Thursday, September 06, 2018

My Mardi Gras Experiment

When I was a sophomore in college, I visited one of my best friends who was in school at Loyola New Orleans. I made sure to time my visit to him during Mardi Gras because I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  I can't think of worse accomodations I have experienced.  They were cheap, because I was just a guest of my friend, but I was mostly on the floor of a suite-style dorm room of 4 college guys who lived in various states of filth.  My friend, Brian, fortunately, had a girlfriend at the time so I got to sleep in his bed and he would stay with her.  And he had a fairly clean room.  But the common areas were...not great. What follows are bullet points I wrote down during the trip and I will try to piece together memories and stories from these bullet points and expand on them as I'm able to, decades later.

Day 1 
I arrive in New Orleans and take a cab from the airport.  We all meet at Brian's dorm and hang out for a bit. Two other girls who we knew from high school were also coming. We all met up and then went to a party at Brian's fraternity that night.

  • Erica, wasted, pours out her heart to me before passing out under a mattress cover
  • Brian covered in Jungle Juice could not stop saying "honestly" and "old school"
  • Brian incapable of walking in a straight line
  • Erica hitting on Nick Diaz of the Nick Diaz Experiment/Experience.  I'm still not sure which one is right. I think it was his band, though I'm not sure about that either. 
  • Erica peeing in someone's front yard
  • Colin (Nick Diaz's friend) and I bonding about old-school rap tracks.  
That was such a strange night.  I could see how out of place I was in that environment and with Mardi Gras in general almost immediately.  But I knew I was getting what I bargained for.  I really wanted to see if all the stories were true.  William and Mary is pretty tame as far as party schools go.  And I knew that and that's part of the reason I chose it.  And I guess I just wanted to see Brian in his native environment and see what his life was like down there. And I definitely wanted to see Mardi Gras.  

There is an interesting theme emerging. I notice that in many aspects of my life, especially when it comes to travel, if someone tells me about a thing I have to experience, I take them at their word and I will do all I can to try and experience it.  I have gone FAR out of my way, many many times over, on many different trips, to do things that I remember someone, from somewhere, telling me about one time.  Of course this is true with very meaningful people in my life, but I have bent over backwards to do things that people on airplanes told me to do, and I never even knew their names.  

There is a craving for experience that is prevalent in my life. It still manifests itself today often.  That is interesting. I will have to think about that.  

Day 2 
  •  Erica and Brian remember absolutely nothing about the night before
  • Suzi got smacked in the head with beads
  • Krewe of Midtown and Bacchus were the parades we saw
  • we couldn't get a cab to save our lives
  • Bourbon Street...let us never speak of it again
  • trying to get real food at Rite-Aid
  • Metallica and flying down St. Charles downtown
  • the man in assless chaps on Bourbon St. 
  • Freestyle Simon
  • Where's Brian?
I remember very little of this day, other than walking to Bourbon Street from campus and seeing the absolute mess the city was in. I'm most sad about not remember who Freestyle Simon was.  He sounds like he was probably pretty cool. This was pre-Katrina New Orleans, by the way.  Everything smelled, the streets were filthy, so were most of the people, the air was damp and moldy because of stale beer everywhere... it was kinda gross all the way around. Not to mention my living quarters.  Sometimes exploring things just isn't all it's cracked up to be.  Also, I was doing budget Mardi Gras.  College try Mardi Gras.  It was never going to be good. Let's be real. 

Day 3 
  • Riverwalk (boring) 
  • crazy cab drivers
  • bad waiter at Cafe du Monde
  • pralines (bright spot!) 
  • Decatur street (beautiful)
  • poured rain all day
Day 4 
Actual Mardi Gras
Beads in all the colors of the rainbow
I got a Coconut from the Zulu parade!
there was a guy who was catching beads for me
CRAZY costumes
my flight got cancelled. 

I don't think I've ever been so relieved to leave a place. Suzi and Erica stayed longer in NOLA but I was so glad I was leaving when I did.  I got to enjoy a little more of my Spring break at home.  And feel clean.  I don't think I ever need to see another Mardi Gras.  Anywhere. The Caribbean version I experienced, Carnaval, was much better. I would do that again for sure. I'll see if I can add some pictures to this entry to round out what memories I have.  But I'm pretty sure I don't have much to offer.  I'm not sad  I did it.  But I'm really glad I went back to NOLA for Brian's wedding a few years later and got to see non-Mardi Gras quiet, and enjoy the city in a different light, with lots more friends, and in a normal hotel room.  

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

2016: My Year in Music

Here we go again.  I've been curating my playlist for this post since January 1, and now we're already in 2017! We've come a long way, 2016.

The songs of this year fell pretty easily into clear categories.  I don't know if my year could be categorized so easily, or even into the same categories, but it was helpful to see how these themes just naturally came forth when I started taking a hard look at this year's selections.  And some of them are pretty accurate reflections of my thoughts about what the year has led me through. I've culled this list WAY down from 79 songs, so count yourselves lucky.  I could have written about all 79 of them, and many of the ones I cut appear on my "Albums of 2016" list, which, I fully admit, is sort of cheating.  I tried, really tried, to get it down to 25 songs.  But I just couldn't do it. In many ways, this list serves as an archive of my memories for the year, so if a song has a specific memory tied to it, I didn't remove it because I want to remember.  This has always, from the beginning, been a project to document the soundtrack of my year, and I'm always so grateful to share it. 

If you think of it, would you share some of your soundtrack to 2016 with me? I'd love to know what you've been listening to.  

Here's my list... 

Organized by theme:

1) Admitting you have a music documentary problem is the first step to recovery

Polk Salad Annie - Tony Joe White
What Kind of Woman is This? - Buddy Guy
Sittin' on my Sofa - The Kinks
Everyday Should be a Holiday - The Dandy Warhols

Early on in the year, I tackled the Foo Fighters series on HBO called "Sonic Highways".  I loved hearing how the different cities inspired different songs for Dave Grohl, and how he could respond so accurately to the culture and musical traditions represented in a given place. So many different stories and personalities could be represented and shaped into new forms by collaborating. I can't get enough of witnessing the way musicians create, and the creative process in general.  So it started with the Foo Fighters and Sonic Highways, which led me to dive deep into Tony Joe White and Buddy Guy and Muddy Waters and Allen Toussaint.  Then I just started watching all the music documentaries on Netflix and Amazon Prime.  So I watched one about the Brian Jonestown Massacre and Dandy Warhols feud called Dig! which was a crystallization of the 90s indie rock scene, about which I knew almost nothing.  And I watched one about this Boston Globe reporter trying to reunite The Kinks (Do It Again), which you could easily continue your life without seeing. I can and do highly recommend the PBS documentary series Soundbreaking. AMAZING.  So, yeah, I have a problem.  But it did lead me to some great new genres and artists, and to rediscover or learn more about semi-unfamiliar bands or artists, and that was a very rewarding journey this year. I also have a much deeper appreciation for the people around the music too, producers, studio musicians, engineers, etc. There's too much to say about the different sounds represented in the songs in this section.  Too much to say about the bands and the times in history that they represent.  I only hope that having the songs here will help me remember all the things that these songs and the ones they are pointing to make me think of, make me love about music, make me appreciate about what people have put forth and how they translate what is in us as humans to sound that people understand on some mystical level. And that we can commune through that across the ages and different histories, understandings, and cultures that we represent as listeners.

2) Angry Chick Rock

People Have the Power - Patti Smith
A Day for the Hunter/A Day for the Prey - Layla McCalla
Emotions and Math - Margaret Glaspy
I Don't Wanna Be Funny Anymore - Lucy Dacus
Orange Flower - Angelica Garcia

At a certain point in the mid 2000s Counting Crows and I broke up because I was so sick of Adam Duritz complaining in his songs. I wanted to pull his dreadlocked head out of the sand and say to his face, "Hey man, ain't nobody got time for your whining! Find something to be grateful about!"  I think the difference between these songs and Counting Crows is that there's a fire behind this discontentment that I think belies a hope and pursuit of something better that I never heard in Counting Crows songs.  I only heard resignation.  These songs engage the anger and the longing. They are funny, passionate, and true. And maybe I feel it more acutely because I, too, am a woman who has problems with men, and the world around me.  All of the conflicts represented in these songs, I've had them or I have them or I will have them. Patti Smith's poetry! I believe that her well-crafted words can help "wrestle the earth from fools". Leyla McCalla's cello channels her Haitian folk heritage and plaintively wonders why was she spared from the 2010 earthquake? Why is she still here? And what is she supposed to do now that she is still here in the wake of all that destruction? Pray. Hunt for goodness and call it forth. Margaret Glaspy's emotions and math!  We've all run the numbers of exactly how long 'til the person comes back, feeling lots of feelings and thinking too much about things in the space between, and sort of stewing about being in that position in the first place. Lucy Dacus "do[es]n't wanna be funny anymore. [She's] got a too short skirt, maybe [she] can be the cute one."  OH man. What witty girl who's been passed over for an objectively hot one hasn't felt that feeling? Angelica Garcia received an orange flower from a guy, who took her out to dinner, paid, and then called her "dude" the next day.  So much confusion and ambiguity. So much reticence to commitment and clarity. This is the best lyrical representation of the modern dating scene I have come across.  There is edge and power in these songs and still femininity. They were never mutually exclusive and they've never been on better display than this year in music.

3) Soul, Soul, Soul, Sweet Soul

How Long Do I Have to Wait for You? - Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings
Good to You - Jonny P
The Three of Me - William Bell

If you can sit still during these songs, something inside of you has died. And speaking of died....RIP Sharon (2016 was a rough, rough year for losses in the music industry).  What a voice and a soul you brought to the stages you performed.  These beats, these horn sections, these incredible voices, these smooth sounds.  I feel everything about them. And if I could sum up a lesson I want to take away from 2016 it would be this lyric from William Bell: "There was the man I was, the man I am, and the man I want to be...the three of me. I've got to figure out who I wanna be. It took losing your love to make me see, oh, there ain't no room for the three of me."

4) Country Coming Out Party

Springsteen - Eric Church
Made Up Mind - Tedeschi Trucks
You Make My Heart Beat Too Fast - Wynonna, Cactus Moser
Shine a Different Way - Patti Griffin

This section goes out to SCP! That was this year. I went to see Christ Stapleton and Jason Isbell in concert, for crying out loud.  And liked it! One of my favorite memories from this year was sitting on a boat late at night with a bunch of friends over Memorial Day weekend and having a "round robin" DJ experience where we would pass the phone around and everyone would pick a song to play for the group to listen to together. SCP played "Springsteen" and I immediately fell in love with it, just like I did with my high school/college love, the story of whom this song describes perfectly, right down to the Springsteen songs. And, thankfully, how I feel about it now, the distance and the sweet nostalgia of it.  Then we go straight into Tedeschi Trucks and THE SEXIEST guitar hook I heard all year. I am also obsessed with Susan Tedeschi and I want to be her.  Cactus Moser's slide guitar riff in the next song is so raw (and a close second to Derek Trucks' for sexiness). Wynonna's sassy vocals over it, plus their sweet love story behind the whole song, so good. And finally Patti, that lovely vibrato in her voice and those beautiful words she always sings like these: "I’m gonna let it be the moon/ Let it play the tune/ The one that keeps repeating/ I’m gonna let it be your will...".  Yeah, if this is country music, I'm really okay with it.

5) Wild Heart

Into the Wild - LP
Alaska - Maggie Rogers
Wild Animal - Michael Tolcher
Painting (Masterpiece) - Lewis Del Mar
Chillin' On the Beach with My Best Friend Jesus Christ - Susto
Canary Cage -  The Whistles and the Bells

Something inside me woke up this year.  It's always been there.  I've known about its existence but never felt it activated. But this year it woke UP. I've had an insatiable appetite for exploration and adventure, especially as regards my faith and the lengths of where God is and wants to be on earth. I crave the wild, especially after possibly the best 5 days of my life camping and hiking solo in the wilds of Banff  and Jasper National Parks this summer. LP always sounds epic and this song is just the anthem I want to play every time I grab my shoes and hit the trails. Maggie Rogers' song is just beautiful.  "I walked off you, and I walked off an old me".  Yes. So often when we go on journeys, that's what we are trying to do. The Michael Tolcher song basically sums up how I felt when I got home from China.  I was so fed up with inauthenticity and sameness.  I felt acutely the crushing weight of things that aren't living into their truest selves, and the burden of saving face and keeping up appearances. I don't think the song is produced particularly well but I just really appreciate the chorus: "Don't dress me up like a puppet, no, I'm an animal. Runnin' wild on this planet, dammit, burnin' from my soul." I saw him perform it live and I think it was better in the stripped down, acoustic form but the sentiment is the same.  Burn from your soul! And if you're doing that, then watch out world! I connected with these songs so much because of that.  And also, not taking myself too seriously and feeling okay, within the freedom of Christianity and a loving God, to doubt and to talk to him about it. Lewis Del Mar's "Masterpiece" makes me happy to think of getting a vision and throwing paint on the walls, because I see the colors and they just have to be there. I think the last songs speak of an untethered comfort with Christ, in which we trust so fully that we can then act and move freely and see him as a friend with whom one can enjoy Bud Light! I don't think Susto is in any way being offensive or facetious about their words, though the song might sound a bit tongue-in-cheek.  It's real, and it's fun and Christ is both of those things too! He CREATED laughter, and, if you want to go there... beer. "Canary Cage" talks about that doubt, and Job, and bad things but faith through them. God is wild, and fierce, but understands too, and can stand up to your doubt.  Come with your questions and God will welcome you in all the same.

6) Self-destructive behavior

Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk - Rufus Wainwright
Perfect - One Direction
I'm Not Feeling It Anymore - Van Morrison
I Need A Forest Fire - Bon Iver, James Blake
Turn Our Eyes Away - Ruby Amanfu, Trent Dabbs

The reason I'm almost a month late with this post is because of this section right here.  As soon as I recognized that this was a theme of 2016 (and these were the songs that showed it to me, loud and clear) I didn't want to own that. I got to this section to write it and just stopped cold, and couldn't pick it up for three weeks. It's too true and I don't want it to be an accurate description of where I am.  In college I used to love the lilting piano, funhouse sound of "Cigarettes and Chocolate Milk".
Listening to it again this year it felt painfully accurate.  "Everything it seems I like's a little bit stronger, a little bit thicker, a little bit harmful for me...".  And then I heard the song "Perfect" by One Direction which concurrently made me very angry as well as making me sad because I know that what the singer(s) of the song is/are offering is something meaningless, with high social-media/selfie value, reckless and ultimately destructive....but probably at least a little bit fun while it's happening.  Maybe a lot fun.  I really want that but also really don't want that.  How do both exist at the same time? That's something I'm thinking a lot about in 2017.  Van Morrison gives an honest rendition of what I think fame must be like.  And probably what it feels like when you come down on the other side of a relationship like the one described in One Direction's song.  The harsh light of reality glaringly reveals the emptiness of what we get caught up in when it comes to fame and celebrity.  What Van is talking about in this song is that disillusionment that comes when you can finally free yourself of the confines of caring what other people think and pursue truth, and truth alone.  That's admirable, and I want to be able to do that. I think one of the first steps of that journey is what James Blake and Justin Vernon talk about in "I Need a Forest Fire".  I absolutely love this song in large part because of the recurring image of the forest fire.  I think about how important forest fires are to keeping a forest healthy and how they're so destructive and awful during them, but they need to happen! Rangers set controlled burns to keep forests thriving and I cling to that metaphor when I feel like there is something in me that I know needs to go.  I like that it doesn't just say just because it is in you it must be true or good.  We do have things in us that aren't good and need to be cleared away, maybe even with a metaphorical fire. And I had to end the section with the bittersweet ballad of sad hope by Ruby Amanfu.  It acknowledges the brokenness in us, but it is also brave and confident too, which is sort of how I feel about my own personal situation, mostly because of grace.  

7) Nothing New Under the Sun/80s child forever

A Change of Heart - The 1975
Oblivious - Miniature Tigers
Love is a Stranger - Eurythmics
Atmosphere - Joy Division

If I listened to all of these without any contextual knowledge, I would be hard-pressed to separate which songs came from which decade.  The first two are from the 21st century, the second two are from the illustrious dawn of the synthesizer, and I love them equally.  More evidence that music is just doubling back on itself, (in addition to the new retro, and newgrass) I can't be mad.  I have always had a soft spot for the strange sounds of experimental 80s synth-pop and I've never appreciated the Eurythmics more.  I really DON'T like "Sweet Dreams", probably because of strong association with Marilyn Manson, but "Love is a Stranger" is awesome! Annie Lennox's voice is a force to be reckoned with.  And I am awarding The 1975 the quirkiest lyrics prize for 2016.  I am continuously amused by these lines:

You smashed a glass into pieces/ That's around the time I left
When you were coming across as clever/ Then you lit the wrong end of a cigarette
You said I'm full of diseases/ Your eyes were full of regret
And then you took a picture of your salad / And put it on the Internet

 It's a sardonic and removed look at what I'm sure was a real interaction that took place with the writer and a girl at some point.  The overall callousness of this song doesn't sit well with me but I'm oddly fascinated by it. The Miniature Tigers could literally be a hit band 30 years ago.  However, they are a band today! And I really like this song for its 80s overtones.  And then Joy Division.  Well, many of us owed a large portion of our entertainment in 2016 to Stranger Things and I was very appreciative of the soundtrack, which included this song.  It's rare that a song is led by a bass line and such a strange voice becomes so captivating.  I love how weird and interesting it all sounds.  So thankful for the break from Drake, Chainsmokers, Calvin Harris, Martin Garrix, Ariana Grande, and J. Beebs who are all pretty much sounding the same to me these days.

8) Ear Candy 

Warm Foothills - Alt-J
Side Pony - Lake Street Dive
Sit Still, Look Pretty - Daya
Jonti - Wild Cub

These are just fun picks that sounded innovative and fun to me this year, that I really couldn't stop playing.  I don't really have much to say about them other than that.  They are infectious, layered, and wildly different from each other. Variety is the spice of life, n'est-ce pas?

As always my friend, wishing you a year filled with amazing music, in which you find truth, beauty and joy.  

My Albums of 2016

 And so here are the albums that played a big part in my year in 2016. They aren't in any order or organization.  I just loved these bodies of work and the artists who made them.  Let's dive in, shall we?

Bon Iver - 22, A Million
Sonically, I think this was probably the most interesting and beautiful album released this year. Justin Vernon has a head for laying down tracks and paints these rich canvases of sound that I can listen to over and over.  It took me a while to get into this record but once I finally put it on in my house on a cold winter night and spent some time with it, I really heard it and started to love it.  It was 8 (circle) that initially grabbed me.  The horn arrangements on this record alone.  Haunting. This is an expected choice.  This was on everyone's list this year and I believe it deserves a place among the best musical contributions of 2016 for sure.

Lori McKenna - The Bird and the Rifle
Definitely my favorite album lyrically of 2016.  You have likely heard Lori McKenna songs, but someone else was singing them, like maybe Tim McGraw, or Little Big Town, Reba McEntire, Alison Krauss, or Faith Hill? I hadn't heard anything she had written until I came across this album this year. I listened to the first track, "Wreck You" and my jaw dropped. I don't know if I've ever heard such an honest set of lyrics.  On her website, Lori is quoted as saying
My words are front porch, kitchen, there's always a car in there... but that is where our greatest conversations happen––sitting in the front seat of someone’s car in the driveway when we should have gotten out 15 minutes ago.
It's rare that I connect so completely with a sound and lyrics but hers really hit home with me. And maybe, I almost hope, that she personally hasn't walked through everything she writes about but goodness can she put words to a feeling.  And her voice isn't perfect.  I love that there is imperfection and insecurity in her voice -- makes me love it all the more.

Front Country - Sake of the Sound
I lose track of where I am in time when I hear this record.  It's stripped down, full of pure country bluegrass, and sounds like it was recorded in someone's bathroom. It has a fantastic raw quality to it, but the songs are classic, rooted in tradition. Beautiful banjo, fiddle and mandolin arrangements sound like clear mountain streams and make me want to run away to the mountains and leave this city life behind every time I hear them.

Tedeschi Trucks - Let Me Get By
One of the few bands to be on both my albums and songs of 2016 list.  Susan and Derek just really got me this year.  Susan's voice is absolutely incredible, sounds like what bourbon tastes like to me: smoky and complex, with a sultry quality to it. Their show at Wolf Trap this summer was one of my favorites of the year.  And Derek Trucks' guitar riffs are enough to make anyone sit up and notice. One of the most talented players out there today, IMHO.  Not a track on this album I don't really enjoy listening to.

Shovels and Rope - Little Seeds
Another favorite show of 2016 at 9:30 club.  The harmonies and the country/rock marriage of Michael and Cary Ann work together so well. I listened to this album a ton as I was cleaning or cooking in the apartment this year.  It feels jangly and loose and would relax me at the end of ridiculous days when I was too uptight about my to-do list.

Jared and the Mill - Life We Chose
A sweet band of beautiful men from Phoenix, AZ.  I saw them at Jammin' Java by myself on a Sunday night in summer and they played way past they were supposed to be shut down due to noise regulations in Vienna, so they just unplugged and played a whole acoustic set on the floor with all of us around them.  The plinking banjo sound and beautiful melodies, with relatable lyrics.  I know what that search in your 20s for meaning and self-realization feels like.  Some people never come out of it. But this is the sound of it, without a doubt.  And I love it, both for its nostalgia and the sweetness of its tarnished but still intact naïveté.

Frank Turner - Positive Songs for Negative People
Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls actually opened for Jason Isbell and Chris Stapleton at Merriweather Post Pavilion this summer.  Yeah, I was surprised to.  Frank has a pretty great story about being a punk rocker and then kind of turning the tide to his current sound after his post-hardcore band Million Dead broke up.  He cites Bruce Springsteen's "Nebraska" album as a big influence in the change in his career and I think you can hear it.  He's got a great message in his music and I just loved his stage presence and the way he approaches his career.  He's funny and writes really good, fun, and honest songs.

Margo Price - Midwest Farmer's Daughter
A great show enjoyed at the Hamilton with KG.  She sings her heart out and since I have just returned from Nashville where I toured the Ryman auditorium and the Country Music Hall of Fame, I can see exactly where she gets her sound from.  She has gone back to the roots of the old female greats of country like Patsy Cline and Tammy Wynette, perhaps without the domestic abuse problems. She has stepped back in time and I liked listening to this album.  I should try listening to some of the originals next to Margo and see how they compare side by side.  2017 project idea!

C.W. Stoneking - Gon' Boogaloo
Because it's just so swampy and dirty and fuzzy.  If you can figure out the time signature during the verses on The Jungle Swing, you are a better person than I, my friend.  What the heck is happening with those rhythms? Whatever it is, I want more of it.

Gregory Porter - Take Me to the Alley
Oh Gregory, sing to me.  Anything.  Sing the phonebook to me.  But sure, if you want to write a song about how Jesus looks for those in the alleys and not in the gilded houses, and says "take me to the afflicted ones, take me to the lonely ones that somehow lost their way", that's okay too.  Or you can also sing beautiful original love songs too.  I accept.

River Whyless - We All the Light
Not quite bluegrass, not quite country, not quite rock, not quite The Beatles' Revolver, but certainly heavily intertwining all of the above.  There is a lot going on in their songs and this was another stellar Jammin' Java show I went to this summer.  They played with heart and soul and have a unique sound that is really hard to do in an era where everything sounds like a remake of something else, old or new.  They're from NC too, which I have to tip my hat to.

Julien Baker - Sprained Ankle 
One of my biggest live disappointments of 2016, I saw Julien at U St. Music Hall and she was great but the sound system was terrible and really got in the way of her performance. She soldiered through like a champ but didn't do an encore and practically ran off stage at the end without saying anything.  I could barely hear her and there was tons of feedback.  But her album, thankfully more professionally produced, is full of songs about struggling to find faith, and meaning, and love in the midst of sadness and addiction.  It's beautiful.  I can't wait for more from her this year. She's so young, it's hard to imagine having lived what she has by the tender age of 21.

Andrew Peterson - Burning Edge of Dawn
Andrew Peterson is one of my favorite poets, and just happens to be great at putting poetry to music. I LOVE his lyrics, and I love how he "smuggles in the light" to a world where there is a lot of darkness.  I love how he sees the world through which he walks, and how he is moved to tears often by brokenness but is never discouraged for long, and always returns to hope.  Sometimes the sound can get a little cheesy and Christian-y for me, but by and large he is one of the most consistently good Christian artists and I return to him, if not just for the sheer beauty of the sentiments expressed through his lyrics.

Chance the Rapper - Coloring Book
Listening to this album is like going to a church where they love curse words.  I definitely get the sound of the Sunday choir all throughout this, but it's not shying away from language and raw expression in lyrical flow. I love how this guy thinks and rhymes and I love how this album was produced. It's full of great questions and honesty and he just lays his life out to consider with us via these tracks. I felt like I was having a conversation with him while I listened to this album. I felt invited in to his world and that is not easy to accomplish.

Paul Simon - Stranger to Stranger
I saw Paul this summer at Wolf Trap and it was one of the top five best concerts I have ever seen in my life.  He is one of our best songwriters, ever.  His band is incredible and he infuses so many different world musical traditions into his songs and writes such interesting lyrics, he is just on another level.  I can't remember the specifics of the concert that night really, other than I was sitting there on a perfect summer night just hoping it would never, ever end.  I love the themes he explores in his music, both sonically and lyrically and he never fails to break ground in what he's doing.

Honorable Mentions:
Anderson .Paak - Malibu
Raury - All We Need

Monday, December 19, 2016

Jesus at the 9:30 club

I've been to over 100 shows at the 9:30 club in DC.  It's my most-attended venue and one of my favorites in the city.  It's a venue that artists love to play as well.  Many of the bands I've had a chance to talk to always list 9:30 club as a "we've made it" gig, and often comment on the special feeling they get playing there.

Tonight was one of the best shows I've ever seen at the intersection of 9th and V St NW. The Lone Bellow brought spirit, the Holy Spirit, to that already spiritual room. I felt like I was in a revival tent. I've seen the Lone Bellow in three other venues in DC: DC 9, the Hamilton, and the Landmark Festival.  Each time they thoughtfully constructed their set list and played to their strengths given their environment.  But this gig everyone was firing on all cylinders.  The 9:30 club was doing what it was created to do, and Lone Bellow was doing what they were created to do, and the audience was treated to a show of power and beauty such that everyone there, spiritual or not, knew something special was happening.

I had a rough night the night before the concert. I ate too much before going to bed, and I was groggy and super tired from hosting an event.  The thought crossed my mind multiple times to cancel. To the point where I picked up the phone and started the text message, TWICE.  But then my friend who bought the tickets beat me to the punch and sent an excited e-mail to our group of four ladies about plans for the evening.  It was a rare treat that these particular four ladies would come together.  We had a great group and it's such a great band, I gave in.  I sent a lame e-mail hedging that I would probably leave early and that I was in low spirits, and that were it not for their collective awesomeness, I would have waved the white flag of surrender with no regrets.

I'm so glad I didn't.  It was a night steeped in deep meaning and God and I were talking the whole time.  And it came on the heels of a day that felt so dry, like a wasteland, all day.  Just bitter tasting, and with no respite.

Specifically I remember during the song "Watch Over Us" the whole club was humming the background part while Brian, Zach and Kanene did their harmonies and put all of their souls into the words. Brian just about lost his mind on stage he loved the audience singing so much.  and we could all feel it out there in the crowd too. We could all feel the same united spirit.  We were humming the same notes together and it was beautiful, absolutely beautiful.  I was talking with someone recently about being at two world cups and soccer as this crazy uniting force in the world.  People come together around things and when they do, it is insanely powerful.  I've seen this so often in music. When I talk to people about songs they love that I love, I feel a connection with them on a level of understanding that goes beyond words.  I feel like our souls are literally being bound together.  God was really there at the 9:30 club.  I know I've felt crazy things happening there before but I've never really felt Him like that there before.  It was amazing.  I would talk about the whole set list,  I would rapture more, but I just wanted to record what that night felt like, humming with 1500 other people to the same notes, harmonizing and connecting in a shared moment.  There is beauty in this world.

Are we listening?

To me, the above video is 13 minutes of proof that God is everywhere and in everything.

Friday, January 08, 2016

2015: My year in music

It's that time again folks!  I don't have a really long introduction to the music this year like in previous years.  I'm just excited to share with you the songs that have been making the rounds in my ears over the last 12 months.  I would love to hear your songs of 2015 and what's been meaningful to you, so if you're keeping a list, would you share it with me? I would love to hear it.

Here's mine.

Songs that just sound cool

  1. Entropy - Grimes/Bleachers      
    First heard this track on an episode of "Girls" and loved it.  2015 was a year for very distinct female vocals.  Grimes is one among 4 on this list of 7 tracks.  I like Jack Antonoff a lot as well, and his producing is behind a lot of songs I liked this year.    
  2. Fade Away - Susanne Sundfør
    Another beautiful voice.  It's so clear and pure. My favorite part of the song though is the retro microwave "ding" in the middle of the song. 
  3. The Bells - Lowell
    It's so pretty! I love that little voice that asks for a beat at the beginning and then when it comes in it gives those ringing tones an edge.  It's an unexpected juxtaposition that turns out very well. "Hey, where'd the beat go?" 
  4. 2 Time - Architecture in Helsinki
    I really got into this band this year. Every time I listened to them it was a dance party - in my car, in my apartment, at work, anywhere.  Unstoppable.  
  5. Alligator Years - Twinsmith
    The loose guitar riffs in the middle of the verses and the throwback sound made this one of my most listened to songs this year. It's got a playful sound to it. 
  6. Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat - Beck
    One of three amazing covers I came across this year.  The original is my favorite off Blonde on Blonde and Beck does a fantastic job with this reboot.  
The Motorcycle Diaries 
  1. Downtown - Macklemore and Ryan Lewis
    Another incredible music video and more hilarious lyrics from this irrepressible duo.  This almost made me want to trade in my motorcycle for a moped.  (Well... no, not really). 
  2. Bad Betty - The Sonics
    It's about a woman who rides a Bonneville, which is a Triumph bike, which just happens to be the make I have.  My bike's name is Lucy, in case you were wondering.  
  3. 80's Mercedes - Maren Morris 
    In October of this year, I replaced my beloved 2002 Golf with a newer model GTI.  Its peppy engine, responsive acceleration and nimble handling make me feel like a million dollars every time I get behind the wheel.  It's not a classic car but it does make me feel "ready to roll". My new car's name is Lola.  Lucy and Lola are an indomitable duo and these tracks are dedicated to them and the untold miles we will ride together in the coming years. 
  1. Hold On - Alabama Shakes
    One of my best concert moments this year was in a light rain on the Jersey Shore on an evening in early June which was unseasonably cool.  Brittany Howard was on stage in a fantastic pink dress making her guitar emote and singing her heart out.  The purple lights shone in the mist coming down on us and we swayed and held on with Brittany as she told us of her conviction that there "must be someone up above" telling her to keep going.  
  2. Photograph - Ed Sheeran
    It started with my trip to Iceland in February. X was basically the soundtrack for the whole trip for me.  I know this album is over a year old but 2015 was the year I got into it.  I got to see Ed in concert in September and there was a transcendent moment during this song. He looped his voice over and over in woven harmonies that were unbelievably beautiful.  I found the YouTube video of the song from the show I went to and watched it hoping to relive a little of what it was like, but it was a faint, muddy echo of what I heard live. Time stopped and it felt like forever that I was hearing those heavenly voices singing together.  
  3. Loch Lomond (Traditional)- Arr. Ralph Vaughn Williams, Performed by Chanticleer This year I was lucky enough to go to this very loch in Scotland.  I had the song queued up in anticipation for my first glimpse of it.  I pushed play when it came into view and it was the exact musical moment I was hoping to create.  The gorgeous snow-capped Trossachs and lakes resting in between with this song playing as I drove the shore road were some of my more magical moments of 2015. 
Deeper Dive
  1. Drive All Night - Glen Hansard (ft. Eddie Vedder and Jake Clemons)
    While the original Springsteen song is just as achingly beautiful as this, something about the sax solo and Hansard's voice send this over the top.  I love both versions equally but just could not stop listening to this.  Did I mention the sax solos? Oh man.  
  2. The Beigeness - Kate Tempest Socially conscious hip hop from an English girl who has a cherubic face and a heart on fire with justice, pain and hope.  I like her usage of the word "Beigeness" and her disdain for it.  Life should be full of color. 
  3. Between Me and You - Brandon Flowers
    A song about struggle and questioning the reason for the struggle. I think his sentiments carry weight and a relatability accessible by many.  
  4. It's All Just Pretend - Ivan and Alyosha
    Kind of like Mr. Flowers above, these guys are writing about the struggle to be happy and that happiness is basically just pretend, this side of paradise.  "Never trust that man whose been smilin' all his life, his fears will catch up in the end".  I think they are saying that there are things to be afraid of and that's okay because if you are pretending they aren't there, that's not authentic. The older I get the more I see both the darkness and the light and this song does a great job of talking about recognizing but not being defeated by fear. 
  5. Story of an Immigrant - Civil Twilight
    Little bro has been campaigning for this band for a long time.  Their show I attended this year wasn't well attended but their album translated well live.  The more I listened to it after the show, the more I liked it.  This is one of my favorite cuts off the album.  I like the strong percussion and the refrain of "ready to begin".  I feel like it's a song about surrender and giving over to a larger path that you know is there but is somewhat unclear.  That is a sentiment that defined a large part of this year for me.  
The Wince
  1.  Wildfire - Scavenger Hunt
    As I scanned back through my memories of old flames (which I did an awful lot in 2015 and spent lots of time doing this), this song seems to capture what that feeling is like. It talks about how quickly and hot it burns, and how that's fun, but there's a knowing edge to it. I am thankful to look back on all of those memories through the lens of Grace All-Sufficient. 
  2. Pierre - Ryn Weaver
    "Still we had some fun 'til I came to".  I love that line.  Sounds like a few of my relationships.  I like how she's looking back over this catalogue of people she has known and seeing the fun parts, but also the bad parts and knowing she was always waiting for something better. 
  3. Exeunt - The Oh Hellos
    This song says goodbye to all those old affairs and alluring charms of days and people past.  It takes a positing of strength against them and even calls it, my love, an opiate, wine.  All these things that are seemingly good and give good feelings but can be so destructive too.  Brilliant song and the exact sentiment I had to come to terms with in saying goodbyes to all those people that have been in my life over the years.  No more wincing.  "Even when you hunt me...I have set my mind and my will: I am leaving."
The Theme of My Song

Don't You Want to Thank Someone for This - Andrew Peterson
There were probably three or four months this year when I couldn't start my day without listening to this song.  Its words stay with me as a prayer and a reminder to always look for God everywhere in gratitude.  It's 10 minutes long and I'm always sad when it's over.  It tells the story of why we need redemption and why there can be beauty in a fallen world, and how we can still be grateful for all of it.  

  1. Make Some Room - The Suffers
    Soulful and smooth, I love pretty much everything about how this song sounds. 
  2. Three Women - Jack White (adaptation of Three Women Blues by Blind Willie McTell)
    Admittedly not the best subject matter, but I'll be damned if this song doesn't completely take me over every time I hear it (especially the moment that happens at 3:26... wait for it).  Such swagger, so raw.  This song is the equivalent of the guy from the wrong side of the tracks that you can't help but have a major crush on. 
  3. Gooey - Glass Animals
    Sexiest song of the year for me (though released in 2014). It barely beat out Jack White for this coveted award. It's nonsensical and weird, and sounds (to me) like what a lava lamp looks like.  

Saturday, January 02, 2016

My Favorite Albums of 2015

This year, it felt important to do a separate post for just the albums of 2015 that occupied my thoughts.  There were a few that were released that were complete works- truly had a story arch or a clear narrative, and to publish the songs off the albums in my year-end list without the rest of the album as context felt wrong.  And there were just a few albums I needed to recognize as complete works, with no particular stand out songs on them for the regular year-end list but the album as a whole being the more impactful piece for 2015.

I hope you will enjoy these selections.

Hans Zimmer - Interstellar: Original Motion Picture Soundtrack
It is very rare for an original score in a movie to catch  my attention but this score was so good it almost distracted me from the movie (which I thought was amazing!).  I cannot get over the organ.  I read a bunch of interviews about the soundtrack and Hans Zimmer says he used the organ because at one time, the organ was considered the most scientifically advanced piece of machinery ever.  This soundtrack has made me weep this year simply because of its beauty and power and mystery. Favorite Track: "Detach"

The Lone Bellow - Then Came the Morning
I got to see this band twice this year and both times, in very different settings, they knocked my socks off.  This album is so beautiful, start to finish.  Full of great stories, beautiful harmonies, and powerful, heart-swelling songs, I haven't stopped listening to it since it came out 11 months ago. Favorite track: If you hold a gun to my head... "Fake Roses"

Seryn - Shadow Shows
When I went to their show in April it was the start of a very tumultuous three months.  But they continue to be one of the most exciting and uplifting live music acts around.  I hate the idea of them getting so big their shows no longer fit in weird back rooms of clubs in DC, but I also want their soaring music to reach the masses that I think need to hear it.  I can't wait for their next album. Favorite Track: "The Fire"

Taylor Swift - 1989
Because no person on planet earth was not affected by this ubiquitous album or TaySway herself in some fashion this year.  After much cajoling from my friend Sarah, I finally got into her music this year and, I have to tell ya, it's pretty good.  She is a great songwriter already and has some of the best in the biz making her songs even better in production.  And even if I hated her music, I would still like her because listening to her music has opened the door to conversations and new bonding with people in my life, both strangers and friends.  The second best thing about this album is the covers it inspired, first an entire album from Ryan Adams and then a single-song direct response from Father John Misty which kills me every time I listen to it. Favorite track: "Style" or "Out of the Woods" (pre- seeing the music video)

Sufjan Stevens - Carrie and Lowell
This is on everyone's best of 2015 list.  Once again, this weird genius creates a study of death in musical form that interweaves religious musings, true and profound statements human existence, and his gorgeous layered sound that is quiet and yet rings so loudly.  I may not have put this on my year-end album list though if I hadn't seen him perform the whole thing live.  He played a show in Baltimore and he didn't introduce himself or say any words at all, he just started playing the album and didn't stop at all until they played the whole thing through.  Behind him were beautiful images, art and lighting effects that highlighted several themes of the album. It was sort of like watching a play.  It was a very meaningful show. Sufjan also has trouble with himself when he's not singing or playing an instrument on stage.  He does these strange dance moves that I don't think he can help himself from doing in the in-between times.  Goes to show that, even if you front a band and are a genius, you can still be awkward. Favorite Track: Should Have Known Better

Jon Foreman - The Wonderlands: ShadowsSunlight, DarknessDawn
Jon released these albums over the course of 2015 and one of the themes I became very aware of this year was darkness and light occupying the same space, good and evil, sin and redemption.  I think this set of four EPs does an amazing job of exploring those themes.  Jon's voice isn't my favorite but I love the content he explores and some of the songs fit his voice perfectly.  He's been cranking out really great musical project exploring other themes too, like the four seasons, and I appreciate his creative vision for these projects. Favorite Tracks: "She Said", "Run Free", "Your Love is Enough", "You Don't Know How Beautiful You Are".  (I decided I get to pick one from each EP)

Paul Simon - Graceland
I've long danced around this album.  I've heard a few songs off it, sure, and heard lots more about its critical acclaim and innovation, but this year I finally took the time to really listen to it. Mostly because my older brother loves it so much. I listened to some of Simon's commentary on how this album came about and was fascinated by the creative process he went through to arrive at the finished product.  I also just love love love the sounds on this album. he said he recorded half of it in South Africa and half of it in Louisiana and you can hear the zydeco on it as well as the the traditional "gumboots" sound of South Africa.  It's an astounding album.  It's probably in my top ten of all time now. Favorite Track: "Under African Skies"

Dawes - All Your Favorite Bands
Saw these guys twice in 2015 and completely loved their new stuff.  This album is just as good musically and lyrically as their others.  They haven't deviated from their sound but it's never boring and Taylor Goldsmith's lyrics just seem to get better the more life he lives.  And those guitar solos? Keep 'em coming, boys. Favorite Track: "Somewhere Along the Way"

The Oh Hellos - Dear Wormwood
One of my most anticipated releases of 2015.  Another album that is a complete thought - a conversation between tormentor and tormentee with a beginning and and end.  In many ways it continues and improves upon themes from their last full studio album - Through the Deep Dark Valley. I love them because they speak so candidly about the initial sweetness of sin, the alluring danger of darkness, of the remorse on the other side, and the beautiful hope we have in conquering sin once and for all.  Maggie and Tyler Heath are some of the best songwriters out there these days, IMHO. Favorite Track: All of them.  I pick all of them.

Kurt Vile - b'lieve i'm goin' down...
Just listen to the lyrics.  This guy is a brilliant songwriter.  Simple production and stripped down lyrics make this album incredibly compelling in an unassuming way. His music feels to me like taking a leisurely stroll through his head and seeing what's really there.  It's sort of leisurely and even, and the way he speak-sings a little bit, in the style of Lou Reed and Bob Dylan. Favorite Track: "Wheelhouse"

Belle and Sebastien - Girls in Peacetime Want to Dance
Just because if they release something, it will probably be among my favorites for the year. You have to find the right moment to listen to this band, but when you do, it's oh so right.  For me, it's early morning car rides (preferably in spring with the windows down) with sun breaking in through my windows or cool calm evenings at home while cooking dinner. They always give me something to chew on with their songs and I love them for that. Favorite Track: "Ever Had a Little Faith?"

Jukebox the Ghost - Jukebox the Ghost
I've been listening to these guys since 2010 and it seems they have really found a groove here.  I remember loving Something Corporate/Jack's Mannequin because they billed themselves as "piano rock".  This group came together in DC (their GW alums) and Ben Thornewill's voice and piano skills are not to be missed. I love their clever lyrics and I think they say some true things.  They're funny too.  Just listen to the song "Hollywood".  It's all there.

Honorable Mention -
Stereophonics - Keep the Village Alive
Bronze Radio Return - Light Me Up
Nathaniel Rateliff and the Night Sweats - Eponymous
Eagle Rock Gospel Singers - Heavenly Fire
John Mark McMillan - Borderland

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

I Unironically Go to a One Direction Concert

This is all Matt Wertz's fault.

If he hadn't put "Steal My Girl" on his #WertzWednesdays playlist last year it would have been something I heard but never really listened to. Then I never would have ended up in Baltimore on a Saturday night amidst the deafening screams of 50,000 fangirls.  But he did, and I did, and that's where my story starts.

I originally toyed with the idea of going to see One Direction, sort of because I was curious about what the show would be like, and sort of because I really, really liked some of the songs off their last album (again, all Matt Wertz's fault).  I saw the ticket prices and immediately tossed the idea.  No way I could excuse that kind of spending on a personal experiment.  But back in February I got a call from a teacher friend of mine who, in her voicemail, simply said "Hi! I have a crazy idea... call me back. Bye." Her crazy idea was that she wanted her 2015 Frivolous Tax Refund Check Expenditure to be two tickets to the One Direction show in Baltimore in August, and she wanted me to go with her.  So, through circumstances clearly bearing the mark of destiny, I found myself sitting in the third to last row of M and T bank stadium on a beautiful summer night, eagerly awaiting my time with the four remaining members of One Direction.
In the nosebleed section of the nosebleed section. 
While unrivaled people watching opportunities drew me in initially, I ended up engaged and strangely affirmed by One Direction's performance.  My friend makes a great point about the importance of bubblegum pop music.  Sometimes you just need a silly pop song.  I have to agree.  I keep a playlist that I call the Twinkie playlist.  It's full of songs that have zero musical value and might even be bad for me, but can't help loving.  One Direction are not actively bad for me, I don't think, but taken in incessantly and obsessively, it could (like anything consumed that way) end up doing some pretty serious damage. Often if something isn't making me think, or doesn't have any redemptive value to it, I feel guilty for spending time on it.  Songs in which 50% of the lyrics are monosyllabic singing are what I would classify as pretty low-hanging fruit.  One Direction really delivers in that category, much as the Police did with "De do do do, De da da da". Sometimes you just need to eat a Twinkie. Given the success of both The Police and One Direction, I am sure I am not alone.

First off, the openers: the ultra-high energy Icona Pop.  It's genius for ladykillers like One Direction to have a girl band warm up the crowd screaming things like "All the Ladies in the house make some nooooiiiiiiissseee".   They're hype girls; meant to ramp up the female empowerment level through their sassy pop songs...kind of like the Spice Girls.  In fact, so much like the Spice Girls that they even LOOKED like them (Caroline Hjelt was totally channeling Scary with her hair that night). My big takeaways from their set were that I could take over the world if I were hot and dancing all the time.  Also that fun trumps everything and justifies any means, and it's every young person's right to have it.  Basically their songs are all a modern day spin on "Fight for Your Right to Party" without the clever rhymes and Brooklyn accents. It was humorous to have someone tell us that we can rule the world with a shimmy and a shake, only to then bring on the dreamy manflesh to turn us all into drooling crazy people immediately after. Who's actually in charge here? I don't think the Icona Pop Rule of Life applies to those over 30... but they had microphone stands that looked like light sabres that were pretty sweet.

As an aside, I wish club beats didn't overpower every other part of the songs they are in. I know you are supposed to get lost in the beat and the whole point is escapism and awesome dancing, and maybe drug use, but we swallow a lot of crap down with those beats without tasting it. Not least of which: Icona Pop ripped off the chorus of Tupac Shakur's "Me and my Girlfriend" for their hit "Girlfriend" and no one batted an eye.  I should probably consider that a substantial percentage of the audience was not alive in 1996, or even in 2003 when Jay-Z did the same thing in "'03 Bonnie and Clyde".  So there's that.

Between the sets, we sat up in the stands for an hour talking about things we were seeing in the crowd and looking up facts about One Direction and Icona Pop on our phones.
No room for ageism at a 1D show.  Everyone's a fan. 

We saw grandmas, grandpas, sullen dads, moms who were as excited if not more so than their daughters, myriad midriffs, jeweled high-heeled sneakers, signs begging a band member to spit on them, and more things that kind of made me sad.  My friend was a wealth of information on some of the trends I was seeing.  I corroborated all her information and added some of my own findings.  Here are some of the things we found out about 1D subculture:
  • #CutforZayn was an internationally trending (and horrifying) hashtag on Twitter in March after his announcement of leaving the band to "be a normal 22 year old"
  • There was a Teen Vogue piece entitled "What to Wear to a One Direction Concert"
  • An Emergency announcement went out on the official One Direction Fan Fiction Website after Zayn left, assuring contributors that "All fanfiction regarding Zayn will be remain unaffected. We encourage Zayn fics, because here anything is possible!"
  • There is a staggering amount of 1D Fan Fiction, and there are annual official awards for it, with a slew of categories.
  • From Cosmopolitan: "Larry is the nickname given by people who 'ship' (i.e. fantasize about a relationship between) Harry and Louis. (Larry Stylinson is a mash-up of Harry's and Louis's names.)"
  • Fans know that Harry Styles is partial to bananas; (he's worn them, had them thrown at him and has occasionally even ridden one on stage) and they wear banana costumes to concerts in solidarity with him. 
  • The #bandanaproject gives fans a way to show favoritism for a member of 1D by wearing a specific color of bandana.  A fan movement started in early 2014. Harry = green, Niall = white, Liam = red, Louis = blue, Zayn (faithful departed) = yellow. 
  • I have now successfully learned the names of the men who make up the band and can associate the correct name with the correct person.  Please don't quiz me. 
Bandana Project on display in the crowd at our show. Someone's hanging on to Zayn's memory. 
Also in that interim hour we were bombarded with cross promotional music and commercials from Honda.  I had never heard of 5 Seconds of Summer before Saturday and now I am more familiar with their music than I would have cared to be.  They kept showing clips of 5SoS and I kept turning to Laurel excited that showing a video of the band probably meant that One Direction was coming on stage soon.  Sadly, the bands are just that similar (looking, sounding, you name it...) that I couldn't tell the difference between them.  5SoS have a song called "Kinda Hot" which affirms that if you are a kinda hot girl it makes anything you do awesome, even if it's actually terrible.  Another band we heard from often was Little Mix.  They, too, follow the Spice Girls formula but with less of the girl power and more reliance on power chiefly derived, it would seem, from extensive use of eyeliner, hair extensions and metallic spandex.  I was really, really bored by the end of the interim and did not want to hear any more Honda Civic Tour music.  I am obviously not their target demographic.  I was quite impressed, however, with the overall marketing synergy in terms of the band lineup, Honda Civics, car financing, and education loans.  There were a lot of bored dads there who probably had nothing better to do than crunch numbers about student and car loans for their little girls.
If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. 

The best(?) of the 1D dad shirts.

Our wait was almost up and we heard the sound of anticipation:

...and then the lights went down:

and THEN they took the stage:

I was both astounded by and immediately infected with the power radiating from those four men.  After the first song they stopped, casually sauntering around the stage, knowing that their audience was waiting with wrapt attention for any morsel they might want to throw us. After some words of greeting, the only one who wore semi-normal fitting pants said, "I see a lot of sexy Americans out there..." The place erupted.  I was surprised to find myself blushing and not a little bit flattered by the tiny figure way down below.  Later on in the set, one of them said "People in the back, we SEE you!".  They were talking about us, way up in the bad seats.  Again I felt a wave of good feelings wash over me.  I have read before that women really need to feel seen; being seen is a huge part of feeling loved for us. Even though I knew they couldn't actually see me, I was surprised at how good it made me feel; how an impersonal comment felt very personal. One girl with Down Syndrome was sitting about three rows in front of us. She had on her bandana (yellow... maybe she's still in mourning?), carried her sign, and was ecstatic to be there.  One Direction's uncanny ability to make everyone feel special, and specifically to make women feel beautiful really mattered.  I thought that a night like this must be a real gift for that girl, who might not feel that a whole lot.  It certainly felt like a gift to me.

Like I said, these guys ooze charisma. But the cynic in me suspects their message is practiced and honed by their undoubtedly amazing marketing teams and collected audience information. In this electronic age, where we are always leaving a trail of breadcrumbs of our likes and dislikes with every click, do we indirectly tell them what to say to us and they have the good sense to say (or sing) it?

Everybody wanna steal my girl...
Here are all the songs they played in the order that they were played. All those screams you heard in the recordings? Multiply it by 1000.  I was woefully unprepared for the amount of screaming that the night demanded.  I really enjoyed dancing, and when they played "Steal My Girl", the second song, I went just about as crazy as everyone else.  My favorite song of the night was "Where Do Broken Hearts Go".  I had heard what I wanted to hear by song #6 and enjoyed the rest of the evening totally uninvested.

I felt a little bit of distance from the band because while they co-write on a majority of their songs, a large portion of the writing is done for them.  They played their song "Eighteen" and as soon as they played it I heard Ed Sheeran.  I asked Laurel if this song had been written by Ed, and she said it had.  It was the guitar intro that tipped me off.  I understand how important the right packaging is for a successful product.  The four men on stage are the absolute perfect package for the product being conveyed.  Those looking for anything more than odes to youth and young love, and danceable, carefree, quintessential pop music should look elsewhere.  Although Ed Sheeran's music qualifies as pop music, I think his lyrics are pretty substantial.  I kinda wished it was just him singing his own song to me, instead of these other guys. Ed does cool things like quote Dylan Thomas and processes some pretty big ideas in his music.  Not to mention he can write a killer hook.  But he also has talent enough as a songwriter alone to keep the whole world in great love songs for a few decades, so why not share the wealth?

Maybe it's because I came of musical age in the 90s, when angst ruled the airwaves, that I inherently distrust any music that doesn't make me feel a little pain.  (Grouplove's 2011 album entitled "Never Trust a Happy Song" is coming to mind...) Smashing Pumpkins really did a number on me. Pop music is a solipsism, a genre that defines itself. Truthfully, pop music encompasses many of my favorite bands: U2, Springsteen, Mumford and Sons, etc., simply because they are listened to by a large number of people, hence, they are popular. But the way I am defining the One Direction sound points to a carefully engineered popular music. There are bands that arrive at popularity because what they create from their own artistic vision simply finds a place in the hearts of many.  I am unsure that One Direction has an artistic vision outside the one that we, as their consumers, give to them based on telling them what we like and what we want to see through social media and consumer patterns.

My favorite music (and my favorite things and people, come to think of it) draws me outside of myself. My own unexplored, surface desires don't necessarily lead me to the things that are best for me. More often the opposite is true. Underneath my surface desires is one big, all-encompassing desire that, I think, everyone shares in.  It transcends this world.  I think if we're all being honest, our real desire isn't met by the things this life has to offer us. I walked away from this concert with some of those surface desires met.
  1. 1D actually made me feel beautiful.  When they sang those songs like "What Makes You Beautiful" and "Steal My Girl" they were singing words that I needed (need) to hear more than I do. And for a moment, I let myself believe, along with the rest of the stadium full of listeners, that they were singing them just for me. 
  2. I had a lot of fun: unencumbered, silly, carefree fun.  And largely because the music doesn't require thought. Its happy, easy, major-chord progressions, and catchy rhythms make it accessible for everyone. 
  3. I didn't feel alone.  Besides being in a place with 50,000 other people, I also felt united behind a common purpose, which was to enjoy fun music. 
However, there was another common purpose at work: veneration of One Direction.  On that point, I felt more like Ulysses tied to the mast of his ship in The Odyssey when he passes the Sirens.  In fact, that might have been part of the motivation for going to this concert at all.  Could I withstand the charms of this all-powerful boy band and keep my musical virtue intact? Part of me wanted to give over to the worship of these four golden-voiced men. The combination of their insanely catchy songs, the well-placed compliments from the stage falling on ears that desperately need to be affirmed, and the beautiful things delivering them made this desire almost irresistible.

Maybe what kept me tied to the mast is age and experience. I'm old enough to know the space that One Direction occupies and to keep it there - the Twinkie space. They need to be there to keep me from being too serious.  They are a reminder that good things don't always come with a side of pain, or deep introspection. But in the long run, real fulfillment is found in things with lasting truth, and I think the message of One Direction is one that works for a while, but no real answers come from it. So I will continue to listen to, and thoroughly enjoy their flawless pop productions when the time is right for them. But I will not look to them as songs that point towards something bigger than me, and thus to something truer than our own feelings. I am deeply appreciative of the generosity that made this concert possible for me, and for the kind souls on the stage, who while full of charm and pretty words, were also full of seemingly genuine gratitude.  1D, keep doing what you're doing. You're alright in my book.  

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Heaven on the Jersey Shore

In preparation for this past weekend, episodes of MTV's "reality" show Jersey Shore came to mind. Mostly what kept popping into my head was that sound byte from the opening credits where Snooki yells, probably to no one in particular, "We're going to Jersey Shore, BITCH!". What happened this last weekend on the Jersey Shore was restoring and draining, gorgeous and ugly, challenging and easy as pie, or rather, donut.  This is my tale of the Gentlemen of the Road Stopover in Seaside Heights, NJ.

My tickets for this musical event were purchased with little other thought than 1) I know people in Jersey, 2) Mumford and Sons are playing within a semi-reasonable distance for the first time in 2 years.  I bought two tickets lickety split and the rest fell into place gradually over the next three months. Within about a month, MandS had booked a show at a local venue, albeit one that I hate, but I was still very happy with my decision to drive 4 hours instead of 1 to see them with the rest of the amazing lineup they had assembled. My little bro's in-laws, who live about 30 minutes north of the Stopover location in Seaside Heights, were always saying "come visit any time".  So I decided to take them up on their offer.  DC book club pal Katie and I hit the road on Thursday afternoon, ready to explore the sights and sounds of the Jersey shore in the early part of the season. It was unseasonably chilly and rainy. Slogging through normal traffic up to Baltimore, once we went through the Harbor tunnel it was pretty smooth sailing.  This drive, I even hesitate to admit it, is starting to feel familiar and almost homey. We decided we should head straight to Seaside Heights to get the lay of the land and to see if we could catch the Springsteen cover band scheduled to play on the downtown stage that night.

Our route got us off the Jersey turnpike earlier and led us down a gorgeous road smack through Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst.  Memories came flooding back again and it was nice to drive that quiet two-lane road of scrub pines and rolling hills with a sense of peace and fondness, even joy.  We were at the beach in less than an hour from there, and found out that the cover band didn't start until 10pm.  We decided to find some unhealthy boardwalk delicacies, walk around, and catch the beginning of the set.  We noticed that the boardwalk and Seaside Heights in general was largely empty.  There were so few people around that it was almost eerie.  I love off-season beach precisely because of its emptiness, but it felt strange the night before such a huge event. We had read that something like 35,000 people were expected to come to this festival and knowing the influx of people expected over the next 24 hours and seeing it so empty with all the structures in place to welcome them was both exciting and a little ominous. It was cold with the sea breeze on the boardwalk.  We stopped in Jimbo's and got fajitas and listened to a local band tear up the stage covering everything from Counting Crows to Sublime.  

After warming up at dinner a bit, we checked out where the festival would be the next day. The stage was directly on the beach.  Barriers for the right side of the stage actually extended into the surf.  It really hit home to me then how great this event would be.  I was thinking what a logistical nightmare that must have been for the engineers to get a stage of that size and complexity set up on sand though.  Sheesh.

After marveling at the location and excitedly chattering (or maybe that was just our teeth from the cold?) about how awesome everything was going to be the next day, we walked over to the Springsteen cover band who had just taken the stage a few blocks away.  They call themselves "Tramps Like Us" and they were fantastic.  The lead singer may have gone a little bit overboard in his Springsteen vocalization, but such a fun time.  There were maybe 50 people there.  And there were some local kids, late teens, early 20s who were hanging out celebrating someone's birthday.  They were absolutely out of their minds, and one of them had this amazing huge tattoo of the state of New Jersey on his arm.  It became my goal to get a picture with him, but, as Katie said, it was like approaching a wild animal. We had no idea what he was actually going to do or if it was safe.

We took a picture of his tattoo from afar, and stayed for 5 songs (Thunder Road, Atlantic City, Radio Nowhere, Prove it All Night, and Because the Night).  We were quite cold and decided to head up to homebase at that point.  We arrived at the pretty little beach house about 20 minutes later after a drive on completely empty streets.  We were greeted by a chalkboard message over the fireplace saying "Welcome to our home Katie and Karla!" and sweetly decorated little bedrooms with warm, soft beds.

As I snuggled down for the night and started to think about the day behind me and the two days ahead, a goodness crept over me. I woke to the sound of a heavy, steady rain in the morning and went back to sleep.  I woke up much later to gray, chilly air and Katie emerged around the same time. We went downstairs to say hello to Chloe the dog and Bruno and Cathy, our hosts.  We chatted for a while and then we ladies went for a long walk down by the ocean.  After returning, Cathy made us breakfast and then Katie and I headed to Asbury Park.  She's a good friend and was kind enough to accompany me on my long-awaited Springsteen pilgrimage.

We got there and I was absolutely giddy. As we walked onto the mostly empty boardwalk I vivdly remembered the view from an episode of The Sopranos (season 2 finale, as it turns out. See video here.). I walked, drinking in all the history and making connections to the places I was seeing to their acknowledgements in cherished Springsteen songs. It felt like the perfect way to enter into the musical spirit of the weekend. Then, we walked a few blocks to the Stone Pony. THE Stone Pony.  Not exactly where Springsteen and Bon Jovi got their starts but certainly integral to their success, and a platform for many others. Stepping inside, empty with the grey light from the door creeping into the dark, storied interior, I was overwhelmed with all the amazing music that must have happened here over the decades.  All the pictures, signed guitars, cymbals, banjo covers that line the walls, each one telling me a story.  The stage wasn't set at all, it was just a blank canvas, dirty and beaten up, ready for greatness.  A musical communion of saints, concerts past and future, surrounded me.

From there, we drove to Point Pleasant for a diner lunch, good conversation and then donuts. It was National Donut Day (NDD), after all. We went to Top That! donuts which are small batch, made to order, and make your own flavor combos  (like those serve your own yogurt places where you get to pick all your toppings). We went a little crazy. At one point, the guy asked Katie: "are you sure you want all that on one donut?" referring to her creation of maple glaze, crumbled bacon, pecans, and bavarian cream filling. I got chocolate glaze, peanut butter chips, MandMs, and mini chocolate chips. The donuts were still hot from the fryer, crispy on the outside, soft, light and cakey on the inside. The guy in the store seemed a little bit overrun. They were offering free donuts to kids under 10 that day due to NDD and they had a lot of business. We even saw the guy's parents come in to help. We know they were his parents because at one point the older woman was making boxes and the proprietor said "Thanks Mom!". The father walked in, went to the back, and immediately came out again with a broom and started sweeping up and doing what he could to help out. It was sweet to see family in action, coming to the rescue when lots of children, promised free donuts, were clambering up to the counter and gleefully shouting their preposterous donut orders (MORE FRUITY PEBBLES!).

After waiting a pretty long time for our donuts, we went back to homebase to regroup and head in to the festival from there. We got to the shuttle area, hopped on a school bus, and entered the festival. They had the gates and all these flags set up to usher us onto the boardwalk and into the festival grounds. We got there around 5pm and walked up a much more crowded and lively boardwalk. Everything was alive, but it was chilly, and the clouds were very, very low.  So low that one of the rides on the boardwalk that spun its riders up about 75 feet was almost lost in the clouds at its highest point.

We staked out a great spot on the sand right at the end of The Very Best's set. They were the first band to play and we only caught a few songs but they brought great energy to kick off the music and amazing beats.  Our spot afforded perfect views of the next musician, Blake Mills. He took the stage and my knees buckled. Just my type. Scruffy, unassuming, absolutely incredible guitar player and he started off with a Les Paul and a glass slide.  I was done in before he had finished the first measure.  He used to play with Dawes, and produces for a bunch of amazing artists while releasing his own solo music. He's a little rough around the edges vocally but writes great songs. Taylor and Griffin Goldsmith (of Dawes) joined Blake on stage. They're still friends and collaborate often.

Dawes' set was next and did not disappoint. Our concert neighbors were getting more and more drunk and stoned around us. Any spaces where blankets had been were being swallowed up by the crowd as more and more people arrived. Dawes mostly played stuff from their newest album of which I am a big fan. Blake Mills came on stage again with them at one point. I couldn't really see the beach at our spot in the crowd, but I could hear the ocean.  The sun was setting, the temperature was dropping, a fog was settling over the festival, and a fine, misty rain was drifting down, adding atmospheric enhancement to an already amazing set. Dawes ended with "All Your favorite Bands" and, as always after hearing them live, I love them even more.

The crowd was pushing forward to position for Alabama Shakes. It was hard for Katie and I to stand our ground and keep our amazing sight line to the stage.  Fortunately, this group of short girls in front of us had put out a blanket so there was a large blank spot in front of us and we could see the whole stage despite being a little bit back from it.  We were up pretty close though.  Alabama Shakes's frontwoman Brittany Howard took the stage in a billowing pink dress and the wind picked up and made it flow out majestically behind her, the stage lights shone out purple into the crowd and the mist over us and reflected beautifully.  Her voice cut through the chilly evening with its energy and power and everyone responded to it. From start to finish their set was awesome.  I liked them much more this time than the first time I saw them at Sweetlife festival two years ago.  I love how personal the songs are, and how Brittany is talking to herself when she sings them in front of tens of thousands of people.    

After their set, we stayed on the boardwalk in search of the perfect decadent fried treat to end the evening with.  We settled on a vintage sweet shop that had long been a fixture on the Seaside Heights Boardwalk, I got a cupcake and Katie got a macaroon.  As we were working our way down the boardwalk in search of the shuttle bus loading area, we ran across our friends from the night before, and that awesome tattoo!  Katie spotted our guy while on the phone and pointed him out to me.  He was in fine form again and so were his friends. They were milling about a decorative piano and dancing with beers in hand.  Katie, now off the phone, said it was destiny and I had to get a picture with the guy and his tattoo. Still too shy to approach the wild animal, Katie thankfully took charge of the situation and approached him.  Drunk as he was, he was only too happy to oblige my request.  Katie started getting her camera ready and the guy lurched towards me, asking if I wanted to see his other tattoos? Without waiting for an answer, he lifted up his wife-beater tank top and said if there was anything else I wanted to see, anything at all, he'd be glad to show me. *blush* Katie was mercifully quick to snap a photo and I have to say that it was 100% worth all the trouble we went to get it, and the drunken advances of a Jersey boy on the boardwalk.  Check out this magnificence:

We then continued trying to find the shuttles back to the parking lot. We were instructed on the way over that the buses would pick up in the same place where we had been dropped off, but inexplicably our bus driver got lost on arrival and dropped us off in the wrong place.  We didn't know where we were supposed to go and it turns out NO ONE else did either. We must have asked at least 7 or 8 different event staff and no one knew.  Finally we got almost to the end of the boardwalk and some cops down there did know.  We made it to the buses, shuttled back and headed home exhausted.

Late the next morning, I woke up feeling woozy from a strange dream about being stuck in a mall.  But the sun was shining and there was a whole day of music in front us! We went for a walk down to the beach and out along the jetty at the south end.  It was a much different walk because everyone was now there for their shore weekend.  People had started to wake up and there were even more people. Families were starting to take to the sand for their beach days (even though the water was 56 degrees, brrrrrrr).  Surfers were out and the ambient temperature was much warmer.  Katie went back to the house and I kept walking up and down the boardwalk a few more times.  I couldn't get enough of the beachy air and people watching. I realized I needed the relative solitude to be able to dive back into such a huge crowd that day.  It was fun watching what I imagine to be many different Saturday morning rituals taking place - looking at the back porches, grills being fired up (it was 10am), the cornhole games starting, people washing their decks, sitting on chairs, and the sights and sounds of a summer weekend unfolding. 

We had a leisurely morning, went to lunch in Toms River, and then we headed back into Seaside Heights.  We beelined for the beach and had brought blankets and set up camp this time. We were right by the surf which was at low-tide. We had missed the first two bands, Little May and Jeff the Brotherhood, but caught almost all of the Maccabees' set.  They were great.  The Vaccines came next and rocked out like the Ramones.  Then Jenny Lewis played. She had an all-woman band and led it well with her great voice. I really enjoyed the stuff she played from her new album and she threw in some Rilo Kiley hits as well.  The Flaming Lips did not disappoint in terms of weirdness but I just don't get them. I can't tell if the reality they live in actually is the video game they make it seem like it is from the stage, or if it's all an act.  Anyway, they certainly don't sound like anyone else and that is always hard to do, so props for that.

Then came Mumford and Sons. Anticipation was riding high since many people had come just to see them.  The crowd stretched almost the entire length of the boardwalk, wall to wall people.  Marcus took the stage and asked for the lights to come up, and bellowed "SIIIIIIIICK" when he saw just how many people were there, gathered and waiting for their music to play.  Many in the crowd, myself included, were somewhat unsure about how their new sound would translate to a live show. They started off with Snake Eyes and Ditmas.  They sounded just as good as they ever did, and I didn't miss the banjos, even though they came back in full force with the next three songs in the set list.  What I've always liked about Mumford and Sons most is their lyrics.  They continue to write penetrating, thought-provoking songs and this album is no different.  This effort has a darker tension to its sound, more conflicted and struggling. You hear about aging, thirst, loneliness, soured love, and rage again and again. But it's never without hope. There's always a maybe, a cry out for more.  I don't think you cry out to things you're not at least hoping are really there.

For me, the concert experience was an answer to a lot of prayers.  I was hearing God in some of the lyrics, talking to me about being upset with him over the cancer battle of a beloved family member, hearing my frustration and comforting me in it.  Everything seemed bigger than me and I felt keenly the agony of being so small and limited and believing in and having to trust a God who is so much greater and can see everything I can't see. I could feel where a lot of the tension in these songs was coming from because it was and is present in me.  I remember when they sang the line "Say something, say something, something like you love me"  And it felt like a dagger of truth piercing me.  What an honest supplication to God! How hard it is to trust especially in those times of doubt and suffering.  How much we just always, all of us, want to hear that we are loved. Lovers Eyes gets me every single time, and so does Lover of the Light. I couldn't believe I was getting to hear those songs, those heavenly songs, being played by the ocean. I gave myself fully over to praise because that is what the moment called for, upward-turned hands and heart.

Watching the sun set behind the boardwalk, the lights of the attractions of Seaside Heights became more vivid, and the passion emitting from the musicians on stage wasn't lost on anyone who was listening,  I hope.  It's the mark of a band that believes in their songs that when they sing them to a crowd, they seem to be feeling them too.  Mumford and Sons, Dawes, Avett Brothers, U2, and a few other bands I have seen live have been the ones to teach me this.  I love them for that.

Katie and I made our way slowly away from the waves, which were coming up within inches of our feet now that the tide was coming in again.  During the encore we worked our way back up onto the boardwalk and then slowly backed our way down the line towards the buses. They brought all the day's bands up on stage for the last song, a cover of Atlantic City.  That's the song they closed the Patriot Center show with a few years ago too.  I've got debts that no honest man can pay. Down here it's just winners and losers and don't get caught on the wrong side of that line.  I kept hoping that Bruce was going to make a surprise appearance with them.  I don't actually know what would have happened to me if that had been the case. But mercifully, (and also sadly) I didn't have to find out.

Katie and I headed home, closing the chapter on a great weekend full of music, food and memories.  All the things that New Jersey always brings to mind are present with me while I am up there, even a lot of the music played recalls it to my mind as well.  Everything dies baby, that's a fact.  I have been thinking about that a lot.  Thinking about what needs to die so I can grow.  I know pain is coming with those deaths, and I don't look forward to it, but I know I have to face them.  Lord, have mercy, and thank you for the beauty in death and another beautiful weekend in New Jersy, bringing to mind all the good and the bad that lives in every moment, and keeping me mindful that Goodness, Love, you, are the victor.

*Photo Credits to Katie Connolly

Past Entries