Arts and Entertainment

Writer’s Choice

Illustration By Chris Sickels

Best Place In The Area To See Live Music, Period
The Palms Playhouse
One night the featured artist might be one of America’s great rootsy singer-songwriters; the next night might be a full-on Chicago blues band with a horn section; the next night a program of avant-garde jazz, or a stellar group of Celtic musicians from Ireland. You never know what to expect at the Palms, except that the music will be good, and the vibes will be, too. This once-rural, barn-like structure, which has been encroached by south Davis’ sprawl in recent years, has been cited as a favorite place to play by musicians from all over the world. It’s funky, it’s unpretentious—pretzels, Cracker Jacks, beer, wine, cider and sodas are pretty much the entire menu—and the seating is rickety but egalitarian. And house manager Dave Fleming has a knack for booking the kind of shows you’ll remember for years. 726 Drummond Ave., Davis, (530) 756-9901.

Best Place To Hang Out And Watch A Bluegrass Jam
The Fifth String Music Store
Looking for something different on a Thursday evening? The Fifth String, by day a retailer that specializes in high-end acoustic stringed instruments, has been hosting a free bluegrass jam for years. It’s an informal affair; people just show up with their instruments at around 7 p.m., when the place is fixing to close, and they sit in a large circle and trade off licks to old favorites from the Americana folk and spiritual repertoire. Sometimes the joint is packed, and there’s often music till 11 p.m. or so. It’s suggested that you bring your own instrument if you’re planning on joining in. 930 Alhambra Blvd., (916) 442-8282.

Best Way To Spend An Otherwise Boring Tuesday Night
Sacramento City Council Meetings
They’re not just for insiders and bureaucrats anymore. Weekly City Council meetings are open to the public and you can review upcoming agendas online at clerk. Depending on what’s up for discussion, be it new development, parks and recreation issues or a hundred activists protesting the moving of a public garden, the meetings are always informative and often entertaining, so much so you can also catch the show on cable TV. And there’s no better way to learn what the city’s priorities are then to watch the City Council and those neighborhood activists in action. Meetings are usually held 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. on Tuesdays. City Council Chamber, 2nd floor City Hall, 915 I St., (916) 264-5799.

Best Place To Observe The Elusive Double Feature
Sacramento One-Six Drive-In Theatres
The frugal movie fan has few options these days—dollar movies have gone the way of the dinosaurs, matinees are scarce and double features are non-existent. Except at the Sacramento One-Six Drive-In, a cinematic sanctuary where forgotten beasts such as the double feature still thrive. You get two movies for $6 and they provide free refills on a large popcorn. You provide the deluxe surround-sound of your car’s own stereo system, and reclining seats. You can even wear your pajamas! No one will ever know. Bradshaw at Highway 50, (916) 363-6572.

Best Spot For An Incongruous Night Out
The Swiss Buda
That’s right, spelled B-U-D-A. Red-and-white plastic checkered table covers, four kinds of beer in a can, and Merle Haggard on the jukebox. The incongruous counterpoint to all this trailer trash motif is the large collection of Buddha (or Buda) statues beaming serenely down from behind the bar. So throw back a cold one, contemplate your navel and cry a little bit of those working-man blues. 2342 Fruitridge Road, (916) 421-6947.

Best Smoke-Filled Barroom
Benny’s (aka Sacramento Bar & Grill)
Ever since California banned smoking in public places, the storied smoke-filled barroom of yore has largely become a memory. That reality might be a welcome one for those who consider stinky clothes and lung cancer to be unacceptable prices to pay for regular cocktail consumption in a social setting. But there are still those who see something sublime in the smoky, neon haze. And for those people, there’s Benny’s, where you can puff away while rubbing tattooed elbows with a young, hip set. Reasons why Benny’s allows smoking range from some kind of owner-operator loophole to blatant defiance of the law, but we’ve always found it best to just quietly enjoy our cigarettes and not ask too many questions. 2013 Q St., (916) 443-5555.

Best Place To Suck Carcinogens In Peace
True Love Coffee House
Fran Leibowitz once wrote that smoking is one of the privileges of being a grown-up. An unapologetic smoker for decades, the acerbic writer correctly gauged the attitudes of non-smokers back in the ‘70s, before the Smoking Nazis took over. All this is to say that, at the True Love, they’ve created an atmosphere that not just allows you to smoke, but that also allows you to take pleasure in doing it. True Love’s outdoor patio is a large, comfy space with couches, tables and chairs, twinkling lights in the trees and bamboo covering under your feet. The establishment’s menu of adult coffee beverages, micro brews and tasty snacks, coupled with the ability to see cool live acts you can’t see anywhere else is, in fact, just icing on the cake. 2406 J St., (916) 492-9002.

Best Place To Extend Your Weekend
Press Club
You’ve had a great weekend, filled with fun, relaxation and a fair share of debauchery. Friday night you went big, recovered on Saturday, then hit that cool party on Saturday night. Sunday you read the paper for hours and even got in a bike ride, but here it is, Sunday night, with the work-week looming over you like a hungry vulture, and you just get the feeling that you’re not … quite … done. If this is you, then you’re definitely headed to the Press Club and to visit DJ Larry Rodriguez—one of the hottest spinners in town—do some dancing, have more drinks than you planned, flirt with some cuties, regret it all come morning, but still come back next week. Whoever said life was easy? 2030 P St., (916) 444-7914.

Best Dance Couple Since Astaire And Rogers
Carine Binda and Ron Cunningham
Dancer and ballet mistress Carine Binda and choreographer Ron Cunningham have lifted Sacramento Ballet into the critical limelight nationally. Opening in their 14th season October 18, the married couple has consistently produced creative, popular and acclaimed dance works with both broad and balletomanic appeal. This year promises to be no exception, with a world premiere of Alice in Wonderland, plus reprises of other notable works, including Cunningham’s hit choreography of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana. Sacramento Ballet, (916) 552-5800; tickets: Community Center Box Office, (916) 264-5181.

Best Jazz Venue

Photo by Larry Dalton

Best Local Band
Attaching the word “best” to an object is an entirely subjective enterprise. That said, somebody’s got to make a judgment call and back it up with a few reasons. Here they are: Cake may have started right here in Midtown, but the band has grown into an international phenomenon. Cake’s new album, Comfort Eagle, released by Columbia Records this summer, captures what sounds like a remarkable leap forward, sonically. While frontman John McCrea continues to pull songs he’d written years ago out of his hat (after four albums, you’d think his well might have run dry), new members Xan McCurdy (on guitar) and Pete McNeil (on drums) have taken the band’s music to a higher level. Cake is bright, funny and deep; it’s a jammy band for misanthropes who hate the Grateful Dead, it makes the coolest videos (see the one for “Short Skirt Long Jacket") and it’s the best thing we’ve got going.

Best Local CD
The Mother Hips, Green Hills of Earth
Before you whine, “But the Hips are a Chico band,” be aware that (a) bassist Isaac Parsons is a longtime Sacramento resident, (b) the band has certainly played here enough times to qualify as somewhat “local,” and (c) Green Hills of Earth is one of the best CDs released by anyone, anywhere, this year. While plenty of bands still attempt Beatles by the numbers, very few capture that magnificent band’s spiritual essence; here Mother Hips manage to tap into the ephemeral magic that animates such masterpieces as Revolver and Rubber Soul. Not bad for a foursome that many had written off as another “jammy” band for the gone Phish-ing set.

Best New Band
Freight Train Riders of America
Sure, we’re always partial to any band that takes its name from a bunch of bindlestiff-toting serial killers. Factor in our love for Smithsonian Folkways’ Anthology of American Folk Music box, and the recognition that the spurious “Soggy Bottom Boys"—from the recent Coen Brothers’ film O Brother, Where Art Thou?—seemed to strike a deep cultural nerve, and we’d be nincompoops not to acknowledge this inventive new band, albeit one that involves musicians who hail from other, more familiar local ensembles, including Kai Kln, Okra Pickles and Las Pesadillas.

Best Poetry Slam
Luna’s Cafe
The Thursday night crowd at Luna’s Café is nothing short of eccentric, entertaining and free. Joe Montoya is the man behind the unplugged mayhem. It is open to anyone who wants to express their feelings to an audience for the sheer bravery of opening up their own Pandora’s Box. The crowd is continually forgiving and supportive of the brave souls on stage, for the ages differ greatly as do the voices of experience. With a great cup of coffee and some real emotion, it’s a great way to spend a Thursday evening, free of charge and of inebriated imbeciles. But get there early enough to find a seat because it’s not a secret to those who appreciate a good time and creative expression. 1414 16th St., (916) 441-3931.

Best Jazz Venue
Artiz Jazz Club
Right now, awarding “best local jazz venue” is akin to naming “best Nepalese restaurant"—there isn’t a lot to choose from. You won’t find much downtown, or even in Midtown, aside from the occasional piano bar. No, to hear jazz in Sacramento, you must go to the suburbs. Foothill Farms has Aces, a somewhat swank joint next to a Holiday Inn, but the nod for best venue has to go to Artiz, a club all the way out in Folsom. Artiz books a mix of straight ahead and contemporary (read: “smooth” jazz) artists, with a number of local names, it has a nice sound system and a full bar, and it’s a lot easier than driving to Yoshi’s in Oakland. 705 Gold Lake Drive #250 (inside the Lakes Specialty Center), Folsom, 985-0799.

Best Karaoke
The Townhouse
The Townhouse may be the only bar in Sacramento where people get up and dance to other people’s karaoke routines. The performance style ranges from morose Radio Head shoegazing to sexy Prince falsetto, and the singers aren’t afraid to writhe on the floor, use props or take a trip into the audience to personally serenade each table. As with many ostensibly gay clubs, you’ll find all types here—men, women, straight, gay and all shades in between—generating an atmosphere of friendly revelry. Intermittant prize raffles and drink specials (some of which involve drinking without a glass or spinning in circles before being served) add to the merriment. Fridays and Saturdays, 9 p.m.-2 a.m. 1517 21st St., (916) 441-5122.

Best Permanent Museum Exhibit
California State Railroad Museum
If a museum’s job is to celebrate our enormous capacity for creativity, aesthetics, balance and form, then the California State Railroad Museum’s collection of off-duty trains is just as impressive as anything you’ll find at the Crocker. Touching on the building of the Central Pacific Railroad, the efforts of daring Chinese-American laborers, and the evolution of various engines, the museum is part history lesson and part playground. Touring the insides of a maddeningly efficient mail car, a dining car set with historic china patterns from various rail lines, and a gently rocking sleeper car only big enough for today’s 10-year-olds, one gets a sense of the artistry, ingenuity and pure pride that went into the first automated means of cross-country travel. 111 I St., (916) 445-6645.

Best Bi-Polar Street Art
Fuller poles
Who hasn’t cruised, at standard Midtown speed, by the strange set of colored poles posturing in front of the paint store in Midtown Sacramento and wondered “What the hell is that??!” If you actually get out of your car and gaze for a while at this cool visual image, you’ll figure out an answer: Yo, it’s public art! In fact, you may be lucky enough to see the poles do their famous shapeshifting—if you stare long enough, you find the poles are constantly moving, changing color and position. Created by artist Saul Bass, the Fuller poles are a great stab at attempting to incite the public imagination of Sacramento. 16th and Q streets.

Best Public Art
“Time to Cast Away Stone,” Artist: Stephen J. Kaltenbach
Looking like a heap of broken religious, political and cultural stone idols, this 1999 sculpture of cast cement calls for a new paradigm while conjuring up images and symbols from the past. The effect is as intriguing as it is haunting, and creates a thought-provoking centerpiece for the tourism hub of the city. Set atop a pair of fountains, the sculpture asks four beguilingly poetic questions, the words of which are partially obscured by the flowing water:

Best Bi-Polar Street Art

Photo by Larry Dalton


In front of Sacramento Convention Center, between L and M streets.

Best Live Theatre Company
River Stage
Another tough category, with the resurgence of the Sacramento Theatre Company and the long string of popular shows at the B Street Theatre. But when you factor breadth of achievement and consistent quality into the equation, the nod goes to River Stage, which operates on the Cosumnes River College campus on the borderland where Sacramento fades into Elk Grove. Admittedly, this suburban location isn’t the first place that culture vultures look to gather. But this year, River Stage has mounted two of the year’s best shows—the enormous Chicago Conspiracy Trial (replete with politics, protesters and courtroom shenanigans) and—together with Beyond the Proscenium Productions—the spellbinding How I Learned to Drive (a searing examination of exploitive family relationships and sexual predation). Artistic director Frank Condon is on a tear. River Stage, Cosumnes River College, 8401 Center Pkwy., (916) 691-7364.

Best Place To See A Play
Woodland Opera House
Most theatrical venues in the Sacramento region are utilitarian at best. But the Woodland Opera House is a jewel, with more atmosphere and charm than any other theater in the region. Built in 1895 (after the original, dating from the 1850s, burned down), it’s modeled on old English music halls, with a big horseshoe balcony. Yet it’s also surprisingly intimate—the downstairs is only 14 rows deep. Restored in the 1980s and protected as a California State Park, the theater still hosts community productions. You can also take docent-led tours (which go backstage) by appointment. 340 Second St., Woodland, (530) 666-9617.

Best New Play
Foothill Theatre Company
A very competitive category, since the Sacramento Theatre Company, B Street Theatre and several other groups regularly stage good new plays. But the winner—by a nose—is the Foothill Theatre of Nevada City for staging four strong original scripts by local writers, including Gary Wright’s Diary of a 49er and Dracula, and Sands Hall’s Fair Use and Little Women (with Dianne Fetterly). More locally generated originals are in the works. 401 Broad St., Nevada City, (530) 265-8587, (888) 730-8587.

Best Actor (Equity)
Kurt Johnson
He’s done it all—male and female roles, romantic leads, comic foils, serious drama, goofy comedy, Bob Cratchit, Music Circus musicals, occasional commercials (including an appearance as a talking poker chip) and most recently, a quirky one-man show at the B Street Theatre, the venue where he’s most often seen. Johnson doesn’t always dominate the stage with sheer personality—he’s described himself as a “workmanlike actor"—but he’s almost always working, and almost always good.

Best Actor (Non-Equity)
James Wheatley Jr., Stephanie Gularte (tie)
Wheatley has built up a most impressive gallery of performances as African and African-American men—most recently Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys at Celebration Arts, in which Wheatley was darned near perfect. Gularte has also been a rising star on the local scene, in both classics (Arms and the Man, Romeo and Juliet) and romantic comedies (the current Fortune’s Fools). But her breakthrough came this summer, with a gutsy performance in How I Learned to Drive. Watch for more good work from both Wheatley and Gularte.

Best Fair
Dixon May Fair
Ever wanted to find that perfect Rodgers and Hammerstein country fair you’ve always dreamed of? Well, step into the Dixon May Fair and belt out “It’s a Grand Night for Singing"! You, too, can be Shirley Jones or Gordon MacRae when the town of Dixon kicks up its heels each May and celebrates all things down-home with pig races, a puppet circus, Frisbee-catching dogs, a real one-man band, sheep shearing, cow milking, cloggers, jazz, mariachi and big band music. Charming, lively, and friendly—and with everything a real honest-to-goodness fair should have—she’s been going on since 1875. Don’t miss it come spring. 655 South First St., Dixon, (707) 678-5529.

Best Film Festival
Trash Film Orgy
It’s always the new kid on the block who gets all the attention—especially if the new kid is into bloody, smutty exhibitionism. The first annual Trash Film Orgy is this year’s new kid, and for its ingenuity, gore content, retro zaniness and pure excess, it beats out even the most hallowed competitors. Organizer Keith Lowell Jensen revels in low budget horror films coupled with unexpected entertainment, like this year’s popular parade of zombies. With his alter ego, Francois Fly, his festival reanimated the films of such ketchup kings as Chuck McCrann, William Lustig and Ray Dennis Steckler. The Crest Theater, 1013 K St., (916) 44-CREST,

Best Movie Theater
The Crest
Featuring film festivals, live music, a beautifully restored lobby and a gorgeous marquis, The Crest is Sacramento’s best example of restored movie-house glory. It’s also one of only a couple of houses willing to show foreign, independent or slightly wacky films. Two cozy downstairs theaters fill the much-needed art-house role, while the huge elegant upstairs theater is often reserved for concerts and other generally creative happenings. 1013 K St., (916) 442-7378.

Best House DJ
Larry Rodriguez
Good DJs come and go like the hits they spin. But great DJs, like classic songs, endure long after their initial hype. Rodriguez has been showered with all kinds of kudos this year, from favorable mentions in this and other publications to picking up this year’s SAMMIE award for best DJ, so there’s a tendency to think that he’s yesterday’s news and move onto the next big thing. But then you stop by the Press Club on a Friday or Sunday night, listen to him spin and feel your body begin to bop involuntarily, and you think to yourself, “Damn, he’s good!”

Best Reason Not To Be Discouraged By American Pie 2
Tower of Youth’s teen moviemakers
One of the coolest nonprofit groups for young people in Sacramento is the Tower of Youth, a communication arts organization that attempts to get high-schoolers to consider careers in the mass media—film, radio, TV, digital arts and the performing arts. TOY holds a multitude of innovate “teen media” events throughout the year, but the group is especially known for its upcoming 5th Annual All Youth Film and Education Day (October 5 at the Crest) that will showcase 200 teen movie entries from across the country and further promote TOY’s mission in the region “to promote the values and practices of interdependence, diversity, self-determination, creativity, democracy, justice and community.” Sounds like just what the doctor ordered for a population of teens most of us associate with movies featuring raunchy comedy, crude relationships and blowjob jokes. 3711 Dell Road, Carmichael, (916) 922-0100;