Las Vegas Turnaround: Who Are You?

Marcia and I are just back from quick trip to Las Vegas to visit Katelin and John, and to see The Who live in concert. We had purchased tickets to see Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend and band in Las Vegas way back in May 2020, but, of course, like everything else during the Anno Virum, that didn’t quite go off as planned. Fortunately, we got a better late than never chance to see the show, and it was well worth the wait.

Roger and Pete were backed by their long-running and tight touring band (including drummer Zak Starkey, guitarist Simon Townshend, keyboardists Loren Gold and Emily Marshall, bassist Jon Button and backing vocalist Billy Nicholls), supplemented by a 40-piece symphony orchestra culled from the local Las Vegas musical community, and conducted by Keith Levenson. The group opened with “Overture” from Tommy and, oh my, was it a glorious piece when presented with all of that orchestral heft. (And I say that as a guy who thinks rock band + orchestra = crap, almost always). The Who played a sizable chunk of Tommy, and the climactic moments in “We’re Not Going to Take It” were similarly glorious; I almost got misty-eyed when Roger just nailed the titanic and emotional vocal summits. Then we got a collection of various interesting songs from across their catalog, sans orchestra, then a chunk of Quadrophenia with the strings and horns back onstage with the group; “The Rock,” from Quadrophenia, was just as instrumentally glorious as Tommy‘s “Overture,” both songs demonstrating how Townshend’s compositions are appealing and versatile enough to thrive in varied and various settings.

The full ensemble wrapped the evening up with a no-walk-off closer of “Baba O’Riley,” which was capped by a vibrant live lead fiddle performance in the outro from first violin Katie Jacoby, dueling with Townshend on his axe. In one of his mid-set comments, Pete noted how hard it remains for The Who to play Las Vegas, since their great bassist John Entwistle died here, just down the Strip from where we sat, making it a bittersweet tour stop for them. Daltrey and Townshend made muffled ambivalent noises at set’s end about “who know what will happen, maybe we will see you again someday.” Zak Starkey seemed to be in tears around that point, clinging to Pete, which makes me think that he might know otherwise. If this tour was the swansong for the great, great Who group, then we will get to say that we saw their final moments onstage together.

Whether that’s how it plays out or not, it was a special evening, which also featured a nice opening set from the UK’s Wild Things. Handpicked for the tour by Pete Townshend, they played their first ever show in North America with The Who at Madison Square Garden, so the rock gods have clearly smiled brightly upon them. Here are a few snaps from the show, at the Park MGM’s Dolby Live theater, which was a great space for a concert like this one, with nice sound, good sight-lines, and comfortable, adequately-spaced seating. We old rockers appreciate that. You kids get off of our lawn and out of our aisle space! (As always, you can click on any picture here to see the full-sized image):

We had a great hang with Katelin and John, as always, and we really enjoy visiting them at their new house. While it wasn’t quite warm enough for us to loll about their swimming pool, the hot tub certainly felt good in the late afternoon. There’s always great food to be had when we’re in Las Vegas, and this trip’s highlight on that front was Juan’s Flaming Fajitas, out on the west side of the city where Katelin and John live. High quality food, plentiful portions, excellent service, in a convenient and comfortable in-and-out location. Yumbo!!

Katelin and Marcia had to work on Friday morning, so John and I went out for a hike in the mid-range hills between Las Vegas and the Red Rocks State Park. Nice views, and some quirky observational experiences, e.g. we found many interesting fossils, right at surface level:

While John and I were off-trail taking a “short cut” (as most folks who have hiked with me know, my short cuts aren’t necessarily shorter, time-wise, though my straight-line navigational skills can make for some interesting crossings), we also found a weird, deep hole in the ground, emitting warm, damp air. Some sort of a thermal vent? We’re not sure, though John’s been doing some research to see if he can figure it out. Here’s what it looked like, with John added for scale:

The four of us puttered around Vegas’ Arts District one afternoon, and I appreciated the mural art there. For instance, this:

Katelin, Marcia and I also walked around the Desert Shores neighborhood near Katelin and John’s first Las Vegas house; there was a weird and unexpected congregation of cormorants along one of the lake shores. I think they’re plotting something nefarious:

And we got to meet Frank the Cat’s new best friend, Fish. They are very happy together:

Finally (well, actually firstly, chronologically speaking) we got to experience our first high-elevation blizzard of the year on the way from Sedona to Las Vegas, which I could have done without, but otherwise it was a superb trip. We are headed back over to Las Vegas in a couple of weeks for the Thanksgiving holiday. We expect it to be just as wonderful.

Playing for Time

1. Marcia and I recently took a little weekend getaway trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico (a city we had most seriously considered as a residence before we settled on Sedona) to catch three nights of the 35th Annual Festival Flamenco Albuquerque. The event’s organizers describe it thusly:

Every summer, the National Institute of Flamenco and the University of New Mexico host Festival Flamenco Albuquerque, bringing the finest flamenco artists in the world to Albuquerque. For eight days, the city is filled with the pulse of flamenco, and is transformed into a cultural epicenter for the art form. This tradition celebrates flamenco, the incredible art form that UNESCO declared an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The lure of flamenco is its ability to explore the full range of human emotion with an intense, vibrant quality that leaves audiences and students alike, captivated.

We have really enjoyed seeing flamenco live in Spain, most especially when it is presented in the tablaos where Spaniards actually go to see shows, rather than in the more theatrical venues that cater to tourists. The virtuosity of the form when performed by masters is truly breathtaking, and it provides a fascinating insight into the cultural history of Spain, with rhythms and vocal styles that incorporate the breadth of traditions and peoples who have built the modern incarnation of that storied nation. The ABQ Festival features such masters, all singing, dancing, playing guitar and offering the distinctive body-based percussion that define the form. Truly wonderful, even if the Spanish late-night traditions had us staying up until 2am most nights, well past our normal bedtimes. We highly recommend this event to you should you be able to find your way to Albuquerque some summer!

Click the image to see some videos of performances we caught in ABQ this year.

2. When we returned from Albuquerque, our home air conditioning was, thankfully, fixed after nearly three weeks of stifling interior heat. We also finally got our car back from the shop just in time to make the road trip, though we are still waiting for a couple of trim pieces to arrive from the apparently endless back order log impacting the auto industry of late. It’s very discomforting and dismaying to not be able to enjoy such basic everyday necessities as home and auto, so we feel much better not having those constant reminders of our remote home location in our faces every day. First world problems, yeah, but that’s the world we live in, so we do feel them.

3. I’ve been hiking every Monday morning for the past couple of months with a group of folks who share my own personal proclivities when it comes to back country exploration and adventure. I’d define those proclivities as a desire to get an intense workout, to climb things that not many people climb, to explore trails that not many people explore, to be bold in letting the lay of the land dictate the route more than the path on the map, and to do advance research to ensure that each hike has some tangible payoff along its route. This past week, we did a fairly strenuous route that took us up to one of the finest pictograph sites that I’ve yet seen, outside of National Park Service protected areas. Here are some images of what we saw in a cave recess high up on a butte above the forest:

This region’s human and natural histories are both deep and extraordinary. I’m more than willing to put in the work to experience them, even if I come home with regular scrapes, scratches, bruises, strains and contusions from doing so!

4. Our son-in-law, John, is an exceptional artist, in both traditional and digital idioms. On one of our visits to see him and Katelin in the past year or so, he shared some work he was doing using an Artificial Intelligence (AI) art processor called Night Cafe. I found it fascinating, in the same ways that I was fascinated by Holly Herndon‘s 2019 album PROTO, which deployed an AI named Spawn that was trained with a traditional folk/gospel chorus to interpret and process vocal and musical sounds. It also reminded me of some of the fun I had in the primordial days of the Web, when emergent (yet still deeply flawed) technologies like the earliest language translation engines produced freakish, poetic magic that would never emerge from the minds of humans. Here’s a piece I wrote about that, with a sample of “translator poetry,” all the way back from 2000.

For my birthday this year, John got me a subscription to Night Cafe and I have been having a good time exploring its capabilities and outputs. Be clear up front: I’m no visual artist, beyond perhaps an ability to capture and process interesting photographic scenes. So whatever “art” emerges from my dabbling with Night Cafe is not my work, but the AI’s. When I first started using the program, I was uploading some favorite photos that I have taken, and then using the AI to process them. That produced some interesting images, but I then decided to give up on visual inputs altogether, instead submitting fragments from poems I’ve written over the years, giving the AI a list of styles or artists I like, and then letting it rip on its own. Here are some of the outputs from that approach that I’ve enjoyed the most (you can click the images to see them in full size formats):

I find it fascinating to see what an AI “thinks” that my words mean, and how it “chooses” to interpret them visually. (As I typed those qualifying quotes around those key words, I found myself thinking: “Hmmm . . . am I being unfairly meat-sack-centric here?”) But even as much as I enjoy these and other similar images as interesting and pleasurable things to look at, I also find myself wondering: Are these my images? And are they art, in any way, or just pictures? Lots of interesting questions there about intention and creativity and skill and attribution and intellectual property, for sure. As it turns out, around the time that I was first fiddling with Night Cafe and thinking about these things, an artist and critic who I quite respect, named Eric Wayne, wrote and posted what I consider to be the best essay on this topic I’ve yet encountered. I encourage you to read it at the following link: Will AI Replace Human Artists?

An Appalachian Adventure

Marcia and I spent the last week in the Southeastern high country on a little adventure that included a lot of unusual highlights, along with a deep appreciation for how very lovely and green the southern reaches of the Appalachian Range are. We love where we live on the shoulders of Arizona’s Mogollon Rim, but it was sort of “wow” to be reminded of how grand old mixed and deciduous mountain forests look and feel after a long time away from them. It was also refreshing to visit a part of the country where every plant isn’t aggressively trying to poke, stick, scratch, bite or kill you.

We left a week ago Thursday and spent a night in Phoenix, where we visited with Marcia’s nephew and his lovely family, who took us out for an outstanding dinner at Dick’s Hideaway, where we had some absolutely superb Mexican food, in most generous portions. We then flew on non-stop to Atlanta, rented a car, and drove up to Asheville, North Carolina, where my sister and her own lovely family were marking their 20th anniversary of residence. That makes them old school mountain denizens in a city that’s seen huge immigration and growth since the time they arrived. We hung out at their place for a few days, watching the Memorial Day fireworks at the nearby Grove Park Inn from their deck, eating many pounds of boiled peanuts, appreciating brother-in-law Dana’s excellent bonsai collection, and getting an ongoing Wild Kingdom show as the local bears hung around their yard, and dragged their trashcans around their neighborhood. We had to go shoot bottle rockets at them one night to make them go away. That’s some fine redneckery there, yessir.

We had a great dinner on Saturday night at Ukiah, a “Japanese Smokehouse,” which offered a wonderful combination of Carolina and Asian foods and flavors, served small plate style, so you could sample a lot of different things. Which we did. We also visited the outstanding North Carolina Arboretum (more crazy good bonsai there) and the quirky little town of Marshall, on the banks of the French Broad River. We had a great brunch at Star Diner, and then walked over to the little historic island at the heart of the town, which features an abandoned community center decorated with what I would guess are WPA/CCC-era murals, that have aged wonderfully weirdly.

On Tuesday, we drove over to Knoxville, Tennessee, and I was pleased to realize that we were there exactly 40 years after my first visit to that city, when my high school senior class trip took us to the 1982 World’s Fair. Here’s a photo from that long-ago trip, taken on the very long bus ride back from Knoxville. (If the shirt logo seems incongruous, it was a uniform item from my summer job at White Sulphur Springs in Pennsylvania). I suspect it was intentional that whatever was in my hand was cropped out in this view. Also, note one of my chums sleeping in the luggage rack at top right. It was that kind of trip . . .

Most of the structures and buildings from that Worlds Fair are long gone, except for the iconic Sunsphere (it seemed so tall to me in 1982, but now it seems modest and quaint, a Jetsons view of the future) and the Tennessee Amphitheater (nicknamed “Dolly Parton’s Bra” at the time of its unveiling, for somewhat obvious reasons when you see it). As can probably be divined by the previous photo, my high school crew’s behavior at that World’s Fair was, shall we say, problematic, to the point where our high school stopped offering senior class trips for some time after ours. Oops. Sorry, future seniors. If it’s any consolation, I don’t really remember much of what happened, but I know we had fun.

But the real reason we went to Knoxville was not for me to walk down blurry memory lane, but actually to see one of the most iconic artists in my own personal musical development, along with the musical development of countless millions of other people: Sir Paul McCartney. I’ve been on Team Paul in the “Fave Fab” sweepstakes since my earliest days, always a staunch believer in and defender of his brilliance, even through those years/decades when it was hip in critical circles to denigrate him for not being edgy enough, or for featuring his wife in his band, or for not being John, or for whatever contrarian idiocy critics were peddling at the time. But despite that lifetime of love from me, I’d never seen Paul live in concert, until this week. Marcia is also a big fan (I think Paul’s at the top of her “Hall Pass” freebie crush list at this point), so she also got her first experience of basking in the light of his awesomeness.

The show was incredible: 36 songs ranging from the Quarrymen’s first demo up to recent solo works, with loads of Wings and Beatles and even a Hendrix tribute in the mix, running to nearly three hours worth of music. Paul’s live band (he’s been playing with most of these guys for longer than he played with the Beatles and Wings, combined!) is cracker-jack tight and talented, and it’s jaw-dropping to see how hard Paul plays, and how well he sings, and how much energy he exudes, at his or, frankly, anybody else’s age. He’s a true force of nature, and I was thrilled to be at this show. Poignant moments in the set list included Paul playing George Harrison’s “Something” on a ukulele that George had given him, and Paul performing a duet with John Lennon on “I’ve Got a Feeling,” via an isolated vocal and video recording from the legendary Get Back rooftop concert; Paul turned his back to crowd for that one, watching John as he sang. It was powerful.

We headed south the next morning and spent some time exploring Chattanooga, which has done a great job of making the formidable Tennessee River accessible and enjoyable in the heart of its urban core. After another nice meal (are you detecting a theme here?) at Tony’s Pasta Shop, we headed back to Atlanta, checked into our hotel, and set an early morning alarm for our planned nonstop flight back to Phoenix on Thursday morning.

Unfortunately, American Airlines had some other ideas about that. We woke to discover that our flight had been cancelled during the night, and that the only way for us to get home was via a Charlotte connecting flight . . . the next day. Ugh. We made the best of the situation, and took the MARTA train into Atlanta’s Midtown area, where we walked around the spacious and tree-rich Piedmont Park, visited The High Museum of Art (their Howard Finster collection is a highlight), had another exceptional meal at Tabla (saag paneer is one of my go-to dishes at Indian restaurants, so I’ve eaten it all over the world, and I think I’d pick this destination as the source for the best version of it I’ve ever had), and caught what turned out to be a private matinee showing of Alex Garland’s new film, Men. Which was something, shall we say. I’m not quite sure what, but certainly something. (I like weird/ambiguous films, and I like Alex Garland, but after thinking about it for a couple of days, I have to judge this one as a well-made film, but not a particularly good film, in large part for scripting reasons, though the core cast of Jessie Buckley and Rory Kinnear did do most formidable work with flawed material).

So then, back to the hotel, another early morning wake up, an unplanned and unexpected flight back to North Carolina (both the ATL and CLT airports were utter mob scenes), then onward by air to Phoenix, then the 100-mile drive back to home again, home again, jiggety jig. A nice little adventure, all things considered, and despite the American Airlines annoyances. And, of course, I took my usual photos throughout the week, and you can see my usual album by clicking on the usual sample image below, this one of Paul’s “duet” with John at the concert.

Pleasant Valley Sunday: Micky Dolenz and Mike Nesmith Live (Phoenix, September 19, 2021)

On September 10, 2019, Marcia and I went to see a favorite band, King Crimson, in a favorite venue, Chicago’s Auditorium Theater. I wrote about the experience in effusive terms here. We knew that the show would mark a transition point for us, as it was the last one we saw together in Chicago before relocating back to Des Moines, and then on to Sedona. We knew that we’d have far fewer opportunities to see live music after departing the Windy City, but we had no idea that that particular concert would be the last one we’d see for over two years, as COVID changed everything a few months later, and we’re still not quite back to normal, by a large margin.

That said, we did finally have another live music experience last night, two years and nine days after that gig by The Mighty Crim. We went down to the Phoenix metro area yesterday, which marketing geniuses have somehow managed to brand as “The Valley” over the years, though as a map and geology nerd, I struggle to understand exactly what’s Valley-like about the region, at all. And then we went out to the show on a Sunday night, and it was indeed quite pleasant. So when Mike Nesmith and Micky Dolenz, the surviving half of The Monkees, sang their Gerry Goffin-and-Carole King-penned hit, “Pleasant Valley Sunday,” at the end of their concert’s first set, it all seemed most fitting indeed for the time and the place. (The song’s lyrical concerns are also apt regarding Phoenix’s endless suburban sprawl).

The concert was technically billed as “The Monkees Present: Micky Dolenz and Mike Nesmith,” to pay proper homage to corporate law and intellectual property protections and suchlike (and also to obliquely honor the title of The Monkees’ eighth studio album). But the evening’s welcoming MC and the artists themselves referred to the event as “The Mike and Micky Show,” which feels a bit more personalized and apt. The duo have been publicly adamant that this tour (which has been delayed multiple times by COVID) will be the last one to go out under The Monkees’ moniker, so there was an elegiac element going into the proceedings as well.

Before offering praise for the experience that Micky and Mike offered us all, I do have to note for the record that COVID has not changed the fact that pop music concert audiences are still mostly jerks who still do not know how to behave in mass performance situations. Marcia and I actually left our pretty good seats and moved up closer to the rafters midway through the show, just to get away from the schmucks and putzes and their cellphone addictions who made it virtually impossible to focus on the music and the show while they indulged in their selfish behaviors. Examples: the nimrod right front of us spent most of his time in his seat endlessly scrolling through various social media sites on his brightly-lit screen (when he wasn’t stumbling over his row-mates to go get another beer at the bar, anyway), while a woman behind us felt entitled to film most of the show using her cellphone flashlight to brighten the scene. I certainly have missed live music over the past two years, but Holy Moly, I did not miss that sort of rude and idiotic behavior in public spaces. We also kept our masks on for most of the show; while everyone in the venue was supposed to present either a vaccination card or proof of a negative COVID test within 72 hours of entry, my Covidiot-radar was pinging at the behavior and attitudes of numerous people near us through the evening, so self-safety seemed warranted.

That all being said, things on the music front last night were much better, thankfully. The group’s two-set show was quite generous, offering an excellent mix of popular crowd-pleasers and deep cuts alike; here’s the roster of what they played. The backing band, featuring Mike’s son Christian Nesmith (who also produced the excellent recent Dolenz Sings Nesmith album) and Micky’s sister, Coco, was just crackerjack tight, doing a superb job bringing some of the group’s ornate studio arrangements to life. Micky was in great voice throughout the show, and I was frankly amazed to watch him effortlessly and powerfully breeze through tough vocal cuts like “Goin’ Down,” “The Porpoise Song,” and “Randy Scouse Git,” the latter of which also featured him offering some feisty tympani work.

Mike Nesmith, alas, was noticeably more frail last night than when Marcia and I saw him deliver a masterful show in Chicago about five years ago with his First National Band, featuring several of the same band members we saw last night, including Christian Nesmith. Mike used a cane to get to and around the stage, he sat through most of the show, he played no guitar, and his normally reedy voice was even more breathy than has been the case over the years, a situation not helped by the room’s sound-man apparently not being willing to turn his microphone level up, even for his solo spotlight numbers, so he was often drowned out by the band. But it was still wonderful to be in the room with Nez again (my fave Monkee, yeah), and I was really pleased to see him get so much love from a live audience.

Micky was also really supportive and loving toward Nez, which was wonderful to see. I suspect that this may be Mike’s “last hurrah” tour, though I would also expect Micky to soldier on in some fashion for years to come, based on what he was able to do last night. Micky and Mike paid tribute to their late band-mates David Jones and Peter Tork by offering a selection of the pair’s best-known/best-loved tunes, actually focusing more on Tork’s deep cuts than on Jones’ more popular fare. Which I was good with, as I always liked Peter’s rare vocal and songwriting contributions a lot. I guess if I was still in my former professional music critic mode, I would summarize the show thusly: “Micky Dolenz was in fine voice fronting a killer live band as they plowed through an excellently-curated selection of music from the Monkees’ large catalog, and it was truly wonderful that the best and most-influential songwriter Micky ever worked with, Michael Nesmith, came out to support him live one final tour with character-rich between-song stories and low-key backing vocals.”

When all was said and done, the evening was essentially a feel-good nostalgia show by a couple of artists who I quite love and admire. And, honestly, that was really quite okay, after two years have elapsed since my last concert experience, much of it filled with cultural, political, and medical dread. Music really is a powerful healer and force for emotional and psychological good, and the love and joy and positivity that washed off the stage last night made this a delightful show to end the longest concert hiatus of my adult life. Marcia and I have tickets to see Dead and Company, Lindsey Buckingham, and Sparks in the months ahead, and I expect all of those shows to be great, too, but Mike and Micky will remain memorable just for being the first step of this next phase of my concert-going life.

I offer a few low-quality snaps below (taken quickly and discretely in the aisle with a darkened phone screen, so as not to be a tool and bother the people seated around us)(not that they would have cared, apparently) to give you a sense of what it looked like. Here’s wishing you and yours some happy concert-going of your own, safely and soon!

21 Wishes for ’21

Pete Townsend’s song “1921” from The Who’s epic Tommy album opens with the line “I’ve got a feeling ’21 is going to be a good year.” I’m a little surprised that I haven’t heard or seen many music media folks mention or riff on that fact, given how awful ’20 has been, and given humanity’s generally hopeful nature. Of course, given that the rest of the song details a murder witnessed by a child who is rendered deaf, dumb and blind by that emotional trauma, maybe it’s not the best anthem for our Second Anno Virum. Though I suppose there are likely some accurate metaphors in that narrative for what 2021 may bring, if it doesn’t turn out to be as good as we might feel and wish it may be.

I tend to function within a worldview built on pessimism, because pessimists are never disappointed. But while I expect things to be rotten much of the time on a macro basis, I do believe in the importance of acting optimistically and positively on a personal front, making changes for the better within the circles of my own influence, limited as they may be. I also believe in the importance of hope, seeing a future within which big things and little things align and fall into place in pleasing fashions, for me, for those close to me, for those less fortunate than me, and for those in positions of power with the ability to legislate, litigate, create, govern, mediate and manage actions and activities that create social and civic good for the greatest number of people.

So on the cusp of that conflicted personal dialectic, there are some big picture things I’d like to see happen in the twelve months before us, and some specific things that would give me particular pleasure, should they come to pass. I’m not generally much of a prognosticator and futurist, but as a first post here on the blog in the new year, I’m moved to offer the following 21 wishes for ’21. That may be a greedy number, but hey, we all likely under-performed on our wish lists for ’20, so I think we’re entitled to swing big at the plate this time around. I’ll circle back in December and we’ll see how I did. And I’ll welcome your own wish lists, if you choose to share them. That’s what the comment section is for, yo.

1. The obvious one first: that everyone near and dear to me remains happy, healthy, and hearty, hopefully as we’re able to come out of our COVID shells and gather again to mark important events, little victories, and whatever other excuses we can muster for hugs, love and laughs.

2. That the Democratic Party candidates win the two special Senate elections in Georgia, giving our new President the opportunity to govern effectively, even if just for two years. That will be such a refreshing change of pace.

3. That any and all of the traitorous creeps who vote to overturn the results of the Electoral College this week, facilitating and/or placating an authoritarian clown in the process, are somehow held accountable for their malfeasance. This year would be fine for that, but if it takes longer in this case, that’s okay too. Patience is a virtue when it comes to grudges and vindication.

4. That the new administration is able to quickly deploy skilled professionals in non-political ways to address the virus, quickly, thoroughly, with scientific rigor and military precision on the logistics front of vaccinations and protective measures. Let’s have the grownups handle this for a year, and get the partisan amateurs out of the way. Please.

5. That having a smart career public servant in the White House, instead of a dim-bulb reality television celebrity, will reduce the volume of “news as entertainment” noise that has made the words we read and the air we breathe (metaphorically speaking) so very noxious for the past four years. I’m ready to be bored by my elected leaders again. Seriously. When I worked at Naval Reactors, we used to say that our public relations policy was “Put the sum’bitches in and don’t talk about it.” I’d like that approach to governance. Do the jobs you were elected or appointed to do. Do them well. And don’t freakin’ tweet about them all the goddamn time.

6. That Butthole Surfers release a new album this year. My long-time favorite band were reportedly back in the studio in 2018 for the first time in decades, but since then, it’s been radio silence. Let’s get that new rekkid out, Gibby, Paul, King and Jeffrey. We need it. Pass me some of that dumbass over there, yeah buddy!

7. That First Cow, Da Five Bloods, I’m Thinking of Ending Things and Soul win all the major Oscars for 2020, whenever the Academy gets around to awarding them.

8. That the overdue new films from Wes Anderson (The French Dispatch) and Taika Waititi (Next Goal Wins) are as good as those they made before them, becoming early clear contenders for the next year’s Oscars.

9. That film studios and distributors recognize that the quick streaming markets that emerged from necessity during COVID time are a perfectly fine new normal, as I’ve been happier watching films at home as I ever have been going to theaters to see them. I’ve also watched more movies this year than I normally do, in large part because they were readily available, and the cost was lower. There’s a good supply-demand lesson in there somewhere, greedheads.

10. That I get to see at least one live music event in 2021. Ideally featuring King Crimson, Napalm Death, or The Who. (The last show we saw pre-COVID was the Crim, and we had tickets for Napalm and The Who in hand in 2020, only to see the shows cancelled).

11. That the Super Bowl is played between Tampa Bay and Baltimore, as we made preseason bets in Las Vegas on those two teams. It’s nice to know you’re a winner, no matter which team wins. Absent that impetus, I’m down for the Chiefs to take it all again. Otherwise, mostly meh.

12. That the NCAA learns from the COVID year that academics are more important than athletics in the grand scheme of things, perhaps shortening seasons on a permanent basis and otherwise allowing unpaid student athletes to supplement their educations with sports, and not the other way around.

13. That international travel becomes safe again. As much as I love our new home in Arizona, I’d gladly welcome 2022 in Europe.

14. That our local internet provider delivers promised system upgrades in the months ahead, as this small town rural network was not built for students and workers doing all-day video calls from home. Slooooooooooowwwwwww . . . .

15. That my Naval Academy class is able to mark our 35th reunion in person this year. Whether I’m there or not, it’s an important part of our collective culture. Our 15th was largely undone as it fell immediately after 9/11. It’d be nice to not lose another major one two decades later.

16. That the charitable sector bounces back in 2021; it’s bothersome to see corporate stock levels (and related IRA’s and 401k’s and such) maintaining robust balances through the plague, while giving to nonprofits evaporated.

17. That Facebook, Twitter and their ilk are disemboweled and disempowered, removing a vast source of malefic and ugly social evil from our ever-more-connected world. Oh, what the heck, let’s try to get rid of FOX News this year too, while we’re at it. Imagine an information spectrum where truth and facts prevailed, neutrally. Glory be! Such larks! (Yeah, I know, this one’s probably the biggest fantasia on the list).

18. That we’re able to do some sort of endurance physical event this year, like a hike/camp trip into the Grand Canyon, or a multi-day walkabout pilgrimage, or a long bike trek. It’s good physically, mentally, and spiritually to have days on end dedicated to exerting the body, without constant connection to the world beyond one’s next foot-fall.

19. That Thoughts on the Dead keeps on keeping on, despite his formidable recent health challenges. He makes the world a brighter, smarter, and much funnier place. Every day he posts is a little better than every day when he doesn’t.

20. That I’m able to hike every formally marked trail within 20 miles of our house (that’s a lot of trails), and that I’m able to find and explore every unmarked “social trail” that’s hidden between the official bits. Some of the best things I’ve found here have been on paths known only to the locals. I’m doing my part to be one of them on that front.

21. That we’re able to occasionally dine out, indoors. I’ve gotten used to picnics and carryout and masked patio food, but I’d be okay with celebrating some important event or another over white linen and good china in 2021, and there’s loads of interesting places hereabouts that we’ve not felt comfortable entering. Yet. But we will. Hopefully this year. Hopefully hopefully hopefully . . .

Mysterious abandoned dam on a “social trail” less than half a mile from our house. What other coolness awaits on the unmarked and unheralded spaces between the spaces here? We’ll soon find out, hopefully . . .

Programming Note: Concerts

I was recently going through some old files on my back-up external hard drive and I found a bunch of concert reviews from my Metroland music critic days, roughly 1995 to 2003. Most of the reviews don’t merit any sort of preservation beyond sitting on that drive as they have for the past two-plus decades. There are some, though, that I think have public archival value given the caliber of the artists being critiqued, or some unique facet/aspect of the shows attended, especially since Metroland went kaput and has no public archives of its own.

So I’ve been posting these concert reviews here over the past couple of days, and will continue doing so until I’ve trawled through the whole archive. Might take a couple of days more. I’m back-dating them all to whenever the original articles ran in print, so they’re not all at the top of the home page, clogging up newer material. You can use the Concerts category links if you are interested in seeing any or all of them. You can also refer to the Interviews category if you’d like to read that back catalog as well. Many of the interviews were conducted to preview the concerts that I’m posting about now. I may cross-link all of those at some point. Depends on how ambitious and/or bored I get in the weeks ahead.

I’ve turned off the LinkedIn notifications for all of these new/old posts (that’s the only social media presence I maintain for now, somewhat begrudgingly, since I consider the other prominent platforms to be noxious cesspools of swilly shite), but WordPress still puts out new post alerts for these. This means that if you follow me via Reader or email, I must apologize for filling up your feeds/inboxes without being invited to do so. Though maybe you’re liking that, collectively. I’m surprised at how many reads some of these old nuggets are getting already. Go figger.

The last concert I saw in Chicago was an all-time great one, with King Crimson delivering the goods, and how. This photo was taken post-show by bassist Tony Levin. If you click on it to enlarge, and look closely in the front row, just left of center, you’ll see Mr Prog Nerd and Bride, most happy to have been there.

Concert Review: King Crimson in Chicago, 10 September 2019

King Crimson’s timeless and titanic debut album, In the Court of the Crimson King, was released in October 1969. The current “Seven-Headed Beast” incarnation of the band have been marking the record’s 50th anniversary with an audacious 50-concert Celebration Tour, which rolled into Chicago’s Auditorium Theater last night. The last time the Crims played Chicago in June 2017, the group (rightly) deemed the performance to be so stellar that they reworked their planned release dates for the year to get Live in Chicago into the hands of those who could not be in the Court that evening. While Marcia and I lived mere blocks from that show’s venue (the venerable Chicago Theater) at the time, the Scheduling Fates had us in the Netherlands that week, so we just experienced the show after the fact via CD, before catching a later date on the same tour in Milwaukee.

And now we live in Des Moines, but this year, the Scheduling Fates actually smiled upon us: I was in Chicago for work this week, and Marcia flew over to join me for the show. This is our third time seeing the Beast, twice with seven heads, once with eight; sadly, keyboardist Bill Rieflin is unable to tour with the group this year. Marcia and I also saw the fractal incarnation ProjeKCt Two together back in Albany in 1998, and I caught the five-piece 2007 version of the band in New York City. So on one hand, we theoretically know what to expect at a King Crimson show, but on the other hand, part of the magic of a King Crimson show is that if you leave your expectations at the door when you arrive, you’re likely to have a more magical, perhaps even spiritual, experience in the presence of music that transcends its creators.

King Crimson and its management company, Discipline Global Mobile (DGM), are exceptionally attuned to the sweet spots where audience and artist come together to create unique moments that cannot exist one without the other. One aspect of this culture manifests itself in strict prohibitions against photography during performances, flying hard yet consistently in the face of modern social media culture where audience members are often more obsessed with capturing the perfect Instagram shot or getting wobbly clips up on Youtube tomorrow than they are with being in the moment with the music today. Having been to countless shows marred by idiot audients in this way, I cannot tell you how refreshing a King Crimson concert feels with the gadgets put away until curtain time. It is Crim Policy that after all the music that is to be played has actually been played, bassist Tony Levin raises his camera to snap the audience, and we in a spirit of good faith and reciprocity can snap the band as they take their bows as well. I wish this practice would spread.

Another facet of DGM’s audience engagement is their “royal package” approach to the traditional VIP experience. Rather than some seedy backstage grip and grin photo opportunity where ticket holders are shoved through a rope line for a few seconds of reflected, resented glory with their heroes, DGM actually acquires the best seats in the house directly, and invites those who wish to purchase them to a nearly hour-long pre-show conversation with band members and management. We heard, at some length, from Crimson founder, composer, guitarist and visionary Robert Fripp, bassist Tony Levin, and manager David Singleton. And after the pre-show conversations, but before the concert, we enjoyed our complementary signed programs and other high quality merch from our amazing seats in the front row, on the right center aisle. It’s an exceptionally decent and dignified approach to audience engagement, and I applaud it.

I especially appreciated, as I always do, hearing from Robert Fripp, either speaking in person or sharing his thoughtful written words. (For example, over breakfast today, he summarized a portion of his remarks last night thusly). He’s one of a very small number of people in my life who have actively shaped my understanding and appreciation of music not only through what they write and play onstage or in the studio, but also in the ways in which they frame their work and practice, and place their artistry within a context beyond commerce. (Pere Ubu’s David Thomas also comes to mind on this front). Fripp is deeply thoughtful about what he does, and why he does it, and what it means. And he has been deeply committed for decades to sharing the perspectives he’s gleaned from those experiences and reflections, and I find that thought-provoking and inspiring. He’s also very funny, and he loves his wife very much and is never afraid to tell people that, and I hold those traits in the highest regard too. He moves me, at bottom line. I’m glad to spend time with him.

And then we get to the music: two sets, starting at 8pm sharp, wrapping at 11pm sharp, with a sharp 20-minute intermission that began, sharply as promised in the taped welcome from the band, immediately after the first set, and concluded immediately before the second set. After five years together on the road, the Seven-Headed Beast is truly monstrous at this point, making sounds unthinkable in their complexity with brilliant, pointillist precision,  tone and timbre and texture deployed in the full service of the music, which is almost always audibly King Crimson, but which almost never sounds the same, from moment to moment to moment, as the concert careens onward.

Since the Crims’ reboot/relaunch in 2014, I’ve often encountered eye-rolling about the very existence of the band’s triple-drummer front line (Gavin Harrison, Pat Mastelotto, and Jeremy Stacey, the latter most ably doubling on keyboards, often in the same song), which somehow seems to trigger certain critical types into exegeses on excess and essays grounded in stale musical verities from four decades ago. All I can say on that point to the disbelievers is that until you’ve seen and heard it in concert, it’s hard to comprehend how perfect and powerful it is, both in the context of supporting the four back line musicians (Mel Collins on woodwinds, Tony Levin on basses, Fripp and Jakko Jakszyk on guitar, with the later on lead vocals as well), and as an exercise in its own right in high-wire, seat-of-the-pants technical expertise that’s simply dazzling in how incomprehensibly impossible much of it looks and sounds.

Both sets opened with the drummers drumming, and it was delightful to peek up at the top riser every so often and see how much the non-drummers also seemed to enjoy watching their percussive pals playing. The technical wizardry and auditory audacity continued unabated in the early going of the first set, as the gnarly and knotty “Pictures of A City” and “Neurotica” offered a pair of peeks (written over a decade apart) into the perils of big city living, with “Suitable Grounds For the Blues” following as a most apt third element, here in the hometown of electric urban blues. A mid-set block of “Red,” “Moonchild” (with improvised cadenzae from Fripp, Stacey and Levin), and “Epitaph” felt spacious and soaring after the claustrophobic density of what which came before it, though it was no less technical, just less frenetic. Marcia and I got to hear the quirky “Cat Food” (which earned the Crims an improbable lip-synching spot on Top of the Pops in 1970) live for the first time later in the set, which ultimately wrapped up with the electrifying “Elektrik” and the title track from In the Court of the Crimson King, still as haunting and evocative as ever, even with digital Mellotrons.

The second set’s opening drum fest segued into the gamelan-like “Frame By Frame,” which found Levin and Jakszyk harmonizing the vocals sweetly, as Stacey and Harrison created circular marimba tones around them. After a swarming installment from the five-part “Larks Tongue in Aspic” suite, the sweetness resumed with the utterly lovely title track of the Islands album, an almost jazz chamber music number that allowed Collins to shine most brightly as the music swayed and swelled inexorably like the sea against some lonely summer shore. The epic “Easy Money” is featuring new lyrics this year, carrying the themes of economic malfeasance that shaped the original forward into these most venal of populist times; Jakszyk’s wordless ululations through the swelling bridge section gave the song a sense of passion and fire and perhaps even despair in the face of market evils, then and/or now. A potent instrumental pairing of the final “Larks Tongue” segment with a chunky cut from the contemporary “Radical Action” suite returned the band to the knotted instrumental complexity that opened the show. Then an inspirational “Starless” (with its memorable theme, powerful vocals, and that epic building bass bridge that got the audience whooping well before it had run its way back to the final verse and chorus) and a thunderous “Indiscipline” (featuring more of the Drumsons’ incredible “pass the beat” collaborations) carried us into the second interim.

While King Crimson set lists are written by Fripp and presented to the band the day of each concert, always tailored to the moment, never stock repetition of the prior day’s glories, it was a reasonably safe bet that we would receive “21st Century Schizoid Man” as an encore last night, having not yet heard it, and that’s indeed how we ended the evening. Whenever I hear this song — live or at home — I never cease to marvel that (a) it’s half a century old now, (b) it opened a then-unknown band’s debut album, and (c) it was written by a quintet of very young musicians without much academic or technical training between them at the time when they created it.  The song is so titanic, so sophisticated, and so iconic that it simply boggles the mind to ponder the fact that it even exists, never mind the fact that it can actually be played, and then never mind the fact that when it is, it’s as if it’s the most current, most present, most right here right now musical moment imaginable. Everywhere. Always.

I’m not often awed by audio, but that song gets me there, and it was the perfect capstone to a concert that was filled with jaw-dropping moments beyond count. This review is already probably longer than it needs to be, and I could append paragraph after paragraph describing each of the seven players’ performances, but I think it’s sufficient to summarize by saying that their deepest collective strength is how well they work as an ensemble, every one of them using their most formidable technical skills to support the whole, solos (when they occur) appearing less as acts of creative onanism than crucial elements in catapulting the canon forward, upward, onward. As the sole member who has appeared at every occasion when King Crimson has manifested itself live, Robert Fripp often consumes much of the media’s attention and focus, but in concert, he’s the consummate team player, content to create quiet textures from his back corner perch just as often as he called attention to himself with fire and flash, allowing Jakszyk to spin off as many guitar solos as he did over the fully packed course of the evening. It worked. It works. It’s wonderful.

A moving and powerful evening, at bottom line, with some notable elegiac elements for me and Marcia: with our move to Des Moines, this is the last planned concert of our wonderful years together in Chicago, and the date also marked the 17th anniversary of my father’s death. We remember. We celebrate. Life happens, change changes, and music matters, most especially if we open ourselves to its ministrations, and let it move us as it may.

End of concert photo time. Bravo to all!!!

And here is the post-show view of the sold-out room taken from the stage, courtesy Tony Levin. Click to enlarge, and spot the happiest couple in the front row.

Concert Review: Pere Ubu in Chicago

Marcia and I caught the mighty Pere Ubu at Beat Kitchen in Chicago last night. They’ve been among my favorite bands since the ’70s, plying those sweet spots where experimental noisemaking, monster riffery and ace storytelling collide. Their front-man/mastermind David Thomas is a truly one-of-a-kind performer, and one of the very finest thinkers and writers about what it really means to rock. (Just forage around the Ubu Projex Protocols for a taste of his aggregated wisdom).

I interviewed Mr Thomas and late guitarist Jim Jones way back in 1996 when they’d issued an essential career retrospective box called Datapanik in the Year Zero, and then caught them live in New York City (with Wilson) on the subsequent tour.  The band had gone through one of its periodic personnel reconfigurations at the point, so drummer Steve Mehlman, bassist Michele Temple and synthesist Robert Wheeler were the new members at that show. They’re all still onstage with Mr Thomas to this day, and they are a mighty tight force all these years on. The guitar position has bifurcated for this tour, with Gary Siperko on the electric six-string, and ex-Swans man Kristoff Hahn on pedal steel. It’s an interesting new sound for the band. (On their most excellent recent studio album, 20 Years In a Montana Missile Silo, the sextet actually becomes a nine-piece, with long-time guitarist Keith Moline, digital synthesist Gagarin, and clarinet man Darryl Boon).

Pere Ubu remain defiantly and delightfully anti-glamorous. Mr Thomas was out front having a smoke when we got to the club, while Wheeler and Mehlman were working the merch table. Peter Prescott (Mission of Burma) opened the show with his three piece band Minibeast, offering sort of a Can vibe of rock-steady drum and bass grooves topped with shouting, guitars, loops and samples. Loud and engaging. Beat Kitchen was a funky little bar/restaurant/club in the Roscoe Village neighborhood. We hadn’t been there before, and we liked it a lot as an intimate club space with good sound and sight lines. (Roscoe Village is actually one of the neighborhoods we’re considering for a move next summer, so nice to know there’s a good little neighborhood joint there).

The Ubu show was as tight and noisy (yeah, you can do those things at the same time, when you’re this good) as I would have hoped and expected. Mr Thomas remained seated throughout, noting that the original James Brown had to dance around, while the new James Brown (he would be Thomas) gets to sit down down. He and every one else on stage played it old school with scraps of paper and notes and music stands littering the stage, rather than the annoying iPads that seem to be propagating as musical props in our always on-screen era. Mr Thomas had a bottle of wine with him as well, using his teeth to pop the cork, drinking straight from the bottle like a pirate, commenting at one point that it was actually a pretty good wine, which people don’t normally give him. Good for whoever did so.

Mr Thomas was in very good voice throughout, and the band played an interesting, career spanning set, ranging from the seminal “Heart of Darkness” through to the pummeling “Monkey Bizness” on the new disc. A touching highlight of the show for us was the elegiacal “Cold Sweat:” Mr Thomas normally sings with his eyes closed and doesn’t really look out through the lights and into the crowd very often, but as he sang the lines “Thank you / You’ve been great and I really mean that /I love you so /Hold me close /I feel the time running away / I know you must feel it too”, he opened his eyes, reached out his arms, looked around the room, held the moment.

Ubu Projex have been communicating that this tour may be “last chance to see us on the East Coast” in recent social media promotions, so if this was an onstage farewell for Chicago, then I am hugely grateful that we got to see and hear it. A powerful and memorable show from an important and impressive band who really mean a lot to me on a whole lot of levels. Thanks for the rock and roll. Now move those big black boxes.