Porcupine Tree – Live at The Tabernacle

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While waiting for the Drive By Truckers to begin their show a couple months ago, I talked with another fan who shared very similar musical tastes.  In discussing bands like Pink Floyd, Renaissance, and (early) Genesis, he asked if I was going to be at The Tabernacle on April 27th.  I wasn’t aware of any upcoming concerts that had piqued my interest there, so he told me about a band called Porcupine Tree.  Apparently, I missed the boat on this band – for the last decade.  In any case, I decided to go, having heard only a few sound clips on Amazon that neither persuaded nor deterred. 

Arriving at The Tabernacle, a neoclassical structure built as a Baptist church in 1910, I was immediately confronted with numerous signs indicating "no cameras" or other recording devices.  That was a disappointment, as I've really enjoyed taking concert photos in recent months.  Entering the lobby, the security service was loudly reminding everyone "no pictures - keep your cameras and cell phones in your pockets."  This was a different vibe, to be sure, and combined with the Tabernacle's confiscatory pricing of beers (and miserly serving sizes), I was a bit put off.  Still, "no cameras" meant that I could enjoy the concert without standing, so up to the balcony level I went.  Being solo on this venture, finding a decent seat was not a problem.

Shortly thereafter, and opening on time, Bigelf, another band unknown to me, took the stage with a decent psychedelic/trippy and fairly hard rocking set.  The crowd seemed to gradually get into the band, as they were loud enough not to be ignored and good enough to give a listen.  Most notably, the lead singer had a unique positioning, as he faced the audience while playing keyboards on either side.  In keeping with their early 70’s sound, all band members sport ample facial hair, possibly updated for Pirates of the Caribbean.

Bigelf

During the intermission, I asked a couple people near me how they would describe Porcupine Tree…  I didn't really get an answer.  I asked which of their albums they favored…  I didn't really get an answer, other than "all of them."  Okay then!  About this time, I noticed a stagehand vacuuming the floor in final preparations.  What?

Minutes later, Porcupine Tree took the stage, a five piece band with keyboards, drums, bass, and two guitarists.  Steven Wilson, the leader, was front and center.  And barefoot. Thus, the vacuum cleaner.  The first song was "Occam's Razor," which leads their 2009 release, The Incident.  Wilson explained that they would play the entire CD, which I was pretty cool with.  As most CDs have their share of filler, it was a laudable risk.

Then, he warned against taking pictures and encouraged the crowd to politely ask anyone seen to be taking pictures to stop because it was distracting to the band.  Fair enough.  Going further, he cautioned, “Shouting a band member’s name doesn’t change anything.  If you still find it necessary, please do it in the loud parts.”

Needless to say, it was interesting to begin a concert telling the audience how not to show their appreciation.  That said, it led to a very undisruptive atmosphere that allowed everyone to hear clearly, and, fortunately, the acoustics were up to the job.  I’m fairly certain he’s just easily distracted, but it still works for those like me who like to listen to music.  As it turned out, their music demands close attention, and rebel yells or calls for “Freebird” were probably not likely from PT fans.

First, the band.  Keyboards included a variety of influences, including Mellotron type sounds – a distinctive keyboard that plays symphony instruments, but far from identical.  The unit was probably used most favorably by The Moody Blues and early King Crimson, but it’s a welcome staple of prog-rock.  Richard Barbieri’s playing was central to their overall sound, sustaining melodies, backing guitars, and inserting odd quirks and sounds.  This was definitely not “window dressing” background washes.

Colin Edwin played fretless bass, and he might be summed up as a man who knows how to go about his business.  He’s obviously part of the rhythm section, but he finds the low end quite frequently, powering the band’s more aggressive sections.

On drums, Gavin Harrison was always busy but never calling attention to himself.  He did what suited the music, which is, in my book, just what he should. 

The guitarist, John Wesley, did whatever needed doing.  He played some excellent leads, played rhythm when needed and sang backup vocals more than capably.

Steven Wilson, though, is the main creative force in the band.  He writes and sings the songs, as well as plays guitar.  His voice, fortunately, is not built for “American Idol.”  He may yet find radio airplay, but the band’s material seems unlikely to find popular “radio friendly” appeal.  That’s a cost of being a progressive rock band.  Besides, they can always sell out later and compromise their art for a few more bucks. (Yes, anyone?).  That said, his voice was incredibly strong and clear.  He appeared to give his all playing his music, which must be difficult to sustain when playing 5 or more nights per week.

Musically, the band was tight.  A video played on a screen behind the band, often synched with particular songs.  When it came to the stage show, lighting was often simplistic, and the only movement came from Wilson as he worked his way around the stage during instrumental sections or swapped out guitars. 

Songs that had a strong chorus seemed to have the largest crowd response, such as (I now surmise to be) “Drawing the Line,” “Time Flies,” and “I Drive the Hearse.”  Following The Incident, the band took a 10 minute break, with a timer on the video screen.  As it counted down to zero, the band returned ready to play.  Bravo.

The following hour included a variety of songs that were obviously popular from previous releases.  I liked “Lazarus” the best, but the others were good as well. 

I got a sense from The Incident portion of the show that I need to pay further attention to this band.  Progrock can easily fail.  It can be pretentious (Emerson, Lake & Palmer), detached (Yes), self-absorbed (Pink Floyd) or nonsensical (early Genesis) in music and/or lyrics.  Porcupine Tree did not seem to suffer from any of these.  Even though they frequently tend towards Pink Floyd and latter day King Crimson instrumentally, musical transitions from one section to another is not a priority, and it took me a while get accustomed to their Porcupine Tree - Steven Wilsonabrupt hard/soft style.  But, by the end of the evening, I was definitely a fan and will be exploring their work.  It was a great show, and I’d go to see them again.

Admission:  During the encore, when it made sense to risk being kicked out, I took about  10 pictures… with the LCD screen closed.  Two of them were focused.  One is decent.

The setlist and band member details were borrowed from another online review found HERE.  Thanks.

Setlist:

  1. Occam’s Razor
  2. The Blind House
  3. Great Expectations
  4. Kneel and Disconnect
  5. Drawing the Line
  6. The Incident
  7. Your Unpleasant Family
  8. The Yellow Windows of the Evening Train
  9. Time Flies
  10. Degree Zero of Liberty
  11. Octane Twisted
  12. The Séance
  13. Circle of Manias
  14. I Drive the Hearse

Intermission

  1. The Start of Something Beautiful
  2. Russia on Ice
  3. Anesthetize (Part 2: “The Pills I’m Taking”)
  4. Lazarus
  5. Way Out of Here
  6. Normal
  7. Bonnie the Cat

Encore

  1. The Sound of Muzak
  2. Trains

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Jakob Dylan – Women + Country

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Dylan’s second solo CD opens with “Nothing But the Whole Wide World,” a song that instantly sets the tone for the remainder of the set.  Jakob Dylan - Women + Country It’s a fairly simple song, one that somehow sounds familiar to “something” you may heard however many years ago.  That tone is generally termed “Americana,” – drums, acoustic guitar, fiddle, pedal steel, and acoustic bass. 

Actually, it’s the last that sonically dominates this set.  The acoustic bass’ deep thud underpins each song with an evenhanded, steady variation that defines each tune as much as it follows it.  Acoustic guitars, at times joined by horns or keyboards, provide a consistent feel.  The pedal steel…  Well, it begs the question whether Americana is distinct from Country only by Nashville’s preference for affected vocal stylings.  Some of the songs here could be covered by Country artists with much success.

The CD was produced by T Bone Burnett, producer du jour for what is becoming that “T Bone Burnett sound.”  Hired are the same session musicians that he used when he produced Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ pairing on Raising Sand a few years ago.  That collaboration worked well enough, but the songs they chose to cover were fairly dour despite the instrumental beauty. 

Here, the former Wallflowers front man pursues a different line of negativity.  Dylan writes songs that reflect on hard times, tested faith, regrets, and flawed love.  These certainly aren’t uplifting themes, but Dylan elevates and delivers his stories as much as from the role of an observer as a dispirited participant:

Been walking the dirt floor, my eyes are open Lord

Where did you go, have we just left you bored?

On down this unholy well we rolled

Stirring barrels in hell to be warm

It’s further back down than to high ground

Ain’t milk, ain’t honey we’re moving around

Only one thing is certain

That everybody

Everybody’s hurting

Like his father, he knows how to write a lyric.  Here’s a sample of the diction:  blacktop, rivets, pastures, scrape, scaled, bloodhounds, sleeves, hourglass, potluck, hatchet, optimist, and border – and that’s just in the first three songs.  It’s obvious that Dylan has taken a lot of care to craft his prose, yet at the same time, they fit fairly simplistic meters and phrasings that would sound authentic if sung on a porch or around a fire. 

Dylan’s vocal range is not tested on this effort, blending in with an overall pleasant and soothing sound that seeks that “timeless” feel.  Neko Case and Kelly Hogan provide splendid background vocals, provided needed accents to Dylan’s even delivery, though it’s unfortunate that they weren’t given any moments to shine more brightly.  And that, perhaps, is where the CD falls a little short.   With or without the female accompaniment, songs such as “Smile When You Call Me That” and “Yonder Come the Blues” beg for a vocal treatment with a biting edge, but I guess Americana is expected to sound rather… flat.

Recommended Songs: “Nothing But the Whole Wide World,” “Down on Your Own Shield,” “Lend a Hand,” “Holy Rollers for Love”

Rating: 4 of 5 Stars

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Dress Shirts and the Unseemly Truth

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I admit I prefer to wear knit shirts rather than dress shirts, for a number of reasons.  The main one is comfort.  They don’t require undershirts.  And, they’re generally more breathable than dress shirts.  On the negative side, they fade fairly quickly, but…  there’s still another reason I prefer them. 

Years ago, back when I wore a coat and tie to work because “business dress” was the norm, I somehow or another was discussing dress shirts with a coworker.  He was always impeccably dressed, and I recall that he said that he liked going to upper end stores because the shirts were fresh from the factory, untouched by human hands.  Obviously, he hadn’t actually been to a garment factory to see all the germy little fingertips sewing and assembling the clothes, but the point was that he didn’t like buying shirts that other customers had tried on.

Personally, I wish every dress shirt I tried on had already been tried on by someone else.  It would mean less of a hassle for me.  Just put them on a hangar.  Please.

And thus begins the gripe!

Ladies and Gentleman of the jury, below we have Exhibit A, in it’s retail presentation:

Yeah, it’s a shirt, of the variety typically found in a stack sorted by neck size.  Let’s just imagine that a shopper has the insane notion to actually try on the shirt before purchasing it.  Okay?

Well, let’s get at the task.  Obviously, the vendor tag has to go.  Sorry, Jos A. Bank.  Also, if you look inside the collar, there’s a barely visible collar reinforcement.  I guess that’s necessary because it could end up being on the bottom of the stack in a container during its overseas voyage.  Well, let’s just take that out and place it on the side.  Now let’s flip the shirt over and see what we have:

We’ve been spared the hazard of finger pricks; they’ve used a clip style fastener rather than a straight pin.  Pins are bad.  When you’re in a dressing room, there is rarely a place to put them, but I do have a couple examples:

photo2 photo

These were taken over time knowing I’d eventually getting around to, well, griping about this.  I should have taken a picture of all the pins on the floor lying in wait for people trying on pants…

In any case, we move on.  After removing the clips and folding the back down, we come across another fastener:

Again, at least it’s not a pin.  Maybe pins are a 21st century casualty.  Let’s unclip this small but effective petroleum based product and remove the cardboard backing around which the shirt is wrapped.  Oh, and also the logo tissue, and wait, dadnabit!  What’s that little thing pinned in there?

And where is the head?

Ah, there it is, of course, on the other side, inside of the sleeve.  Just the first place I would have looked… not!  Back to the back…

Yippee!  Treasure!  Another cardboard insert to keep the collar’s form!  I think we’re about done.  Let’s flip it over and begin undoing the buttons, finally. 

Well, wait.  One more little insert at the neck.  Great…

And now I can finally try this rascal on.  Holding it up, it looks pretty good.   Oh, joy of joys, there’s yet another surprise.  With the shirt to the light, we find a sticker within indicating that Inspector #4 approved the product.  That’s nice.  I wonder if someone else inspected it after the anti-personnel tripwires were added?

Okay, rant almost over. Is all of this really a BIG deal?  Well, not really.  Sure, had this been a long sleeved shirt, there would have been additional pins/clips, but you get the point.  To try on more than a couple shirts… let’s just say that I don’t think I’m different from most other guys.  I’m just not that patient.

But, I think, in time, the forces of societal change will eventually help me and the rest of mankind overcome this particular grief.  I can hope, anyway.  Sometime long after my spiffy 6 cylinder gasoline automobile is exiled in favor of a Duracel powered one-seater, the attention of the powers that be will focus on what is a particularly wasteful practice.  In short, it’s just not green.  I present to you, for your judgment, all the garbage from a single shirt.

Metal, plastics, and wood, all manufactured somewhere (cheap) with inherent energy costs and pollutant streams, wasted fossil fuels transporting each to the shirt factory, then transported again to the US of A, for what?  Begone!

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Ender in Exile

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When friends ask me what books I might recommend, I usually don’t even ask about the genre and go for two of my favorites:  Battlefield Earth and Ender’s Game.

I don’t have any reservations recommending these books.  To my Christian friends, these may be considered somewhat curious choices amongst all Battlefield Earththe many possibilities.  It’s not that either  book is dogmatically against the Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth (Bible).

Rather, Battlefield Earth was written by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Dianetics and ultimately the “Church” of Scientology.   It also had the misfortune of being made into one of the worst movies ever made.  John Travolta may have earned accolades elsewhere, but he remains in the debt of anyone who treasures this book for the dreck in which he starred.   It’s a great book and deserved far better, such as being left alone.

Ender’s Game was written by Orson Scott Card, a member of the Church of Jesus Christ and Ender's GameLatter Day Saints – which shares some terminology with mainline Christianity but which is otherwise contradictory.  He’s also an excellent writer.

Ender’s Game, released in 1985, is a remarkable book which has been enjoyed by many youth and adults alike.  It’s about a child born with genetic expectations of being the best military leader ever to lead in war, who ultimately saves humankind from a warring species by his strategy and triumphant spirit – while still being a kid.  Sure, sounds like Cornflakes or Special K, as sci-fi plots go.  But there’s more.

The heart of the book centers on Ender’s training at a Battle Station, in which he becomes “the little guy” that every person can root for, yet also “the cunning guy” that every reader imagines him/herself to be.  It’s done well enough that most readers probably leave the story with an emotional attachment of some sort to him, or, at the least, feel a kinship in that if if they were in the same scenarios, they would be just as clever.

Actually, it’s the author who was clever, and his characters have endured a continuing series of books about Ender and also about Bean, at first Ender's Shadowa fairly insubstantial character who is as carefully and well constructed in a companion series beginning with Ender’s Shadow.

All that history thus abbreviated, the author decided to fill in some gaps in the Ender series, specifically at that point in the storyline when Ender was most interesting and endearing to the reader – at the end of the first book.

So, we begin his journey…  and despite the title of Ender in Exile, it starts off like a visit to an old friend.  Several hundred pages later, you’re glad you spent some time with Ender, if only to understand him a little better.  There’s one, no, wait, two points of Ender in Exiletension that allow Ender to be Ender, both of which are dispatched in fine examples of anti-climaticism.  If I just made up that word, it’s okay.  It’s appropriate.

As a general rule, science fiction tends to present the universe in non-theistic terms, whereas in fantasy, you may get all sorts of spiritual aspects.  No doubt related to Card’s Mormonism, he does offer a refreshing approach to Ender, the greatest, smartest, and most illustrious human ever.  Ender accepts rather matter of factly a xenobiologist’s statement, “Most scientists believe in God,” a rather daring proclamation in the context of the “evolution” of alien biology.  Although theistic tones are found throughout the Ender series, it’s refreshing to see an author risk censure from a stereotypical audience that tends to decry any such pronouncement.

That take-away notwithstanding, the plot is straightforward.  Ender moves from Space Station A to World B to World C to the great beyond of the other books in the seasons.  Each stop is necessitated by well defined and thoroughly satisfying reasons that sate the reader’s desire to understand Ender better.  Throughout, Card remains a very thoughtful and caring protector of his greatest character.  Still, despite its length, the story may as well have been edited into the most recent version of Ender’s Game, in a (admittedly lengthy) chapter named “Epilogue.”

Rating: 3 Stars out of 5

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Sweetwater 420 Fest

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It’s Spring in Atlanta, and after a season of dreary rain, people were just waiting to get outdoors.  This past weekend cooperated with the masses, with mid 70’s temperatures, a cool breeze, and lots of pollen.  Well, two out of three isn’t bad.

The annual Atlanta Dogwood Festival returned to Piedmont Park, including an expanded craft show, concert stages, and general enjoyment of the Park spaces.  But, at Candler Park was the 3rd annual Sweetwater 420 Festival, the sponsor being one of three Georgia breweries.  With a couple coworkers, I opted for the latter, what promised to be an entertaining afternoon of suds and music.

First impressions are often accurate.  Being told that the gatekeepers were almost sold out of wristbands at the main entrance gave me a pretty good clue.  Working my way to a beer line confirmed it.  Lots and lots of people arrived before me.  The event is held in part to benefit the maintenance of Candler Park, but one has to wonder if the event has outgrown the venue.

Pictures pretty well sum the story.

Behind the center white tent is a beer truck.  Everyone this side of the tent is thus “in line” to get Sweetwater Blue, Sweetwater 420, Sweetwater Summer Ale, and their other offerings. Without a doubt, mid-afternoon was peak business. 

The festival also included a limited craft show, but most people came for either the music or the socializing.  The main stage is below, as seen from the top of an embankment that suits concert watching well.

The opposite view shows the crowd around the stage.  There were still spaces to be had for those that looked, but arriving early has its benefits, especially if bringing chairs or blankets:

The vast majority of the crowd did not listen to the music, but rather gathered elsewhere to drink and relax.  The musical acts were decent, but no one was really there to hear a particular artist – the music was the soundtrack to the overall scene.

 

The crowd was a limited cross-section of Atlanta, tending towards 20’s and 30’s, with singles and families, black and white, tattooed and undecorated.  It being Spring and the South, sundresses were aplenty.

That said, not everyone chose to “dress up” for the occasion, or rather, they dressed up for a different occasion.

 

As it turns out, there was also a Zombie Bar Crawl in the Virginia Highlands neighborhood.  As Bugs Bunny might say, they shoulda taken that left in Albuquerque.  But it was all in fun.

One friend observed the painter at work here on the Sweetwater truck.  There was no evidence of stenciling, and it appeared to be painted freehand from the start.  Sweetwater’s logo, and products, were visible everywhere.  They’re not only entitled as a sponsor, but they’re worthy as they make a great beer known regionally. Refreshingly, there were no Bud Light trucks to be seen.

But, it doesn’t take beer to make everyone happy.  Even the Mellow Mushroom staff were having a good time:

Pizza being tossed!

Given the five or so beer trucks, one might wander whether the BBQ was really sold out or if the staff saw that there were better things they might be doing.

Why?  Because the event was mostly about beer.  As Homer Simpson might say, “Beer good.”

Then, beer gone.

 

Without a chair or a blanket, a few hours was enough, and I began to wander back to the Marta station.  Marta, as they are apt to do when the City is particularly active, once again underwhelmed, with infrequent trains carrying a shortage of cars.  One weekend is identical to the next in Marta-land.  Candler Park is favored by locals, generally, and those outside of walking distance clearly knew the best way to go about getting to the Park. 

It was a very good time, but next year, I’ll arrive early with a chair and claim some shade and a view of the stage.  Oh, and buy my beer before the 4:00 rush.

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Record Store Day

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Commemorative Days are everywhere if you check the calendar.  Family Literacy Day, World Glaucoma Day, World Day for Water, World Tuberculosis Day, Earth Day, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome Day, National Missing Children’s Day, Boss’ Day, World AIDS Day, Christmas Day…  And now back for its third appearance amongst this heavily burdened or overmatched bunch of remembrances is Record Store Day.   Woohoo! Please, save the planet, and don’t forget your local record store along the way.

No, I’m not being sarcastic… well, maybe a little.

Even back when I was a neophyte record buyer, I knew the difference between a place that sold records and a record store. It was obvious when I bought from a Record Bar or Musicland at a mall that I was 1) paying too much and 2) buying from an unsympathetic vendor.  You go to these places when you know what you want to buy and due to convenience.

However, simply step into an independent record store, and suddenly, you’re among a wide assortment of possibilities and people who gave a damn about it.  Lights bright or dim, records new or used, air scented or musty, records sorted or mixed… it’s just a cool place to find something that you weren’t necessarily looking for until you found it.

The mall stores, bless them, are still out there, somehow.  It’s rather shocking that the monolithic Best Buy hasn’t absorbed the remaining “boring box” patrons due to their deep discounting, but I guess some people like paying full retail.

Fortunately, there remains a fair quantity of the endangered species known as the “record store” out there.  Fewer than there used to be, certainly, but they’re out there, hanging on to their fragile existence.  They tend to be shy and hide in shopping centers that are past their glory days, but if you have the mindset of a bird watcher, you can find them.  In my blogs, I’ve mentioned Criminal Records in Atlanta, Park Avenue CDs in Orlando, Manifest Records in Charlotte, and The Great Escape in Nashville – all of which are great stores.  I’m adding Newbury Comics, in Boston, to the list.

My daughter and I were walking around Harvard Square, and she (yes, really…) suggested we step inside, as she hadn’t been in a comic book store before.  Well, honey, sure!  (To any of her friends, it should be noted that Jackie did not actually touch a single comic book.  She, therefore, should not be ostracized but rather be allowed to remain within her current social circles).

Newbury Comics, Boston, MA

Lo and behold, Newbury represents a very fine example of the 21st century model for a successful record store.  Despite its name, the focus is actually on music, with a very good assortment of both new and used CDs.  And, as is common, there are also comic books, as well as many of the pricier bindings and devoted fandom publications that accompany that interest.  And there are DVDs.  And action figures (no dolls).  And guitar strings.  And T-shirts. And posters. And gimmicky toys/novelties related to anything currently fashionable – movies, cartoons, books, TV shows, gaming, etc.  It appeals to adolescents of all ages.

Newbury Comics, Boston, MA

There are far fewer record stores than just 10 years ago, but they’ve become a storefront for what is current in popular arts, and not just for the teens.  Products hold  general appeal to those at the tail end of the baby boom to today’s young World of Warcraft guild champions.  In other words, you’ll find “stuff” from Star Trek to Twilight.

In short, the pop-art approach is the means by which record stores can survive in an age where most kids think downloading mp3’s on the internet isn’t stealing.  And, all of the stores I’ve listed have adopted this approach.

Record Store Day began inauspiciously enough in 2008, with little fanfare.  But it did introduce Record Store Day as a special occasion for collectible goods to be released.  Approximately $15,000 (translated: a pittance) in exclusive CDs and vinyl were distributed to and sold by legitimate (old fashioned, boutique… whatever you want to call them) record stores, per USA Today. NAD turntable This year, there’s over $1.3M of collectible merchandise being released for Record Store Day, 90% of which is on vinyl – yes, turntables are seeing a renaissance of sorts.  Items include rarities by John Lennon, REM, the Flaming Lips, the Rolling Stones and many others.  Artists, and their labels, are supporting the cause.  Sure, there’s a profit motive for everyone involved.  But it creates interest which then increases exposure.  And let’s face it, as evidenced by the company they keep on the calendar, record stores face a bleak future.

Today, April 16th, is Record Store Day.  Go explore the possibilities!

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Samuel Adams Brewery Tour

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You have a very limited amount of free time in the artistic and historical metropolis that is Boston. What would you do?

Well, of course you would. Obviously, I didn’t do that.

You get on the Green Line so you can hop on the Orange Line which stops somewhere along its way at Stony Brook Station, on the southwest of the city’s transit grid by the pictorial transit maps.  Where that actually is doesn’t matter.

You exit the station expecting to find some sort of commercial complex.  There’s a park in front of you, but it’s not an industrial park.  You look around and see… houses.  Old ones.  Which is typical of what can be viewed of Boston when traveling on the MBTA.  Somewhat perplexed, you exit the station to your left onto Boylston St, and after a short distance you then turn right on Amory St.  Hmm.


This sure seems a likely place to locate a nationally recognized brewery.  Not.  But, there are some signs of alcoholic influence in the yard to your right.


What lovely faces made into TV.  Just remember, without a governing covenant for a neighborhood association, any home is qualified to become a Folk Art showcase. 

Moving on, you shortly take a left onto Porter St. which hopefully will instill some confidence that your path is sure.

Soon enough, this begets the question of whether our TV artist is taking advantage of the more professional artist up the street.  Forthwith:


But wait! There’s more!


Metal prostitutes, silver polar bears and mechanical dogs, oh my!  Should you run?  Let’s take a closer look at the pups; you can’t be too careful in this neighborhood:


You’ve got some serious Frisbee mangling jaws of death there.  Okay, dare you proceed and take a turn onto Germania St.?


Hey!  Where did all the houses go?  A big entry fence, old commercial looking buildings… this might be the place!  Yep, there’s even a sign on the building on the right.

Well, not so fast.  Actually, the brewery is located in the building on the left.  The larger buildings in the background and on the right have other tenants.  But that’s okay.  There are no mechanical dogs nipping at your heels, and you’ve arrived at your desired destination, the Samuel Adams brewery.


It cleans up nicely, doesn’t it?  Actually, this is a faux-entrance.  The real one is just to the left:

 

See? They leave the door open for you.  Inviting.

In Atlanta, Sweetwater and Red Brick breweries both tailor their “tours” to the after-work crowd, with the intent of making them a social occasion.  You pay for admittance and use tickets for whichever beers they have on tap.  They offer a “tour” for those who have the interest; many do not.  After all, it’s just a bunch of stationary tanks and pipes.

Sam Adams, on the other hand, offers tours during normal business hours during the week and between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturdays.  And I got there at 10:30; the MBTA is pretty efficient.  The streets were fairly empty during the short walk, but that’s because everyone was already inside the brewery awaiting the start of the tour – a crowd of about 40.

As it turns out, tours are so popular that they’re held each half hour.  Andrew, our tour guide, explained that there was no charge, but they do provide bins for donations which are distributed to two local charities.  Andrew, it should be noted, is an excellent tour guide.  Even if all of his wink and a nod one-liners are canned, he does a great job of keeping it fresh.  Of course, he gets to drink beer in his job, too.
Factoid:  Samuel Adams holds a 0.8% market share in the U.S., but it’s the largest American owned brewery.

We began in a corner, where Andrew described the main four ingredients used in their beer:  barley, German Noble hops, yeast, and good ol’ Boston water.  Sam Adams prides itself on making the vast majority of their beers with these traditional ingredients.  Other ingredients, called adjuncts, such as corn and rice, are used heavily by other breweries. 

 Varieties of Hops and Barley


Rather than just hearing about these ingredients, however, the brewery is kind enough to include pictures on the walls of the fields from which the hops and barley are harvested.  Cool, right?  Well, not as cool as little plastic cups passed around with the goods in them.  We were encouraged to take a few hops in our hands and rub them together to inhale the fragrance, which, under Andrew’s advice, is rather more pleasant than tasting them in their natural form.  Sure enough, hops smell as distinctive as IPAs taste.  But they make your hands sticky.  And with a crowd of 40, they make a mess on the floor.


UtopiasSamuel Adams is actually the brand manufactured by Boston Beer Company.  They own two other breweries (Cincinnati and Breinigsville, PA) and contract their manufacturing to several other facilities where all their bottled products are made.  Aside from the tours, this facility is used to make their draught beer and experimental blends.  Also, they make Utopias, a very special product, indeed.  It’s sold in bottles upwards of $200 each.  Why?  Well, as compared with their lager at 4.9% alcohol, Utopia has 27% alcohol which is enough to be illegal in 10 States.  And though rightfully a beer, it’s said to have the flavor of cognac.  For your pleasure, here’s a picture of it now, aging in wooden barrels for about a year:



Next stop:  The brewing area.


Above are malting, mashing, and other such reactors, and below are the tanks where the yeast is added.


And after all is said and done, the brew is held in, well, holding tanks.


Stainless steel is just plain exciting, isn’t it?  Well, the tour guides know this as well, and with no protestation, off to the tasting room we merrily go.


Now, rather than a grand rush to the taps, Samuel Adams treats their tour, briefly, like a wine tasting (less the cheese).  Andrew’s assistant poured multiple pitchers of beer, which were distributed to the tables.  Andrew then spoke of the beers’ characteristics, What a job!which was followed by much rejoicing and friendly table camaraderie. 
We sampled the traditional Samuel Adams lager, their just released Summer Ale (wheat based), and the draught-only, Boston metro area-only, Boston Brick Red.  The last was described as being an Irish red stout, though it wasn’t that robust.  All were very good.  Of course.

As we had entered the tasting room, another group was entering the brewery area, including perhaps 60 people.  We spent a good while in the tasting room, and I began to wonder when they were going to kick us sam_adams_prefect_pintout for the benefit of the next tour group.  As it turns out, they have two tasting rooms so that they can alternate with each tour.  Smart, eh?

Lastly, we find that the exit door empties into the Samuel Adams gift bazaar, where T-shirts, tap handles, hats, jackets, and whatever else that can have a logo placed on it can be purchased.  Although I received a free juice sized souvenir glass for the sampling, I succumbed to their marketing and purchased the $8 “perfect pint” glass, for… well, having it on a shelf most of the time.  And a T-shirt.  I’m such a sucker.

Overall, it was a very well done tour and a worthy diversion if you’re interested and in the Boston area.  A small sampling of beer, whatever the time of day, did not, however, prepare me for a fellow subway passenger’s headphones blasting hip-hop accompanied by Scottish bagpipes.  Eh?




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