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On the Culture Front: New Film Prince, Ciderfeast, Stacey Kent and More

One of the great privileges about covering culture in New York is the constant opportunity for discovery. Stacey Kent is a Grammy-nominated jazz singer with more than twenty years experience, but I heard her for the first time the other week when she took the stage at Birdland.
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One of the great privileges about covering culture in New York is the constant opportunity for discovery. Stacey Kent is a Grammy-nominated jazz singer with more than twenty years experience, but I heard her for the first time the other week when she took the stage at Birdland. One thing that struck me is how effortless her phrasing feels as words to flow out of her lungs with a percussive inevitability. Old show tune standards were peppered throughout both sets as well as originals written by her bandmate and husband Jim Tomlinson, but what really stood out was the Bossa Nova songs. She sang the Jobim classic "Waters of March" twice throughout the evening though I didn't tire hearing it the second time around. Its stream-of-consciousness vibe is as delicate as it is driving, and Kent's sultry croon proved fitting.

There's nothing sultry or crooning about the Smashing Pumpkins' frontman (and sometimes sole man) Billy Corgan. His voice has a piercing nasality that's the sonic equivalent of angular. I first heard it watching the music video for "Today" as a young kid and was captivated. Sadly, he didn't play that one at his Jones Beach show the other week but the set hit other nostalgic notes and reminded me of how much I loved "Melancholy and the Infinite Sadness." Early on he belted out "Tonight, Tonight" and "Bullet with Butterfly Wings," in which he sings, "despite all my rage, I am still just a rat in a cage" - a line that could describe the experience of trying to get to Jones Beach without a car. With a train station quite far from the venue and no shuttles, it's a pricey endeavor that makes you feel gouged at every turn. As do the $13 cans of Budweiser. Earlier in the evening, Marilyn Manson's rants hit a different nostalgic chord. Once shocking, he is now a well-oiled machine whose staged antics against the pageantry of religion has become its own pageantry in an absurd turn. I realized this when he stood on a podium to burn a bible, and I let out a mildly amused smirk. He sounded as strong as ever though as did Twiggy and the rest of the band and when they played "The Dope Show," I was all in.

Fiona Apple had a lackadaisical presence when she took the stage at City Winery for the Watkins Family Hour, the popular live show created by siblings Sara and Sean Watkins (both formerly of Nickel Creek). She often sat cross-legged in a corner of the stage watching her bandmates with an introverted bemusement and the mannerisms of a puppy or small child being introduced to the world. She came live for the last five or so songs. Her voice has such a driving melodic intent - something I was first wowed by with "Shadowboxer" - and although she didn't play any originals, the interplay with the Watkins' was quite satisfying. The show flows like a well-organized jam session that could be the lovechild of the Carter Family Fold and the late Levon Helm's midnight ramble. With acoustic guitar and fiddle, there's a bluegrass roots vibe to the set of covers which makes up the group's recently released debut album. Sara and Sean have great banter throughout but the show peaks when they invite friends on stage. Tift Merritt was a particular highlight the night I went.

On the culinary and drinking front, there were a couple happy surprises this week. The Wayfarer on 57th street, just down the block from Carnegie Hall, turned out to be way better than its complacently pricey neighborhood would suggest. Fried oysters put back in their shells made the classic dish pop though the raw ones burst with a fresh briny flavor I can't resist. The vegetable lasagna with wild mushrooms and black kale didn't make me miss meat, but just to be safe I followed it up with some of the most delicate bone marrow I've had. It's served in a dish with filet mignon and sweet shallots. I'll be thinking about that dish for a while. Desert was a decadent affair with a make your own cake. Squeezing butterscotch frosting onto a piece of the pillowy chocolate base was a lot of fun and went well with the aptly named "Man About Town" cocktail. Made with Makers, green chartreuse, sweet vermouth, bitters, and a scotch rinse: this is a hell of a drink set on conjuring Don Draper.

Ciderfeast gave me a deeper understanding of the complex and varied world of cider. Organized by local food and drink maven Jimmy Carbone, the event took over a quiet sliver of the east river this past weekend for an epic tasting. I started the day with a Copenhagen Street Dog and the French-made Aval, which hit more notes of a dry white wine than what I thought was possible of the fermented apple product. I noted that many other fine ones exuded this quality but like craft beer, the flavor possibilities are vast. One of my favorites was a bourbon cider made by Brooklyn-based Big Apple who also made the more quaffable "Hipster." Descendant Cider Heritage Dry was true to its name and fit for an oenophile. Shacksbury, which hails from Vermont, brought a rare concoction they call "Lost and Found," wildly vermented and bottle conditioned, it drank like a funky cask beer.

On the film front, I saw a screening of Sam de Jong's wildly inventive and deeply felt debut, "Prince," which comes out this Friday. This gritty coming-of-age tale is set in the low-income outskirts of Amsterdam (which looks downright middle class compared to our projects) and is populated by outsized characters like the Lamborghini driving faux criminal mastermind, Kalpa. At the center is teenage protagonist, Ayoub, who longs for his sister's friend and makes fumbled and increasingly more grave attempts to gain her affection. Jong walks a fine line between whimsy and brutality. There's an optimistic rebellious vibe reminiscent of John Hughes, but it exists in the easily threatened space of raw realism. Ayoub's father is a heroin addict and their relationship is as complicated as it is heartbreaking. Seamlessly weaving easy laughs into uneasy situations, "Prince" is easily one of the best movies I've seen this summer.