Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Perfect Songs - Winter

tori amos

I have a playlist I've put together I call Zoey Sleep, that we use for the shocking purpose of getting my 4 year old daughter to sleep. It's not your typical set of lullabies, but instead features songs from Juliana Hatfield, Tanya Donelly, Bon Iver, Alison Krauss and several others. I add to it once in a while and she likes the songs I've added. But there's one that not only works best, it has a whole other impact on me: Tori Amos' "Winter.," a perfect song.

This song has taken on new meanings for me over the past 8 or so years, since the birth of our first daughter. Most nights, it works like a charm, calming Zoey down quickly which is a big deal if you know Zoey. It used to do the same for Shayera. And that calmness comes with a lot of reflection on my part as well as it gives me a few minutes of just laying with my daughter, listening to the lyrics and having images run through my mind. Every single time, there are tears. Usually they come after the girl is asleep, and I can just lay there listening to the rest of it.

I've always thought of this song as a (better) companion to Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide," complete with the father daughter relationship and the images of snow. The whole concept of growing older and somehow colder, from the daughter's perspective, and how the father is still there for her, knowing what the future will bring as she faces her teenage years, etc. Look, the song speaks for itself. It's beautiful and multilayered and it was always one of, if not my very favorite of Tori's songs. To the point that we briefly toyed with naming our first born Winter. But my moments with the girls tend to turn the song around a bit, because I imagine the conversation in it slightly different than is perhaps intended.

In my version, the father (me) and the daughters are both sort of saying parts of the lyrics to each other. "You must learn to stand up for yourself cause I can't always be around" is the guiding principal and heartbreaking truth that guides every parent that gives a shit about their kids. And maybe even more so when it's daughters facing a world that continues to be shitty to women. "When you gonna love you as much as I do?" could easily be my daughters telling me that when they were first born and I was really overwhelmed by what the love felt like from them and for them. And I hope it's not something I ever have to say to them, but then the song also goes into the complexity of what our relationship may be like as she gets older, when she says she'll always want her father near and he responds with "things change." By the time the song swells with the last verse about grey hairs, dreams on a shelf and wanting each other to be proud of the other, I'm usually laying in a puddle of tears.


I've always said the most tragic thing you can give a child is a balloon. It's really just a metaphor for mortality and never ends in happiness. It's just this ball of impending sadness. Either you watch it slowly die as it floats less each day, withering like a senile relative before your eyes in a matter of days, or it floats away before you had a chance to truly get to know it, forever a memory of happiness that really could never have been. Sure you can suck the life out of it and speak in a funny voice for a few seconds, but then you're a murderer and empty inside (yeah, just go with it). Even with all this pain, it doesn't prepare you for the realities of parenting. The dread you feel at maybe not being able to be there for them, no matter what, leads to panic when you realize you obviously can't. And then you scramble, daily, to prepare them for EVERYTHING, as if anybody possibly could. But you know full well you can't. You've lived this life and you know what it's done to you. I remember every balloon I've lost both literal and figurative. And it sucks that I can't keep my kids from losing their share as well.

So, yeah, I get a little warm in my heart when I think of Winter. 

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Thoughts on Concerts and Violence. . .

crowd connection

I've been contributing over at Saint Audio for a little while and this week we wanted to put something up about the mass shooting in Vegas this past Sunday. I've been thinking of something to contribute but anything I come up with is going to ramble and likely be all over the place, so I thought it would be better to put it here. I don't know if anyone else will be writing something over there, but check it out anyway. I'm pretty happy with my Tom Petty piece today.

The thing is, as I started to think about the shooting from the point of view of the concert experience, I started to see how as much as I may enjoy being in a certain type of crowd, connecting through the music, the very idea of concerts and crowds has always been filled with tension. Fights can happen, riots, sexual assaults, deaths, you name it. It's all happened. So it would be somewhat naive to say that going to a concert is supposed to be this communal thing about the brotherhood of man and all that. I mean, that's the goal, I think. That's what we all get when it goes the right way, but the danger has always been there. We have to acknowledge that.

Having said that, there's something different here, because the monster wasn't even at the show. But even that seems like an inadequate distinction. Just a few months back a bomb was set off at an Ariana Grande concert and before that it was shooting during an Eagles of Death Metal show inside the Bataclan in Paris, both by monsters that were in the crowd. I don't know. I guess even in those situations, the perpetrators weren't really "at the show." Those aren't fights spiraling out of control. It's a different danger than what I think we would be somewhat prepared for. I honestly don't know.

concert experience

I could get political here and go into a whole thing about gun control, but I'm not entirely sure what the point would be. I'm not seeing anyone change their minds about a damn thing. The quote going around about how if Newtown, where someone killed 26 babies, didn't change anything, nothing will, is depressingly true. If anything, I think Newtown was the ultimate desensitization and we're doomed to a hell of more shootings and more guns after each one. "Criminals don't obey laws, so more gun laws won't help," is a popular argument that I think at this point is more the result of giving up than being necessarily attached to guns. Never mind that 80% of mass shootings in this country have been committed with legal guns, but by that logic we shouldn't have any laws at all about anything. Fuck it.

Then there's the "mental health" red herring. Because you know, people with mental health need more stigma. Newsflash, not everyone with mental health issues is homicidal and as a matter of fact, most aren't. Mental health is an issue that needs to be addressed, but the only relation it has to guns is in not allowing people with serious mental health issues to buy them. And the interesting thing about that is that in the vast majority of cases it's so they won't harm themselves. But even then, they would first need a diagnosis which most people can't get for a multitude of reasons.

Anyway, music. As everyone knows, music is my only religion. Take comfort in it as I do, because it's the one thing that allows us to approach a near supernatural connection to each other. I know it's cheesy and overdone, but there's really only one song I can think to leave you with in order to somehow tie this rambling post together. This has been the most bloggiest of blog posts I've ever blogged.

Friday, September 15, 2017

On The Run With Rhonda Lee

goodnight rhonda lee

Last week we packed up the family and headed out of dodge to avoid hurricane Irma. Driving out of Florida was like something out of Children of Men, with a trip to Atlanta which normally should have taken 9 hours, taking exactly 22 hours and most of our sanity. None the less, once we were out, while the hassles and stresses continued, we were instantly calmed by mountains and winding roads through the deep south. We spent a night in Atlanta, a couple nights in Nashville, a couple more in Knoxville with many little pit stops in between. Sure, at most stops north of Orlando, I would look around in a panic until I saw at least one person of color before almost loudly sighing in relief, but still there's a lot to love about The South. We encountered many very nice people all over the place. At a lunch stop in Chattanooga we went to The Terminal Brewhouse where the parking attendant let us park for free on seeing our Florida tag. The food and beer was amazing there, by the way. I can't wait to go back as soon as I can.

All this driving meant time to listen to music. At some point, I'll have to really dig in and make a list of the best road albums, but this trip there was one album in particular I kept going back to and which I'm already predicting will still be my favorite album of the year when it's over: Nicole Atkins' Goodnight Rhonda Lee. I'd already been listening to this before last week, with my love for it increasing with each passing month since its release back in July, but after this week it has jumped to a whole new level for me. This is truly a masterpiece of an album.

Nicole Atkins has been putting out great music for at least 12 years, all of it soulful and demonstrating a love for classic soul, R&B, country and rock while still maintaining a fresh feel - it's never been "retro" just for the sake of it. But on Goodnight Rhonda Lee it's like she leaned way into these styles and let her love for the artists and sounds that inspire her come out completely through her song writing and performance from the inside out. She dug into what makes her influences tick and then mastered it in her own way. These songs are somehow meticulously crafted in a way that makes them sound effortless. It's like these songs always existed (or at least since about 1975 or so) and she sort of plucked them out of some parallel universe that was waiting for her, this band and this production team, specifically, to record them for the first time. The result can only be called timeless. It's of today as much as it is of yesterday and the future (I hope the future, because more of this would be amazing).

There isn't a single song on here that is less than stellar and the production is exactly my favorite kind, putting you in the room and giving it all a live feel. The band is loose but clearly made up of amazing players who know how to swing and create the right pockets for it all to breathe. It's funky and real from start to finish. The word that comes to mind is organic. Atkins has a voice that can reach amazing powerful heights, but her true talent is that she knows how to control it so well. Her voice goes from soft to beyond the moon like a tidal wave, calling to mind greats like Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison among others, but always uniquely her. There's a vulnerability in every note, that's compelling as fuck but that vulnerability comes with confidence and fearlessness and that effortlessness that I mentioned before.

I could go song by song, but instead I'll give you a couple stories. At one point, I was playing the album and Shayera (my 8 year old) calls from the back seat with a song request. I barely heard her and got kind of upset because I was into the album and said "NO! Right now, I want to listen to this album all the way through!" Only to realize her request was for "Goodnight Rhonda Lee," which was the very next song to play. Later, Zoey (my 4 year old) requested "the walking song" which is actually "A Little Crazy," the first song on the album that she sings along to every time. So, yeah, my girls have good taste.

I'm sure I'll be writing a more in depth take on this at the end of the year. Until then, do yourself a favor and listen to this over and over again. It's that damn good. Also, check out this Audiotree session she did a few weeks ago. Damn, I need to see her live.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Rage, Rapture and Transcendence: Blondie, Garbage and Deap Vally in Orlando

blondie garbage

This past Wednesday, August 9th at the Hard Rock Live in Orlando, my wife and I went to the Rage and Rapture show, featuring Blondie, Garbage and Deap Vally. It was somewhere near the end of Blondie’s set, during “Dreaming” that my brain sort of returned to me enough to interpret what I’d been feeling during the whole show that night. Here I was, seeing this band I grew up listening to but had never seen. This band that represents a whole scene in rock history that I hold in the highest regard and while they are older and far removed from CBGB’s in the 70s, what they delivered this night was still relevant, vital and filled with heart. It made me think of the concert experience, of music, of art, of life in general. It was transcendent.

On New Year's Eve, 1991, I went to my first concert, ever: Guns n Roses at Joe Robbie Stadium. On August 8th, 2017, I drove through hellish traffic to see the impossibly reunited (mostly) Guns N Roses at Marlins Park in Miami, arriving three songs into their set, but appropriately, just in time for “Welcome to the Jungle.” It was hot and muggy, with the smell of weed and cotton candy in the air. The circus atmosphere of the venue made sense. I outgrew GnR many years ago. I find Axl’s voice grating. But my wife never saw them and wanted to go so I support. And while I didn’t much care for the show, it was great to see her rocking out to the hits.

Axl Rose

Sound at stadiums is shit, there’s no way around that. But I will say the band did sound like they were on point otherwise, at least technically. Even Axl, who’s voice can’t quite reach those annoying notes, so he comes off a bit more subdued. But still, there was a point where I realized Slash had played every single note in existence and while I was impressed with his technical ability, I was also bored with his choices (or lack thereof). Every song seemed to go on much longer than it needed to with solos and vamps that became interchangeable. To me it felt like they were just living up to the expectation of delivering the 30 song set list in an almost mechanical way, dressing it up in “Rock n Roll excess.” It was more about “look at us, all old but still rocking” than having any real passion for the music. Interestingly enough, the best song of the night was “Attitude” a Misfits cover, sung by Duff McKagan, which appeared on The Spaghetti Incident and was played short, sweet and aggressive, as it should be.

When it was all said and done, this show came across exactly like the cash grab that it was and nothing more. This is a group of guys that mostly put aside how much they hate each other because the money was too much to turn down. Maybe it’s the size of the venue and maybe people in the front row got a different vibe, but this was spectacle and not much else. So it was a stark, refreshing, contrast to see the Rage and Rapture tour the following night in a much more appropriate and intimate venue.

Lindsey troy julie edwards

I was excited for all three bands that night, but if I’m being honest, I was most excited for Deap Vally. This is one of my favourite bands of the past few years, who put out my favorite album of 2016, Femejism, and aside from an in-store at Radio-Active Records, I had yet to catch them live. I was not disappointed in the least, even though their set was short. Opening up with “End of the World” from their first album, Sistrionix, they instantly got the (fellow) olds in the audience to pay attention. Just before they went on I had heard several people in the audience saying “oh, there’s some other band” with shades of disappointment. But they couldn’t deny the power of Lindsey Troy and Julie Edwards as they ripped through their set. At one point, I heard myself loudly “woohooing” when Lindsey introduced “Smile More,” and I’m sure I drew some looks near me. Soon, they all understood though. I was particularly blown away by Ms. Edwards’ skill on the drums as she beat out complex, hard and funky rhythms with apparent ease. After their set, they went out to the merch table to say hi and sign stuff so I ran out there. I’m sure I came off like a total fanboy, but you know what, good. They deserve ardent fans of all ages and genders and I am not ashamed of my excitement.

not ashamed

On the way back to the floor, holding my second copy of Femejism (now signed), the lights dimmed and Garbage exploded into their new song “No Horses,” an excellent apocalyptic song that is perfect for our times. I was stuck halfway to my wife who was still standing about 2 people back from the stage, as Shirley Manson and the boys destroyed us all. Back in the late 90s when Garbage first came out, I was pretty heavily into them, but I had never seen them live until this night and they blew me away. Shirley Manson’s stage presence is a beautiful ballet of performance and laid back honesty that I’m not sure I’ve ever seen in anyone else. When she sings “this is the apocalypse” you believe her. At one point she dedicated “Special” to a fan from Orlando they had come to know, who passed away, and her voice cracked a little. She talked about how much their fans means to them and it was clearly sincere and heartfelt. These candid moments would then lead to her performing a song with all of her essence like it was a theater piece, sometimes throwing hands over her head in ecstasy, sometimes down on her knees in pain, or dragging the mic stand around in a gloomy march and even, for part of “Only Happy When it Rains” standing perfectly still, hair in face, like a true goth queen as the world exploded around her.

shirley manson

I was happily surprised that they played “The World Is Not Enough,” their contribution to the history of great James Bond themes. The annihilation Garbage unleashed on us peaked with a devastating “Push It” that had everyone dancing and jumping. Throughout the night I kept trying to figure out how they were incorporating some of their more electronic beats and sounds, because it was seamless. Of course, Butch Vig was playing what seemed to be a fully electronic drum set, but none of it felt anything but organic. The sound at the Hard Rock Live is among the best I’ve ever heard. It’s loud and clear and just what a band made up of studio geeks needs.

The crowd seemed to be there mostly because of Garbage based on the energy level. Although, I doubt anyone could have resisted what the band was doing even if they weren’t there for them. By the time they got to the closer, “Vow” everyone was amped up and ready for more from Blondie. It’s probably the best handoff from one band to another I’ve ever seen. And here I have to shout out the roadies that spent next to no time resetting the stage between sets. Within maybe 10 or 15 minutes, they were done and we were back in business, not losing any momentum.

The screens filled with static and a loud buzzing was playing as Blondie opened with a ferocious “One Way or Another” and straight into “Hanging on the Telephone.” And there they were, these - as Shirley Manson had said during her set - “Icons of Rock,” and I was standing mere feet away from them. I’ll never be able to go back to CBGB in the 70s and this show wasn’t that, but I was struck instantly by how this band was still sounding so fucking good after all these years and how they had so much energy. Continuing my focus on drummers, Clem Burke has not lost a single beat and I was kind of out of breath just watching his aerobic display.

debbie harry

What mostly stood out to me during this set was how this was not a set by a band relying on their past glory. Their latest album Pollinator features songs written mostly by or with other artists such as Johnny Marr, Sia, Charli XCX and Dev Hynes. The new songs are good and relevant and the album is solid. But I have to say these songs really came alive when played live. They didn’t just stand up next to the classics, they brought their own vibe to the party as well and it was more than welcomed. In an unexpected twist, I saw several people singing along to the new songs. And not for nothing, but at Guns n Roses, mostly people just sat through songs from Chinese Democracy. But that’s to be expected. This band may not be all the original members, but the history of the band is one that is too complicated to be hung up on that. The core of the band, Debbie Harry, Chris Stein and Clem Burke have held in place and rather than having interchangeable hired hands come in, they’ve just expanded their core over the years. So, Leigh Foxx, Matt Katz-Bohen and Tommy Kessler are absolutely vital parts of this whole and it comes through in every note.

About halfway through, a raucous “Rapture” lead to a cover of Dylan’s “Rainy Day Women #12 and 35” that was unexpected but still had us all singing the “everybody must get stoned” chorus with glee. And then came what was probably the standout song of the night, from the new album, a cover of “Fragments” by an Unkindness. This song is rather grand in scope, going from ballad to driving plea and back, in an almost theatrical, progressive structure. It’s a song where the band as a whole can really shine due to the complexity and they didn’t just shine, they blew the roof off of the place with it. It’s a longish song but god damn it if I didn’t want it to continue. When the last note played, I was just standing there awestruck and I don’t think I was alone. This is good on the album, but live it was absolutely holy.

I was beyond happy that they played one of my favorite songs of all time by anyone, “Atomic.” And they didn’t just play it, they played the fuck out of it, with Ms. Harry smiling, jumping and dancing like a 20 year old. They could have just ended it there and I would have been happy. But then came “Heart of Glass” with just as much joy and energy as they started with. For the encore, they came back for “The Tide is High” and closed the show with a performance of “Dreaming” that was sincerely inspiring and moving. At one point Ms. Harry spoke as the band played, calling on us to dream and be creative not just as a means to achieving personal fulfillment, but a call for creativity as a method of protest in a time when it is sorely needed. She repeated the line “dreaming is free” over and over as the band played and I felt myself getting choked up. It's the simplest things that make a difference sometimes. And that’s where I was really struck with the contrasts of the show I’d seen the previous night and this one. Heroes can fall or sell out. They can refuse to let go when they should or quit while they’re ahead. They can be replaced or forgotten altogether. They can stop being relevant or they can transcend. They can fade away or radiate.

Shirley Manson spoke several times during her set, shouting out her tour mates and particularly pointing out that being a woman in rock is hard and takes a tough woman. She praised both Deap Vally and Debbie Harry for this and thereby glued the show together as, not so much a statement, but a celebration of women in rock and I can’t think of three bands that could better represent this at this moment. The progression is clear between the 3 and it’s fantastic that they can coexist simply as badass musicians, icons and heroes.