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Thursday, December 14, 2017

Casual album discussion: U2, War

U2 had a new album out, Songs of Experience, so I have decided to go back and revisit their back catalog.

U2: War. Sometimes it’s hard to remember a time when U2 wasn’t huge, though they were getting there with War. They were still the earnest and idealistic young Irishmen and not yet the established corporate dad rockers of today. And in 1983, they were virtually unknown in my little corner of the world: Michigan’s Thumb region.
It’s even more mind-blowing when I ponder the fact that I’ve been listening to this band since I was about 17-years-old, and now I’m almost 50—and they are still together making music.
Our school was dominated in the eighties by the likes of Ratt, Motley Crue, Def Leppard, Van Halen, and Quiet Riot.  If U2 were thought of at all, it was as prissy sensitive boys who definitely didn’t rock as hard as the metal gods adored by most of the people in my school. I kept my U2 fandom to myself for the most part. I didn’t need any more trouble than I already had at my school. One of my parting shots my senior year was to vote U2 as "favorite band." (Van Halen was the winner. I have no idea how many votes U2 received. Probably one).
If you have forgotten why U2 became famous, or the era of their greatness seems distant, then pick up War and give it a listen. U2 are confident and full of swagger. They may not yet be accomplished musicians at this point, but they believe in themselves and that comes through on War.  Songs like "Sunday Bloody Sunday" and my favorite, "New Years Day," retain the power they had in 1982.  Dave "The Edge" Evans' siren-like guitar in "New Years Day" gets me every time I hear it, and I've  heard the song hundreds if not thousands of times.

The album catches U2 as they were fully embracing politics, but before Bono irritated half the world by becoming overly didactic. (I recently listened to Rattle and Hum again for the first time in a few years and I gotta say some of it is practically unlistenable. I will defend U2 until my dying day, but even I wanted to reach through my stereo speaker and punch Bono in the nose a few times--and I agree with about 95 percent of his political stance).

This takes me to my relationship with U2. Achtung Baby was the last U2 album to blow me away, and How To Dismantle an Atomic Bomb was the last of their albums I enjoyed from beginning to end. Still, I continue to buy their albums out of a sense of obligation. They feel like postcards you might receive every few years from an old friend whom you don't see often anymore and maybe don't have as much in common with anymore. Still, you have enough connection and personal history to still be interested in what they're up to. So though U2's last three albums haven't wowed me, I'm still curious to hear what they're up to.

And then when you want to remember why you fell in love with them in the first place, you return to an album like War.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Casual album discussion: Fairport Convention's self-titled debut

I'm trying to shake up this blog a little bit, so this is the first in a series (?) in which I take a random album from my collection, listen to it, and then just briefly discuss it. Nothing deep and profound, the aim is to be conversational.

So the first album is the 1968 self-titled debut by English folk-rock band Fairport Convention. I chose this because I happen to be reading record producer Joe Boyd's memoir White Bicycle: Making Music in the 1960s. It's a book I picked up at Elliott Bay Books in Seattle, Washington. (Shameless vacation mention and indie bookstore name drop). Joe Boyd, among many other act including Nick Drake, was behind the board for Fairport Conventions stellar recorded output from 1968 to the early 1970s.

I got into Fairport Convention quite by accident. I heard their 1969 album Liege and Lief at a Borders' listening station sometime in the mid-'90s. I'm pretty sure I'd read a little bit about them before, probably in the Rolling Stone Record Guide. I'm sure there were several "five star" albums in there, but I never actually saw a Fairport album until I happened to be in that Border's Books and Music store in Novi, Michigan.

(As an aside, rest in peace Borders. Moment of silence, please).

The first Fairport album is not as great as what they would later accomplish, but it's still damned good. For one thing, it's the first time that the world got to hear Richard Thompson's brilliant guitar playing, and Thompson is definitely one of the stars of this album.

Fairport Convention, at this stage in their career, was clearly borrowing heavily from American West Coast folk rock. It's easy to find shades of Jefferson Airplane, the Byrds, and Buffalo Springfield. Like the Airplane, Fairport had a female singer, which on this album is Judy Dyble. She sings a lovely rendition of Joni Mitchell's "I Don't Know Where I Stand" as well as contributing to other songs. This, however, would be her only album. She was replaced by the immortal Sandy Denny.

Fairport Convention also has a great cover, featuring a few members of the band brooding towards the camera in a dark room, only slightly illuminated by a Tiffany table lamp. I just love the cover. Maybe I'm alone in that, I don't know.

Here are some songs that particularly stand out for me:

"Time Will Show the Wiser" is an English-y, folky tune that kind of points towards the direction Fairport took on the their next albums.

"Decameron" is gorgeous with its gently strummed guitar and gently vocals.

"Jack o Diamonds" is an old blues song that the band arranges into a rocker (really the only all out rocker on the album). I can hear traces of the Who's mid-'60s sound in this, and I swear that Shocking Blue might have taken some notes for "Venus" from Fairport's arrangement of "Jack o Diamonds."

"Lobster" is a truly unusual (hell, truly bizarre) song that has a psychedelic feel that Fairport would abandon after this album.

Fairport Convention's debut is a fine album, and I'm happy that I revisited it after several years of not listening to it. However for anyone unfamiliar with Fairport, I wouldn't recommend starting here. Pick up Liege and Lief (their masterpiece) and work your way backwards and forwards. Once you work back to the debut, you'll gain a fuller appreciation and the record will make more sense.

Monday, November 27, 2017

A short dispatch

I know it's been awhile since I last wrote in here. I am currently plugging away on a "review" of the Tragically Hip's Fully Completely, the fourth installment in my ongoing look at the Hip's discography. Unfortunately, this Fully Completely post has become an albatross. I feel as if I will need to either do some heavy editing or just publish it in two parts. I'm leaning to two parts in order to make it more digestible for anyone who might want to read it.

As for when I will hoist this colossus upon my dear readers, I hope within the next week. But we'll see.

So what else is new? I'm surviving our Idiot-in-Chief, often trying as much as I can to forget that he is president. It's about the only way to keep my sanity. Still, the man does at least one embarrassing thing every day and he is difficult to ignore. And really when you get down to it, he's too dangerous to completely ignore.

I'm cutting this post short because it's getting late, but just wanted to let you know what I'm up to and that I haven't forgotten about you.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Gord Downie

The moment that all Tragically Hip/Gord Downie fans have been dreading since May 2016 happened today: we learned of Gord Downie's death.
After battling terminal brain cancer for almost two years, Gord passed away last night at home, surrounded by family and friends.
I learned the news this morning from the official Tragically Hip Facebook page's post. Even though I knew that this was inevitable, it still came as a shock. A bit like getting the glaucoma "puff of air in the eye" test at the optometrist: even though you know that puff is coming, you still flinch when you get the blast of air in your eyeball. I don't mean to be too flippant with the comparison--clearly death is much more profound than a little test at the optometrist's office--but that's the best I can come up with.
So, if you will, this was a "puff of bad news" and I flinched. Even though I was expecting it, it still was stunning.
The entire day has been watching the remembrances and salutes coming in, some from unexpected sources (the New York Times ran a fairly long piece about Gord's upcoming--now posthumous--album Introduce Yerself; the uber-hipster Pitchfork and Stereogum published pieces about Gord, and the mainstream Rolling Stone had a remembrance--though in their Facebook post they referred to Gord Downie as "Berry Gordy." Wtf?).
I have also been commiserating with fellow Hip fans on the Tragically Hip Fan Forum. So the mourning has been very much social media-based.
It is late and I'm tired, so I haven't much more to add. I suppose that among all of the recent musical deaths, this is the one I feel most personally. I connected to Gord, his persona, musicianship, and lyrics in a way far beyond anyone else (with the possible exception of Ray Davies and John Lennon). But Gord was only four years older than me. He felt like an older brother, in a way. He seemed more human than any other rock star/celebrity I can think of--and this may be due to the Hip not having international fame. They were "my little band," and Gord came across as someone I could imagine drinking a beer with and shooting the breeze about music or hockey.
Without Gord Downie, this American would probably have never heard of Bobcaygeon, Bill Barilko, David Milgaard, Tom Thomson, Algonquin Park, "the Paris of the Prairie," Attawapiskat, and Churchill (Manitoba), just to name a few figures and places of the Canadian historical landscape. Gord gave me a deeper appreciation of Canada's natural landscape and social history.
I saw the Hip in concert twice, and both times I came away amazed at the energy Gord brought to the stage. Here was a guy only a few years older than myself. He seemed like a model of how to age gracefully. To some degree, I saw him as a role model. He seemed like someone that was impervious to illness, but even Gord is human. Gord's illness and death is further proof--as if I needed any--that nobody gets out of here alive. That it happened to him at age 53 just seems completely unfair, though.
At least Gord stared down mortality with bravery and resilience. 2016 and 2017 were probably his most productive years on earth. Rather than slow down, his band released an album and embarked on a cross-Canada tour met by adoring crowds. Then Gord released the Secret Path album and film; devoting his final year to reconciliation between First Nations and the government of Canada. His final act is a 23-track solo album, Introduce Yerself, that will be released posthumously.
When the Hip toured in summer 2016, Gord decided to go all out. He changed his stage apparel from his usual dark pants/jeans, white button-down shirt, and vest to sparkly, shiny, bright leather suits topped off with a feathered hat. Gord new this was his last waltz with the Hip and he was going out in style, and he was not going to let cancer bring him down without a fight.  (As an aside, the outfit became a popular Canadian Halloween costume last year). Gord showed all of us how to face death with defiance, and I hope that if I am ever faced with the same situation, I will somehow summon the strength to follow Gord's lead. I don't honestly know if I could ever be so brave.

When the Man Machine Poem tour ended and he transitioned to the Secret Path concerts and album/film release, Gord appeared in public in a "Canadian tuxedo" of jean jacket and jean pants. The seriousness and solemnity of the Chanie Wenjack story and the struggles of the First Nations was not a time for flashy sartorial style, and with what Gord was going through personally, I doubt that he cared.

I am writing this while also trying to work, so I am feeling distracted. I'm not quite sure how to finish this post. I will conclude by simply stating that Gord will be missed, but he left a body of work--musical and social--that will continue to live on for years and decades to come. He made a profound impact on my life, and I am so happy that I discovered his brilliance.

Friday, September 22, 2017

A post for late September

It's been awhile since I have written in here, but what else is new?

When I left off, our president had issued a wishy-washy response to racism in Charlottesville, Virginia. In the month since, we have seen a hurricane ravage Texas, another one punish Florida, and yet another hurricane decimate Puerto Rico. An earthquake has done significant damage in Mexico. North Korea and the U.S. continue to escalate the smack talk and posturing, and our Middle Schooler-In-Chief doesn't help himself much with his juvenile name calling and boasting, though his loyal fanbase eats up his hollow tough guy talk.  Meanwhile, the rest of us wake up each morning in a perpetual state of unease.

It's such a crazy world we live in that John McCain, with his resistance to the replace and repeal of the ACA ("Obamacare") has emerged as a voice of reason. Who saw that coming?

When I'm not looking at my phone and dreading what I'll see, ("Have the missiles been launched yet?", etc.), I'm trying to keep myself sane by doing what I always do: I'm running, walking, listening to music, trying to watch some decent television here and there, and at least attempting to read honest-to-goodness BOOKS.

I'm still plugging away with the running and trying to stay reasonably fit physically and mentally. I suppose the hip new terminology is "mindfulness" and running helps with this. When I am out running, it's just me vs. the distance. Nothing else matters. It may just be the most basic and primal sort of exercise there is. When I run, my thoughts and worries disappear and it becomes simply me, nature, the road, and getting my body and mind to make it five kilometers. It's not necessarily enjoyable while the run is taking place--some are better and more pleasurable than others--but that is the point. By engaging in a primal and basic activity, I free myself from the baggage of the material world. There is something a bit Zen-like about running. So it is an activity that I continue to engage in. I can see and feel the positive impact it has on me.

As far as music goes, I've been on a Husker Du kick of late, after the unfortunate death of drummer/singer/songwriter Grant Hart. I got into them a little bit in college, when a guy I worked with in the cafeteria did the whole, "Say man, you gotta listen to these guys" thing as he loaned me his cassette copy of the Du's 1986 album Candy Apple Grey. Though The Replacements were my Twin Cities band of choice, I enjoyed Candy Apple Grey quite a bit. But for some time it was the only Husker Du I really knew well. Eventually I would devour their entire discography. I fell in love with their two 1985 albums, New Day Rising and Flip Your Wig. (Although their masterpiece is generally acknowledged to be 1984's Zen Arcade, I have never entirely warmed to that album, though it has some classic tracks on it). Grant Hart was a songwriter certainly on a par with Bob Mould. Grant was sort of a "punk rock McCartney" to "Bob's punk rock Lennon". Grant had a sweeter voice than Bob, and his songs were a bit more melodic and hookier than Bob's. To hear what I'm talking about, give a listen to "Girl Who Lives on Heaven Hill," "Green Eyes," "Flexible Flyer," "Books About UFOs," or "Dead Set on Destruction." It is distorted punky power pop bliss at its finest, with clever lyrics to boot. Grant could be equal parts optimistic, nostalgic and vulnerable. Kurt Cobain and Black Francis, to name a few, owe him a lot.

It is getting late and I want to get this blog post in the can before it gets too late, or I fall asleep, or I accidentally delete it. 'Til we meet again...

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

...I take that back, Trump is okay with racists

In a news conference (of sorts) yesterday, Trump reverted back to the nonsense he blurted on Saturday, blaming "both sides" and essentially apologizing for the alt-right (i.e. racists). He even compared famous traitor Robert E. Lee to non-traitor George Washington. (Sorry Confederate apologists, I don't give a damn that he was fighting for old Virginia. I don't care that "life was different" in the 1860s. He took an oath to protect the United States of American and he betrayed that oath).

I can't keep up with the lunacy coming out of the Trump White House on a daily basis. The narrative seems to constantly change.

Is Trump truly a racist or just that stupid? I don't know, maybe a bit of both. (Actually, there is no doubt in my mind that Trump is a racist).  How the hell does the president of the United States excuse the behavior of white supremacists? If you're Donald Trump, that's what you do. At least Trump has made it perfectly clear where he if there was ever any doubt.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Trump kinda sorta condemns racists

So Trump finally came out and "condemned" the Charlottesville racists. I am not congratulating him.

He only did it due to pressure.

He did nothing all day Sunday.

It took Trump two full days to kind of, sort of "do the right thing" and, let's face it, he only did it because of the justifiably terrible fallout he experienced on Saturday and Sunday. I do not believe there is an ounce of sincerity in his words.

If ever there was a litmus test for Trump's true feelings about racism, and how he would respond to overt expressions of racist violence, it was on Saturday in Charlottesville. Trump failed miserably.

To make matters worse, after he finished with his statements yesterday, he blew up at a reporter and reverted to his usual petulant child mentality. This guy absolutely cannot make it through a single day without making an ass of himself.

That's where we are right now. I'm sure by tomorrow we will have moved on to some new inanity with this ridiculous administration.

Monday, August 14, 2017

Another dispatch from Trump's America: Fascism in Charlottesville edition

First of all, it seems that something crazy happens almost every day under the Trump regime, so it's hard to keep it straight. Whether it's James Comey getting fired as FBI director, Sean Spicer getting fired as press secretary, Anthony "The Mooch" Scaramucci--the most cartoonish character in an already cartoonish administration--getting fired within about a week as White House Communications director, Trump inciting North Korea to the brink of a nuclear conflict, or Sunday's tacit approval (or, at best, non-scolding) of neo-Nazis and other racists in Charlottesville, literally something nutty, frightening, and/or infuriating happens essentially every single day under this reign of terror/reign of error.

Trump had an opportunity to condemn racist violence in Charlottesville, and he failed miserably.

We have a president who will not condemn Nazis. Stew over that for awhile.

As the events in Charlottesville unfolded on Saturday morning, and it was clear that terrible violence was taking place between racists and counter protesters, our president was conspicuous in his silence. When he finally tweeted, "We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for. There is no place for this kind of violence in America. Lets come together as one!" I was foolishly willing to at least temporarily give him the benefit of a doubt. Sure, it was a bland tweet and he didn't specify the "hate(rs)" in question, but I was satisfied that he at least finally made a public statement. (Yes, that is how far the bar has been lowered with this guy).

My temporary goodwill towards 45 was shot to hell when he spoke a few hours after his tweet. In typically inarticulate comments, Trump refused to condemn the KKK, neo-Nazis, and the other right wing hate groups who went to Charlottesville specifically to incite violence. And make no mistake, those folks weren't there just to listen to speeches. Many (perhaps not all) were dressed in helmets and carrying shields and weapons.

Many of us also learned that day that some hate groups have taken to carrying a modified version of the Detroit Red Wings' "winged wheel" logo. To their credit, the Detroit Red Wings hockey club issued a strongly worded statement condemning the use of the logo. In part, the Wings organization wrote, "The Red Wings believe that Hockey is for Everyone and we celebrate the great diversity of our fan base and our nation." It is a sad state of affairs when a pro hockey team makes a stronger statement against hate than the president of the United States.

So that's where we are right now. We are still a nation divided with a president that refuses to take a stand against hate. I suppose he doesn't want to alienate a large part of his voting bloc. I hope that this country has enough reasonable people out there who are disgusted with what is happening in the United States and are equally appalled by the way Trump is handling it...but I will not be holding my breath.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Seratones and Drive-By Truckers at Bell's Eccentric Cafe, Kalamazoo (July 21, 2017)

It was another long drive to a concert destination, this time one hour and 24 minutes to Kalamazoo. At least Bell's is an easier place to find. It was simply I-69 to I-94, then up Business 94 to Michigan Avenue in downtown K'zoo.

So we arrived, and the place was already packed, probably because it was a Friday night. We found a parking spot right near the railroad track behind Bell's, and were able to shoehorn our tiny Kia Soul into this improbable spot.

We heard the opening band Seratones warming up as we approached Bell's. This was our first time at Bell's, though I have loved their beer for a long time. They are located in an old brick former factory or warehouse--I'm not sure which. We ordered Oberon inside and a pita bread/hummus appetizer to munch on. The doors to the beer garden opened at 7:00. Outdoor concert. I somehow was hoping/thinking that it was an indoor show. The night was warm, humid and threatening rain.

Once we got inside the beer garden, we planted ourselves about ten feet from the stage and shared an Oberon. (The close proximity to the stage, though a good idea at the time, would later prove to practically blow out my ear drums). The crowd was extremely white and tended towards middle-age (what a shock, eh?!?).

Seratones delivered a blistering set. AJ Haynes, the front woman, has a phenomenal voice and is destined for big things. Mark my words.

DBT came on at about 8:00 or so and played at least 2 1/2 hours. This was the first time I'd seen them live. Patterson Hood seems to enjoy himself on stage and basks in the crowd and feeds off the crowd. I liked that his primary guitar is a Gibson SG, just like Angus Young. The other member of the "Dimmer Twins," Mike Cooley, is a bit more reserved, but it's a partnership that works. If it was two guys bouncing around the stage, it'd be ridiculous. Any band has to have one energetic excitable member and one who is the "straight man" (or "straight person"). Cooley is a nose to the grindstone kind of fellow. A wiry cat with longish black hair covering his face. He has a multitude of guitars that he plays throughout the show.

I loved hearing Southern Rock Opera's "Days of Graduation" (in the grand dark tradition of the "teenage car wreck" song) and "Ronnie and Neil" (where Hood first directly presents "the duality of the Southern thing" which is the overarching theme of that brilliant album. Oh, and the songs rock like motherfuckers). It was my happiest, most joyous 10+ minutes of his "July of concerts."
There is no doubt about it.

They closed with "Grand Canyon" from English Oceans. Not until later did I realize that they leave the stage one by one. The last band member remaining is drummer Brad "EZB" Morgan, who plays alone for a few minutes while Hood and Cooley's abandoned electric guitars deliver blistering feedback. It makes for a dramatic conclusion.

The rain held out until about 10:30, when Hood led the crowd into a chant of "Fuck this rain! Fuck this rain! Fuck this rain!" Maybe the band would have played longer if a rain storm was not headed directly to Kalamazoo. (We got hit by the rainstorm as we drove out of Kalamazoo).

Naturally, I hit the merch table after the concert--since I find it nearly impossible to avoid merch tables--and bought one of the "Dance Band of the Resistance" shirts and the Go-Go Boots CD. I could have easily blown more money, but was trying hard to be good. Then we began our long journey home in the pouring rain.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Violent Femmes and Echo & the Bunnymen at Meadow Brook Amphitheater

When I was a freshman at MSU, there were a couple of seniors who lived together in a room a few doors down from me at Shaw Hall. Now, there were plenty of upperclassmen on my dorm room floor, but Ken and Steve were the self-appointed corrupters of the freshmen, and relished the role.

One particular evening, I was in their room drinking their booze. (I can't remember what circumstances brought me to their den on iniquity that night). Also in the room was a girl about my age whom I did not know, and I was unsure as to why she was there or where she was from, but the two of us were in this dark dorm room drinking and listening to their music. (It must be said that in 1980s college life, it was not uncommon to come across people that seemed to wander into the picture like extras on a movie set, only to disappear as soon as they had arrived).

At some point, Violent Femmes' self-titled debut album was the music of choice. The girl's face immediately lit up. She got excited in that uninhibited way one does after they've encountered something they really love--after having consumed a few alcoholic drinks. She had that entire album memorized and sang it front-to-back. She felt every one of those words to the marrow of her bones, to the depth of her soul. I will never forget how amazed I was at how moved she was by that music.

As much as people talk about R.E.M.'s Murmur, the Replacements' Let It Be, the Smiths' The Queen Is Dead,or U2's The Joshua Tree as the '80s college rock touchstones--and a great case can be made for any one of those and others I'm surely forgetting--Violent Femmes' debut album just might be the most beloved "college rock" album of that decade. There is just something about the suburban teen angst and frustration of those songs that appeals to a broad swath of Generation Xers.

I got a feel for that album's impact last night when I wnet to see Violent Femmes and Echo & the Bunnymen at Meadow Brook Amphitheater in Rochester Hills. There were people at this show who were all at least a little north or south of my age of 49. Many of them, primarily women from my observation, who had memorized every single lyric from ever single Femmes song. The Femmes, in turn, delivered a lively and appreciative set. They genuinely appeared to be having a blast on stage, and almost every song was met with explosive cheering, singing, and dancing from the middle-aged fans. These were folks who, for one night, forgot about mortgages, kids, politics, aging, etc. and briefly returned to their teen years.

Echo & the Bunnymen were the co-headliners, and frankly I was more excited to see them than Violent Femmes (who I like but don't love). It was a bit more difficult to tell if Ian McCulloch and company were enjoying themselves. McCulloch has the outward appearance of someone who has resigned himself to the acknowledgement that this is what he has to do to pay the bills. Though he bantered a bit with the crowd in his Scouse mumble, he was difficult for these Midwestern ears to understand. in any case, his singing voice sounds strong and the band, consisting of his longtime partner Will Sergeant and assorted hired guns, were tight and powerful.

Ian McCulloch is, as I wrote on Facebook, "the original Liam Gallagher." He casually sauntered back and forth between the mic stand and the drum riser--he had a lit cigarette by the drums that he took puffs from, plumes of backlit ciggie smoke billowing over his head.

I had the impression that the majority of the crowd was more enthused by Violent Femmes, but then again Echo & the Bunnymen's psychedelia-tinged, dark, impressionistic, sometimes gothy songs aren't exactly singalongs.

Overall, I enjoyed finally seeing these two bands from my misspent youth. Not quite in their heyday, but better late than never.

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A poem (?) inspired by a neighborhood walk

I live in the land
Of cracked blacktop
Driveway basketball hoops
Car engine drive by dopplar effect
Gas powered lawnmower steady vibrating hum
Can even hear it from a distance
When not broken up by
Wind tree rustle and bird songs Reminding me of Snail Shell Harbor camp sites
And then the Sunday morning mowing resumes
Fleeting reverie is broken
My walk continues

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

My follow up to my Pepper post is gone!

I had written what I thought was a fun follow-up to my Pepper post, but somehow I managed to delete the entire fucking thing. At least three hours of writing completely wasted. If at some point in the future I feel like attempting to replicate it, I will. Right now, however, I am so livid I can barely see straight. It's a goddamned miracle I didn't pitch my laptop through a window.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Ray Wylie Hubbard at Tip-Top Deluxe Bar and Grill, Grand Rapids

We drove to Grand Rapids yesterday to see Ray Wylie Hubbard perform at the Tip-Top Deluxe Bar and Grill.

I am only aware of Ray Wylie Hubbard (hereafter referred to as merely "RWH") through my old college roommate Paul, who is essentially a scholar of Texas music. (He may not like me calling him a scholar, but he is). Paul gave me RWH's memoir A Life...Well, Lived when we had our NADS Shaw Hall dorm room floor reunion back in January 2016. After the book sat in my "to be read" pile for a few months, I finally got through it last summer and enjoyed RWH's colorful tales of his rocky, wild, never dull life. I know more about RWH's life story than I knew about his music until fairly recently. I got around to listening to some of his albums that are available on Amazon Prime streaming.

When the announcement came that RWH would be performing in Grand Rapids, I knew I had to go. By all accounts, he was/is a great live performer, with a funny, engaging, self-deprecating storytelling ability--equally adept at story songs, gut bucket blues, outlaw country, and rousing rock & roll.

So Lynda and I received assurance from our older son that he could be responsible with the house and his 12-year-old kid brother, and younger son (aka kid brother) assured us he would be okay and not anxiety ridden with mom and dad 50-odd miles away in GR. We headed out in the Kia Soul, armed with our cell phones (with which I vowed to text the boys at regular intervals to check up on their well-being).

We arrived at the Tip-Top, best described as a hipster dive bar in southwest Grand Rapids, at about 7:20 PM. The doors opened at 7:00 for the 8:00 show, and the place was already jam-packed. It was so packed that we could not find a seat and stood for the entire show...all 3 1/2 hours of it. Naturally, I wore my least amenable shoes for standing, my 21-year-old Doc Martens. (Style over comfort, man!). My feet felt like raw hamburger when the show ended.

Lynda and I both decided to get drinks from the bar, both deciding on Bell's Oberon drafts. I sucked my beer down before the opening act, John Merchant (and his female singing partner Ashley Youngstrom) went on at 8 o'clock. I drank a Corona in the bottle (only $1 less than the Bell's) and was able to make that one last for about an hour. (Two beers per concert is my limit).

The Tip-Top was sold out. The tiny bar holds 57 people for a show, and I estimate the bar is maybe 1200-1500 square feet (and that might be charitable). It has a fairly nondescript exterior; an older building (age indeterminate) with a shell of steel siding, but the interior features an old tin ceiling, many vintage rock 'n' roll and blues concert posters on the walls, and an ornate wood bar.

The openers, John Merchant and special guest Ashley Youngstrom hit the postage stamp-sized corner stage promptly at 8:00. Merchant looks a bit, or at least reminded me a bit, of what Marshall Crenshaw looked like in, say, the 1990s. He's a bit thin, bald, bespectacled, with a small graying goatee. Dressed in blue jeans, black T-shirt, black vest, army dog tags around his neck. Ashley is blonde, wore a flower print dress. They performed some of Merchant's original songs, plus a Gram Parsons cover, Chris Bell's "I Am the Cosmos," and an energized rendition of "Gimme Shelter" with Ashley gamely taking on Merry Clayton's "rape! murder! It's just a shot away!"" backing vocals--no small task.

I felt a little bad that I didn't buy Merchant's CD that he was selling for only five dollars, but I was saving my cash for RWH's merch table.

So after the Merchant/Youngstrom set, RWH and his band (son Lucas Hubbard on electric guitar and Kyle Snider on drums) hit the stage at about 9:30.

Where do I start? For one thing, how did I not even know of RWH's existence until Paul gave me that book? How do some great, authentic, talented as all get-out musicians often remain obscure for decades? RWH's music is an amalgamation of gut bucket blues, confessional songwriting (with references to God, the Devil, Stratocaster guitars, and even the MC5--"Live and Die Rock and Roll"-- making appearances in his songs), raucous rock, and shit-kicking outlaw country. Perhaps RWH isn't more widely known simply because he can't be categorized, and the music industry thrives on placing artists into little compartments.

Simply put, RWH brings it. He performs with a warmth and connection to the audience honed by decades on the road. But it's also apparent that his son Lucas and his relatively young drummer Kyle keep him feeling energetic.

The audience at the Tip-Top was loud and enthusiastic. It was a mix of folks: youngish hip punky rockabilly cats in Reverend Horton Heat shirts all the way to grey-haired or grey-bearded and/or balding 50 and 60-somethings, even a few 30's-ish women who seemed to know all or many of the song lyrics. (I kinda thought RWH would be more "dude-oriented," but that wasn't entirely the case). RWH has an intense following, I believe they are referred to as "Snake Farmers" from one of RWH's better-known songs, "Snake Farm"). I felt slightly left out, maybe a little fraudulent, in that I was not as familiar with his music as probably 80 or 90 percent of the people at the show. (Though I'm not sure how many of those folks had read RWH's autobiography, so at least I had that one over them).

Lucas Hubbard is as interesting as his father. Maybe as meditative in his performance style as his father is exuberant and expressive. Lucas looks like he feels the music in his body and soul, often playing with his eyes closed and a Buddha-like grin on his face. Lucas is a slight young man, knit hat on his head, scruffy beard, smooth boyish face, decked out in black T-shirt and dark jeans. RWH is a wizened Texan philosopher, wild unruly grey hair, multiple necklaces, dressed completely in black like his son. Meanwhile Kyle holds the beat on his spartan drum kit.

They played a freewheeling, fire-breathing set and finished up at about 11:30. The three musicians made their way through the adoring crowd to the back room of the Tip-Top, people asking and/or pleading for a few seconds of RWH's time as he slowly made his way to sanctuary.

I decided to leave RWH alone, What would I say, anyway? He looked spent and tired. We had to get home, anyway. I did, however, stop at the merch table on the way out and bought the Snake Farm CD. Despite sore feet, I walked excitedly back to the car, and texted the kids to let them we were on the way home.

Friday, June 2, 2017

It was 50 years ago today

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the American release of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. This significant anniversary got me to thinking about my own relationship with this album.

Pepper is an album I don't listen to that much anymore, and when I recently wrote a list of my favorite Beatles albums*--a challenge issued by Bill and Brian of  The Great Albums podcast (check it out if you've never heard it, it's a good podcast), I had Pepper at number seven of the 13 Beatles studio albums. This isn't to say that Pepper is a bad album--not at all. (I mean, come on, it's the Beatles for chrissakes!) It's just far from my favorite album by the Fab Four.

However, there is a time when it was about the only Beatles album I knew. If you want to put a fine point on it, and if anyone out there really cares, Rubber Soul was the first Beatles album I remember listening to straight through. That's because my older cousin Suzy went through a heavy "Beatles phase" in about 1979. Almost every summer, I'd spend a few weeks at my aunt and uncle's house in the U.P. of Michigan, and I remember my cousin listening to Rubber Soul every night before going to bed. And the reason I remember this is because Suzy had the largest bedroom in the house with twin beds, so I slept in the same room and was also lulled to sleep by Rubber Soul every night for two weeks in the summer of '79 (ish).

Sorry for that digression. Back to Pepper. As just about everyone (over the age of 40) knows, John Lennon was murdered in December 1980. I have often indicated that whenever a famous musician dies, I inevitably take the deep dive into that individual's back catalog (it just happened last week with Chris Cornell). I'd say this tendency began in December 1980. With the outpouring of grief over the loss of Lennon, I became interested in the Beatles. I had no Beatles records of my own, but my parents had two: the VeeJay single of "Do You Want to Know a Secret" b/w "Thank You Girl" (to this day, I have no idea why they owned that particular single. I need to ask them) and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. 

My parents were fairly young when they had me in March 1968 (mom was 22, dad was 21), so they came of age in the rock 'n' roll milieu of the 1960s. However, neither one were particularly big Beatles fans, My dad told me that, as a kid from the largely blue collar "downriver" area of the Detroit suburbs, he was more into the gritty sound of the Animals and the Rolling Stones (as well as a soft spot for the squeaky clean folk of the Kingston Trio and Chad Mitchell Trio). My mom was from Rosedale Park in Detroit, and had grown up listening to a fair amount of classical, jazz, the Motown sound, Johnny Mathis, and the Beach Boys. She was 19 when the Beatles invaded America in 1964 and she viewed them somewhat disdainfully as "teen fluff." This all changed in early 1967 when the Beatles came out of their "post-touring days hibernation" as finally looking like grown-ass men with facial hair (!) and a mature sound exemplified by "Penny Lane" and "Strawberry Fields Forever." My mom decided that she really wanted the new Beatles album as soon as it was released, and my dad obliged by presenting Pepper to her as a 22nd birthday present in June 1967.

My mom's copy of Sgt. Pepper, now in my possession.

It was this very copy of Pepper that I would obsessively listen to 13 years later. In those early days I have to admit I confused the voices of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. For some reason, I thought that McCartney sang "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" and Lennon was the voice of such songs as "When I'm 64" and "Lovely Rita." I don't know when I sorted that out, but I don't think it took too long. Then there was the music itself, unlike any music being produced in 1980/1981 to my ears. Pepper was a little world unto itself, from the orchestra warming up--only to be interrupted and superseded by electric guitars--and then onto the idiosyncratic, peculiarly and exotically psychedelically-tinged Victorian/Edwardian England of "Billy Shears" (Ringo Starr) singing "With a Little Help From My Friends," the Lewis Carroll-esque "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds," "When I'm 64," "She's Leaving Home," "Lovely Rita,"and "Good Morning Good Morning." The album closer "A Day In the Life" haunted me then and still--to a lesser extent--haunts me today. Of course, could I have intellectualized all of this at age 12 or 13. Probably not. I just knew that Pepper was a strange and magical record.

I can remember nights when my parents would go out and leave me along with my younger brother. This meant that I had free reign of their circa 1960 Motorola console stereo, and was free to listen to records. I'd put Pepper on and pour over the equally colorful and exotic album cover. Many of the faces I couldn't identify but would learn their identities in the following years. The lyrics are on the back cover, superimposed over a photo of John, George, and Ringo facing forward with Paul's back to the camera (as if Paul is about to conduct the band). "Late of Pablo Fanques' fair," "Henry the Horse dances the waltz," "Meeting a man from the motor trade," "He blew his mind out in a car." All sorts of strange word puzzles for this kid--yours truly--to work out in his head.

As I mentioned earlier, Pepper doesn't have the same resonance for me as it did 37 years ago. In my early college years, I took the deep dive into the Beatles' catalog and discovered that Pepper was not my favorite of their albums. Perhaps it is the most culturally significant of their records, but it comes off today as a bit more style than substance. (Having said that, "A Day in the Life" is an absolute masterpiece and is powerful now as it was in 1967). Rubber Soul, Revolver, "The White Album," and Abbey Road are greater artistic achievements. But Pepper is still an enjoyable album to revisit from time to time, and I wish it a fond 50th birthday.

*Here's the list I compiled on December 15, 2016. Ranking of the Beatles' 13 British studio albums.

1. Revolver
2. "The White Album"
3. Rubber Soul
4. Abbey Road
5. Magical Mystery Tour
6. A Hard Day's Night
7. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band
8. Help!
9. Beatles for Sale
10, Please Please Me
11. With the Beatles
12. Let It Be
13. Yellow Submarine

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Dispatch from Trump's America

I've not written about politics in here recently, mainly because something either terrible or crazy happens seemingly every day and it's impossible to keep up.

That's life in Trump's America, where every day there is either a) a new wrinkle to Russia's (possible/probable) interference in the election, b) a bizarre tweet from the Donald, c) a new bit of draconian policy that Trump wants to push through, d) a hate crime somewhere in the US, or e) other miscellaneous crazy shit.

Today we learn that Trump will be withdrawing the US from the Paris Climate Accords. Suddenly, a guy who has no problem flying to his Florida resort every weekend on the American peoples' dime declares that he is withdrawing because he cares about the American taxpayer. Yep, it's just too darned expensive ensuring we have a livable planet.

I don't know if I find it more sad or amusing that in his announcement today, Trump acted like he cares about anyone besides himself and his cronies. And then there is the irony in backing out of the climate accords while insisting it's good for the American people.

This is the worst time imaginable for the United States to NOT take a leadership role in mitigating, if not stopping, climate change and cleaning up this planet.

Bottom line, we need to vote this bum out of office in 2020.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Forgotten songs of the 1980s: "Watusi Rodeo" by Guadalcanal Diary

If anyone gives the 1980s band Guadalcanal Diary any consideration anymore, it's as the Athens-based band that wasn't R.E.M. (Even though Guadalcanal Diary were more accurately from suburban Atlanta).  Or as that other Georgia band that "kind of sounded like R.E.M."

This is unfortunate, because Guadalcanal Diary was an outstanding band in their own right. And though they shared the same jangly guitar sound as R.E.M., it's far too reductive and unfair to brand GD as mere R.E.M. copycats. (Can we agree that saying that any music "sounds like R.E.M." is like describing a food as "tasting like chicken"). Guadalcanal Diary mastered a fairly wide variety of styles, from the aforementioned jangly pop, to 1950s Buddy Holly-esque love songs, to hard rock, to folk rock, and punky rave-ups. Songwriter and singer Murray Attaway tackled a variety of subjects in his lyrics, with a healthy combination of wisdom and humor: religious fervor and doubt ("Fear of God" and numerous others--this was a popular subject for Attaway), disappeared adventurers ("Michael Rockefeller"), a guy who thinks he has the same personality as a certain violent member of the Three Stooges ("I See Moe"), a dairy farmer who enjoys his job just a little too much ("Cattle Prod")...and this is just scraping the surface. In just four albums from 1984-1989, Guadalcanal Diary covered a lot of territory, and it's difficult to pick a favorite song.

One of the band's best songs, though, is also their best known (in as much as they have a "best known song"). "Watusi Rodeo," from their debut album Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man. The song is a blazing, surf-punky romp with powerhouse drumming and lyrics that tell a bizarre, hilarious story of Texans imposing their Lone Star State lifestyle onto the bewildered people of the Congo. It is a satirical send-up of cultural imperialism. It's also an unjustly forgotten gem of the eighties.

So here you go. Here's a clip of "Watusi Rodeo" taken from YouTube:

So why did Guadalcanal Diary not become bigger? I don't think there's an easy answer to that. The music world is littered with bands and performers who "should have made it big." The music business and music listeners are fickle and difficult to predict. I'm sure that existing in the same place and time as R.E.M. didn't help GD. At least they left us with a brilliant recorded legacy, and anyone who stumbles on their music will surely be rewarded.

"You know that what you eat you are..."

George Harrison's inspiration for a certain Beatles song. If you're a fan of the Fabs, you will know this one right away.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Some observations about Simon & Garfunkel's "America"

I was watching television last night and a commercial came on that featured the song “America” by Simon & Garfunkel. The commercial itself I can barely recall, I don’t even remember the product, but hearing that song made me emotional. It’s a song that I’ve liked since I was a kid, but a song that has taken on deeper meaning as I’ve gotten older. In just a few short verses, Paul Simon creates a cinematic story of two young lovers heading off on a bus trip to “look for America.” Simon perfectly evokes the feelings we all have on any trip: the initial excitement (“Laughing on the bus, playing games with the faces”)--which eventually leads to boredom (“Toss me a cigarette…”)-- reflection on the beauty of the countryside (“The moon rose over an open field”)--and finally to a bit of ennui (“’Kathy, I’m lost’ I said”)—. And then the song concludes with the narrator seeing the endless lines of anonymous cars on the turnpike, like Kathy and the narrator, “looking for America.”

But the song got me to thinking—and it often gets me to thinking anytime I hear it—can we ever “find America”? What IS America? And then this led me to recall the vacation we took in December, driving from Michigan to Florida and back again. I was struck by how vast this country truly is. The geography ever changing and unfolding in bold unexpected ways as one drives the long distance from north to south/south to north. It’s amazing that such a diverse and enormous country even IS a nation. And will we ever—CAN we ever--agree on what America is?

I don’t quite know where I’m going with this. I suppose the uncertain times we are currently experiencing made “America” hit me a bit harder than usual.

Monday, April 10, 2017

What I am up to...

Hey folks, just a not to let you know that I'm still alive--just in case you were worrying.

I have a few ideas I'm working on for this blog, both (probably unsurprisingly) involving music. I've been veeerrrryyy slllooowwwlllyyy working on a piece about how music is getting me through the first few months of President Dipshit's reign of error, and another piece about the 30th anniversary of U2's The Joshua Tree.

And somewhere along the line, I need to get to the Tragically Hip's Fully Completely. Maybe sometime before the year 2050, if I live that long and the world hasn't been either blown up or submerged under water due to global warming, I'll complete my Tragically Hip overview. Of course, by 2050 nobody will give a shit about the Tragically Hip anymore (not that they really do now).

Anyway, I have no timetable for publishing these posts, but I sure as hell would like to do it before the end of April. Please bear with me, loyal readers.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Drive-By Truckers--American Band "staff recommendation"

This is a "staff recommendation" I wrote for the Capital Area District Library web site. I thought I may as well share it here. Since there was a lot of cutting and pasting going on, the font and font size may be messed up compared to the rest of the blog.

Drive-By Truckers—American Band

A perfect soundtrack for our troubled times

For over twenty years, the Athens GA based Drive-By Truckers have ambivalently assumed the mantle for Southern Rock. (I say “ambivalently” because they don’t like to be lumped into any category). Their songs have touched on Southern identity, society, and mythology, with their progressive-leaning politics always floating just under the surface.

On their 2016 album, American Band, politics take center stage unlike any of their previous records. Angered and frustrated by such issues as the Charleston (S.C.) church shooting, Confederate flag controversy, and various incidents of violence throughout the nation, songwriters Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley poured their emotions into the eleven songs that constitute this album.

What saves this project from being overly preachy or potentially dull is how the band tears into the music with fervor. It also helps that neither Hood nor Cooley pretend to have all the answers. Their songs sound like conversations between the band and the audience.

Not all of the songs are overtly political. “Sun Don’t Shine” is a quiet meditation on how weather can effect someone’s mood, and album-closer “Baggage” is a gut-wrenchingly emotional song that ties the suicide of Robin Williams with Patterson Hood’s own struggles with depression. (I have to admit that when I heard the lyric “I’ve had my own depression since I was just a kid/But been blessed with the means to repair” I lost it because it hit so close to my own experience).

Suffice it to say this album has been in almost constant rotation in my house for the last few months, and has added resonance considering our current political climate. If you’re a fan of Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell (who was in Drive-By Truckers for a few years), or classic rock like Tom Petty and Lynyrd Skynyrd, give this album a spin.

Monday, February 27, 2017

A post for February

We are almost to the end of February, and we're not yet at war, so I suppose that's good. Hey, I'm trying to find a silver lining somewhere.

The bad news is that Trump is still president. I've been (somewhat jokingly) hoping he'd find an excuse to resign, but that hasn't happened. Oh well, since Steve Bannon is doing all the heavy lifting, there is no need for Trump to resign. He probably has plenty of time to play golf at Mar-A-Lago and angrily tweet at all hours of the day, while maintaining the illusion of being president. What more could he ask for?

Music is about the only thing getting me through this political nightmare. Number one on my playlist has been the album American Band by Drive-By Truckers. I mentioned this record in my "favorites of 2016" post, but since the election American Band has taken on even more importance. The two songwriters and vocalists Mike Cooley and Patterson Hood practically play tag team, with songs that look at American politics and culture, race relations, and Southern identity. Now, that might make the album sound too didactic, and it just might have been if the songwriting wasn't so damned good and the supporting musicians not such a crackling spitfire of a band.

I've liked Drive-by Truckers since I first heard their brilliant 2001 album Southern Rock Opera a few years ago, but American Band has led me down the rabbit hole in a big way.

Today I was thinking of how much more politically sophisticated my 15-year-old son is compared to what I was like at the same age. I'd venture to guess he is more well-versed on current events than at least 95 percent of the American electorate, but it's not simply that he knows more facts, he has the ability to analyze this information and has a distinctly left-wing viewpoint. I suppose that at least some of this comes from growing up with lefties, but most of it seems to be of his own creation.

I feel bad that my kids have to live through this shit show of a political landscape, and suffer through climate change, an eroding environment and an uncertain future overall. It makes me feel a bit selfish for having kids. It's like, "welcome to the world, boys. Sorry you didn't ask to be here. Oh, and sorry that the world we're leaving you is such a clusterfuck. Have fun trying to fix it." If I spend too much time dwelling on it, I become depressed.

I don't know how to conclude this post, so I guess I'll just leave it at that.

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Why does Trump want to be president, anyway?

Why does Donald Trump even want to be president?

He is the oldest person ever inaugurated, at 70 years of age. He is about one year older than Ronald Reagan, who was 69 when he was sworn in. (I haven't bothered to do the math).

Trump has a 10-year-old son. Any ordinary, normal man of his age--with the apparent financial freedom--would downscale on the work hours and dote on the child.

But Trump is not an ordinary 70-year-old man. In all of his tweets, his interviews, his performance in debates, Trump has continually demonstrated emotional immaturity and an unhinged vindictiveness.
Donald Trump wanted to become president not because he cares about the American people, but to get even with his enemies. And his enemies are numerous: CNN, The New York Times, Meryl Streep, the "liberals" in Hollywood, the entire Democratic Party, some of the Republican Party, and pretty much anyone who is not white and male.

In one week, he has shown himself to be nothing more than a fascist, with the worst fascist of them all, Steve Bannon, as his right-hand man.

We are entering dark, frightening times in this nation, and I am not overreacting.

This is not merely "liberal" versus "conservative" or "Democrat" versus "Republican." This has become "rational" versus "irrational," "inclusion" versus "xenophobia," "love" versus "hate."

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Has it really only been one week?

We're one week into the Trump presidency and already we're seeing what life under a fascist kleptocracy looks like...and it ain't pretty.

The unhinged executive orders have come with such an intense flurry that it's hard to keep up with them. It's also hard not to become overcome with a profound sense of despair.

I knew life under President Trump would probably be horrible, but it it's even worse than I imagined. The country has become one dominated by fear and hate. We have a president who has no respect for the office, nor any respect for the citizens of the United States. I get the sense that the only reason he wanted to become president was to settle scores and get even with enemies.

I have done what I can to fight back in my own small way. The entire family attended the Women's March in Lansing last Saturday. It was inspiring and heartening to be a part of 9000 like-minded people descending on the state capitol. The march made me think that perhaps I--and others on the left--have been too complacent for the last few years. Perhaps if we'd been just a little more proactive in the months leading to the election, we could have avoided this disaster. But there's no point in "what ifs," we just need to not be complacent NOW and resist, resist, resist.

Thursday, January 19, 2017

(In mourning on) the last day of the Obama presidency

It's finally almost here, the day I have been dreading since November 8: the day Trump takes office as president. I still can barely write that sentence without getting dry heaves.

The impending clusterfuck is already in the making, as we see a parade of lying, sanctimonious hucksters (cough, Betsy DeVos, cough) questioned by the Senate for cabinet positions they don't deserve and aren't qualified for.

So I feel sad that a good-hearted, intelligent, and competent man like Obama is leaving office and head of the sanctimonious hucksters, Donald Trump, is taking over. It's like we're trading in a Rolls-Royce for a rusty Yugo.

I don't plan on watching any of the inauguration tomorrow. I'd rather watch anything else than that orange-faced thug take an oath he doesn't believe to claim an office he doesn't deserve.