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Arts & Entertainment Critics’ Pick Winners: Best in the Nest 2021

The best in Charlotte's art and music as chosen by Nerve critics

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Best arts and music in Charlotte

Here’s to the creatives, the heart and soul of our city.

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Best Creative:
Carla Aaron-Lopez

You could barely walk into an art space in Charlotte this year and not see something that Carla Aaron-Lopez had her hand in, and we’re here for it. But it’s not just art spaces. As new chair of the Talking Walls Mural Fest, Aaron-Lopez was in charge of organizing the artists putting up pieces you cannot miss if you wanted to. Hell, every time we walk into our office we have the privilege of perusing her curation in the Big New Things exhibit she helped put together here at Advent Coworking.

Carla Aaron-Lopez in Blkmrktclt, where she keeps a studio.
Carla Aaron-Lopez in Blkmrktclt, where she keeps a studio. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Most notable, however, were her partnerships with Mint Museum Randolph where she held the LOCAL/STREET pop-up exhibit in March, then was heavily involved with the collaborative It Takes a Village exhibit in June. In the fall, she curated the JOY exhibit at Elder Gallery, and oh, did we mention she’s a full-time arts teacher at CMS?

Next year promises to find her having an even bigger impact on the Charlotte arts scene, as she’s been appointed one of 18 members on the new Arts and Culture Advisory Board, which will develop a comprehensive arts and culture plan for the city and allocate approximately $4.4 million in remaining funds from the 2022 fiscal year to support arts, culture, and artists, and $12 million each in the 2023 and 2024 fiscal years. Give ‘em hell, Carla.


Best Niche Artist:
Destiny Wilson, The Artvst

There are artists and then there are transformers. Destiny Wilson is the latter — proof that anything can be your canvas as long as it can be painted on. The 20-year-old UNC Charlotte grad, who goes by the name The Artvst, turns plain white sneakers into colorful masterpieces with a few strokes of her paintbrush and a creative mind that’s only just beginning to unlock.

“I love that I get to create colorways that don’t yet exist with inspirations drawn from my everyday life experiences, or the most ordinary thing that I can turn into a nice-looking color block,” The Artvst told Queen City Nerve in October.

Destiny Wilson, also known as The Artvst
Destiny Wilson, also known as The Artvst. (Photo by The Artvst)

“The finished sneakers tend to be rewarding because an initial idea from my mind to a mockup was transformed into wearable art.”

The Artvst is self-taught; she started by customizing her own pair of Nike Roche Runs at 15 years old and has since connected with hundreds of clients looking for colorful, standout sneakers not sold in stores.
Over the years, her shoes have paid homage to history, social justice movements and breast cancer awareness.

They’ve even caught the attention of corporations like Taco Bell, Subway, Converse and the Carolina Panthers.


Best Emerging Artist:
Kalin Devone

If you haven’t heard the name Kalin Devone yet don’t worry, you will. Whether she is painting on floors, walls or canvas, her artwork has a way of leaping up from the confines of its medium and coming alive.
Currently working out of a studio near Plaza Midwood as part of an artist’s residency, there’s a good chance you’ve already seen her work around town without realizing it.

Maybe you caught her in real-time at a Talking Walls event or spotted some of her work at Harvey B. Gantt Center, or you may have walked across the floor mural she recently painted in the restroom at Camp North End’s Van Gogh exhibit, or at one of the various pop-up art shows across town.

You may have even passed by her work at local businesses around town — like in the lobby of Sodoma Law or at Advent Coworking.

Her vibrant large-scale oil paintings often focus on the human body and the way social media shapes our identity.

Versatile, creative, and passionate, you’ll want to keep your eye on this emerging artist as she continues to make waves in Charlotte and beyond.


Best Muralist:
Abel Jackson

A native of Greenville, South Carolina, Abel Jackson moved to Charlotte in 2002 and began building his name in the local arts scene with work in a number of different mediums and side gigs: airbrush pieces, portraits, signage, shoes, clothes — he even worked a bar mitzvah or two.

In recent years, however, he’s become one of the city’s most prolific muralists, with high-profile pieces including “Self Love,” a mural depicting children — his niece and two family friends — on the side of The Chamber at Wooden Robot in NoDa, looking out on the East 36th Street light rail station. He’s also highlighted Charlotte’s Black history in multiple murals, including one honoring the history of the West End at the Arts Factory at Johnson C. Smith and another paying homage to the founders of the Brooklyn neighborhood on the old Mecklenburg Investment Company building.

Brooklyn
A mural depicting Thad Tate, J.T. Williams, and W.T. Smith on the wall of Studio 229 on Brevard. (Photo by Grant Baldwin, Artwork by Abel Jackson)

This year, he finished “The River of Life” at the West End Fresh Seafood Market depicting six luminaries of the Beatties Ford Road corridor. His most recent mural in front of Charlotte Fire Department No. 7 in NoDa depicts superhero Static Shock and was commissioned as part of Ally bank’s Milestone initiative, which honors Black comic book writers.

His beautiful visuals and sense of local history makes him a great asset to the community, with an impact that goes far beyond painting at bar mitzvahs.


Best Sculptor:
Kenny Nguyen

Kenny Nguyen was one of 10 artists featured in the Brooklyn Collective’s August show, Reconstructing Deconstruction, which told stories of cultural heritage, from breaking down to rebuilding, acting as a mirror of each individual journey. It was an exhibit that appeared to be made for Nguyen, who deconstructs silk garments and rebuilds them into creatively painted sculptures.

Nguyen moved to the United States from Vietnam in 2010, when he was a 20-year-old university student working in fashion design. He would get lost in the process of design as he sculpted silk into evening gowns and wedding dresses, the body of the wearer acting as a canvas, the silk his medium.

Kenny Nguyen working in his studio
Kenny Nguyen working in his studio. (Photo by Patrick Causey)

With fine art he found more freedom to use the materials abstractly, keeping with the flow of sculpting elegant gowns absent of a body through the antithetical process of destruction. After first arriving in Charlotte, Nguyen would join his family on trips to the Mint Museum. Unable to speak the language, he allowed the artists’ work to speak to him. As Nguyen explored mediums of his own, he found himself working in silk, a fabric with significant cultural implications.

“Silk is a surprising fabric,” Nguyen told Queen City Nerve in August. “It’s delicate yet strong. To destroy a piece of silk is a breakthrough — you just have to do it even though you really don’t want to and push the limits of the material. Something new might come out of it, something more exciting.”


Best Multitasker:
Rosalia Torres-Weiner

Rosalia Torres-Weiner sees her boldly colored, animated murals that depict immigrants, neighbors and friends as stories that need to be told. She coined the term “artivist” to describe her role in creating and sharing stories at the intersection of art and activism.

So far in 2021, Torres-Weiner has partnered with master puppeteer Hobey Ford to give a puppet workshop to North Carolina school children and created a group of paintings for the Moore & Van Allen law firm, focusing on themes of inclusion and diversity.

Rosalia Torres-Weiner (Photo by Brandon Weiner)

In June, she collaborated with Latinx activists Moises Serrano and Cornelio Campos for “My Roots, My Dreams,” a Greensboro exhibition where her paintings featured augmented reality through RedCalacAR, a free app that allows people to hear each painting’s subject speak.

In addition, she’s continued to create her distinctive murals while teaching herself to play the flute. Despite the variety of projects and commissions she’s undertaken, Torres-Weiner says her main work continues to center on immigration and social justice. She remains a storyteller, drawing a community together with vivid murals, exposing injustice with impactful paintings or helping children process heartache with whimsical puppet shows.


Best Series:
Andrew Leventis, Refrigerators (Vanitas)

Andrew Leventis, a local artist and professor at UNC Charlotte, has been working on a series of larger-than-life-sized paintings for the past year that depict the insides of refrigerators and freezers. The series, titled Refrigerators (Vanitas), is a collection of photorealist oil paintings that make art of pandemic nutritional necessities like frozen chicken teriyaki, Wonder Bread, and lots of Corona (the beer, not the virus).

Two of his fridge paintings were shortlisted for this year’s Aesthetica Art Prize, a prestigious award offered by the U.K.-based Aesthetica Magazine. The paintings are currently featured in the York Art Gallery. The paintings are striking in their realism, making the viewer question if they’re looking at a picture or a painting before further inspection.

Photorealistic art by Andrew Leventis
Details of “Large Fridge” from Andrew Leventis’ Refrigerators (Vanitas) series of photorealistic art. (Artwork by Andrew Leventis)

Leventis uses photography as a tool for reference, but preceding the sharing of his images are months of labor. His paintings take days to dry. He works in layers, and in the case of the fridge paintings, which are each one-and-a-half to two times the size of an actual refrigerator, each one takes about a month. The question could be raised then, why take so much time to paint a realistic picture of your fridge, when you already had the picture? Is still-life painting obsolete in 2021?

“It’s a really good question,” Leventis said. “For one, there’s a historical value because whenever you’re painting, you’re having a conversation with the paintings that came in the past. It’s a really human impulse to paint and draw.”


Best Arts Organization:
Brooklyn Collective

When The Mecklenburg Investment Company (MIC) was constructed in Charlotte’s Brooklyn neighborhood in 1922, few would have imagined that it would be one of the only buildings to survive the tragic razing of the historically Black neighborhood that would take place during the 1960s.

Nearly a century after The Mecklenburg Investment Co.’s founding, amid great racial injustice and a global pandemic, The MIC has been resurrected as the home of The Brooklyn Collective, a potential leader in Charlotte’s emerging art scene and supporter of nonprofits and small businesses.

Brooklyn
Artwork at the Brooklyn Collective. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Through partnerships like a recent collaborative effort with SouthEnd ARTS, The Brooklyn Collective aims to amplify the voices of history, heritage, science and art through equity art exhibitions featuring a curated group of artists in a variety of mediums, acting as an incubator as much as a space to hold artistic events.

“Our goal is to make sure that we are honoring the history of where we are, that we are the stewards of social consciousness and the programming, and things that we have here are all going towards enriching the community,” Monique Douglas of The Brooklyn Collective told Queen City Nerve in February. “We celebrate the arts at The MIC. We provide our location as a space where local musical artists, as well as visual artists, can feel like they have a home or place where they can be showcased.”


Best New Art Space:
Stone House Art Gallery

Kilee Price opened the Stone House Art Gallery in an 11-by-19-foot building behind her childhood home in Coulwood that was once a machine shop where her dad worked to restore antique Fords. Price returned to Charlotte in 2018 after earning degrees at Columbus College for Art & Design and the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan. She began brainstorming ways to renovate the old shop, calling it a “perfectly photographical space.”

After much contemplation and collaboration with students and colleagues at UNC Charlotte and Rowan-Cabarrus Community College, where she’s worked as an art instructor, she turned the old shop into a small pop-up gallery space with the goal of highlighting outside artists who could connect with creatives in the local scene.

Stone House Art Gallery
Kilee Price at the Stone House Art Gallery. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The gallery’s fourth exhibit, Spawning Point, covered the gallery’s three small windows and overhead LED lights with pink film, creating an Electric Ladyland feel, while collaborative rock sculptures littered the floor and two chiffon sheets printed with 3-D scans of Detroit-based artist Clare Gatto’s skin meshed into amorphous textures are suspended in the center of the room. The work was meant to invoke the inquiry of perception versus reality, the juxtaposition of live waterfall footage beneath stock imagery creating the conundrum we face in this internet-centric world: What is real?

“I think Charlotte can benefit from this being different than what the McColl Center or the Mint would pick up,” Price told Queen City Nerve in March. “I’m trying to give a voice to new artists who haven’t been seen in Charlotte before and that differ from what our artists are currently creating. I want to show Charlotte what’s out there. This is a way to bring something to the table that hasn’t existed before now.”


Best New Arts Event:
Astro Pop Mural and Music Fest

With all the changes and new construction in NoDa comes a need to keep the spirit of the neighborhood alive. That’s the goal of Astro Pop Mural and Music Fest: to celebrate what makes NoDa special. Of course, you can’t celebrate Charlotte’s longtime arts district without the artists and musicians who made it that way, so Astro Pop founder Brett Toukatly got them all together for this inaugural event on Sept. 25.

The illustrator and muralist, who goes by the name TWOKAT, used his position as a bartender at Wooden Robot Brewery to make Astro Pop a reality, as ownership gave him full rein to curate the festival at The Chamber by Wooden Robot on East 36th Street and build the lineup.

Local illustrator and muralist Brett Toukatly, aka TWOKAT, Astro Pop
Local illustrator and muralist Brett Toukatly, aka TWOKAT, is the brains behind Astro Pop, a music and arts festival in Wooden Robot in NoDA. (Photo courtesy of TWOKAT)

The bill included live mural painting by visual artists like Hnin Nie, John Hairston Jr., Maryssa Pickett, Matt Moore and Noirs One; plus musical performances by Alan Charmer, Cuzco, Erick Lottary, Late Bloomer, Natalie Carr, Paint Fumes, Sweat Transfer and That Guy Smitty. There were also food trucks, vendors and Wooden Robot released a new beer.

“I hope this event inspires someone or at least reminds them this is what NoDa was about and still is,” TWOKAT said.


Best Residency:
Immersive Van Gogh

Ten Charlotte artists got to show off their skills as an added, localized layer to Immersive Van Gogh, the 76,000-square-foot digital arts show featuring the works of Vincent van Gogh that opened at Camp North End over the summer.

Laura Sexton, Rosalia Torres-Weiner, Zaire McPhearson, Eva Crawford, Mike Wirth, Alvin C. Jacobs Jr., Cat Babbie, Tara Spil, Justin Ellis and Elizabeth Palmisano were chosen out of about 60 applicants to create, showcase and sell original art to attendees during a paid one-month-long stay at the exhibit that rotated throughout the summer.

Zaire McPhearson paints
Mixed-media artist Zaire McPhearson estimates she created over 100 pieces during her month-long residency at Immersive Van Gogh. (Photo by Laura Sexton)

Bree Stallings, director of artistic experiences with Blumenthal Arts, was instrumental in reaching out to Charlotte creators about the opportunity. Thanks to her, those who came to relive Van Gogh’s masterpieces also got the chance to see and talk to living, working artists from their own community, connecting art of the past with art of the here and now.

“People are sometimes intimidated by interacting with artists but these are sweet, good people who just want to share their work and the best way we can honor van Gogh’s legacy is by introducing people outside of the art world to local artists and this is such a great opportunity to do that,” Stallings said.


Best Individual Exhibit:
Joshua Galloway, In the Line of Sight

Though it was delayed a few times due to a second (or was it the third) wave of COVID-19, it was worth the wait to catch Joshua Galloway’s debut photography exhibit, In the Line of Sight, at The Light Factory.

The exhibit was compiled from photos Galloway took during his coverage of the Black Lives Matter movement during the summer of 2020, some of which he did for Queen City Nerve. With the exhibit, Galloway aimed to provide truth to the Black narrative while inspiring racial inclusivity in the local photography scene.

Joshua Galloway
From Joshua Galloway’s exhibit, In the Line of Sight. (Photo by Joshua Galloway)

As Galloway described it to Queen City Nerve before his exhibit’s originally scheduled opening in January, photojournalism has always been a “staple in history,” crucial to accurately depicting the Black narrative. It’s known that history books only tell a part of the story, but photojournalism offers a truth that has to be seen and can’t be distorted. In the Black community, specifically, photojournalism has an important, though emotional role to play.

“A portion hurts and a portion gives us something to cheer for,” he said.


Best Collaborative Exhibit:
Mint Museum, LOCAL/STREET and It Takes a Village

OK, so these are two exhibits, so sue us; but with so much overlap in participants and an overwhelming number of great pieces in each of these summer exhibits at Charlotte’s oldest arts museum, why force us to choose?
LOCAL/STREET was a three-day pop-up art exhibit that showcased the work of 40 local artists, with a focus on artists of color and underground street artists.

It featured works from photographers such as Alvin C. Jacobs Jr., Carey J. King, and Kevin “Surf” Mitchell, alongside pieces from visual artists like Lo’Vonia Parks, Saloan Goodwin and Kyle Mosher. The pop-up was curated by none other than BLKMRKTCLT co-founder Carla Aaron-Lopez, who of course also had a hand in what came to follow in June, a longer running exhibit titled It Takes a Village that brought together three of Charlotte’s most talented and prolific art collectives: BLKMRKTCLT, Goodyear Arts and Brand the Moth.

It Takes a Village
A collage/mural by BLKMRKTCLT artists in the It Takes a Village exhibit at Mint Museum-Randolph. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Speaking to Queen City Nerve in the lead up to the second exhibit, Aaron-Lopez discussed the value of working at such an institution as the Mint, which was founded in 1936 and is housed in a building that was built in part by enslaved people.

“There are so many people in Charlotte who have not visited the Mint Museum on Randolph or Uptown,” she continued. “And a lot of those people are Black and brown people, because when spaces are created to exclude groups of people, they do not feel comfortable returning to those spaces, and that can stay that way for generations.”

These two exhibits went a far way in changing that dynamic.


Best Pop-Up:
Good Times

On the first weekend of May, The Underground hosted a slew of Charlotte’s best visual artists with Good Times, a pop-up organized by IMEK Studios that highlighted work from a dozen local artists. The exhibit was not like your average gallery, as it consisted of installations that were not only Insta-ready but also thought-provoking.

Good Times
Good Times visitors check out artwork by Cheeks. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

The experience included installations by artists including Cheeks, Dammit Wesley, Fiberess, Fred Smith, Georgie Nakima, Hnin Nie, Nico Amortegui, Rebecca Lips, TWOKAT, Primetime Signs, and NOIRS ONE.
Those installations included a walk-through floral experience, a wooden sculpture garden, a “Taxidermy Wall” with 20 to 30 hand-painted animal heads, a giant abstract UV-reactive throne and more.

The entire experience was a huge relief, as it was one of the first public events that many from the art scene attended as vaccinations became more available and people felt comfortable to come out. But even without that as the driver, this was one of the more memorable art events of the year.


Best Public Art (Local Artist):
“River of Life” mural by Abel Jackson

Jackson’s new Beatties Ford Road mural, titled “River of Life,” was a commission from West End Fresh Seafood Market owner Bernetta Powell, whom he’s known for years. It depicts six luminaries of the Beatties Ford Road corridor: Dr. Maxwell-Roddey, James Ferguson II, Julius Chambers, Hattie “Chatty Hatty” Leeper, Harvey Gantt and Sarah Stevenson.

Funded by a Placemaking Grant from the city of Charlotte, the mural has long been a goal of Powell’s. Once she was awarded the grant, she reached out to Jackson, who’s been creating art in Charlotte for nearly 20 years, and the two got to work on community outreach. They wanted to honor West End legends, so they put together a list of about 15 people who have had a lasting impact on the corridor and, with the help of city staff, began outreach efforts.

Beatties Ford Road mural
Abel Jackson in front of a portion of his new ‘River of Life’ mural on Beatties Ford Road in Historic West End. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Making use of the extra time afforded by the COVID-19 shutdowns, the group canvassed as best they could amid a pandemic, utilizing social media and email lists from local community organizations and church groups to reach as many West End residents as possible. The participating residents voted, and the top six members were set to be included.

The title “River of Life,” which Jackson will add as he completes the mural in the coming week or so, comes from an expression that appears to have been coined by Rev. Clifford Jones, pastor at Friendship Missionary Baptist Church, in a 1990 Charlotte Observer article written by Frye Gaillard about an attempt to rename a three-mile stretch of Beatties Ford Road to Martin Luther King Drive. In the article, Jones is quoted as saying, “It’s the river of life for the black community,” referring to Beatties Ford Road.

Powell, who attends Friendship Missionary, heard Jones use the same expression during a sermon there and it stuck with her, eventually inspiring the name of the artwork.


Best Public Art (Visiting Artist):
Gaia by Luke Jerram

Thanks to the ol’ Delta variant, this year’s Charlotte SHOUT! Festival was a pop-up in the most literal sense, meaning that, while some of the events and installations were outright canceled, you still might stumble across something extraordinary, like humongous inflatable bunnies grazing across from First Ward Park, or a relatively small but still humongous globe floating in Founder’s Hall as you walked into a production of Charlotte Squawks.

The latter was called Gaia, a three-dimensional, illuminated 23-foot sculpture of Earth that was jaw-dropping for everyone who had the privilege to come across it. Created by renowned British installation artist Luke Jerram, Gaia was meant to allow viewers to see Earth as it appears from the moon while serving as a reminder of the need to protect our planet. So you can go ahead and scratch the moon off your bucket list now.


Best Public Art as Part of Government Project:
CATS Gold Line Shelters

If you take the CATS CityLYNX Gold Line on its new extended path, which opened on Aug. 30, you’ll travel past a secret garden, through a time machine and into a world of historical beauty.

Four artists were handpicked to develop three distinctive visions for the Gold Line’s transit shelters, creating original art for each new stop in the Elizabeth neighborhood, Uptown and Historic West End. Despite not being based in Charlotte, each artist spent their time digging into Charlotte’s history to come up with ideas that highlight the city’s past.

CATS Gold Line
A CATS CityLYNX Gold Line stop at Hawthorne Lane and Elizabeth Avenue, featuring artwork by Amy Cheng. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Four shelters in the Elizabeth neighborhood, done by Amy Cheng, shine translucent pink, green and blue, with interweaving black and silver curves surrounding floral centerpieces that pay homage to a neighborhood rose garden that’s been gone for more than half a century.

Jim Hirschfield and Sonya Ishii’s designs for 10 Gold Line shelters along Trade Street in Uptown serve as portals into Charlotte’s past, utilizing an archive of Charlotte postcards from the early-1800s into the 1950s.
Spread along eight shelters on West Trade Street and Beatties Ford Road in the Historic West End, artist George Bates’ designs are made up of hundreds of smaller ones, each one revealing its own story from the history of the West End.

“There’s a lot to unpack, if you want to take the time,” Bates said of his pieces. We suggest you take the time.


Best Photographer:
Will Jenkins

BLKMRKTCLT co-founder Will Jenkins, aka Simplisticphobia, is a digital content creator specializing in video, film, and photography. As highlighted in his works in LOCAL/STREET and It Takes a Village, his multimedia approach makes his photos all that more striking, but a look through his portfolio shows that his pictures stand alone as powerful pieces of art.

His main focus is women of color because of his connection to women that raised and influenced him, as he explains on his personal website. Jenkins has created an impressive collection of landscapes, portraits and collages that capture Charlotte and the Black experience during the four years that BLKMRKTCLT has been active, contributing heavily to its role as a force in the city’s arts scene. He also serves on the board of Talking Walls Mural Fest, which he joined us to chat about on an episode of our Nooze Hounds podcast this year


Best Arts Podcast:
‘Paid In Exposure’

Paid in Exposure is a podcast that aims to support and uplift Black and brown photographers. Having surpassed 100 episodes this year, co-host and photographer Gavin Boulware explained to Queen City Nerve in May why it’s important for him to provide a platform for marginalized voices in the photo community.

Paid in Exposure podcast
Gavin Boulware, co-host of ‘Paid in Exposure’ podcast. (Photo by Cody Carlson)

“I just haven’t stopped just because I’ve noticed not only how many people I’m helping, but how much I’m helping myself as well. And so, I just want to keep the resource going,” Boulware said in the lead-up to his 100th episode.

“The podcast isn’t a shortcut, but more of a navigation for Black Photographers, because our journey is so different. Every photographer goes through their ups and down, which is why I know this podcast is vital for everyone, but nobody is directly speaking to Black artists and the issues we face. “


Best Hire:
Bree Stallings, Blumental Performing Arts

Multi-media artist, illustrator, writer and activist Bree Stallings was named Blumenthal Performing Arts’ director of artistic experiences, a new position designed to help expand its programs and connections to local artists, back in March.

She wasted zero time putting the institution’s resources to work for Charlotte’s independent artists. While she helped maximize the impact of events like Charlotte SHOUT! and We Are Hip Hop, Stallings’ truly shined in the way she built local engagement around the anticipated Immersive Van Gogh exhibit at Camp North End, ensuring that once the projections were long gone, the city’s artists would be left with lasting support.

“Simply put, I love Charlotte. One of my passions is creating opportunities for artists. I don’t believe in the starving artist myths. I think there’s enough sunshine for all of us, we just need to learn how to leverage our skills with the people who are interested in them,” Stallings told Queen City Nerve at a preview of the Immersive Van Gogh exhibit in June.

“So it’s been really cool because they’ve never done this level of local artist engagement with the external exhibition area, with the merch and the boutique sales, with the artists-in-residence. Basically I was given permission that, if I could pull it off, I could do it. So I like a challenge.”


Most Exciting Arts Development/Opening:
Starlight on 22nd

In 1986, Ruth Ava Lyons and her partner, sculptor Paul Sires, were the first pioneering artists who started the NoDa Arts district. They owned Center of the Earth Gallery for 23 years and Eden Orion Realty, which focuses on artist studio spaces and commercial venues.

As NoDa has gone through many changes in the time since, Lyons and Sires have continued to support the local arts community, working with tenants in properties they own like Evening Muse refusing to price them out when they could easily sell to developers. They also support artists who rent studios from them in Optimist Park.

We say all that to say this: They have come back into the spotlight from behind the scenes with the recent opening of Starlight on 22nd, a bar in Optimist Park that aims to serve as an incubating space for artists, musicians and the like by providing a laid back atmosphere for them to create.

As explained on their website, “Our place has an eclectic blend of artsy and retro that has a creative appeal. Future cultural events of art and music to be announced.” We’ll be patiently awaiting those announcements.


Most Exciting Arts Development/Opening Outside of I-485:
Corks, Cooks & Books

Friends Mindy Kuhn and Shonali Thomas always shared a dream of opening a bookstore that doubled as a wine bar — they just didn’t know it until it came up. Over the summer, they finally combined their passions and professional ventures as a caterer and a publisher, respectively, and opened Corks, Cooks, & Books.

Corks, Cooks, & Books
Mindy Kuhn (left) and Shonali Thomas of Corks, Cooks, & Books. (Photo by Annie McGowan)

Nestled in the Millwood Shopping Center on Herlong Avenue in Rock Hill, the spot combines casual tapas with a signature wine bar and a bookstore, creating a new hangout that allows patrons a space to grab a drink and settle into a good read. One of the most popular items is the gluten-free cheesecake.

Corks, Cooks, & Books holds books of all genres from romance to mystery to cookbooks to children’s books.
It’s Kuhn’s mission to have something in stock for everyone who comes through the doors. She keeps up with book clubs, best-seller lists, and of course her own authors from Warren Publishing to curate the collection.


Best Move:
Open Door Studios

Providing a variety of dance classes for all ages and experience levels, Open Door Studios has been a consistent Plaza Midwood mainstay for many years — a space for dancers to train while making and sharing small-scale work. Jaqueline White, who founded the studio to counter the dearth of professional dance training for adults in Charlotte, saw her business blossom into an oasis for local performers while building up a roster of exceptional teachers and classes.

Then, in the midst of COVID lockdowns, developers pushed Open Door out of the space they’d called home for a decade. Open Door rebounded, and in 2020 White relocated to Eastway Crossing shopping center at the corner of Eastway Drive and Central Avenue. Joining VisArt Video, Tommy’s Pub, the displaced Plaza Midwood Dairy Queen, and many more businesses, Open Door has found the perfect fit in what should be an oxymoron — a cool strip mall.

As developers determine to push the last remaining ounce of individuality out of Open Door’s old neighborhood, an organic and growing community of entrepreneurs and small business owners have nurtured a new space for character, funkiness, cool and affordability.


Best Dance Company:
Baran Dance

Dance isn’t often thought of as the most accessible expression of creativity, and yet it’s the one thing we can all do — some better than others.

Founded by Audrey Ipapo Baran in 2012, Baran Dance collaborates with local musicians and artists through multimedia movement experiences, seamlessly blending bold physicality with thoughtful artistry and performing on stages, in galleries, at bars, and on sidewalks, creating work that is accessible and exciting for wide audiences.

Audrey Baran of Baran Dance Co.
Audrey Baran of Baran Dance Co. (Photo courtesy of ASC)

This will be exemplified at their upcoming two x five show, which features “an evening of tiny dances” made up for five duets by 10 dancers for the attention-span-impaired, so if you’re bored with one, have a drink at the bar and wait for the next, then watch Modern Moxie at the afterparty.

Baran has also worked in recent years to increase diversity in local dance, encouraging more expression and input from voices that often go ignored in this medium.


Best New Music Event:
Stargazer Music Fest

In July, Charlotte New Music founder and artistic director Elizabeth Kowalski curated Stargazer Music Fest. One of the most eclectic and inspiring music events of the year, the fest was a close encounter with out-of-this world music, celestial vibes and telescopes. With a mission to create and promote original music in Charlotte, Kowalski described the fest as “a night of stargazing accompanied by interstellar grooves to amplify the cosmic exploration experience.”

Elizabeth Kowalski as maestro during a New Music show. (Photo by Brian BT Twitty)

The event coupled innovative music with astronomy using a battery of telescopes for perusing the heavens, provided by the Charlotte Amateur Astronomy Club.

The kickoff event was held at Hodges Family Farm, which practices regenerative agriculture, a discipline designed to reverse the effects of climate change. Then in November, CNM hosted a second iteration of Stargazer Fest, this time at Greenlife Family Farm and the interstellar bill of hip-hop, electronic, and contemporary classical featured FLLS, Master Kie, Starlitmire, Deku, Half Caste, RoyalCity LiF, and Your Neighborhood Orchestra.


Best Music Organization:
Pachyderm Music Lab

In a video produced by Pachyderm Music Lab, 13-year-old Logan’s ethereal “February Sun” features haunting imagery over pensive, pulsing indie-rock instrumentation: “Gaze through the window as I spill upon the ground/ Fill to the brim, I could sink until I drown.”

Helping students like Logan find their voice through music is a mission for musician, mother, teacher and TED-talker Krystle Baller, who founded Pachyderm Music Lab (PML) in Indian Trail in 2016 then relaunched in Optimist Park in 2019.

The Pachyderm House
Pachyderm Music Lab, currently located in a former home on East 22nd Street in Optimist Park. (Photo by Pat Moran)

The LGBTQ-friendly school teaches music to students aged 5 through 50s, or at least that’s the range at the moment, but anyone is welcome. Baller and her team operate out of a renovated house on East 22nd Street, teaching students to play instruments, write songs and gain the confidence to access their inner power.

Baller’s own story is an inspiration. Growing up impoverished and abused in West Virginia, Baller plunged into alcohol and drug abuse before finding encouragement in music from bands like White Zombie, Coal Chamber and, in particular, Primus. In addition to running PML, Baller is the founder and frontwoman of the band Hey RICHARD, which you’ll see deservedly recognized here in Critics’ Picks as well as Readers’ Picks.


Best Studio:
Grindhaus Studios

In January, soulful R&B artist, songwriter and educator Jason Jet added a new occupation to his prodigious list of accomplishments: studio owner. Jet’s facility, GrindHaus Studios, is a creative oasis for all, a concept inspired by the co-working spaces that have shot up around Charlotte.

“Grind together. Grind better,” reads the motto on the studio’s website. It’s an encapsulation of Jet’s concept of GrindHaus as a reasonably priced plug-and-play facility for musicians.

Jason Jet
Jason Jet, owner and founder of GrindHaus Studios. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

In addition to catering to artists’ recording needs, the multi-purpose facility also hosts events like production classes and songwriting workshops. Eventually, Jet wants the GrindHaus concept to grow into a “YMCA for creatives,” housing 15 to 20 workspaces in facilities spread across the country. By creating a local space where artists feel comfortable enough to create, Jet feels he’s addressing flawed perspectives and stigmas about the music industry — and Black artists.


Best Band:
Jail Socks

Three-piece rock band Jail Socks released their first full-length album, Coming Down, on Sept. 3 and are currently on a national fall tour. The melodic, emo-tinged punky power trio, comprised of vocalist Aidan Yoh, drummer Colman O’Brien and bassist Jake Thomas, has gone through a nearly four-year growth period that included a line-up change, a record label switch and a musical and artistic rejuvenation.

 

Yoh formed the first version of Jail Socks as a two-piece along with a drummer. While playing in that configuration, Yoh crossed paths with a local band called Placeholder and was particularly impressed with the band’s drummer, O’Brien, and its bassist, Thomas, both of whom left the band to join Jail Socks.

Jail Socks members
Jail Socks (from left): Colman O’Brien, Jake Thomas and Aidan Yoh. (Photo by Nick Lewis)

In the band’s early days, Yoh was the primary songwriter, creating tunes fueled by the compressed, foregrounded nostalgia people often feel as they move out of their teens and into their 20s, a time when experiences are deeply felt and long remembered.

Today, Yoh shares lyric-writing chores with bassist Thomas, and while the band’s lyrics keep touch with its emo past, Jail Socks has transformed into a forward-looking unit with polished, yet still rocking, tunes.


Best New Band:
Ogres

It was in the Cramer Mountain Club on the South Fork Catawba River that local musician and restaurateur Scott Blackwood opened Khakis and brought on his brother Justin Aswell and longtime friend Robert Childers to work with him. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the trio found themselves in what they now call a “bizarre” situation, dealing with the “Gaston County rich” who weren’t interested in taking orders from any government or health official. Despite the annoyance of dealing with the “Gaston County rich,” the group of longtime friends couldn’t be happier with what came of it: Ogres, their genre-bending punk, hip-hop, Southern rock experiment.

“We’re serving [club members], and in our leisure time writing these subversive songs that are coming out of our experiences with people who think we’re their fucking servant,” Childers told Queen City Nerve in September. “That’s all in there, and the project probably would not have happened had it not been for that.”

The group brought on guitarist Cody Bennett of the once-popular Charlotte Southern rock band Swamp da Wamp, and have been steadily releasing tracks since the fall. As Ogres, the band members have put together all their diverse areas of expertise to craft a mashup of genres that changes as the tracks do, while persistent songwriter Childers continues to employ the Queen City as his muse.

Ogres band members
Ogres (from left) Justin Aswell, Robert Childers, Cody Bennett, Scott Blackwood. (Photo by Cody Bennett)

“This area is so rich with inspiration, you know,” Childers says. “I take from the city of Charlotte and being around here and what I see is what I write about, and it syncs up with the music somehow.”


Best Rapper:
Jay Pluss

Jay Pluss, whose real name is Joshua Hosch, attended J.M. Alexander Middle School from 2005 to 2008. It was there that he met Jah-Monte Ogbon, known by most as simply Jah-Monte, the renowned rapper formerly known as King Callis. Pluss also had a classmate in Ismael Abdallah, who would go on to become Charlotte rapper/producer Brio, and his friend Darien would grow up to be local video director Dark Master.

Jay Pluss. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

Pluss has stayed close with all of these local talents, who have gone on to consistently make some of the best work Charlotte’s seen in recent years, and it’s clearly inspired him to stay on top of his game. In October, he released Ashigaru (Dungeons of Rap), a 12-track collaborative project with producer TenTen that highlighted Pluss’ growth since the 2019 release of his debut More of Everything.

Pluss is a collaborator at heart, and maybe that’s where his strength lies, as each new joint project leaves the listener wanting more … of everything.


Best Emerging Rapper:
Farrahgamo

Having moved to Charlotte from Raleigh in 2018, Quiyana Marti, aka Farrahgamo, was living with local producer and InSynction Music founder Chris “CJ” Jeffreys Jr. when the COVID shutdowns hit. Unable to go to her job as a dancer, she decided she wanted to make beats. Producing didn’t do it for her, and eventually, through a mix of ennui and alcohol, she tried her hand at rapping.

 

“Shit just came out of boredom,” she recalls. “I was just like, ‘Fuck it. I don’t like producing,’ and I was sitting in the studio with CJ and he had some beat playing, and I was drunk off my ass, and I just went in the booth, and I said, ‘How I do this? I’m just ‘bout to goddam do something.’ And then that’s how it happened.”

Still from Farrahgamo’s “How I’m Feeling” video. (Shot by Paul Jahn)

What came out was a flow all her own — husky but feminine, New York but Southern — that she’s continued to build on since April, recording tracks, shooting videos and doing small performances when she can, honing her skills until she was ready to drop Brimcess, a nine-track album that set the stage for what looks to be a promising if unexpected career. We offer the same advice she and her team offer on social media regularly: Stream Farrahgamo today.


Best Producer:
Simon SMTHNG

Local producer simon SMTHNG started the year out hot with an eight-track solo tape, because we must, on which he hit the mic, dropping bars on tracks like “condos on freedom,” a song title that’s only beat out by “vegan mac and cheese is the devil.” But that wasn’t all he had up his sleeve in the spring, as he provided the backbone for five tracks on the inimitable collaborative project The Hovis House. His “Juke Edit” of Cyanca’s “PB&J” shows his range, creating the perfect dreamscape for Charlotte’s Queen of Neo Soul.

 


Best Emerging Producer:
CJ Chat

As The Geek Squad on Soundcloud, the name for his production duo with fellow producer Red Ark, CJ Chat is constantly dropping fire instrumentals and remixes, but it’s on his collaborations with local artists like Cuzo Key, Autumn Rainwater and FLLS that his strengths truly shine through, providing beautiful boom-bap backgrounds to bolster some of our city’s best talents. Listen to Jah-Monte Ogbon’s “Bringing the City Out” on The Hovis House and try not to vibe. We dare you.

 


Best DJ:
DJ Boney B

The Charlotte hip-hop community was stunned to learn the day before Thanksgiving that it had lost a legend. For more than 20 years, Brent “Boney B” May was a DJ mainstay at clubs and events and on the airwaves. No other DJ can boast his resume. 

He headlined CIAA alongside Doug E. Fresh and Biz Markie. He may have single-handedly coined the nickname “Gashouse” for Gastonia, and opened a national tour for Limp Bizkit where he was introduced by fellow Gastonian Fred Durst as “a lifelong homie.” His Midday Lunch Mix on Power 98, hosted by Artie the One-Woman Party, consistently topped ratings in the early 2000s and defied all expectations of corniness in an era of rap defined by shiny suits and all things jiggy.

He kept it real. Even on the radio. Even out in the streets where he was a local celebrity with influence and shine. Boney B was always ready with a fist pound, a smile, or an ear to check a hot 16. He put out mixes and compilations that highlighted up-and-coming Charlotte artists on a regular basis. He collaborated with local rappers with the same energy in which he collaborated with Ludacris — maybe more.

That’s because he was serious about hip-hop culture and how it was portrayed in his city. His mix mastery helped shape Charlotte’s sound and scene for the better part of two decades, and his legacy is undeniable. There will never be another.


Best R&B/Soul Artist:
Greg Cox

At 19, Greg Cox thought he lost his big break by way of playing in executive producer Sean “Diddy” Combs’ band when he was cut from the 2009 MTV reality show Making His Band.

Greg Cox
Greg Cox (Photo by Alex Acevedo)

Now a Grammy Award-winning singer, songwriter and producer at age 31, Cox embraces that setback, reasoning that it set him on the path that brought him to where he is today. Milestone, Cox’s latest full-length album, dropped on July 2.

 

The album kicks off with the slice of progressive soul “Freedom,” where layered currents of voices, keyboards and beats float as free as birds wheeling overhead. On the yearning heartache ballad “Care,” Cox’s fine-grained vocals implore a lover to stay as his repetition of the line “I care about you” takes on the power of an incantation. Yet, it is the uplifting “Good Day” that serves as the album’s calling card. Featuring gospel artists Shay and Isaiah Templeton, the tune rides soaring swarming vocals and rolling gospel organ until a splash of tumbling keyboards segue to Cox’s upbeat exhortation: “Wake up now / Put the cold water in your face / Gotta put the naysayers in their place/ I can feel it in the air…”


Best Breakthrough Artist:
Ray Singleton

On the July 13 episode of America’s Got Talent, 31-year-old Ray Singleton, Charlotte singer and minister of music at First Calvary Baptist Church in Rock Hill, SC, sat down at his keyboard and eyed the four judges facing him — Simon Cowell, Heidi Klum, Howie Mandel and Sofia Vergara. Singleton’s wife Roslyn, a brain cancer survivor, was watching from the wings. “Simon said, ‘Are you ready, Ray?’” Singleton remembers.

“I heard myself say, ‘I am prepared.’” He looked to his wife, saw that tears were already streaming down her face, and began to play and sing in a lilting soulful croon. “It was the most beautiful moment ever,” Singleton recalls.

Ray Singleton sings and plays keyboard on America's Got Talent
Ray Singleton appears on America’s Got Talent in July. (Photo courtesy of NBC)

The moment had its beginnings in an online video Singleton shot of himself serenading Roslyn with Daniel Caesar’s song “Get You” as she was preparing for surgery to remove a cancerous mass from her brain in January 2020.

In July, Singleton came back on the show. Despite garnering a strong following, he did not make it into the Top 36 on AGT, and was cut from the competition. No matter, Singleton dropped his song “Forever” on Sept. 1 and has a bright future. He’s also claimed the richest prize of all: His wife has been declared cancer-free.


Best Performer:
Natalie Carr

During an especially hectic couple of days in May, Natalie Carr nearly drowned on one afternoon, then lived to pull herself from a burning car on the next. She had a blast. The two near-deadly doppelganger encounters were scenes in the elaborate music video for the singer-songwriter’s sixth single, “Fate,” released in July.

Spun off by the lyric, “Fate hasn’t killed me yet / I’m still holding my breath,” the R&B-tinged groove sets Carr apart from the pack of young pop singers by her thoughtful — and thought-provoking — lyrics delivered with just the right amount of gravel in her lush and soothing vocals.

Natalie Carr in the studio. (Photo by Shea McKissack)

You don’t have to be an industry insider to see that Carr is poised to break out, and it’s not just due to her engrossing video performances, but her onstage performances as well.

Carr was spellbinding in her virtual performance for January’s Tribute to Benefit Roof Above, hosted on Facebook by Neighborhood Theatre, but her starpower was finally able to truly shine through in June when she headlined an in-person show at Neighborhood, where she showed off her charismatic stage presence and put the crowd’s energy to good use. We see her engaging with even bigger crowds in the not-so-distant future.


Best Singer/Songwriter:
Kadey Ballard

With performances at Goodyear Arts, Visulite Theatre and Eastside Local, Kadey Ballard has used this year to fill Charlotte stages with her enchanting “moody love spells.” In July 2020, Ballard released a new album, 7 of Cups, which fully embraces the trance-like effect of her haunting, breathy vocals. On stage, Ballard’s doe-eyed strumming has an otherworldly effect that draws her audience into a world saturated with mood and memory.

 

In addition to these live shows, Ballard also shares her ephemeral voice as an actor in performance art pieces by XOXO, a local theater company run by her husband, Matt Cosper. The pair seem to find their creative inspiration in all things witchy and dream-like, inviting audiences into strangely curated experiences that escape an easy description or narrative. This year, Ballard has proved that Charlotte audiences are ready to embrace strange and lovely incantations when they are presented in the right package.


Best Metal:
Blackwater Drowning

Blackwater Drowning burst upon the city’s metal scene in 2015 with their debut EP Delusionary. Amid Chris Peavy’s machine-gun drumming, spiraling guitar arpeggios by guitarists Jeremy Bennett and Ron Dalton Jr. and Aria Nova’s relentless double bass, Morgan Riley’s sustained, siren’s-call vocals duel with her throaty growls. But the band’s adept fealty to metal standards is punctuated with sonic experiments like the hardcore-punk chorus of “Liar Inside” and the electronic progressive-rock synths that introduce “Making Glass.”

Blackwater Drowning
Blackwater Drowning (Photo courtesy of 77Media)

Critics lauded the EP’s release as a breath of fresh air that helped revitalize Queen City metal. The band followed through on that promise with their eclectic 2019 album Ruthless, and accompanying single “Saint,” where grinding chords and tremolo guitars seesaw like current crackling up a Jacob’s ladder as Riley growls, gasps and hisses like H.P. Lovecraft’s demonic deep ones.

In 2020, the inventive group joined forces with Ass Clown Brewing in Cornelius to conjure up the custom-crafted, limited-run brew “Blackwater Clowning” to support live music venues in the Charlotte area. One year later, they’re bringing their durable yet flexible metal to The Milestone on Dec. 11.


Best Hard Rock:
Wilma

In Wilma’s lyric video for “Soap Head,” drummer DJ Buchanan’s hi-hat hisses and Viky Leone’s bass bubbles like a witch’s cauldron before brother Matthew Leone’s whiplash guitar riff swoops and circles.

As the hard-rock trio ratchets-up the tension, Viky’s jittery line-drawn animation shudders across the screen depicting a horrified finger-pointing woman, a huddled figure spiraling in the void and a cloudburst of accusing eyes. As Matthew’s arching vocals ascend, lyrics appear onscreen: “The closet’s unlocked ‘cause it’s skeleton-free/And the beast of temptation has choked on the key…”

Wilma
Matthew Leone, DJ Buchanan, and Viky Leone of Wilma. (Photo by Nick King)

The song and accompanying video, animated by Viky, encapsulates the Leone brothers’ chiaroscuro approach to rock — a clash between light and dark, cacophony and compassion, brutality and beauty. It’s an intense statement, coming from a power trio with perhaps the most un-rock name you’ve ever heard: Wilma. The band picked it because they wanted a feminine band name to confound expectations. Confound the band does, with acoustic sets and songs like the grinding yet swinging “Just Like That” and “Pathomancer,” a song about being manipulated.


Best Country/Folk/Americana:
Elonzo Wesley

Performing under a moniker that honors his father’s name, Jeremy Davis rose from the ashes of his alt-rock band Elonzo Wesley to become solo Americana and folk artist Elonzo Wesley. He has since branched out, however, and now leads a string band also under the Elonzo Wesley imprimatur. Davis draws much of his subject matter — and his distinctive point of view — from his childhood, growing up as a farmer’s son amid the woods and fields of South Carolina’s Lowcountry.

 

An authenticity drawn from a closeness to the land and the wheel of the seasons informs his lyrics, delivered with soulful vocals that entwine with a folk-rock backbeat and soaring Appalachian strings. Davis has released two EPs, To Be True and This Ain’t No Country Song, a concert album Live at the Evening Muse, and two full length albums.


Best Experimental:
Space Ballet

In Space Ballet’s cosmic torch song “Out of the Blue,” vocalist Kim Irene Milan projects her feathered alto beyond the stars — literally. The video accompanying the psychedelic trip-hop duo’s song features Milan and drummer/keyboardist Jedd Lygre superimposed over quasars and spiraling galaxies. As the duo jams amid the cosmos, it seems like the coolest band at the end of the universe.

Space Ballet
Kim Irene Milan (Left) and Jedd Lygre of Space Ballet (Photo by Ashley T. Hughes)

Founded in February 2020, Space Ballet crafts music that shifts from the shuffling trip-hop of “Out of the Blue” to the pulsing electronica of “Both of Us,” but Milan’s free-falling, hypnotic vocals remain at the heart of each song.

She can sound hopeful, mystical, and forlorn all in the same breath: “You’ve reached the platform of the universe / So why not jump into oblivion?” Milan comes up with Space Ballet’s intense and spiritual lyrics on the spot, freestyling to Lygre’s improvisations. “A lot of the times the words will come out and I won’t know what they mean, until after I go back and tidy things up lyrically,” she offers.

In October the duo released an intimate yet universal video for “Time to Spare,” a song they describe as a journey of self-love and cosmic exploration.


Best Pop Punk:
Dollar Signs

Dollar Signs trades in rowdy punk-rock tunes with roaring guitars, triumphant horns and rollicking shout-along choruses, all coalescing around a warm and cuddly heart. This last attribute is acknowledged in the title of the band’s latest album, Hearts of Gold, which dropped in March. “The band is about taking these bad experiences in your life and trying to see some catharsis, to give yourself closure through art,” singer and chief lyricist Erik Button told Queen City Nerve in March.

The effect is like listening to a close friend tell a riotously funny story about a painful predicament. You laugh, but you also suspect that the incident was probably a living hell. Case in point: the video for “Bad News,” the second single off Hearts of Gold. As the tune gallops to a raucous crescendo, the band — pianist Luke Gunn, guitarist Tommy McPhail, bassist Dylan Wachman and drummer Arion Chamberlain — are replaced with creepy mannequins, and the chorus delivers the song’s ironic message, “Bad news goes down better with a beer.”

“Drinking songs are a great way to express this general feeling I have [that] even when I’m trying to have a good time, I’m always worrying about something,” Button said.


Best New Sound:
Cyanca

Charlotte’s queen of neo-soul has had an incredible year. First in April, she starred in Your Neighborhood Orchestra’s longform music visual project. Then, after teasing a new single “Dancing Dirty,” she released a new EP called Fast Times in September. It was her first EP since I’m Staying Home, which came out in 2019.

 

Fast Times represents a sonic shift for Cyanca: the EP retains the grounded sound she’s perfected over the years while still leaving room for her vocal dynamism. There are layers of inspiration in every song, from classic ’80s dance grooves to gospel to R&B. This woman is dynamic.


Best Breakout Project:
Alan Charmer

About a month and a half into the pandemic, Terrence Richard, frontman of the popular Charlotte alt-rock outfit Junior Astronomers, began to branch out, and over the next year went on to develop an entirely new sound with his solo project, performing as Alan Charmer.

The differences between Junior Astronomers and Alan Charmer are day and night. Where the band blows audiences out with their anthems, throwing them into a frenzy on the dance floor or in the pit, Alan Charmer pulsates an emotional energy that draws listeners in for a more minimalistic atmosphere. For him, breaking out into the solo world was about expressing himself more as an individual, wearing his emotions on his sleeve even more so than he already had with Astronomers.

Alan Charmer having a relaxing time
Alan Charmer elegantly relaxed (Photo courtesy of Elis Pitmand and Sarah Blemis of Kosmorama)

Richard used his time in quarantine to hone his vocals and even learned to play the piano, all while writing a small library of songs that would become the Alan Charmer library.

He has dropped three singles so far: “Squeeze,” “Lost/Control” and “Call U Soon,” and while we’re still waiting on that EP he promised us in the second half of this year, it’s the full-length in 2022 that really has us excited.


Best Comeback:
Evergone

“We’ve been threatening to put out an album for a couple years,” Scott Harding told Queen City Nerve over the summer, and now we’ll have to wait just a bit longer. The lead singer and rhythm guitarist for Evergone discussed the band’s scheduled July release of the much-anticipated album What Went Wrong, which has since been delayed further.

 

It’s not often that new music from a group of mature rockers inspires such anticipation, but the resumes of Evergone’s members read like a who’s who of Charlotte and regional rock: Harding toured with Circle in the late ’90s, lead guitarist Larry Kohler has been in Mother Fungus and Stunt Shot, Colin Welch-McLoy drummed for Charlotte ska outfit Bums Lie, and bassist Thornton plays with The Menders and Witch Motel.

Despite Evergone’s ephemeral-sounding name, it’s made up of road-hardened veterans, a rock ‘n’ roll band of brothers who craft complex, propulsive, rough-edged music that makes a lasting impression.

What Went Wrong was completed and slated for a late summer release, but now it’s been delayed. “We had to push our release date back, due to us needing to finish it to our liking,” Harding recently told Queen City Nerve.
The band goes back into the studio in January to re-record their songs, but they’ve been back onstage for a slew of local shows this year, which was enough to quench that thirst.


Best Vocalist:
Maria Howell

Everybody sounds good in the shower, but to be a working musician is different. There is the honing of a craft, with all the fine details of diction and theory and timing and leading a band. You need to know your preferred key for every tune, you need to keep the rhythms and the forms, and you need to be able to hold a crowd — whether a couple dozen or a couple thousand.

In other words, most singers just sing; only a few singers are musicians. Maria Howell is a musician.
A Gastonia native, Maria Howell has taken her craft seriously since singing in church and with choirs as a young person. The energy of a congregation calling back to her while she sang a solo in church opened the musical world to her.

Maria Howell
Maria Howell (Photo by April Freidline)

She thought she wanted to sing professionally, but traditional music school routes did not present themselves. She pursued a medical degree in college but kept pushing herself musically. Her former high school choir teacher testified as much a few years ago during one of Howell’s gigs at The Bechtler, where she performs regularly.

“She stood up after I recognized her from the stage,” Howell recalled. “She told the crowd that she remembered me saying, ‘I want to sing every note better than the last note.’ And that’s right. I’m my own challenge. I’m my own standard. And I’m still pushing myself.”


Best Debut:
Jail Socks, ‘Coming Down’

“Peace of Mind,” the lead single for Jail Socks’ triumphant yet nuanced debut album Coming Down, draws on the soaring guitars, propulsive rhythms and aching vulnerability the band established on previous releases, ramping up those elements to craft a spacious, anthemic guitar-driven tune with an arrangement that sounds just right while incorporating inventive twists and turns.

Jail Socks rips through the rocking, plaintive three-minute song with nary a wasted chord, drumbeat or howl. From the mid-tempo straight ahead rocker “Losing Everything” to the mostly hushed and delicate “Pale Blue Light,” the album plays to the band’s strengths, tightening the sound to accentuate heartfelt lyrics and catchy tunes.

 

For Coming Down, Jail Socks worked with producer Brett Romnes of Brooklyn-based punk band I Am the Avalanche.

Working with him proved to be a revelation for Jail Socks. Vocalist Aidan Yoh says Romnes pushed the band to do more than they thought they could: “It just made us feel like we were capable of more. It was inspiring.”


Best EP:
Hey RICHARD, self-titled

Fronted by Pachyderm Music Lab’s Krystle Baller, the all-female, queer-friendly band Hey RICHARD is comprised of bassist/vocalist Baller, keyboardist Savanna Baxter, guitarist Sarah Kuhaneck and drummer Laura Staples.
On the band’s self-titled five-song debut EP, the four-piece plays melodic punk-rock songs that are by turns hilarious, blistering and insanely catchy. Over Kuhaneck’s winding melodic guitar line that recalls the fretwork of Lunachick’s Gina Volpe, lead-off track “Coming Out” plays like a raucous LGBTQ cousin to Bikini Kill’s “Rebel Girl” as it shares Baller’s experience coming out as queer.

 

Insistent strummed guitars anchor “Pixilated Soapbox,” a take-down of sociopathic demagogues. The coiling and pensive “Tough” is a vulnerable punk-rock confessional on par with Iggy Pop’s “New Values.”

The collection closes with the galloping rocker “Sinking,” which recasts the grotesque circus of modern elections as a leaky boat taking on water: “I’ll just say what everybody’s thinking/This boat is sinking/And we can’t get off.” Hey RICHARD is the perfect amalgam of political commentary, unvarnished confessional and hand-waving, hip-shaking singalong.


Best Album:
Autumn Rainwater, ‘lowkey highkey’

Throughout 2020, Autumn Rainwater kept a consistent drizzle of projects coming our way, from the impressive Cloudy and Raincheck EPs to her follow-up “date night” single.

In 2021 she hit us with the perfect somewhat-kinda-post-COVID anthem with lowkey highkey, a 12-track full-length that dropped in July and made for the perfect cruising music at a time when folks weren’t really sure if getting out of their car was worth it.

 

Threading together consistently hot tracks with “lowkey highkey radio” snippets, the album was both nostalgic and exactly what we needed in the moment.

The standout track is “homebody,” on which she sings “I think I’m gonna kick it at the crib I don’t want to go out tonight, I got shit to do,” perfectly capturing the vibes in her desire to stay at home and binge watch TV rather than bother with plans. As long as you’ve got lowkey highkey playing, there’s no need to go anywhere.


Best Concept Album:
Lawn Friends, ‘Siesta Sands’

Thunder growls and a zigzag of lightning cracks the sky. Tires spitting gravel, a rain battered MGB pulls into a hotel parking lot. MC, an out-of-work private eye, fishes his last cigarette out of the pack before crumpling it while he eyes Siesta Sands, the seedy resort south of Atlantic City’s bustling boardwalk.

Lawn Friends band members
Lawn Friends: Mike Ramsey (left) and Colby Dobbs. (Photo by Chelsea DeMoss)

The vacancy sign flashes on. This is the opening scene, detailed in story and song on Siesta Sands, a stunning concept album released on Sept. 24 by Lawn Friends, a nom de plume for Charlotte musicians Colby Dobbs (The Colby Dobbs Band) and Mike Ramsey (The 5 Ensemble).

 

Collaborating with over 20 local musicians and a handful of national recording artists, Dobbs and Ramsey have fashioned a film noir-styled project with 11 layered, impeccably produced songs that mix Sam Spade with Steely Dan, along with brief between-the-tunes scenes reminiscent of old-time radio, and an illustrated booklet containing a libretto that lays out dialog, lyrics and hard-boiled action.


Best Worth the Wait Album:
Lute, ‘Gold Mouf’

Lute takes his time on his projects. After dropping West1996 Pt. 1 in 2012, it was another five years before we got Pt. 2. Ever since, he’s been playing with the fans on Twitter who were constantly begging for a new album, but in October he finally dropped the 13-track full-length Gold Mouf.

 

Hey, it was only four years so I guess we should be thankful, right? Absolutely right. Gold Mouf shows a ton of growth from Charlotte’s Dreamville rep, with slow beats and insightful lyrics that go deeper than what you’ll find in so many sloppily produced projects these days.


Best Song:
Modern Moxie, “Big Wave”

On Oct. 28, Queen City Nerve premiered “Big Wave,” Modern Moxie’s first new track since the pre-COVID era.

Written by frontwoman Madison Lucas just as the pandemic clamped down on our society, she described “Big Wave” as “an anger-fueled, rip-roaring ride through all the emotions associated with political, biological and intellectual fear.”

 

Lucas told Queen City Nerve that — with a mom who’s a nurse, a sister who’s a teacher, a brother who is high-risk, and a dad who works in a factory — she had spent a lot of time at the beginning of the pandemic pacing around her house and yelling at the news.

“It’s hard not to write songs about [COVID-19] when it’s so top of mind,” she said. “I wrote the lyrics and chords at the very beginning of the pandemic when everything was extra fresh and visceral … I tried to channel it into music and this song came out.”

It’s not all doom and gloom, however, as the song goes through troughs and crests both sonically and lyrically, including calls for the youth to rise up in the face of misinformation, miseducation and misrepresentation.


Best Video:
Petrov, “Outlier”

Releasing a video to accompany a song about feeling like a perpetual outsider may seem an unusual choice for a popular band like Petrov. But the Charlotte indie-rock powerhouse — whose accolades include Queen City Nerve’s Best in the Nest 2020 award for best pop-punk band — did just that. The video is a hybrid of performance and animation that lends a surrealist vibe to an introspective track.

After cutting together three high-energy performances of one of the band’s most confessional songs, the band thought they had a pretty good video. Then guitarist Syd Little suggested taking it to the next level with animation. As the band’s performance surges toward an epic conclusion, small bits of illustrated imagery give way to a full transition into a dreamscape.

As Little steps on his guitar pedals in the video, the frame is transformed. Rotoscoped animated versions of the band members power through the tune as the scene blossoms with bold colors. The humorous and hallucinogenic sequence carries through to a shot where drummer Garrett Herzfeld sprouts a flaming skull when viewed through a phone filter. As Mary Grace McKusick’s impassioned singing brings “Outlier” to a rousing close, her head abruptly explodes and her brain pops out.


Best Second Wind:
Funky Geezer on TikTok

With a smile and a friendly wave, the eccentric 72-year-old man greets his 3 million followers. A longtime staple of the Charlotte music scene, the man they call Funky Geezer became the subject of a newfound fame on an app associated with folks just a fraction of his age: TikTok. In his short videos, he fires off a soulful cover of a classic song, or launches into an original composition.

@funkygeezershowHold on Heart ❤️ ##original ,##song ##music ##fyp♬ original sound – FunkyGeezerShow

 

Born Woody Wilson, he’s been an x-rated theater projectionist, a guitarist in a blues rock band, a Vietnam War-era Army draftee, and more. At age 60, he adopted the moniker Funky Geezer and has played at practically every music venue in town. In his Geezer guise, he scored a spotlight on America’s Got Talent, and went viral with a song that parodied then-governor Pat McCrory and the transphobic bathroom bill.

But nothing has been as big as his TikTok fame. “I’m doing things old people shouldn’t do; I’m dancing with a walker,” Williams told Queen City Nerve in March. “It juxtaposes. It’s a quandary, and I think that’s what catches [people] off guard.” Funky Geezer is the embodiment of embracing your passions, no matter how old you are.


Best Local Show:
Hindsight 20/20 at Common Market South End

Located on the outdoor patio at the new(ish) Common Market South End, Hindsight 20/20 was a late-summer evening designed to be part music celebration and part fundraiser for Safe Alliance. The event began with a vendor fair composed of community groups and local artisans underscored by the rhythmic stylings of That Guy Smitty before transitioning into a showcase of local musicians later in the evening.

Put together to celebrate Charlotte’s return to live local music, the show highlighted six Charlotte-based bands and musicians in hopes of infusing the rapidly developing South End area with some of its old musical flare (we miss you Tremont Music Hall). Representing a blend of genres, the bands shared new work developed during the height of pandemic quarantine alongside some more familiar melodies from their repertoires — particularly notable were Modern Moxie’s “Big Wave” and The Phantom Friends “Catch the Feeling.”

With each set, the audience and musicians seemed to have an enlivening sense that live local music would soon be able to make a strong post-quarantine comeback.


Best National Show:
Phoebe Bridgers at CMCU Amphitheater

We were first exposed to Phoebe Bridgers in small doses. First, a sad-girl jam called “Motion Sickness.” Then, a collaboration with Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus called boygenius, followed by a duet with Courtney Barnett. But nothing prepared us for Punisher, a record released during the early months of the pandemic, loaded with more lush arrangements and lyrics that cut deeper and truer than ever before.

Phoebe Bridgers
Phoebe Bridgers performs at CMCU Amphitheatre on Sept. 19. (Photo by Jeff Hahne)

By the time Bridgers was ready to tour, her star had grown so hot in Charlotte that lines stretched around the corner of the Music Factory further than we’ve ever seen them before. With a pop-up book background and a crowd of extremely emotional fans, Bridgers tore up the CMCU Amphitheater with ballad after ballad. The existential dread of a global pandemic washed away among a vaccinated crowd of people screaming “The end is here!” as if in celebration of the fear that brought us to this moment.


Best Virtual Concert:
Love Thy Neighbor Fest

Justin Fedor was driving past a homeless tent encampment in Charlotte in 2020 when one of his stepchildren sparked his interest in what would become a January musical and philanthropic venture, Love Thy Neighbor: A Tribute to Benefit Roof Above. The 7-year-old wanted to know who was doing anything to help the homeless, so he did something. Love Thy Neighbor benefited Roof Above, a charitable organization that formed from the merger of Urban Ministry Center and Men’s Shelter of Charlotte.

Thematically, the show paid tribute to the artists who passed away in 2020 with pre-recorded compositions from studios spread across the country. Covering artists such as Van Halen, John Prine, Rush, Billy Joe Shaver, Little Richard, Fountains Of Wayne and more, were musicians such as Adam Lazzara (Taking Back Sunday), guitarist Jeremy Lynn Woodall (Billy Joe Shaver), Tyler Ramsey (Band of Horses), Graham Sharp (Steep Canyon Rangers) and more.

Love Thy Neighbor
Justin Fedor plays with his band The Denim Denim at Bristol Rhythm & Roots. They will perform for Love Thy Neighbor as well. (Photo by Bill Foster)

Also on the bill were Charlotte performers Benji Hughes, Petrov, Moa, Swim in the Wild, Time Sawyer, Alright, Ian Pasquini, The Eyebrows, Elonzo Wesley, Wes Hamilton and more. Fedor recorded with his current roots music project Fedor & the Denim Denim, played bass with Chris Shinn (Live) and reteamed with his bandmates in Ancient Cities.


Best Concert Series:
Unplugged + Live

While she was attending Pfeiffer University, Arsena Schroeder stepped away from a career in high finance to produce and promote music and music makers. There are a lot of artists counting their lucky stars that she did so. Schroeder launched Dear Soul Music Company, which helps independent artists like herself to self-promote effectively.

Schroeder founded the Unplugged + Live Concert Series, which brings musicians and fans together in stress-free settings that foster listening and communication. It’s in her role as a promoter that Schroeder presents the Unplugged + Live: Virtual Music Festival in partnership with live entertainment promotion company Jazz N Soul Music.

Arsena Schroeder
Arsena Schroeder. (Photo by Andrea Orr)

The concert series has featured several shows, including a September lunchtime gig on the lawn of Eastway Regional Recreation Center. The concert featured a live DJ, food trucks, and special performances by Charlotte artists AftanCi and Monalisa Music. An accomplished singer-songwriter herself, Schroeder often hosts and performs in the Unplugged + Live shows. “From Unplugged + Live I hope that people get a chance to unwind, to really unplug from the chaos of life,” Schroeder told Queen City Nerve. “I want everyone to leave refreshed.”


Best Venue:
The Evening Muse

Joe Kuhlmann has noticed a curious thing about The Evening Muse, the cozy yet legendary music club that celebrated 20 years at the corner of East 36th and North Davidson streets in April. “When people show up here, the comment that I hear more often than not is, ‘Man, this reminds me of home,’” Kuhlmann, who co-owns the club with Don and Laurie Koster, told us in the lead up to the anniversary.

Evening muse
The Evening Muse Crew (from left to right): Laurie and Don Koster with Joe Kuhlmann. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

When the little club that could launched an official recognition of its anniversary, the program boasted recorded performances and well wishes from artists around the world, many of whom are Muse alumni, including Jonathan Spottiswoode, Ashlee Joy Hardee, Susto, Jim Avett, George Banda, Sam Tayloe and many more.

Even better, the club reopened for live performances in May, helping the city shake off the chill imposed by COVID. Because of its comforting vibe, exquisite sound and eclectic booking policy, which has added hip-hop, poetry and comedy to its bills in recent years, The Muse has garnered praise across Charlotte, but the highest praise comes from patrons, players and staff who’ve made the Muse part of their lives.


Best Jam Session:
Menastree at the Muse

Menastree founder and leading light Jesse Lamar Williams has jumped in and out of multiple genres, including rock, soul, R&B, jazz, and hip-hop. But in 2014, after the dissolution of the Lucky Five, a legendary Charlotte quintet Lamar Williams co-founded, he was in a deep funk.

From this low ebb, a wellspring of new energy emerged. Drawing from a pool of longtime friends and collaborators, as well as a wave of newer and younger musicians, Williams masterminded Menastree, a collective that encompasses the emotion of soul, the swing of R&B, the complexity of jazz and the firepower of rock.

The Menastree crew at a past show at Evening Muse. (Photo courtesy of Jesse Lamar Williams)

Menastree first coalesced when Williams began noting and recruiting musicians he saw playing around town. He realized that he was like a minister, fostering a community. In addition to musical “ministering,” he was also mentoring fellow musicians.

Thus, the name Menastree was born. Starting in 2017, the band has hosted the Menastree Jazz Jam, a residency at The Evening Muse. There is no typical jam for a band that can include vocals, guitar, bass, horns, keys, vocoder, drums, percussion, sax and samples. Both old fans and newcomers to Menastree will experience a pleasant culture shock at a Menastree gig.


Best Storytelling Event:
Intersections, Stories of Home

Hannah Hasan is a thoughtful and intentional artist who has mastered the craft for storytelling. Her work is carefully parsed and honest, always underscored by the optimism of potential human connection. Hasan’s genuine belief in storytelling as a method for overcoming difference and building new pathways forward changes the gravitational center of her performance spaces. This combination of craft, dedication, and heart is rare, and Hasan’s persistent work does make tangible change in Charlotte and beyond.

Stories of Home
Participants in an Intersections writing workshop leading up to a Stories of Home event. (Photo courtesy of Hannah Hasan)

The efficacy of Hasan’s work was on full display in the first in-person edition of Stories of Home, held in June at Spirit Square. This event, part of Hasan’s Intersections program, paired young people with leaders in the Charlotte community with the goal of finding unexpected commonalities and lessons. Hasan led participants through story-sharing workshops, supporting each person in authentically telling their own in an effort to connect with others.

What resulted was a lovely interplay of joy, heartbreak, and humor as each participant’s stories folded into one another. By the end of the night, audiences were left with a narrative mosaic of our community and much hope for the young people who are our future.


Best Fiction Book:
Wiley Cash, ‘When Ghosts Go Home’

Renowned NC author Wiley Cash’s latest release, When Ghosts Go Home, which takes place in the southeastern Brunswick County towns of Oak Island and Southport, is the Gastonia native’s first mystery novel, and it reads as such — meaning you might not put it down upon your first time picking it up.

Wiley Cash with When Ghosts Come Home
Wiley Cash holds his newest book, ‘When Ghosts Come Home.’ (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

The book still sticks to certain themes that have popped up in his previous novels such as development and displacement, fatherhood and family. It also takes place in the 1980s, the most contemporary book he’s written yet. His past books could be considered historical fiction, but as he explained to Queen City Nerve in September, so should almost all novels.

“I think of all fiction as historical, even something written about yesterday because you’re still going to have to find the tricks of craft to nail down era, culture, popular culture, those kinds of things … So everything is situated in history.”


Best Nonfiction Book:
Jason Waters, ‘Unbalanced: A Life of Schizophrenia and Skateboarding’

Fascinated with skateboarding since the age of 5, Jason Waters hopped on his first board at 10. A few years after graduating from Myers Park High School, Waters made a long-planned trip to Philadelphia, a mecca of American skateboarding.

It should have been a high point in Waters’ life, but he was harboring a secret that was beginning to drastically alter his life. Soon after turning 19, Waters started hearing voices and found it difficult to sleep. He became delusional and paranoid, convinced that friends, family and strangers were out to get him. After being diagnosed with schizophrenia, Waters refused to believe the doctors, convinced they had made a mistake.

Jason Waters hits a wall ride. (Photo by Richie McCorkle)

By age 45, Waters had been in recovery for more than 20 years. He’d accepted his condition, and even self-published a book about it. Unbalanced: A Life of Schizophrenia and Skateboarding debuted in February on Amazon.

“It’s a book about dreams deferred and hard truths,” writes local author Jeff Jackson (Destroy All Monsters), “a candid and clear-eyed account of living with schizophrenia that demystifies the disease.” Waters simply calls his book, “A field guide to recovery.”


Best Use of Technology:
Levine Museum of the New South, KnowCLT

The app/exhibit/augmented reality experience KnowCLT is this year’s crowning achievement for the Levine Museum of the New South. It tells the story of Brooklyn, a once-thriving Black neighborhood in Charlotte that was destroyed in the 1960s to make room for what is now I-277.

Willie Griffin, Michael Zytkow and Eric Scott
The team behind KnowCLT (from left): Willie Griffin, Michael Zytkow and Eric Scott. (Photo by Ryan Pitkin)

KnowCLT stems from the app-assisted Levine Museum exhibit #HomeCLT, created by Dr. Ming-Chun Lee of UNC Charlotte to connect users with the history of Charlotte neighborhoods like Hidden Valley, Eastland and Dilworth. The success of that exhibit eventually led to another in 2019, called Brooklyn: A City Within a City.

Museum staff members Willie Griffin and Eric Scott wanted to make it accessible for everyone, so after securing a partnership with Michael Zytkow of Potions & Pixels, KnowCLT was born. The admission-free, smartphone-powered experience brings Charlotte residents closer to their history than ever before.


Best Theatre Series:
Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, Rock the Barn

Over the years, Actor’s Theatre Charlotte has faced more than their share of space-related woes; however, ATC was able to put these trying experiences to good use as they have adapted effectively to new, socially distanced theater spaces. After a short hiatus and several fully virtual experiences, ATC shifted the start of their new season to the Barn at MoRa.

Rocky Horror Show
The cast of Actor’s Theatre Of Charlotte enjoy popsicles during the show. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

With a well-selected lineup of crowd-pleasing, energetic rock musicals, ATC was able to offer a safe space for cautious but enthusiastic audiences to experience their first taste of live theatre in nearly a year. Though ATC’s enthusiasm was tempered by several setbacks — they had to cancel a portion of the run of Rock of Ages as well as the entirety of Head Over Heels — the company was able to face these new challenges with honesty and clarity. In the end, ATC’s creativity and persistence was rewarded with a successful run of The Rocky Horror Show in the fall.


Best Rise From the Ashes:
Theatre Charlotte

Speaking of space-related woes, even as almost everyone in the performing arts field suffered horribly in 2020, long-standing Theatre Charlotte suffered a devastating blow when their Queens Road Theater endured massive damage from a fire at the end of December. After nearly a year of COVID-related show closures and session shifting, Chris Timmons, the newly appointed acting executive director had to contend with this unimaginable new hurdle. After the initial shock of the fire wore off, Theatre Charlotte supporters of all kinds stepped in to offer resources, clean the space, and invest in the company’s future.

Theatre Charlotte
The Theatre Charlotte HQ at Myers Park is on its way back, but there’s still work to be done. (Photo by Perry Tannenbaum)

Choosing to embrace the challenges of their circumstances, Theatre Charlotte rebranded their 94th Season as a “Road Trip’’ and took community theatre directly into the community, stopping for shows at places like the Palmer Building, Central Piedmont Community College, Warehouse 242, and The Mint Museum. The company even created Highway 94 T-shirts to commemorate this whirlwind experience! Despite their significant challenges, Theatre Charlotte was able to effectively reroute their season because, as they say, “No fire can stop the arts.”


Best Student Production:
Migrant X, UNC Charlotte

Playwright Georgina Escobar and UNC Charlotte theatre professor CarlosAlexis Cruz wove magical realism and movement-driven storytelling into what became the first Latinx play at UNC Charlotte. The production takes inspiration from the courageous activism of Manolo Betancur, a baker and immigrant rights advocate living in Charlotte, and actually played himself in this student-led project.

Carlos Alexis Cruz directs students during a rehearsal of Migrant X at UNC Charlotte
Carlos Alexis Cruz directs students during a rehearsal of Migrant X at UNC Charlotte. (Photo by Grant Baldwin)

Migrant X dove into the unknown and the interconnected: what it means to migrate and what it means to be a migrant. As Escobar told Queen City Nerve before the play’s run in September, “[Migrant X] is less the story about a journey, and more the story about algebraic components; how do you solve for X? What makes us this? What does this journey mean?”


Best Unexpected Gallery:
Petra’s Art Lounge

Easily missed if you are just popping in for a show, Petra’s art gallery has always been there in the small room just before the bathrooms. As live shows and spaces reopen, the team at Petra’s appears to have doubled down on curating the space, transforming the walls from a compulsory display to a true, albeit tiny, gallery-style experience.

The space reopened alongside Petra’s in August with an aptly named installation called “Now Times: A Welcome Back Gallery Show,” before moving through a monthly cycle of curated art selections including “Priority Main: A Sticker Art Show,” “Spiritual Blast,” and “By Their Touch.” The shows have featured a combination of old and new artists, and stayed true to a gritty, unpretentious aesthetic. Each show is complete with a gallery opening scheduled on the first Friday of the month, which are all accompanied by local music favorites. Next time you’re at Petra’s, give yourself an extra 15 minutes after your bathroom break to soak in the art.


Best Art Space Transformation:
Arts Factory

If you are an avid attendee of Charlotte theatre performances, you may remember the Arts Factory space at Johnson C. Smith University as one of the homes of On Q Productions, which produced Funny House of A Negro and The Dutchmen in the space alongside shows by JCSU’s Theatre program. As companies and audiences return to live theatre, this performance space has emerged under the name Wonderland West End Studios @ Arts Factory.

My Dinner With Andrea
Tracie Frank (left) and Anne Lambert in a performance of ‘My Dinner with Andrea’ at the Arts Factory. (Photo by Ramsey Lyric)

Despite the building’s history in Charlotte’s theatre community, Wonderland West End Studios appears to have become an unofficial “new” home for performances displaced by the destruction of the Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square. Local companies Three Bone Theatre and Charlotte’s Off-Broadway, as well as storytelling artist Hannah Hassan have recently produced their shows in the space.

While this uptick in traffic marks Wonderland West End Studios as a viable and important space for the ongoing work of community arts organizations, the space’s history serves as a signal to proceed with caution to ensure accessibility and support for the Black organizations that have long utilized the space.


Best Investment in Emerging Artists:
Queen City New Play Initiative

Stacey Rose has returned home and Charlotte creatives couldn’t be more thrilled. Her newest project, the Queen City New Play Initiative (QCNPI), is designed to develop and amplify the voices of emerging Charlotte playwrights. Rose, whose playwriting experience includes 2018 Sundance Theatre Lab Fellow, 2019-20 McNight Fellow, and 2020-22 Playwrights’ Center Core Writer, is well qualified to run this local incubator.

QCNPI’s kick-off project, a series of theatre artist talks in which local artists were paired with national creatives for a discussion of their work and experiences, set the tone for the initiative’s lofty mission to bring Charlotte into the national artistic conversation. These talks included names like Robin Tynes-Miller, LeSea Stukes, and CarlosAlexis Cruz at the local level and Stephanie Ybarra, Jeremy O’brien, and Daaimah Mubashshir as national interlocutors.

These conversations effectively built a foundation of community and shared vision for QCNPI as the organization has begun to take on larger projects, including their current mini-play series Remember When?, which will produce shows about specific areas throughout Charlotte.

QCNPI is an exciting development for Charlotte Arts, providing a much-needed platform for long underrepresented local talent to share new work on a national stage. With Rose’s help, Charlotte might build a reputation for something more than banks, beer and banality.


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