“PopSmart NOLA” on WHIV (102.3 FM) looks back at 2016 with theater critics Brad Rhines and Ted Mahne and music writer Alison Fensterstock

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Earlier in the month we reviewed the year 2016 in New Orleans culture, providing a carefully curated set of the top stories as reported by local media (including PopSmart NOLA).

To advance the discussion, I welcomed theater critics Brad Rhines (New Orleans Advocate) and Ted Mahne (NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune) and veteran New Orleans music journalist Alison Fensterstock to go over their own top stories in theater and music on the radio show “PopSmart NOLA” — our first pre-recorded show, to air on WHIV (102.3 FM) from 3 p.m.-4 p.m. You also can listen online at whivfm.org. (Note: This episode originally was to air last week but had to be moved to this week due to scheduling and production issues.)

Here’s how I set up the year in review back on Dec. 20:

As New Orleans continued to shift into what could be called a “post-post-Katrina” period — that is, moving past the 10-year commemoration of the devastation, or recovery mode — evidence of a new New Orleans culture continued to reverberate all over. Sometimes we see that reflected in trends identified in other cities, like a more diverse (and ever-shifting) restaurant scene, or (more dramatically) the legalization and hopeful regulation of short-term rentals. Then there was, for a variety of reasons, a shrinking of the Hollywood South imprint and its seeming rejection of a film industry in the state. Yet there continued the boundless proliferation of festivals as New Orleans continued to almost manically celebrate itself. To be sure, the changing face of the city’s culture remained ever changing. There are those who believe that, with so many of these changes, New Orleans’ unique and often quirky culture might be threatened — that the reasons that make the city so special and so inviting to the rest of the world are shrinking like the Louisiana coastline. But 2016 also represented a year of amazing and exciting moments that reconfirmed a city’s passion for its cultural life — even when commemorating the lives of famous cultural figures not from New Orleans. Last week I posted an overview of many of these moments, a carefully curated round-up of stories pulled from several local media outlets (including PopSmart NOLA), as well as national outlets where appropriate. The year is broken down into categories, with a subjectively chosen lead story followed by links to lots of others.

In this episode I’ll go back over the year-in-review post, highlighting the top stories, and then I’ll bring on:

    • Brad Rhines, a freelance arts and culture writer. Brad regularly contributes theater coverage and criticism to The New Orleans Advocate. When he’s not at the theater he’s probably spending time with his family at one the city’s various parks, museums, or music festivals.
    • Ted Mahne. A New Orleans journalist for more than 30 years, Ted Mahne has spent a lifetime as a devoted theater-goer. He has covered the local theater and arts scene for more than 20 years, now serving as a freelance writer and chief theater critic for The Times-Picayune and NOLA.com. When not in a seat on the aisle, Ted can be found teaching sophomores at Jesuit High School.
    • We’ll also chat with veteran music journalist Alison Fensterstock, with whom I’ve worked at three different media outlets — Gambit, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune and the New Orleans Advocate. Alison also has been published in several national media outlets, including NPR (where she posted a relevant piece on the David Bowie memorial parade) and Pitchfork. Alison was one of the first New Orleans journalists to cover the city’s emerging bounce scene in general and the breakout career of Big Freedia in particular — a story that became even more intriguing in 2016.

I also want to remind you that if you like what you’re hearing on this, the radio show version of “PopSmart NOLA” you can “like” PopSmart NOLA on Facebook. We’re also on Instagram at @popsmartnola, and I’m on Twitter as @dlsnola504.

Happy New Year, y’all!

(P.S. Big thanks to Le Petit Theatre du Vieux Carré for collaborating with us on our special ticket giveaway for Friday’s Sweet Crude concert, and congratulations to the winner, Stephen Schaefer!)

Big Freedia and Carl Mack: Queens for a weekend, with Krewe du Vieux and Satyricon

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UPDATE: Check out photos and more from Satyricon’s bal masque, and follow the Krewe du Vieux parade images here.

Carnival season kicks into high gear this weekend with two events that, in their own respective ways, have come to symbolize the more creative spirits of New Orleans and LGBT culture. Carl Mack, the street performer turned costume designer, will return for a second reign as queen of the Mystic Krewe of Satyricon at its 2016 Bal Masq and its theme, “Le Bal des Beaux Arts,” on Friday (Jan. 22) at its tradition home of the Frederick J. Sigur Civic Center in Chalmette. For three decades, Mack has been the go-to costumer for the gay Carnival krewes’ balls, often creating tableau that are works of art — and theatrical grandeur.

Speaking of three decades: Big Freedia, the bounce artist and reality TV star “(Queen of Bounce”), has been tabbed to reign as royalty for Krewe du Vieux’s 30th annual parade — unsurprisingly titled “XXX” — when it rolls Saturday (Jan. 23) from Faubourg Marigny through the French Quarter and into the CBD for its after-party at the Civic Theatre.

The choice of Big Freedia seemed a natural fit for Krewe du Vieux, as both pretty much told me in my preview for the New Orleans Advocate. As Big Freedia told me:

I’m very excited that I was chosen to be their celebrity grand marshal and I’m ready to hype up the city and the Mardi Gras season, and I’m very happy to be in this alternative parade and sit on their throne. I speak and represent a lot of people in the LGBT community. … It’s important to appreciate people from all walks of life.”

Considering their respective senses of style and ties to the LGBT community, it should come as no surprise that the two would cross paths, as they did when Mack created the costume for Big Freedia’s appearance at the 2014 Voodoo Fest. (That it had such a royal appearance should shock no one, either; check out the photos!) His ball costumes are even more elaborate.

(So elaborate that he was tabbed to make costumes for a Turbotax ad; see below.)

“My main focus when it comes to costumes for the (gay Carnival) balls is production,” Mack said Wednesday, the day before he and his staff loaded up the costumes to bring to the Civic Center. “I don’t let anything go out that’s just a costume for strolling around. We always have some king of comedy to it, whether it’s with dancers, or a circus act, or something.

“There’s always production associated with it.”

He quickly referenced last year’s Bal Masq, with it’s theme, “Satyricon Makes Scents: Bal des Parfums.” At one point, a tableau gave a nod to Clinique’s “Happy,” which set up the opportunity to create brilliantly orange tableau as well as a chance to capitalize on the popularity of Pharrell Williams’ hit tune. (Check out my story from the ball, and the amazing photos from that event. I also covered the 2014 ball.)

This year’s ball presents the opportunity to honor some of the great paintings and painters of all time, but, with Carl Mack at work (yes, he works even though he’s the queen) and Varla Jean Merman as emcee, the possibilities are endless. And so we’ll get “Elvis on Velvet.”

“Varla Jean set up as Elvis on Velvet will be very cheesy,” Mack said. “And behind her she’ll have two backup dancers of Velveeta cheese. So yes, for me, there’s always going to be production value, and comedy — especially for Satyricon. On Saturday, the people want that humor, they want to laugh, and of course, you’re working on a large stage.”

Big Freedia has been working on increasingly larger stages after years of being a cult figure in New Orleans’ bounce rap scene. (Music journalist Alison Fensterstock, my former Gambit Weekly and NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune colleague, has been credited by many including The New York Times for championing Big Freedia’s work. Check out some of that coverage here, here and here.) Her musical career explosion over the past six years included greater exposure in the form of her Fuse network show “Queen of Bounce.”

“It has been an amazing, amazing ride,” said Big Freedia, taking a break from her work on location in New Orleans in writer-director Angela Shelton’s upcoming film, “Heart, Baby.” (Read more here.) “Life has changed in so many ways and I’ve been through so many rollercoasters. Being at the forefront of bounce music and traveling around the world and make people aware of New Orleans music. There’s been so much change in so many ways and all for the better.”

Season 5 of “Queen of Bounce” is coming up, as is a new album, ensuring that the rollercoaster will continue on the upswing. But so will Big Freedia’s continued push for recognition and appreciation of the LGBT community — especially transgender issues, which leaped to the forefront in 2015 in everything from President Barack Obama using the term and in shows like Hulu’s Emmy-winning “Transparent.”

“It’s been amzing to have that platform and then have all those wonderful things happen in 2015, and seeing the transition is an amazing feel, you know,” she said. “People, not just in as much as being more accepting, but people are supporting others and what they do,” she said. “It helps to keep on opening that door wider and wider for the LGBT community. You just see it all over. It’s now like, you see a gay guy on every TV station. You see them incorporated into more videos.”

It will be an incredibly hectic next couple of weeks for Big Freedia, starting Friday (Jan. 22) at Republic New Orleans, and then Krewe du Vieus on Saturday, and then Jan. 28 at Harrah’s Casino Masquerade. On Feb. 5, she will emcee the BLT Ball at Southport Hall and make a brief appearance at the Zulu Ball. She will then perform Feb. 8 (Lundi Gras) at Siberia, and then at Gator Bait on the West Bank. And of course you can check her out on Fat Tuesday at “Mardi Gras Under the Bridge,” and then the Red Velvet that night on the West Bank.

Oh, and if you were wondering about any connection between Carl Mack and Krewe du Vieux, the answer is yes.

“I’m making donkey dongs and everything for Krewe du Vieux,” the other queen said. “You know, because of the Democrats. It’s an election year. What can I say?”