Monday, October 29, 2007

Upon Return...

A deep and overriding exhaustion, more mind-altering than the beer that took control of my last night in Brooklyn.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Manhattan skyline

Here's the view from my cousin's apartment in Queens. That's the Empire State Building prominent on the left, with the UN obscuring all but the tippy top of the Chrysler Building. Foreground to the right is the back of the Pepsi Cola sign on this side of the East River. Nice digs.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Dispatches from the East

Currently sitting on banks of East River staring at Manhattan skyline Stop Bars and comedy show last night in Queens and Art Brut and The Hold Steady in Philly Stop Ansel Adams and Annie Leibowitz exhibits at the Corcoran and boating on the Potomac and a rooftop party in view of the Capitol Stop Air & Space Museum World War II memorial and the Mall Stop Friends got married on lunch hour Stop Many great friends and laughter and incredible sights and sounds and steady consumption of Yuengling Stop Returning Sunday Stop

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Catfish off to the East Coast

Well, I'm leaving in the morning as soon as the dark clouds lift...
Not actually, but there's nothing better to announce the night before you take off for someplace else. I'm thrilled to be headed to D.C., Philly and NYC. And the news from Felix Hurn tonight makes the whole trip even better: Next Tuesday we'll rock out at the Hold Steady show. Boo-ya!
Untold hours of fun and adventure await. It's time for another 'Ninjas of Fun' stealth attack -- East Coast style.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Catfish at the bluegrass festival with a half million other people, part two

After loading up with beers, Freaktown and I got into the park Saturday just in time to hear Guy Clark singing out LA Freeway on our way to catch James McMurtry on the way to John Prine. And in the only really large music festival I’ve attended, I immediately came to grips with all the concessions you have to make to time and space and crowds and hunger and restroom breaks and moods and everything. But I settled easily into the see-who-I-can-see-but-make-sure-the-festival-is-about-fun-and-friends mentality and let that drive everything. We met up with S and D and C and family and after the Flatlanders settled in on a few blankets in front of the main stage. (Thanks to those who staked out the place.) From there it was Ricky Skaggs & Bruce Hornsby, Gillian Welch and Steve Earle. If my favorite song day one was Remember the Mountain Bed, day two’s was Gillian and David doing Queen Jane Approximately.

Many of the songs I enjoyed most during the festival were covers and I think that make perfect sense in the realm of bluegrass (and hardly strictly bluegrass) music. Country and folk have always been about the standards, with everyone of note giving his or her or their own interpretation of the great songs. While the songwriter may seem king in this arrangement, it’s really more about the performance. If everyone’s playing the same songs, that sets a level playing field and the better rendition comes out on top. And some songs are just perfect in a bluegrass festival setting. Walking back toward the main stage later Sunday, with a good bit of the festival under my belt, I just felt like Dylan’s You Ain’t Going Nowhere would be just perfect. And, no shit, within a half hour, Earl Scruggs and his boys were belting it out: “Ooh whee, ride me high, tomorrow’s the day my bride’s a-gonna come / Oh oh, are we gonna fly, down in the easy chair.”

And then there’s the universal truths offered by a lot of the best country and folk music. Steve Earle said it best as he was tuning between songs: “Same girl, different harmonica.”

We were down at the park Sunday in time to catch the Sadies, and just as I was sure she would, Neko joined in, singing Evangeline, with her in Emmylou’s role just forming a great bookend on that day. We were all looser with Sunday’s schedule, settling in a ways back from our main-stage camp of a day earlier. I ate the best corndog ever. A couple of us made a beer run after realizing that the day’s supply was woefully insufficient – and in doing so made a few bucks selling later on to fellow festival-goers as their own supplies dwindled. I ran over to see Dave Alvin on a smaller stage that seemed even more crowded. The boom operator there had a much easier time passing the camera right over the crowd, and I tried giving a different look or gesture each time it caught me. Maybe there’ll be a DVD of the festival, and thousands of people across the world will have documented proof of my existence…

Sunday was the heaviest bluegrass day, with David Grisman, Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson leading up to Emmylou. It was the first time I’d seen the legendary Queen of country-folk and her set was incredible (as I can prove to anyone with the bootleg I’ve snagged). Highlights were Pancho and Lefty, Red Dirt Girls and Sin City, but really the whole thing kept me moving in that half-dance thing I described earlier, a swaying, twisting, head-bobbing casual sort of shimmy thing.

I couldn’t have asked for better companions throughout, reconnecting with several people I’d hardly gotten to see in years and realizing why the hell I’m friends with all these awesome people to being with. Overall I feel as though I pulled some minor logistical miracles getting together so many people who I knew but didn’t or barely knew each other.

At the close of the festival we all assembled, stuffed too many people into a two-door Honda and then a studio apartment, ordered Burmese food and re-upped on some beer and Fernet. We listened to a Wilco bootleg I’d brought as a gift for my hosts, watched a bit of the Wilco documentary to zero in on that Santa Cruz record store owner, and talked about the city and life and Arizona and how so many people managed to start in Tucson and end up in San Francisco. I was invited a few times to move there, encouraged to make Bay City my home too, to take part in such notable occasions on a regular basis. What could be more convincing? What could make a better argument than those friends and that weekend? It’s hands-down the highlight of the year.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Catfish at the bluegrass festival with a half million other people, part one

Blogging things a week late is never good form, but the price extracted for my tremendous San Francisco vacation was way too much work and stress immediately upon return. Plus, most of my computer time since has been devoted to tracking down bootlegs of the performances I saw, with surprisingly good luck.

It was a relatively unplanned vacation, all starting with an email from Freaktown saying that I should do everything in my power to make it to the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival. Yeah right, thought I, noting that it’s barely a week before my long-planned swing to the East Coast and short-notice airfare is as big a discourager as anything. But I kept looking over the list of artists: Jeff Tweedy, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Dave Alvin, John Prine, Gillian Welch, plus a whole host of actual bluegrass legends. Had I never known it was coming I couldn’t possibly hate myself for missing it, but now that it was presented as an actual option, how could I not? So I searched out a decently priced flight, scammed an extra day off work and ultimately spent the whole weekend feeling like I’d won some damned contest.

I stopped and started writing this a few times, and at each step the words fell far short of the magic that I felt while listening to the music. But live music is like that – fleeting and powerful, at times transcendent and at times a buoyant current you ride for a while, and try to hang onto as it flows through you. At times during the performances I tried to see the music, to let my eyes fall somewhere, a tree or a bird or a section of the massive crowd, and watch it move, watch for moments it matched the music, as if the sound was a wind. Other times my own body was what got caught up in the tunes, more of a set of loose sways and twists than anything resembling an actual dance, but it was mostly bluegrass and that’s pretty much how I roll anyway.

Tweedy in particular was mesmerizing. One man, one guitar, one voice, an occasional harmonica, and a set of songs that stack up very favorably with anything every written or performed. I don’t say that lightly, or with hyperbole. It’s a very measured and purposeful statement, but everyone who stood near me as those songs washed over us in the dying afternoon, sunset and early dusk of a perfect San Francisco day in the park would agree.

I’ve long said that Remember The Mountain Bed – a collaboration across time and space between Tweedy and the legendary Woody Guthrie – is probably the best song ever written. I’ll just include one favorite verse, but measure the rest of the lyrics yourself here:

I learned the reason why man must work and how to dream big dreams
To conquer time and space and fight the rivers and the seas
I stand here filled with my emptiness now and look at city and land
And I know why farms and cities are built by hot, warm, nervous hands.

And in just the second song of Tweedy’s set I was absolutely thrilled, hanging on the transformative wisdom of the words and the intricate, hauntingly beautiful guitar work, all the while aware that I was in the midst of one of the greatest musical moments I’ve ever experienced.

Just as Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks is an album that comes stunningly close to offering a definition of life, “Remember The Mountain Bed” is a song that nearly circles the total of humanity. (And if you think Blood On The Tracks is a nothing but a brilliant break-up or divorce album, with songs of pain and sorrow, you’re sadly missing out on a great deal.)

Tweedy was in a great mood, joking throughout, with his kids sitting on the side of the stage and at one point he dedicated a song to his wife.

The set list was great, opening with Sunken Treasure. I loved the mix of stuff from throughout his career, from old Uncle Tupelo stuff to an almost forgotten Golden Smog song to the title track from the latest album.

In the crowd during the Tweedy performance, Freaktown and I recognized a guy who was in the I Am Trying To Break Your Heart documentary during one part. It was unmistakable – he’s a record store owner in Santa Cruz who was backstage when Tweedy performed a show in San Francisco. He’s unmistakable, with a pretty thick beard that goes a bit further down the neck than most, and thick, straight, somewhat longish hair underneath a ball cap. It was so weird to actually see somebody from that movie in the crowd (having apparently many more viewings of the film under his belt, Freaktown also recognized somebody else, but I couldn’t place her), but then at one point this guy turned around and held his camera aloft to get a crowd shot. Holy shit, I thought, that guy from the movie now has a picture of us! For a while after that I let myself get lost in the trippy, circular ruminations around the fact that a perfect stranger and I both have documented proof of the other’s existence.

Taking the train over to the park Friday, Freaktown and I ran into SW practically the moment we boarded. Now there’s a little synchronicity to kick off the weekend, I thought. Then we met up with Tony and found our way in just before T-Bone Burnett started. We knew his special guests were Neko Case and John “Cougar” Mellencamp (never forget the “Cougar” part), but how that was going to all tie together was beyond any of us. Neko played Hank's Alone and Forsaken and another one I didn’t recognize. After a few more, out came the Coug (“The COUG!" we shouted). There was some song about Jena, then the real highlight, “Pink Houses,” with what I can only guess is the first and last time Neko sings “Ain’t that America” to back the Coug. Nice.

Then after Tweedy we all headed down to the Haight for sausages and beers, taking it easy with the knowledge of two more tremendous, long days of music ahead of us.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Holographic Gore...

... was the runner-up name for the latest mix, which ultimately became:

The Strangest Oscillations

Mose Allison - Young Man's Blues
M. Ward - Chinese Translation
Tom Waits - Bottom Of The World
Dean & Britta - Moonshot
Son Volt - Atmosphere
Pavement - Gold Soundz
Rainer Maria - Catastrophe
Calexico - Señor (Tales of Yankee Power)*
Gob Iron - Hills Of Mexico
James McMurtry - We Can't Make It Here
Arlo Guthrie - St. James Infirmary*
Steve Earle - Copperhead Road*
Townes Van Zandt - Rex's Blues*
Neil Young - After The Gold Rush
Dave Alvin - You're a Big Girl Now*
Okkervil River - Love to a Monster
Mazzy Star - Flowers in December*
Feist - One Evening
The Zombies - She's Not There*

(* Live)

and here's the one before that:

The July Plan

Okkervil River - The President's Dead
The Mountain Goats - Going To Georgia
The New Drakes - The Impossible You
Flogging Molly - If I Ever Leave This World Alive
Jello Biafra and Mojo Nixon - Love Me, I'm A Liberal
The Hold Steady - Southtown Girls
Tom Petty - Ankle Deep
Billy Bragg - Saturday Boy*
Damien Rice - The Blower’s Daughter*
Tom Waits - San Diego Serenade*
The Band of Blacky Ranchette - Getting It Made
Lonna Kelly and the Broken-Hearted Lovers - I Should Have Known
Nico - I'll Keep It With Mine
The Sadies - Evangeline*
The Walkmen - Many Rivers To Cross
Ryan Adams - Dear Chicago
Robyn Hitchcock & The Venus Three - (A Man's Gotta Know His Limitations) Briggs
Bruce Springsteen - Does This Bus Stop at 82nd Street?*
Bob Dylan - In The Summertime
Arlo Guthrie & Peter Seeger - Deportee (Plane Wreck At Los Gatos)*

(* Live)

Others Previously:
Distant Gold
Whirlwind & Refuge
Talkin' Ponderosa Highway Blues
Momentary Fires