Summing Up

I’ve been spending most of this week putting together a “turnover manual” for whoever who follows me into the Rensselaer Newman Foundation as Director. One of the things I did was pull all of my booking files and stack them all up into one list. There are a few redundancies and double entries, but even counting them, I was sort of impressed (if I say so myself) at how many of these things I’d done since 2002. Here is the complete list. Each thing on the list involved booking, promoting, setting up, breaking down, attending, collecting, hanging, sound mixing, lighting and/or taking care of guest performers and artists and their work. When you’re in the middle of something like that, you sometimes don’t realize how much of it you’re doing. I think that’s not a bad little legacy to leave the organization when I depart this Friday.

Grackle

The grackles are back, and I am very, very happy. They’re my favorite birds. And it’s fun to say their name, though not quite as fun as it is to say “scrod” or “axolotl.”

We’ve got a hot tub in our back yard and I do most of my reading while sitting in it, pretty much year round. (As long as the air temperature’s above about 25 degrees, anyway, and the wind isn’t blowing too hard). We also have spectacular gardens (courtesy Marcia’s magical green thumb), and a long, dense row of arborvitae that just crawl with birds during the spring, summer and fall months.

I’m always pleased when the robins begin to turn up, and it’s always a treat to see the first goldfinch or cardinal of the season show up. In the winter, I enjoy the crows and blue jays that slug it out up here, but for pure bird watching satisfaction, I enjoy nothing more than the grackles that (lucky me!) set up their homes in our back yard year after year after year.

Grackles have got style, pizzaz and serious attitude. Look at them from one angle, and they are shiny and black . . . but then they turn to hit the sunlight just the right way, and, presto, radiant irridescent purples and blues. Grackles don’t hop tentatively around the yard like robins do. When they are on the ground, they stomp from place to place, confident, serious, businesslike. They are very territorial, and will let you know loudly and emphatically if you happen to venture too close to their corner of the yard. They are cranky and intolerant, and I love them for it.

As I sat outside this afternoon, I saw concentrated grackle activity that indicates at least two nests being constructed, with a possible third. There were a lot of males out there, puffing up their feathers and doing their best “hey baby hey baby hey baby” moves to impress their tough-to-please intended beloveds, then yelling at each other and jockeying for prime position in the trees so as to best get their mojos on.

In a couple of weeks, if not sooner, there will be two (or three) nesting pairs out there, each in their own corner of the yard, lords and ladies of all that they survey. I will sit in the hot tub in the center of yard, making no sudden movements, glad that they let me use part of their turf without (much) complaint.

It will be excellent, only getting better when the slime molds return in June or so. I can’t wait.

Sunday Morning, (Snow) Coming Down

Random sporty and musical musings and observations as the weight of the impending Nor’easter hangs over spring’s neck like a barometric guillotine . . .

1. The beloved Royals lost yesterday, while the woeful Nationals won, dropping Kansas City into a tie for the worst record in the Major Leagues. This is early, even by their standards. Go team! (As noted in the prior post, I’ve always been a fan of Washington-based teams, so I’ve kind of adopted the Nats as my favorite National League team. Imagine my pleasure at having two basement-dwellers to root for now!)

2. About half way through the NBA season, the Washington Wizards had the best record in the Eastern Conference, and I was stoked to predict that they would be the designated sacrifical lamb set before Dallas in this year’s Finals. Now, though, Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler are riding the bench with injuries, the Wizards are barely holding on to a .500 record, and a first round demise to Miami or Detroit looks more likely. Go team!

3. My hockey faves, the Washington Capitals, didn’t bother to make the playoffs this year. Again. (Go team!) So I’m pulling for all the Canadian teams in their absence. Let’s toss ’em a bone and let them have back Lord Stanley’s Cup for a year. It would make them so very happy. And no one knows what to do with it in Nashville, Atlanta or Anaheim any way.

4. On a rare positive sports note for me, I am loving the fact that the two colleges I have attended (Navy and Albany) are both highly ranked in Lacrosse this year. I feel all but certain that they will meet in the first round of the playoffs this year, just to spite me.

5. Musically, I am totally agog and ga-ga this week over the new Grinderman album, the best thing Nick Cave has produced since 1996’s Murder Ballads. Cave is one of the most potent, powerful and visceral performers I’ve ever seen live or heard in a studio. His work with The Birthday Party and early incarnations of the Bad Seeds was literate and frightening, and delivered with an intensity that has rarely, if ever, been matched in contemporary musical history. (Marcia and I saw the Bad Seeds play in a Gothic meeting room at Georgetown University while she was pregnant with Katelin; we both consider it the finest concert we ever saw).

Since ’96 or so, though, Cave and company have generally explored more laconic and placid musical forms, especially after long-time noisy collaborator Blixa Bargeld left the band. The Bad Seeds swelled into something too big to be a rock band, but too small to be a big band. It always seemed like there was either too much going on, or too many people just marking time in many of their recent songs and albums. I frankly haven’t much cared for any of the albums during this period, since I find Cave to be far less entertaining in his piano balladeer mode than I do when he’s playing the part of ominous raving musical lunatic.

There was a glimmer of hope last year when Cave and company performed a couple of songs on Hal Willner’s Rogues Gallery collection of pirate songs and sea shanties: their take on “Fire Down Below” evinced the malice, darkness, and humor that had been woefully absent from so many of their later works. Grinderman now takes that a step further: Cave has cut the Bad Seeds in half, keeping only Warren Ellis (violin), Martyn Casey (bass) and Jim Sclavunos (drums), while Cave himself plays guitar, a first for him. The songs are raw and ragged, the performances passionate. It’s mean and dirty and ragged as all get out, but Cave sounds more convinved and convincing on this record than he has in ages. Bravo for a fiery return to form!

Got Clutch! (And Fall!)

I scored a copy of Clutch’s ace new album, From Beale Street to Oblivion, a couple of days ago, and have been doing some serious head-banging and singing along with it while driving ever since. I’d be hard pressed to think of a walloping contemporary rock band anywhere near as good a Clutch: they blend outstanding lyrical imagery with ferociously swinging rock riffery like nobody’s business. It’s like something lifted straight out of 1974, only with better production values and fewer hippies. I see the blues-laced Beale Street sitting pretty as the third of a troika of legendary albums produced by this Maryland-bred crew of rock roustabouts, alongside its predecessor, Robot Hive/Exodus, and 1998’s sterling The Elephant Riders. Those three records offer particularly effective blends of power and finesse: the songwriting and melodies are richer than on any of the other Clutch elpees, the production mines the ever-fine line between live oomph and studio polish, and the performances just flat out blow the roof off of whatever you choose to experience them in. Sterling sounds, all around. Highly recommended for the rock fan in your life, no matter what flavor they prefer: I know blues hounds, metalheads, stoner rockers, hardcore kids and lawyerly moms who respond to the solid grooves that Clutch offer. Give ’em a shot.

I also got the Fall’s Reformation Post-TLC, about which I had posted earlier, when I was still in full anticipation mode. It lived up the advance billing: it’s rough, rugged, nasty, surly and more edgy than any Fall albums in quite some time. The version of the group that crafted the album is currently on tour in England, winning rave reviews from some pretty picky fans. Thing is, the band is so transient and singer-songwriter-mastermind Mark E. Smith is so mercurial that there’s always an element of worry about such a seemingly successful line-up: some concert attendees have noted that American bassist Rob Barbato seems to be in some sort of a visible, palpable, uncomfortable hot seat with his boss on stage. Which is too bad, since I hope he’s got the gumption to stick out the on-stage abuse after the tour ends. I think he was the best part of the latest album, and would love to see him hang around long enough to anchor at least one U.S. tour where I could see him work his four-string magic in person. Fingers crossed . . . since they’ve got two bassists in the band now, so it would be pretty easy for MES to drop one without having to hire a replacement

Holy Thursday

Just back from my last Holy Thursday at the Chapel + Cultural Center. Or at least my last one in a “behind the scenes” capacity anyway. I think of all the things I’ve accomplished during my time at the C+CC, helping the parish streamline and simplify their Holy Week liturgical observances may be the one in which I take the most pride.

Five years ago, when my crew and I stage-managed my first Holy Week observance there, I calculated that we moved eight tons worth of chairs, tables, risers and other furniture in a veritable merry-go-round of room re-configuration, all in support of an insanely labor intensive Agape dinner on Thursday, dramatic pageant on Friday, and Vigil Mass on Saturday. By the time we got to Easter itself, the most important day on the liturgical calendar, the day of rebirth and resurrection, our core volunteers and staff were absolutely spent, physically, spiritually, emotionally and psychologically.

Over the next couple of years, the parish priest and I worked with our liturgy committee and parish council to find ways to make the process less cumbersome. Our signature metrics for all changes we contemplated were: is it simpler to implement? is it more elegant (not in the fancy sense, but in the well crafted and orchestrated sense)? will it allow the maximum number of people to participate in the worship experience without having to leave to do menial labor in the middle of the service? and does it help us all to be in the right frame of mind for each of the liturgies?

Tonight’s Agape Supper absolutely met all of those criteria. There was no stress. There were no angry parishioners. There were no arguments about food service. Literally everyone in the building was an active participant in the service. People had a satisfying, healthy meal before receiving the Eucharist . . . not a vast, gluttonous pot luck pile of carbs and fats as had become the tradition in years before we implemented our changes. The service was quick, elegant, and true to the spirit of the day, with the washing of the feet of the volunteers at the heart of the liturgy, a simple ritual that demonstrates how we can care for each other, and how we can put service at the heart of our ministry.

Tomorrow night’s Good Friday service will be similarly simple, as will be the Easter vigil, as will be the Easter masses. I’m proud to have played a role in helping the parish reinvent its traditions in ways that are more rewarding to all the participants. Worship doesn’t lend itself to ruts. Reinvention and freshness can be crucial to a faith community’s sense of reverence and dedication. And you really can’t go wrong by keeping such things as pure and simple as possible, letting the message resonate more than the pomp and pagentry do.

It was a good evening. These are things I’ll miss about the place.