Midlake - The Courage of Others

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I've been waiting for this CD for years, having lived with 2006's The Trials of Van Occupanther long enough to regard each note as a friend.  That may be an exaggeration, but I found its lyrical focus on themes of of "home" and the musical tone as something remarkable that grew to something familiar.  And if only for frequent enjoyment I derive from each listening, it still affects me in ways that only music does.

Midlake's subsequent tour stopped at the East Atlanta Restaurant & Lounge (The Earl), where they played in a corner, on a small raised platform familiar to a lot of emerging, or less fortunate, artists.  As a five member band with many instruments, they all but crawled over each over from one song to the next to play each piece.

I'm pretty sure they were having fun, but it wasn't the outwardly visible type.  They were purposeful in playing their music; they weren't seeking celebrity or adulation.  The music wasn't made to emotinally connect to an audience, but that the crowd enjoyed it was only for the better, it seemed. 

Skip forward a year and their website was practically void of content.  Had the pressures of living on the road broken their spirit?  Skip forward another year, and a couple interviews were published, notably about their current preoccupation with Fairport Convention and other British folk bands from the 1970's.  I wasn't sure what this meant, but hoped that it would not result in a less accessible approach to their music, and particularly not one loaded with extremes of heaps of lyrical depression or self-importance.

In short, a four year wait between releases isn't the formula for audience growth that mostMidlake - The Courage of Others bands seek to follow.  But, I've heard enough from their two releases thus far to trust their instincts.

And so The Courage of Others arrives.  The good news is that the band's acoustical mix has not ventured far from where they left off.  The standard sonic spectrum of drums, guitars, keyboards, etc. is expanded with flute, recorder, dulcimer, autoharp, bassoon, harpsichord, violin...  whatever it takes to make a song sound the way they hear it. 

By comparison with their previous release, the tone of the work doesn't reaffirm things that matter, but rather questions whether we can move beyond our mistakes or whether we will just repeat them.  And it starts from the beginning, in "Acts of Man:"

Great are the sounds of all that live

And all that man can hold

If all that grows

Starts to fade, starts to falter

Oh let me inside, let me inside not to wake.

Or the second, "Winter Dies:"

As the winter dies the earth is brought to life

And a thousand merchant ships sail to find

A worthy village to land and start again

With one more year for a man to change his ways.

The cover of the CD gives a clue - an aged photograph of monkish draped figures in a mirrored image.  It could be said that it's a worthy reflection of the lyrical approach and vocal delivery taken by Tim Smith, who also writes all the songs.

Every word reads as if it's been pored over (which it likely has), exacting in its diction and meaning, even if it doesn't perfectly fit the meter.  Rather than speaking of home and relationships, the majority of songs here voice a somber judgment or an Ecclesiastical observation on men and their shortcomings. 

Musically, the band is fully willing to wrap their sound around Smith's lyrics and delivery.  The varied instrumentation doesn't just carry a beat and melody, but sets the mood and fills the sonic spectrum enjoyably.  For example, a lifting flute might lessen the weight of a downcast vocal, while an underlying electric guitar lead broods and pushes the song along. It all fits together in a way that suggests, duh, it took years to piece it together just so. 

If there's a weakness, it's that the tone is so well maintained throughout the CD that it leaves one asking for a few brighter moments, or even just a single worthy sonic release for a phoenix to rise from the ashes. 

Midlake obviously executed the CD that they wanted it to be, and they deserve credit for that.  But it's likely to fall short of heavy rotation, as Van Occupanther remains more accessible to a listener's moods.  That said, this CD will hold up well over time, even if just for listeners who like to be challenged.

Rating: 4 Stars out of 5 

I couldn't find an official video from the new release, but their website has several from the preceding CD.

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Super Bowl Odds & Sods

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1.  Timing.

Granted, this is an Eastern Time Zone rant. I've enjoyed many Super Bowl parties in my younger days.  Super Bowl Sundays were an event not to be missed.  As an adult, though, I have to go to work the next day and that impacts my plans for watching the game.  As follows:

When watching at a friend's house, should I stay to the end of the game? Well, no, because then you add in travel time back to my house, and it's late.  I have to get up early in the morning!

If I should host a Super Bowl party, can I count on my guests leaving promptly at the end of the game?  I have to get up early in the morning!

How many adult beverages should I drink?  Well, even being responsible, I shouldn't have more than 1 or 2 beers because I have to leave at half time... so I can get to bed on time and get up early in the morning!

There are frequently commercials that air on the radio for a mortgage company's refinancing product, proclaiming "it's the biggest no-brainer in the history of Earth!" 

Isn't there some empowered genius who might suggest that Super Bowl Saturday would be the biggest no-brainer in the history of sports? 

Anheuser-Busch practically owns the Super Bowl.  They should insist on a change. 

2. Is it a game or an advertisement?

No party this year.  It was time for the final father/daughter Super Bowl before she heads off to college next year.  Only, one of her best friends was with us as well.  No problem.

My daughter and I like football.  Men in the South would understand this: I raised her right.  She knows the rules of the game and can at least tellSuper Bowl XLIV the difference between a blitz and a prevent defense.  Her friend, though, is a transplanted Canadian who might someday enjoy football... if it was played on ice with skates.  She tolerated the game instead of reveling in majesty of sport, but did so primarily to pass the time until the commercials aired. 

How twisted is that?  I guess it's not dissimilar to my buying the Thanksgiving newspaper just for the advertisements.  But in her case, it wasn't a self-inflicted irony.  Instead, it was necessitated by a teacher who expected the students to watch the ads for a classroom discussion.  For what purpose, I don't want to know.

But purpose makes a difference.  When you're watching the Super Bowl to enjoy the game, the ads are (potentially) entertaining filler.  However, when you make it a point to watch all of the ads, you realize just how many there are and how frequently they air.  This game was particularly efficient with few fouls or other clock stoppages, and still it seemed like there was a commercial break after every several plays.  A coworker said she had recorded the game as she knew she was going to miss the first half, and it took her 30 minutes to catch up to live 3rd quarter action.  Football has its share of standing around, but still, the game suffered for the number of ads.

3. Speaking of commercials. 

There was only one commercial that Super Bowled me over, but it wasn't one that brought outright laughter.  There were certainly chuckles here and there (thank you Betty White and Dave Letterman), but the only ad that provoked a greater appreciation was Audi's "Green Police."  If you missed it, here it is (just takes a minute!):

An article in USA Today (<---- worth reading) takes note that environmentalists are completely befuddled with an automaker who trumpets a more eco-friendly car while at the same belittling those who created and sustain the green movement. 

I think the parody succeeds mostly because I suspect many Greens would subscribe to a notion that those who aren't fully committed to their cause should, in fact, be punished for being bad global citizens.  And if I could afford to buy an Audi, I would.  Sorry, fellas.

4.  The Who. 

I used to be a big fan, and though I don't listen to them very often, I still like many of their songs.  I thought they did a respectable job, considering their age.  It's not fair to expect them to sound like they did in 1971, or even 1978, but part of the Rock and Roll mythos, as, indeed, with human nature, is to go forward with what you have at hand.  Townshend and Daltrey still know how to rock, and they seem to enjoy doing so.  I couldn't really ask for more.

That said, kudos to whoever decided to surround the band with staging that doubled as a cleverly orchestrated light show.  Not only was it fairly spectacular, it also avoided the awkwardness in previous years of watching a sea of paid or otherwise motivated young people jumping, dancing and fist pumping in front of the cameras as if they were truly in the moment.  It's not a great risk to allow great artists let their performance speak for itself.

5.  The game.

Congratulations Payton.  Condolences, Peyton.  I just wanted to watch a good game, and I got it.  It's great that New Orleans' residents can shed some frustration and find some measure of civic pride.  I just hope that Atlanta mustn't suffer as severely before we can reach the promised land.

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Al Di Meola - Live at Variety Playhouse

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A high school friend loaned me several Al Di Meola records, which were great diversions from what I listened to at the time.  However, it wasn't until I heard Tour de Force Live playing in a record store that I had the "aha" moment for his music.  Latin influences notwithstanding, this was a jazz fusion album that rocked while risking, it seemed, any number of missed notes from the pure speed of the guitarist and the performance demands of an instrumental show.  But it sounded great.

As amazing a performance as this was with the electric guitar, I soon discovered Friday Night in San Francisco, which was also a live acoustic recording, trading in a full band for two additionally tremendously talented and fleet fingered guitarists, John McLaughlin and Paco DeLucia.  It was (and remains...) amazing stuff.  His studio albums, however, never fully captured my interest.  Usually, it's an artists live recordings that disappoint, not the other way around.

Fast forward almost 30 years, and I read that he would be playing at my favorite venue.  Awesome!  With my work buddy on board... well, wait a minute.  Of all things, an after school spelling contest for his son popped up unexpectedly and nixed his opportunity.  Well then, with my son in tow... what? So what if it's a school night?  Come on! It's a concert!

Whatever. I went by myself because I really wanted to see this show.  Fortuitously, I met Dave, visiting from south Florida and who had seen Di Meola back when I first heard his albums, and Edgar, whose wife wasn't up to the event at the last minute.  The conversation as we waited was great, and they made for a very suitable replacement to my heretofore reliable concert buddy and my son.  C'mon people.  Get your priorities straight.

With a Dogfish Head IPA in hand, and kudos to Variety for stocking their bar with a varied selection of beers, my fill-in buddies and I eagerly awaited the show.  Part of the discussion was about an article indicating that the decline of jazz stations in the U.S. had negatively impacted Di Meola's audience.  Di Meola added in an interview that he was considering foregoing the U.S. permanently in favor of the larger response from European articles.  He then added "final U.S. tour" to his website, and it made us thankful for us to have the opportunity to see him. 

One thing I love about Variety Playhouse is that if you get there early, you get great seats.  We ended up on about the fifth row, in plastic chairs positioned up front in an area usually left open for people to stand in front of the stage.  Jazz fusion doesn't beg the most energetic crowd, and having stood for many concerts there, I was pleased at the prospects of enjoying the evening primarily seated.

To further delay my "review" of the concert, I can't help but mention the guy who sat in front of us who saved four seats for almost an hour.  At first, I admired his patience defending inquiry after inquiry as to the availability of seats.  But, after a while, you just have to laugh at people who arrive with the venue almost full and become visibly disappointed to find out that the empty seats up front somehow weren't magically available for deserving late arrivals such as themselves.  Get a grip, people.

On with the show. 

I was prepared to enjoy Di Meola's music while not particularly liking him.  I watched the video of his 2009 tour with Return to Forever, the jazz group in which he started his career, and he seemed to grandstand a bit (to which he's entitled) and to play to the band much more than the audience (perhaps necessary, if each note wasn't canned).  Most of what I had seen of him before might be characterized as a fairly intense presence, and I really didn't anticipate him being very personable.

From the very beginning, this turned out not to be the case.  He introduced himself and his band with great warmth and humor, sat on his chair, and launched into a new piece that as yet is unreleased.  In fact, the first three songs were new, and each required the band members to read sheet music (a first time I've seen this at a concert) as they played.  Each had great melodies, furiously paced sections, and stylistic variety.  And it was very obvious that the band was enjoying themselves as well as the audience's reaction.

The band, World Sinfonia, is considered his "acoustic" band, with drums, stand up bass, rhythm acoustic guitar, accordion (in lieu of keyboards), percussion, and Di Meola on acoustic/electric and electric guitars. Except for a rather invisible performance by his rhythm guitarist, each artist seemed to greatly enjoy performing, and the audience was very appreciative throughout the two hour set.

He seemed to relish interaction with two of his bandmates.  One is his percussionist, Gumbi Ortiz, who has played with him over 20 years, and his abundant personality fills somewhat of a Paul Shaffer role as an amiable focal point in the breaks, if not during his lead sections. 

I don't know that I would necessarily look forward to hearing an accordion, but Fausto Beccalossi played it in a tones that suited the music very well (as opposed to carnival music), and judging from his facial expressions, is at one with his instrument.  He and Di Meola played off each other frequently.

Obviously, Di Meola is the heart of the show.  He favors Ovation guitars, which offer perhaps a bright acoustic sound, but with the flip of a switch to his effects pedals, the same guitar sounds amazingly different as he powers through more aggressive tones in the music.  Di Meola's left hand is always moving, regardless of the speed at which he picks.  But whether in rhythm or lead, watching his fingers glide along the fretboard, hammering on or off, sliding, and confidently gliding from  one chord or note to the next is just amazing.  

Another observation is that, as compared with the footage from the more improvisational jazz departures on Return to Forever's reunion video, Di Meola appeared much more relaxed and in his element with his band and his own music.  The closer was, I think, "Egyptian Danza," played to a crowd that was finally invited to get on its feet and celebrate what they had been hearing.

As for future US tours, he waved goodnight saying "See you next time, Atlanta."  Whether this was a rote closing comment or earnest remains to be seen and heard.  I can't find that his website currently mentions the finality of his U.S. tours, either.  Maybe Atlanta made a difference.

For the record, Di Meola has one of the most beautiful guitars I've seen. 

 

Pictures from the concert can be seen by clicking > HERE <.

"Egyptian Danza," from a concert in 2007:

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Theft and Rationalization

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Mad Max, Waterworld, Resident Evil, Knowing, or The Book of Eli... welcome to post-Civilization.

I try to keep my mind in the present rather than thinking about ways to upend life as I know it.  But it's not hard to fall into Hollywood thinking.

Whether it's a watching the collapse of law in New Orleans after Katrina or just remembering a severe gasoline shortage we had in Atlanta a couple years ago, it's fairly easy for the mind to appreciate how precariously we live in expectation that our basic needs and services will always be readily available.

Connecting the dots isn't hard, especially when I trim the number to three.  If there's no gas, there's no food delivered to the local grocery story.  If there's no food in the grocery store, there's certainly not any in the back yards of suburban homes as a backup.  Hello, hunger. How much of a food supply do we maintain in our pantries?  How desperate must things become before suburban neighbor considers turning against neighbor?  It's the same line of thinking that scared so many with Y2K, bless them.

This weekend I read an article that 80% of those in the metro Atlanta area who fall under the poverty level live in the suburbs.  If asked, I would have pointed a finger at the city of Atlanta for where I suspected the greater number resided.  That's one of eight people in the area living below the poverty  level.  That's pretty amazing.  And surprising.  And disturbing.

Recent estimates speculate that over 15% of our population is out of work, when considering both those who are counted while receiving unemployment benefits and those who fall outside the metrics who have exhausted them.  At what point do the civilized consider criminal options in order to meet their basic needs?  Fun With Dick and Jane without the fun...

My thoughts necessarily returned to this subject as we had a camera stolen from our car when my wife was visiting a business vendor, leaving it unlocked and unattended for about 5 minutes... in a residential neighborhood.  The camera was a Christmas gift to ourselves, and it wasn't a dust bunny.  We had already used it a lot and were very satisfied.   There's no one to pass the loss on to or to make it all better.  We're out the money.

There's a judgmental rage that broods as the incident recurs in my thoughts.  They're probably common within the victim mentality frame of mind.

Boy, if I could get my fingers around his neck!  

Is there no respect for others' property? 

Do people even care that someone else worked to earn what was taken?

Did no one ever explain right from wrong to the creep who took it? 

I'm reminded of a friend who once counseled someone who "supplemented his income." This person worked at a car wash, and, in his mind, anything found in the car in an unobvious place was fair game to be taken, places like in door pockets or underneath the seats or between the cushions.  The rationale was that, basically, the owner had lost them as evidenced by their current location, and if he found them while vacuuming the car, then he was entitled to take them.

The two cases probably don't relate.  But the latter does take my mind off a (deserved) righteous indignation, and it makes me wonder about the person who took the camera.  I could view the thief as an alcoholic or a drug abuser.  That doesn't lead to any happy thoughts and is a dead end.  To move on, I, instead, prefer to think that maybe he's unemployed, with dependents, in a house facing foreclosure, and no food in the fridge.  So, I hope whatever money he gets from the camera improves his life, even if only for a day or a little longer.  I can get another camera, and I'm grateful that I'm able to do so.

Excuse me while I keep repeating that last bit...

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