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You don't write a cheeky tune such as "She Left Me for Jesus" unless you know you've got the goods to dodge the novelty-act bullet. At the Rock & Roll Hotel on Friday night, Hayes Carll -- a backwards-named Texas hellraiser-with-a-sensitive-side, though most of his songs seem to be about Arkansas -- waited till two-thirds through his swaggering 95-minute gig to break out that tune.
The front half of the packed bar howled blissfully along, beer bottles aloft (and the back half continued to gab as though there weren't a very good singer/songwriter onstage -- no cover upstairs if you just came to hang, people). But nobody seemed to be waiting around for, um, "Jesus," except maybe the ghost of Townes Van Zandt. Carll's sly, wry songbook, dedicated mostly, as he observed, to "alcoholism or depression or drugs or travel," but also, you know, Arkansas -- is just too slinky with a line, too funny, too disarming for anyone to dismiss him as a one-trick pony. A contender, this guy. "Trouble in Mind," his third album, is one of this year's sturdiest releases, but 2005's "Little Rock" was nearly as well represented in the 20-song set.
Ably supported by his four-piece Gulf Coast Orchestra, the bearded troubadour brewed up a 55-30-15 split of affable honky-tonk, Stonesy snarl and early-Dylan wordplay. "Down the Road Tonight," his barn-burning set-closer, is basically a twang-enabled rewrite of "Pump It Up," which is to say awesome. Carll also performed a Christmas song he said he'd penned just days before. You'd think about writing a Christmas song, too, if your catalogue included a novelty tune wherein you threaten to find a certain well-connected Jewish carpenter and beat him up. Insurance, y'all.
-- Chris Klimek
Tehreema Mitha Dance Company
For choreographer Tehreema Mitha, religious tensions between India and Pakistan are far more than recent headlines; they are the reason she creates art. The Bethesda-based dancer grew up in Pakistan, the daughter of a guru who taught Bharatanatyam, a form of Indian classical dance. As a Muslim who interpreted Hindu mythology through movement, Mitha raised eyebrows and ire. When she immigrated to the United States a decade ago, she came seeking freedom of expression.
On Saturday night at Dance Place, Mitha and her company presented a mixed program of classic Indian and modern dance pieces that borrow from the movement vocabulary of Bharatanatyam. Before each piece, the voice of God (actually one of Mitha's cousins) explained the narrative.
The show opened with a classic myth about Cupid, two maidens and Krishna. Praneetha Akula came out with bells on her ankles, as is customary, and in full costume. Bharatanatyam relies on pantomime and strong, staccato footwork to tell tales. It's an acquired taste, but if nothing else, Indian dance gives viewers a chance to appreciate body parts that other dance forms ignore. Akula has a gorgeous neck. She can convey a major plot twist by craning a few vertebrae. Her eyes, likewise, are wide, expressive windows to a story.
Mitha followed with a Bharatanatyam dance based on an original narrative: a pregnant woman fondly recalls the lover who abandoned her. This was one of the program's stronger pieces, in that Mitha used an ancient form to tell a universal tale.
The contemporary works were less successful, teetering between high-concept and hokey. "In the Spirit of Things" was about as clear as the fog pouring onstage from a dry-ice machine, yet "Regular 925" was a clever but undercooked story about two co-workers and their domineering boss. The only premiere on the program was a collaborative dance featuring Joy of Motion's youth ensemble. These 10 teenagers might lack the poise of Mitha and Akula, who led the dance, but the girls beamed while onstage, a sure sign there's value in cultural crossover when it comes to creating art.
-- Rebecca J. Ritzel