THE BLOG
03/26/2013 05:01 pm ET Updated May 26, 2013

On the Culture Front: Ben Howard, Punch Brothers, Belleville, The Flick and more

It's been a packed month of culture. I finally made it down to the Barclays Center for Mumford and Sons in February and was really glad I did. The space is more intimate and has better acoustics than Madison Square Garden. As a lot of people who love Brooklyn, I was pretty opposed to the Atlantic Yards project, but it seems to have potential to be a positive addition to the cultural landscape. Mumford played a long slew of their most popular songs ("I Will Wait", etc.) and closed with a cover of The Band's "The Weight" in tribute to the late Levon Helm. They were solid, but the real surprise for me was their opener, Ben Howard. He sold out a headlining gig at Terminal 5 the night before and it's easy to see why. In a tight, 40-minute set, the English singer/songwriter layered rhythmic guitar riffs over soulful melodies that belie darker lyrics. He channeled the dynamic stage presence of The Tallest Man on Earth while possessing a sound all his own that blends roots and blues with a healthy dose of unadulterated folk.

The weekend before I caught one of my favorite bluegrass-based acts, The Punch Brothers, at one of my favorite D.C. venues, the 9:30 Club. Led by mandolinist Chris Thile, the group couples ferocious jamming with lyrical stories about mystical epic journeys in search of love and the smaller but no less baffling ones of personal loss. I've seen Thile many times in many incarnations -- the first was solo singing a fast-paced breakup song at a free River to River concert -- and he never disappoints. Whether as a duo with Michael Daves at the Newport Folk Festival or with the Punch Brothers on a tiny outdoor stage at the North Sea Jazz Festival, he never disappoints. The sold out crowd at 9:30 seemed enthralled, if a bit on the chatty side (we moved a couple times to avoid drunken shouters). Highlights included the charged "Down on Dixie Line" off their new album Ahoy! and a rendition of The Band's "Ophilia" that would make Levon proud.

On the theater front, I was blown away by Amy Herzog's chilling new play, Belleville at New York Theatre Workshop. She has a great ear for naturalistic dialogue and uses it here to draw us into the lives of a young expat couple living in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris. We begin in familiar Herzog territory, peering into the comfortable cohabitation of Zach (Greg Keller) and Abby (Maria Dizzia). She comes home early one day and catches him masturbating to internet porn. He's embarrassed and she's a little annoyed but they laugh it off and seem to fall back into their comfortable routine. Belleville unfolds in a delightfully suspenseful way. It's better to go in with as little knowledge as possible, so stop reading and book your tickets. It's been extended until April 14th.

Playwrights Horizons, who staged Herzog's solid if slightly boilerplate drama, The Great God Pan, earlier this year, is currently producing one of their most experimental shows in recent years. Annie Baker's The Flick (running through April 7th) spends a whopping three and a half hours in a small town movie theater following the stagnant lives of three of its employees. Set in a movie theater, the first image is the blinding projector light with lush Hollywood score filling the seats. After a few minutes the lights come up to reveal an empty theater. Sam (Matthew Maher) and Avery (Aaron Clifton Moten) walk in and begin cleaning, saying very little. It's Avery's first day on the job and Sam is walking him through the menial job tasks. The other worker, Rose, has been recently promoted to run the projector, and Sam resents her but also has a crush on her. There's a sense of isolation that runs through the play and the lack of action can be tedious, but this is the pace of these characters lives. Baker and director Sam Gold bring us deep into the monotony so we can taste the stale popcorn they're forced to serve as we feel the days blending into each other. It's one of the most authentic shows out now.

On the other end of the spectrum is Kneehigh's fantastical production of The Wild Bride at St. Ann's Warehouse. Adapted (from the ancient Hungarian story, "The Handless Maiden") and directed by Emma Rice, it's the familiar "selling your soul to the devil cautionary tale" richly drawn out to span the course of a woman's life who's cursed early on when her father unwittingly promises her to a dapper Lucifer in exchange for material wealth. Rice uses simple costumes and color in a deeply evocative way and original songs by Carl Grose and Stu Baker contrast a low-key rootsy vibe nicely with the epic scope of the story.

Finally, the Doe Fund put on a nice benefit at the Classic Car Club in Soho. The foodie event featured a range of bites from Food Network chef Madison Cowan and restaurants like BLT Prime, Smorgas and my personal favorite, The Dalloway. The highlight though was The Cupcake Bartender who fashioned desert bites using flavors of classic drinks. The Jack and Coke was particularly tasty. All in all a fun night for an organization that develops programs to break the cycle of homelessness and addiction and give recently released convicts an opportunity to reenter the work force.