Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Excuse the Price of Gas

Today our Commander in Chief stood among the chirping birds in the Rose Garden and announced that if it weren't for that stinky ol' Congress blocking oil drilling in the Arctic Wilderness, gas prices wouldn't be so high.

Now, that's a gas. George must think we're all as dumb as a bag of hammers. I wonder what it is that bugs the GOP and some of these Corpora-crats about not getting their grimy hands on the last bit of the undeveloped wild. Why don't they just go to Africa and shoot elephants instead?

As my daughter and I were running an errand I stopped to fill up my tank, to the tune of $42 and change. That's mild by some standards, because I don't drive a ten-person SUV. I drive a five passenger midsize wagon that gets so-so mileage, about 26 to the gallon if I drive smart and keep that needle between 1 and 2 rpms; I choose not to take the highway to work so it makes for a fairly smooth ride.

But some people do drive enormous SUVs that they don't need. I'm not talking about these 4-H or Brady Bunch families with six kids, livestock, and/or pets. I'm talking about the folks I sometimes see tooling about in my litte Burg -- two parents, maybe two kids, a little baseball equipment, and one big Hummer.

Y'all out there driving solo in those big-ass, low-efficiency cars , listen up: Gas prices are high because you are driving up demand. Oh, don't give me that. I see you out there, every damn day, riding in those pretend trucks on your way to work, just you and nobody else. It's not like you drive the speed limit, either. So when they finally crack open the Alaska wilderness and haul away the last polar bear carcass, pat yourself on the back.

Tonight at Target I found a unique and clever retailer coup: The Re-Tote. Now, I've actually taken my Target bags back to Target so they can be reused, but this is way better. The Target Re-Tote is a big sturdy recycled bag of fun. It's enormous, carried all the items we needed, and it's colorful! What's more, you can help make one if you send your Target bags in. A company called TerraCycle is buddying up with Target and Newsweek to collect your used Tar-jay bags and turn them into this cool and capacious bag. If you take the cover off the April 14 edition of Newsweek, it folds into a pre-paid envelope in which you stuff your used plastic Target bags and send them into TerraCycle; your reward is one of these spiffy totes! I love mine.

Today a United States judge in California ruled that the Bush Administration has 16 days to decide whether to list polar bears on the endangered species list. There is due cause because the polar bear's habitat is eroding, er, melting at a pretty brisk pace, thanks to global warming. Of course, if they hurry and open the Arctic to drilling, that problem will take care of itself. And Shrubya can have himself a nice polar bear rug back at his dude ranch where he'll spend the rest of his life convinced that he's a smart guy and did his country a great service.

This morning on my speed-limited way to work, I was enjoying this tune from Pete Rowan and the Nashville Bluegrass Band. There are a few guys whose voices I really do find stunningly distinctive, and Pete Rowan's is one of them. This is one is on my list of most beautiful songs; it's full of sadness and regret and shame about some of the other bad choices Americans have made, leaders have made. If we kind of globally removed our heads from our self-important asses to think about the consequences of just a quarter of our actions, an eighth, even, what might the world be like?

Trail of Tears

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Double-Banjo Double-Play

Well the day has come, and we survived our trip to Cleveland. I say "survived" because it was, indeed, a rather late night for the younger folk. It was game night in Cleveland, and I don't know that my kids have ever experienced anything like the activity that surrounds the ball field during and after a game -- not inside the ballpark, mind you, but the ancillary buzz and revelry that is part of the rare warm Cleveland evening when the lights are on the field.

We joined my friend G who had arrived much earlier and was still one of only a handful of souls at Wilberts. We ordered a couple of bites and a beverage and chatted for a long while as my natives became increasingly restless. It wasn't until past 10 p.m. that the game was over (Cleveland won!) and the fireworks began. It was a heckuva show, and no point trying to hear bluegrass over that, especially since most of the band had gone to the game.

What my daughter was least used to was the loud party buzz that spilled into the previously quiet venue. She's not used to obnoxious Cleveland sportsdrunks. Most of them just wandered in off the street after the game to use the necessary and weren't interested in paying a $12 cover to hear a banjo virtuoso. So we hearty fans stood our ground. Once the music started my daughter and I found a seat right up front and enjoyed the rest of the show with a big smile on our faces. Tony and his banjo double played Bill Monroe's Roanoke which actually made her giggle.

The longest part of the night was spent on a stretch of I-271 that was practically stopped dead with the return of spring construction in Ohio. No one expects to see this kind of traffic at midnight, but it took us an hour to go 2 miles. Thank goodness my son kept me awake with his cosmic questions. And we all seem to be no worse for wear this morning.

I couldn't find a recording of Tony playing Roanoke, but the band did play this sweet tune from the Double Banjo Bluegrass Spectactular recording, which by the way features a swell lineup of talent from Earl Scruggs to Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Alison Brown, and Tony Rice. It's called Escher's Waltz and I hope it puts a happy banjo lilt into whatever you do today.

Escher's Waltz

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Banjo Hounds At My Door

It's been a trial, lately, all I can say. But better days are coming, and they start this Friday (April 25) at Wilbert's in Downtown Cleveland. That's 'cause banjo great Tony Trischka will be playing, and I'll be listening, with a beer in my hand and a wide Mando Mama banjo-lovin' smile on my face.

You can check it out with me, or you can check out Tony's MySpace page here to listen and to read a little about this banjo virtuoso. Or, you can come to Wilbert's. Or, you can go to his main Web site here and hear "Fox Chase," which is a helluva butt-kicker. Or, you can come to Wilbert's and here it live. Or, you can check out this tune, Old Stone Church (with one of my favorite fiddlers, Bruce Molsky) which is the name of an old church right on Cleveland's Public Square.

Or you can head south from Old Stone Church a few blocks to Wilbert's, pay twelve bucks, have a beer with me, put a smile on your face, and watch Tony do his banjo magic thang the way Fred Astaire danced, or the way Picasso painted.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Just Me N' Rod McNeil

Tonight at the end of another busy and, in spots, troubling week I closed it all down, and picked up a book. Didn't feel right. So I pulled out my mandolin, which I haven't done in so long it was out of tune as if my kids had been fooling with it when I wasn't looking. But I tuned it up and started to goof off and welcome the strings back into my fingers and I made up a little tune. Then my fingers wandered around and found another tune that was familiar but it took me a while to realize what it was.

"Rod McNeil" has always been a favorite Tim O'Brien song of mine, and just one of my favorite tunes in general. It comes off of Tim's The Crossing release, which was my introduction to Tim's work. At the time I was just taken with all the music so fast. It was like being hit by the bluegrass train. There was no time to recover or really take it all in but I just kept gobbling it up like I'd found the one true thing that actually would sustain me through whatever life I had left. Through the years since then some of the tunes have nestled their way into my fibers. Some of them, like this one, just have a way of reminding me that the world can pretty much go to hell in a handcart and take all the wingnuts with it, but certain things and realities and people will always remain true.

"Rod McNeil" is sweet and generous, with a beautiful melody that swells in a sort of traditional ballad-like way in all the right spots. It's really a beautiful paean to the subject, who offered up a place to play music to an adoring if small crowd. These people are everywhere, and they are champions of the musical stuff we hold dear. And they help along a lot of relative unknowns, and give the rest of us a place to sit and listen to the unknown greatness that populates the world of acoustic music. I think it's a pretty cool job. I sure wouldn't mind being one of them folks someday.

On the release, the tune goes directly into an instrumental "Cumberland Gap," a good old tune from back before the days of bluegrass. It's a nice segue that doesn't allow us to linger too long waxing nostalgic, but rather get right back to the business of music at hand.

Whatever brings you peace of mind and heart, I hope you have both tonight.

Rod McNeil

Saturday, April 19, 2008

Everyday Eden

Happy Almost Earth Day! On this even before EarthFest it is raining, and it looks to be raining a good bit tomorrow. But earlier in the day it was lovely and unseasonably warm. I done done my duty: finally my composter, which for the last several years was nestled idle among the trees at Xs, is up here, guarded with a little wire, and inside at the bottom there's a small pile of vegetable matter scattered with leaves. I walked to my local hardware store and acquired the wire and a pitchfork, showing my optimism that within a few weeks I'll have the beginning of a nice batch of humus to start turning.

I spent last night and a little while this afternoon also at the park, although I am finding more and more that as the weather returns, exercise along the bike path becomes a social event, and the outdoors for me is more of a way to gain solitude. My son has often said it's far easier to run on the grass than on concrete where the bikers and rollerbladers and dogwalkers and scooterists and teenage girls three astride in their flipflops and strollergoers and frogcatchers all assemble themselves too on a day like today. So I guess if I'm to enjoy whatever bit of Eden I can without offending masses and weaving in and out, I'll have to follow his advice and go well off the path.

But that's ok. I'm social by nature but even I sometimes miss the solitude my days sometimes held. The woods, the green grassy open spaces, time by the water are all healing places for me, and restore me to a fresher, quieter state of mind ready to roll with whatever punches come.

Tomorrow we'll celebrate Earth Day a few days early and from about 6:30 a.m. on at the Cleveland Zoo I'll be greeting eager volunteers while sneaking sips of my coffee in between. By the end of the day I'm sure I'll need to find a little bit of Eden.

And y'all should, too! Do something to commemorate your connection to the earth this weekend. Whether you like to play in the dirt with your plants or go for a hike or take a drive in your fuel-efficent car to pick up some new organic cotton socks and a free-range chicken for the dinner table, I'm sure you can find a way to enjoy the bounty of a spring day, even if it just means taking a deep sniff of rain-cleared air.

Here's one of my favorite people doing one of my favorite tunes about this very thing. Tracy Grammer and Dave Carter recorded this song, Gentle Arms of Eden, about a year before his untimely death. Today Tracy sings all his songs and quite a few of her own. Here she is joined by Jim Henry, Tracy's collaborator and performing and recording companion.


Gentle Arms of Eden (YouTube)

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A River of Emotion Runs Through It

Friday nights at our house are usually pretty low key, and almost always wind up with the kids and I watching a movie. This week's selection was Bridge to Terabithia, based on the novel by Katherine Paterson. It's got a few twists and turns, and for a "children's" story it's filled with powerful emotions. By the end of the movie, we are usually in tears as the story leads the main character to unexpected and difficult territory.

Not to spoil it, but in order to make my point I have to be a little specific. At the end of the story, the lead character is wrestling with the sudden accidental death of his best friend, and in walking through these strong feelings he alienates his baby sister, who also misses their young fearless and imaginative companion. When the little girl follows her brother into the woods, he turns on her, yells at her and physically pushes her away, which of course breaks her heart (and everyone else's). When the boy in the story later approaches the little girl and she rejects his attempt to reach out to her, the chasm between them is even more evident. I noticed at this point during this viewing that even my son, who is both a typical teenager and also fiercely protective of his little sister, was trying hard to conceal his tears. Eventually in an act of healing and apology all at once, the boy reclaims the woody retreat he shared with his friend and recreates the magic for his sister to enjoy.

I think even I was suprised by the ferocity of my kids' reaction to this exchange between the sister and brother. After the movie, my son and daughter, who was feeling the emotion in the movie particularly hard -- she looks tough on the outside but feels everything a hundred times more intensely than the rest of us -- needed a real hug from her big brother, whom she admires more than any kid she knows. To see them reassure each other that they loved each other regardless of anything else was a real gift to me.

My sister recently sent me a book by a woman whom she knew at Vanderbilt. It's called "The Switching Hour," and it's one of the most difficult things I've ever read. It's not long at all, but deals with an enormous issue: the way of life of children of divorce. The Switching Hour is that time between households when a child is jettisoned from one life and home to another. The author describes them as being like little astronauts who travel through space between one parent planet and the other, and how this pattern will be with them the rest of their lives -- as they marry, as they bring children into the world, as they bury us. I told my sister that if I had read this book before the divorce, I might well not have been able to go through it knowing what they would be facing.

I'm not the kind of parent who believes you can censor feelings or whip a kid into shape and into accepting and believing what they do not, and in some cases, never will, accept. The force of feeling is strong, and there is nothing anyone can do really to destroy it, unless they destroy the vessel of the emotion in the process. Even then, the emotion lives on in the subconscious or unconscious, and will direct that child's behavior, decisions, relationships, and in many cases successes or failures for the rest of his or her life. Take a look at the adults around you. The degree of brokenness -- what does that tell you?

That's why my house has always been a sort of "safe zone" where it's ok to express feelings no matter how strong or scary. I don't know the degree to which their feelings are valued or validated when they're not here, so when they are, we let go and let ourselves unravel a little bit. That's where the meaty stuff comes in. Some of the conversations my son will start really are quite something, and make me miss my own parents so completely because they are not here with him to talk about his big questions about the universe or whether to believe or not believe. The task is left to me and I take it on willingly, as I take on the heartfelt comments my daughter makes about how fast the week goes when we're together. These are difficult things to express at any age.

My son and I at the end of the weekend watched a different film, A River Runs Through It, based on the book by Norman Maclean and produced by Robert Redford. It's a lovely coming of age tale, and about heartbreak and families and never knowing the ones closest to us, yet loving them regardless. My son loved the story, and we both sort of marvel at how simple life could be. He's desperate now to go fishing this summer. My father, and grandfather, were keen fishermen. I know two of my brothers to fish, but it's not something I took up. I'll have to entrust my son to them for the task as he rises from a boy to a young man and all the powerful emotions he has to learn to deal with.

I think I said I was done with pimping Tim's new album, Chameleon, but I managed to talk Mr. and Mrs. Ipsissimus into getting the album so maybe I can topple the will of a few more of you with one more tune. It's the lead track, "Where's Love Come From?" and begs the question of how powerful love is, well beyond our understanding. It's jazzy melody belies the gravity of the message. I feel certain that you'll enjoy it if you let yourself.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Something You Don't Hear Everyday

Ok, after this I'll move on from Chameleon. But this is just a damn fine album and it's one of those I think that came along at a time when I needed it.

Just a guy and some strings and look how well it turned out. No bells or whistles. If you're really good at something, it shows, and you don't need bells, or whistles, or amps, or anything else to prove it. Good work stands on its own.

One of the favorite things about this album is a chance to hear Tim play the banjo. I think I've seen him play it live once, although I'm sure he does now and then. But it's not something you see or hear often.

The fourth track on the release is my favorite. On Red Dog In The Morning, Tim is playing an Ome minstrel banjo (oh I would love me an Ome). Son of Mando had a lesson on one of these Ome cuties back a year or two at IBMA. The way of old time playing is a little more of a percussive strumming with the hand in the position of a claw, hence the term, "clawhammer". I love the sound. It's at home somewhere deep down in my heart.
So just Tim, and just an Ome. Just one intrepid voice that was born to sing this tune it wrote, and an instrument that only people who don't know much still make fun of.
I don't want to transpose the lyrics here but please give it a listen. I'm not sure what this tune is about, but it's got a bit of a march to it, and a dark feel, "It's a Red Dog in the morning/Black dog in the afternoon....When you see me a-comin/Raise your flag away up high/Put that greenwood on the fire/I'll see your smoke when I pass by."
Go on now and let it under your skin. However you take your quiet moments this weekend, I hope it includes some good music, your own or someone else's.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

A Little Bit of Summer Soon Gone

I've decided to disown my neighbor. Tonight at the fitness center, she broke the news that this weekend we will be facing the "S" word again. I just told my sister last night how I have almost forgot the 10 foot high piles of the stuff taking over parking spaces everywhere.

This week was, is, a wonderful windows-open, play outside, hear-the-frogs week. The other day at the bike path the frogs were chirping so loudly that they overcame the Cherryholmes I had brought along on my run. Driving to and from work with windows down and bluegrass a-blazin' again makes me feel like a troublemaker. When I went up to work out this evening, for the first time I didn't have a jacket -- what do I do with my keys? Relinquishing this week of warm weather wonders is going to be very difficult.

One of the treats I've been enjoying, as you know, is Tim O's new release. There is a particularly outdoorsy summery tune on there devoted to a grocer in Wheeling called Megna's. I don't know whether Megna's is still around, but when I heard the tune of the same name, I had a flashback of a guy named Paul Megna, who I believe was on the comedy team for the high school revue we did every year with our brother school in town (Linsly Institute, of which Mr. O'Brien is an unlikely product).

One thing that will brighten the weekend is sharing this tune for the first time with my daughter. She will love it, I know, and ask to hear it again and again. She will have just the right moves to go along with it, too. There will be many evenings of laughing and dancing to Megna's. It will bring us a little bit of summer even when it's still snowing in April...or even May. And maybe sometime this summer, I'll take my kids back to Wheeling and if we can't find Megna's, we'll head on over to the Center Market and get a fish sandwich before stopping over at Towngate Theatre or popping in on Tom Stobart's bookstore if it's still there. You never know what little treasures you'll find in unexpected places.

Here's Megna's...produce. Right to your door. Enjoy.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Especially for Dr. Don

Whaddaya get when you mix Tim O'Brien, a couple guitars, a minstrel banjo, a bouzouki, and a fiddle, lock them all in the garage and give it some time?

You get a Chameleon.

When I got home Friday, that was the treat waiting in my mailbox. I had nearly I'd ordered it until I hit the door, having had the kind of week when I just didn't know what to do, think, feel, or not to next. So having a stack of new tunes to enjoy post-workout was perfect indeed.

And what a treat it is. It's just Tim with each instrument in turn, on all original songs. It's a recording that really reminds me why I like this artist so much and for so many reasons. He's honest, he's got the kind of voice you don't forget, he gets your attention, and he doesn't pretend to be something he's not. His songs really don't pull any punches. I have enjoyed every single one, each in turn strikingly different from the last.

But this one, in particular, had me laughing this morning on the bike at the fitness center. As in, "Look at that woman over there, laughing to her iPod. What is she listening to?" Ok, it wasn't quite like the salad scene in "When Harry Met Sally," but you get the picture. I was visibly moved.

And the reason this one got my attention while I was out of context and truly paying attention is that this song sounds like so many of the posts and emails of my virtual friend Dr. Don. It's really just what I think Don would write if he were Pete Seeger. How constantly we mourn the incapacity of Americans to think of anyone but themselves. And here, in this song, Tim says it all again!

So this is dedicated to you, Doc. I hope you enjoy it. You deserve to enjoy something, and free music is about as good as it gets. The best part is the singalong at the end!

And for the rest of you, I highly recommend this latest Tim recording. I find myself surprisingly untired of it after, I dunno, five or six listens. It's like having company, without the cleaning up. I hope Tim O isn't mad that I jumped on the lyrics. Typically they'd be on his Web site but this is so fresh they're not up yet. Corrections welcome.

Now back in school I studied hard
To learn our history
Of the pioneers who headed West
To reach the shining sea
Oh our forefathers fought the fight
To make our homeland free
Somehow they tamed the wilderness
And they did it all for me

This world is made for everyone
Especially for me
God made its riches manifest
Showed us our destiny
We thank the Lord who gave us
Our robust economy
This world was made for everyone
Especially for me

New Englanders, they fished for cod
Their business sense was sound
They traded it for rum and slaves
Before they turned around
These Puritans then hunted whales
They threw away the meat
They boiled the blubber, made the oil
That lit our city streets


There’s gold and silver in the veins
Of this land we got from God
And when our oil starts runnin’ low
There’s plenty more abroad
And everyone around the world
Wants to live the way we do
Of course we know what’s good for us
Is good for those folks too!

Now the sun shines down upon us
Reflecting off the smog
Today I’ll wear a safety mask
While walking with my dog
And if you’re talking politics,
There’s lots we can discuss
But this world was made for everyone
Especially for us

(Chorus—Sing along!)

Friday, April 04, 2008

The Hardest Work, When Your Mind's Made Up

A couple weeks ago I thoroughly enjoyed a little gift visited upon me by my dear friend Shameless. It was the movie Once, which features singer-songwriter Glen Hansard. The film was a real treat, well acted, light on fluff in the film department, and full of good music.

I've been really stressing out quietly under the surface for a little while now. I guess in the last few weeks, the enormity of this stupid housing and credit mess is starting to exact a toll on my attitude. I work very hard in a business that is very tenuous. I pay my bills on time and in full or well above the minimum. I save for the kids college educations, put nothing away for me, and don't have a car payment. And a few years ago I bought a very modest home (I don't even have a basement) within my means. I need a new garage door opener, a new patio door, a new dishwasher, and a new range. As in, the door to the dishwasher has huge portions that are rusted out, I've started to lose coils on the range (by the time I replace them at $40 a pop for the old GE model I have, that's $120 toward a new oven), the garage door plays this "HA! I'm not going to open!" trick about every third trip, and in addition to the blanket at the base of the patio door, this year I used a special decorative touch and hung a bedspread over the blinds.

These are things I could just go out and get, but I'm afraid to. I'm making two trips this summer with the kids, not extravagant journeys, just two long weekends. One involves airline tickets. I'm trying not to have a stroke.

These are just normal, everyday things that everyone goes through. But lately I feel like I'm just not "free" to make the choices, simple basic choices, that people make everyday. Maybe it's because I don't just run out and put everything I want on a credit card, and then complain to my mortgage company that I can't pay my loan. Maybe I feel a little like I'm carrying the load with no backup. But I'm pretty sure I feel like a lot of Americans.

The thing that hit home with me with this movie, and earlier this week with the show at the Kent Stage with the fabulous Punch Brothers, is that, you have to keep going and doing what you love. Musicians are entrepreneurs. There is no day off, just like the company I work for. It's a constant creative process, and hopefully it puts bread on the table. And it's always there, you always have what you love and it has you.

In the last week or so, I felt my relationship to my job shift a little. I do love my work, but it's starting to feel more like a job than it has since I arrived. We are woefully short on business, so it's scary, but it's also difficult to figure out whether I've learned everything I need to learn. But what would I do next? I miss managing people, and being part of a larger organization and mission. But I love my job, and wouldn't dream of leaving it cold.

I don't know, I guess transition is coming. My mind's made up, but now I just got to let it and life play out and lead me a little. Maybe I'm afraid that the work I really want to do, or that I really am meant to be doing, is a lot harder, and a lot less lucrative. Entirely possible. Entirely.

This tune, hardly a bluegrass tune, is featured in the film, and plays over the vignettes of the band working through the long hard hours of putting together a demo. You'll need to step over to Shameless's blog to view the concert version in the second post.

Meanwhile I've got to go push some laundry, at 10:30 on a Friday night. At least I have something to wash and dry, and a place to put it, like the clean sheets on our beds, and the warm socks in our drawers. Life could be much, much worse.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

A Little Punch-y

This week I'm taking myself out for a rare midweek break. The Kent Stage is celebrating its 6th Birthday, and as part of their fabulous lineup, they're presenting The Punch Brothers, a new lineup featuring former Nickel Creeker Chris Thile (mando), banjo man Noam Pikelny, former Stringduster Chris Eldridge (guitar), Leftover (Salmon) Greg Garrison, and Violinist Gabe Witcher.

Take a listen there on the link, or visit the official website here. If you like to think of your self as an outside the boxer music fan, get thee to the Stage at 8 p.m. Wednesday -- that's tomorrow! -- April 2 (no foolin'!).

The Punch Brothers have been making the rounds on Leno, NPR, and a host of other media outlets to share their unusual brand of stringfusion and to pimp their release, titled simply, Punch. So if you can, punch out a little early and stop by.