Author: Alex Springer

Stanza served up a delicious bruschetta featuring whipped goat cheese, marinated heirloom tomatoes and a balsamic drizzle. Photo: Talyn Sherer

It’s early July, which means my favorite midsummer night’s feast is once again upon us. Originating in 2015 as a celebratory fundraiser for Tracy Aviary, SB Dance and Race Swami, Eat Drink SLC continues to outdo itself. Nearly 30 local restaurants teamed up with a wide variety of wineries, distilleries and breweries to provide small bites and sips to those in attendance.

Despite the best efforts of Tracy Aviary’s dense canopy of trees and its various avian-friendly waterways, that 102-degree heatwave still managed to find me and follow me inside. One of the most interesting things about attending Eat Drink SLC is seeing how the food vendors have tailored their menus to the environment—as Utah has been in the grip of that same heatwave that wouldn’t leave me alone, most vendors used the cooler end of the culinary spectrum to craft their event dishes.

There is only a handful of cold savory dishes that I really like, but on a hot summer night like this, that’s all I really wanted. For me, this evening was all about the food vendors that relied upon their culinary chill skills.

Right out of the gate, Trio’s Charred Octopus served with White Bean Olive Hummus and Hearts of Palm struck a bullseye. The considerable portions of octopus were perfectly tender, and the briny flavor complemented the herbaceous mixture of dill and cilantro that was tossed with the hearts of palm. It’s the kind of small plate that makes one forget that they’re in a landlocked desert by letting some fresh, oceanic flavors roll over the tongue.

As I moved deeper into the aviary, pausing every so often to observe a flamboyance of flamingos or parliament of owls, I came to an impressively arranged table operated by The Blended Table. It’s a catering service frequently booked by organizations like the Utah Museum of Fine Art and Red Butte Garden, and they had packed a lot of gastronomic firepower into their small setup. They started with a crisp and refreshing Watermelon Radish Spring Roll that was accompanied by a Peanut Plum Dipping sauce, and finished with a beautifully cooked medallion of Beef Tenderloin topped with Horseradish Cream. Spring rolls and tenderloin aren’t traditionally bedfellows, but who cares? The tenderloin was juicy, and the crunchy cool spring roll was perfect for a summer night.

The sun was starting to set, which knocked the thermostat down a few notches. It was still a searing 98 degrees, but I was happy to take what I could get. I was also happy to see Cucina’s crispy won tons topped with tuna poke mixed with Guajillo chile, mango and avocado lined up like military troops for inspection. This was another bite that swept me away to a more tropical climate, making me almost appreciate the heat for providing the right contrast to that deliciously smooth poke mixture.

Across the aisle from Cucina, Manoli’s was busy winning the award for the evening’s best use of cold beets. Many vendors had incorporated different variations of beets into their dishes, but the little red beauties at Manoli’s were a cut above. Braised in balsamic vinegar and drizzled with some Horseradish Skordalia and Champagne Vinaigrette, these beets retained their earthy sweetness, and the unexpectedly great combo of horseradish and vinaigrette livened up the palate in the best way.

I topped the savory selection off with an impeccably conceived Confit Melon Soup from Avenues Proper. It was a pleasant surprise to see how in touch they were with subtlety. This wee shot glass of flavor was the perfect way to transition from the more savory dishes to dessert. The soup tasted like fresh cantaloupe with a bit of mango, and the thinly sliced pickled grapes provided both a lovely texture and some sweet/sour flavor to the broth. It would go especially well with Proper Burger Co.’s Johnny Utah Burger—here’s hoping we see this on the menu sometime soon.

Ice cream was a no-brainer for dessert, and the two finest vendors of said frozen treat were Amour Café and PJK’s Creamery. Amour was doling out fluffy spheres of Manhattan Stracciatella Gelato topped with a Cocktail Mix Cookie. Chef Amber Billingsley knows how to make gelato sing, and the sweet and salty cookie was an excellent gelato delivery system. The ripped dudes at PJK’s had four tasty flavors of their famous, home-churned ice cream ready to cool off the evening’s toasty attendees. I went for Buttered Popcorn Ice Cream and then I went back for Strawberry Balsamic Gelato. The Buttered Popcorn was a creamy, slightly salted wonder, and the Strawberry Balsamic had a lovely tartness paired well with the balsamic vinegar.

As the angry sun finally retreated behind the Oquirrh Mountains to bother the other side of the planet with its unwelcome inferno, I was grateful to be among such fine chefs and restaurateurs. Eat Drink SLC always serves as a tasty reminder that Utah’s food scene is worth getting out and experiencing—even if the temperature happens to be in the triple digits. –Alex Springer


Click photos for captions

ChicoTrujillo

Chico Trujillo
Reina de Todas las Fiestas

Barbès Records
Street: 06.23
Chico Trujillo = Sonora Palacios + Banda Conmoción

At the forefront of the new Chilean Cumbia movement, Chico Trujillo have come to embody a type of Latin party music that is universally applicable. As the English translation of their sixth album’s title is “Queen of All Parties,” it makes sense that their intention is to get asses out of seats and onto the dance floor. Those who are interested in partying to something that doesn’t sound like it was manufactured in a sterile lab will get a lot of mileage out of Chico Trujillo. The incorporation of the 30-piece brass juggernaut Banda Wiracocha into the band’s melting pot of musical influences—which include ska, rap and old-fashioned Mexican ranchera—creates a sound that explodes with passion and rhythm, forcing the cha-cha out of even the most stubborn of hips. –Alex Springer

sancho what if album cover

sancho what if album coverSancho
What If

Good Cheer
Street: 04.28
Sancho = The Ataris + Weezer

Portland-based quartet Sancho appear to have time-travelled to us from the power pop mecca of the mid-1990s. On their debut EP, What If, the band wrestles with the same perpetual state of rejection and self-loathing that will be familiar to anyone who has attended a Vans Warped Tour. On “Something to Talk About,” Mo Troper’s vocals explore a wide range of nuanced melancholy as he repeats, “Go on and break my heart so I have something to talk about.” While Sancho’s style veers more to the pop end of the power pop spectrum, their songs are packed with enough chunky guitar riffs and angst-ridden lyrics to reopen those pleasantly nostalgic wounds that plagued the adolescence of Generation Y. –Alex Springer

Gene Swift Band
Zinjanthropus Man
Swift Music, Ltd.
Street: 12.21.12
Gene Swift Band = Neil Young – Crazy Horse + Jimmy Buffet

I don’t know whether this album by Lehi-native Gene Swift is a ballsy effort to recapture a long-forgotten sound, or a compilation of nostalgic Americana clichés. Swift and his ensemble tackle songs about Harleys, open mountain skies and the folksy concept of “not all who wander are lost,” but they do so in a way that feels too familiar. Thematically, the album doesn’t veer too far from its classic rock roots. When it does, it’s thanks to an ever-changing crew of local musicians like Jill Sissell and Leraine Hortsmanshoff, whose talents help diversify an album that could have easily been nothing more than an homage to Dylan-esque protest-folk. Regardless, anyone who has a serious hankering for some circa-1968 American folk-rock will be well pleased with Swift’s sophomore album. –Alex Springer

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Richard Tyler Epperson

Falling Between the Stars

Self-Released

Street: 01.08

Richard Tyler Epperson = Nick Drake + Jason Mraz + Thurston Moore

My first few listens to Epperson’s debut album were spent wrapping my head around the surprisingly textured arrangement of his songs. Considering he plays all of the instruments (minus percussion) himself, it’s a pretty impressive debut. In addition to a large repertoire of musical ability, Epperson doesn’t seem tied to just one genre. While songs like ÏAt Your DoorÓ and ÏWe’re AlrightÓ have a future in the sun-drenched pop-folk realm of Jack Johnson, songs like ÏAwakeÓ and ÏSave My LifeÓ would be more at home in the fuzzy electronic world of bands like The Faunts. That being said, it’s hard to nail down Epperson’s individual style. The arrangements and genre-hopping are a testament to his musical ability, but I would like to see his next album focused around carving out a piece of turf for himself. 

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VCR5 - Rainbow Selection

VCR5
Rainbow Selection

Self-Released
Street: 06.20
VCR5 = Souleye + Sun Araw

VCR5’s (aka Joe Greathouse) latest release is part album, part music video and part instruction manual for getting the most out of your Korg ER-1 Rhythm Synthesizer. Rainbow Selection represents not only a two-disc compilation of different songs culled from Greathouse’s comprehensive collection of VHS films, but also a tutorial to show those familiar with the ER-1 how to do what he has done. The DVD is packaged with an instruction manual that explains how users can hook their ER-1 up to their DVD player to sample any one of VCR5’s 28 songs. While it’s definitely useful to those dabbling in any one of techno’s musical subgenres, the actual artistic merit of Rainbow Selection is fascinating in and of itself.

Once the DVD is up and running, an acid-washed grid of barely recognizable pixelated portraits dominates the screen. With the look and feel of the character selection screen from Capcom’s Street Fighter II, the menu urges you to pick one of the many faces staring back at you. Each portrait represents Greathouse’s musical take on a character from pop culture history—Tone Loc, Judy Garland, Luke Skywalker and many others make an appearance.

My first selection was “Burglekutt,” a name that huge nerds fans of fantasy films like Willow will definitely recognize. After a small video intro, the song launches into a hyperactive splice-up between music from the film and VCR5’s chiptune madness. Each different character delivers a similar musical profile, with some more successful than others. VCR5’s meditative style gets the best of him on tracks like “Anakin Skywalker,” which broods on a small handful of musical tones without much variance. Regardless, VCR5 is somehow able to merge several different aspects of geek culture—video games, movies—into something that is new and exciting. Whether you want to expand your own techno skills or are simply in need of a psychedelic, nerdcore backdrop to your next get-together, VCR5’s Rainbow Selection is something versatile and unique. Hear VCR5 on SLUG Soundwaves, SLUG’s podcast, at slugmag.com/soundwavesAlex Springer

Two Hours Traffic
Foolish Blood
Bumstead Records
Street: 02.19
Two Hours Traffic = Rooney + Superdrag + The New Electric Sound
On this fourth album from Canada’s Two Hours Traffic, it’s safe to say they’ve taken their ability to create breezy and catchy pop-rock to the next level. Each song on the album has the almost frustrating power to inspire head bobbing and/or toe tapping in the listener. On Foolish Blood, Two Hours Traffic worked with producer Darryl Neudorf, whose experience includes The New Pornographers, and other bands who specialize in catchiness. Neudorf has managed to bring Liam Corcoran’s crisp vocals to the forefront, as well as highlight Andrew MacDonald’s sharp guitar chords. Though the album excels at providing a catchy pop-rock soundtrack for any trip to the beach, at times the songs sound so similar that they tend to blend into one another. Overall, it’s a solid album with music that is perfect for the upcoming summer season. –Alex Springer

 

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April Fools’ Day has never been a holiday that I’ve enjoyed. As a kid, I was more often the pranked than I was the prankster. As an adult, I am filled with boiling rage every time I fall for the clickbait that all of my beloved news outlets see fit to unleash upon my Twitter feed. Luckily, this year I got to spend my April Fools’ Day far from the Internet and with a four-course meal of creatively conceived dishes at The Leonardo’s Fooling Around With Food event. The goal of the evening was to explore the different ways that our senses can be manipulated. Chef Karli Orton and Pastry Chef Greg Hernandez prepared some inventive meals that were designed to deceive the eye with their appearance; magician Eric Wanner [https://www.facebook.com/MagicManEnterprises/] entertained the guests with some mind-boggling illusions; and Dr. Silvana Martini from Utah State University was on hand to manipulate our taste buds with the West African miracle berry and the Sri Lankan gymnema sylvestre plant.

Looking over the menu gave me a little bit of an idea of what to expect. I’d seen similar menus that present savory foods as if they’re sweet and vice versa, and it’s fun to see how chefs apply this extra flair to their dishes. The first course was a faux ice cream cone made with roasted beet mashed potatoes and parmesan cheese. The cheese was melted to create a tuile, which was wrapped in a cone shape around the potatoes. It came plated with a dollop of sour cream to evoke the appearance of whipped cream. While the flavors of parmesan, roasted beets and potatoes all worked well together, I wanted the tuile cone to be more cracker-like in texture—I wanted to pick that thing up and eat it like an ice cream cone. The cheese was a bit on the rubbery side, however, making this more of a fork and knife endeavor.

The salad of course No. 2 was the most visually beautiful dish of the evening. Arranged to look like carrots that are ready to be plucked out of a micro-garden—grass, soil and all—this second course looked like it was taken from Alice in Wonderland. The grass was made from arugula leaves and tiny root veggies that peeked out of a soil mixture of rye bread crumbs and spinach dip. The root veggies and arugula were crisp, fresh and slightly peppery. The spinach dip had a nice, rich flavor, but there was a bit too much—the natural flavor of the greens and veggies got overpowered at the end.

Course No. 3 was chicken and waffles, which I was glad to see because it’s one of my favorites, but I had a tough time seeing how it fit in with the rest of the menu. The chicken had been brined before meeting the deep fryer, so it was tender and perfectly juicy. The honey BBQ maple syrup was tasty with a hint of smoke, but a little kick of spice would have really made the sweet and salty flavors wake up a bit.

The dessert course by Chef Hernandez may have been the star of the evening. It was a take on lasagna, made with cheesecake-layered puff pastry (subbed in for phyllo dough), crumbs of chocolate cake and dark cherry jam. While the lasagna shape could have given Chef Hernandez an excuse to play it safe and make a Napoleon, his use of dark chocolate and tart cherry jam actually made it taste more like that of a stellar German black forest cake.dessert by Greg Hernandez - lasagna

After dinner, it was time to subject our mouths to some serious flavor tripping. This is done by letting a pill made out of the West African miracle berry dissolve on your tongue, gathering up all the sour food that you can and putting it in your mouth. According to Dr. Martini, the miracle berry tricks your taste buds into thinking that sour is sweet. A lemon doesn’t cause uncomfortable puckering—instead, it’s like sucking on overpoweringly sweet lemonade. Salt and vinegar potato chips become thin cookies. On the flip side of that equation, attendees did a shot of liquid gymnema sylvestre, which is a plant that masks the taste buds’ ability to detect sweetness. After swishing this around in my mouth, I dumped some sugary contents onto my tongue, and was wildly unprepared for the sensation. Instead of the burst of sweet, I got nothing. It was like putting sand in my mouth and feeling it dissolve. An interesting side effect of this herb is that it amplifies sour flavors. Our flavor tripping kit included some sour candy, and it was almost too much sour to handle.

While the gourmet four-course meal might be a little trickier to come by, it’s possible to have these flavor-tripping parties on your own or with a group of friends. Both the miracle berry and gymnema sylvestre are available online, so it’s just a matter of organizing a get-together with some particularly sweet and/or sour foods.

The Leonardo has already begun scheduling several new food events for this year—keep checking out their website [www.theleonardo.org] to learn more.

 

Tomb of Annihilation | Wizards of the Coast

Wizards of the Coast

Tomb of Annihilation
dnd.wizards.com

Death has never been that big of a problem in the Forgotten Realms. If shit goes south during a dungeon raid and a party member gets themselves riddled with arrows, fatally poisoned or burned to death, it’s a minor inconvenience to get them revived. In Tomb of Annihilation, the grim reaper is not so easily cheated. Thanks to an artifact called the Soulmonger, a debilitating disease known as the Deathcurse has made it impossible for the dearly departed to be revived. To make things worse, those who have died and come back are doomed to having their souls slowly sucked from their bodies over a period of months until they eventually die for good. With permadeath lingering over every encounter, Tomb of Annihilation is the type of campaign that can bring out the best—or worst—in a dungeon master.

The narrative of the campaign begins with the group being hired by Syndra Silvane, a wealthy former adventurer who is afflicted with the Deathcurse. Her sources have tracked the Soulmonger to the ancient jungles of Chult, a setting that hasn’t been used for an officially sanctioned Dungeons and Dragons campaign since 1993’s The Jungles of Chult. With nothing but a rudimentary map and a slap on the ass, the players essentially get turned loose in a dinosaur-and-zombie-infested jungle hell.

Tomb of Annihilation | Wizards of the Coast
Tomb of Annihilation | Wizards of the Coast

At its core, Tomb of Annihilation follows a classic quest structure. The party has an objective, a deadline—Silvane is slowly dying, so each day the party spends exploring brings her closer do permanent death—and a sprawling expanse of dangerous wilderness stands in their way. Like any good campaign, Tomb of Annihilation is also strewn with sidequests that do a great job of providing interesting exposition about Chult and its history. The party may not get a chance to explore everything, but each landmark, ruin and cavern adds a lot of texture to the main narrative.

Despite its classic structure, Tomb of Annihilation offers a few standout mechanics that make it unique. First and foremost, the appendix includes two new character backgrounds—archaeologist and anthropologist—which lend themselves well to players who would like to role-play a character like Indiana Jones or Lara Croft, joining a jungle expedition in search of fortune and glory. The creature appendix adds a fascinating new supplement to the Monster Manual—murderous plants, mischievous jungle spirits and undead dinosaurs are just a few Chultan terrors—and including players in a high-stakes dinosaur race through the streets of Chult’s largest port city provides a reprieve from hacking and slashing.

I’ve never been a huge fan of running a game where the players have to keep track of their food and water, but Tomb of Annihilation is much more fun when the DM takes a Werner Herzog approach—exploring the jungle in and of itself needs to feel like it’s pushing the players’ bodies to the limit. The campaign offers plenty of resources for DMs who want to be a bit more punishing to their players. First of all, navigation checks need to be made daily to see if the party is actually going the right way. A bad roll means that the team could wander into a deadly cluster of man-eating plants, or become ambushed by a raiding party of poisonous frog people called Grungs. This was one of my favorite parts of the adventure—DMs who enjoy playing by the seat of their pants will get a kick out of either making up encounters on the spot or using the campaign’s handy encounter generator. Tomb of Annihilation is also one of the more handout-heavy campaigns that I’ve come across. The later chapters of the campaign hinge tightly on the fulcrum of puzzle-solving and critical thinking, so the appendix is packed with handouts that conjure up the flavor of ancient inscriptions and puzzle pieces.

When stacked up against Storm King’s Thunder, Tomb of Annihilation feels blessedly streamlined and adventure-focused. There are no politics to navigate, no sieges to weather—it’s just a deep dive into an unforgiving wilderness to destroy an artifact that can’t be destroyed. Its well-organized library of destinations and its exhaustive supply of random jungle encounters make this a great campaign for a first-time DM to pick up, but it also has plenty of room for veteran DMs to mix things up a bit. –Alex Springer

(L–R) Anthony and Joe Russo will offer $25,000 to an adventurous Slamdance indie filmmaker from this year’s festival. | Photo courtesy of Slamdance

It’s around 9:30 p.m. on the night before the new trailer for Avengers: Infinity War is scheduled to go wide, and I’m waiting for a phone call from Joe Russo. For all I know, he and his brother, Anthony Russo, are finalizing a few last-minute touches on the trailer for what promises to be one of the biggest films of 2018, and he’s gonna call me? For a moment, the whole situation feels unreal—like I was the butt of a cruel joke engineered by my editors. But, sure enough, my phone rings and on the other end is 50 percent of arguably the most important directing duo in the known universe.

So why, you may ask, is he calling a punkass like me? Because SLUG is in Utah, and Utah happens to be home to the Slamdance Film Festival—a festival that holds a place of reverence in the two filmmakers’ hearts. They recently revealed that this year’s Slamdance would see the inaugural presentation of the Russo Brothers Fellowship Grant, a prize that includes mentorship from the Russos, an office at their new studio in Los Angeles, and $25,000 to finance one lucky filmmaker’s next big project. “We feel that we owe a karmic debt to the universe,” Joe says. “We really felt like this was a great opportunity to give back to Slamdance, which gave so much to us.”

Before Joe and Anthony Russo became well-known directors by helming key episodes of Arrested Development and Community, and eventually taking the reins of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War, the brothers were like most indie filmmakers—passionate, starving and driven. In the mid-’90s, the brothers made a film called Pieces, which they shopped around for distribution in New York. “It was the kind of market where you sell commercial movies, but ours was noncommercial, so most everyone walked out of the theater during the first screening, except for a few people at the end,” Joe says. “They introduced themselves to me and my brother and said they were the founders of Slamdance, and wanted to know if we would show the movie at their festival.” When Pieces premiered at Slamdance in 1997, it caught the attention of industry veteran Steven Soderbergh (Ocean’s Eleven, Logan Lucky), who offered to produce the Russos’ next film, the 2002 heist comedy Welcome to Collinwood. “It jump-started our entire career,” Joe says.

For many wide-eyed, sleep-deprived indie filmmakers, the Russo brothers represent a Cinderella story of sorts—the possibility that the right film at the right time can launch their creative voices into the stratosphere. “Undiscovered voices are what ultimately drive the film business into places that it normally wouldn’t go,” Joe says. “It’s invaluable for a festival like Slamdance to exist because it’s one of the only places where you can discover those unique voices.” Joe credits Slamdance’s role in independent cinema to the festival’s President and Co-founder, Peter Baxter, whose unwavering vision has made the festival what it is today. “Peter is one of the foremost scions of independent film in the country,” Joe says. “He’s a dear friend of ours, and a real champion of independent voices. It’s a dream come true to give back to him what he gave to us all those years ago.”

As Slamdance 2018 will be the first year that the Russo brothers will offer their grant, they are looking for fearless filmmakers who aren’t afraid to lob a Hail Mary or two in the pursuit of transforming the medium of cinema. “Most movie-goers are so sophisticated now that their palate is so in tune with three-act-structure storytelling that it’s hard to find ways to surprise them,” Joe says. “We’re looking for voices that are disruptive and take chances to bring something new to the table and point us toward more groundbreaking ways to tell stories.”

For those who doubt the indie circuit’s impact on commercial filmmaking, take a moment to look at Marvel’s current recruitment record. In addition to the Russo brothers, Marvel has sought out filmmakers like James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy) and Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok) to direct their biggest films precisely because they had the grit and creativity to make wonderful things happen with their own independent projects. “Marvel is doing what Slamdance does,” Joe says. “They look for unique voices and radical storytellers who are going to bring something different and exciting to each story, and it’s been very effective for them to bring people from outside the machine to tell stories from inside the machine.”

With Slamdance fast approaching, it’s the perfect time for hotshot new filmmakers to check out the festival and light the fire under their asses to get ready for 2019. “We used to tell young filmmakers to pick up a camera and just start shooting, but now you can just pick up your phone,” Joe says. “It’s less of a risk now because you can do what we did for much cheaper, so I would encourage young filmmakers to just get out there with their cameras.” For risk-taking filmmakers who are looking for a little extra incentive to be daring, take heart in the fact that Joe and Anthony Russo will be watching.

The Slamdance Film Festival takes place Jan. 19–25 in Park City. Learn more at slamdance.com.

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