- By Michael Barnes American-Statesman Staff
The Rollins Studio Theatre does not attract the public scrutiny that follows Dell Hall, its bigger sibling at the Long Center for the Performing Arts, which turns 10 in 2018.
One obvious reason is size. The Dell holds about 2,400 spectators, while the Rollins fills up when it reaches 200 or so guests, depending on the seating arrangement.
Also, the Dell is home to some of the city’s best known performing arts groups — Austin Opera, Ballet Austin, Austin Symphony and sometimes Conspirare — as well as to celebrated touring acts.
Yet the Rollins can punch above its weight, to borrow a boxing term, as witnessed recently during Tapestry Dance Company’s gutsy concert “Just Tap!” In a series of dazzling displays, we were given a tutorial on the varied historical strains of tap dancing while watching up-to-date choreography informed by that history.
Tapestry is one of the resident companies that performs regularly in the “gray box” of the Rollins, along with Austin Shakespeare and Pollyanna Theatre Company. Rollins is also home to the center’s outstanding Summer Stock Austin series, which mixes high school and college talents with pros to produce new and traditional musicals.
While these groups are safely and snugly established in the Rollins, the Long Center management has been looking for ways to diversify the studio theater’s programs as well.
Among the newer inventions is the “Concert Club at the Long Center,” which puts the spotlight on some of the finest available musical talent. The sets start at 7:30 p.m., the parking is fairly easy and the seating is comfortable.
This miniseries returns Oct. 25 with the Jeff Lofton Electric Thang, which unites the beloved Austin jazz artist with two groups, the Jeff Lofton Trio and his Electric Thang. Since he arrived in 2007, trumpeter Lofton has taken the city by storm with his Miles Davis tributes and original works. For fans who are sometimes distracted by the competing stimulation of a nightclub setting — yes, we mean the deafening chatter — this concert promises to be an unsullied treat.
Next up on Dec. 20 is another much admired Austin musician, Graham Reynolds, performing “Graham Reynolds Ruins the Holidays.” It’s impossible to explain exactly the singular role taken on by this prolific composer and bandleader, but in this show he will impishly play most of the holiday musical selections in a minor key. To say the least, this strategy will lend new insight into the seasonal standards.
I don’t know Wood & Wire as well as Reynolds and Lofton, but the Austin bluegrass foursome that has toured extensively and recorded regularly takes over the Rollins on Jan. 17, 2018. Here’s a telling anecdote: Banjoist Trevor Smith grew up playing classical piano and picked the banjo at his first bluegrass festival. “I was perplexed by the sound of it, and I had to figure it out,” Smith says. “We’re rooted in traditional bluegrass but don’t limit ourselves to any perceived notion of what that’s supposed to be. We do our own thing, and we realize that vision collectively.”
World folk? Big band jazz? Orchestral indie rock? Like the other musical artists in the Concert Club series, Los Angeles-based Noah & the MegaFauna, who will play in April, is tough to pin down.
Philip Majorins at PopMatters.com tried mightily in 2012: “The music of Noah & the Megafauna can be loosely categorized as part of the old world musical revival heard as of late within various indie circles. Obvious comparisons to Django Reinhardt will be made, but their musical ethos is also reminiscent of bands like the Dustbowl Revival, Beirut or Devotchka.”
Phil Rosenthal, who books the Concert Club series, counts the reasons why this concept is a superior way to take in certain musical acts.
“Great bands in an intimate and comfortable space starting early enough for a school night,” he says. “Singer-songwriters, jazz, world music and everything in between with an emphasis on Austin artists. For those who want to dig into the best of the local scene but don’t want to wait until 10 or 11 at night for the show to start, or don’t want to go to a club where many people aren’t listening anyway.”