A Novel Idea

What to do when my wife jets to Portland for several days?  Watch TV?  Surf the internet?  Play first person shooter games online with my kids and similarly quick triggered strangers? Well, there’s this odd Facebook Event that I’d been invited to, you see. 

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It’s odd entering a restaurant to a silent main dining area but hearing ample noise upstairs.  And, as one speaker roughly put it, “There’s a lot of people into reading here.  On a Wednesday night.  In Canton, GA.  But, I like it.”  Note the emphasis on the town.  Unlikely as it seems, yes, there were over 60 people filling all the available seats on the un-cramped but not quite spacious second floor of The Snug, a self-described gastropub.  The event was clearly a win-win for the venue and the organizer. 

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Raffle ticket in hand (there were drawings for books by the authors), I had just a few minutes to say “hi” to my surprised artist/art enthusiast friends (they knew it would be a game time decision for me…), fly back down the steps for a better draught beer than they offered upstairs, then reclaim one of several remaining stools. 

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And, at that point, it is no longer a socializing occasion, because everyone is gathered to listen to various authors read from their books, on this occasion with a detective/mystery theme.  I know, I know, gentle reader! My wife leaves town, and I go crazy on a week night.  I can’t be trusted.

The evening works out… decently.  I’ll start with the negative to build to better things.  I know the bar area has to wash their dishes, and the cycle isn’t that long.  But the sound of spraying water while trying to concentrate on a reading is a bit of a challenge.  Okay, that’s it for the negative side.

I’m used to audio books, but those are voiced by professionals, and if a work starts off kind of slow,  you trust in it and give it time to get a glimpse of the characters and where the tension begins.  Here, and I think without exception, the authors similarly read from the beginning of their books, some with a brief introduction to the scene, others will a fuller description.  But I can’t say that one to two chapters reliably pulls a reader in.  I’d rather skip to a juicier scene with an appropriate intro, but overall, I caught the gist of a character or the direction it might go, and both the crowd and authors seemed more than satisfied.

Also, I cannot say that the longer the description, the better the reading.  I can say that some of the “author background” stories were more interesting than the content of the books – at least as briefly introduced.

For example, two were current or former police officers.  Here’s a paraphrase from a female author who used to do solo patrols in Atlanta. 

“I’m covering my beat on a weekend night, driving slowly down one of those streets with my window down, where every other house has been demolished.  All of a sudden, this woman rushes in front of the car waving her hands.  ‘You’ve got to help me find my husband!  He’s cut!  He’s goin’ to bleed out!  You gotta help me!” 

Her:  “How did he get cut?” 

The lady:  “I cut him!”

After questioning further why she stayed in a relationship with someone who she fought with often, the lady grabbed her crotch and said, “because he loves my Cooter Pot Pie!”

That was better than anything in the books.  Maybe that character appeared later.

The second most humorous moment was when an author said, “Hang on.  I have to turn my book on.”  Hello, technology at a book reading.  I didn’t expect you!

The authors had varying experience both in writing and reading to an audience.  For me, Thomas Mullen was the highlight, in no small part due to his introductory background into policing in 1940’s Atlanta and the constraints on authority for black officers regarding white suspects.  It also helped that he is an experienced reader and the selection that he read from immediately drew interest, rather than a more genteel introduction to setting and characters. 

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In any case, it was a different kind of evening and one that I enjoyed.  Next time (which is a “beach reads” theme), I’ll let my friends know I’m coming, arrive sooner, try the food, and socialize a bit.  A novel idea!

Netflix Iron Fist – TV Review

Episode 1:  I LOVE Daredevil.  I got through Jessica Jones tolerably well.  I enjoyed the Harlem experience with Luke Cage.  Now it’s time for some unknown Bruce Lee type to don some green robes and a yellow mask and kick butt!

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Same episode: Um, who is this amiable bore, and when do we see the hero?

Episode 3. Dogged.  Determined. Persistent.  Committed.

No, these aren’t traits of Iron Fist, the titular lead of Netflix’s latest Marvel hero series.  That’s my utter ridiculousness of seeing this wretched series through three episodes.  Of all the actors to be cast as an action hero, they take Will Ferrell, only without the charisma.  Or whatever it is he has.   Ugh.

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Episode 4:  Dear Diary -  I’ve survived, but I’m lost in the forest. Teak. Maple. Oak. Mahogany. Pine. Walnut. Elm.  Ash.  These are much more interesting than the wooden actors in this show.  You’re even making me doubt the actress who plays Claire Temple, Marvel’s resident ad hoc nurse.  That’s shameful. 

Episode 5:  Dear Diary – Maybe I was too harsh!  I must be becoming a critic or something. Actually, it’s not entirely the actors’ fault.  The dialogue often carries the same depth and eloquence we witnessed when Anakin Skywalker romanced Padme Amidala.  Young Darth and Danny Rand share a similar unconvincing rage and stubbornness.  I wonder if I can establish a “7 degrees of Kevin Bacon” to make a connection between the writers of Star Warts and Iron Fist.  That would be time better spent.  Oops. Another episode is starting.  Damn you, Netflix!

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Episode Whatever:  Dear Diary -  Why does Danny get hurt so much? (Psst. Spoiler alert. Danny Rand is Iron Fist). I mean, really? The punches and kicks of his adversaries obviously bring all the accuracy inherited from hard training at the Imperial Dojo of Storm troopers.  Why exert so much energy dodging?  Just wave your fist in front of their face, and they will fall before you!  That’s power.  Iron Fist power. 

Episode 10. Dear Diary - My introspective nature noted in Episode 3 has proven itself again and again.  I deserve the Daredevil Grit Award for watching this.   Why? Why?  Why do I keep returning to this?  Because unlike these actors, I rise above the material, that’s why!

Episode 11.  Really?  The cute Asian girl who almost comes across as being able to really, really like the stiff Danny is part of the Hand, the evil ninja society that Danny must destroy?  No way!  I mean that’s like, skipping from 2 to 4 when connecting the dots.  But I get it.  There’s not that many dots to connect, and the shortest distance between two points is a straight line.  The writers must be hauling in handcarts of coffee to keep up the sizzling pace we’ve seen so far.  By the episode count, the grand finale is right around the corner!  You’re running out of time, fellas!  Skip to 6!  Skip to 6! It’s not going to be a pretty picture when you finish it, anyway.  And so much for diaries.  This is all so unworthy of it.

Episode 13.  I admit.  I cheated.  I searched “Iron Fist episodes” just to confirm that this was, indeed, the final chapter.  It improved my spirits greatly!  And, for this episode, the characters kind of fell into a familiar pattern, well, an all too familiar one.  The stiff, the nut job, the romantic interest, the voice of reason, the jealous “I shoulda been Iron Fist,” and, really, the only character I’m happy to see when she’s on screen, Madam Gao.  She makes Daredevil better, but her talent here only helps the goings on rise all the way to tepid… when she’s on screen, that is.

So, bring on the Defenders.  I’d watch Daredevil any day, even if I have to put up with… this.

The Defenders

Nick Cave–Live @ Thomas Wolfe Auditorium

Last I saw Nick Cave, at the Louisville Palace, Nick Cave began the show with an energetic and wholly consuming rendition of “Jubilee Street.”  Two years later, he’s begins the concert seated through the entirety of “Anthrocene,”  a relatively subdued song from his latest release, The Skeleton Tree.  Honestly, it’s a disappointment, but by comparison only.  Whereas with “Jubilee St.” he claimed the audience, here he wooed them with a stage presence not needing to be defined by constant motion.  This would be an evening of the slow build.

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My objective lens for this show was a lady seated next to me, excited for her first show and very familiar with his work.  I’m more of a recent convert, and only some of his songs strike the right chords with me.  I think she was utterly amazed that he would just sit there, given the look of disbelief she gave me between songs.  To be fair, she was with her boyfriend, and I kind of feel sorry for him for all the attention she gave the much older me, but that’s the concert experience – something that can be shared when people hear and connect with the same things. 

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After one song of sitting around, Cave was done conserving energy.  From this point, he roamed the stage, to the right, to the left, to the right and, well wait, back to the right.  He found his sweet spot – a group of fifteen or so at the corner of the stage who responded with raised arms, clearly giving back to Cave, and their gravity pulled him their way.  Others along the stage front seemed to figure this out after a time…  Cave exudes stage confidence, but not of the Robert Plant variety where adoration is assumed and acknowledged, but rather sought and gathered.  Throughout the show, when Cave stopped to focus on a small group, he would make circular motions with his arms and hands – perhaps gathering their attention, perhaps making it personal to those he gazed upon.  The woman next to me would mime his motions time and again throughout the show.

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And this is a lesson for those who haven’t been to one of his shows.  Seize the floor.  Actually, the first lesson is to buy your tickets the moment they go on sale.  Avoid regrets later.  In any case, get floor admission. The area in front of the stage was full of people who claimed it, no doubt offending those who paid for pricey “front row” seats.  There is no seating at floor level when Cave performs, and if you want to experience Nick Cave, keep in mind that he pays little attention to those beyond 30’ from the stage.  This is not from lack of appreciation, I think, but from his need for a responsive audience in close proximity.  It’s what feeds his performance, and that helps everyone.  The capacity for this venue is ~2,400.  The photos don’t represent the length of the venue or the size of the crowd – a sell out. 

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Highlights to my ears were “Higgs Boson Blues,” “Into My Arms” (which melted the lady next to me – the song she most wanted to hear, I think), a fiery “Red Right Hand” – with a lyrical edit to make fun of Presidential tweets,  and “Push the Sky Away,” where Cave finally pushed into the audience, stepping on the arms of the theater seats and immersing himself with fans on the floor.

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As for the Bad Seeds, they’re really good.  The main ingredient is collaborator Warren Ellis, alternately playing guitar, violin, piano and anything else that needs doing.  Ellis is incredibly comfortable in his own space.  He doesn’t need the attention from the audience, but at times gives his attention to them.  More often, he’s in his own world, seemingly with great enthusiasm playing the music he loves, often with his back turned to the audience. 

Overall, fans will like this show for a the standard set list which spans his career pretty well.  Did I like the songs better on the previous tour?  Yes.  Does it really matter?  No.  It’s the kind of show that must be seen and experienced… And Asheville, NC is a great destination city for a concert.

Set list:
  • Anthrocene
  • Jesus Alone
  • Magneto
  • Higgs Boson Blues
  • From Her to Eternity
  • Tupelo
  • Jubilee Street
  • The Ship Song
  • Into My Arms
  • Girl in Amber
  • I Need You
  • Red Right Hand
  • The Mercy Seat
  • Distant Sky
  • Skeleton Tree

Encore:
  • The Weeping Song
  • Jack the Ripper
  • Stagger Lee
  • Push the Sky Away

Valerie June –The Order of Time

Valerie June appeared on my radar when several friends included Pushin’ Against the Stone on their 2013 “Best of” lists.  It took me a few listens to figure out if I liked it.  Thank you, Spotify.  I then fulfilled my anachronistic foundings and purchased the CD.  I’m glad I did.  It was exTheorderoftimeceptionally tuneful with sharp lyrics as had an enthusiasm to it due to a spirited vocal delivery and the backing music.  The only issue was her voice.  Female, fine.  African-American, fine.  Blues/Soul styling, fine.  Appalachian accent?  Or, a pronounced southern twang? I’m not a country music fan, but.. whatever.   That was the hurdle.

Her new CD doesn’t sit quite as well as the last, but not for lack of quality but rather a tone that musically and lyrically speaks more directly to tough times - a life of labor, the passing of time, broken and disappointing relationships… Accordingly, the music leans more to the blues rather than soul, not that the subject matter is tremendously different from her previous effort.  But to my ear, while there’s a little less ear candy, there’s more to concentrate on lyrically given her mature reflections and, often, precision in expression.  Following are sample stanzas from some of her songs.

Men are born strong
Then broken down
Burdened at birth
’til six feet in the ground

Pops earned his bread in dust
But his hard working hands fed us
Sun up to sun sink down
His body worked to the ground

Folks thought we had it made
‘Cause we always kept a face
Meanwhile there’s bills to pay
Stack growing everyday

When my voice was dry
And my eyes were sore from tears
You taught me how to face my fears
I’ve tasted love before
But I never saw the light
Until you opened up the door

I had learned to live alone
A quiet house keeps a weak mind strong
Though I’d settled in my ways
Mighty fine waking to your face

This is a really good CD for music listeners who pause to appreciate intricacies of a work.  I’d prefer slightly less production, though, because understanding her words is sometimes difficult – but also an affirmation of buying the CD with lyrics included.

4 of 5 STARS_thumb

 

BNQT–Vol. 1

From the opening roll of McKenzie Smith’s drums, it’s good to hear the sound of (some of) Midlake, a favorite band for years despite their intermittent work.  That could once can be blamed on their former leader, Tim Smith, but as their last release without him was in 2013, it’s apparent that they’re all to blame, side business pursuits notwithstanding.  BNQTvolume1

BNQT (pronounced “banquet”), then, is definitely not a Midlake album but rather the sound of musicians stretching their muscles after a long break.  And, I credit them for that, not only for taking a risk, but trying a different musical challenge with obvious enthusiasm.   Here, they’re the backing band for various singers, including their own Eric Pulido and other front men from other bands who are also growing distant from the spotlight, including Franz Ferdinand, Band of Horses, Granddaddy and Travis, each of whom contributed two songs each.  And it works. 

The lineup of songs is fairly peppy, with a dose of pop here, trippiness there, and enough musical diversity to sell whatever song the singers brought to the table.  It’s kind of like Spotify’s “Discover Weekly” playlist – it all fits my interest, but with one exception, there’s nothing that I would star for later replay.  Still, it’s a nice listen.

The only misfire to my ears is the profanity laden “Tara,” which may be funny in it’s way, as in, once.   The lyrics and even the music get tired quickly, and it’s placement near the end of an album without making it the closer suggests someone else agrees.  Ben Bridwell, from Band of Horses, almost makes up for it with “Unlikely Force.”  At the bright end is “Hey Banana,” a trippy throwback, with cello and violin even.   Pulido’s “Real Love” took me a while to appreciate, mostly because it strikes very closely to a rather dreary John Lennon demo with the same name.  It’s a different song, though, and I decided BNQT’s version is perhaps only Lennon’s voice short of a placement on Magical Mystery Tour.  George Martin would like the arrangement, in any case.

I read in one review that the four participating members are what is left of Midlake.  I’m hoping that is not true, because if anything, Vol. 1 strongly suggests that they have more to say, as implied by the album’s title.   That said, perhaps they should go raid former leader Tim Smith’s house, grab a stash of lyrics, set them to music, then invite him to come sing and play flute where there’s space.  Life isn’t that simple, so, like BNQT, we take what pleasures we can get. 

3 of 5 STARS[3]

The Business of Beer

I’ve been enjoying craft beer as a hobby the last five or so years, regularly trying new beers and visiting breweries when I travel as they are something that is distinctively local – and open after business  hours.  Most beers taste so similar that I can’t tell them apart, but I can state whether I’d want to try one again (rare) or opt for one that I had not yet sampled.  It’s like a collection that doesn’t take any room, and there’s an app (Untappd) to help me inventory and rate what I’ve tried. 

The pursuit is on for the next “most favorite” beer, but the change in the industry is not lost on me.  According to the Brewers Association, there are 5,234 craft breweries as of 2016, a 16.6% increase from the prior year – and consider there were ~50 craft breweries in 1990.  Of the statistics below, an interesting one is that craft beer accounts for 12.3% of beer volume.  Elsewhere, Anheuser Busch InBev and SAB Miller, the two global conglomerates of pedestrian beer offerings, have seen their market share decline by 7%.  I might think that number should be higher, but it makes sense.  Package stores sell cases of Bud and similar for fairly cheap, and there are people I know who hammer away through case after case – low alcohol content and low cost allow that.  But in tap space in restaurants, Big Beer has less and less presence.  In grocery stores, craft breweries have claimed maybe 15% of the shelf space.  And business at the brewery is big, as evidenced locally by the changes in State laws that allow breweries to sell their own beer directly to the consumer beginning in September.  

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So, when Elysian, Terrapin, or Wicked Weed are purchased by Big Beer, I hadn’t really thought about it much.  I like capitalism.  It’s American that someone can build a business and a brand, then cash in on their efforts.  In the case of a brewery, selling the business allows the owners to generally run the brewery as they had, find opportunities for more efficiency, and gain wider distribution and marketing.  But, among the consumer concerns/trends that have emerged since Wal-Mart and Amazon began dominating the retail world, buying “local”  or “Independent” beer sticks with me, even if it costs a little more and is difficult to reliably find.  Quality is the main factor in this, and of the companies purchased so far by Big Beer, only several of their beers compete for my taste buds.  I’d rather support the little guy financially – the breweries who sold out already made their profit.    

The reaction to the recent acquisition of Wicked Weed was quick and derisive.  They’re in Asheville, which invites a sort of hipster appeal just on demographics, plus their beers are really good.  They earned their fans, the same ones who are now tweeting their retreat.  Wicked Weed was immediately cast out as a voting member of the North Carolina Brewer’s Association, whose members are defined by a certain amount of barrels produced which, obviously, InBev exceeds handsomely.  Several breweries who were collaborating with Wicked Weed for special brews canceled their work, craft beer stores and bars are dropping Wicked Weed product, and a beer festival that Wicked Weed was planning to host was forced to cancel when about half of the attending breweries from around the nation cancelled their participation.  There are reasons for that which are fairly interesting – pride in independence among brewers and their supporters as well as questions of business ethics in a transactional world where if you’re not growing, you’re declining.  In short, the fears of “the small guy” is that Big Beer wants to destroy the craft beer market.  That makes sense.   Big Beer plays to win.  To support that argument, here are a couple articles for those with an interest:

Why Bud or Miller buys craft breweries – It’s not (just) a “if you can’t beat them, join them” proposition.  A very interesting read regarding the billion$ in brand value.

The Devil made me do it – The owner of Wicked Weed said they had “always been limited by access to raw materials. [We make] really hop-forward beers, using upwards of four pounds of hops per barrel.  And those are hard to get your hands on , and that’s why they’re great and why they’ve won medals.  So for us, having hops no longer being a limited factor of growth is exciting for us.”  It helps them and protects their business and employees.  For everyone else?  Try the link.

Shannon McNally–Live @ Red Clay Theatre

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I’ve seen McNally three times before, and I finally caught her on the right stage - as in one with good sound quality.  The Red Clay Theatre in Duluth, GA isn’t exactly an easy commute from where I live, particularly on a weeknight, but it’s worth it.  RCT is a 260 seat listening room, as in, “You’re here to enjoy the music; your idle chat can wait until after the show.”   On CD, McNally’s voice is a joy – production levels can be mixed to make clear its depth and inflections.  But live, with an electric guitar or two, bass, and drums, and her bluesy, gravely voice and nuanced delivery get obliterated by the din amplifiers and less than ideal house/stage speakers.

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Not here.  She was accompanied only by guitarist/singer Johnny Duke, who opened the evening with a solid set of songs.  He’s been a sideman to many high profile Nashville country artists, but his own style seems to be the singer/songwriter indie variety – respectful of whatever makes the song work.  It was apparent why he tours frequently with other artists, because instrumentally he’s a significant upgrade for McNally – a versatile ally to give space to her voice yet elevate her fairly straightforward song structures with a variety of guitar styles – and mandolin at times.

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McNally is just beginning a tour to support her new CD, Irish Rose, from which she played a good number of songs.  The centerpiece is “Banshee Moan,” whose theme takes the Irish mythology and personalizes it.  This may also have been the song whose musical intro was accompanied by a passing train horn behind the venue.  Spooky like.

McNally had ample time and enjoyed telling stories between the song, which is all the better in my opinion when artists let some of their personality or interests show.  We heard how she stood next to J.J. Cale on a New Orleans sidewalk, without introducing herself, the early career of Bobby Charles (of whose songs she recorded an entire album), another celebrity proximity story as she received a passing acknowledgement from Guy Clark as she was heading to a stage, and her pleasure in hearing rain on the roof.  And there were others.

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The only thing lacking was a larger crowd to enjoy the show.  It seemed those there knew her catalog pretty well.   Probably like many artists, the only thing separating her from a wide audience is the means - all it would take would be one song placed in a  TV or music soundtrack.  In the meantime, I hope her live shows continue with the acoustic/light electric approach – it allows her to be heard to her best advantage.  

Some of the songs she played:

  • You Made Me Feel For You
  • Black Haired Boy
  • Low Rider (JJ Cale)
  • I Don’t Want to Know
  • Banshee Moan
  • Bohemian Wedding Song
  • Old Man (Neil Young)
  • Bolder than Paradise (I think)
  • The Worst Part of a Broken Heart
  • This Never Happened, I Was Never Here