DragonCon 2018

Hello again DragonCon! And as long as it took to get here, p00f!  It’s gone.  Anyway, here’s the tales.

There was this guy – a really nice PacMan costume with a ghost attached to a spring so that he’s “chasing” him.  Complete with sound effects.  This was my first year at DragonCon without a focused effort on taking photos of the many costumes.  I appreciated them as I passed by, but I’m not sure if I missed the full-on effort.

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Friday:

How to Write a Story in an Hour

This session is offered each year, but I usually opt for a celebrity panel at the same time when the crowds are fewer.  My wife attended this last year, and greatly enjoyed it.   It’s hosted by a novelist and editor with a humorous approach to a “no-nonsense” task of moving a crowd to generate ideas and movement while focusing on essential story elements.  Essentially, she gets the audience to define a character, a setting, an antagonist, etc.   But first, it has to start with a captivating sentence to start the story.  Several decent ones were offered, but for the character, we landed on a vegan dragon chef, which was soon modified to a dragon chef who eats vegans.  The silliness of the proposition entertained those trying to one-up others, but the session was dead at the start.  There was learning in the questions she asked the crowd in order to develop and refine ideas, but it wasn’t sustainable after the initial democratic vote.  We left early.  Maybe next year.

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The Coming of the Five Horsemen of the Future Global Apocalypse:

Affiliated with the gaming track, this panel included a professor and several former military personnel to talk about the most troublesome areas of global conflict.  The tie-in was that they’re involved in the National Security Decision Making game, played at academia, gaming conventions, etc.  It was interesting to hear short narratives about the situations in various countries such as Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey, from people who spend a lot of time understanding stress factors such as religion, food and water scarcity, environmental damage, economics, etc.  And, darned if I can hardly remember anything specifically about it.  Other than, if oil prices drop, Russia and Arab states get in a real hurt very fast.  Below is a slide – maybe one of a couple hundred that the speaker chose to speak to.  The problem was that he spoke to the slide, not the audience.  Public Speaking 101!  Come on!

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And from there, it’s off to lunch.  Where we saw this guy dressed as Newt from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.  Includes little creatures, short pants… very well done.

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Star Trek:
The series that started my fascination with sci-fi… and I  haven’t really attended that many related panels.  In any case, here we have Ensign Kim (moderating and participating) from Voyager, Chekov from the original series, Q from The Next Generation, and Felix from Deep Space Nine.  It was interesting attending a panel with participants in completely different shows, but it worked well.  We heard about Walter Koenig being a fan-boy when he stood behind Marlon Brando in line at a sandwich counter and other assorted details.  John de Lancie (Q) pointed out he only appeared in nine episodes… talking about making an impact. Good humor abounded, as these panels usually do. 

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In the lobby, we catch up with assorted DC comic characters… why  not snap a picture?

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What’s the Worst That Could Happen?

Good question, and it’s off to the Science track we go for answers, with panelists working in space, biology, energy, etc.   So, our current threats include:

1) Satellites being destroyed intentionally or accidentally, as debris travels at roughly 8 km/s, delivering the force of two sticks of dynamite on satellites  enclosed by sheet metal.  It’s called the Kessler Syndrome, linked with a good video.  Think about the loss of GPS, and understand that sailors haven’t been taught to navigate by the stars for 20 years or so.  Supply chain shut down, communications shut down… pretty bad day for humanity.

2) Additive Manufacturing or 3D printing:  You can print guns, but should you?  Countries with little to lose can print rocket boosters for their missiles, etc.  Technology vs. morality.  Oh, and we can conceivably print a virus.

3) CRISPR – gene editing.  Again, technology vs. morality.  Human gene editing, etc.  We could change mosquitos to where they can’t reproduce.  Sounds good.  Oh, but what impact does that have for the food chain?

4) Energy – the advance of alternative fuels is lagging behind our needs for energy.  On the other hand, though offered as a negative, Georgia could be powered by 35 square miles of solar panels.  That’s not so bad.  Interesting point was made that panels are rated at what they can do essentially with the sun directly above them, but based on the time of day, latitude, clouds, and inefficient energy storage and transmission, and the actual energy they generate for the day is much less than the “ratings” provided.

5) Fake news – if you can’t find objective reporting, then how can people fairly judge and participate in society?

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Story Drawing for Comics:

And now to the Comics track, where a Savannah College of Arts and Design professor talks comic books.  This was interesting after the panel was over, basically.  He went through two different comics, essentially narrating how he suggests action, captures key plot elements, alters facial expressions… it was okay.  And then afterwards he talked about students finding roles in industry.  Here’s a tip, students.  Even if you’re good at what you do, you have to follow instructions and do your work on time.  Employers call professors like this to make sure they’re making a good hire.  Hopefully you’re talented and motivated.

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Saturday:

Arrowverse Cast:

Less Arrow, and more Flash and Legends of Tomorrow.  In any case, this was an entertaining panel, another where the personalities of characters pretty closely align with the actors that portray them.  Tom Cavanagh, who plays Harry Wells on Flash, was the most intriguing, I suppose.  One audience person mentioned they missed HR – a Harry Wells from a parallel world, and he was on top of it, pointing out that the character was an idiot.  I’ve said the same thing about Barry Allen many, many times, the titular hero.

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Gina Torres:

This is Zoe Washburne on Firefly, one of my favorite shows, though it only lasted a single season.  She wasn’t my favorite character, but like all the other actors who have appeared at DragonCon, she’s got great style and substance, and it was great to hear more about her life and work.

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And, while standing in line for the next panel… there was this pixelated Predator guy.  Actually, it was a very good costume for another reason.  It’s basically 2D, strapped to a guy on one side, so he wasn’t sweating to death like the many others wearing costumes.

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Stranger Things:

This was the only line that we stood in for quite a while, to see two teenagers on a Netflix show.  Glad we did.  Overcoming adversity, stage experience, multi-talents… This show did a really, really good job of casting.  They may be new to the average viewer, but they don’t lack experience.  And good humor, like Caleb speaking to his least favorite store in the mall… Victoria’s Secret.  Too awkward!

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Meet America’s Psychic-Fraud Crimefighter:

And to the Skeptic track – despisers, really, of anything that smacks of the supernatural, like religion, ghost hunting, magic and… psychics.  The gentleman to the left is a magician (who freely confesses what he does isn’t magic), and the guy on the right is a retired NY police officer who happened into a psychic who swindled someone for a lot of money.

This was really interesting in a number of ways.  1) Psychics earn ~$350k per year, they think.  2) It’s a family of sorts – the tools of the trade are handed down from one generation to another, and there is a cooperative spirit when needed.  3) People seek psychics frequently from personal trials – cancer, death in the family, cheating spouse, etc.  and the psychic is there to help – to tell them good things for $5 or $10, and then nuance out of the person one thing that troubles them.  Get their name, do some research, offer to help dispel spirits (etc.) for increasing sums, and… well, June Deveraux was taken for $17M.  The point was that these are professionals who play on people’s weaknesses to extract money.  It’s worth exposing as a fraud, for sure, and the officer has had some success getting prosecutors to do their jobs, even though the victims handed the psychics money “from their own free will.”  Here’s an article, because I know  you’re curious.

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Sunday:

The Expanse:

Good TV series, great books.  This was the panel that I was most looking forward to, and it didn’t disappoint.  It was heavily moderated by intent to emphasize “diversity” in casting and the strength of the women on the show.  I’ll admit I hadn’t thought about it from that context but don’t disagree at all.  However, it would have been nice to have had more Q&A from the audience. 

The series was recently acquired by Amazon for future series, which apparently included obligatory videos of key moments involving each of the actors present.   These were a bit too lengthy, and from what I overheard while the clips were playing, everyone would have loved hearing more of what they were saying about the scenes as they unfolded. 

The highlight was the lady who plays Avasarala launching, when the two “Martian” characters were discussing why their civilization was the best,  on how the Martians accomplished nothing, Earth had explored the solar system, yada yada… all an impromptu rant while in full-on character for her role.   Maybe it’ll make its way to YouTube.  It’s worthy.  Great chemistry among the staff, and much yet to look forward to outside of the confines of broadcast TV.

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We had a little time between panels, so went into the gaming area.  I don’t know what they’re playing, but it was an attraction for some very serious gamers.  How long does it take to get a turn?

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And, on the streets, we have Xerxes, from The 300.

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Killjoys:

Next was Killjoys, a Syfy show with one season remaining, which is two episodes away from concluding filming.   It would have been nice to have seen a larger cast.  While the main actor who plays John Jacobis was very appreciative of the attention, you could tell that he’s had fun… and the gig is up.  He’s moving on.  This was an entertaining show that could have used some better clarity in the plot as it unfolded, but I’m glad to see that they can plan its finale. 

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In sum, I guess a question might be, are all actors (that come to conventions) so likable?  Or are they acting?

And, finally, got this photo of Junkrat from Overwatch at the end.  Well constructed, lit, a mine for a foot, pose… perfect!

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DragonCon 2018 is a wrap! But 2019 is already paid for.

AFF Tank Museum

I’ve traveled past the billboards many times, but Danville, VA’s Tank Museum closes at 4:00 PM, and I just figured it would remain one of those things that I would never find to be a convenient stop.  However, the timing for this trip was modified slightly to accommodate the hours of Averett University’s library for genealogical research, which closed at 12:30 PM.  Having completely forgotten about the museum, I found myself driving right past it.  After a spirited conversation with myself regarding my arrival in Lynchburg, I turned the car around, and I’m glad I did. 

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The above photo was taken upon entering the lobby of the museum.  It was either “just” an idea to greet customers or a unique reminder that war, at least until then, was a people story at least as much as it was about technology.   Though flawed, “Tank,” starring Brad Pitt, gave some insight into what life might be like inside one of a tank.  No, thank you.  If you’re in a tank,  you’re as much a target as a weapon.

I’m not a tank geek, and I didn’t serve in the armed forces.  I’m just an adult who, as a kid, played “army” with plastic tanks and figures, watched tons of old war movies on TBS and otherwise read DC Comics’ GI Combat , a weird “comic” about an American tank “haunted” by Confederate General J.E.B. Stuart, an ancestor of tank Sgt. Jeb Stuart. When you’re a kid, you don’t think too hard about it – you just take it for what it is.

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In keeping with the Stuart name, the crew operated a series of Light M3 Stuart Tanks, before eventually gathering pieces from others to form a jigsaw tank.  I guess that’s what makes it a “new” haunted tank, as captioned above. 

So, immediately after the soldier with the wall cut-thru, adult kids find toys for sale.  It becomes obvious that a $12 admission isn’t keeping the lights on.

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We’re talking over 300,000 square feet of museum space, housing north of 120 tanks and artillery pieces.  Note:  If you’re traveling in the summer, one way of making this affordable is not to provide air-conditioning in much of the space.  There are pedestal fans, but, in any case, it’s worth the sweat if you’re even bothering reading my summary thus far.

Following are briefer thoughts and observations.  First off… Everyone should be humored by an opportunity to use a latrine.  It’s not like you can find a communal bathroom just anywhere.  Oh.  Well, never mind.

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The below is a German Panzer IV, somehow fitting a crew of five.  In some ways, the pedigree of the exhibits are as interesting as the tanks themselves.  Apparently badly damaged in WWII, rebuilt in Czechoslovakia in the late 1940’s, given to the Syrian Army, serving as a static bunker gun sniping at Israeli outposts, this and similar Panzers generally destroyed in the 1967 War, and eventually given to the museum as a gift from Israel.   At most exhibits, there is similar information posted, and for many, there is also an audio option playable from a smart-phone app lasting a couple minutes each.

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Below is a M60 Patton, powered by a Chrysler engine. It was made from 1959 into the 1980’s, and it outperforms Russian contemporaries.

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Speaking of which, below is a Russian T34, built in 1941 to 1950 and still found in active service in other countries, which, despite the claims of the Patton, may be one of the more universally accepted "best of” tanks.

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Below is a M103 A2 Heavy Tank, and it looks that way.  By the time it was perfected, the Army and Marines no longer had a need for it.  1952-1973.

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US M47 Patton.  8 gallons of gas per mile, weighing 50 tons, and can still do 30 mph.  It cost $208k to build in 1953.

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The below is a US M37 105mm Self-Propelled Howitzer.  It looks unsightly, required a crew of seven.  They cost $40k in 1945, and few were made or remain.  Many old tanks were later used as practice targets for training exercises, and a good number of the tanks on display were donated by the military, sparing their eventual destruction.

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A Soviet T54A Iraqi Tank is shown below, made from 1947-1960.   This particular tank is believed to have been in use b the Iraqi Army and captured by the U.S.

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The tank below, a M1917 “Six Ton Special” Light Tank, was considered top secret in 1918, and the term “tank” was even considered a secret. It required a crew of two, could muster 5.5 mph.  This was the first US tank manufactured but was not developed in time for WWI. It was in service until 1931, after which they were scrapped for metal.  Only about a dozen still exist, and this one may have been used in a Laurel and Hardy movie.

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Sadly, I didn’t see a M3 Stuart Light Tank, so this M5 has to do.  The difference was twin Cadillac engines in the upgraded version.  In fact, most of the US tanks shown here included either Cadillac or Chrysler engines.  Only about a dozen of these remain.

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For anyone who thinks the Swiss are and always have been neutral… we have the STRV 74 Medium Tank.  Reputed to be the best gun designers in the world, the Swiss generally made light tanks, but had to upgrade to medium when Germany developed heavy tanks such as the Tiger 1.  This one was poorly designed and “obsolete” even by 1942, though it remained in service until the 1980’s.

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Where “staging” is provided, the museum does it pretty well.  This is a US M18 Hellcat, a “tank destroyer.”  They cost (only) $57,500, and they sacrificed armor for speed (55 mph), but had an open top turret which was disliked.

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Not pictured are many other additional tanks, artillery guns, personnel carriers and similar.   I took photos, but… enough is enough?  There are a lot of great exhibits that deserve a visit.  That said, there are other types of exhibits about the place.

Through much of the display area, walls are covered with a variety of tank photographs (with and without crews), “art,” postcards, emblems and patches, posters, pop culture exhibits, etc.  I suspect that the grandchildren of many tankers have found the museum to be the ideal repository for the hand-me-down “war stuff.”  Good idea.

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Similarly, there is a Westworld military apparel exhibit.  It didn’t do much for me, but it’s there.

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Similarly, there are rooms of rifles and similar, but they’re viewable at such a distance that they lose interest.

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The below as not explained other than an accompanying movie poster.  Is it a model from the movie? I’d guess so.  But it was a strange insertion, though it’s appropriate that it found a home somewhere.

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That said, it’s far more understandable than this sad vehicle.  $500?  Really?

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Why spend that money when below is a more historical fixer upper?  And heavily discounted, too.  No mention if shipping and handling is included…

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Whether those proceeds benefit the museum is unknown, but it was apparent that there are other sources of income.  If you’ll remember the radio controlled tank at the entrance, you’ll note that they make events for such.

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Note:  The above had running water.  I’d be curious to watch one of these events. 

Another invitation for toys you don’t own would be to observe “Flamethrower Day!” (Sept. 1).  No, you don’t get to play with them, but a video was playing showing the death of Flammable Fred and other displays, not to mention an observable gap between participants and the audience.

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If you’re curious, THIS is an article about the museum and financial struggles.  That said, there were no issues that I could see – the museum was in good condition and numerous staff or volunteers were present, either working on “things” or available to answer questions.

Should you visit, plan on several hours if you have an interest in experiencing the place at a comfortable leisure.

Lord Huron–Vide Noir

In the search for current music that, at best, I like, or, at least, intrigues me, I’m  somewhere in between with Lord Huron.  This four piece band hits a lot the mLordHuron_Vide_Noir_Reviewarks.  Their last, Strange Trails, hit a number of things I liked – strange and eerily charming stories, decent tunes, and an overall concept – including the cover at – that was on the mark.

Three years later, they release Vide Noir, or “Black Void.”  All things considered, the album “art” is right on the mark.  In two different songs, “a pure, black void” is referenced.  On their last outing, the imagery was very much nature based, not transcendental, but a lush setting for the strange things happening in the lyrics.  This time, the CD can be summed up as “The girl got away, and I’m lost.”  In space. 

There are twelve tracks on the album, and without too much difficulty, extracting a line from each song pretty well sets the narrative of the album:
I lie awake and say your name into the night
You’re a conjured lie; a figment of my mind
I’m alive for now but good as dead
And I won’t believe in death ‘til I die 
Someday I’ll be dead and gone
Wanna leave the Earth and my things behind
Don’t know what to believe, but I know I’m alive
Can I cross beyond that line?
Now the trail has gone cold
I was drifting through time and space
Heading into a pure, black void
To take you away and out of this place
Maybe you get the gist.  The good news is that you don’t have to be bothered by the lyrics.  First, the band chose not to include them in the CD booklet, instead inserting a bunch of completely uninteresting pictures.  Second, much like their last album, the production focus on reverbs makes the lyrics pretty much intelligible on the faster paced songs.  If you know the lyrics, you can follow along, but otherwise…

Well, there’s the music.  While band leader/lyricist/singer Ben Schneider narrowed his focus significantly, the band has stepped up to make the best music of their career.   Drums – interesting and appropriate, bass – finding a groove and frequently defining a song; keyboards and guitars – frequently trippy; and so on.  In short, you can really like the music without bothering yourself with the lyrics. And, in spite of all that, it may end up being my favorite album of the year.

Next time, I’m hoping the band keeps to the current pace of development, and our fearless leader sinks a little more effort into the wild and weird things that sets this band apart from all the other retro/reverb bands.

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Favorites include:  “Ancient Names Part 1,” “Secret of Life","The Balancer’s Eye,” “Vide Noir”



Belle & Sebastian–Live at The Tabernacle

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Time flies.  Belle and Sebastian last visited Atlanta in 2014, but my concert buddy and I saw them on what I think was their first visit to Atlanta on May 13, 2002.  A lot has changed since then.  Technically a seven piece band, they’ve only lost one member since then (trumpet), since replaced.  For touring they seem to have added two additional players.

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The concert began with the autobiographical song of band leader, Stuart Murdoch who has made no secrets in interviews that “… this is a pop band that sprang out of infirmity.”  “Nobody’s Empire” is a straightforward recounting and honest reflection of his affliction with chronic fatigue syndrome that preceded the forming of the band in 1996 and reappeared in the 2000’s.   A part of the lyric regards a co-sufferer:

Lying on my side you were half awake

And  your face was tired and crumpled

If I had a camera I’d snap you now

Cause there’s beauty in every stumble

Attitude is everything, as evidenced not only by the band’s body of work but the transition from the fairly timid performance of 16 years ago compared to the master of celebration that took the stage Sunday night.

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The remainder of the songs weren’t quite so frightening by subject or directness.  In fact, it’s the witty sketches of others, informed by Murdoch’s musings of others living their lives while ill, that launched the band.  That, and a knack for finding musicians willing to follow a vision and disregard essentially everything happening in the music world at the time.  

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And the band employs instruments aplenty.  Multiple keyboards, bass, electric and acoustic guitars, violin, cello, recorder, drums… and others… there’s generally something for everyone to contribute even as they routinely rotate instruments through the show.  Last time, I recall one to two members sitting at the edge of a stage between songs when they didn’t have anything to play.  No longer.

The concert included a variety of fan favorites, though certainly filled with holes by fan preferences.  That said, the band gets credit – they change the setlist each night, and the only seeming obligatory song was the inclusion of a female’s vocals on a video feed on “Play for Today,” an odd choice among so many better songs in any case.  

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Otherwise, backgrounds appeared much like the characters – faces, places and such that form the spine of Murdoch’s songs.  Having just arrived from Washington DC, Murdoch was careful to make it sound like he had been in town a while, mentioning the humidity and showing photos of some favorite graffiti in the area.  Maybe these were new, or maybe when the band recorded an album in Atlanta some years ago.  Happily, almost every song had a brief monologue, whether chatty or humorous, even including a promo for the band’s own cruise planned for next year.

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And then, the keyboard bass line of “Boy with the Arab Strap,” and the party begins afresh.  Inviting quite a number of fans on the stage to dance, the crowd was into it, with Murdoch inserting different lyrics at the end of the song, warning the dancers of the danger of falling off the edge of the stage and noting it would be a sad end to the band to be victim to a lawsuit.

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Party time.

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And, why not enter the crowd at balcony level?

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Throughout the show, Murdoch spent tons of energy.  With the other bandmembers grounded to their instruments, Murdoch danced the night away, fully confident in himself, the music and their audience, itself an interesting mix of ages and styles.

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Murdoch took requests for the encore, choosing two songs that have been frequently played in recent nights, choosing, appropriately, to close with one of the their more poignant early songs, “Judy and the Dream of Horses.”   Favorites for me were “The Fox in the Snow,” “Sukie in the Graveyard” and “The Boy with the Arab Strap” – if only they could have played all of the album.

Setlist:

Nobody’s Empire
I’m a Cuckoo
We Were Beautiful
The State I Am In
Seeing Other People
The Loneliness of a Middle Distance Runner
The Fox in the Snow
Sweet Dew Lee
I Want the World to Stop
The Wrong Girl
Sukie in the Graveyard
The Same Star
Play for Today
Another Sunny Day
The Boy with the Arab Strap
The Party Line

Encore:

Jonathan David
Judy and the Dream of Horses