Out of all the seasons, summer is the easiest to romanticize from afar. The further you get away from it, as the leaves fade from autumnal splendor and the chill turns to a bitter and biting cold, there’s nothing more precious than the memory of roaming free and happy on summer afternoons.
The closer you get to it, though, the more your illusions begin to fade. The waning days of spring exist in a sort of limbo between hope and dread, especially for Southerners expecting triple digits on the thermometer. Some of us are investing in swimsuits, barbeque and Ramones records, while others are calculating the damage their air conditioners will do to the power bill and stocking up on sunblock and extra undershirts.
On the pessimists’ side, it doesn’t help that Birmingham, like most cities in the summer, can take on the lush aroma of sizzling asphalt (with just an afternote of warm garbage). And a lot of people still honestly believe that there’s nothing to do downtown in the summer since City Stages went bust, which can be a real drag on the excitement.
Thankfully, that particular myth doesn’t have legs. There is an excellent slate of festivals and other events coming to the Magic City in the summer of 2013, whether you’re on the lookout for the welcome return of old favorites, the early stages of new traditions, or a truly exciting collection of visiting performers.
As most Birmingham citizens know by now, perhaps the crown jewel of our summer entertainment season is the Sidewalk Film Festival, which will be turning downtown’s theater district into a haven for arthouse and independent cinema for the 15th time on August 23-25. Last year’s festival included selections like the engrossing, dreamlike New Orleans documentary Tchoupitoulas, the controversial psychodrama Compliance and Best Alabama Feature winner Eating Alabama.
Before the main event, Sidewalk will be continuing its E-Series throughout the summer, in which it screens films based around subjects like the environment and equality, then holds panel discussions with local experts to discuss how they relate to Birmingham. On May 25, they’ll also host the Salsa Showdown at Avondale Brewing Company, in which Birminghamians find out once and for all, through the very scientific process of eating things, which local restaurant serves the best chips, salsa and queso.
Every Thursday in June, you can also head on over to the Alabama Theatre to see the films of the Weld Film Series, which just happen to be among the best ever made. The Graduate, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Dr. Strangelove and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World aren’t a bad primer for the most important (and most entertaining) films of the ‘60s.
In addition to faithful standbys like Do Dah Day this weekend, there are also younger festivals still cementing their place among Birmingham’s classics.
Perhaps the most adventurous is the Alabama Phoenix Festival, which will take place at the Cahaba Grand Conference Center on May 24-26. The festival is held for the stated purpose of “celebrating creativity and imagination,” which means, without looking too far between the lines, letting your geek flag fly. With panel discussion topics like “[Buffy the Vampire Slayer creator Joss] Whedon,” “Costuming,” and “Steampunk,” Alabama Phoenix Festival is going out of its way to be a safe haven for nerdkind.
Snide remarks aside, the imagination is a worthy thing to celebrate, and it’s something that all too rarely finds safe purchase in places like Alabama. If the festival succeeds, it won’t merely be because of its dizzying array of activities; it’ll be because a mutual appreciation of the fun and heart of escapist fiction has taken root.
For a more traditionally Alabamian good time, you might head down to Bessemer on June 1 for the Bob Sykes BBQ and Blues Festival. Now in its fourth edition, the festival – benefiting Hands On Birmingham and the Bessemer Education Enhancement Foundation – celebrates two of the South’s most venerable pastimes in historic DeBardeleben Park. The festival also has an anthropomorphic pig for a logo, which is a reliable guideline for the quality of the barbeque.
Sights and sounds
Birmingham’s streak of excellent music scheduling in the summer continues with aplomb in 2013. Even without great gets like surf rockers Best Coast (playing WorkPlay on May 30), indie folk stalwarts the Mountain Goats (playing Bottletree June 22), and all-around hip-hop superhero Big Boi (playing Avondale Brewing Company June 2 along with the great Killer Mike), there still would be a number of special events and series to distinguish the summer.
Alys Stephens makes a strong push for the most indispensable venue of the season with its 2013 Summer Series. The headliners here are two of America’s most successful and cherished singer-songwriters, Lyle Lovett and Josh Ritter, who will play July 24 and June 29, respectively. If you had to pick two standard bearers for modern American folk music, you could do a lot worse than these two. The Summer Series will also include a performance of the Beatles’ White Album in its entirety by local cover impresarios the Black Jacket Symphony on August 23.
On May 25, the Bottletree will present a well-deserved tribute to the music of cosmic jazz legend Sun Ra, a Birmingham native who has little more than a meager footstone to mark him. To do justice by the larger-than-life personality – the afrofuturist claimed he was from Saturn, and he made musicians like George Clinton and Bootsy Collins possible – a group of musicians and artists led by famed jazzman Doc Adams will perform and raise money for an appropriately flamboyant “monument/hologram” on 4th Avenue N.
Shifting gears from the past to the future, Secret Stages will return to carry the torch for local music in Birmingham on August 2-3. Last year, it gave early showcases to rising stars St. Paul and the Broken Bones and Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires. Even with established acts like the Great Book of John in the lineup, half the fun is trying to predict the next breakout star among our local talent.
Fans of stand-up comedy should also note that Hannibal Buress, who’s performed on Louis C.K.’s seminal Louie – when he’s not busy making a cottage industry of destroying hecklers – will be performing at Iron City on June 18. Rob Delaney, the deeply weird, unfiltered and hilarious king of alternative comedy on Twitter, will perform at the Bottletree on June 28.
Food and drink
It’s hard to imagine a better time for lovers of good food and good drink in Birmingham than right now, and this summer will have some of the year’s highlights for the city’s foodies.
We’ve come a long way since 2009, when Free the Hops succeeded in pushing the Gourmet Beer Bill through the Alabama statehouse. Now, every summer has a powerful, exuberant reminder of just how much we have to celebrate in Magic City Brewfest. This year’s edition will take place at Sloss Furnaces on May 31 and June 1, and in addition to selections from most of the great craft breweries in America – including Bell’s, Founders, Oskar Blues and Sierra Nevada – the J. Clyde will also provide a cask garden of Alabama craft beers. There will also be live music from the Old Paints, a local act whose folk charms perfectly complement an evening of beer drinking.
That same weekend, Slice Pizza and Brew will try its hand at the festival scene with SliceFest 2013, a day-long celebration of the ordained union of pizza and beer on June 1. The day’s live music will include sets from Rollin’ in the Hay, Banditos, and bluesy headliner JJ Grey & Mofro.
On July 4, America will celebrate its 237th birthday. Slightly less famously, Good People Brewing Company will celebrate the fifth anniversary of the first keg it sold with a Red, White and Brews pub crawl through Five Points South. After five years’ investment into beards, flannel and hops, the folks at Good People have earned the chance to solemnly reflect on how far they’ve come. Or just to party. The rest of Birmingham’s beer lovers are welcome to party – er, solemnly reflect – with them.
Finally, REV Birmingham, working in tandem with Regions Bank, will present the city’s fourth annual Birmingham Restaurant Week from August 16-25. The ten-day (it’s a long week) celebration of Birmingham cuisine, which already has the participation of such restaurants as Silvertron Café, Bottega, Urban Standard and Chez Fonfon, features participating locations offering specials meals at lunch and dinner ranging from $5 to $30.
Weld’s guide to the summer is hardly exhaustive, as many new events will crop up in the next few months, and others still slip under even our formidable radar. Like Walt Whitman in “Song of Myself,” the Magic City contains multitudes, and as new events crop up, we’ll keep you updated.
In the meantime, we hope this guide will serve you well as a handy primer for constructing your summer.