Monday, December 30, 2013

2013: The Year in Shows

Every year I do this post, and every year it seems to start the same way:

I sure didn't go to very many shows this year.

And why on Earth should I break with that humble little tradition? This was yet another year when I couldn't get my act together, constantly hearing that Clutch or High on Fire or Mudhoney was playing, only when it was already too late (or, more likely, I was too worn out) to make the run downtown to see them.

Anyway, I'd like to think that I made up in quality what I gave up in volume. So, here are my top three shows of 2013:

3. Pig Destroyer at the Black Cat

Pig Destroyer is a weird band, and so I'm happy that they've amassed the following that they have. God knows, there probably isn't a huge market for 2-minute long songs consisting largely of distorted screaming backed by feedback and spastic drums.

And yet, even with all of their grindcore trappings, it's kind of fun to look at these guys as avant garde. True, there was a shitload of something happening at this show that might be most easily called noise. And yet, 40 minutes into the set, I was exhausted for them and the incredible stamina it must have taken to pull off that tour.

2. Graveyard at the Black Cat

People have been calling Graveyard a metal band for at least three years now, and I still don't quite know why. They sound a good deal more like Led Zeppelin or even the Allmans than any "metal" band I can think of, yet the label persists. Perhaps it's because they're Swedes....

Nonetheless, this bill was a remarkable reminder of what rock and roll can sound like when it's done with effort.

In recent years, it's become fashionable for many bands to cast off blues-based rock and roll as a simplistic, paint-by-numbers relic. What's lost in that opinion is the fact that rock and roll is only easy or simple when it is played by average bands -- which it all too often is.

However, when played by inspired individuals - with real songwriting talent and a proper rhythm section - a great rock show can become something of a clinic for the audience. And that's exactly how Graveyard did things on this evening.

It wasn't terribly fashionable, but at a time when bands like Awolnation and Imagine Dragons are occupying that space with little more than synthed-up soccer chants, it was good to be reminded that hip is so often the enemy of cool, and that rock and roll never goes away for long.

1. The Melvins at Maryland Deathfest

I gave this one some love already this year, but it's worth repeating: 

The older I get, the more I need bands like the Melvins. Much like my beloved Motorhead, their existence is proof that you don't have to be young or good looking to find success as a professional musician. You simply have to be talented, focused and very disciplined.

In fact, the Melvins stepped into Maryland Deathfest directly following a several-months-long European tour, and directly before embarking on an even longer U.S. tour. They didn't look tired or grumpy. In fact, they were at the absolute top of their game, despite playing in the middle of the afternoon on a summer day.

Why? Because - quite simply - it's their job.

As I had written before, the mood at Deathfest was relatively blah for much of Saturday afternoon. Fans largely wondered around, chatted with one another and checked out merch as bands like Weedeater and the Obsessed played their meandering sets. Such is the nature of a festival.

When the Melvins took the stage, something altogether different happened. The foot traffic stopped. Vendor sales plummeted. Fans planted themselves in place for the length of the set and took it in almost reverently. All for a band that isn't easily pigeonholed into any metal sub-genre.

In fact, if there were one single theme of this set, it would be that of respect. Festival attendees paid attention. Fellow bands crammed to the sides and back of the stage to take it all in (and perhaps take notes).

Moreover, the band showed an uncommon respect for the crowd. The mood of the set was communal and familiar, without Buzz Osborne ever having to deliver the types of pandering rock and roll speeches that Phil Anselmo would make a signature of his performance later on in the evening.

And the set itself was thoroughly rehearsed without sounding the least bit small feat within the context of a year on the road.

I realize that some of this sounds a little righteous, so I'll offer you a less serious memory from the afternoon:

The Melvins did a fairly long warm-up. This is a fact of life when you're sharing a festival stage (and when you have two drummers to sound check). As Buzzo was trying to get his levels right, he riffed along in that second-nature kind of way that all guitar players do when they're trying to fill time. 

In the middle of a bunch of noisy riffs, he began to slowly pluck an eerily familiar solo...a majestic 70's-style walk-down lick that caught me by surprise. I knew that I knew it -- in fact, it was a lick that I knew intimately -- but in this context, I couldn't place it at all. For a frustrating five or six seconds, I unsuccessfully raked my mind, to no success.

I looked around at the people around me. A kid in a black hoodie was standing next to me with a grin on his face.  He glanced at me and made the first move.

"Detroit Rock City. He does that a lot."

I thanked him and laughed at myself. Of course it was Kiss. Of course...

Monday, December 23, 2013

Confronting Honesty: On Deafheaven

December is a tough month for me as a music fan. Given the plethora of year-end lists that emerge at this time of year, it's often difficult not to feel as though I've failed in my efforts to discover new music.

That said, if you can work through those feelings, it's a pretty awesome (and economical) opportunity to catch up on things in short order.

Complicating matters, this is also a time when music critics become even uglier than usual. As certain bands pull away from the pack, there is an immediate backlash against them -- a backlash that is often petty and seemingly motivated by the critic's personal insecurities. (If that sounds mean, than you probably have never met a music critic -- or a critic of any kind, really).

This year, no metal band is more firmly trapped in this tug-of-war than San Francisco's Deafheaven.

The Objective: Being Objective

I'll be honest: I didn't hear about Deafheaven until this past fall. Maybe I should have. I dunno. (The fact that I've heard of them at all makes me feel like I've done at least one thing right this year...)

Among the very first things I heard about the band was that they were considered by many to be "metal for people who don't like metal." 

At root, everyone knows that this is an incredibly elitist statement. In fact, it actually made me want to give the band a fair shake. So, I did something I rarely do anymore: I bought Sunbather, sight unseen. Just like the old days. And it felt good - just like it used to.

That's not to say that I didn't walk into the experience with my own set of prejudices. Quite the opposite.

The hipster fascination with metal that's emerged these past ten years irks me deeply, and I struggle with it quite a bit; I can't sit here and honestly tell you that I think every single 29 year old in East Austin (or Silverlake or Williamsburg or Wicker Park) who owns a Slayer tee is just a poseur.  Some - if not most - of them have to possess a true love of metal.

Yet, there are days when I feel 100 percent certain that this weird hipster fascination with black metal is little more than the result of a bunch of music nerds who got so bent out of shape over "alternative punk rock" going mainstream that they went out and deliberately tried to find the least accessible music possible, so that they could still feel cool and different and flaccidly subversive.

God knows we've all been there. Remember that first time you heard your "yeah-bro!" coworkers talking about Block Party or the Arctic Monkeys or whoever?

It sucked. Made you want to take up free jazz, didn't it?

So, anyway, I knew it was going to be tough to be impartial with this record. I was incredibly quick to dismiss Krallice and Wolves in the Throne Room as "hipster metal" after very quick listens, and that probably didn't bode well for Deafheaven.

...And neither did the first several minutes of Sunbather. In fact, I probably wasn't even 30 seconds into the album before I found myself saying it out loud:

"This isn't a fucking metal album."

Trailblazers or Trend-chasers?

To the contrary, this sounded like just one more record in a firmly-entrenched trend of bands that using ambient soundscapes as a technique for enhancing their arrangements.

That's not to say that it sounds bad. Quite the opposite: there are bands that I like a great deal who use this same technique in different ways: the Drop Electric and even Sigur Ros come to mind.

But within the context of metal, it sits poorly. There is a strong sense that without the drums and the screeching vocals, none of the music would be terribly identifiable as metal.  Maybe that shouldn't be a problem for me, but it is. Because when the sound of the music is so - forgive the term - mainstream, the metal vocals begin to sound like a gimmick.

That's undoubtedly an unfair accusation. But it comes from an honest place: these songs may be beautiful, tragic and tortured, but they provide little or none of the visceral sensory satisfaction that I seek in metal.

Maybe I'm simple that way. But I kind of doubt it.

On the Bright Side....

To be completely fair, there are moments on the album that absolutely work - particularly in the second half of the record. When "Vertigo" hits fifth gear, it is simply tremendous. Ditto for "The Pecan Tree", which is the album's masterwork.

To that end, its a real blessing to have Sunbather end on such a strong note. It leaves an impression that is somehow powerful enough to forgive the unsatisfying shoegaze of the album's first half.

In fact, I can't even pretend not to love the final 25 minutes of Sunbather. When it gels, it represents a tremendous meeting between vision and execution in a way that utilizes the soundscaping majesty of the first half of the record, without sacrificing its metal underpinnings. And those moments are incredibly satisfying.

In Conclusion: An Undisciplined Sidebar Thought That Just Came to Me...

I have a feeling that it could be a long time before I make my peace with Sunbather as a whole entity. In fact,
if I were a better writer, I'd make a big comparison between Sunbather and Kanye's Yeezus.

They're both incendiarily polarizing to critics. They both seem intentionally confrontational to the listener. They both strike me as an example of the vision of the art being significantly greater than its execution. And they both seem to be records that demand a few weeks' worth of listens in order to make a fully-formed opinion.

But I'm not a better writer. And I don't give a fuck about Kanye. And I have limited time these days. So, I'll be spending these next few weeks trying to get to know Sunbather.

To tell you the truth, it feels nice to embrace such a challenging record. I'm finding myself almost grateful.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A Christmas Miracle - Reviews in Bad Taste: 20 Feet From Stardom

So, I turned around and made some massive life changes (no, I still drink, but thanks for your concern), and the next thing I knew it was Christmastime, and I hadn't updated this blog for several weeks. And no one complained.

I'll focus on the latter and take this as a victory.

Anyway, here it is: December. I've been mashing the iPhone with Phil Spector's "A Christmas Gift for You", because....well, it really is the only Christmas album I need. There's plenty of other great stuff out there (the final shot of that Low video does it to me every single time), but if I could only walk away with one holiday album, this is the one.

Listening to all of that phenomenal girl group pop reminded me: I saw a great music documentary earlier this year, and I never finished the blog post I started about it. Because I'm incredible that way.

Anyway, here it is. Because we need to make things right before 2014...


Among my greatest (and possibly least known) musical fascinations is my love for girl groups and female background vocals.

The Crystals, The Ronnettes, Martha and the Vandellas and most especially the Shangi-Las have all had a special place in my musical library over the years. (And don't even get me started on the Sahara Hotnights).

It's difficult to pinpoint exactly why - blame it on the Stones, blame it on the Dolls, blame it on Eddie Money - but I suspect it mostly has something to do with a certain kind of power that women have always had over me: unabashed expressions of feminine emotion -- be they exuberance, sorrow, longing or, well, anger -- have always been much more compelling to me than those by males.  

(Think about it: would "Soul Finger" sound halfway as fun without the girls?)

And, so, I was excited when I learned that the SilverDocs/AFI Festival featured the film, "20 Feet from Stardom" this year.

"20 Feet From Stardom" takes a close look at some of the most prolific but unheralded heroes among the rock and roll / R&B / soul background singer communities. And while it features all of the prerequisite interviews with superstars (Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Stevie Wonder and Sting are all interviewed prominently), the beauty of this film is that the background singers themselves are the focus.

If 20 Feet has a heroine, it is certainly Darlene Love. For folks like me, who know her primarily for her signature song, "Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)", it was a revelation to learn:

(1) just how prolific she was (Ever heard The Monster Mash? Then you've heard Darlene Love);

(2) just how badly the industry screwed her (Ever heard the Crystals' signature song? Then you've also heard Darlene Love, thanks to Phil Spector's magnificent - yet despicably unethical - legal and marketing acumen); and

(3) how she made her comeback.

This concept of getting screwed by the industry tends to be a theme throughout the film. The mighty Merry Clayton shares her experience of being told that -- despite being the voice behind Gimmie Shelter and Sweet Home Alabama, among others -- her solo career flopped because there was "only room for one Aretha".

Meanwhile, Claudia Lennear finds herself at a loss as to why her solo albums didn't get a bigger push from the record companies.

And in a heartbreaking twist, Love recalls hearing one of her songs on the radio as she was working as a house cleaner.

On the flip side, career background singers like Lisa Fischer (practically a de facto member of the Stones by this time), and the mind-bogglingly ubiquitous Waters Family (...Google them) are portrayed as far more satisfied with their place in the arts, even if that place has somehow come at the expense of both stardom and domestic stability.

As a full-fledged junkie for rock star documentaries, I have to admit that 20 Feet From Stardom was a needed reminder that it takes an awful lot of talented people to make a hit single or a great album - and that all of them (not just the stars) make sacrifices in order to be a part of it.

I really can't recommend this film highly enough. I've found that it has changed the way I listen to just about everything -- even songs I've known since I was a kid.

And I'm not sure you can ask for much more out of a music documentary.

Monday, October 21, 2013

But I'm Going to Love You Anyhow: In Memory of Elliott Smith

It came to my attention earlier this evening that it has been ten years since Elliott Smith committed suicide. The topic has been covered extensively today, so I'm certain that my little story won't add a whole lot to the discussion. But I'm doing it anyway.

I probably first heard Elliot Smith around 1996, in the basement of my guitar player, Matt's, house.

This was a period when I was soaking up a whole lot of new music. I was in a punk band with Matt and a bunch of good natured (but highly opinionated) music nerds. They were quite a bit older than I was, and they knew their stuff. They took me under their wings and tried to course-correct me from my 90's metal and classic rock leanings. It so happened that I had an open mind back then, so the arrangement worked nicely.

Which is important, because Elliot Smith was decidedly not rocking.

Matt played me something off of Either/Or, while he raved and raved about the vocal arrangements and the quality of the harmonies. And while it didn't exactly speak to me, I couldn't say that the arrangements weren't impressive. Heck, just watching Matt I was impressed; the guy seemed to be positively jealous of Smith's talents.

It's funny how you remember a moment like that, when you hear something impressive for the first time...

A year or two later, I moved in with another guitar player, a guy named Greg.

Like Matt, Greg was smart and passionate, and he suffered no fools when it came to music. But he was a heck of a guy: he shared his unbelievably massive record collection without a second thought, and he took the time to expose me to all kinds of books and music. I learned a lot from him.

On the other hand, living with Greg could be a challenge. He was prone to bouts of depression. And I should have been more sensitive to that reality, except that his depression was consistently triggered by a compulsive desire to be with women who were mean, crazy and (more than a few times) lesbians. It was hard to watch a guy be such a ninja of self-sabatoge.

The one and only thing that made it tolerable was that Greg also had a passion for awesomely sad music. And for weeks on end, certain records would serve as the soundtracks to his various heartbreaks. His house was where I first heard Belle and Sebastian. It was where I first heard Nick Drake. And it was where I fist heard Elliot Smith's X/O.

X/O was in heavy rotation in Greg's house for months. Like four or five months. Perhaps half a year. And around month two, I grew to hate the record. I mean absolutely-fucking-detest it. If Greg wanted to take it personally that some girl wouldn't change her entire sexual preference just because he *liked* her, that was fine, but why did he have to drive everyone in the house into depression with that fucking album??

A funny thing happened, though.

A few years later I moved out of that house and gave a go at living alone. And for about a year or more, I spent nearly all of my free time throwing myself into destructive relationships. It's hard to explain why, so let's just say I was lonely.

The details beyond that aren't important, but I guess I'd be a total hypocrite if I didn't mention that the girl who left me most screwed up happened to be an individual who was living through a crisis of sexual orientation. 

Ironic, huh?

Suffice it to say, this was a sad, humiliating time. I was angry at myself a whole lot back then, completely full of disdain for my dumb decision making. I was too embarrassed to even tell my friends what was going on, which only made me feel more isolated and discouraged.

And that's when I downloaded "Waltz # 2".

I've written about this before....more than once, I think. But "Waltz # 2" was always a masterpiece for me, even during those days in Greg's house when I couldn't stand to hear it one more time. The lyrics ooze with exactly the kind of defeated resignation I was living with -- that place when depression isn't yet behind you and acceptance seems unbearable, so you park yourself in a stubborn stasis, consciously planting boobie traps of self-defeat all around you. Because...well, because it seems obvious at the time that you just aren't good enough for anything else.

Beyond the lyrics, there was the music, rooted in that plodding 3/4 time; it felt so much less like a waltz and more like the lost, lumbering pace with which I remember myself moving through that time....quite fitting, because I swear to God, my memories of that period mostly take place in slow motion.

It was a song I could sink into and wallow within. But it also brought me tremendous comfort. It was satisfying through every single listen, precisely because I had refused to share with anyone what was happening to me. I needed that song; as adolescent as it sounds, it was my confessional.

"Waltz # 2" is still a lovely work of art, and a magnificent capsule of pain. To this day, it receives my full attention each time, and I remain in awe that Smith was able to articulate all of that torment in the way that he did.

It's unfortunate that my entire appreciation of Elliot Smith basically boils down to one song...I know for certain that I have a tendency to look down on music fans who can't make a better effort than to learn just one song by an artist.

But I suppose that sometimes one song is enough.


Saturday, September 14, 2013

It's Like...It's Just...I Got Kinda Distracted

This blog....right. There's a LOT going on these days, so I guess I've been away for a while.

Truth be told, I had at least two solid posts in draft form these past several weeks. And I worked and worked on them until I decided to give up. This is, like, a metaphor for something about my life or something, but...ah fuck it.

As I try to get over myself, here's a random thought and a new discovery for this weekend:

The Decemberists are one of those bands that is just too easy to hate for ALL of the wrong reasons. 

  • Yes, they're incredibly popular with elitist aging hipsters. Unfortunately, that won't cut it.
  • Yes, they have despicable fashion sense. But then again, that still hasn't led me to renounce Dokken.
  • And, yes, I've hated "The Rake's Song" since the very first time I heard it. But it has also been so long since I've heard it last that I couldn't even remember the title of the song, which album it was on, or even what in year it came out. (Plus, my research verified that "This is Why We Fight" is, in fact, still an excellent track).

The point is, I've needed to give the Decemberists a fair shake for a long time. I simply haven't felt like it.

THIS has changed my mind.

There are about a dozen songs on here that I have always really, REALLY loved.  And two or three that I kind of sort of thought that I was alone in loving.

Damn. I love/hate realizing that I'm wrong.


Monday, July 1, 2013

A New Career....

To new beginnings.....

Friday, June 14, 2013

Face Up, Make Your Stand: A Golden Year in Review

One year ago today, I walked out of my job -- and my career as I knew it.  I've already written on the topic before, so I won't rehash any of that. But suffice it to say that one year later, it has proven to be one of the pivotal decisions of my adult life.

You learn a lot from walking away from any long term relationship and going it alone.  And here is what I've learned:

Money isn't everything. However, having a budget is critical.  And if you wait until you're already poor to set a budget, you're going to spend a lot of time angry at your former self, who used to waste so much cash.

Installing a back splash is one of the easiest home improvement projects out there. You will still fuck it up, get discouraged, and leave it halfway done.

If you don't take a shower and get dressed within the first 90 minutes you're awake, you probably won't get much done at all. Put some pants on and face the day.

The clients don't come to you.

Learn to cook. Most of it isn't actually that hard. And your buddies will treat you very differently after they taste your oven roasted buffalo wings. I promise.

Also: make your own salsa.  $4.00 16 oz jars are for suckers. SUCKERS.

Even if you can watch porn all day long, you really shouldn't.  You will see things you wish you hadn't seen, and it will raise very troubling questions about who we are as human beings.

If you have extra cash lying around, pre-pay your rent or mortgage.  This could some day be the difference between being poor and being broke.

Washington, D.C. has some first rate public pools. 

If you want to find out what kind of shape you're in, swim laps in an Olympic sized pool for an hour.

If you swim laps in an Olympic sized pool for an hour, three times a week, you will lose that beer weight.

If you stop drinking every day, you will lose that beer weight.

If you eat nothing but almonds all day, you will lose that beer weight.

If you swim, eat nothing but almonds all day, and cut back on your drinking for a couple of months, you will get drunker than an intern the first time you meet your alcoholic former coworkers for happy hour. You'll black out on the way home, you'll throw up, and you'll feel awful for months about everything you put your wife through that night.  Be a professional and eat a proper lunch.

Freelancers get paid last.

Read books every day.  Fiction, non-fiction, trashy rock and roll doesn't matter.  It'll make you smarter.  

Christmas without money sucks. Especially if your brothers make an unannounced decision that this will be the year they're going to resume gift-giving after a several-year break. You'll feel like a shitty brother, a shittier uncle and kind of a loser.

It turns out that LinkedIn is actually an incredibly valuable tool. Not sure when that changed.

Take skin cancer seriously. But don't be afraid to get a little sun. People will notice and comment on how much better you look.

If you drink seven cups of coffee each morning, you're basically just drinking to maintain. We call this "chasing the black dragon."

Smoking pot at 10:00 on a Tuesday morning sounds like a fun idea.  But in reality, at some point it will penetrate the fog in your mind that every single person you know is working, being productive, and contributing to society at that moment, and you will freak out. But at least you'll never do it again.

Getting a massage or a pedicure at 10:00 on a Tuesday morning, on the other hand, will make you feel like a king. You will silently mock your friends who are working, being productive and contributing to society at that moment. (Too bad you can't really afford it).

You know that chronically unemployed/underemployed friend you have? Watch him closely. Make damned sure you don't turn into him.  If he calls you in the middle of the day, don't answer the phone.  Call him back later and explain to him that you were working.  This is important.

Don't be afriad to take a job or two that might be "beneath" you.  Chances are, you have some extra time, and you've gotten a little lax on your fundamentals.

If you have a day off, go to a museum you've never been to. Just try it.

Selling your porn on eBay feels a little weird.

If you have a chance to do something ridiculous and spontaneous, do it.  That night your band drove up to NYC on a few hours notice to play an unpaid show in front of four people will stand out as a very happy memory of a unique moment in time. As the four of you huddle over 1:00 AM burritos at the all-night place off St. Mark's, you will be exceptionally glad that you left your job.

Do a pro bono job at some point. Even if you really need some money.  You'll find out real fast if you love what you do.

If you have all day to sit around and look at your junk, sooner or later you're going to convince yourself that something is wrong with it.  You'll make an appointment and your doctor will tell you everything is ok...but she probably won't ever look at you the same again.

Make friends with other freelancers.  This may just save your ass.

Tattoo removal doesn't hurt as much as everyone says it does.  But it is expensive, and it takes months.

Learn about taxes.  Things change when you work for yourself.

Don't play XBOX during working hours.  Ever.

Make time to see your friends. They're going to try and buy you drinks and dinner and it'll make you feel weird. Just accept the offer, and return the favor when you're in the position to do so.

Don't be a slob.  If you're home all day, you should be able to get at least some house keeping done.

Remember: money isn't everything.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Maryland Deathfest - Saturday Recap

Self-dubbed as "America's Biggest Metal Party of the Year," Maryland Deathfest is an 11-year tradition on which I'd somehow always missed out.  Despite its taking place a mere 45 miles from my home, I just never got around to it. 

At first, I merely flirted with the idea of attending this year.  Then I saw the line-up:

Bolt Thrower
The Obsessed
Pig Destroyer
The Melvins

...and about 50 other bands I was either vaguely familiar with, or not at all. With the exception of Pig Destroyer, I'd never seen any of these bands.

This would have to be my year.

Unfortunately, my monetary situation was going to force some difficult decisions: even with a three-day pass coming in at a tidy $160 (far, far less, by the way, than the cheapest Rolling Stones tickets I could find....fuck you, Keith), I was going to have to settle for a one-day $60 ticket.

And to complicate matters, the festival line-up had most of the bands I wanted to see spread across each of the three days.  Bolt Thrower would perform on Thursday night.  Pig Destroyer and Carcass would perform on Friday.  The Obsessed and the Melvins had Saturday.  And Germantown, MD's beloved Bobby Liebling would perform with Pentagram on Sunday.

I was not going to see everyone I wanted to see. And so, after performing some comparative analysis, I put my money down for Saturday.  I'd catch local celebrity, Scott Weinrich, perform with the Obsessed.  I'd see the Melvins for the very first time.  (Aside, of course, from that one time I intruded on Buzz Osborne in a bathroom on a fearfully drunken evening in Seattle).  And I'd keep an open mind about seeing Down...less to see Phil Anselmo and more to finally see Pepper Keenan.

And, so, at around 2:00 on Saturday, I departed for Baltimore. The day went a little something like this:

2:50 PM: I arrive in Baltimore, and make the questionable decision to park in Fells Point, treat myself to lunch there, and then walk roughly a mile to the festival site.  Because I'm cheap and didn't want to pay for parking.

3:00 PM: I decide to grab a beer and a bite at the Heavy Seas Alehouse.  The house-smoked pastrami sandwich, coupled with a Powder Monkey Pale Ale are wonderful, and the siren song of the bartenders dark eyes and enormous bosoms tempt me to enjoy another round.  Summoning all of my will power in the name of metal, I push away from the bar and begin my festival crusade.  Sort of.

3:45 - 4:15 PM: I'm in zoned parking, and I have a strong suspicion I'm going to get ticketed, so I spend nearly half an hour looking for a new space.  I continue to cling to the idea of parking in Fells Point -- which is actually even stupider than it sounds. (I thought I might grab a late night hot dog at Stuggy's on my way though I couldn't have just driven to the fucking place at the end of the night).  Meanwhile, even the "safe" streets I park on don't inspire a lot of confidence.

4:45 PM: I complete my dumbass walk down East Baltimore Street and arrive.  Despite the festival being well underway by this time, the line to enter is otherworldly.  As it turns out, some impromptu rule had been set on this day, banning all clothing featuring studs and spikes.  The line I was witnessing was for re-entry after everyone went back to dump their jackets in the car.  Total mess.  (Personally, I marched right in after an aggressive pat down at the will call desk).

4:50 PM: I take in a bit of the end of Weedeater's set, but I'm too overwhelmed by everything to stand still.  I make a round through the merch vendors, and I'm reminded once again just how deep the metal community runs, and how much of an outsider I really am to it. So much merch.  So many bands.  

5:00 PM: As the crowd disperses following Weedeater's set, I see a familiar face in the crowd.  It's my guitar player's ex. I haven't seen her in nearly ten years, and for good reason, given the nature of their breakup. Despite the massive amount of negative PR surrounding this individual, I call out to her.  She doesn't recognize me (because I've gotten old as fuck).  I reintroduce myself and we have a long conversation about the old days and gossiping about old friends.  A friend of hers' shows up, and I use this as my opportunity to make my exit.  I wonder around feeling deeply conflicted over the fact that I'm not supposed to like this person, but also relieved that we had a pleasant adult conversation.

5:45 PM: The Obsessed takes the stage.  The Maryland crowd gives a fantastic reception to Weinrich, but I'm finding myself compulsively staring into the alley next to the stage, which serves as a make-shift backstage/VIP area.  This is where I first see Buzz Osborne during the day, and I find myself instantly very starstruck.

Betcha didn't know I'm an awesome photographer. I call this one "Where's Buzzo?"

5:46 PM: I begin to inhale a constant stream of second hand marijuana smoke.  Unfortunately, I'm past the point of the fabled "contact high," so I pretty much just enjoy it for its earthy aroma, and the pleasure of watching security make a true team effort to look the other way as much as possible.

6:12 PM: Local metal legend, the Chicken Man, is spotted in the pit.  Curious observation: the Caucasian security guys think this is a hoot (so to speak).  The African American security guards aren't the least bit impressed...or amused.

6:20 PM: The only three guys in Baltimore taller than I position themselves directly in front of me.  The sun is blaring down from just above the stage, blinding everyone trying to take in the show.  I give's time for water in the shade.

Nice head, dude.  Apparently Washington Wizard, Jan Veseley likes doom metal.

6:42 PM: A girl certainly young enough to be my daughter corners me to comment on my Samhain shirt and talk at length about her love for Glenn Danzig.  Her date looks on uncomfortably from a distance as she pulls up her sleeve to show me her tattoo of the Unholy Passion banshee.  "She's my spirit animal," she tells me.  "Only without the 80's bush."  

I excuse myself to see the end of the Obsessed's set.

6:50 PM: I go around the corner to watch the beginning of Broken Hope's set.  Highly interesting until the vocals kick in.  Then it just becomes ridiculous. (Sorry).  African American security guards continue to be all business.  Baltimore City cops, on the other hand, are taking pictures of the freaks with their iPhones, and leering at the chicks.  I feel safe....

7:11 PM: Ladies and gentlemen, the greatest tattoo. Ever.

"To be the man, you gotta beat the man."

7:35 PM: Grab a beer and get in place during sound check for the Melvins.  It becomes clear that this is going to hurt.

7:45 PM: The Melvins slay the fuck out of everything in their path for more than an hour. No one is chatting in the "VIP alley." They're all perched on the fence and the windowsills to get a better view.  At this moment, the festival reaches an entirely different level. A solid 20-25 people - film crews, road crews, wives and girlfriends, buddies, other musician -- are jamming themselves on the side and the rear of the stage to watch up close.  It is absolutely incredible. I wish I could write more about this....

Scorched. Earth. Melvins.

8:35 PM: The Melvins break. The entire crowd -- all of them -- make a break for the bathrooms at the same time. Apparently, I'm not the only one who was afraid to move for the past hour. The floor of the Sonar is covered with a thin grey film that flows forth from the men's room.  

It is best not to discuss this any further.

8:40 PM: I head to stage two to check out Ihshan.  Oh, hell no.

8:42 PM: I head to stage three to check out Revenge. Also, hell no. Kill time looking at merch and having a beer.

9:30 PM: My back hurts.  My knees hurt.  My ears hurt. I kind of want to go home, but feel obliged to stick it out for Down. To kill some time, I order an Italian sausage from a vendor.  At the first bite, it is very clear that it isn't thoroughly cooked.  I stare at the sausage in the dark. I'm hungry, but I know that not only is this a high risk manuaver, but also that it kills my dream of hitting up Stuggy's at the end of the night....I eat the damned thing anyway, all the while knowing that (1) I cannot possibly poop in the Sonar men's room; and (2) it is a mile walk back to my car; and (3) it is a 45-mile drive back to D.C.  I've got to hope that everything in my GI tract stays where it should for the next two hours.

9:50 PM: Here comes Down.  I give them three songs and two speeches by Phil Anselmo.  And I'm fucking done.  Anselmo is a hero to many and he carries the flag for metal.  But he's an idiot.

10:35 PM: I begin a long walk back to my car.  These streets didn't look so great when I came down during the day, but they're positively frightening at night.  I start planning for what I should do if the car is (a) stolen, or (b) broken into when I reach it. Thankfully, the car is as it should be and I hop in.  I allow myself the pleasure of sneaking out a fart and immediately realize that I'm very much on borrowed time.

10:36 PM: I begin the drive home.  Windows are down. Ears are ringing.  Have to say: I'm very happy.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Catherine Wheel: Tree to Fruit, Apple to Seed


Good grief.  Has it really been almost two years since I've done a ticket post?  To think this was supposed to be the basis of this blog...


Among the silliest cliches that music enthusiasts routinely drag out is the belief that one band or another "should have been bigger."

The irony of this statement is that more often than not, the artist in question has - for all intents and purposes - made it big already.  Maybe they didn't make it to superstar status.  But by the time that band's music reached your ears, they'd likely been signed to a decent major or independent label.  They'd probably toured and amassed a litany of road stories.  At one point or another they'd met, hung out with, or shared a stage with someone impressive. They'd definitely been interviewed, seen themselves on TV, and heard themselves on the radio. And at least one -- if not all -- of them at some point got laid when they didn't necessarily deserve to.

Still, even with all of that behind them, sometimes you feel like a certain band deserved to do a bit better.  For me, that band is Catherine Wheel.

If you recall, the late 90's were awash in a heck of a lot of terrible "indie" music.  The genre had its champions, for sure.  But for every Beck or Weezer or Breeders, you'd have to sort through ten or more Tonics or Better Than Ezras or Crackers...bands that all wrote catchy enough songs (I guess), but would have likely been interchangeably made into hair metal bands ten years earlier, grunge bands five years earlier, or garage bands five years later.

Amongst all of that underwhelming radio rock, its easy to forget the 90's bands that sacrificed a little more airplay for the benefit of more artistic approach to things.  Pavement (rightfully) is the poster child for this community, but I could make a case for Catherine Wheel being right there with them.

Catherine Wheel wasn't particularly avant garde.  Quite the opposite: they were a straight-ahead, melodic rock band.  But they also had an uncommon literary streak; their lyrics tended to be deeply introspective and intellectual, often melancholy, but never bound by the nerdiness or self-pity that so often defines bands working towards being "smart" or "sensitive". That ability alone makes them stand out among their peers.

I suspect that it was their frequent return to themes of passion, romance and yearning that kept Catherine Wheel relatable. So often, the band's soaring choruses (enhanced by singer Rob Dickinson's fantastic pipes) were abstract. But they also were often instantly familiar to me in a way that didn't need a lot of explanation.  Choruses to songs like "Heal" (It's how high you are/And the time it takes to heal"), or "Fripp" ("I need so much to sleep/You shine me on/Too much is not enough") were deeply evocative to me, without any need to be narrative.

This is only half the story, however.  Catherine Wheel also boasted a pretty excellent repertoire of straight-up pop songs.  To this day I can't help myself but to grin when my iPhone randomly digs up "Delicious", "Satellite", or "Show Me Mary". And I respect the band so much for their ability to put the intellectual stuff on the shelf once in a while for the sake of supporting a great hook.

There is always a flip side, however. And the flip side to Catherine Wheel is that their output could be dreadfully unsteady. A friend burned me a stack of their CD's one summer, and I vividly remember becoming less and less excited about the band as I delved deeper and deeper into their catalog.  In fact, Catherine Wheel sometimes came across self-indulgent and a bit lost within themselves.  Songs could meander.  Hooks could get lost or just go absent.  Their videos even suggest that Dickinson might have had something of a rock star complex. 

And that's all a shame, because each and every one of their albums offers about three excellent tracks for every clunker.

About this show.....

I went to this concert by myself, which wasn't uncommon in those days.  And what I recall most - for better or for worse -- was my shock in seeing that the concert was kind of a sausage-hang.

I certainly don't want to give anyone the impression that I went to shows back then solely to pick up girls, but let's just say that given the fact that Rob Dickinson is not only a blood relative to heavy metal royalty, but is also, well, totally adorable, I expected there to be a LOT more women there.  And there were not.

I recall that the band played "Fripp"...and I recall this because "Fripp" has something of a legend behind it among the band's biggest fans.  (I can't speak very much to what that legend is, but suffice it to say that several of their concerts were defined over the years by whether or not they played the track).

I also remember that at or near the end of the set, the band played my favorite track at that moment in time: the afore-mentioned "Heal".  During the quiet breakdown at the end of the song, I also recall that Dickinson turned away from the crowd and affixed a pulsating heart-shaped LED ornament on his chest.  It was a cute effect -- honestly, a touching moment to which my words can't quite do justice, no matter how many times I attempt to rewrite that sentence.

I leave you with a sampling of my favorite Catherine Wheel tracks. I intended to only use one, but got a little carried away as I remembered just how much I used to love this band.  I hope you enjoy.

Judy Staring at the Sun 



The Nude


Here Comes the Fat Controller

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Thoughts on the Passing of Jeff Hanneman

By now it is quite old news that Jeff Hanneman passed away last week.  And even though I knew at the time that I should have written something, I have to admit that I was challenged to do so.

To get this out of the way, I've never really been a big Slayer fan.  It's not that there's anything wrong with them, but they just didn't move me the way they seem to move every other metal fan.  

I tired, though. I got me a few albums. I downloaded the Metal Requiem Podcasts about Slayer. I watched an eternity of YouTube videos. I even came to worship Dave Lombardo.

For years, I gave it a try.  It just didn't work.

(This, and the goddamed hipster fascination with Slayer is just so irritating that I don't even want to like them anymore....which is a terrible reason to stop trying, but whatever).

Then, this afternoon I came across Alex Skolnick's outstanding tribute to Hanneman on

I happen to like Skolnick an awful lot.  Even if I'm not a fan of his band, I think the guy is smart as hell, and his tribute proves as much.

In fact, Skolnick effectively addresses the fact that Hanneman's style was possibly one of the primary obstacles to my having an appetite for the band. And then he gives a brief analysis of why I may have been wrong all this time:

"...his frenzied, turbulent solos were also an important part of the package. They weren’t about showing off. They served a greater artistic purpose—to sonically channel the qualities of Slayer’s lyrical content. They were sometimes abrasive, sometimes jarring, and at times disturbing. They had less in common with typical rock-guitar virtuosos than they did with the sonic collages of avant-garde improvisers such as Derek Bailey and John Zorn, the latter of whom is a self-professed Slayer fan who has cited the band as an inspiration."

This is probably the single greatest argument I've ever heard for reconsidering Slayer.  And, so, that's what I'm going to do.

Rest in peace, Jeff Hanneman.  

More good stuff below, courtesy of

Monday, April 22, 2013

Don't Mind Me Cause I Ain't Nothing But A Dream: RIP Richie Havens - 1941 - 2013

Richie Havens died this morning.  And he was the only goddamn hippie worth his salt. 


Sure, hippie culture has plenty of appeal.  Everyone likes sex.  Everyone likes pot. Everyone likes music and dancing and community.  And, no, it wouldn't kill you to recycle.

Plus, let's just get this out of the way: if you've had even one eye open for the past ten years, you should immediately be able to grasp the fundamental value of pacifist politics, and the needlessly tragic consequences of that worldview having been turned into a mean-spirited punchline.

On the other hand, as a kid who came of age during the apex of the military industrial complex, the AIDS epidemic, 80's excess and heavy metal radio, hippie culture seemed to have been utterly trampled by the time I was a teenager, conquered in so many ways by its antithesis.  It didn't seem like there was much to respect about it.

But I made an exception for Richie Havens.  Because no matter his politics or the topics about which he wrote, Havens simply didn't fit the mold of the hippie as far as I was concerned.

Havens wasn't in it for the free love, he wasn't in it for the grass, and he wasn't in it because he couldn't be bothered to get a job.  Richie Havens paid his dues.  He worked. He was a professional.

Havens wasn't a West Coaster. He was a Brooklynite who had spent years hanging out with beatnicks and folkies in Greenwich Village, long before hippie culture took hold. And everything about the way he approached his craft reflected that kind of ethic.

The man didn't sing the kind of ethereal melodies and harmonies with which hippie music is most often identified.  Havens sang like a man.  He roared.  When he did a ballad, he may have toned it down, but his gravelly baritone was always world-weary and utterly masculine.

None of that hippie shit.

That same quality extended to his guitar style, a hyper-percussive, hyper-aggressive strumming technique that always sounded like a vaguely Afro-Carrbean flamenco. And on top of that, his technique of barreing with his thumb continues to be one of the most outlandish things I've ever seen a guitar player do.

No 12 bar blues jams.  Play like a man, hippie.

Was he a leftie?  He sure was.  He sang war protest songs.  He sang about saving the environment. He sang about civil rights. But he backed all of that up with a commitment to activism that many of his generation just couldn't sustain.  In fact, he co-founded not one, but two non-profit organizations (including a children's museum) dedicated to educating children about the environment.

Richie Havens was authentic. He got his hands dirty.

And what better example could there be than his three-hour festival-opening set at Woodstock?  When the majority of the peace-and-love bands couldn't figure out the logistics to show up on time (and the others were too shy to kick things off), Havens stepped up and did it on his own.

When MTV launched a corporate sponsored rape-fest to commemorate Woodstock 25 years later, Havens bowed out and did his own festival.

I thought the guy was awesome.

When I was in college, I had the opportunity to see the man perform.  On a hot summer morning, he played a totally free, seven-song set on the Western concourse of  Union Station in Washington, D.C.  No more than about 30 people showed, yet every single person coming off the Metroliner took a very long stare at him as they walked past with their luggage and their attache cases, trying to place that voice.

I was in heaven.  I could not possibly have been standing more than fifteen feet away, watching the guy who opened the Woodstock festival play "Here Comes the Sun," "Freedom" and a handful of other songs that don't immediately come to mind. Afterwards I got to briefly meet him and shake his hand, and I remember being in disbelief at how a person could look so young and so old at the same time.  He was well-rested, well dressed and well coiffed, clearly in excellent health, but still with the deep lines around his eyes that betrayed a life on the road.

It turns out that his appearance at Union Station was part of a five-city railroad station music tour he'd been doing....which only sounded strange until I'd learned that he had penned Amtrack's current jingle (There's Something About a Train That's Magic...which you might know by its other title, "All Aboard America"). 

It also turns out that this had turned into a tidy side-business for Havens in his middle age.  He'd also recorded the Maxwell House jingle, as well as the absolutely elegant "Fabric of Our Lives" jingle for the cotton industry.  Because a guy's got to pay the bills.

God damn it.  I just cried listening to that.
As I try to wrap this up, I'm a little stunned at how saddened I am about Havens' passing. I've been pulling up song after song after song on YouTube, and I have to admit that I'm completely broken up. Just terribly sad.

The thing is, I listened to Havens an awful lot in between bursts of all sorts of jazz and metal and classic rock, I retreated to Havens constantly. And it was never those intense, percussive songs I mentioned earlier.  It was always the ballads.

The fact is, I was incredibly lonely in college.  I wasn't necessarily sad all of the time; I had good friends and I had more than my share of insane fun.

But I felt chronically alone through those years, and the songs "Follow" and "The Dolphins" became a safe haven for me during that time.  

Through the circular hippie-drip of "Follow", every single time I heard Havens sing the lyric, "As I walk on through the garden/I am hoping I don’t miss you" I felt tremendous empathy for every lost, squandered, neglected or aborted connection I'd made  through those years -- often painfully aware that I was fumbling them in front of my eyes.

Then I'd flip the tape and put on "The Dolphins" and obsess over the lyric, "Sometimes I wonder if you ever think of me."

...which is terribly embarrassing. But it speaks to the person I was at that time: a kid who was kind of lost and kind of sad and kind of destructive...and totally, completely longing for a human touch more than he could bear for anyone else to know about.

And it speaks to why I'm so broken up tonight.

Rest in peace, Richie Havens.