Tuesday, January 28, 2020

Serenity Gardens (01.27.20)

A small but happy crowd at Serenity Gardens enjoys the Zak Show. Photo by Kat.

I definitely want to tell you about last night's show at Serenity Gardens, but first I want to write a few words about Kobe Bean Bryant.

The start of Sunday was a pretty typical weekend morning for me. It was my first actual weekend in a long time, with my recent trade show behind me, and I was looking forward to relaxing (which, I'm happy to say, I successfully did for the most part). Saturday had been very chill, with a lot of time kicking back and taking care of a few things that I'd been unable to do with all the work that makes up the start of each January for me. I restrung one of my guitars, played some video games, took care of some house stuff, and everything was fine. Sunday started similarly, though I did make a run to the grocery store out of necessity. But then, like many people around the world, I got slammed with some news that was extremely shocking. I was in another room, and Christina opened the door with a look on her face that told me that some bad news was forthcoming. She paused for a moment.

"Kobe Bryant was killed in a helicopter crash," she said solemnly.

Those words didn't make any sense to me. Kobe? Kobe couldn't die. That simply wasn't possible. It had to be some kind of Internet hoax. Kobe was superhuman. He was on a different level than everyone else. He was the person who fought through every challenge, who not only endeavored to be great but to be great in comparison to greatness. People like that don't die, do they?

After a moment or two of those kinds of irrational thoughts, I did what most people probably did when they heard the news... I started scouring Twitter and other Internet sources for information. The news didn't get any better as the day went on, especially after getting confirmation that Kobe's daughter GiGi was also killed in the accident, along with a number of other people who'd been in the helicopter traveling from Orange County to Thousand Oaks. It was entirely depressing. I'm not sure how the impact of his passing is around the world and across the USA, but here in the Los Angeles area, it's particularly devastating. I actually found myself glad that my father, who passed away in 2017, was not around to experience this. He, like I, was a huge admirer of Kobe, and we spent many conversations over the years talking about Kobe's drive to greatness.

I was aware of Kobe even before he entered the NBA in 1996, at the time the youngest player in history to do so. I followed his career moment by moment, watching him play with a style that had never been seen before in the NBA. It's said that when he and the rest of the NBA players who made up the 2008 USA Olympic basketball team went to Beijing, every other player was simply astounded at Kobe's work ethic. It had always been the case, but to see it there in person was mind blowing to the other all-star players. As an athlete, Kobe was always a level above those around him.

I know very well that Kobe wasn't perfect. There are no perfect humans. I know that some people will dwell only on what they perceive are the negative actions he may have taken, and that's okay. I'm in no way negating that viewpoint. I suppose the only thing I would say in that regard is to take a close look at your entire life... everything you've done that's been good for other people, and bad for other people. Ask yourself if you will be remembered for only one aspect of your life, be it good or bad. And be honest; I'm talking about your entire life, from childhood to this moment. Again, there are no perfect people. If you are going to be remembered, I hope for your sake that a) the good you did far outweighed the bad and b) that the positive impacts you had are those that were the most meaningful to the largest number of people.

To wrap this up, just for the sake of documenting the feeling that Kobe's death has left on myself and my fellow people in the greater Los Angeles area, here's the usually jovial Jimmy Fallon in the opening of the Tonight Show last night. Like Jimmy and a lot of people, I don't shed tears for Kobe the great athlete, but rather for Kobe the great person. Flawed, but great nonetheless.

The Show
I didn't say shit about Kobe as any part of my show last night, because frankly, a lot of people have said a lot of things, and I just needed a little time where there was no focus on tragedy and negativity. All I did was play music and chat with the crowd, and have what I consider to be a pretty typical Zak Show. I found that I hadn't been being very adventurous in my set lists lately, and while I didn't pull out any brand new (to me) tunes, I did reach a little deeper into my repertoire and played a good percentage of tunes that went beyond the safe zone of songs with which everyone was already familiar.

I want to say that when I do that, it's on purpose, and it comes with a risk. People are creatures of comfort, and almost nothing is more comfortable than hearing a song that you've heard hundreds of times before. The risk is that a lot of people don't want live music shows to be challenging to them as a listener. There's nothing wrong with that, but it definitely explains why the more well-attended shows are generally by those artists who do familiar pop songs, and that's fine. It's the same thing in the real world, where beloved pop artists will sell out stadiums while lesser-known indie artists perform at small clubs and theaters. What I will say is that I'm very, very happy to offer some music that appeals to people who, like myself, enjoy the process of discovery as much as they do hearing well-performed music in general. On many occasions, through my SL shows I've turned people on to artists they might have never otherwise known about, and they became big fans of that music. That genuinely makes me proud, and I have no plans of doing my shows any other way.

Me, rocking the songs that no one knows. Photo by Kat.

Whether the crowds are big or small, Serenity Gardens remains one of the best places to experience live music in Second Life. Photo by Kat.

One other note. While I certainly have every intention of continuing my shows in Second Life, it's also been brought to my attention that with the number of people who no longer participate in SL but had formerly enjoyed my shows there, I need to start expanding my methods of live performance, as I used to do more regularly. This is a hint that sometime very soon, I'll be letting you know about information regarding some non-SL shows I have planned. Perhaps as early as this coming weekend, it might be fun to schedule a live video show. It's been awhile since my last Zak Claxton Happy Fun Show, so don't be surprised when I appear on your Facebook feed.

Thanks to all who came out to the show, and big-ass thanks to the following who helped support it!
Kat Chauveau, AaronCabottJones Resident, Kat Claxton, Shannyn Fall, elijahem Resident, Trouble Streeter, Grace McDunnough, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Serenity Gardens (01.13.20)

It was great to be back at Serenity Gardens, doing my Zak thing. Photo by Kat.

Well hello there, readers. It's my first post of a new decade. Or is it?

Time is weird, and no matter what you think about it, you're almost certainly wrong. What time is it now? Depends on where you are. And what is "now"? Is it when I'm writing these words? Is it when you're reading them? If you read this again later, is it still "now"? If you want to go deep into the abstract aspects of time, it goes all the way up to the theories of Albert Einstein that prove that time and space are relativistic, rather than the same for everyone at every point in the universe. Time is literally different depending on the frame of reference of the observer. If I was flying in an orbit around a black hole, for example, time would seem normal to me. But if you were watching me from a distance, I would appear to slow down and eventually seem to nearly stop. That's gravitational time dilation, and we've reached a point in technology here on Earth that absolutely proves it, with our manmade satellites having to be recalibrated to account for these differences in order to function for things like GPS navigation functions.

But we're not talking about anything as cool as that. Instead, this argument is the rather pedestrian aspect of calendars, and when we actual mark the start of decades and centuries and the like. There's a valid argument that, for example, the 21st century didn't begin on January 1, 2000, but rather on January 1, 2001. This is true because the first year of the Gregorian calendar was 1 AD, and... yeah, I get it, but it's all really silly to me. The thing I can say with certainty is that decade references like "the '90s" are aligned with their numbers, running in that example from 1990-1999. So, I am pretty confident that we are now in the '20s, making this the first post of the decade. So, we're back where we started when I began this post.

The NAMM Show
Every January for me since 1993 -- 27 years ago, astoundingly -- my life gets somewhat taken over by the preparation and execution of something called The NAMM Show. It's a huge trade show for the music and audio products industry, the area of business that's kept a roof over my head ever since I got out of college. NAMM is such a large and important event that companies in my industry often start preparing for it in the summertime to be sure to be ready for it in January. On my end of things -- marketing and advertising and public relations and the like -- my first NAMM deadlines for this year's show were all the way back in early November, and almost every day between then and now have had some NAMM-related task to accomplish. It's a massive undertaking and getting ready for it can make for a super stressful time of year.

However, most of the stress involved is in the preparation for the show, rather than the show itself. Once I roll into the convention center, I'm usually feeling pretty good about things, and all of the planning and organization and creation of the content that I do for my job is well received. While experiencing a little bit of anticipatory anxiety is pretty normal for most people exhibiting at a large trade show, I have gotten better over the years at not allowing it to overwhelm me, and while I am definitely looking forward to its successful conclusion as I do every year, I don't have any of the pointless dread that I've felt going into the show as I used to experience when I was younger. I think things will be fine.

Back to Serenity
So, what would have been my previous show at Serenity Gardens was scheduled during the time that Ilsa Flannigan shuts down for the holidays, and the show two weeks before that was when I was in the midst of a round of bronchitis, which forced me to do an hour-long story reading rather than a musical performance. It had therefore been six weeks since the last time I was able to do a full-on Zak Show at Serenity, and I was definitely ready to get back up on that stage and do what I do.

Ilsa tends to redecorate Serenity Gardens based on the seasons, while still leaving the recognizable aspects of the structure in place. It looked great for my show. Photo by Kat.

I was a little concerned about my voice after a couple of rounds of illnesses, but it held up fine and everyone seemed to have a good time. Photo by Kat.

Just me. Photo by Kat.

The show went really well. Since I am still partially recovering from the cold I got right after the bronchitis (yeah, it's been a fun season of sickness), I was a little concerned about how my voice would hold up, but it turned out that everything felt great as I was launching into my first song, and stayed that way throughout. Given the circumstances of my time and attention being pulled in fifty direction due to my upcoming trade show, I knew this particular set at Serenity wasn't the best time to try and add new songs, but that's something I look forward to doing at subsequent shows. By the time of my next show there, on Monday January 27, my voice should be sufficiently recovered from NAMM to try some new stuff then. We'll see if my sanity is equally recovered to follow through on this.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Wonderwall (Oasis)
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Help Me (Joni Mitchell)
Dead Flowers (Rolling Stones)
Wichita Lineman (Glen Campbell)
Thank U (Alanis Morissette)
Adia (Sarah McLachlan)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Pickles (Zak Claxton)
Don’t Let It Pass (Junip)
She Keeps Me Warm (Mary Lambert)
Shame Chamber (Kurt Vile)

Big thanks to everyone who came to Serenity Gardens for the show, and special judos to the following who helped support it!
Kat Chauveau, Bee Blackrain, Trouble Streeter, Sesh Kamachi, Kat Claxton, Kitzie Lane, Skeat Abonwood, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Monday, December 23, 2019

Homes For Our Troops (12.22.19)

Getting my holiday show for Homes For Our Troops started at Veterans Isle in Second Life. Photo by Kat.

Life is funny. When you're young, you think you have an idea of what it means to be "grown up". You associate it with things like being independent, responsible for your own needs and perhaps supporting a family and so on. And even as time goes by and you get older, there's no guarantee that at any specific point, you'll truly think of yourself as being a mature adult. You can have a job, have kids, buy a home, drive a nice car, any of those things that you recognized as being part of the process of being an adult, probably based on how you saw your parents and other older people who were influences on you.

However, I've found that there are steps beyond the things I mentioned above that allow you to start getting an understanding of what maturity is all about. I think that you truly have matured when you start spending your time and effort in making a difference in the world beyond the things that are your immediate personal priorities. It's 100% understandable that you give most of your focus on the actions you take to keep yourself and your loved ones happy and healthy and successful. No one would argue that. But as time goes by and you find that you are capable of doing those things, you hopefully realize that you are capable of more.

Photo by Kat.

One nice thing that performing live music in Second Life has given me is the opportunity to do just that... help others beyond myself and my family and friends. I can do this things because I am aware of and appreciate that I've been very fortunate to be in a position that I am able to take care of my own needs and still find that I have room to try and help others. Not everyone is in that position. But since I am, it's important to me to try and use whatever extra level of effort that I have to try and give back to the world in various ways. Second Life has provided a very convenient way to do that, in many different areas. I believe my first kind of charitable show was for the Relay for Life organization for the American Cancer Society, who has long held SL-based fundraising events. I've done plenty of other since then... shows benefitting the National Kidney Foundation, animal shelters, personal fundraisers for people facing various serious illnesses or tragic circumstances, and of course the Feed-a-Smile charity for school kids in Kenya. I've done multiple benefit shows for each of these and more. But to some folks, perhaps the most perplexing of the causes I support with my music is the Homes For Our Troops organization.

Peace, Love & Understanding
I've done many shows for HFOT in Second Life. At least a couple of times each year, Frets Nirvana asks if I can be a part of his monthly fundraising shows, and I don't think I've ever turned him down. Why would a person like me, who is utterly opposed to violence and military conflict, interested in supporting such a cause? I'd think the answer would be simple, but I'll say it anyway.

If someone is sent into an area in conflict and is severely injured, the top priority should be to ensure that those people are well taken care of upon their return. Sadly, that has never proven to be the case in America. More than 10% of our country's homeless population are military veterans. For those who make it back and are lucky enough to have a place to live, it is often not fit for the challenges they face via the injuries sustained in protecting our country.

I appreciate many things about about Homes For Our Troops. First, Charity Navigator gives HFOT a score of 91.69/100, meaning that they are very transparent with their fund distribution and that a huge portion of the money raised goes straight to those in need. I am always careful to support causes where the charity itself doesn't take an inordinate percentage of the funds as "operating expenses". Consumer Reports lists Homes For Our Troops as one of the highest-rated veterans charities in the country.

HFOT has a very specific mission... "TO BUILD AND DONATE SPECIALLY ADAPTED CUSTOM HOMES NATIONWIDE FOR SEVERELY INJURED POST-9/11 VETERANS, TO ENABLE THEM TO REBUILD THEIR LIVES." In 2019, the organization built 18 custom homes for these deserving servicemen/women. When I think about the idea that through the efforts of people like Frets, and my small part in joining him a couple of times per year to strum my guitar and sing a little and help raise some money... sure, it's a drop in the bucket, but every drop adds up. If you ever find yourself wondering if it's worthwhile... well, look at these folks and you tell me.

Christmas Songs
One other thing I want to mention. I generally have a few shows in the holiday season, and obviously it's the only time of year where I can do certain holiday-themed songs. They don'e go over so well when you pull them out in August. However, I ran into a bout of bronchitis this year -- not unusual for me in December, I should add. So my show last Monday had no singing at all; it became a story hour instead, which was fun. But when I found out I was performing on December 22 for the monthly HFOT benefit at Veterans Isle in SL, I knew that would be my one shot to pull out all the Christmasy musical goodness, and so I did. I didn't do an entire hour-long show of Christmas music; I know that people get burned out on that music, especially after hearing it basically daily for weeks. Instead, I mixed up some holiday tunes with some others that just had a good vibe for the event.

But I will say that while I do some Christmas songs in a super traditional way, I also try and throw my own arrangements together for certain tunes, and I really enjoy taking a well-known song and making it a little more my own, which I did for a couple of the songs I performed. And one last note: if you find yourself with an opportunity to use whatever talents you have to help other people... I can't advise you highly enough to do so. It feels great, and you will be aware that you've transcended into a new level of humanity. Think of it as "leveling up" in the video game we call life.

Photo by Kat.

Homes For Our Troops set list...
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen (Traditional)
Among the Leaves (Sun Kil Moon)
Holly Jolly Christmas (Burl Ives)
Long December (Counting Crows)
America (Simon & Garfunkel)
Little Drummer Boy/Peace on Earth (Traditional/David Bowie)
Comes a Time (Neil Young)
Peace Love & Understanding (Elvis Costello)
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Blane/Martin)
Your Song (Elton John)
Walk on the Wild Side (Lou Reed)
The Christmas Song (Nat King Cole)

Huge thanks to each and every person who came by my show at Veterans Isle, with special thanks to the generous people who helped to put on the event and those who gave to the cause. You are all heroes!

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

'A Christmas Carol' at Serenity Gardens (12.16.19)

Not my typical kind of show... but pretty fun nonetheless. Photo by Kat.

As the old saying goes, when life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Or, when life hands you bronchitis, make a complete fool out of yourself by doing the weirdest live performance that you've ever attempted.

Perhaps I should back up a bit. I'd been dealing with something that is, unfortunately, quite familiar to me. Starting a number of weeks ago, I'd noticed that I was wheezing a bit. There was an annoying whistle while I was exhaling, especially at night, and I was getting coughing fits from time to time. This is never a good sign, but in my typical fashion, I decided to ignore it and hope it would just magically go away on its own. I should also note here that as a smoker for decades, there's always that niggling thought that perhaps my wheezing and coughing fits meant that I was actually close to death in some way. But I try not to get paranoid, at least very often, and besides, I was super busy with work and life.

Well, it didn't go away. I was feeling pretty ill and the coughing and wheezing seemed to be worsening, so last Thursday, after a particularly bad morning of breathing problems the day before, I went down the street to Ocean Medical here in Redondo Beach. Ocean Medical is an urgent care center for most people; for me, they've been my primary care physician for the past 25 years or so. I like them. After an examination which showed me to be otherwise healthy with the exception of my poor lungs, a diagnosis of bronchitis was given... something I've had far too often in life and that probably would be less of an issue if I didn't smoke, which is a whole other story. But my fine medical professional Casey prescribed me a strong antibiotic along with a steroid and an inhaler, and within a few days, I was feeling a million times better. Note: yes, I'll be finishing my antibiotics. People who don't finish their antibiotics are dangers to the entire world, creating superbugs from the strong bacteria that survive the initial onslaught. But I digress.

What, you don't take selfies in the exam room? Whatever. I can't be the only one.

Did You Have a Point To All This?
Yes. Yes I did. I was scheduled to do my bi-weekly live music show at Serenity Gardens in Second Life on Monday December 16, and as I mentioned, I was starting to feel a lot better. But there's a big difference between a person feeling well enough to, say, work and go grocery shopping and do laundry, versus standing and singing at full volume for a full hour. Singing requires very strong lung power (which should seem obvious, but sometimes isn't for people who've never done it on a professional basis), and while I'm definitely getting better and better, I was not yet in a place where I could confidently do my typical Zak Show.

The obvious solution would be to cancel the show, and on Saturday, I came within moments of just messaging Ilsa Flannigan who runs Serenity Gardens and letting her know that I simply wasn't healthy enough to make the show. She'd have understood and it would have been fine; these things happen all the time with live performers, especially here in the middle of sickness season. She'd have easily found someone to sub in for me that night. No big thing.

But I really do enjoy my shows there, and missing one night of a bi-weekly show means you're missing for a full month. But I knew singing was out of the question. As an experienced musician, I knew that one option would be to simply get out my guitar or keyboards and do a full hour of instrumental music with no singing at all... but it's been my general observation that audiences in Second Life are either into that kind of thing or not, and frankly my crowd really enjoys the more intimate and personal aspect of a show with vocals. So then, a thought occurred to me, and it wasn't a new one; I'd considered this possibility on many other occasions but never went through with it. What if, I thought, I did a show that wasn't based on music at all? What if I spent an hour telling some kind of story instead? Talking, while still taxing, isn't nearly as hard as singing, lung-wise.

Scrooge McClaxton, professional dramatic actor. Photo by Nina Rose Setner.

I made the decision there on the spot. I'd do some kind of storytelling or acting performance instead of singing. But what to do? Well, it's the time of year that in music or other kinds of performance that the holidays are an expected theme... and there was one story that had been integral to my life around Christmastime my entire life. It was Charles Dickens' classic 1843 tale A Christmas Carol, sometimes popularly known as Scrooge due to its memorable main character. So I set about thinking through what I'd want to do for a good performance of the short book. Being who I am and wanting to put on a memorable show, my mind went to the full extreme of building a set and rehearsing a special version of the tale and having multiple avatars in SL to enact the whole thing. Then I remembered that I had less than two days to pull this off, so I scrapped all of those ideas and settled on getting an appropriate Scrooge-looking outfit (was there one available on the SL marketplace? Of course there was), and a Victorian-era chair, and just reading the book. This... almost worked.

Timing and Pacing
let me tell you a little difference between playing music and acting in a play. When you go to a concert, there's no real expectation of what songs are going to be performed, or how many of them will be done. If I have an hour-long set, this ranges somewhere between 11-14 songs, depending on the length of each tune and the time I spend between songs chatting with the crowd, and other typical factors. No one knows or cares if I get through all the songs I might have planned to play; each song is a little three- or four-minute self-contained work of art.

But a movie or play or other acting performance is very different. It is a longer single work with a start, a middle, and an end, and randomly skipping any of these parts leads to a less than ideal experience for the audience. Sure, you have episodic presentations like a TV series where you can have small parts of a story spread out over a long time frame... but I didn't have a long time frame. I had exactly an hour between when Grace McDunnough's set ended ay 6:00 and Aaron Cabot Jones' set started at 7:00. Had I planned this out weeks ahead of time, I could have gone through and heavily rehearsed and edited and planned out what would fit well in an hour time slot while still getting across the meat of the story. But no, I had a day, basically.

I will say that fortunately, my audiences in Second Life are very forgiving. While I did manage to get through all of A Christmas Carol before my show ended, I had this realization with about 20 minutes left in my show that I had well over half the book still to go, including all of the most important plot elements. I think I'd just started the visit from the ghost of Christmas past at that point. Yeah. So I started "fast forwarding" through the story in ways that were neither graceful nor unnoticeable. In fact, I think I said, "And then several other things happened!" a few times while frantically scrolling my iPad's Kindle app to find the next point of the plot to which I could jump. I found myself laughing about this, and my crowd all understood this as well.

Usually my audience is dancing, but many of them struck an appropriate pose for story hour. Photo by Kat.

On the bright side, while I'm not a very experienced or well-trained or perhaps talented actor, I managed to maintain a small level of consistency while trying to do 11 different voices in various Victorian-era male and female and ghostly English accents. I'd like to think that the majority of people couldn't do that, or at least would be smart enough to not try. But I did, and sometimes, that's what it's all about. Make the effort. You don't have to be great. No matter what it is that you find yourself doing... singing, acting, dancing, cooking, crafting, and much more... if you're trying it and enjoying it, you're miles ahead of the person who never even tries.

So I'm quite happy with the silly dramatic performance I did last night, and apparently I wasn't the only one. Ilsa told me after the show that she had a number of people requesting that we make "Holiday Story Time" an annual event, and with a little more time to prepare and plan and rehearse, I'll bet it could actually be something really good, as opposed to being good in spite of itself as last night's show could charitably be called. Bah! Humbug!

Huge thanks to everyone who came out to Serenity Gardens for this unusual Zak Show, with special thanks to those who helped support the show!
Triana Caldera, Maurice Mistwallow, Kat Claxton, Harley Wytchwood, Kitzie Lane, Barbara Mixemup, Celeste Ewing, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Sunday, December 8, 2019

My 19 Top Indie Music Albums for 2019

'Tis the time of the season to look back upon the year that just transpired and, for no reason, to say some things were better than others.

Actually, that is complete bullshit. I could probably list 1900 albums of music that were cool in some way and came out during the past calendar year. These sort-of random 19 albums were just ones that happened to catch my attention at some point, and that I felt were worthy of inclusion to note what sort of music I was vibing to at various points in 2019. Speaking of which: while you'll note some commonalities in the song samples below, I'm more and more of the opinion that we live in a post-genre world now. Granted, while you won't find much in terms of hip-hop or country or Top 40-style pop, these indie artists and bands all have their own sound going on. If you force me to use the words that people use to help define this stuff, it ranges from psych rock to bedroom pop to shoegaze to indie folk to dream pop, but none of that really matters. What matters is that I like it.

Note: these are presented in alphabetical order only; the whole "ranking of art thing" is not something I'm into, ever.

Big Thief: Two Hands

I discovered Big Thief by getting into their singer/guitarist Adrienne Lenker with the release of her solo album last year. Being a creative musician who doesn't get to spend as much time on music as I'd like, I'm a bit jealous because this year, the band put out not just one but two albums, and they were both really pretty damn good. The second of those two, Two Hands, rates special mention with its solid nature in both songwriting and production.

Bill Callahan: Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest

Drag City
There's something amazing about Bill Callahan's voice alone. That low and dry vibe seems so lacking in emotion that for whatever reason, it ends up having the opposite effect. Shepherd in a Sheepskin Vest is Callahan's first new album in over five years and it's just really great. He's really come a long way since his lo-fi work in Smog, and he's really getting into that class of writer that reminds me of Townes Van Zandt or Tom Waits. Really good.

Black Belt Eagle Scout: At the Party With My Brown Friends

Saddle Creek
Her name is Katherine Paul, goes by KP, grew up on a reservation in Washington State, and she's cranked out her first two albums in consecutive years. Interesting fact: I usually scoff at statements like, "bringing a voice to queer Indigenous experiences", and yet I can't think of another musical artist who fits that description, so mission accomplished. Plus, I just really enjoy these songs. I don't know if they are supposed to be for me, per se, but I hear something in them that merits special mention among the best of the year.

Cate Le Bon: Reward

Mexican Summer
This Welsh lady is super impressive, and her latest album is super interesting from standpoints of songwriting and production and arranging and performance. Whenever a musician does something that I'd never consider doing, I feel compelled to wonder where it came from, and sometimes question if I might like trying it too. That's a really good sign, and I get that from Reward. Super coincidental side note: Cate co-produced the Deerhunter album that you'll find on this list below.

Chastity Belt: Chastity Belt

Hardly Art
Co-produced by Jay Som (the second time on this list that one of my favorite artists of the year worked with another one), Chastity Belt's self-titled fourth album is a little less raucous and a little more dreamy and introspective than their previous efforts, but I think it's fantastic. I've been a fan for quite awhile (and have covered their music) and it's always difficult to say exactly what it is about this PNW-based band that I enjoy so much... but I do, I do.

Crumb: Jinx

Rough Trade
So, first, you gotta know I have a predilection toward psych pop of any kind, having been an early adopter to bands like Tame Impala, Unknown Mortal Orchestra and many others. When I heard this full-length debut by Crumb, I recognized a whole lot of things I liked right away. It was one of those, "I'm listening for the first time but I'm singing along" moments. And I just really like Lila Ramani's voice for some reason. I don't need to explain why. The whole album is great.

Deerhunter: Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared?

Speaking of Unknown Mortal Orchestra, I saw them a couple of times, and one of those times was along with Deerhunter at Pappy & Harriet's in Pioneertown, CA. It was during the week between the two weekend shows of Coachella in 2016, and I deeply enjoyed both bands. Why Hasn't Everything Already Disappeared? isn't my favorite Deerhunter album -- that would be either Halcyon Digest or Fading Frontier -- but it's solidly good, and both Bradford Cox and Lockett Pundt are super interesting songwriters in their own distinct ways.

Desert Sessions: Vol. 11 & 12

Do I like everything that Joshua Homme does musically? Um, yeah, I'd have to say yes. From Kyuss to Queens of the Stone Age to Them Crooked Vultures and more, the dude is one of the key voices of my generation. As most of you know, I have this affinity toward the desert... especially the high desert and the Joshua Tree area where the Desert Sessions projects have been recorded. This particular set of albums features Josh along with a cast that includes Billy Gibbons (ZZ Top), Stella Mozgawa (Warpaint), Carla Azar (Jack White), Jake Shears (Scissor Sisters), and a cavalcade of others making this Desert Sessions release as unique and interesting as any of the volumes before it.

DIIV: Deceiver

Captured Tracks
This album was probably my surprise of the entire year. I'd heard DIIV plenty of times before but nothing off their first two albums really jumped out at me as being outstanding. Deceiver is something else entirely. It's darker, sonically and lyrically. It's grungy. It's powerful. I honestly love every song and can listen through this album start to finish and want to put it on again. I'm trying not to pick favorites on this list, but if I were, this would be a pretty easy choice.

German Error Message: Mend

German Error Message
This is not the first time German Error Message made one of my year-end lists. He's a Nashville-based indie songer-songwriter named Paul Kintzing and he's definitely a special talent. I like the softness of his songs. I like the way he patiently takes his time to let songs build and swell. I also like the fact that it's not easy to pigeonhole him into any of several subgenres. But his folky, somewhat ambient bedroom pop is done superbly, and Mend is a great example of his work for people who have yet to check him out.

Girlpool: What Chaos Is Imaginary

If this album seems familiar to readers of my blog, that's because I dedicated an entire post to it when it came out earlier this year. The topic of the post was a deep dive into the musical perspective of Cleo Tucker's gender transition; they had recorded the demo as a female, but the album was recorded after Tucker's transition to male. Fascinating stuff. What I didn't do at the time was talk about how What Chaos Is Imaginary is a simply outstanding album regardless of the story behind it. The music of Cleo and Harmony has matured tremendously since the first time I saw them on an NPR Tiny Desk concert in 2015. This album deserves its position on many of this year's "best of" lists, including mine.

Great Grandpa: Four of Arrows

DOuble Double Whammy
This is the second album from this Seattle-based indie group, but like a lot of young bands, they seem to have matured after going through some shit. That's usually when I get my greatest enjoyment out of a band, so if you're worried about the pain you're going through as a songwriting musician, just know that others will probably benefit from your fucked up situation. Yay!

Jay Som: Anak Ko

I really don't have enough good things to say about Jay Som. I somehow got into her music super early, flipping through music on Bandcamp one day in 2015 and finding her demos. I've followed her progress as a writer and producer ever since -- she creates her albums by herself in her home studio. It's really no surprise, for me anyway, that she wrote Anak Ko during a retreat to Joshua Tree. Assuming she doesn't burn out, I can promise more excellent stuff in the future from this young and super talented artist.

Marika Hackman: Any Human Friend

Sub Pop
I have to admit, my first exposure to Marika Hackman was via the rather lascivious nature of the video for her song "Hand Solo", an ode to female masturbation. But it was enough to pull me into this album which is going to hit many year-end "best of" lists. I like her vibe- er, the mood of her songs... poppy but dark, which is always a trigger for me. By the way, if you note that a lot of LGBTQ artists seem to make my lists every year, that's because a lot of them seem to make really fucking great music. There you go.

Pixx: Small Mercies

I stumbled across Hannah Rodgers, aka Pixx, right as she started out with the outstanding debut EP she released in 2016 at age 19, and her follow up LP was cool but a little too electronic for my own tastes (let's face it; I like guitars). With this year's Small Mercies, she's found this hybrid of indie rock while still keeping her newer electronic influences, and I think it's her best yet... with likely much more to come.

(Sandy) Alex G: House of Sugar

I guess I'm late to the (Sandy) Alex G trip; House of Sugar is the seventh album from this Philly-based singer-songwriter. But holy shit, it's great. Much like a couple of the artists listed above, Alex records himself at home, which is where he's most comfortable, but despite getting the "lo-fi" tag early on, I find a lot of the stuff on this latest album to be quite sophisticated from a production standpoint. "Gretel" is up there in my favorite songs of the entire year.

Sasami: Sasami

It's always kind of neat when I find an artist with which I'd been previously unfamiliar, and then became aware that I'd enjoyed them previously without even knowing it. That's the case with Sasami, who (unbeknownst to me) was a member of LA-based grunge band Cherry Glazerr for a couple of years. Her self-titled solo album is excellent. It hits all the right buttons for me, with spacious synths, shoegaze guitars, and wistful vocals. Totally dig this.

Wand: Laughing Matter

Drag City
Wand is another band that I'd been aware of for some time and enjoyed, but never to the point that I'd considered them one of the best of the best. Laughing Matter is something else entirely; it's sophisticated yet human, tight and clean while raring its head to be grungy and dirty. I am supremely impressed and feel like I still have a lot of time to spend listening to and absorbing this fantastic record.

Weyes Blood: Titanic Rising

Sub Pop
Natalie Mering has one of the most beautiful voices I've ever heard; her rich, vibrato-laden alto puts her in a class with Karen Carpenter and few others. You can consider her sound schlocky or overly sentimental, but I find that her music comes from a place of genuineness and truth. And, like I said, it's just beautiful, and that's reason enough for her to once again make my list of the year's best.

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Serenity Gardens (12.02.19)

Kat's old computer is long gone, and while she's received her new one, it wasn't in time for her to have it set up to attend my show at Serenity Gardens (or take any pics). So, here's me the night before my show.

Before I get to last night's show at Serenity Gardens in Second Life, I should mention a very important -- and unfortunately very sad -- real life event that transpired recently. Over the pre-thanksgiving weekend, Christina and I spent a few days in the Pacific Northwest. I wish I could tell you that we were going up to her hometown for a happier reason, but that is not the case. It was for her sister Tova Woodruff's memorial event. Tova had been diagnosed with an aggressive form of gastric cancer in March, and despite taking every measure to courageously treat it, the cancer spread to other parts of her body and eight months later, she was gone at 38 years old, leaving behind a husband and two wonderful small children, Simon and Evelyn, all of whom will miss her greatly as time goes by.

Over the past couple of years, I've had seemingly more than my share of death in my life. Part of it is just the aspect of getting older; the longer you're around, the more likely that those to whom you are close are also getting older or otherwise running the risk of being affected by things like cancer and other hard-to-fight diseases, or just simply old age. I don't fear death per se, though I have a healthy aversion to it. I recall not long ago that someone was interviewing the actor Harry Dean Stanton, who was in his late 80s at the time. He said, "The only fear I have is how long consciousness is gonna hang on after my body goes. I just hope there’s nothing, like there was before I was born. The void, the concept of nothingness, is terrifying to most people on the planet. And I get anxiety attacks myself. I know the fear of that void. You have to learn to die before you die. You give up, surrender to the void, to nothingness." Harry died a few years later. Hopefully he found his void.

It's a very, very difficult concept to process... the idea that the world keeps going on, but you're just not part of it. A huge portion of the entire shared culture of humanity is the idea of an afterlife. I'm not just talking about ideas like heaven and hell. There are plenty of atheists who believe in ghosts and spirits and psychic energy from beyond the grave. There are religions whose followers believe in reincarnation. Obviously, I can't say that any of them are right or wrong, but all of these concepts seem to share the commonality that human consciousness goes beyond the physical construct of your brain and the collective thoughts that make up what some would refer to as your soul, and that this consciousness is somehow so important in the universe that it continues on long after the rest of the mechanism of your body has had its demise. Some believe it continues for eternity.

I'm not here to dispute that idea. It's very comforting. But I also respect Mr. Stanton's more Zen-focused viewpoint, which teaches the importance of living in the present and appreciating what's around you here in this world, for whatever limited time you have in it, rather than awaiting some better world beyond it. Logically, since none of us know that an afterlife exists, it makes sense to me to try and lead a good life in this realm. In my view, the biggest victims of death are not the dead; it's the ones who are left behind and have to continue on without that person in their lives. That's the hard part. I have friends and family members who've passed away who I will miss for the rest of my life. If you think about it, you really want to lead the kind of life that causes others to miss you when you're gone, so the fact that I continue to regret their passing speaks to the quality of people they were.

I was happy to help out Christina and her family in any way I could with Tova's memorial, so I designed the program book for the event, which was on Sunday November 24.

Meanwhile, Amongst the Living...
Tova's "Celebration of Life" event went very well. Lots of family members and friends old and new attended, and the service was likely cathartic for everyone and added some closure to the pain of Tova's passing. If I could have wished for one thing to make the entire event easier on Christina -- who was, as some of you may know, extremely close to Tova -- it would have been for the aspect of traveling up to the Seattle area a smooth journey without any extra difficulties to add to her grief.

That's pretty much the opposite of what happened. We were scheduled on a 3:25 flight out of LAX to a relatively new airport for commuter traffic called Paine Field. It's in Everett, about 50 miles north of SeaTac airport where we'd usually have to use as our destination. It was much more convenient to where her family lives and where the memorial event was to be held. As we were on our way to the airport, Christina got a notice that our Alaska Airlines flight had been cancelled. That was disappointing, but these things happen. She was able to rebook us on another flight, albeit into SeaTac, where we had to rent a car and drive up to Everett. It was the return experience that was about as bad as they get. We arrived at Paine Field with plenty of time to spare, and at first it looked like everything was going along just fine.

But then, we were told that our plane had a mechanical issue, and there would be a delay. Fine, okay. No one wants to fly in a plane with problems. The hour delay turned into two hours. Then three. Then four. Finally, about five hours after our scheduled departure time, the gate staff got on the PA to announce that our plane was now fixed... but the flight crew had "timed out" and they had no one to take us on our journey. It seemed that this was something they could have determined long before it actually happened. We were handed a voucher for a cab all the way back down to SeaTac, where we just barely made a flight that took us home. Christina and I were both just weary and exhausted; it had been a cold and emotional trip, and dealing with a travel nightmare was the last thing we needed. In the interest of fairness, I will say that Alaska issued us each $250 travel credits, so at least they tried to make good on the fiasco. But frankly, as a person who is less than enamored with travel under the best of conditions, I am further inclined to simply stay home and interact with people and places via phone, Internet, virtual environments, and other ways that don't inevitably disappoint me. Grimly funny side note: with both our departing and returning flights on Alaska having been cancelled as such, I still have never flow into or out of Paine Field, and now it's likely that I never will.

Those aren't Southern California trees. Outside the hotel with Christina in Mukilteo, WA.

Hey, How Was That Show?
The show on Monday night was great. I have a select group of songs -- some holiday-oriented, some not -- that I tend to only do in December. It was nice to have a reason to pull out those rarities. We've had a consistently good crowd at Serenity Gardens in recent times, and following Grace McDunnough feels like I have an audience there who will be receptive to my stuff. I've enjoyed every show since this Monday night lineup was solidified some months ago.

Me, looking happy at Serenity Gardens in avatar form.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Long December (Counting Crows)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Carry Me Ohio (Sun Kil Moon)
River (Joni Mitchell)
Pretty Pimpin’ (Kurt Vile)
Pecan Pie (Golden Smog)
Everlong (Foo Fighters)
*Don’t You Forget About Me (Simple Minds)
Wildflowers (Tom Petty)
Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas (Blane/Martin)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Big thanks to everyone who came to my show, and super huge thanks to the following who helped support it!
AaronCabottJones Resident, Diana Renoir, Jaron Metaluna, Kat Chauveau, Diana Renoir, WitchUser Resident, Mimi Carpenter, Rusty Seisenbacher, Tyche Szondi, Nina Brandenburg, go2smoky Resident, Asimia Heron, RenoJones Resident, Trouble Streeter, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Serenity Gardens (11.18.19)

Since Kat's computer has decided to not function any more, I haven't had the benefit of her fine photos while doing my shows in SL, so here's me standing all alone at Serenity Gardens before my show.

This is a note to myself in the future. Hello Future Me! Hope you're doing well. Go drink some water or something. You're welcome.

Things are okay here in late 2019, Future Me. I actually have a lot for which to be grateful. The world itself seems to have a bunch of problems, and frankly it usually does. But all in all, personally, I'm pretty good. I own a marketing communications business that's busier than it's ever been in the 13-1/2 years since I started it in 2003. I remain committed to daily exercise and am still in pretty good shape health-wise. My son is in his second year of college and while he doesn't have a specific path moving forward at the present, I'm confident that he'll eventually find a direction with what he wants to do with his life. He's a smart and funny guy. And, at the moment, it being late November, I'm in the midst of a crazy work routine getting ready for that Trade Show That Shall Not Be Named. I'm sure you understand, Future Me.

We live in lovely Redondo Beach, right here in the same neighborhood where I've lived since 1995. Are you still there in Redondo, Future Me? You very well might be. It's a good place to live. Plus, as you know, moving is a giant pain in the ass, and we enjoy the steady routine of our daily home life.

Speaking of life, it has its ups and downs. It's definitely had a bunch of that over the past few years, both on a global scale and a personal one. We've lost some family members and friends, and have been forced to devote a lot of time and energy fighting policies and actions of our own government throughout the Trump administration. To that end, we're currently monitoring the impeachment hearings that started last week. Christina and I have a new tradition; each time we pour a cup of coffee, instead of saying something like "cheers", we say "impeachment". I'm not a superstitious person, but it does seem to be having its intended effect. I'm not very confident that impeachment will result in Trump being removed from office, but really, anything could happen. I'm kind of jealous of you, Future Me. You already know how all this crazy shit turns out.

My overall feeling -- something that, coincidentally, I mentioned to my audience last night at Serenity Gardens -- is that things are going to be on an overall path of getting better for a lot of people. Sometimes the direction of "better" isn't a straight line, and chances are that in the process of getting better, things will occasionally seem worse. But, Future Me, I can say that today at age 50, the older I get, the less I am focused on my own self and personal success, and the more I am able to look at the overall picture of the world. I know I'll have plenty of challenges ahead of me; that's the way life goes. But I also envision a better world for everyone as time marches on. Not a perfect world, but a better world.

Me, about age 25, in 1994. I actually thought I knew things then. I now know that I know less than I ever thought I did.

Speaking of envisioning things, I know that had I written a note to myself 20 years ago from my perspective at age 30, I'd have been incredibly wrong about most of my predictions of the future. I'd be rolling my eyes a lot at my relative naivety, and admonishing my past self for my former level of cynicism and my lack of understanding of all the ways the future can go in directions I couldn't have seen at the time. My life has changed drastically since then, and it's impossible to say that things would be better or worse based on the decisions I made, and actions I did or didn't take, and various events that transpired since then. But overall, I am a happy person still. I'm more open minded now than I was then. I'm more willing to acknowledge that I know far less than I think I know. And my values today are less self-centered than they were then... at least in some ways. And going back to my original statement... things are okay here in late 2019. Far from perfect, but okay, and I can appreciate that. Sometimes okay is enough. Don't you agree, Future Me?

Um... Isn't This Blog About A Show?
Yes. Yes, it is.

For the past 2-1/2 years, I've performed every other Monday night at Serenity Gardens. I really do love it there. I feel a high degree of comfort when I get on that stage... a feeling that has actually increased over the course of time. In recent months, especially with Grace McDunnough performing directly before me, I feel like the crowd there is very simpatico with my music as I start my set. Sometimes I try and put together some kind of theme for my show there, but last night was just me being me, doing songs I felt like doing when I built my set list over the previous weekend.

Something I'm sure I've mentioned before: there is a dearth of actual Thanksgiving songs. Mind you, there are plenty of songs about being thankful, and I play several of them from time to time. But actual songs about the holiday of Thanksgiving? Few and far between. It's a shame, because it's up there with my favorite holidays. I bring this up because I briefly considered doing a Thanksgiving-themed set at Serenity Gardens and then, discovering as I do each year at this time that there just aren't enough Thanksgiving songs for it to work, abandoned the idea. Speaking of Thanksgiving, I find that I am fully looking forward to a few days of cooking and gluttony next week.

But back at the show, things went well, and we ended up with a nice mix of songs covering different genres and time frames in music, and if nothing else, I enjoy being one of the more eclectic performers on the SL music scene. It's always kind of fun for me when I launch into a song and find I've taken some of my audience by surprise. Good times.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Save It For Later (English Beat)
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Bull Black Nova (Wilco)
If I Had a Tail (Queens of the Stone Age)
Among the Leaves (Sun Kil Moon)
Doubt It (Zak Claxton)
Mexican Radio (Wall of Voodoo)
Your Song (Elton John)
Straight On (Heart)
Pickles (Zak Claxton)
America (Simon & Garfunkel)

Giant thanks to every single person who made it to my show last night, with super duper thanks to the following who helped support it!
AaronCabottJones Resident, Kat Chauveau, Turn Pike, Jaron Metaluna, Tyche Szondi, Asimia Heron, Trouble Streeter, Triana Caldera, Aurelie Chenaux, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!