Monday, November 30, 2009

Spanish Mosh: The Fest 8, Gainesville, Oct. 29-Nov2 (Day 3)

After a fitful night of sleep, we headed over to Bagels Unlimited on University Avenue for coffee and fuel. It was full of sleepy Fest attendees and band members who had tickets for free food. It's a pretty good place to ditch a hangover, and a good place to eat even if you lack one, and none of us were suffering too much. Full, we headed to The Venue, since Ninja Gun's drummer Jeffrey Haineault would begin his double-duty day as the Ship Thieves' drummer. We arrived early, before the doors had opened, the line already long, but we were let in soon enough. Male and female Festers in black clothes, black boots, and glinting steel studs strolled up and down the Ave. searching out the sounds they wanted to start their "morning" with. At the dark, cavernous Venue, the first band, Broadway Calls, set up their gear while the sparse bleary-eyed attendees bellied up to the bar to beer away their hangovers. BC started their teen-movie-friendly punk, gently waking us into familiar bouncy-bouncy and a decently congenial crowd. Probably a good idea to start the day without anything too challenging.

Off With Their Heads was next and Matt was expectant; I, on the other hand, didn't know what to expect from these Minnesotans. The crowd milled, but the feeling was surprisingly mellow and we just kind of stood around and talked next to the stage. The band set up without hurry, but, finally ready, they launched into their first note and I was instantly paninied into the stage-front crowd as the beer showered from above. The mosh pressure was instant and omnipotent up front, and I couldn't move. It's best to go with whatever shape they press you into so long as it's not crushing any limbs or organs, and so I did, while overhead crowd surfers climbed the stage or up the backs of anyone handy and surfed until they fell. It's Darwinism, pure and simple, and since this wasn't an activity an injured (bad shoulder) nearly fifty year old would naturally select, I was ultimately expelled slowly through the seven circles of mosh until I was finally on the periphery of the heavy action. Still, I held my good arm up to support a few surfers and, before I was expelled to the margin, I served as involuntary ladder for three or four surfers. The music? It was loud, raucous, punk for the executioner in all of us.

Chris Wollard & the Ship Thieves, up next, would provide a marked contrast in styles and would challenge the expectations of the crowd assembled. They set up slowly, with more elaborate instrumentation (including keyboards, computers) than the punk outfits before them. I noticed the guy prepping his guitar was the nice guy, Chris, from the night before. I'd been chatting with Chris Wollard, legendary member of Gainesville punk icons Hot Water Music, recently disbanded, and hadn't known who he was exactly. He looked almost too scholarly to be a punk icon--tall and lanky, with a slight beard--but then again, his new music moves him decidedly away from punk into more standard Americana-tinged rock territory. They opened up with "Dream in My Head," a song that announces Wollard's departure from HWM and that punk milieu. Their sound is tight and sophisticated, as Wollard places his raspy, plaintive vocals in a register between Springsteen and Westerberg, and the driving rock rhythms followed suit, through "Sick, Sick Love," "Long Wave," "Modern Faith," and "No Exception" ending the set repeating, "This is not a test." Many in the crowd seemed to expect them to play some Hot Water style thrash, and they even started an impromptu mosh during "No Exception," which seemed very odd given the music, but it felt like a good-natured tribute to Wollard's past, if not outright denial that one can outgrow punk. Yet Wollard seemed at ease in the new music, and the band was tight, and watching Jeffrey keep the rhythms mathematically fluid was especially pleasing.

We left The Venue to close out The Fest at Rumrunners, a small bar with lousy acoustics. The Terror in Tiny Town, a self-proclaimed Gainesville "supergroup," was already playing a fast, pumping set of energetic indie-punk songs embellished by some deft keyboard work. Heavily tattooed and exotically lovely Heather handled the heavy vocals duties; they sounded a little like Rainier Maria with extra caffeine. They finished up soon after we got there, but I enjoyed their work.

Towers of Hanoi, whom I've reviewed before, was up next. I'm always glad to hear them play, as their music challenges easy description. They blend math, metal, and indie elements into a sonic pastiche that powers through simple genre definitions. Rachel climbs primal vocal mountains while her husband Travis articulates intricate guitar riffs that contain the music perfectly. Jon on drums and Dru on bass underpin it all with forceful, relentless rhythms. The crowd was relaxed and friendly, and we enjoyed their short set that featured a strong new song, "Heart of Reason," to go with their signature works, including "Danger, Danger," and my favorite, "Empty Chapels." which gives Travis a chance to step out and sing in calm counterpoint to Rachel's theatric style. Coyote Throat followed up with an urgent set of punk songs in the Gainesville mold.

But I was there to hear Valdosta's Trailer of Tears, up next (Jeffrey's second show of the day, this time as frontman), and their unique blend of psychadelic punk doo-wop that they refer to as "trailer pop." After their obligitory round of tequila shots for good luck (after a day of beer), they played an exuberantly Replacements-esque set about love and loss, from the new and catchy "Don't u be Afraid," through TOTs classics like "Oh Baby," "Go Home" (in which Jeffrey channels Bryan Ferry as if he were fronting the Toy Dolls while Taylor, smiling the whole set, hammers the drums into submission), and "Not My Baby Anymore, " a truly inspired, 50s-flavored pop complaint. "Lonely Eyes" continued the nostalgic doo-wop relationship woe-ooo-oh-ooo-woes, and they finished their originals with the excellent "Family Values," which allows Jason on ringing lead and Bobby countering on bass to step out and rescue us from relationship hell with power and even some unpretentious majesty (Think of the opening of "In a Big Country," but the beat is heavier). They closed appropriately with a fun cover of "My Little Runaway," and the set ended in lots of laughter and a very pleased crowd. Their live shows are about fun, but check out the web site to hear the sophisticated blend of pop influences, from Beach Boys to Kinks to Todd Rundgren.

Thunderlip played their final gig. Technically fine neo-Zepplin rock, but Wolfmother has apparently stolen all that thunder.

West Palm Beach boys Surfer Blood kept us at Rum Runners despite headliners Youth Brigade and the Samiam reunion at The Venue. They pulled in from an all day drive at the end of the Thunderlip set and set up quickly. They look very young (the eldest is 24), but their music is a precocious blend of Pet Sounds and new wave that surprises with its unabashed musical righteousness. The played most if not all of their debut release, Astrocoast, beginning with "Floating Vibes" and lighting on the percussion heavy "Take it Easy," the Pitchfork-praised, "Swim (to reach the end)," "Harmonix," both "Jabronis," and "Twin Peaks," among my favorites. Any band who can reference David Lynch all bouncy calypso like and who lists Flannery O'Connor as an influence appeals to my biases. They don't sound live exactly like they do on the cd with all its distorted, washed vocals, but the raw effort appeals because the band has so much fun. They paired very nicely with Trailer of Tears in exuberance and influence, and they finished the Fest 8 perfectly for me, as we headed home after the set. Overall, Surfer Blood and Lemuria were my best new finds of the Fest, though I worry that Surferblood could get overheated given the hype they're already generating.

We straggled tired and spent into the Waffle House in a late night assault, talking about what we'd heard and seen, met by a sudden chill that chased away the Indian Summer and woke us slowly back into our South Georgia lives.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Spanish Mosh: The Fest 8, Gainesville, Oct. 29-Nov2, Day 2

Taylor, the Captain (both of No More Analog, Taylor in Trailer of Tears), and I headed up Saturday and convened at a building housing a number of local musicians, and a Valdosta refugee or two, to hook up with various gentlemen from Ninja Gun, Trailer of Tears, and the Ship Thieves. We were hearing tales of long lines and waits outside the most popular venues, so, once we had our wristbands, the Captain and I left Taylor and headed to the Civic Media Center to check up on Andrew Jackson Jihad, but the line was infinite and the space was minute, so we gave up and headed to Common Grounds, where the line was manageable and moving and several good bands were to play.

After grabbing some coffee to amp up for the evening, we waited. We waited patiently. We waited patiently, even when the three attractive girls in front of us magically gained immediate admission. Morgan from Hard Girls saw us and joined us in line and we conversed pleasurably about bands, the Fest, etc., and then we finally made it into the venue. The Measure (SA) was up on stage playing some affable, energetic punk, closing their set with "Drunk by Noon," which tends to be the raison d'etre for many Festers. Of course, to be fair, many are still drinking from the night before.

Cheap Girls of Lansing, MI, was up next, one of the two bands I wanted to see at Common Grounds, and it was terrific to see them on a full stage this time. Ian wears nerdy, thick glasses and writes great, crunching pop songs with smart lyrics. "Her and Cigarettes," always a crowd favorite, provokes spontaneous crowd singing ("I love her and cigarettes so much/We took the long way so we could have another"), but all the songs are raucous twenty-something anthems: "I lost my keys, but then I found them/ I lost you too, but that was kind of on purpose." Ben and Adam keep the songs driving, and they would all make Bob Pollard proud.

Buffalo's Lemuria was up next and their indie/punk set layered sweet frosting on the cake of my ears (I know. Kinda gross). Sheena plays guitar and sings with energetic, not-quite-twee but not-quite-riotgrrrl urgency, while Alex provides the deep vocal counterpoint, especially in "Wardrobe." "Lipstick" with its hints of early Liz Phair, Rilo Kiley, and Sleater Kinney alone sold me the album Get Better, which makes me want to wear lipstick to cover my morning coffee breath. Can music be both delicate and muscular? Lemuria answers yes.

The jolt of estrogen pushed me out of Common Grounds and I needed more, so I went to The Atlantic to catch up with Athens' Madeline, whose house show here made me a big fan. She was fully banded for the Fest, and it was great to hear the fleshed out songs live. More girls graced the audience here, and they were clearly appreciative of Madeline Adams' beautiful voice and her lucid observations. But it's for her songwriting I think White Flag is one of my top ten albums of 2009. Songs like "Shotgun Wedding," "Belly of the Beast," drip with that weird southern blend of sin, gin, and the scary bible brought down to earth in a way that lets us all know we've been left behind and it ain't gonna stop, and she manages to weave unusual words into images that make it hurt all over again and forever. When she broke out into "Shotgun Wedding" I was made whole by the poetry even as the song takes you apart in all its gorgeous exploration of falling. Her relationship with the audience was intimate, and when she finished her set and found out she had two minutes left, the audience cheered when the band left the stage and she soloed us out with "I Left the Light On" from Kissing and Dancing, which she self-released when she was only 17.

I left refreshed and on to the Market Street Pub, commandeered that night by Suburban Home Records acts, and had a bite in the restuarant (ih), and then headed in, where The Takers were playing straightforward honkytonk--good sad drinkin' and fightin' music. Waylon Jennings may be dead, but he's certainly not gone as songs like "Curse of a Drunk" and "Friends in Bottles" "celebrate" fuel for outlaws, and "Drift" knows love is a gamble and the house always wins.

Tim Barry was up next, but I was out at the Ninja Gun merch table with Jessie and Dottie. Barry plays what amounts to country emo, baldly autobiographical, and you'll either love the ambitious honesty or find it a little over the top. But in the lobby, all the Ninja Gun and Trailer of Tears guys were hanging around and so we compared notes and drank cheap beer. Chris walked up and said hello. Jeffrey and Coody had introduced me to him at the Atlantic before, and I remembered him as a warm, intelligent guy then, and we reconnected. It wasn't until the next day that I found out who I was talking to, but I'll leave that for then.

Tim Barry finished up his set early, but nobody told Ninja Gun, so they set their gear up and started before their scheduled time slot, which meant some of their crowd hadn't arrived yet and they arrived steadily through the set and filled the room. I've written a lot about this band and these guys have become friends over the last few years, and it has been amazing to watch them grow from the first time I saw them grinding out a good-natured set at a shitty haunted pizza pub with a shittier sound system here in town, playing songs from their first cd (Smooth Transitions), and finishing up by covering "Hey Ya" and "Twentieth Century Boy" while the kids jumped and shouted. But tonight was prime time on a big stage and Coody, Thad, Jake, and Jeffrey played a tight set, mostly from their second cd, Restless Rubes, including the rocking but plaintive "Eight Miles Out" and the wonderfully satirical "Darwin Was a Baptist," and they previewed a song that should anchor the next album, "Time and a Half," which could just become the next anthem for the working class. They articulate the "Red State Blues" better than anyone born and raised in the South, and, while the lyrics can bite and snarl about everything that's wrong with smalltown south Georgia, the guitars ring optimistic, as though some essential goodness down here can come out and "start shinin' again." My only complaint was that they played the minutes scheduled instead of the minutes afforded by Tim Barry's brevity, but nobody told them until they were done. Two more songs would have been awesome.

Whiskey & Co. were up next, and I love their enthusiasm for drink and bluegrass-flavored country, but Matt and Taylor wanted to shed the country sound for some essential hardcore punk, so we headed to the 1982 to hear the Brainworms. Unfortunately, we arrived to a lengthy line because the club was already at capacity, and no one got in until someone left, so we waited and heard this girl complain vociferously that she PAID ALL HER MONEY AND DROVE SIX HOURS JUST FOR THIS SET AND THIS IS A FUCKING BULLSHIT RIPOFF, but unfortunately the city council wasn't in line to vote to change the fire codes just for her. We finally were allowed in about twenty minutes later. Brainworms were last and went a little long, so we were in for about a half dozen, mosh-insane songs. Greg handles vocals and bears the signature great red beard and beer belly and a great coat of sweat halfway through the show and he looks like a mad giant hypermotive leprechan. Moshers attempted to crowdsurf despite the low ceiling and surged toward the stage and threw beer. You'd think it was mayhem in there, and one guy lost his glasses, but somehow they made their way hand-t0-hand out to the periphery safely as the mayhem continued. The music was loud and relentless and unapologetically punk like they really don't fucking care if you think they suck, and that's their strength because they are loved. The crowd knew all the words to songs like "Sunrise Dudes" and "Born with a Beard" and the energy was a good way to close the evening. Taylor, Matt, and I stepped into the warm evening and tried to figure out if we could make it to catch the end of the Textbook Committee, a Bob Pollard approved GBV cover band, but it was too late, and so Matt and I went back to unwind in the cheapass motel room with some cheapass red wine while Taylor went out to find just one more party, but that's his story, not mine.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Spanish Mosh: The Fest 8, Gainesville, Oct. 29-Nov2 (Day -1)

Gainesville's Fest 8, one of the biggest punk-flavored festivals in the country, drew close to 350 bands and thousands of music lovers from around the world. Sure, many are from the area, and many wouldn't be labeled as "punk" in the contemporary sense, but if you consider the more generous definition that counted people like Patti Smith and even Gainesville's favorite son Tom Petty as punk rockers, it's definitely a punk fest and a legendary annual celebration of the virtues of PBR.

I've extended the dates beyond the three days of the festival, because, well, all those bands gotta play somewhere on the way in and out of town, and five of the bands played in Valdosta before and after, so the Fest festers beyond the armpit Gainesvillers represent the town as and we begin here with Fest: Day -1.

I went to the Bleu Pub here and was disappointed to find that having dinner at home after my evening class made me late for Ninja Gun, who was loading out their gear when I arrived. Amy T. came up, gave me a hug, and raved about their set. I'd mentioned them to her a few hundred times before, but she finally popped her NG cherry and was awash in post-sonic bliss. No surprise there.

Carson was back in town and the bar was full of beery people, so, while it wasn't the Fest, we were all feeling extra festive. Ready the Jet, a trio out of LA, set up next. Live, the punk influences, Misfits and Black Flag, prevail at the front of the sound, but their late-Guided-by-Voices hooks and Replacement's/Husker Du sympathies come through the noise enough despite the pared tour instrumentation and open brick acoustics (the album New Record Highs is, in fact, an enjoyable listen for anyone who misses 80's Minnesota/90's Ohio indie or for anyone who wants to hear it translated into SoCal themes, e.g "Normandie," "Butane Vistas," and "Mile of Miracles").

Hard Girls of San Jose continued the positive infusion of west-coast, Fest-ready sloppy-joes indie punk. Songs like "Quinceanera," "Strange Carafe," and "Beach Party!" drip all over your shirt and make you want to lick your fingers. Max hit the skins so hard that Jay from Ready the Jet had to get on the floor and anchor his kit. They had fun and said after the show that Valdosta was the best place of the tour so far. It was fun to catch up with folks from that part of California, too, as I spent about a year there and my daughter was born there. Morgan, Max, and Mike are mercilously fun, super-nice guys, so if they're in your neighborhood, go see them.

V-town's No More Analog closed the show with a raft of new songs and a fuller sound that enthusiastic bands are comparing to The Replacements. Sure, they've been listening to a lot of Big Star and the Zombies, so it's no surprise that they're underpinning their punk tendencies with a strong sense of pop melody and incisive writing. This is clear in new additions "Been So Good," which breaks out a celebration against all the whining haters of our fair little city, and "Big City Dreams," which is about a girl with higher aspirations. The new songs deliver sharp observations packed into short, tight compositions with plenty of fuzz and feedback to go perfectly with that next PBR and pub fries, and they don't feel at all out of place with all our NMA favorites, like "Fresh Romance," "Field of Diamonds," or "Anasazi." Get that record done, gentlemen.

This was as close as I would get to Friday's Fest, as I couldn't go until Saturday, my ears were primed nicely for what was to come.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

This is not an album review: On Califone's All My Friends Are Funeral Singers

Note: This post began as a comment to Harry S Truman's article at Owl and Bear, but because of its unweildy length, it's here instead.

Made the long trip to Connecticut (which will get its own post) with Califone's new All My Friends Are Funeral Singers on heavy rotation, and "Giving Away the Bride" was on the mix for my daughter's wedding that occasioned the trip. All My Friends Are Funeral Singers builds and builds and, while I appreciate the high marks from Pitchfork, All Music Guide (nice writeup there), and others, I think this should have hit at least a 9 at Pitchfork. It perfects the Califone project with more than subtle variations on the whole Califone/Red Red Meat oeuvre. And, while I like much of what Mr. Tangari says, I respectfully disagree that Califone has but one song to sing. Sure, the band has defined a voice, blending cooling Studebaker radiator syncopation with ball-peen hammer percussion, found noise and odd instruments underpinned by blues-folk string virtuosity, but it's certainly not a monolithic voice, as Tangari suggests."Pink and Sour," "Krill" (Jim Becker on lead vox), and the Tangari-praised "Giving Away the Bride," on the last two albums demonstrate otherwise, along with both Deceleration projects. "Luis Bunuel" steps all the way into alt country territory."Polish Girls" is cheery even in its dark moments, with terrific pop hooks, yet it's still Califone, noise underneath, grit in the vinyl groove hissing and popping. To suggest that Califone has one song to sing is like saying, "Oh, that? It's just another Joseph Cornell box."

I also had recent Pitchfork standout picks Bitte Orca and Merriweather Post Pavilion on the trip along with my favorite road trip album, Slanted and Enchanted L&R, but AMFAFS made it into cd slot more than anything else because it gets better every time I hear it. This is the kind of CD that reinvigorates the album as a relevant form. Rutili is one of the most underrated singer songwriters in indie music, and his phrase montages build to create an atmosphere out of the ghosts of America's secret vocabulary. The fact that Pitchfork and AMG give the album essentially the same score but build their arguments highlighting mostly different songs suggests that there's more here than a very good to excellent album. This is a five-star album, a top-ten list album. I appreciate Harry S Truman's "relief," and 8.1 is a terrific Pitchfork score, to be sure, but part of me also wonders if PF penalizes Califone a point for being from Chicago, or maybe they're overcompensating for that lofty 9.2 on their debut EP. Califone's oeuvre is strong, but because this is Califone's most completely realized album so far, it merits a higher score than, say, Heron King Blues (8.4), which is nasty improv and worthy of the score, but Funeral Singers brings it all together, and so it should be scored higher.

No, this is not an album review, though it responds to one. I won't review it here because I recorded a superstition one of my students, Taylor Patterson, told me and sent it to Tim, who used some of the recording (his voice in "Krill") and references the superstition on the album (the writing spider in "Polish Girls," beautifully phrased). It's a tiny contribution, but still, it prevents me from being objective enough to write a real review.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Fruitbats: Atlanta, The Earl, 9/6/09

. . . the sun like a high beam
In the rearview mirror, when the song comes
On the radio like a pre-programmed miracle
Amid the grim preaching and interference.
The theme song of your life when you were
The main character, and the film rolls out
On the reel of the road where billboards
For food and fuel, fireworks and casinos
Paint vague sensations of pleasure and danger
Awaiting your exit, the ever so often crawl
Of the same motels under the ever deepening sky.

from "A Mass Hallucination of Motels" by Stuart Dischell from Dig Safe

This begins with poetry because I headed to Atlanta in time to catch the last reading event of the Decatur Book Festival, my old friend Stuart Dischell reading along with two writers I didn't know, the audience populated by luminaries (in poetry, anyway) like Tom Lux and Ed Hirsch and new generation poets like Southern California's Jeffrey McDaniel and some guy in a stripper-festooned Clermont Lounge T-shirt who bought Stuart's new book Backwards Days when I did. But I quote from a poem that approximates what life must be like on the road for a touring band in the south, albeit romanticized a bit.

I left Stuart and friends because I needed to find my own room close enough to the Earl, and so the Motel six became my "same motel" and I left my bag and headed over to the club, where I dined until Andi came out from their sound check and filled me in, and her brother joined me with food and teaching shop talk. Her band, Night Driving in Small Towns, would open at 8:30 sharp with a 45 minute set, and then Death Vessel, and then The Fruit Bats. I recognized Ryan, sound genius from several Califone tours (and a terrific musician himself, according to Tim Rutili), who filled me in on all the news from Chicago's collective music scene. Congrats especially to new dad Joe Adamik!

Night Driving In Small Towns has become more adventurous since moving from Valdosta, where their blend of folk/indie pop originals and pitch-perfect Rilo Kiley and Feist versions made them local favorites and one of Rolling Stones top 25 unsigned myspace bands, to Atlanta and Lower 40 records and a big-city music scene. They were a bit nervous, since this was arguably their biggest gig so far and they were premiering three new songs of nine, so they came out fast, opening with brand new song "Holiday" right into "Restaurant, " a gorgeous torch song. The highlight of the set was another new song, "Serial Killer," which features Andrea Roger's incisive lyrics and a deft arrangement from Colby Wright, with Dan on bass and Tyler on drums pinning down the rhythm. They finished with "Kick," another new one with a terrific pop hook that had me singing along and wishing the new album was out already. (Fruitbats guitarist and keyboardist Ron Lewis was eminently pleased with how they folked up Lindsay Buckingham's "Holiday Road" with Colby on vox, stating that he always wanted to cover it and was pleased NDIST had the balls to do it.)

If you heard Death Vessel was playing next absent any context, you might expect something hardcore, something metal, and Joel Thibodeau looks the part a little--darkly gnomic, all in black, long stringy black hair, a certain intensity. But the presence of an upright bass, violin, and various folk strings quickly dispel any such misconceptions. Still, the moment Joel opened his mouth to sing startled me more than just about any sound I've ever heard at a live show. His voice is high. If Neil Young and Joan Baez had a eunuch lovechild, he would sing like Joel Thibodeau. But once you get past the strangeness, the beauty of it washes over and you relax into it. The set mainly focused around their new release Nothing is Precious Enough for Us, which the link will take you to, but, live, the sound was more expansive than the leaner production the album offers. "Jitterakadie" especially benefited from the fuller treatment, and with "Block the Eye" and "Bruno's Torso" anchoring it, Death Vessel's prog-folk set pleased a very receptive audience.

Eric at the merch table. Photo by Andrea Rogers.

Fruitbats came in fresh (wholesome boys from the Midwest, ya know) from finding out that The Ruminant Band had supplanted Wilco at the top of Billboard's college charts the week before, plus it was a big Sunday night crowd, so they were in a good mood and performed like it. Eric Johnson can also reach the higher registers, as he demonstrated capably in his the opening salvo with spirited versions of "Primitive" and "The Ruminant Band," the first two songs from the new album (a quiet one at first listen, but its complexity builds with repeated listening). Then through the rest of the show they moved back and forth in time through their oeuvre (though Echolocations was notably absent), hitting Spelled in Bones crowd pleaser "Canyon Girl," then back further into Mouthfuls with the doleful "Union Blanket" and the shambly "Rainbow Sign," which is as close as the Fruit Bats would come this evening to performing a song that suggests Eric's work with The Shins. "Rainbow" is slower, edgier, though. Then they returned to Ruminant territory with "Flamingo" and its antique piano feel and fatigued calliope circus chords. The upbeat pop of "My Unusual Friend" and honkytonk (think Leon Russell)"Feather Bed" rounded out the return to the pleasant present . They closed out the set with "Earthquake of 73," "Tegucigalpa," and the upbeat but bittersweet "When U Love Somebody" (". . . bite your tongue; all you get is a mouth full of blood") while the tall blond giantess kept rhythm pogoing through until the end and after, and because she was so tall and bouncy, the band came out and encored two from the new one, "Being On Our Own" and "The Blessed Breeze," which carried us out into the warm Atlanta evening after all the conversations died down and the merch was put away. The Fruit Bats, perhaps, are not going to change your whole life, but they are going to make you feel better and more connected to the one you're already living, whether through tears or laughter, irony or deadpan honesty. This was a terrific evening of music start to finish, then the road again, back to our respective motels, small soaps, white towels, all that smeared, clean light.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

True Health Care Facts! (I want what my mom has!): Updated

As the intelligence and tone of public discourse devolves into apoplectic frothing, gun toting, and absolutely inane claims from the extreme right, the primary victims, other than the millions of Americans lacking health coverage, have been the facts.

At the town hall in Valdosta, GA, Representative Jack Kingston, to his credit, spoke in favor of what Sarah Palin has famously called "Death Panels," and he spoke with sincerity (tough for most politicians) about how the end of life issue touched his own family, and he called the provision, accurately, "counseling for living wills" instead of "death panels." He's spoken up against the rhetoric, and pointed out on his "Health Care Checkup" that end-of-life preparation could save Medicare $77 million dollars, not a big chunk of change in these trillion-dollar times, but that would fund a few neighborhood clinics. I applaud him for his clarity on that point.

However, in many of the other bullet points, Kingston presents facts that dissemble the problems families face with our current health care system. Among the most egregious is his assertion that, whereas consumers once paid 47 cents on the dollar out of pocket for health care, now we pay only 13 cents. This misleads because it suggests that we're actually getting a bargain and we should be grateful that employer- and public-funded insurance is so generous, and that's perhaps not surprising for someone whose largest campaign contributer is AFLAC, and three of the top five funding categories are insurance, lobbyists, and health care professionals (

The more important figure is how much of one's income is going out for health care, and how much larger a burden that 13 cents is on families today. Donning my old Forest Service statistical clerk hat and using figures from US Dept. of Health and Human Services Excel spreadsheets and US Census data, I could very quickly see that the burden for US families is growing astronomically. Since Jack compared 1960 with today, I did too (or as close to today as the spreadsheets and census data would take me--2006).

In 1960, the annual consumer burden, per capita, for health care was $101. That seems tiny, but the average male income* was only $4080. Still, that's only about ~2.5% of his annual income.

In 2006, the annual consumer burden, per capita, was $2256 for the same male who earned $32,265. The burden for health care for that individual has jumped to about 7%.

To put that in some perspective, if incomes had risen as fast as health care cost, the male in 2006 would have had to earn $91,336 to enjoy the same health-care-cost-to-income ratio as the male in 1960.

And it's only worse for women. In 2006 the average woman earned only $20,014, but her health care burden was the same, so her consumer burden is over 11% today. Marry the average man and average woman and add a child or two and you can see why the consumer burden for families approaches 20%. Employers have helped with some of the burden, but more and more employers are eliminating or reducing health care coverage for their employees. Still, if I added my own health insurance contribution and the average out-of-pocket amount, I would come in a little over the average listed above. But average itself is a misleading word.

Realize that half the country earns less than average, and you can see why so many are increasingly unable to afford health care.

Then realize that the averages also spread the burden across the full spectrum of the population regardless of health. Most people don't get really sick, and so the averages mask the astronomical burden faced by the seriously ill, the chronically ill, people with insurance and good jobs who go bankrupt when the co-pays begin to add up to the tens of thousands of dollars. People like my sister.

We haven't even begun talking about rescission, the act of canceling policies for preexisting conditions uncovered when someone becomes seriously ill (i.e. expensive). I can speak personally about this, because my first job out of college was to sell life and health insurance. Agents aren't trained medical professionals, and offices want premiums sold, so we were encouraged to check "no" whenever customers said "I don't know" to a health question. I was 22 (i.e. naive) and simply didn't consider that a company could behave so unethically as to cancel a policy after someone had paid into it for years. But writing premiums gets money flowing into the company, and, to keep it from flowing back out, companies don't expend the effort to check up on their customers unless, heaven forbid, they should become seriously ill (i.e. a liability).

Outlawing rescission and eliminating the practice of refusing customers with preexisting conditions, which would be the right thing to do, will make health care more expensive in the current setup, too expensive for millions more Americans. But these millions are at the mercy of tens of millions who like what they have mainly because they haven't used it much. Comes out of the check before they see it, co-pay's 20 bucks, most prescriptions are covered, no worries. To the majority, especially to those making more than the average, it still feels like a pretty good deal even if that number on the check keeps getting bigger every year. So, all those people out there with signs, many on Medicare, are essentially saying, "Screw the millions," and, as Kingston did elaborately on his Checkup, claim that it's fewer millions than the media is reporting. Fewer millions equals less guilt I guess.

At any rate, after doing my own math, I have questions about some of his other bullet points. He touts medical tourism as proof that our system is the best (40% of the world's medical tourists come to the US). First, boob jobs aren't real medical procedures, but I doubt such procedures were excluded (he has no citation for this figure, so I can't check it), and no one disputes that, for the very wealthy, we do have the best health care system in the world.

For everyone else, our infant mortality rate is a better measure of how we aren't taking care of the millions. According to the CIA fact sheet, we rank 45th, just behind Cuba.

But these are facts, and it's clear that, in this debate, the facts don't seem to matter. And the 45,000* adults under 65 who die each year (according to Harvard research published in American Journal of Public Health, more than die from breast cancer, by the way) for lack of adequate health coverage? They're the facts that seem to matter least in this debate.

Me? I don't see why I can't have what my mom has. She's on Medicare, with a supplemental policy. I pay into Medicare. I'm OK with people keeping what they have, but I want what my mom has, and I want you, Jack Kingston, I want you, Congress, to do your job and figure out how we are all going to pay for it.

(Psst. I think it would help Medicare, btw, to have an influx of younger, healthier clientele. You know, actuarilly speaking. Just sayin'.)

*Why male? The census in 1960 doesn't break things down into median household incomes, so we have to cobble together a bit to get a sense of the burden to families. *2 The original figure of 18,000 cited from a radio broadcast earlier has been replaced by this more authoritative figure.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Milton the blind kitten is probably dead by now

What do you do when you walk out and this rain-wet kitten covered with flies drags itself out of the empty lot onto your property?

You think it won't make it a few more steps and it mewls when you get close and when you get close it's covered not only by flies but maggots and one of its eyes is bulging and glaring soap-scum white. One of the eyes is bulging but the other isn't, yet it's blank as a nickel and it's clear the kitten is blind and there's no mother but the rain and it's covered with maggots and the flies keep coming. What do you do? You spray the cat with vegetable soap to kill the maggots and keep the flies at bay and nearly drown it trying to wash and comb out dead maggots and it mewls and shivers alive and it might just die right there next to the tomato plants, but if you use one of those turkey injectors without the needle you can put milk in its mouth and put it in an empty aquarium and cover it up and try to dry it with a wad of paper towels and then you can fill a shell with milk and it drinks it on its own and so fill it with milk again and again and it drinks it and coughs and coughs. Put it in the laundry room so it can't cough its death into the cats that already live there and where it is warm and dry and cover the aquarium so no more flies can lay eggs in its sick black fur and it is blind and as comfortable as possible before you go hear some live music and drink beer with friends.

After returning from hearing live music and drinking beer with friends, you check the aquarium and it's empty. Somehow Milton the blind kitten has crawled out and mewls behind the washer and it's amazing that a little milk could give it the strength to crawl out and drop blind off the top of the washer and not be more damaged. It comes out and tries to think a shoe is its mother because it was nearby when milk was there. Then canned cat food is near the shoe because cow's milk isn't good for cats, they say. The shoe tries to be a good mother but it has no idea if this blind kitten is old enough for solid food. It is and it eats and eats and sneezes and sneezes.

Now it's Sunday and it's clear it's better but not well, coughing and its eyes aren't better despite the neosporin salved in. The animal shelter won't open until Tuesday and it is a matter of waiting out what will worsen and what will become better. What will worsen is unexpectedly a back, because of playing basketball, and its cough, and what will become better is the blind kitten's appetite and its affection for the shoe, which is its mother now like in a child's book. Ants scour the food plate for remains. It mewls and mewls. Its sorry fur is fluffier and it no longer possesses a wet rat's tail, but its eyes and cough are worse, and the blind kitten Milton is a poet of survival despite what's killing it anyway.

My shoe is its mother and I'm sad for it as I, not you, have to take it to the animal shelter because its sickness is fatal as all survival is in the end. What will become better is sleep. Then its always open eyes can close and the shoe can be sad for its loss.

Spay and neuter erases all this except the inexorable factuality of the conclusion for all.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Dirty Projectors, Atlas Sound, and Miscellany

July 17: Dirty Projectors, Atlas Sound

Andi and I headed from her pleasant apartment in East Atlanta to Flat Shoals for Thai before the show on a beautiful and surprisingly cool (for Atlanta) summer evening, so we walked around as long as possible, or so we thought. After they let us in, there was a long delay, which turned out to be because The Dirty Projectors were still en route from Baton Rouge. Finally, Altas Sound opened the show with a five song set that surprised mainly because angel-voiced Bradford Cox (Deerhunter) added a band (three Selmanaires) two days before and they managed to crunch out a fine country-laced set, departing from Bradford's more electronic Atlas Sound peregrinations. Listen to their set here. We both liked the effort, which I likened to country Radiohead and she compared to early Travis, if that tells you anything. These are definitely worth downloading, even if the band isn't as polished as it will be by the time they tour in support of the forthcoming Logos EP. Bradford played with the confidence and panache of a salsa champion and the band couldn't help but follow his lead, even if there was a misstep here and there.

Dirty Projectors, I'm gonna say it, sound better live than on the record, a fascinating listen regardless, but the studio makes it, well, more studied. Or as another attendee put it, "they were sick. and he sounded more real than i imagined. and they were fabulous." I agree. Live, the timing and precision of vocalists Amber Coffman, Angel Deradoorian, and recent addition Haley Dekle arrested and amazed. The effect was most eerie on an extended version of "Remade Horizon," when they traded notes so quickly and flawlessly, they sounded as one perfect instrument. I was reminded of a lecture by Brian Eno I attended at Berkeley years ago, when he talked at one point about working with David Bowie for Low, describing how he assembled a "guitar solo" from notes played individually (yes, simple now because of his work). Eno admitted he was amazed when Adrian Bellew learned to play the impossible solo for the Stage tour, which I caught in Oakland. Theirs was a more impressive accomplishment, their living voices magnified and compelled one to thoughts of spirituality.* Andi and I just looked at each other, awestruck. Yes, they arrived late, road weary, and Haley was sick, so it might have been excusable for Dave and Co. to phone it in, but the music took over and they played with energy and enthusiasm, working mainly through Bitte Orca featuring Dave Longstreth's high capoed Afro-Carribean guitar licks and unusual time signatures pinned down effectively by Brian and Nat, but they also included selections from earlier works, like "Rise Above" and a strong David Byrneless version of "Knotty Pine." "Musical Director" and Yale-alum (Did you know him, Liz?) Dave Longstreth's vocals were unusually measured, but clear and emotive, and his stage presence was relaxed. He was clearly enjoying himself, joking at one point about the stresses of the road on bands (Amber rolled her eyes), and they stopped to announce that it was Angel's "18th" birthday, and we all sang to her, so I suppose all of us there can claim to have sung (sloppily, to be sure) with the Dirty Projectors.

*Of course, this was The Earl, and recognizing the aforementioned spirituality for some (like me) meant setting down the beer and saying, "Oh, shit,"or, in the manner of the tilting girl in front of us, throwing up in her cup and passing out while her boyfriend propped her up because he lacked the decency to take her home ("Hey, I paid for this"). Unfortunately, Andi stepped in it, so we didn't get to hang out much after the show, one worth being relatively sober for given the complexity of the music and the consummate effort of the musicians this cool summer night.

July 22, 24: Locally

Back home, I stood on a log over the pond behind my house between a hunting rat snake in front of me and a young hawk, landing awkwardly just behind me. The snake looked at me and crawled on slowly, while the hawk finally heeded the parental squawk and flew back up. I hopped off the log, walked inside, thinking of this, reflecting on Amy's brief visit. She left before the show at the Bleu Pub that night, which was a good one.

Atlanta's The Wild, on tour with Pedals on our Pirate Ships, opened with an enthusiastic set of songs from their new self-titled EP. They play joyous clear-eyed folk punk and covered a Mountain Goats song. Locals No More Analog played next, and they continue getting tighter and have developed a singular voice. I think they're ready to record and tour seriously. Pedals played a bicycle friendly and active set, and Trailer of Tears finished up late, getting ready for their Friday show in Gainesville with the Virgins (of Richmond, not New York) and the Takers.

At Common Ground, Trailers played a nasty set of their unique neo-glam doo-wop and the Takers followed later with a straight-up country rock set that would sit well on the shelf next to Lucero and Drive-by Truckers any day. I drove the church van back all night, as I won (lost?) the sobriety contest, and the boys (Jeffrey, Bobby, Jason, and Taylor) and me and Wayne and Coody and Jessie played name-a-band-that-begins-with-the-last-letter-of-the-previous-band-name (usually S or R) until the morning. It was a fun trip.

Locally, as fall approaches, there appears to be a venue crisis, as all the house-show holders moved to apartments and Vito's moved from the haunted house to a more upscale location not suited to live music. The Bleu Pub and Jack's shed (and occasionally Sur Este) is all that's left, and that means the local scene is in serious need of a new playground.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Jenny Lewis and Heartless Bastards, June 30, Jacksonville

I packed my cross-eyed Hyundai full of people who like good music (Rebecca, Laura, Kat, and Stuart) and we headed to enjoy the sun and sand at Jacksonville Beach and some decent Mexican food before the show at Freebird's (owned by a former member of Lynyrd Skynyrd, so shout it all you want). It's an interesting venue, two floors with an atrium, a full bar on either floor, so we headed upstairs to get a good view of the stage.

The Heartless Bastards opened the show, but they're so good, I prefer to think of them as co-headliners (Metacritic shows both bands' new albums at solid 75s), despite an abbreviated eight-song set (in no particular order) including "The Mountain," "Out at Sea," "You Could Be So Happy," "Hold Your Head High," "Early in the Morning," "Swamp Song," and "Sway." I compared Erika Wennerstrom's voice elsewhere to Grace Slick's, and I've read others compare her to Janis Joplin, PJ Harvey, even Robert Plant. Let's say she possesses the emotional urgency of the latter group and the vocal fog-piercing clarity of Grace. Erika's a blue-collar angel belling over the crunchy, deeply felt blues-rock she and her band lay down. It's a different band than the three-piece that toured with Lucinda Williams a couple of years ago. Erika moved to Austin after breaking up with Mike, the former bass player, and made The Mountain with studio musicians and, for the first time, a producer (Mike McCarthy), but because her vox and writing have always been the focus of the Heartless Bastards' sound, The Mountain sounds like an HB record. For the tour she added old friends Jesse Ebaugh and Dave Colvin, who played on the original HB demo, and capable Knife in the Water guitarist Mark Nathan. The addition of Nathan frees Erika from having to carry so much of the sonic burden, and she seemed more relaxed at this show than she did in Tallahassee with Lucinda, less working the music and more loving it. I mentioned this to Erika after the show and she agreed that she felt more relaxed and that she enjoyed the added elements that a four-piece allows, including at one point a nice extended dual guitar jam. On the other hand, part of the relaxed mood may be because, as Jesse explains, "Touring with Jenny Lewis has been fun. They're so funny and we've been laughing the whole tour."

I suppose that's not surprising given that Jenny Lewis spent her youth performing with the likes of Lucille Ball and the Golden Girls. She's spent the last ten proving that video hasn't quite killed the radio star, as her music achieves ever more mainstream cred, along with Elvis Costello's seal of approval (and vox "Carpetbaggers"). After Rilo Kiley's Under the Blacklight, it's not surprising that she strutted onstage confidently, vamping like a trailer-park cougar. No more innocent promish dresses and Toys R Us keyboards for Jenny (Execution of All Things tour). She's bringing back hotpants sass with energy and a wide smile. The crowd, populated by many young women, sang along and raised fists on cue, cheered and reveled over the course of her respectable set (list below) that began with the ambitious "The Next Messiah" and then moved back and forth equally between Rabbit Fur Coat and Acid Tongue, plus two new songs: "Just Like Zeus" and "Big Wave" and one Rilo Kiley song ("Silver Lining"). Her supporting band, including "boo" Jonathan Rice on lead guitar and duets, seemed very happy to be on stage with her. Barbara Gruska pinned down rhythm with deft drumbeats along with Jonathan Wilson on bass, while Farmer Dave Scher stepped out from rhythm guitar to bend fine and lonesome lap steel notes. Our little group, ladies and gentlemen all, fell in love with Danielle Haim (listen!), whose innocent look foiled Jenny's vamping beautifully, and she seemed to be having more fun than anyone else, shifting from guitar to cowbell to drums and backing up on vocals with spirited enthusiasm and a hell of a voice. The show ended with Danielle and Barbara hammering out a primitive drum duet to close "Born Secular" as everyone else left the stage.

We took our happy ears out to the beach's more primitive soundscape and frolicked a bit before the two-hour drive home featuring a lively literary discussion about some British classics ("Heathcliff's a dick!" "No he's not!").

All photos by Rebecca Lynn. Pictured Kat and Laura (front) and Stuart, me, and Rebecca.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

April in June: LA Times Bookfest, Day 2, and Santa Barbara

The last day of the festival started off with one of my favorite living poets, Kim Addonizio, and it was good to run into her in the green room, along with Elena and Carol Ann and catch up briefly before the reading, and to meet Barbara Hamby again, who lives just about 80 minutes from my south Georgia home. We headed out quickly, though. The last day often is lower energy after Saturday, but not today. Here was the line up:

10 a.m.
Kim Addonizio, Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet Within

10:30 a.m.
Kevin Prufer, National Anthem

11 a.m.
Barbara Hamby, All Night Lingo Tango

11:30 a.m.
Jim Natal, Memory & Rain

12 p.m.
Carol Ann Davis, Psalm

12:30 p.m.
Mark Irwin, Tall If

1 p.m.
Jeffrey McDaniel, The Endarkenment

1:30 p.m.
Juan Felipe Herrera, Half of the World in Light: New & Selected Poems

2 p.m.
Brendan Constantine, Letters to Guns

2:30 p.m.
James Ragan, Too Long a Solitude

3 p.m.
Sesshu Foster, World Ball Notebook

3:30 p.m.
Douglas Kearney, Fear, Some

4 p.m.
Gail Wronsky, Poems for Infidels

4:30 p.m.
Readings from the Great Poets

Kim pulled out her harp and blew blues in the middle of a fine poetry set and the crowd was awake and alive. Students I introduced her work to five years ago still talk to me about her influence, and her poems have made their way into the high school curriculum of at least two schools in south Georgia. Kevin Prufer, good friend of fellow poet Noah Blaustein, was charming and affable and his excellent work was well received. Barbara made the audience laugh and think, which is a perfect Sunday morning combination, better than church. The rest of the day was packed with LA area poets, except Carol Ann, who now lives in South Carolina. While it might be easy to dismiss the locals as locals, these are good writers. Jim's an old friend and his poetry is wonderfully observed. Carol Ann read from Psalm, mostly, a book I own and like. Mark, who teaches at USC, read his relatively more avant garde work, which I enjoyed, and so did the crowd. Jeffrey McDaniel's subversive, hilarious poetry pushes the boundaries, and I like that. Juan, who spent many years in Fresno, is aging nicely, and his beaming smile warmed the crowd. Brendan, whose poems I hadn't heard before, was sharp-witted and his performance brought lots of people to the tent. James, who draws a big crowd every year, gave his usual strong reading. I missed most of Sesshu (Margaret beaned in, and I had to escort her to the Green Room to hang out briefly before her meeting with Pico Iyer), but he kept the crowd, and quite a few of his young students showed up. Douglas Kearny read with spoken word energy and joyous ferocity, and he didn't let the stage restrict him. His work surprised me. (I read from the books I buy when I come back, and his was probably the class pick.) Gail writes dark, edgy poetry, and she's kind of an LA rock star (No, wait, that would be her daughter playing guitar in Kate Crash). Some of us closed the day reading poems from whomever wasn't us. The last slot is usually slow, so we wanted to spare a reader the indignities of a vanishing crowd. More people were there than we expected, though. I read a Larry Levis poem from California Poetry, an anthology co-edited by Chryss Yost, who provides a nifty segue into the next paragraph, the next city, because she lives in Santa Barbara and she would be joining us for dinner.

Elena tried to get me to stay for drinks with some of the poets, and it's an offer I hated to refuse, but I'd promised my Santa Barbara hosts Amy and George that I'd be in Santa Barbara for dinner, so I hopped in my lame-ass rented Aveo and headed north on Highway 1 through Malibu. Even in an Aveo, it's a beautiful drive, and in about 90 minutes I was there, greeted warmly by Amy and George and Mookie and Nigel. The plan was to dine at the Hollister Brew Pub, where they make excellent beer and good food in a mall. I headed up to Chryss' briefly to catch up with her and her menagerie. And we headed to Hollister for dinner. It was very, very good, but not as good as the company, because, along with Amy and George, Chryss, Dave, Patrick, Cookie Jill, and Barry came out and we enjoyed dining and drinking under the TVs tuned to various sporting events. The casual atmosphere allowed us to be, well, casual, boisterous, and loudish (but never loutish) at times. After dinner, we headed back to the house for a nightcap or two from George's cellar. We started with an amazing Golden Eye pinot and we concluded with a Williams Seylem Sonoma. In between I know we tasted something Rhonish (a grenache, I believe) from Paso Robles, and, after everyone left and Amy had gone to bed (early Monday meeting), George put The Bird and the Bee on while we sipped the last of the pinot.

The next day was quiet, as everyone worked. I went out for Indian food and wandered around on foot, the weather too overcast to head to the beach, and then had a nice coffee at Jeannine's with the ageless Barry Spacks and ageless Chryss and it was good to catch up on the local poetry scene and everything else. Ageless George and ageless Amy had tickets to see a famous blues act whose name eludes me, so many of the people from the night before came over and we hung out until they came back and we enjoyeed more wine and hung out and ate pizza and watched part of the Joy Division documentary, finishing off this too quick visit in high spirits. I had to drive to LA and fly back the next day, classes to teach, finals to write, energy renewed by this trip home, this time with good poetry and great friends and my wonderful hosts. I've been very fortunate to spend this time every year working the book festival and renewing my bonds with friends in LA and Santa Barbara. Soon after I returned home, the San Jesusita fire threatened George and Amy's house and Chryss' (the fire literally stopped at the end of her road) and probably several others and brought home the tenuousness of everything, my great fortune in these few days each year with the best people I know.

Friday, June 12, 2009

April in June: LA Times Bookfest, Day 1

The nice thing about going west from east is the ease with which I wake up early, since 6:30 LA is 9:30 GA. I shower, shave, dress up (for me), and zip to the UCLA campus to hit the green room before Elena and I start working the Poetry Corner Stage, which features a new poet every half hour. You'd think we'd get tired of hearing two full days of poetry, but it doesn't happen. We have too much to do but still we stop and listen. Elena's already in the green room buzzing with authors and entourages, and she's sitting down for coffee with David St. John, and I rush to join them. It's always a joy to see David because he's so welcoming and much more stimulating than the coffee I set down at the table. Robert Pinsky (who taught me much at Berkeley) comes in and Frank Bidart, who won the LA Times Book Award for poetry, and Marie Howe and Linda Gregerson and Dana Goodyear and Victoria Chang and we're introducing and sitting and chatting for twenty minutes before we have to get to work. It's a whirlwind of conversation, threads across time and place and new threads randomly. Robert mentions that we should get innoculated for shingles based on his own recent experience with this common illnes (and I think my friend John Guzlowski would agree). I talk with Frank about having heard that Lee McCarthy, a mutual friend and fellow central valley poet, had recently passed away, and we connected and appreciated her unique energy. Then Elena and I had to go work the stage.

It's always wonderful to see Bill and the staff of Small World Books (their presence is the best part of Southland Tales), who stocks the tables with a fine selection of poetry from people who'll read at the stage and other excellent poetry books that you should own. Saturday's lineup (and their most recent publications)? Funny you should ask:

Poetry Stage

10 a.m.
Dana Goodyear & Victoria Chang , Honey & Junk and Salvinia Molesta respectively

10:30 a.m.
Robert Pinsky, Gulf Music

11 a.m.
Matthea Harvey, Modern Life

11:30 a.m.
Linda Gregerson, Magnetic North

12 p.m.
Carol Muske-Dukes, Sparrow

12:30 p.m.
Frank Bidart, Watching the Spring Festival

1 p.m.
Marie Howe, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time

1:30 p.m.
Jill Bialosky, The Intruder

2:00 p.m.
This was supposed to be Jorie Graham's slot, but she cancelled.
To avoid dead air, Elena Byrne, Tony Barnstone, Sarah Maclay and I took turns reading from our works (and one of Jorie's poems).

2:30 p.m.
John Felstiner, Can Poetry Save the Earth? A Field Guide to Nature Poems

3 p.m.
David St.John, The Face: A Novella in Verse

3:30 p.m.
Cole Swensen, Ours

4 p.m.
Connie Voisine, A Rare High Meadow of Which I Might Dream

4:30 p.m.
Mindy Netifees & Richard Silberg, Sleepyhead Assassins and Deconstruction of the Blues

5 p.m.
Get Lit Players: Classical Teen Poetry Troupe

Saturday featured a strong lineup with good variety. Robert and David and Connie were my personal highlights, and it was good finally to hear Frank Bidart read in his driving style. I went to Utah with Connie and she was a prize nominee this year! Her book is terrific and I'll teach it in the fall (note: order books, dumbass). Richard Silberg, an avant garde icon, and the Get Lit Players, a troop of young spoken word champions, were very pleasant surprises. John Feltsiner gave the first lecture at one of these events, which he peppered with other people's poetry. Good message, but I think some in the crowd were puzzled. It was one of the smoothest days we'd ever had. Only one reader forgot how to tell time, but we handled that quickly. And Jackson Wheeler, David Oliveira's Solo co-editor, showed up, and we caught up best we could.

Elena hosted a party that night at the Ruskin Center. I enjoyed the drive up, listening to Henry Rollins post-punk program on KCRW, Television, Joy Division, and especially (because I hadn't heard it in ages) The Normal's "Warm Leatherette," which bled into one of my own poems (albeit with a very different ethos), among his many fine selections. I showed up early, set up chairs and tables, while Elena and Carol Ann Davis cooked pasta and made lovely sauces and salads and there was wine. Lots of LA poetry royalty arrived at this casual gathering and to name a few would slight the many, but we ate and drank and enjoyed a fine first day of poetry and conversation and pasta and a perfect LA evening in the Miracle Mile.

Monday, May 25, 2009

April in May: Los Angeles and Santa Barbara, Day 1 and 2: my LAs

My annual trip to California for the LA Times Festival of Books was a quick and busy foray into my home state. Because of my teaching schedule, I didn't make it home to Fresno, so it's just LA and Santa Barbara this year, with a side trip to Huntington Beach.

After landing, I checked into the Airport South Travelodge (clean, cheap, but a bit noisy right on Sepulveda) and called my friend Margaret, left a message, then wandered across the street to Ralph's to buy fruit and wine for my stay, walked around El Segundo to enjoy the cool, unusually clear weather and wake up after a day of travel, then went back to see if Margaret had called back. Making contact was more complicated this year, since stupidly I left my cell phone on my futon in Georgia.

The phone light wasn't blinking, so I called my friend Noah to say hello, and he insisted that I come over right now. I called Margaret back; she was writing a script and committed for a few hours anyway, so I headed to Noah and Cristina's to see them and beautiful Siena and the bubbly new baby and the redesigned house. The house was redesigned so dramatically that I walked up and down the street twice before I realized I was directly in front of it. They added a storey (and a view), updated the look, made it architecturally fabulous and open and flexible. Noah either performed or supervised the work, so I told him he should get a contractor's license; this talent (and just about any other) pays more than his poetic talent, considerable though it is. He was justifiably proud and he beamed and Cristina and Siena played with Lego's, built another tiny happy house. I was impressed. They've together made a home in LA, where transience is the preferred mode of existence. Since I had later plans with Margaret, I had to turn down their generous offer of a meal and a Laker's playoff game on the flatscreen and I headed back to the motel to check for a blinking light.

It didn't blink. I called and left a message and Margaret called later to explain that the writing had gone well and she couldn't stop and I couldn't fault her for that; I wish I had more of those days writing. We agreed to meet at the same El Salvadorian restaurant run by a warm, beautiful, matronly woman and her family. Nothing in the world can beat papusas and carne asada and Margaret's lazer-bright gaze. She tells me what I need to hear instead of what I want to hear, so I value her friendship and counsel, and I'm excited to hear about all her new creative projects. She still acts, but now producing and writing are taking over. She can do exactly what she wants, and to be in the presence of her confidence and calm bearing amid LA's chaos pleased me. I'm the one turning fifty in the fall, but she's the wise one this night, the one with insight and advice on what I should think about, how I should move. I went back to the motel full of beans and light, sipped some wine and reflected, listened to the whoosh of trucks and tv through the thin motel walls.

I took Friday slow, worked out, ate a gyro at a local popular Mediterranean restaurant, came back. The light blinked, Elena touching base about the festival. The prize ceremony I usually attend had been downsized and people who merely worked the festival no longer received free tickets, and you couldn't buy them anymore, either. You had to be invited, and I wasn't, and I might be upset ordinarily, but my dear old Santa Barbara friend and co-editor David Oliveira was reading in Huntington Beach Friday night, and I would have skipped the awards to see him anyway. I left Elena a message not to worry, that I was happy to miss it for David and that I'd see her bright and early Saturday morning.

David lives in Cambodia now with his partner, teaches at a University, and this would be his last trip for a few years, so I had to see David. He offered to pick me up and we drove down together and talked about old times and our current lives. We made a side trip to Long Beach so he could drop a letter off to a friend, and he showed me little Cambodia and told me about the local history, which I knew nothing about. LA seems monolithic, partly because we just call it LA, and that works if you stay on the freeway, but we're really talking about so many different places. Long Beach is not Santa Monica is not the San Fernando Valley is not Sherman Oaks is not downtown is not Montana Street is not Hollywood is not Echo Park is not Venice Beach, etc.

Cambodian signs make me want to stop and eat, but David wants to make sure we get to Huntington Beach with plenty of time so we can eat and find the reading location. He wants Mexican because it's one of the pleasures he misses, and he fills me in on his Cambodian life, what he can get only there and what else he misses from here. I want to go visit him in his home on the Mekong river, browse his considerable poetry library, and share as we have so often a good bottle of wine. His reading was a wonderful success, his voice clear and his new poems authoritative, his new life beginning to emerge in them. I met again Mifawny Kaiser, whom I'd met briefly at various poetry events, but I enjoyed getting to know her better. She's a writer who runs Tebot Bach press and brings poetry to and into the world. I was grateful to be there on a clear night at Golden West College to hear David and another poet I'd met before, Carol V. Davis, read their works. The crowd seemed populated mostly by retired people, and there would be an open mic. I usually cringe at these events because they're too often merely festivals of annoying self-indulgence, but there were surprisingly good writers there and David and I talked about this on our hour long drive back to LA. He came in and we shared a serviceable Bordeaux and a long, warm hug before he left me to another night of whoosh and muffled roomsound.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Thinking about Craig Arnold

Go back to the sunlit world and tell your story.
from "Hymn to Persephone" by Craig Arnold

Thinking because that's all I can do at the moment. That, and worry. I have a trip to blog about, people to thank, papers to grade, but since returning home to the news that Craig never returned to his hotel from his hike up the volcano on Kuchino-erabu-shima, it's been difficult to think of much else than Craig's sudden absence from the observed world. I yet have hope. As children, we all play at getting lost, being rescued. We practice this. We want to find new worlds, bring them back to share with friends and family. This is my hope, that Craig will be found soon, that he found something amazing he just couldn't leave, something he'll bring back to the sunlit world, a story he'll yet tell us. Please.

Update: Oh, Craig, we'll miss your mischief, your song, your light. Until I too am merely story.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Pond Monsters

Hiking around in the woods behind my house both keeps me in touch with nature and also reveals what we humans do to it. Big storms deposit garbage throughout the flood plain, from fast food wrappers to lost soccer balls to dumped futon mattresses. Wildlife is nevertheless abundant, especially birds, including owls, hawks, and great herons, but I've also run into raccoons and snakes, turtles and salamanders, lizards and, once, an armadillo. I've blogged previously about evidence of beavers back there (which has attracted many one-handed typists to this blog, according to the tracker), but there's been no recent beaver activity.

Today I found interesting pondkill. At first I thought it was a dead snake, especially given its size, a bit longer than two feet. Upon closer inspection, I determined that it was some kind of amphibian, with its smooth, slimy skin and tiny eyes. It appears to be an amphiuma, and they can grow up to three feet long. They have sharp teeth and can inflict serious damage, should I for some reason decide to start wading in ponds at night. They're nocturnal and stay mostly in water, because their tiny legs are vestigial, but they can move on land if they have to, mostly to lay eggs. It's big, but only grows to about half the size of the largest salamander, either the Chinese Giant Salamander or the Japanese Giant Salamander (sources disagree which one is actually the largest).

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Harvest of Hope, Saint Augustine, Days 3

I know you're on pins and needles, having waited, both of you, so patiently for my review of day three of the Harvest of Hope festival. I arrived around 1:30, since there were few acts I'd wanted to see in the morning. I only have two ears, and I'd almost used up both of them the night before, so a quiet morning was a good way to prepare for the day and night ahead.

Canada's Tokyo Police Club was first up for me. They'd rescheduled their Friday performance due to a "minor health issue" according to their website, and I was grateful for whatever effluvium delayed them because they provided probably my most pleasant surprise of the festival, with their upbeat sound and clever lyrics. Maybe it's the English major in me, but when they sang "Give us your vote" in "Your English is Good," I was ready to. I don't know, maybe think of kicking them through the goalposts of The Decemberists on one side and Los Campesinos! on the other. Oh, Canada, indeed.

Israel's Monotonix was next up on stage one, or, rather, in front of stage one, since they're renowned for performing in the crowd, for being "chaotic." I didn't last long, though. The music was unremarkable, and watching a hairy Levi Elvis wipe his naked ass crack with the mic filled me with ennui. Junior varsity G. G. Allin schtick on a beautiful spring day was as wrong as the hype. Nevertheless, the tight donut of cultish fans morphing around the trio seemed to be enthused, malleable to every one of Levi's commands. I just hope, for the sake of the acts to follow, LE brought his own mic.

So I wandered a bit. Stage two mostly featured rap on Sunday, and I went to check out Inspectah Deck, but he was late and some guy was stalling with his own soul, which wasn't bad, but the crowd was restless. Monotonix thankfully gave way to Holy Fuck, an electro band that interestingly features live precise bass and drums to nail down all the throbbing computer riffs. The musicians around (including aformentioned fellow Canadians TPC) were impressed, but the music seemed suited to more chemical moods than my state at the time.

I wandered back to stage two briefly. Inspectah Deck had finally shown and was rapping while GZA watched and helped. It was hilarious to see the large crowd of all white suburban indie kids from St. A and Gainsville raise their skinny fists like antennas to Compton when ID said, "This one goes out to all my homies in the 'hood," as though he meant them. ID was congenial and I enjoyed watching, listening, but I needed to head to stage three, where my real homies, Ninja Gun, were going to play. I passed through the nearly non-existent crowd for Tiger City, pausing to hear what they're like. It seemed their crowd hadn't made it out from the 80's to hear their legwarmedover Duran Duran/"Mr. Roboto"-era Styx tunecraft.

Tim Version, another of Gainsville's gruff punk mainstays at HOH, was up on Stage three, likable guys with a sense of fun. Gainesville punk is essentially good, Irish-inspired drinking music, and these guys can fuel a good beer binge. I wandered from the stage to say hello to Jessie and Marie, who were "manning" the merch table with Coody and Thad (when they weren't checking in on TV) before the show. (Thanks for the T-shirt, Coody.)

In SAT analogy parlance, Gainesville style, Tim Version is to Gaslight Anthem as Ninja Gun is to:

a. Fake Problems (ok, they're from Naples. You got me, but who said the SAT was fair?)
b. Against Me!
c. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
d. Grabass Charlestons

The answer is c. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers.

Of course, I have to qualify this some. Ninja Gun is from Valdosta, not Gainesville (even though they're bigger in Gainesville), and, while Tom Petty might be more their entree than any of the Gainesville bands I've heard, their sides would have to be the Kinks and T. Rex. Maybe some Buzzcocks or early Beatles for dessert. That is, their blend of country punk is sweet tea cool, and their songs are wryly observant and well-written. "Eight Miles Out" showed off their angular guitar-drenched driving rock capabilities, while "Darwin was a Baptist" revealed their strong sense of regional irony in its beautifully satiric chorus: "Can I get a little more church in my state?/" (and this is an enjambment to make an old poet like me jealous), "give me one more reason to hate/ everything around me/baby it surrounds me" John Coody is a bona fide, Johnny Cash lib'ral, and it's a pleasure to listen to him weave his words through classic rock and country territories, sounding both familiar and brand new at the same time. They're going on national tour starting this month. Look for them.

Grabass Charlestons and Whiskey & Co. were up next on three. Grabass is a longtime, popular Gainesville punk outfit, a little slower, grungier than most Gainesville bands, and they're good live. Whisky played a fine drunken country sprawl of a set, a nice follow-up to Ninja Gun. "Happy Hour" could be a bar anthem if it wasn't so short. Set it on loop and watch out for the floor, honey.

I stepped over to one to check out Ra Ra Riot for a couple of songs. They weave violin and cello nicely into their new-wave inspired sound. Fortunately, they refract the more interesting side of the 80's with updated, sophisticated, multi-layered pop and clear vocals. If you typically like who NPR recommends, check them out.

Heading into the heart of the evening, stage one featured Jacksonville's Pitchfork-darlings-then-rejects The Black Kids (they sold out SO FAST). They were more enjoyable than I expected, having downloaded their initial ep and, sure, it's clear they requested "Love Cats" and "Let's Dance" often on 80's dance night and they probably have tapes of Talk Talk and Culture Club somewhere in the back seat. "I'm Not Gonna Teach Your Boyfriend How to Dance with You" is genuinely fun, but the next new thing? Pushing that pile of expectation on top of them could have ruined them. They're virtue, after all, was their uncritical, charming enthusiasm, and I'm pleased to say that, live, their enthusiasm still shows through as they project a nerdish affability.

But I left The Black Kids to check out KRS-One, and he was preaching the virtues of old school (90's, not 70's, the real old school) hip hop, arguing that it's not dead, showing off quick rhymes over anything. Dixie said she admired him for his experimentation, bringing any musical genre into rap, and when he freestyled over "In the Mood," I was convinced.

So when she and Camille said to check out Paul Baribeau over at stage four, I tagged along. I'd never heard of him and I knew what Gaslight Anthem was gonna sound like. PB put out some fine, amusing, observant acoustic guitar, coffeehouse music perfect for thirty-somethings who like a little wisdom and experience along with their sound. Paul would have fit nicely in Saturday's Vanderslice/Darnielson mix with his simple voice and humorous banter between songs. "Think of all the things that are wrong with your life and fix them." He makes it sound easy and fun.

We lingered for acoustic punk-folk activists Ghost Mice, and enjoyed their energy, which flowed nicely after Paul B., but I'd had enough enthusiastic acoustic and headed after a few songs back to stage one, where New Jersey's Gaslight Anthem was finishing their crunching mainstream blue-collar punk set. They've played in Valdosta and they're nice guys.

I wandered over to three briefly to check out the Young Livers, yet more Gainesville punk, maybe angrier, but I needed something slower, so I went back to one and waited for The National, the last act of the evening, while the Ninja Gun crew were headed to three to support Fake Problems, whom I'd seen in VD.

Brooklyn's The National were professional, serious, passionate, which was why I wanted to see them live. The crowd knew the songs, reflecting aging worldliness underlined by music that can ring melodic fatigue or erupt into a frontal guitar assault. They played exactly an hour, and, while it's easy to put them in the Springsteen revival pigeonhole along with The Hold Steady, these songs fit me better, since I've enjoyed that slowdive baritone style via Tindersticks and Arab Strap for some time. I nominate "All the Wine" to the top ten wino list just for its chorus ("All the wine is all for me"), and "Fake Empire" still stirs with its reflections about what we've become, those optimistic horns prophetic at the end, I hope. Unfortunately, they had to cut their set short due to the 11 PM curfew, and so "Abel" didn't make it into the warm spring air that night. I left with the image of Matt Beringer banging together two white wine bottles (which he'd dutifully emptied during the course of the set) along with the beat to one of the songs, but I don't remember which. "All the Wine?" "Squalor Victoria?" "Mr. November?" "Apartment Story?" I think it was "Apartment Story." It punctuated nicely, sounding about to shatter. I left feeling "tired and wired," somber and wanting wine myself, but red, not that white Matt was drinking.

I ran off the festival Monday at Anastasia state park, the waves my music, the white beach my stage.