Tuesday, December 28, 2010

The last of the year

Happy holidays!  I spent Christmas weekend with my family, which somehow entailed my mom's old tap dancing/baton twirling notebook being dragged out.  My mom was a tap dancer and baton twirler as a child, earning billing in various recitals at the age of three as "Baby Tapper."  The notebook kept track of her various routines, sporting a foil star next to each step she mastered.  Based on a quick perusal of that notebook,  I give you:

Tap Dancing or Baton Twirling Moves That Could Be Sex Acts

1. Stir the soup
2. Shuffle ball
3. Slap ball
4. Airplane around knees
5. Coffee grinder

Sunday, December 19, 2010

The best soy latte that you ever had

It happened again last week!  The yearly 24-hour Letters to Santa benefit at Second City, featuring all manner of great musicians, wacky comedy, dance routines, field trips, interviews, and  - this year - a little wrestling.  Here's an incomplete photo retrospective:

6:30 p.m.: The 24 hours didn't officially begin until 7:00 p.m., but we got a bonus this year.  These guys came out to play a selection of heartfelt tunes they "wrote" ... which turned out to be four songs by Train.  A painfully hilarious start to the evening.

10:00-ish: I didn't take any pictures during Jeff Tweedy's annual set, but this is his guitar, Bob.

11:01 p.m.: Steve Albini interviews Andrew Mason, CEO of Groupon.  Later Andrew played piano for a rollicking set of Billy Joel covers.

12:00 a.m.: J.C. Brooks and the Uptown Sound take the stage and inspire a room full of comedians and comedy fans to shake their groove things.

2:17 a.m.: Joan of Arc plays, loudly

2:42 a.m.: Human caterpillar!

5:03 a.m.: Jeff Parker treats us to some dreamy guitar

5:38 a.m.: TJ tells the instant classic "101 chairs walk into a bar" joke.  For about twenty minutes.

7:07 a.m.: The babies and children come out to don various hats, eat muffins, and charm us all

7:36 a.m.: Jon Langford and Sally Timms drop by to sing some songs and shake a little maraca

9:25 a.m.: Actors are challenged to consume various food items, including a cup of scrambled eggs and a huge muffin, during a scene

1:00 p.m.: Former WWE wrestler Colt Cabana performs his finishing move on one of the actors, not to be let up until he names every U.S. president in order ... and predicts the next six

1:14 p.m.: Robbie Fulks and Gerald Dowd play a poignant "Dancing Queen"

2:59 p.m.: Bill Callahan nearly lulls me to sleep, through no fault of his own

4:44 p.m.: Improv!

5:04 p.m.: Our table.  Clockwise: Starbucks peppermint mocha, napkin, Second City menus, Bible, Boston Market fountain drink, trail mix, brownie wrapper, gum wrapper, broken hair clip

5:18 p.m.: The Blisters rock us for the eighth straight year

And that's the last picture I took.  Things finished up at 7:00 p.m. with the annual game of audience-participation freeze tag and an onstage reprisal of our second choreographed dance routine, "Magpie."  The event raised nearly $100,000 for charity.

Viva la benefit!

See also:
Letters to Santa 2009

Sunday, December 12, 2010

New York in winter

Last weekend in NYC was the perfect getaway.  Only one vacation day used, and three full days in the city.  We stayed at the Solita Soho (yes, there's a Solita now), with an excellent view of the Museum of Chinese in America ... just plain MOCA for short.

Friday night my flight got in at 8:20, and by 9:15 I was at the Red Lion on Bleecker, enjoying the last hour of the last Friday Night Campfire of 2010 with Martin Rivas and Craig Meyer.  I think I saw at least fifty of the songs they played that night, in medley form.

On Saturday, Paul and I walked around the Lower East Side in search of food, eventually finding some ... but not before being driven from our first two choices by huge crowds.  Memo to self: Christmas weekends in NYC bring the tourists out in droves. (Holla!) I wandered around Little Italy and Chinatown in the afternoon, before heading to the Bowery Ballroom for Jeff Tweedy and the Autumn Defense.  I hadn't seen the AD in awhile, and I enjoyed some of the songs from their newest album.  I also appreciated hearing "A Full Five Paces" live again for the first time in years.

Jeff Tweedy, the night's headliner, played an enjoyable set.  There were plenty of little flubs and mistakes, the kind that make things more entertaining for the crowd - at least, for me - but don't necessarily make a great show for the performer.  However, Jeff didn't seem phased.  I realized I've been spoiled by the marathon solo shows for charity I've seen in recent years - the respectable 1.5 hour set seemed short in comparison.  But whenever I get to hear such songs as "Bob Dylan's Beard," "Chinese Apple," and "Country Disappeared," there's nothing to complain about.  The Bowery is a tiny place, and we were very lucky to get in.

I spent Sunday with Allison, from brunch at Shopsin's to dinner at an Indian restaurant in Park Slope.  In between there was shopping in Soho, a visit to a friend's store in Brooklyn Heights, perusing Christmas trees on the street, and delicious smoothies.  I think I'm nearly as excited about Alli and Olli's impending new arrival as they are!  (Okay, that's totally not true.  But I am very excited.)

Monday, I finally experienced Momofuku.  Paul and I went to the Noodle Bar, and I now get what the fuss is about.  The ramen was amazing, but I think the pork buns were my highlight.  That pork belly!  I wouldn't be surprised if it appears in my dreams.

Sunday afternoon it was off to Tarrytown for Jeff Tweedy and the Autumn Defense again.  I have to admit that one of the most exciting parts of going to Tarrytown, for me, was its proximity to the former home of the fictional Draper family from Mad Men.  If we just stayed on the train, I exclaimed to Paul, we could go to Ossining!  So as you might imagine, my favorite part of Jeff's performance may have been his announcement about wearing a suit to honor Eugene Draper's birthplace of Tarrytown.  I was most impressed because I couldn't even have come up with that particular bit of trivia.  So, Jeff, or the person who told Jeff ... my hat's off to you.  The show itself was good, though shorter than Bowery, and our seats were in the acoustic sweet spot.  "What's the World Got In Store" was a welcome surprise.

Early Tuesday morning I flew home.  I was back at work by mid-morning, and by the end of the day it was hard to believe I'd ever left.  But I had!

For the first time in recent memory, I don't have any future flights scheduled.  I'm not sure how long that will be true, but I'm enjoying it for now.  Still, I'm looking forward to whatever 2011 might bring in the way of trips, concerts, or (my favorite) both.

(Update: the whole "not having any future flights scheduled" thing was true for exactly eight days.)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Now it's December

It's true!  This past weekend, I went to the Badgers' last home game of the year at Camp Randall.  Because I'm one of the biggest cold weather wimps I know, I was a little worried.  As it turns out, though, as long as you wear about four layers of clothing, the 20's aren't so bad.  Seeing Wisconsin crush Northwestern, earn a share of the Big Ten title, and hopefully secure a Rose Bowl bid was definitely worth it.  And at the end, there were fireworks.

This coming weekend, I will be in New York City.  Even though I didn't make it to California this year, at least I'll hit NYC twice!  December is in the danger zone for travel weather ... we've now entered the time of year when I can never count on being able to get anywhere.   (Also see above re: cold weather wimpitude.)  So far the forecast looks okay, so fingers are crossed.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Things I've done lately

November isn't a month with a lot going on around these parts, but I've managed to keep occupied. Last Friday, I won tickets to see the band Dawes play live at Studio M at the Triple M radio station.  I'd heard good buzz about Dawes live, though I was a little suspicious after reading about their connection with Jonathan Wilson and the whole Laurel Canyon crowd.  I wasn't able to attend their Friday night show at the Majestic, so the chance to see them free in a very small room that afternoon was much appreciated.

Triple M gave out free beer and Blue Sky soda before the show, an unexpected bonus.  Not being a soda or beer fan, I still appreciated the thought.  After drinks were distributed, approximately twenty of us were led down to the studio where Dawes was already set up on a small stage.  They played four songs, and were interviewed for about half an hour.  It was interesting to be part of a future radio broadcast - a little bit like being in a TV audience.  I enjoyed the performance, although judging from some of the questions in the interview, I'm guessing I don't have a much better feel for the full Dawes live show than I did before.  According to lead singer Taylor Goldsmith, they don't typically use acoustic guitars at all.  The studio performance consisted of one acoustic guitar, and three voices - the bass player didn't attend, because he doesn't sing.  Maybe I'll catch a proper Dawes show sometime.  From all I've heard, good things seem to be ahead for the band.

On Thursday, I saw Anthony Bourdain at the Overture Center.  I'm a fan of Tony's various TV shows and books, but I wasn't sure what to expect from his live appearance.  As it turned out, more of the delightful same: trash talk about various Food Network personalities, anecdotes about Top Chef, rants and advice about traveling and eating abroad, and a lengthy Q&A session at the end.  Someone asked a leading question about high speed trains in Wisconsin, earning a huge laugh and big applause when Tony - clearly getting that he had suddenly become part of some inside joke - nevertheless spoke in favor of high speed rail.  Listening to the crowd's reaction, I again wished Dane County could somehow secede from Wisconsin.

Between those two activities, I had a birthday.  There was no big trip or serenades this year, but I had a very pleasant day and heard from many friends and family members.  Plus, a coworker friend brought a birthday treat to work on my behalf.  Someone else baking your birthday treat: highly recommended.  And this afternoon: Harry Potter!

Monday, November 8, 2010


I was home sick one day last week, and figured I might as well make myself useful.  I proceeded to dig out and catalog all of the posters I've acquired and not hung up over the past eight years or so.  Nearly all are music-related: a mixture of show posters, album posters, and generic artist posters, with the odd music documentary poster and ... 1996 U.S. Men's Olympic Gymnastics Team poster ... thrown in.  Again: these are posters that have been stored in two closets in my home, mostly unframed, not doing anybody any good.

Q: How many posters were there?
A: There were fifty-seven posters.

I know this makes it sound like the Hoarders production crew might be stopping by at any moment, but I swear you'd never know to look at my closets that they harbored fifty-seven posters.  They take up so little room propped flat against the wall!  Even rolled up in groups, they're deceptively unassuming.

Of course, I didn't buy all of them.  Some were torn from windows or doors after a show, some were included with the purchase of an album, some were freebies from friendly record stores.  Still, perhaps the knowledge that I have fifty-seven undisplayed posters in my house ought to prevent me from ever purchasing a poster again.  It's true that I have curbed my poster-buying in recent years ... but sometimes I can't resist.  I'm a sucker for local venue posters, or posters from shows I'm proud to have seen.  I keep thinking that I'll frame more of them, and I will!  Really!  If nothing else, this project reminded me that I have some gems that deserve to be enjoyed.

But where to put them?  Between the spare bedroom and my office at work, I already have a respectable total on display.  The living room and hallways could accommodate many more, but it's not the design aesthetic I'm striving for in the main living areas of my home.  I could rotate the posters that are on display now.  Maybe I need to explore the untapped potential of bathrooms.

Here are a few of the posters I cataloged last week.  The others can be found in this Flickr set.  Any votes for which ones should be framed (and/or actually hung) next?

Monday, November 1, 2010

A jet plane and a big idea

For a long time now, I've wanted to see a show at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville.  I've seen The Avett Brothers live twice, and thoroughly enjoyed both concerts.  So when the Avetts announced a pair of Halloween shows at the Ryman earlier this year, including one on Saturday night, I thought, "Hey, I should go to that."  And I did.

Grace Potter and the Nocturnals opened the show, calling out a surprise guest on one song for a duet: Kenny Chesney.  I honestly wasn't sure if it really was Kenny Chesney at the time - it seems it was - but he did sound good.  Grace Potter's crew was dressed in NASCAR gear for Halloween, and Grace claimed that she and her bassist were dressed as "professionals ... not professional musicians."

The curtain closed between sets, keeping stage preparations a mystery.  In the meantime, the well-costumed crowd entertained itself by singing loudly along with "Living on a Prayer" and "Rocket Man."  Eventually, the lights dimmed and the curtain parted to reveal a suitably creepy Halloween setup.  The band, dressed as mummies, lurched onstage and hammed it up before beginning the show with fitting opener: "Die Die Die."

Judging from reports of Friday's show, the Avetts varied the setlists widely across the two nights.  I was happy to hear "In the Curve," and "SSS," even if I missed "Laundry Room."  Bob Crawford, Seth, and Scott all took solo turns on Saturday.  "Murder in the City" was the first song of the encore, with Scott sporting a new tiara along with the mummy costume - an interesting juxtaposition with the simple, heartfelt lyrics of the song.  I think I've seen "Murder in the City" each time I've seen the band, but this was the first time I heard Scott sing "my brother" and "my father" in place of "sister" and "mother." (The other two times, I think he substituted wife and daughter.  It's a versatile song.)

Two hours after the show began, it ended with Grace Potter and a couple of her band members dancing on stage with the Avetts, and Scott and Seth cutting off pieces of their mummy costumes to hand out to audience members.  I left the Ryman happy on Halloween Eve - and even returned for a backstage tour the next day before my flight home.  I'm pleased that I can check the Ryman Auditorium off my list of places to visit - and very pleased that I saw The Avett Brothers one more time in 2010.


Sunday, October 24, 2010

Historical intrigue

Joseph Very Quarles (Senator)
On a recent visit to Kenosha, I unearthed the abstract and title for my parents' house.  It's a sizable document, detailing the ownership of the land the house was built on, and eventually the house itself.  Included is a charming map of the sector of land first purchased in 1839 and then divided up into plots.  The map is from 1920, and I love it because all the streets and avenues had their old names.  Seventy-fifth Street was Selma Avenue.  The little park was already there on the median in the middle of 27th Avenue, but 27th Avenue was called Erie Street.

Included in the abstract are various Last Wills and Testaments, by which the land passed from one owner to the next.  At some point around the middle of the nineteenth century, it was owned by Ann Quarles.  Her last Will and Testament was among the most interesting, bequeathing such items as a portrait of herself (to her baby granddaughter), and a portrait of her deceased son (to another of her sons.)  She also left a gold watch, chain, and "appendages" to a Joseph V. Quarles, or, in the event of his death before her own, to his wife.

I'm not sure of the relationship between Ann Quarles and Joseph V. Quarles, but Ann appointed Joseph and a man named Michael Frank as the executors of her will.    The rest of the will detailed specifications for what should happen to her estate.  Four thousand dollars was to be taken from the total remaining after the sale of all her properties, invested in real estate bonds, and the interest earned was to be split yearly between two of her sons.  The remaining total from the sale of her estate was to be split between her three daughters.  There were more clauses for various eventualities.

This was all kind of cool, but none of those later details grabbed my interest like Article III of the will.  Before Ann Quarles went into specifics about her estate, there was Article III.  One sentence.  "To my son Samuel Quarles I leave the sum of Twenty Five Dollars."


That was the one and only time Samuel Quarles was mentioned.  I have a hundred questions, of course.  What did Samuel do to piss off his mother?  Was he a genuine scoundrel, or did he just, say, marry a kitchen maid?  Why bother naming him in the will at all?  It had to be for vindictive purposes, right?  The whole family would come together for the reading of the will, and Samuel would be humiliated in front of the largest possible audience?  

Things only got more interesting with the next document in the abstract, a notarized statement by Michael Frank.  In it, he refused to be an executor of Ann Quarles' Last Will and Testament.  Why would he refuse?  Too much on his plate?  Or was it possible that Michael Frank didn't approve of Article III, and wanted nothing to do with the will?  Obviously that's wild speculation, given that this probably wasn't among the top ten most outrageous things you'd find in a will, even in the 1800s.  And it looks like Michael Frank was a busy guy.  Still, I wonder.

It may be possible to find answers to some of these questions.  The Quarles family was prominent in Kenosha.  A quick Google search shows that there were at least four men named Joseph V. Quarles (each man kept passing the name down to his son).  The first was a notable Wisconsin pioneer.  His son was a lawyer, eventually mayor of Kenosha, and a Wisconsin senator around the turn of the century.  One of them was the Joseph V. Quarles named as executor of Ann's will (and left a gold watch).  I don't know how Ann Quarles was related to Joseph, but that should be one of the easier mysteries to solve.  Beyond that, I'm not sure.  Scour old Kenosha newspapers for mentions of Samuel Quarles?  Look for a marriage certificate?  Talk to someone who knows Kenosha history?  If only they had the internet back in the 1800s.

I have no idea when I might find time to delve into this, but I'm happy to have a little history project for a rainy day.  Okay, to be honest ... probably a whole lot of rainy days.  

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Kindergarten, 1973

I posted this once before, years ago, but I came across it today while cleaning out some files.  It's cute.  And it's been a slow week.  So - here it is again.

This is pretty much my family's only good brush with fame story, so I have to keep it alive.  (For a larger version, click and zoom.)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Blue lake and rocky shore

Last weekend, Allison and I took a trip to Maine.  We spent Friday night in Portland, Saturday in Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park, and then drove back to Portland on Sunday.

I loved it.  We picked an excellent time of year to visit.  Friday was rainy, but Saturday and Sunday were sunny and beautiful, with temperatures in the low 60's.  Perfect weather for a day at Acadia among the spruce and fir trees next to the ocean.  The park wasn't too crowded, and the wildness was palpable.  Even though the coast of Maine has been settled longer than central Wisconsin, nature feels much less tame there than it does here.  Falls colors weren't at their peak, but well on the way.  We hiked the Ocean Path from Otter Point to Sand Beach, part of the Jordan Pond Shore trail, around the summit of Cadillac Mountain, and caught a beautiful, chilly, blustery sunset at the Blue Hill Overlook.  We even saw a bald eagle.

The shops and scenery in Portland were charming, and even on Friday we didn't let the rain stop us from exploring.  We poked in and out of stores - there's a lot of pottery in Portland - and took a monumentally gusty walk in the rain along Casco Bay.  On Sunday morning we found the Maine Historical Society, and I paid a fascinating visit to the Tate House Museum before I left on Sunday afternoon.  I now know what I want to do when I retire ... I was born for docenthood.

On every step of the trip, sometimes by accident, Allison and I dined well.   A restaurant with hanging herbs in the small dining room, a chowder house, Jordan Pond House in Acadia, a funky cafe in Bar Harbor, S.O.S. for brunch in South Portland, drinks at a majestic bar that used to be a church.  And everywhere - stores, restaurants, hotels, museums, the park - people were incredibly friendly and helpful.  Maine knows how to make an excellent impression.  

Thursday, September 30, 2010

With my shiny new star-spangled tennis shoes on

On Tuesday, September 28th, everyone in the world came to downtown Madison.

Well, maybe not everyone, but I can't remember a day when I was presented with so many big-name opportunities in my own city.  The National and Owen Pallett had been scheduled for months at the Oprheum, and the Drive-By Truckers were at the Majestic.  Then, a couple of weeks ago, it was announced that President Obama would hold the first of four "Moving America Forward" rallies in Madison.  Ben Harper would be the musical guest.  Last week, I heard Jason Isbell was performing for free at the Wisconsin Veteran's Museum Tuesday afternoon.  And just a couple of days ago, The National was added to the Obama rally bill along with Mama Digdown's Brass Band.  Daaaamn.

I was nearly paralyzed by all the choices, along with horror of the downtown crowds and diverted traffic that would doubtless await.  In the end, I decided I could attend the rally - or try to - and make it back to the top of State Street in time for The National's show.  Surprisingly, I didn't have trouble finding a spot in a downtown parking garage.  I was lulled by the relative calm of State Street into grabbing a coffee and newspaper before moving toward Library Mall to find the end of the line.

Hahahahahaha!  By the time I found the end of the line, I'd walked with throngs of others from the base of Library Mall at Park and Bascom Hill south to University Avenue, west to Charter, north on Charter to Linden, and a few blocks west down Linden.  That's the better part of a mile, folks.  And people continued to arrive behind me.  (I'm not counting all the people who cut, which must have at least tripled the length of the line in front of us.)  Was it even worth it to wait?  Library Mall isn't that big, and I knew it would take at least an hour to get back once the line began moving.  But, I was there, so figured I might as well try.

It did take more than an hour - I walked through the gates as Tammy Baldwin began her speech - but I did get in.  Hooray!  It was too full to get anywhere near the front of the stage, to put it mildly, but walking around behind the stage gave intermittent views at relatively close range.  I got there just in time for The National to come out and play two songs, "Fake Empire" and "Terrible Love."  More speeches followed, including an appearance by Russ Feingold - proving rumors of his skipping the rally to be false.  Ben Harper played some songs.  I took in the scene, which included an impressive number of cops and men in suits and sunglasses, a few black choppers overhead, and honest-to-goodness snipers on the roof of Memorial Library.  Then Tom Barrett introduced Barack Obama, the first sitting president to appear in Madison since Harry Truman.

I enjoyed Obama's speech (and the fact that he talked about getting up to shenanigans in Madison when he first moved to Chicago, and got in a few Bears-Packers barbs).  But in the back of my mind, I was also thinking, "Crap, I need to make it back to the Orpheum."  I didn't have to worry about the show itself, since the band was still there watching the president's speech.  Still, I hate cutting things close.

Finding my way out of the security labyrinth proved more difficult than entering.  From where I stood at the rally, I could see State Street a mere block away, overflow crowds bunching around the security barriers.  So close, yet so far.  In order to get there, I had to walk up Observatory Drive and essentially cut across campus and back.  I still wound up arriving before doors at the Orpheum, since the show's start time had been pushed back.  A long line greeted me, but by then "long line" was a relative term.  Once inside I confirmed that the high stage was back, which meant arrival time didn't matter much anyway.

Owen Pallett was great in the opening slot - another reminder that unfamiliar openers aren't just something to be politely endured until the main act.  As Owen played the violin (and keyboard) and employed a looping technique, I couldn't help thinking of Andrew Bird.  Pallet's style seems a bit more classical and less ... whimsical?  The songs aren't really similar, but I can now safely say I enjoy both.  I particularly liked the song about the skyline of Toronto.

Around 9:15, The National took the stage.  Though this was my first National concert, my interest in the band was in fact sparked by a live performance.  Totally unfamiliar with their music, I happened to be watching Letterman earlier this year on a night when The National was the musical guest.  They played "Afraid of Everyone," and by the end of the song they had made a big impression on me.  Over the next few months I picked up and became very familiar with their three most recent albums, which served me well on Tuesday.

It's always interesting to see a band live for the first time.  I had some notions of what a show might be like based on their music and a few interviews and reviews, but of course the reality was something different.  I expected them to put on an intense, energetic show, which they absolutely did.  I didn't expect them to be as funny as they were between songs.  People apparently love to play "Slow Show" at weddings, even though, in the words of one of the Dessners, "This is the song where Matt talks about his dick."  Matt Berninger pointed out that the whole song isn't about his dick ... it's mostly about getting married.  There were anecdotes about the Dessners' cousin, Jeff, who played hockey for the UW and now sells insurance in Minnesota, and how Mrs. Dessner disapproved of a particular song because of all the yelling, and thought early on that they ought to find a pretty girl to be the singer.  (Matt concurred.)  Lots of talk about Obama - the band had met him for the first time that day, and were still riding high.  "He looked super nervous when he met us," Matt joked.  He later told the crowd that they'd been trying to figure out what to say to the president.  Drummer Bryan Devendorf's sentiment of choice?  "You rocked it, sir!"  Matt added that Bryan had been wearing dark glasses and a headband at the time.  "And then [Obama] ignored the rest of us and went off to do shots with Bryan."  

That was between songs.  During songs, the band was all business: which is to say, they gave an emotional, energetic performance.  Being a first-timer, I don't know what their concerts are typically like, or which songs might make longtime fans check their watches.  From my perspective, though, the setlist was excellent.  Songs I'd been hoping to hear were there: "Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks," "Abel" (the song with all the yelling), "Afraid of Everyone" (for the media), "Bloodbuzz Ohio" (dedicated to the swing states), "Fake Empire," the slow-building anthem "England."

Toward the end of the show, Matt noted that this was one of the best days they'd ever had.  The performance of "Mr. November" was especially appropriate that night, and though Matt didn't venture off the Orpheum's eight-foot stage, he did drape himself halfway over its edge, a sea of hands reaching out to touch his back and shoulders. And I couldn't have been more surprised to find myself near tears at the end of "Terrible Love," shouting the refrain over and over with the the band and 1500 others.  "It takes an ocean not to break."  I don't know what it means, exactly, but at the same time I do.  What a cathartic song.  In the end, that's what the best rock concerts can offer.

Back in August, I had to decide whether to see The National in Milwaukee or The New Pornographers in Madison.  I chose TNP.  Would I choose differently now?  I'm not sure.  Reason says I'd still go with the show in town, but it would be a much tougher decision after Tuesday.

Monday, September 27, 2010

England and Scotland

I'm neither English nor Scottish.  So why did my trip to the UK feel so much like visiting part of my own history?  I suppose it's a combination of factors.  Until world history in high school, the majority of history we learned in school was Anglocentric.  It's just so much a part of our culture here, or at least mine growing up.  Part of our stories, our historical sites, our media.  When the American Revolution was fought, none of my ancestors had anything to do with it ... unless it was that stray Native American line.  But mostly, my ancestors were off in Greece and Italy and Austria-Hungary and Belgium and Denmark, not caring at all.  In my head, though, that's not how it goes.  So I was excited to spend some time in a place that already felt, in an odd way, like my territory.

What did I do on my trip besides see concerts?  Plenty.  Though I had a few free hours in London last summer, I was pleased to spend a bit more time there this year.  Not nearly enough, of course.  But I had afternoon tea with Paul at The Wolseley, explored a proper British department store, walked across the Thames, and paid a visit to the original Reckless Records on Berwick Street.  We left for Newcastle-upon-Tyne from King's Cross Station, and if it weren't for construction issues, I would definitely have visited Platform 9-3/4 too.  I'd like to take in London by the gulp rather than small sips, but this will do for now.

In Newcastle, we visited Grainger Market, which opened in 1835 and boasts the world's smallest Marks & Spencer store.   It also has some yummy food.  We ate both a lunch and a traditional English breakfast there, all made with market ingredients.  Side note: breakfast sausage in England and Scotland beats the hell out of our weak, wrinkly American version.  But I'm not a huge fan of black pudding.  Grainger Market wasn't the only place we sampled the food and drink of Newcastle: a cafe called The Scrumpy Willow and the Singing Kettle makes a mean banana lassi.  And I thought lassis were only made of mango!

From Newcastle we went to Glasgow, arriving on the same day as the Pope.  We steered clear of Papal activities, though, keeping occupied well away from Bellahouston Park.  We wandered around the city centre, Buchanan Street, Argyle Street, and the Barras neighborhood.  Glasgow's architecture is pretty great, owing much to Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  My first thought upon seeing some of his designs was of local hero Frank Lloyd Wright.  They were contemporaries in the Arts & Crafts world at the turn of the century, it turns out, but Mackintosh's work seems more fanciful somehow.  I also admired a huge metal art deco peacock on the Princes Street Shopping Centre.  Mackintosh didn't have all the fun in Glasgow.

I took a solo day trip to Edinburgh on Friday, armed with maps and advice from locals Iain and Ann. Clouds rolled away in the morning, leaving me with a bright, sunny day to enjoy the city.  I walked to the top of Calton Hill, exploring the Old Calton Burial Ground on the way.  I strolled the Royal Mile to Edinburgh Castle and spent hours exploring its nooks and crannies, admiring the spectacular views.  I ate wild boar sausage at the castle cafe, and visited St. Margaret's Chapel: the oldest building in Edinburgh, dating back to the 1100's.  I got some excellent shopping in on High Street and the surrounding area.  I wandered down wynds and closes, and visited the small Writer's Museum.  I found the statue of Greyfriars Bobby.  I browsed at the Central Lending Library, reading a chapter from a book debating whether Jane Eyre could have been happy in the years following the book's conclusion.  And I got back to Glasgow in time to pick up a late dinner from Wagamama.

The next day was my last in Scotland, and I finally took the Clockwork Orange (Glasgow's subway) west.  Signs for the Papal Mass still pointed the way from Ibrox to Bellahouston Park, though the Pope himself had Popemobiled away days earlier.  My destination was House for an Art Lover, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.  I loved it.  It blows my mind that house and furnishings were dreamed up by Mackintosh when the Victorian style was still in vogue.  The smooth, clean lines and abundance of light seemed decades ahead of their time.  Aside from the house, I walked around in the park and enjoyed more art and gardens.  On my way back, I nearly got swept up in the tide of red-and-blue-clad Glaswegians headed to Ibrox for the afternoon football game.  I  bought myself a scarf from one of the many street vendors set up near the stadium.  A couple more hours puttering around Buchanan Street, and then it was time to take a bus to the airport.  I flew to London that night, and back home in the morning.

So that was my trip.  I'd love to get back to Scotland, and see more of the countryside next time.  I'm not sure when I'll be able to make that happen, but I've learned that you never can tell.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Watch the miles flying by

I'm freshly back from the United Kingdom, with a lingering desire to keep traveling.  Rock tourism once again gave me the push to book a holiday I might otherwise have waffled on indefinitely.  Thanks to some helpful scheduling, I checked a major item off The List!  As is customary, my trip had a musical component and non-musical component.  In this post, I'll talk about the concerts: Wilco in London, Newcastle, and Glasgow.

London was an afterthought in planning, but I'm grateful it worked out.  Originally I had my eye on the two northern GA shows, which fit in with work and let me visit Scotland.  After researching routes, though, it made the most sense to begin in London.  Since both Paul and I were arriving on the day Wilco was playing, shouldn't we try to attend?  Fortunately, despite the short notice, everything fell into place.  We were treated to an excellent show at Royal Festival Hall, and I would have been bummed to miss the onstage debut of Synthesizer Patel!  Sanjeev Kohli appeared in character with a keytar during "You Never Know," to the confusion and/or delight of all.  Songs like "Poor Places" and "Reservations" sounded great from our seats, as did "How to Fight Loneliness."  The unlikeliest-song-during-which-to-bust-a-string award went to "Some Day Some Morning Sometime," and Jeff had to wait for a new guitar before making the intended transition into a scorching "Laminated Cat."  On a secondary note, we had fun people spotting.  With a comedian like Sanjeev making cameo appearances, Philip Selway opening, the 7 Worlds Collide gang, and friends like Bill Fay, Wilco has amassed many London connections.

Newcastle was a shorter show than London, but the general admission atmosphere was a nice change of pace.  The crowd was enthusiastic, though in terms of makeup and dress it couldn't measure up to the attendees of a certain other show.  The O2 Academy in Newcastle houses multiple venues, and in the secondary theater, the night's headliner was Skeletonwitch.  Hopefully nobody went to the wrong concert by accident.  Jeff did some great impressions of the black metal band Venom, natives of Newcastle; and we got a great version of "Shouldn't Be Ashamed."  Though Jeff's displeasure with a videotaper and underwhelming security caused a bit of friction late in the show, it was another solid night of rock.  And there was one more to go.

My last show was at the Barrowland Ballroom in Glasgow.  The venue has character to spare.  It's an old dance hall on the third floor of a building with wooden stars on the ceiling, and the decor and fonts reminded me of a style I'll call "70's bowling alley chic." The neon sign outside puts all other signs to shame.  Barrowlands crowds have historically been known to chuck bottles of piss at the stage, but happily that element didn't seem to be in attendance for Wilco.  Instead, we got one of the best shows I've seen in awhile.  It was one of those nights when every song seemed to be performed at 110%, and the crowd roared its approval in between.  The show was again shorter than those we'd been seeing in the U.S., but it didn't suffer for it.  There were many highlights, but my favorite moment was recognizing the opening chords of the encore's final song: "Kicking Television" at last!  I was thrilled that Jeff remembered my request, and they were willing to play it.  Later I figured out I last saw "Kicking TV" in May of '05.  As great as it sounded in Glasgow, I wonder why it doesn't appear more.  But if it did, maybe it wouldn't pack such a punch.

It seems likely I won't have another chance to see Wilco until well into 2011.  I'm glad I made this trip across the pond for one last hurrah in 2010.  Then again, I'm always happy to have gone.  I must note that this wasn't my last rock tourism trip of 2010, however.  Stay tuned ... there's some more chipping away at The List to be done in October.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Twice if you're lucky

Plenty has happened since the last time I saw Crowded House in August 2007.  Though the band hasn't toured these parts since Time On Earth, I haven't exactly suffered from a Finn drought.  There was the Split Enz concert in Wellington, 2008; Neil solo and with the 7 Worlds Collide brigade at Largo in 2009.  Young Liam also toured the midwest in 2009 with that other band I like.  But when 2010 brought a new Crowded House album and tour, I was happy to sign on for the local concerts: Chicago and Milwaukee.

The two venues didn't have much in common.  Chicago's show was at the House of Blues, with a raucous, drunk, very enthusiastic audience.  In Milwaukee the band returned to the lush Pabst Theater, with a smaller, more attentive, (mostly) more sedate crowd.  I had a good time at both shows, but oddly Milwaukee featured more audience banter and interaction.  Mark Hart even climbed down into the crowd during the show, tasked with deciphering the request of an inebriated audience member.  Mark was sidetracked by someone else, which was for the best: the man wanted Neil to play a song by himself.  However, Neil was determined to find out what the guy was saying.  He announced that if someone could land a paper airplane onstage with a transcription as well as their own request, he guaranteed they'd play it.  What an offer!  I can't fold a paper airplane, but from the third row I'm sure I could have fashioned something that would fly far enough.  The only thing stopping me was a complete lack of paper.  Maybe the drunk man's comment wasn't worth hearing, but I would have reported the hell out of it in exchange for "Catherine Wheels."

Nevertheless, I have no complaints about the songs that were played over the two nights.  Chicago's setlist held its own with songs like "Chocolate Cake" (echoing the jokes we'd made at dinner when Sam got free birthday chocolate cake at the HoB restaurant) and the insanely fun "I Got You."  (I challenge anyone to stand still during "I Got You.")  A guitar-tuning jam evolved into a cover of CCR's "Born on the Bayou" with Mark on lead vocals.  Neil's dad was hooked up to watch the show by video chat, via a laptop that sat onstage the whole night.  At the end the crowd got the opportunity to say hello, and listen in as Nick Seymour ask the elder Mr. Finn a few questions.  "Is it a nice day there in New Zealand?"  "No, it's a terrible day."

Milwaukee's setlist was substantially different from Chicago's, featuring eight songs that hadn't been played on Sunday.  I was pleased to hear one of my favorites from the new album, "Amsterdam," even if  the song seems to cast the entire city as a bastion of immorality.  The verse of "Black and White Boy" spliced into "Private Universe" was also a treat (I'm not counting that as a ninth different song), and I could sing along to classics like "Mean to Me" and "Weather With You" all night.  But when Neil sat down at the keys to play "Message to My Girl," the acoustics of the Pabst really came through.  Speaking of the theater, Neil seemed to find the confluence of consonants in "Pabst" entertaining.  He also mentioned the Pfister Hotel.  "You're probably used to it, but I find it quaint and exotic."  And, once again, Wayne's World came up.  I wonder if Dana Carvey and Mike Myers are aware of being the world's Milwaukee ambassadors.   

After the Milwaukee show was over, I lingered outside chatting with friends.  When I finally headed to my car I noticed the band had begun to emerge from the theater.  Having scored a setlist earlier from the soundboard, I decided that stopping for a bit would be worth the later bedtime.  At long last, I met Neil Finn.  For about ten seconds.  (I don't think letting him and Sharon past at the soundboard after Wilco in Wellington counted as a meeting.)  The rest of the band signed my setlist too, and it was a nice ending to my two days of Crowded House.  There was talk that the band might return to play a few big-market shows in the U.S. next year.  I'd prefer Madison, of course, but if the Crowdies come within my Mad-Mil-Chi concert radius, I think you can count me in.  

For the accurate setlist as played, look here.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Wouldn't be here if it wasn't for you

On Saturday, the Hotel S'n'S basement show celebrated its sixth year of bringing together our group of friends from across the U.S. and Canada.  The big question was, would it be the last?  There had been talk that the Tweedys might not do the auction again, at least for awhile.  We figured we had better stuff as much fun into this weekend as possible, just in case.

As if that's ever a problem.  Friday night kicked off with our annual party.  This year's theme: Vampires at a Discotheque.  August didn't leave me with much spare time, so I ended up with one of my lamer theme costumes.  Just some ninety-nine cent plastic vampire teeth and some "vampire blood" spray candy.  Luckily, Paul's "Vampire Weekend" getup picked up the slack.  Many of our friends couldn't make it to town until the next day, but Sam and Sooz's friends filled in the gaps. We spent Friday night happily drinking blood punch, playing Rock Band, watching Sam's mix of old commercial clips on the big screen, and dancing to Gaga and the whole vampire party mix.   

And then Saturday arrived.  Some of us made the traditional gourmet encased meats run to Hot Doug's in the early afternoon, and then it was on to Hotel S'n'S to finish preparations.  I had my pie pops to artfully arrange, and the food kept rolling in.  As usual, our potluck was truly outstanding.  Walrus brought not only the soft serve machine and plenty of fixings, but a sno cone machine as well.  Cathy brought a flan cheesecake and Japanese-style curry.  Dick's meat returned after a one-year hiatus, to much fanfare.  Kris and Alison brought brisket from Smoque and the famous mac 'n' cheese.  Sooz's orzo, Kristina's slaw, Uyen's little Guinness cupcakes, Tamala's stuffed bread, a donated keg of Alpha King ... and much more.  We ate and drank well all night long.

The Tweedys arrived a bit earlier than usual, and we got down to business.  Ever since year three, the show's format has remained the same: each person requests a song, then chooses someone to go next.  Jeff has some warning of the songs we're planning to ask for, but that doesn't mean he can or will play them all.  Still, I think we got an especially high percentage of granted wishes.  I was thrilled to finally hear Richard and Mimi Farina's lovely "Reflections in a Crystal Wind" live.  "Big Rock Candy Mountain" was a surprising treat, and the Elizabeth Cotten song "Freight Train" was one of my favorites of the night.  Another was our own favourite Canadian, Judy, lending a hand with some tricky lyrics in Neil Young's "Look Out For My Love."  

Cover songs are rare and therefore notable, but Jeff's own songs provided the heart of the show.  "More Like the Moon" is nearly perfect, and Saturday night's performance was no exception.  "Nothing Up My Sleeve" made a welcome return, and "Misunderstood" turned into an excellent singalong.  Of course, who could forget Jeff serenading Zelda the pug, asleep at his feet, with the third verse of "I Am Trying To Break Your Heart"?  Racy!  Zelda remained unmoved.

A major part of our show is the atmosphere.  As I mentioned, this was year six, and things felt comfortable and familiar.  From both performer and audience came plenty of sarcasm, storytelling, joking, drinking (okay, that was really just the audience) and general tomfoolery.  We don't use a PA, and the central air was turned off so Jeff wouldn't have to sing over it.  Conditions in the basement quickly became hot and sweaty, which somehow added to the merriment.  This may be cheating, but during one of the breaks I got in a song request for an upcoming show.  Strike while the iron is hot?  Or something.  I also learned that a "new" song we overheard at a South Bend soundcheck is actually by Linda Thompson.  Clearly I need to brush up on my British folk artist catalogs.

The show ended hours after it began with our traditional "Candyfloss" sing- and dance-along.  Before that, though, we got in one more cover: Big Star's "Thank You, Friends."  Never have the lyrics to that song felt more appropriate, dancing around Sooz's basement and belting it out with some of my favorite people in the world.  As Jeff stood amongst us, playing, I thought ... damn.  We certainly have been lucky.  "Thank you again!" morphed into "Thank you Jeff!"  Tipsy and sentimental?  Sure.  Singing from the heart?  You bet.

After the show came the sweaty group photo, the distribution of posters, and a few other things.  By the time Susan and Jeff had gone, it was officially Sunday morning.  Time for a second (third, fourth, whatever) round of eating, and then the music to begin again in the basement.  We had multiple guitarists lending a hand this year, and two egg shakers in addition to the Dr. Teeth tambourine.  Just call us a band.  Mart's set was the postshow highlight for me, as it always is, and Rob provided some tasteful assistance.  My favorite song, I think, was "I Am the Walrus."  After having played Ringo on that song just the night before, I was content to shake an egg shaker and sing along.  Music and friends: a wonderful combination.

The fun didn't end with Saturday (er, Sunday morning.)  Eleven of us met for brunch at Milk & Honey, to say goodbye before more planes departed the Windy City.  U, Heidi, Paul, and I followed that up with a walk around Grant and Millennium Parks, before heading back to S'n'S to scarf down leftovers (Japanese curry and slaw!) and watch the Emmys and Mad Men.  It was almost Monday before I reluctantly headed back home.  Yes, Harry McClintock, I would like to hang the jerk that invented work.

Was this the final year of the private show auction?  We don't really know.  When we won that first auction in 2004, it seemed like this whole situation was too good to be true.  By 2010, I know it was too good to be true ... but somehow it was true nonetheless.   Jeff and Susan have done amazing things for all of us, and even more amazing things for the charity.  If this was the end, we had a hell of a run.  If this wasn't the end, then here's to the future.  As a matter of fact, here's to the future regardless.  Thank you, friends.


I've had a Wilco-intensive month or so, with some New Pornographers thrown in for good measure.  But things are about to get Crowded Housey, beginning Sunday.