Monday, December 29, 2008

It's almost gone

Here are some more or less random items from the end of December, 2008:

  • My nephews (5, 5, and 7) are getting a kitten in March. Specifically, one of the twins wants a kitten for his birthday. He was all ready to let Santa bring him one for Christmas, but then my sister pointed out that if he waited for his birthday, he could pick the kitten out himself. He liked this idea better. (Overheard explaining to his brother: "What if Santa brought a really mean cat?")

  • I'm already mulling over 2009 travel possibilities. Currently waffling on whether or not to go to D.C. for the inauguration. Fun? Of course. Crazy? Double of course.

  • I made an art piece for our company silent auction in February. All proceeds go to a local food bank, so it feels nice to be contributing something. I made another, larger piece that I took in to have framed on Saturday. It's a (late) Christmas present for a friend who doesn't read my blog, so I'm safe. The lady at the shop wrote the following description on the slip: "Cut photos on matboard/Good." I don't know if "good" is framing parlance for something mundane, but I enjoyed it anyway.

  • My hair has gotten curlier in the past year or so. I'm not sure how. But it has.

  • I'd like to make a quilt in 2009. Which would necessitate learning to sew. I'm stopping short of a resolution on this, but I think it would be fun.

  • We broke the December record for snowfall here. Is next month April, by any chance? No? Are you sure?

  • I'm still kind of thinking about that Bon Iver show from the 19th. Perfect confluence of music, weather, venue, and people.

  • I can't believe 2009 will be the fifth year for the basement show at SnS. The traditional fifth anniversary gift is wood. Heh.

Okay, that's enough for tonight. I'll end 2008's blogging with a random picture: a chicken vending machine at the Tulsa airport.

Bring on 2009!

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Trip through the Christmas tree

I meant to make this post earlier in the season, but the time got away from me. Blog posts were taken up with actual things I did. This morning, though, I'd like to take you on a little tour of my Christmas tree. I have a tradition of buying a Christmas ornament when I go on a trip. Any place where I spend a decent amount of (enjoyable) time qualifies. I kicked off the effort when I was nine years old, in Atlantic City, where I used to spend summer vacations with my parents. I saw a clear globe in the gift shop, with sand and glitter and tiny poker chips and dollar bills inside. I begged my mom to buy it, so it could remind us of summer vacation at Christmas time. She did, and it did. Since then I've amassed a nice collection of ornaments, the goal being to capture with each something that will remind me of the trip. Every year, decorating the tree brings me back in time. To, almost invariably, warmer locales. Here's a sampling of the ornaments I've collected so far:

Waikiki. Purchased at the weirdly great little Borders above a parking garage on Kalakaua Ave., which was at least 50% local books and authors.

Muir Woods, California. It's real!

Boston, MA. Purchased at the information center on the Freedom Trail. I'll bet Paul and Maudie thought I was buying it as a present for a niece or nephew. Haha.

Ulan Ude, Russia. I can't remember exactly where I bought her, but I do know she used to have a little wooden fish on her platter.

Seattle, WA. I bought this on my free morning on the tail end of a business trip, at Pike Place Market. The artist was wearing an Autumn Defense shirt, which I commented on. In the course of chatting I learned that A) her husband was from Racine, and B) she's a friend of John's. Small world.

Melbourne, Australia. Purchased at the Garden Shop at the Melbourne Botanic Gardens.

Talkeetna, Alaska. Purchased at the same shop where Heidi and I bought warm socks.

Halifax, Nova Scotia. Purchased at a shop next to the blown glass workshop, on the harbour.

Dublin, Ireland. Purchased at a shop off Grafton Street where Anya and I also got some nice wool blankets.

Coeur d'Alene, Idaho. A new purchase this summer, and it made me laugh out loud when I unwrapped it a few weeks ago.

New York City. The gift shop at The Met.

Wellington, New Zealand. Purchased at the gift shop in Te Papa. Sigh.

Cavendish, Prince Edward Island. Purchased at Green Gables!

Atlantic City, New Jersey. The ornament that started it all.

Merry Christmas!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Bon Iver

I'd been looking forward to Rob and Tamala's trip to Madison for the months since Bon Iver's Barrymore show was announced. As the date drew closer, it started snowing. And snowing. ("Good winter," my ass. Well, I guess it depends on your definition.) Thursday into Friday brought yet another winter storm and snow day, but luckily the snow stopped in time for everyone to make it to town.

As it turned out, I couldn't have imagined a more fitting atmosphere in which to see Bon Iver. I had never seen Justin or the band before, and I was truly blown away by the show. Having nothing with which to compare it, I don't know if it was any better than other Bon Iver shows. If they're all this good, I have definitely been missing out. Justin's songs are gorgeous, and eminently suited to a late December evening in the cocoon of a small Wisconsin theater. Opening the show was The Tallest Man on Earth; Kristian Matsson of Sweden. I was very impressed by his set, and see a purchase in my future. (I will report that he is not really, however, the tallest man on Earth.)

Bon Iver is from Eau Claire, and the Barrymore concert was the last show of a long year on tour for the band. (There is one final 2008 show, Monday night in Eau Claire.) Justin struck me as a very sincere guy - he definitely has a sense of humor that came across onstage, but you could also tell that he very much wanted to communicate with the audience. He brought up more than once that they've had a pretty amazing, inspiring year - and that he's been told he says thank you too much onstage, but he really did want us to know that he was extremely grateful. It seemed like many thoughts were swirling around in his head throughout the night.

There were many standout songs, but my favorite was probably "Skinny Love." Apparently that's the 'hit,' and accordingly the band played it second - otherwise they may have heard drunken calls for it all night. It may be one of those songs that seasoned Bon Iver veterans await with polite enthusiasm. For me, though, standing right up front, "Skinny Love" was one of those performances. You know, those performances. I love live music, and I go to more concerts than the average bear. I've seen plenty of great bands play plenty of great shows. But every once in awhile there's a particular song or moment that just utterly sucks me in and reminds me: "this is why I go to see shows. This, right here, holy shit." I can remember a handful of them in my concert-going life. Colin Meloy playing "Red Right Ankle" at Luther's the first time I saw the Decemberists. "One" to close out the first U2 show I saw from the front of the pit. Jon Brion and Flanny playing "All is Full of Love" at the last show in the old Largo. The crescendo of "Bleeding Heart Show" the first time I saw the New Pornographers. "Sunken Treasure" the first time I saw Jeff Tweedy play solo. And Justin Vernon channeling Lord knows what; putting everything out there on "Skinny Love," the first time I saw Bon Iver. (Close runners-up: "Creature Fear" and "Wolves." And "Blood Bank.")

Madison isn't Eau Claire, but it's not too far away. This show seemed like a sort of homecoming. It was December, and it was Wisconsin, and there was a foot of fresh snow on the ground and more on the way, and we were all in the Barrymore under the twinkling ceiling stars, and we were home, and Bon Iver was home. And it was good.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Happy ho ho ho to you

What do you get your mom for Christmas? Every year I struggle with this question. I know plenty of things my mother would probably appreciate, but what would be a really great gift? This year, inspiration came in the form of an email from the Riverside Theater in Milwaukee: Harry Connick Jr. would be playing a full band holiday show on December 12th. I've long had a soft spot for Harry, and both of his Christmas albums get tons of play in Mom's car every year. I scored a pair of balcony seats in the presale, and last Friday it was off to Milwaukee for my mother's Christmas concert.

It was great. The concert was heavy on the Christmas songs, but they weren't the whole story. We were also treated to some old standards; songs like "Come Rain or Come Shine," "Yes, Sir, That's My Baby," and "Basin Street Blues." From the familiar Christmas tunes to the extended instrumental solos on jazzier numbers, everything was top notch. Harry has assembled an incredibly talented group of musicians, and he's no slouch himself. Lucien Barbarin, in particular, gave a standout performance - he received a standing ovation from the crowd. I also hadn't expected Harry to be so funny. He told many stories, including a great one about Frank Sinatra on what would have been his ninety-third birthday. There was much witty banter with the crowd, especially those up front. Harry's not afraid to make fun of his fans, and I like that in a performer. (Addressing the husband of a woman who has seen four shows in a row: "You do know you're married to a freakshow, don't you?") And aside from the musical skills, Harry also has got some moves on the dance floor. (Dance floor in this case being the stage.) I'd like to see a Southern white boy dance-off: Harry Connick Jr. vs. Patrick Sansone. Let's make this happen.

Experiencing the concert with my mom was wonderful, but the night's surprises weren't over for me. On the way home I learned that one December in the mid 1960's, Mom and her girlfriends drove down to New Orleans. They stayed in the French Quarter. They swam in a pool on Bourbon Street on New Year's Eve. They went to Preservation Hall. I had no idea. The concert also brought up many memories of my grandpa. I knew Grandpa had taught himself to play the piano and guitar, but Mom told me all about how he and his brother and their friends used to get together and jam. Many nights when she was a little girl, Mom would do her best to fall asleep in her bedroom upstairs while down in the basement she could hear Grandpa on his guitar, Uncle Richie on the harmonica, and their friends on trombone and saxophone, playing and laughing into the wee hours. "He would have loved that show," Mom said. As we were walking into the house, she told me this had been her best Christmas present ever ... right behind Cinnamon Bear, the teddy bear she got as a little girl.

I'll take second place to Cinnamon Bear any day. Mission accomplished.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Letters to Santa: a 147-hour benefit

Well, perhaps it clocked in slightly under 147 hours. More like twenty-six for me ... but isn't that basically the same thing? As it is every year, the 2008 Letters to Santa benefit at Second City in Chicago was a test of endurance. But the few (the proud) who attend the entire event get an experience unlike any other. This year there were intimate musical performances, special guest appearances, sketches about Michael McDonald and the world's fattest baby, outdoor caroling, interviews, a special video appearance from Stephen Colbert, free bagels, and football. All of this is provided on a 100% volunteer basis, and it all goes for a really terrific cause. Here is a brief, incomplete photo timeline:

12/9 10:14 p.m. (1.25 hours in): Bird Flu Extravaganza: a musical

10:23 p.m.: ASSSSCAT with Mick Napier and Tim Meadows

12/10 12:11 a.m.: Nina Nastasia. She got sick on the drive from New York and her voice was almost completely gone, but she still performed.

3:06 a.m.: Tim Midgett

4:30 a.m.: Outdoor field trip. We marched around the entire city block, over the ice and snow, singing the melody to "Carol of the Bells." The whole way. The photo quality represents pretty accurately my memory of the walk.

7:38 a.m.: Young Sofia Mia makes her annual before-school morning appearance. Here she is dancing in a musical about a dentist.

8:13 a.m.: Baked goods, costumes, and Babyco. The fireman's helmet appeared in a later sketch in which one of the actors uttered the phrase, "If you piss your pants, we all piss our pants. It's the fireman's code." I looked over at fire captain Dick. Dick: "That's true."

9:29 a.m.: Janet Bean, Sally Timms, and Jim Elkington

10:18 a.m.: This is the kind of thing that happens 13 hours in. There are contests to see who can be the fastest to push one actor, with another riding on his back, across the barrier between the front and back of the theater. You also see how stunningly crowded things are at this time.

12:04 p.m.: The Lonesome Organist one man band

2:34 p.m.: Robbie and Donna Fulks perform Robbie's annual Rap of the Dead

5:12 p.m.: Kim and Kelley Deal of The Breeders

5:58 p.m.: Town parade! Paul's favorite.

6:42 p.m.: Time for that heartwarming annual tradition: selling chances to peg Joe Canale in the balls with a football.

7:07 p.m.: Tullymonster, rocking. Before they were renamed by a clever young audience member.

7:53 p.m.: Stephen Colbert and Pete Grosz perform half an improv scene, taped and sent especially for Letters to Santa.

9:16 p.m.: Jeff Tweedy rummages through his wallet

10:03 p.m.: Red lights as the big charity auction begins. Jeff looks like I feel.

If I can help it, I will never miss this event. Six years and counting!

Monday, December 8, 2008

The thick of it

I spent a nice weekend in Rochester. Saturday morning and afternoon I toured George Eastman House and the Strong National Museum of Play. Eastman House is impressive, and the gingerbread houses and Christmas decorations made it even more fun. I got there in time for one of the two free daily guided tours, and learned a lot about George Eastman. I didn't know, for example, that he made up the word Kodak. (The tour also represented the largest single gathering of women wearing Christmas sweaters I've ever seen.) The galleries were fun to browse - my favorite was the Link exhibition of night train/depot photos from the 1950's. Of all the gingerbread on display, my favorite was the creation you see above ... a local Girl Scout troop made a gingerbread landfill.

On to the Strong Museum. The lower level was charming, but geared toward small children at play. I liked the Berenstain Bears room, and appreciated the reproductions of the cubs' clubhouses from "No Girls Allowed. (I was quite the Berenstain Bears fan as a child.) The best part of the installation was on the walls leading up to the playroom itself. They were lined with information about Stan and Jan Berenstain, and the cartoon work they did in the 1940's. It included some great magazine covers they made for Colliers. One of the fun things I read: often Stan and Jan would work on the same illustration at the same time, with one reaching across the desk and working on it upside down.

Upstairs was the National Toy Hall of Fame, and beyond it a huge gallery of toys from the past. I saw cases and cases of dolls, plates, gadgets, video game systems, dollhouses, miniatures, stuffed animals, bicycles, whimsies, shaving mugs, train sets ... it was fascinating, but somewhere along the line it became overwhelming. As I left to meet Paul for coffee, Gary the Happy Pirate was performing for children outside the main gift shop. This performance was preceded by a few announcements: "Attention guests, please join us in ten minutes for pirate fun with Gary the Happy Pirate!" The kids looked like they were having a grand time as I passed, and it was part of a toy drive being covered by the local news. Just as I walked out of earshot, I heard Gary quizzing the children.

Gary: "Okay, kids! Does anybody know what a pirate's favorite food is? Yes, young man?"
Little boy: "Chicken!"

Saturday night, we saw Wilco. It was a fun show; one I never would have attended if I hadn't pulled up first row pit tickets. But, I did. My favorite aspect of the night was the "welcome back" for Glenn, who missed the previous night's show with Neil Young to play his own gig at Carnegie Hall. Much fun was had at his expense (and in his honor) - including the drum set being adorned with flowers before the show began. The band didn't play anything new, but the Rochester crowd was treated to an energetic selection of songs befitting the band's inaugural show in the city.

Sunday I had a lazy day of doing nothing before my flight. The weather reports had looked a bit ominous, but I was only half an hour late getting home. No, the really bad weather was waiting for Tuesday. Tuesday night, when I'm supposed to drive to Chicago. Does Letters to Santa count as an emergency, National Weather Service?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

100 Days, 100 Nights

I'd known that Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings were coming to the Barrymore for at least a month, but for some reason I resisting buying a ticket. Many of my friends have waxed poetic about her live show, I own and enjoy her latest album, and I've wanted to see her for some time ... yet I hesitated. Busy month, the holidays, other concerts, lots of work to do in the meantime. Monday morning I remembered that the show was in two days, and gave it only the most fleeting of thoughts: "Yeah, definitely not going to that."

So, of course, Monday afternoon I received an email from The Onion informing me that I'd won a pair of tickets to see Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings. Who am I to argue with the concert gods? Nobody, that's who. Accordingly, Anya and I braved the slippery roads to the Barrymore last night. I'm very glad we did.

I now understand all of the superlatives I've heard to describe the live Sharon Jones experience. She has a great voice, the Dap-Kings are a tight and talented band, and Sharon has energy and moves that just won't quit. I enjoyed seeing her pull audience members up on stage to dance throughout the evening. I briefly wondered if she ever pulls someone up and then regrets it: think of crazy people you've encountered at concerts, and then picture the craziest ones onstage. But everyone last night seemed perfectly cool. And, at any rate, I'm pretty sure Sharon can take care of herself.

While Sharon's Tina Turner moves and Janet Jackson cover were highlights, and hearing familiar songs from 100 Days, 100 Nights was a treat, my favorite part of the show came toward the end. Sharon called Charles Bradley (an excellent James Brown impersonator who sang a few songs during the opening set) back to the stage. She said some heartfelt words about the recent election, and then together she and Charles sang Sam Cooke's "A Change is Gonna Come."

So, thanks, Onion, for getting me downtown in the middle of an extremely busy work week. And thanks, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, for making it more than worthwhile.