weird calendar the Grammys keep, Beyoncé is it. The surprise digital release of the album in December 2013, with videos for each song, has already altered the way albums are released and marketed. And it was a terrific album — serious, fun, sensual and engaging — all things we expect from Beyoncé.

But as Prince said in presenting the award, “albums still matter,” and really, in that field of nominees — which included Sam Smith’s In the Lonely Hour, Ed Sheeran’s and Pharrell Williams’ Girl Beck’s Morning Phase was the most accomplished album. It took the artist — yes, Kanye, Beck is an artist, too — in directions far afield from his previous work and tied together disparate styles for an enveloping mood. Certainly it hasn’t had the chart impact of some of Beck’s 1990s output, notably Odelay. But it is a fantastic album, and that West chooses to denigrate Beck’s artistry says a lot more about him than it does about Beck.

And Beck is right. Kanye is extremely talented and has put out some of the best music of this century. But antics like this and a myopic obsession with the idea that only people from his circle of friends rate honor and respect — can we point out that Beyoncé is married to one of the most powerful men in music, who could easily speak up for her if he thought it was warranted? — really threaten his legacy.

I want to like Kanye, but he makes it really, really hard.

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Chris Thile was a great guest host, but is ‘Prairie Home’ ‘Prairie Home’ without Keillor?

Chris Thile in performance with The Punch Brothers. © Invision/AP photo by Photo by John Davisson.

Chris Thile in performance with The Punch Brothers. © Invision/AP photo by Photo by John Davisson.

Around 6 p.m. Saturday, I was waking up from one of those late day naps Saturday afternoon can be perfect for when I heard a familiar song from an unfamiliar voice.
It was the Prairie Home Companion theme — “I hear that old piano, from down the avenue” — but it was in a much younger, technically better voice than host Prairie Home host Garrison Keillor.

“Is that Chris Thile?” I wondered, and soon it was confirmed this was the mandolin master of Nickel Creek and Punch Brothers fame hosting the show he has been a guest on numerous times.

Thile was standing in for Keillor this past weekend and next weekend while the Prairie Home creator is on the west coast leg of his tour that brought him to the Eastern Kentucky University Center for the Arts late last year.

Garrison Keillor

Garrison Keillor

But it was a chance to contemplate Prairie Home without Keillor, who founded the show and has hosted it and it’s various incarnations for more than 40 years.

Thile, an open fan of the show, did a very good job, bringing his own cadence and personality to the Fitzgerald Theatre microphone while maintaining many of the show’s standing features. The music was great with guests The Punch Brothers and Sarah Jaroz, and poetry from former United States poet laureate Billy Collins. Thile participated in radio acting company bits, including one about a Stradivarius banjo. The one thing you really can’t do without Keillor is the Letter from Lake Wobegon. So instead, Minneapolis-based writer Tristan Jimerson, known for his appearances on another public radio show, The Moth Radio Hour, took that block of the show with a very entertaining story about how he tracked down an identity thief.

I have been a fan of Prairie Home and Keillor, and in 2000 found myself in public radio geek heaven going to St. Paul to cover a broadcast of the show and interviewing Keillor and the cast and crew to preview the show’s November 2000 broadcast from the Singletary Center for the Arts. But Saturday was the first time I have listened to the show straight through in quite a while. Frankly, the format and routines have just gotten stale and there’s a real déjà vu feeling whenever I listen. I know that is a heretical statement to many fans of the show and public radio, but there it is.

So the change in voice did the show some good, even if it was essentially the same format.

But is Prairie Home a show that needs to think about handing off hosting duties, or is it a show that simply needs to end when the founder and host retires?

Keillor, 72, has no stated intention to retire — he did say in 2011 he would retire in 2013, but later recanted that statement, and clearly he hasn’t.

On the Prairie Home Facebook page, Thile generally got good reviews from listeners, some discussing him as a potential permanent replacement for Keillor. But Thile, 33, has a pretty active and lucrative music career in a genre, acoustic Americana music, where age is not necessarily a negative. It is hard to imagine him hanging that up for dozens of Saturday nights a year to become a radio show host.

And it is hard to imagine Prairie Home would be the same show without Keillor at the helm. It is his baby, and even if I say it has become stale, it does rely on his personality and profile — the Minnesota-ness, Lutheranism, literacy, even his attempts to sing and his corny jokes. Some shows can change hosts but continue the franchise. Prairie Home does not feel like one of them.

Guest hosts would probably be a great idea, breaking the show and even Keillor out of some ruts. But when he retires, the show probably needs to retire with him.

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