A recent Saturday evening was spent in the company of Lee Rocker, a founding member of 1980s rockabilly band Stray Cats. Accompanied by his giant upright bass and a tight band--especially that keyboard player!--he was on the stage of Pulaski Technical College's Center for Humanities and Arts (CHARTS).
The performer and the venue were a match made in heaven, or wherever it is that you feel perfect matches are made.
Some venues are so appealing that I'll consider going to see just about anybody scheduled to perform there. CHARTS, in North Little Rock, is one of them. With its stadium seating, terrific sound quality, broad and deep stage, and uninhibited sight lines, almost every entertainer gets a head start on presenting a quality show there.
(There are also performers that warrant going to see them no matter what; there were only two times in my dating days that I discarded personal ethics and accepted invitations from young men I wouldn't otherwise consider spending an evening with. One of them was to see Joni Mitchell at Cleveland's Public Hall. The other was to experience New York's Metropolitan Opera, also at Public Hall, in a touring presentation of La Boheme. First and only date with both of those guys, whose names escape me. But I still remember the performances, and the venues.)
Anyway, back to CHARTS. The 90,000-square-foot facility, which opened in 2016, has seating for 526 and is capable of handling not only rock concerts but theatrical presentations, classical recitals, lectures and anything else that requires an audience and a stage. Among the best so far: John Hiatt, Pharoah Sanders, Mavis Staples, Lucinda Williams.
Extra added bonus: Some events there have opening receptions with adult beverages and excellent hors d'oeuvres provided by students of Pulaski Tech's Culinary Arts and Hospitality Management Institute--a fine way to start an evening, especially if you like who you're with.
Another favored venue is South on Main in Little Rock's SoMa district. It's in the space that was formerly the restaurant and bar Juanita's, where patrons endured a weirdly placed stage wedged into the southeast corner (up against the windows) to see the likes of Warren Zevon, Robyn Hitchcock, Richard Thompson, Robert Earl Keen, Glass Eye, Son Volt, Mojo Nixon, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Butch Hancock, the Subdudes, Nanci Griffith, Gun Bunnies, El Vez (we got thrown out of that show; long story) and Tuesday night blues jams. (Thanks to Jack W. Hill and Jeff Williams for helping out my lazy memory here.)
A redesign with better sound flow and sight lines greatly improves the performance space at South on Main. The experience there is enhanced with a restaurant serving creative Southern cuisine from chef Matthew Bell (including a bar menu offering the likes of cauliflower popcorn, crawfish mac and cheese, and my favorite, two big biscuits with sorghum butter and seasonal jam), stout cocktails (try the old-fashioned or the Arkansas Mule) and programming related to the content of Oxford American magazine. Best times here: Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal, Parker Millsap, Rodney Crowell, John Paul White, Amy Helm, Shovels and Rope, and Arkansas native David Starr.
Despite some initial confusion as to who could use it, Central Arkansas Library System's handsome 325-seat Ron Robinson Theater in the River Market has become a beckoning location for fans of film screenings, musical performances--think Iris DeMent, Eroica Trio, Ben Nichols of Lucero--plays, readings, lectures, and kids' activities. It's got a state-of-the-art projection system for films and a separate sound system for spoken word and music (earning it the top rating from the Digital Cinema Institute). Sloped rows of comfortable seats allow for good visibility, and the balcony is a great hideout for those who aren't into mingling on the main floor.
We've had many pleasant outings at Argenta Community Theater in North Little Rock, mainly at fundraisers for causes such as the Buffalo National River, theatrical productions such as Cabaret and A Christmas Carol, and screenings during Kaleidoscope Film Festival. Founded in 2010 by Vincent Insalaco and Judy Tenenbaum, one of the venue's most attractive qualities is its flexible seating setup, which can be arranged to suit just about any situation.
New to the lineup is W. L. Harris Auditorium at Philander Smith College. A cool, comfortable space with a fine sound system, plenty of seating, and an ample stage, this is where Deniese Davis and Arkansas native Jayme Lemons, producers of HBO's Insecure, showed a couple episodes of the series, followed by a discussion about the show with this newspaper's film critic Philip Martin and Little Rock mayor Frank Scott Jr. (who, much to our surprise, showed up in jeans and untucked shirt--so different from his usual spruce suit-and-tie attire--with a refreshingly casual attitude to match).
It was the first event in the continuing Dreamland film series, a celebration of black voices in cinema, from Arkansas Cinema Society (Dreamland in the title honors Dreamland Ballroom, the venue that was one of the focal points of Little Rock's thriving black culture throughout most of the 20th century) and it broke new ground by showing a very contemporary show (sex, drugs, language, and lots of attitude) to a church-based student audience.
We're anxious to see more events in this space, especially now that we know exactly where it is on the attractive Philander Smith College. Our only complaint: Better signage is needed.
Karen Martin is senior editor of Perspective.
Editorial on 11/03/2019
Print Headline: Choose the venue as well as the act