Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Serenity Gardens (08.14.17)

A happy crowd at Serenity Gardens gets to hear me do some new tunes. Photo by Kat.

I've always been one of the very fortunate musicians who has what they call "good ears". Since I first picked up a guitar as a small child in 1976, I've had the gift of being able to quickly hear the melodies, chord progressions, and rhythms that make up songs, and then being able to reproduce them on my own. I find it likely that otherwise, I'd not have had the patience to climb to the level of musical proficiency I enjoy today... it would have taken way more work than I'd have likely been willing to put in.

When I was in my teens and playing in local bands, my friends and bandmates would be rather astounded by this ability. "When did you learn that song?" they'd ask after I played something new, and I'd have to honestly answer, "Just now." I have to assume this is some kind of innate ability; perhaps it can be taught, but no one taught that part of my musical training to me. Rather, I seem to have been born with it. It's a pretty strange genetic trait, if that's what it is. Most traits are passed on due to their being evolutionarily advantageous (i.e., having them helps you survive and reproduce). If you can run fast, you don't get eaten by the tiger. If you're taller, maybe you can jump into the tree to avoid being eaten by the tiger. And maybe, if you have particularly sensitive hearing, you can differentiate between the sound of your pal coming back to the cave versus the sound of the tiger coming to eat you. Maybe it's more simple than that; perhaps a distant relative of mine got the girl because he was the caveman who was the best at banging rocks together so she could dance. Stranger things have happened.

Why can I hear and replicate music so easily? No one knows, least of all me. Photo by Kat.

The reason I'm musing over this is that as I've mentioned a few times, I've recently been on a drive to add more songs to my repertoire that I hadn't performed previously. I have no idea if this is a difficult process for most musicians, but it really isn't that hard for me. In the case of most simple music - pop, rock, and folk - it doesn't require me more than a listen or two to be able to perform the song. Granted, there are nuances to each one that takes a little more time to internalize, if I expect to perform them well. In any case, due to whatever set of abilities I'm lucky enough to have, it was pretty easy to add four new songs to my repertoire that I performed at Serenity Gardens last night in Second Life. New material is something I feel a) keeps me interested and excited as a performer and b) gives my audience something unexpected and hopefully enjoyable, so it's almost always win-win.

Hitting the Limits (And the High Notes)
Are there limiting factors in terms of the music I choose to play as a solo acoustic artist? Oh, hell yes. Topping the list is the vocal range of the original performer. Look, the progressive rock band Yes is terrific, but I have as much chance of singing like Jon Anderson as I do of flapping my wings and flying. Second is the arrangement of the song. Many tunes just don't work as a solo performance on a single instrument. Sure, the performer can do totally new arrangements that are better accommodated by one person strumming a guitar, but frankly, there are too many songs out there that do work well. Finally, the genre can be a limiting factor as well. Who wants to hear EDM music done on solo acoustic guitar? No one, really, which is why I focus on styles of music that are more readily translatable to the sound of one person on one instrument.

Good Music or Good Times?
A lot of artists and bands you see perform seem very serious onstage. I have nothing against that. I understand that musicians can be artists who expect that people take their work seriously, and exhibit the gravitas they find necessary to impart that attitude. I'm obviously not like that. At the same time, I'm not some comedian or clown (nothing against those fine entertainers). When I play a song, I'm not doing it for the laughs. I think most people who come to see me play understand that I'm a guy who likes to have fun, but that the songs themselves are performed with the respect and sincerity that they deserve. It's asking a lot of people to accept this hybrid approach, and I appreciate the fact that people can come to my show and experience what are hopefully solid performances of songs they enjoy while also getting some giggles here and there.

Frankly, I actually don't care if people are smiling at my music or my antics, as long as they're smiling. Photo by Kat.

The New Stuff
As I said during my show, I love new music, and go out of my way to make sure I'm aware of the new stuff that comes out each week. When I do a "new" song in SL, I'm referring to a song I haven't performed previously. Sometimes they are indeed new songs; earlier this year, I started playing "It's Easy (Like Walking)" by the Sadies with Kurt Vile literally the same week it was released. One of my new songs this week was "Abrasion" by my band They Stole My Crayon. That shit is so new, it was only written in the last few weeks, and likely won't be released until 2018. But the other "new" tunes were respectively from 1968, 1979, and 1994. If I'm playing them for the first time, and my audience is hearing me do them for the first time, that's new enough for me.

The sun goes down at Serenity Gardens as I rock the Second Life peoples. Photo by Kat.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
Friday I’m In Love (The Cure)
*Wichita Lineman (Glen Campbell)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Old Man (Neil Young)
Low Key (Tweedy)
*Abrasion (They Stole My Crayon)
California (Joni Mitchell)
*Bang and Blame (R.E.M.)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Fire & Rain (James Taylor)
*Goodbye Stranger (Supertramp)
*Hey Serenity (Zak Claxton improvisation)

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

Massive thanks to all who came out to the show, with special thanks to those who helped support it!
JAMBA Losangeles, ErikKottzen Resident, Poneh Resident, shaggycritter Resident, Kathrise Resident, Gandalf Mornington, go2smoky Resident, RoxxyyRoller Resident, JazzCat Skytower, paula31atnight Resident, Alex Zelin, RansomTalmidge Resident, Ludhir Resident, Asimia Heron, Aurelie Chenaux, Kat Claxton, not4gods Resident, Tyche Szondi, TheaDee Resident, my lovely manager mali beck, and the great staff and owner of Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde!

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Top Ten Deep Cuts and B-Sides from The Police


I am one of the lucky people on planet Earth who a) was alive for the absolute heyday of the legendary English pop band The Police, and b) got to see them play live... twice, eventually. Starting in my middle school years and extending into the first couple years of high school, there was no band in the world more important to me than the one comprised of Sting, Andy, and Stewart. Not Led Zeppelin. Not the Who. For me, between 1980 and 1983, not even the Beatles held a brighter musical spotlight in my mind than the Police did.

We all know the story of the band... an unlikely pairing of three musicians, a meteoric rise to global stardom, hitting their absolute peak in popularity with their final album, and immediately imploding in a cataclysm of ego and personal problems and artistic differences. But between 1978 and 1983, they put out five albums that caused a sea change in music: Outlandos d'Amour, Regatta De Blanc, Zenyatta Mondatta, Ghost in the Machine, and Synchronicity. Those albums are packed with excellent songs, each contained pretty huge pop hits. Interestingly, my personal favorites (which is what this post is about, nothing more) were more often the deeper cuts. It was even cooler when I'd find myself listening to the stuff that didn't even get included on the album, but were left as b-sides to the pop singles.

Here, then, in chronological order and with no factor of criteria other than "I like them!", are ten great Police songs you might not have given enough attention, or even known about. Note that the only music on this list is featuring the Police as a band unit; there's no consideration to the often excellent solo work of Sting, Stewart Copeland, or Andy Summers.

"Masoko Tanga" (1978) from Outlandos d'Amour
This is so obviously a "Shit, we're out of material and have more studio time and need to fill up the album!" jam. And I'm damn glad they left it on the album, because the Police were still finding their sound on Outlandos, and "Masoko Tanga" was one of the songs that established the tribal/island/reggae influence that would continue as a hallmark for the band over time. Plus, Sting's bass. Sweet funky Jesus.

"It's Alright for You" (1979) from Regatta de Blanc
Very early on, the Police formed under the premise of being an actual punk rock band. If you listen to their earliest demos, including songs featuring their first guitarist Henri Padovani, it was all speed, all attitude, no polish. Some of that vibe continued through the first two albums. I find "It's Alright for You" to be an interesting song in that there's a specific transition in its vibe right at 2:28 from snarly rock to this great outro with glistening treble-packed Andy Summers staccato arpeggios. Gorgeous.

"Bombs Away" from (1980) from Zenyatta Mondatta
Sting, as we all know, was the primary songwriter for the Police, and no one can deny his genius (least likely himself). That having been said, a whole lot of my favorite Police tunes were among the relative few contributed by Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers. "Bombs Away" (written by Stew) not only has a great feel and a cynical lyric set, but includes one of Andy's most amazingly innovative and cool guitar solos in their entire catalog.

"The Other Way of Stopping" (1980) from Zenyatta Mondatta
This is the final track on Zenyatta Mondatta, and perhaps my favorite Police song that no one else gives a shit about. Sure, it's a Copeland-penned instrumental. Sure, Andy does this amazing multitracked solo through the long outro. But my personal reason for wanting the song on this list is my memory from the early '80s, playing Adventure on my Atari 2600, and blasting this tune in the background (on vinyl, which probably sounded amazing on my parents' stereo).

"Omegaman" (1981) from Ghost in the Machine
Ghost in the Machine was the album that turned me into a huge Police freak in 8th grade. It's weird; you had these super dark and interesting songs, sandwiching some completely trite Sting-penned disco shite. But in addition to the well-known first few songs on Ghost, there were some fascinating, texture-filled songs toward the end. One is "Omegaman", written by Andy Summers but, in my opinion, as strong and ear-catching as anything Sting was doing at the time. I've read that A&M had initially chosen it as the lead single of the album (which Sting didn't appreciate, apparently). All that aside, it's a great guitar line, it has an unsettling vibe, and I just like it. Plus, the very next track on the album is...

"Secret Journey" (1981) from Ghost in the Machine
It's a Sting track, and my favorite Sting songs are the dark ones. But as a musician and an aficionado of interesting sounds, I loved Andy's guitar synth in the intro and bridge, and just the overall feel of this mystical-sounding song.

"Shambelle" (1981) - B-Side to "Invisible Sun" (UK) and "Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic" (US) Singles
So, you're Andy Summers, and you've written a song which isn't super structured. It's more of a couple of riffs thrown together, but they sound cool. Do you have any lyrics? Would your bandmate Sting sing them on the album if you did? These questions will never be answered, because "Shambelle" (which I think has a super neat feel musically) was delegated to the B-side of some of the other tracks from Ghost in the Machine. Andy's musical studies have often found artistic merit in hypnotic repetitiveness, and this tune has that cold Ghost vibe that would have been a way, way better choice than, say, "Rehumanize Yourself" or a couple others that ended up on the album.

"I Burn for You" (1982) - Brimstone & Treacle Soundtrack
So, Sting's gonna be a movie star, which probably surprised exactly no one. But at least he pulled his own band in to contribute some songs for the soundtrack of the film. I find "I Burn for You" to be interesting in that it's a musical bridge between Ghost and Synchronicity. I always thought this was a great track, and owned the single as a kid when it was brand new.

"Miss Gradenko" (1983) from Synchronicity
By the time the Police did their final album, they had all grown tremendously as musicians, and the material they were putting out had a higher level of sophistication (and relied less on attitude). Synchronicity was a super-polished album by a band that was on the verge of collapse, and it's tough to say whether the tension among the bandmates helped or hurt the result. I immediately enjoyed Stewart's song "Miss Grandenko". It didn't really sound much like most of the band's output, with Andy showing off some flamenco fingering chops, and Stewart's acerbic lyrics painting a strangely hopeful tale of a Russian spy.

"Once Upon a Daydream" (1983) - B-Side to "Synchronicity II" Single
Sting can be one of more deceptively dark songwriters. People will include his tunes in their weddings that, if they really knew the meanings, would be horrified at the thought. But that's not a problem with "Once Upon a Daydream", a song that openly invokes multiple murders and imprisonment and ruined lives. I like it.

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Serenity Gardens (07.31.17)

Serenity Gardens really is a beautiful design and makes for a great atmosphere to experience live music in Second Life. Photo by Kat.

Happy August!

What is August, anyway? I know it's the eighth month of the year. I know I've experienced 48 of them previously. I know it was named after Augustus, the first Roman emperor and successor to Julius Caesar (who had the previous month, July, named after himself, the cheeky bastard). Months are a somewhat handy way to divide time, I suppose, and also give you a reference point that's easy to follow, year after year. When I think of August, I reflect on being a kid and having turned my brain to gel during the time off school in June and July, and already dreading the return of school in September. As an adult, August doesn't have a whole lot of meaning to me apart from one thing: August 1 (aka today) is the rather unofficial day that Christina and I became a couple, in 2005. So, it's our twelfth anniversary today. Being a Tuesday in the middle of a typical work week, I think our celebrations will be limited at best, though I did draw her a little note on the whiteboard above her desk in our shared home office.

Contrary to some people's beliefs, Christina and I did not meet via Second Life. Rather, we got into SL specifically for one reason: we were already in a long-distance relationship early on (she was living in Seattle, me in Los Angeles), and we thought SL might be a good way to feel more together despite our lack of physical proximity. We actually came to know each other years earlier via an online forum (remember those, kids?) about music and audio topics. We met in 2003, found we had a lot in common, and became friends before finding interest in each other romantically a couple of years later. In my opinion, that's a good way to go, and it's obviously worked out for us. In 2008, after several years of us traveling back and forth to see each other, she moved to my area to be with me, and she still is, for some odd reason.

In lieu of presents, a little whiteboard drawing is acceptable.

Hey, How About Some News About They Stole My Crayon?
Oh yeah. So, as you know, Christina is also part of my independent alternative music band They Stole My Crayon (along with our happy little friend Bunny Knutson). We came out with an album in August 2016 (which was, holy shit, almost a year ago), and are slowly starting to put together songs for the follow-up album. One kind of cool thing is that several of the brand new songs (i.e., the ones we've created after the debut album was wrapped up) were little things that came to us while on trips to Joshua Tree, so I think there's definitely a desert influence that will be heard whenever we release the new music. When will that be? When it's done. And when will that be? When we feel we've genuinely put together our best possible effort and made this collection of music as great as it can possibly be. That's not really a date, per se, so I'd say look for it sometime in 2018. Maybe.

Hey, How About That Show You Played?
Oh yeah. Almost forgot. In June and much of July, I did a flurry of live shows in SL after a long period of semi-inactivity. While I enjoyed that, it also was a little distracting from the other things that I want/have to do. It was nice, therefore, having a couple weeks without any live shows, and I was able to really enjoy coming back to Serenity Gardens for my bi-weekly Monday night show there.

I have to say, the people who run Serenity Gardens are truly nice, and it makes a big difference when, as a performing artist, you feel like the venue management are truly supportive. Doing my show every other Monday night there, each one has been a really positive experience for me, and I do believe that I'm helping some folks discover this venue who otherwise might not have gone there, so hopefully my shows are good for the owners and staff as well.

I can always tell when people in my audience are really enjoying the show rather than just attending for the sake of being there. This show's crowd was really appreciative and I was very glad to make their Monday night a little more enjoyable. Photo by Kat.

My voice and guitar both seemed to be working well for last night's show, and per my recent mission statement of keeping my shows fresh, I pulled out a couple of previously unperformed tunes, and did a couple of others that don't come out of my set list very often.

Serenity Gardens set list...
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Possession (Sarah McLachlan)
If It Makes You Happy (Sheryl Crow)
The Arrangement (Joni Mitchell)
Comes a Time (Neil Young)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart (Stone Temple Pilots)
*Words (Missing Persons)
*Cheer Up Murray (Flight of the Conchords)
Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie)
Thank U (Alanis Morissette)
Tea in the Sahara (The Police)
Tea for the Tillerman (Cat Stevens)

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

Big thanks to all who came to the show, with special huge thanks to the following who helped support it!
Trouble Streeter, ErikKottzen Resident, RoxxyyRoller Resident, Aurelie Chenaux, Kat Claxton, Lauralynn Foxtrot, RansomTalmidge Resident, TheaDee Resident, my great manager Maali Beck, Serenity's hostess Tilly Rose and owner Ilsa Wilde.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Serenity Gardens (07.17.17)

Every other Monday, you'll find me on this lovely stage at Serenity Gardens.

It's been awhile since I had a "regular" gig in Second Life like I do now at Serenity Gardens. In the world of music and other forms of entertainment, a regular gig simply means that there's a venue where one does repeating performances on a schedule. For Serenity Gardens, it's every other Monday evening that I make my appearance and do the things I do. Here's a coincidental point: looking back over ten years of playing live music in SL, my other regular gigs have also been on Monday evenings. I guess I'm Mr. Monday, and I like it.

Here's why: for a lot of people, Monday is a challenging day. It's the first day of a typical business work week (or school week). You've just spent a weekend doing things you presumably want to do, and now are back in a mode of doing things that you have to do. I have to give credit to the various venues who, purposefully or otherwise, brought me in to handle live music on Monday nights. I'm a pretty good guy for that slot. If you're like most people, your Mondays leave you in a mode where it's good to have something to take your mind off the stress of the day, and my form of entertainment is, if nothing else, light. Even when I'm performing "serious" songs, the overall vibe of my show is pretty breezy and fun. I like to imagine someone getting home after a rough day, filled with meetings and deadlines, dealing with traffic and so on, and then sitting down in front of their computer, maybe pouring a beverage of some sort, and turning up the volume. What do they want to hear at that point? Personally, I'd like some entertainment that took me out of that mode of serious responsibility, and let's face it: my shows are never billed as a serious evening of music. I try and make things fun and relaxing, which I think is what most people like on Monday nights.

Everything Old Is New Again
As per my mission of the past few shows, I filled last night's performance with songs that were deeper in my musical repertoire that what I'd been doing for awhile. A couple of examples: the last time I did "Sister Golden Hair" was in September 2012, while my last attempt at Neil Young's "Alabama" was in February 2014. It's not been a conscious decision to not play those songs, I promise. Like anything else, music is something that becomes a routine, and once something falls out of the regular rotation, you find that out of sight does equal out of mind. Unless I make the conscious effort to go deeper into my list of 400-plus songs, they remain buried in there. I'm happy that people seem to enjoy these songs; my fan base fluctuates enough that some people who come to see me often now probably have never heard me do some of those tunes at all.

One song that absolutely no one had heard me do previously -- since I'd never done it before -- was the live debut of "Box by the Cliff", a little ditty written by my pal and bandmate Bunny Knutson for the next They Stole My Crayon album. We actually originally intended "BBTC" to be on the first Crayon album, but it wasn't quite ready to take into the studio at that point, and it's only been recently that we resumed the process of refining it. As a result, it was on my mind, and I worked out an acoustic guitar arrangement that was good enough to get the vibe of the song across to an audience. So I did, and it went well.

I thought this was super cool. The official Second Life Twitter feed re-Tweeted my promo notice for this show to their 50,000+ followers. I have to say, especially in recent years, I've found the folks at Linden Lab (the makers of Second Life and other virtual worlds) to be tremendously supportive of my musical activities in world. Many thanks to them.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Waterloo Sunset (The Kinks)
Sister Golden Hair (America)
*Box by the Cliff (They Stole My Crayon)
Alabama (Neil Young)
Fade Away (Zak Claxton)
Save Me (Aimee Mann)
Swing Low Magellan (Dirty Projectors)
Sour Girl (Stone Temple Pilots)
On a Plain (Nirvana)
Pulling Mussels from a Shell (Squeeze)
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
It’s Good to be King (Tom Petty)

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

Huge thanks to all who came out to my Monday night show at lovely Serenity Gardens, with a special tip o' the Zak Hat to the following who helped support it!
ScarlettSabina Resident, Turn Pike, RoxxyyRoller Resident, Kenzliie Resident, Richy Nervous, RansomTalmidge Resident, Tyche Szondi, Christine Haiku, my terrific manager Maali Beck, and Serenity's fantastic management team of Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Triana's Music Trivia 12th Anniversary Special (07.09.17)

Friends and fun, every Sunday night at Triana's Music Trivia. Photo by Kat Claxton.

I've told this story before; I'll almost certainly tell it again.

Back in 2006, my lady Kat (aka Christina) was living in Seattle and I was down here in the LA area. On October 12 of that year, my pal Mike Burns called and mentioned a virtual world called Second Life, which I told Kat about, and we joined that very evening while on the phone together. We checked it out and thought it was pretty cool, especially by 2006 standards. But frankly, there didn't seem to be a lot do actually do there. We explored a bit, learned about building our own content, and so on. It was fun being able to "hang out", which we couldn't do in a long distance relationship except for the times we could physically visit each other. But it's pretty likely we would have abandoned SL relatively quickly if not for finding a social event that we both enjoyed a lot. It was called Triana's Music Trivia, and was held each Sunday evening at 7PM local/SL time. Right from the start, it became part of our weekly routine.

Skip ahead to 2017. Triana has been hosting her TMT events now for 12 straight years (and in fact had just turned 13 years old in Second Life, ancient by the virtual world standards). Every year going back to 2007 or so, I've done a live performance at her special event to celebrate TMT's anniversary, and that's what I did once again last night.

My shows for Triana are different than my usual shows. In fact, heh heh, I'm pretty sure I wouldn't want someone to hear my set for the first time and assume that all of my shows were similar to my TMT performances. They're certainly not. First, I often have at least one song that's done in a silly fashion that I know Triana herself will find funny. In the past, that's been things like a version of Steely Dan's "Deacon Blues", but sung by Elmer Fudd. Or, I've claimed that Bob Dylan has joined me in my little studio, and created songs about Triana with the pseudo-Dylan singing them. Other songs, while performed seriously, are those that I know Triana finds annoying, and I do them to purposefully tease her. However, not everything I do at TMT anniversary shows are a joke. I often will put together a little musical theme which forces me to find songs to debut, and it's often that the songs I first perform at TMT will find their way into my regular set list.

Rocking a bunch of new tunes. Photo by Kat Claxton.

The lovely Triana Caldera, flanked by TMT regulars Alchemy Epstein and Nakira Tennen. Photo by Kat Claxton.

Playing house parties takes me back to my youth, when those were the only kinds of gigs I could get. Photo by Kat Claxton.

For last night's show, we ended up with a good crowd at the event, which is held in Triana's SL home. I think of it like a house party, which it essentially is. The trivia event is held downstairs, while the music portion of the evening happens in her upstairs attic area. It's intimate and fun, and we had a combination of my Zakster fans and regular TMT attendees in the audience. In addition to messing with Triana via her detested song by Hootie & The Blowfish and doing a short, rather silly acoustic folk version of "Baby Got Back", I decided to continue my '90s theme -- being the era where Triana was in high school and college -- and did a ton of songs I'd not played before, along with a few I do only rarely (including Triana's namesake tune). I'd say it went really well, and was fun for people who were familiar with my repertoire and got to hear a set made up almost entirely of stuff I hadn't done before.

One final note: in the past few days, we've been hit by a wave of humidity here in SoCal, and it was at 99% while I was doing my show. Needless to say, while I sweat a lot while performing music even under nice weather conditions, I was an absolute mess by the end of this show. I wrapped up, put down my guitar, and went immediately into the shower.

Sweaty Zak is sweaty.

TMT 12th Anniversary set list...
*Only Wanna Be With You (Hootie & The Blowfish)
I Like You (Zak Claxton)
*Hand In My Pocket (Alanis Morissette)
Bag of Nothing (They Stole My Crayon)
Bein’ Green (Kermit the Frog)
*Low (Cracker)
You’re Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
*Possession (Sarah McLachlan)
Bunny You Got It Goin’ On (FOTC)
*Trippin’ on a Hole in a Paper Heart (Stone Temple Pilots)
*Baby Got Back (Sir Mix-a-Lot)
Shame Chamber (Kurt Vile)
Triana (Zak Claxton)

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

Many thanks to all of my great friends from our Sunday night fun times at TMT, and everyone else who came to the show, including the following who helped support it!
Nakira Tennen, Alchemy Epstein, Tyche Szondi, Samantha Poindexter, Kat Claxton, TheaDee Resident, and of course, most of all, my wonderful friend for life, Triana Caldera.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

Feed-a-Smile 7th Anniversary (07.08.17)

Strumming some songs, feeding some smiles. Photo by Kat Claxton.

The first time I played live music for Brique Zeiner's "Feed-a-Smile" charity was in September 2011. At the time, I really didn't think it much different from any of the other charitable organizations I'd played for, which ranged from the American Cancer Society to the Kidney Foundation to benefits for animals, autism, and more. But as time went by, I began to develop a better understanding of what Feed-a-Smile and the Live and Learn in Kenya foundation that Brique helps run are all about. One thing I like very much is that there's no middleman; Brique physically goes to Kenya and works with the children, and makes arrangements for their feeding and educational facilities. But, somewhat selfishly, it was the second or third time I'd played there, and was surprised by a set of photos showing the kids eating the meals that my show had provided, and a blackboard drawing of me in avatar form with thanks given from the kids, that I really began to think of Feed-a-Smile as something special.

The other nice thing about it is that it's a super easy concept to understand. L$100 (the equivalent of about $0.40 USD) buys one meal for one kid. Want to donate enough for ten kids to get hot meals? That's L$1000, or about four bucks. Easy. People who visit Lavender Field where the Feed-a-Smile events are usually held think of their donations in terms of numbers of meals, and the charity does very well with their fundraising via Second Life as a result.

My view from the stage. Photo by Kat Claxton.

Joined by my buddy Lyndon Heart as I wrapped up my set. Photo by Kat Claxton.

A happy and generous crowd makes for a good day at Lavender Field. Photo by Kat Claxton.

This show happened to be the seventh anniversary of Feed-a-Smile, and two of my fellow performers who are managed by Maali Beck -- Taunter Goodnight and Lyndon Heart -- were scheduled before and after me, which always makes for a fun day. We enjoy each other's material a lot, so it's great to have a good reason to hang out and hear each other's shows. We all had nice-sized crowds during our respective sets, and from what I could tell, the donation kiosks were lighting up pretty constantly during the three hours we played.

Feed-a-Smile set list...
Low Key (Tweedy)
If You Could Only See (Tonic)
California (Joni Mitchell)
I Am a Child (Neil Young)
Teach Your Children (CSNY)
Bertha (Grateful Dead)
Cat's In the Cradle (Harry Chapin)
Thank U (Alanis Morissette)
Every Day I Write the Book (Elvis Costello)
Redemption Song (Bob Marley)
Across the Universe (Beatles)
*Lyndon Heart is a Beautiful Man (Zak Claxton, improv)

Massive thanks to the people who generously donated to the cause during my show, and all year 'round. You are awesome heroes.

Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Serenity Gardens (07.03.17)

The Zak Shows keep getting better at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Kat Claxton.

Last night, after I wrapped up my third bi-weekly Monday evening show at Serenity Gardens in Second Life, my manager commented about it on Facebook.

Maali Beck:
SO fun! What a great crowd!
Zak Claxton:
Truly!
Zak Claxton:
I think I'm having an SL comeback.


I wasn't really being serious, although my recent shows have seemed particularly well attended. As most SL musicians will tell you, different days and different venues will have different crowds, and it's every bit as silly to take some meaningful measurement of popularity based on one good show as it is to despair over another show with a small audience. As people who are close to me know well, I really don't measure the success of a show based on how many people were there. I've had fantastic SL shows for an audience of 7-8 people, and really terrible shows at places where the sim was maxed out at 80+.

But I will say that after a few performances, I seem to have hit my stride at Serenity Gardens. It's a good combination of things; I feel very comfortable playing there, and we seem to have developed a very steady, good-sized crowd of people who like to see me there every other Monday evening. I'd be happy if this trend continues.

Music, Friends, and Fun
I can be pretty objective about myself as a musician and live performer. Let's imagine an alternate universe where my shows are musically identical to the ones I do today, but where I don't spend any time engaging with my audience. I arrive, I do every song that I do now in the same level of skill, but there's no chatter in between the songs, and I don't notice or acknowledge people in the crowd and so on. I have no false modesty; I know I'm a competent (though not outstanding) guitar player and singer, and a pretty interesting songwriter occasionally. I'm capable of being entertaining purely as a musician. But a huge part of a Zak Show is what happens on a separate level from the music itself.

If you're not having fun at my show, I'm doing something seriously wrong. Photo by Asimia Heron.

Being the day before Independence Day here in the USA, people were enjoying the virtual sparklers provided by the venue/host. Photo by Kat Claxton.

In real life, Kat was having to frequently leave the room due to coughing and sneezing from her cold. In SL, she kept dancing away, and didn't light her hair on fire, which is nice. Photo by Asimia Heron.

People come to my shows because it's a good time. My SL shows were described early on by someone who said that they were more like a situation with friends sitting around a campfire, or chilling with an acoustic guitar at a house party. People are free to talk, to be silly, to have fun. It's not a serious situation where 100% of your attention needs to be focused on the performer, and I am certainly not out to be super impressive with my playing or singing skills. My only goal is for people to enjoy themselves, and it's very rare that I don't get that feeling of people having fun while experiencing my show. Many of the people who come to my shows have subsequently become friends of mine, and friends with each other. It's a good feeling to be aware of that. On the biggest picture, if music is something that can make the world a better place in which to live, then my shows use music as one element that helps people (including myself) enjoy life a little more for a little while. What more could I ask for?

Yeah, Serenity Gardens is working out just fine. Photo by Kat Claxton.

Reaching Deeper
As I recently mentioned here on this very blog, I am trying to challenge myself more to play material that is less easy and familiar for me, and that I play less often as a result. I think doing that is to everyone's benefit. Last night's show was the first opportunity to head down this path, and I'm happy to say that I did. Of the entire set list, there are only a couple of songs that I've played at all in recent times. Last night's show included a couple of songs that I'd only played once or twice before in the last 10+ years of doing SL shows, and one tune that I'd never played before at all. I'd really like to continue doing that more often at subsequent shows.

Me, being me. Photo by Kat Claxton.

Serenity Gardens set list...
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Accidents Will Happen (Elvis Costello)
Bull Black Nova (Wilco)
*One Headlight (The Wallflowers)
Cassidy (Grateful Dead)
I’ve Been Waiting for You (Neil Young)
Peaceful Easy Feeling (Eagles)
Leggy Blonde (Flight of the Conchords)
Jane (Barenaked Ladies)
Doin’ Time (Sublime)
Tribute (Tenacious D)
Loser (Beck)

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

Many thanks to all who help make my shows at Serenity Gardens excellent, including the following who helped to support the show.
go2smoky Resident, RoxxyyRoller Resident, Alex Zelin, RansomTalmidge Resident, Asimia Heron, Tyche Szondi, Lacey MacMoragh, Aurelie Chenaux, ErikKottzen Resident, Kat Claxton, TheaDee Resident, my great manager Maali Beck, my fill-in host Sharky Sharkônnya Rhode, and Serenity's excellent management, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Ever Feel Like Starting Over?

Here are the lyrics to every song I've ever performed live as a solo artist. Every so often, I want to set it on fire.

Look at that photo above. Look at it. It's a pile of paper, and on each of the sheets comprising the pile are words, and those words are the lyrics of songs that I've performed live as a solo artist. Some are songs I've written; most are not. Most -- in my subjective opinion -- are good songs. The earliest one in this pile was written by Irving Berlin in 1926 ("Blue Skies"), and the most recent was written in 2017, most likely by me or one of my bandmates in They Stole My Crayon.

It's quite the collection. There are well over 400 songs there. Classic '60s rock by the Beatles, Stones, and Doors. Mellow gold from the '70s by Seals & Crofts, James Taylor, and Harry Chapin. Some '80s pop tunes by Madonna, Elvis Costello, and The Police. Lots of '90s grunge by Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Stone Temple Pilots. There's a ton of alternative and indie music from the '00s and '10s from artists and bands a lot of you have never heard of, like Kurt Vile, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Connan Mockasin, and Midlake. They all have enough value to me that at some point, I chose to learn the songs and perform them in front of people.

That having been said, from time to time, I feel like taking this pile, dousing it with lighter fluid, and throwing a match onto it to watch it turn to ashes.

Why?
There's an old saying that goes, "Familiarity breeds contempt." Part of my occasional negative outlook toward these great songs is simply due to the fact that I've done so many of them, over and over, for the past 10+ years (and in some cases since I was a high school student in the mid-80s) that while there's a degree of comfort in being able to perform them with little effort, I can get burned out on them. Example: let's say your favorite meal was filet mignon, garlic mashed potatoes, and asparagus. Now eat that same meal every single night for a month, and tell me how much you'd look forward to tasting something new. You get the idea.

But that's probably not the main reason I am, from time to time, in hate with the music I play.

Comedian Louis C.K. told a story while speaking at a memorial service for George Carlin, and it affected me. He explained that he'd developed a comedy routine over a period of 15 years, and kept doing it over and over, and eventually grew to hate it. At the same time, he was understandably frightened to throw it all away and start fresh. But that's exactly what he did, and it's become his pattern ever since... create new material, hone it over the course of a live tour, have it culminate in the form of a big special, and then... toss it. Even if it was great. Perhaps especially if it was great.


Louis did the same routine for 15 years, and then threw it in the trash. I admire that. It's terrifying, but I know where he was coming from.

You're Going To Throw Away All Of Your Songs???
What are you, nuts? No, of course not. Music is different from comedy, or any other art form for that matter. There's nothing wrong with the songs I've been performing, in some cases for most of my life. But if I have a goal for my live performances, it's going to be to continually add more material, both originals and covers, and keep expanding my repertoire. It's going to be to not give in to the understandable desire to play it safe.

An important note: this has nothing to do with musical styles or genres, or keeping up with "new" music. I could give a shit whether a song was created in 2017 or 1817 or 1317, or any time in between. I have zero concern about trying to sound like whatever is playing on people's Internet streams and car radios right now. If anything, I'm even further removed from that kind of effort. My only inspiration is to stay inspired, and I'd rather accept the nervousness of performing fresh material than face the inevitable burnout of only doing the stuff that's so easy for me to do.

You'll continue to hear the stuff that you enjoy, I promise. But there will also be more and more stuff you haven't heard me do before. You might like some of it, and you might hate other parts of it, but either way, we'll all get to walk that tightrope together. That pile may look big right now, but as far as I'm concerned, I haven't even scratched the surface of what might be possible if I stay open and try out stuff that you'd never imagine some guy with his acoustic guitar turning into an enjoyable and memorable listening experience.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Second Life Music Festival at SL14B (06.23.17)


A huge crowd listens to me performing on an amazing build at SL14B's Second Life Music Fest. Photo by Thea Dee.

It's funny, the way things go.

As Robert Burns once wrote, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." My plans, as of a week ago, were to do four shows in six days. I'm happy to say that I made it through three of them, and each of those was outstanding. And then I awoke today feeling horribly sick, and had to cancel the fourth and final show, which was to be at Elysium City of Templemore. Neither my voice nor -- perhaps more importantly for my kind of show, my energy level -- was nearly up to the task. However, I'm not here to dwell on the one show that didn't happen. Instead, let's talk about yesterday's excellent gig for the Second Life Music Fest at SL14B.



Some background: a couple of years ago, in 2015, I performed at the first official Second Life Music Fest. I found it to be a really cool experience. A couple of months ago, I got a message from Xiola Linden, the lead community manager for Linden Lab. She wanted to know if I'd be interested in performing at this year's event as part of the SL14B festivities.

It's interesting because as most of you know, I'd been performing less in Second Life over the past year or so than any time going back to my start in 2006. The reason was simply that I have limited time to devote to musical activities, and creating my band They Stole My Crayon's debut album had chomped up many of the hours that I could have previously used to do live shows in SL and otherwise. When Xiola sent her invitation, I had to think twice as to whether or not I was a good choice to represent Second Life musical artists at this big show.


Me, performing live at Second Life Music Fest. Photo by Thea Dee.

By happenstance, I'd recently told my manager Maali Beck that we could start gradually ramping up my shows in SL. The band's album was successfully released last year, so I was cool with getting back into playing more frequent SL gigs. Well, who knows why these things happen, but it was shortly after Xiola contacted me that Maali booked some new venues for me, and other things started popping up to the point that I suddenly had four shows in six days lined up. So, any concern I might have had about about my validity as a proper representative of SL music was kind of out the window.

None of this matters, by the way, because I'd accepted Xiola's invitation immediately on the spot, and all that other crap was just floating around my head for awhile.



As you can see from the pictures, the build for the area was outstanding. I really expect nothing less of those folks, but they never fail to impress me. The Music Fest portion of the event was held on their Stage Left build. It was so massive that I barely was able to visualize it in its entirety, but the huge work of art itself was titled "The Guardian", created by artist Walton F. Wainwright (known in SL as Faust Steamer). The stage was perched on top. To get there, they'd set up an interesting teleport mechanism. People rezzed at the bottom of a nearly vertical set of steps, and then would go into a little pool and pop up near the performance area.


"The Guardian" structure at SL14B. You can see the large stage area on top, being dwarfed by the overall structure. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Exactly three minutes after I strummed my first note, an alert went out that we SL musicians enjoy hearing, when we rarely do...

[14:03] Laura Polke shouts: LADIES AND GENTLEMEN! THE MESMORIZED SIM IS FULL! PLEASE DO NOT ATTEMPT TO ENTER


For any non-Second Life people reading this, that message means that the area of Second Life where I was performing was so packed with attendees that it could literally not accommodate another person. Think of it like a server that's hit its limit in data storage. In real life terms, it's the equivalent of a venue selling out and hitting its maximum capacity. For any person to get in at that point, it meant someone else had to leave. My show remained filled to capacity for the entire hour. Much of that is due to the fact that these events are promoted far and wide. The night before, an email blast about the Music Fest had gone out to literally millions of Second Life users, with my name as the headliner for day one. If I couldn't get a maximum crowd under those circumstances, there was no other situation that would be more promising.


Doing my Zak Rock for a big and presumably happy crowd. Photo by Triana Caldera.



The only challenge involved for this show was choosing a set list. It's not as easy as it seems. In total, I've got somewhere in the range of 400 songs that I am comfortable and prepared to perform live as a solo artist. Some of these are originals (both from my solo work and my band), and the rest are covers that span many different genres, eras, and vibes. For an event like this, where people from all areas of the world and all walks of life are represented, I tend to try and meet a number of goals:

1. Play the stuff that I can do well.
2. Make sure to use the opportunity to expose people who haven't heard me before to my (and my band's) original music.
3. Play songs that people are familiar with so they can relate to and enjoy the performance.
4. Don't be afraid to perform some cool music that perhaps most people haven't heard, but might like once they hear it.

It's not easy to hit each of those goals with just 12-13 songs possible in a one hour time slot. Compounding the task was the fact that, disturbingly, I was feeling a scratchiness in my throat not long before I was to start my show, which further removed my confidence that I'd be able to perform at my best level. Had my SL14B Music Fest show been slated for today or tomorrow, there's no way I'd have been able to go on. But since I was apparently just on the verge of getting sick as I obviously am now, I got through the show pretty well.

Second Life Music Festival at SL14B set list...
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Never Run Away (Kurt Vile)
America (Simon & Garfunkel)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Carey (Joni Mitchell)
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)
Carry Me Ohio (Sun Kil Moon)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Fire & Rain (James Taylor)
After The Goldrush (Neil Young)
Pigs On The Wing - Parts 1 & 2 (Pink Floyd)

One of the great things about playing an event like SL14B is the chance to have a bunch of people who'd never heard me before to listen to my performance. There was a nice, big crowd for the whole show. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Xiola, the enthusiastic lead community manager for Second Life maker Linden Lab, surrounded by my friends and fans. Photo by Thea Dee.

I always enjoy each opportunity to show the world how Second Life remains a remarkable platform for live music performance. Photo by Thea Dee.



Thanks so much to all the people involved in Second Life Music Fest and SL14B, with special mention of the following people who helped support my show!
strum Diesel, Agadir Flanagan, LadyNyah Resident, Isadoradean Rossini, Asimia Heron, Luriel Lykin, Kathleen Blachere, Lampithaler Resident, Triana Caldera, Jennytryit Resident, TheaDee Resident, stage/stream managers CB Axel and Laura Polke, SL14B leads Diana Renoir and Doc Gascoigne, and the amazing Xiola Linden!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Islands of New England (06.21.17)

Enjoying a great crowd made up of great friends at The Islands of New England's "Superhero/Supervillain Night".

Photos for this post courtesy of Triana Caldera, Aurelie Chenaux, and Asimia Heron. Thank you!

Continuing my "June 2017 Mini-Tour" of Second Life, I hit my second stop at The Islands of New England on Wednesday night. It's funny how these things come together. Most of my shows are booked by my manager Maali Beck. While most SL musicians are probably screaming at their management to get them more shows, my instructions to Maali over the past year or so have been the opposite: do NOT overbook me. My life has been way too busy to devote the amount of time and preparation it takes to do live shows properly, and what little time I'd had to spend on music-related activities had mostly been dominated by working on the They Stole My Crayon album.

But now things are mellowing out a bit, and I let Maali know that she could slightly ramp up the number of Second Life shows to which I can commit. That having been said, last night's show at New England came about with a little conversation between friends. Back in May, I was chatting on Facebook with Christine Haiku, who manages the live music events for the venue, and my friend and fellow SL music performer Sassy Nitely. We were reminiscing about some of the many fun shows we've done where Sassy and I play back to back, and decided then and there to schedule another such event. I didn't know at the time that I'd be doing four shows in the same week, but in a way I'm glad... if I'd thought I'd be too busy, I'd have missed what ended up being one of the most fun nights of live music I've experienced in... well, ever.

Superheroes and Supervillains
We decided to make the night a themed event. It's weird for me, because I'm very much a "come as you are" kind of performer. I don't like giving my audience restrictions on what they can do, what they have to wear and so on. That having been said, the crowd was freaking awesome, full of people in outfits depicting Wonder Woman, Deadpool, Iron Man, and many other heroes of the fictional world. After spending some time looking around for an outfit for myself and coming up with jack shit, I put on my handy Star Trek TNG uniform and performed as Captain Jean-Luc Claxtard of the Federation Starship Enterbutt. It worked.

Speaking of butts, I have to relate a little tale. As I looked down from the stage while performing, Sassy was dancing away in an excellent Harley Quinn outfit with its pair of ultra-short shorts. I -- being pretty much unable to filter anything that is coming out of my mouth at any time -- started making lascivious comments about Sassy's ass. This happened three or four times during my show. It's also a sort of tradition for me at New England that if the performer after me is a close friend and I have a minute or two left in my set, I'll improv a little song for them to welcome them to the stage. So, long story short, that's why my last tune of the night is called "Sassy's Ass".

I can tell you, it's every bit as much fun for me being up on the stage as it is when I'm in the audience for a great show like this one.

The Islands of New England is always a great place to perform, mostly because the people who come there really appreciate good times and good live music.

Can you really blame me for being somewhat ass-obsessed at this event?

The Islands of New England set list...
Save It For Later (English Beat)
Something Else (Zak Claxton)
Free Man in Paris (Joni Mitchell)
Summer Breeze (Seals & Crofts)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Starman (David Bowie)
Linger (The Cranberries)
It's Easy Like Walking (The Sadies w/Kurt Vile)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Tea in the Sahara (The Police)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Pretty Pimpin (Kurt Vile)
*Sassy’s Ass (Zak Claxton improv)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL. Probably the last too, in this case.

Big thanks to the excellent crowd who came out the the Zak and Sassy Superhero show, with special kudos to the following folks who helped support my set!
Ericc Arkright, Hogan Baily, Turn Pike, Aely Witte, Triana Caldera, RoxxyyRoller Resident, RansomTalmidge Resident, Asimia Heron, Sesh Kamachi, Triana Caldera, Tyche Szondi, Aurelie Chenaux, TheaDee Resident, my excellent manager Maali Beck, my wonderful and talented friend with the great ass Sassy Nitely, and -- most of all -- the always amazing Christine Haiku for having me back on her stage so many times over many years. Thank you all!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Serenity Gardens (06.19.17)

Standing next to Thea Dee just after wrapping up my show. Photo courtesy of Serenity Gardens.

It was 5:53, my show at Serenity Gardens was starting in about five minutes, and the only people there other than myself were my manager Maali Beck and the two lovely ladies who run the place, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde. As usual, I started worrying about it.

[17:53] Zak Claxton: speaking of people... MAALI WHERE ARE MY PEOPLE?!?!?!
[17:53] Maali Beck: they are COMING!!

And, of course, she was right. You'd think after over ten years of doing shows in the online virtual world of Second Life, I'd have a little more faith that people do come to my shows, and it's almost always more people than I expected or could have predicted. Unlike a real life concert, where people arrive early, mill around, get drinks, and hang out before the musical event starts, people in SL tend to teleport in within seconds of the start of a show... because, why not? As a typical paranoid and oversensitive artist, it can drive one batshit, and nine times out of ten, I convince myself that absolutely no one is coming. And then, I glance up at the end of my first song, and a whole bunch of people are out there applauding and presumably enjoying themselves. Maybe that's something I'll get over someday... but probably not.

That having been said, it was a really nice show at Serenity Gardens last night. It was my second time there, and since I'll be performing every other Monday night for an indeterminate amount of time, hopefully it's indicative of how my shows there will go moving into the future. It really is a lovely spot. Few places in SL have as much focus on foliage as their design theme, and Serenity Gardens is overflowing with beautiful blossoming trees all around. It's a nice and airy outdoor venue. And, like I said last night, it's the people who make the venue, which includes both the management and the audience who comes around. Serenity Gardens has had a good vibe in both aspects each time I've played there so far.

A couple of notes: first, last night's show was the kickoff of my unplanned mini-tour of SL, with shows on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of this week. It's been a long time since I've done a bunch of shows in a compact time frame like that, and it's actually pretty cool. Second, my voice has been unusually cooperative lately. It's actually doing what I want it to do, which is weird, because it often has a mind of its own. Granted, that didn't stop me from fucking up a song or two by doing things like juxtaposing the second verse with the first, but even while making the error, the voice sounded pretty damn good. Finally, I decided to do a bit of a theme with my set list, and pulled out an unusual amount of songs from '70s singer-songwriters and rock artists. No one complained. I can tell you that for subsequent shows this week, it will be a completely different group of songs at each of them, so hopefully everyone got their fill of that style, because I'm moving on to other stuff soon enough.

One final note.... I've previously mentioned the "SL Performer Diet". While working out this morning after last night's show, as usual, I dropped about a pound and a half compared to the previous morning. This is literally all the sweat that pours from me while I play live, in SL or otherwise. Of course, it's all water weight, and it will be back by tomorrow as I rehydrate and all that. But it's a real thing. When I talk about being sweaty after a show, it's not a little dampness. It's "shirt soaked through like I just ran a 10K" sweat.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Fly Like an Eagle (Steve Miller Band)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Pancho & Lefty (Townes Van Zandt)
Space Oddity (David Bowie)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Cat’s in the Cradle (Harry Chapin)
Sex & Candy (Marcy Playground)
Landslide (Fleetwood Mac)
Help Me (Joni Mitchell)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Behind Blue Eyes (The Who)
Tea for the Tillerman (Cat Stevens)

Huge thanks to all who came out to the show, including the following who helped support it. Thank you!
RoxxyyRoller Resident, Christine Haiku, Sassy Nitely, RansomTalmidge Resident, TheaDee Resident, nitesoft Resident, Sesh Kamachi, my wonderful manager Maali Beck, and lovely Serenity ladies Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Serenity Gardens (06.05.17)

Enjoying a cool crowd and a beautiful environment at Serenity Gardens.

Many, many times on this very blog you're looking at right now, I've noted that I enjoy playing at Second Life venues that are new to me. This is still true, though it's a more rare occasion than it once was for me. I perform less live shows overall in recent times, and it's easy to fall into the pattern of playing at familiar old spots where I am comfortable and know what to expect.

What I didn't expect last night for my first show at Serenity Gardens was a good-sized, engaged crowd that included a bunch of my Zakster fans and SL musician friends. Think about it: it's Monday evening. People on the west coast are still at work, or sitting in traffic on their way home. It's a venue that I haven't played before, so my fans aren't necessarily familiar with it. Since the venue was doing a grand re-opening, I also had to assume that they didn't have a steady crowd of regulars who would be populating their dance floor. And yet, despite all that, we managed to have what I consider to be a really good, successful show. I'm booked to perform there bi-weekly, on every other Monday evening, and I'm looking forward to more shows there.

Onstage for the first time at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Aurelie Chenaux.

The crowd at Serenity Gardens enjoys some mellow Zak tunes. Photo by Aurelie Chenaux.

Here's a point that some other venues may want to note. I teleported into Serenity Gardens, and like ten seconds later... BAM: performer group tag was provided. BAM: payment of my fee was made. BAM: the venue confirmed that they had my stream info and were all set. I have to say, hats off to the Second Life music venues who are on top of things (which is most of them, really). I didn't have to worry about anything other than playing guitar and singing. Especially at a place I'd never played before, it was highly reassuring for the Serenity staff to handle all the business right away.

At new (to me) places, I like to do a show that a) is representative of the range of stuff I play, and b) not super "out there" in terms of the familiarity I can expect of the audience. This show was good, and I think the songs I chose for the event worked well based on the above criteria. I also had some specific reasons for several songs. I did "Good Morning Good Morning" to commemorate the 50th anniversary of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", and "Wonderwall" as a little nod to the folks of Manchester, UK.

Serenity Gardens set list...
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
California (Joni Mitchell)
Say Goodbye (Beck)
Carolina in My Mind (James Taylor)
America (Simon & Garfunkel)
Pretty Pimpin (Kurt Vile)
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Good Morning Good Morning (The Beatles)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Sleeper in the Valley (Laura Veirs)
Wonderwall (Oasis)
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)

Huge thanks to all who got to witness me losing my Serenity Gardens virginity! May there be many happy shows there to come. Special thanks to the following who helped support my show!
jlafleur Resident, Maurice Mistwallow, Tyche Szondi, strum Diesel, Valhala Vollmar, Asimia Heron, Jenna Dirval, RansomTalmidge Resident, TheaDee Resident, Meegan Danitz, not4gods Resident, Aurelie Chenaux, my great manager Maali Beck, and Serenity Gardens' awesome staffers Ilsa Wilde and Tilly Rose Wilde!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Artist Focus: Nine Things about Mark Kozelek/Sun Kil Moon


As part of my actual job in my actual life, I write profiles and do interviews of musical artists. I usually don't have a choice as to whom I write about; it's done for my clients, who are the companies who make the instruments and sound gear that the artists use. I've decided to create some profiles on artists and bands that I personally find super interesting, and whom I feel deserve more attention and recognition for what they do. This is one of those.



I don't make many promises about my musical performances; I hate the idea of setting someone up for disappointment. For my typical live show, I mention two things: a) that I'll be performing songs from my solo career and my band They Stole My Crayon, and b) I'll perform interesting covers that people generally don't hear elsewhere. I try and live up to those things. On Sunday May 28, I was doing a show at Templemore in Second Life, a terrific virtual world venue with a crowd of open-minded people. My set included a song called "Carry Me Ohio", one of the better-known tracks by a lesser-known band called Sun Kil Moon. While I played, I was surprised to see an audience member shout out in all-caps text that he loved this band. The next day, when I posted about the show on Facebook, the same person (his name is Garrett, by the way) made a point of commenting, "Mad respect for covering Sun Kil Moon." I don't cover Sun Kil Moon often because I simply can't, and the reasons might become clear as you listen to some examples below.

1. Mark Kozelek = Sun Kil Moon
As is the case for a number of artists, Mark Kozelek records and performs under various names. I'm not sure how he differentiates between what qualifies as a solo album versus one done under the Sun Kil Moon name. Some albums, like 2010's Admiral Fell Promises, have Mark doing all of the singing, songwriting, and instrumental performances, while other albums employ the work of a full band. Apart from Mark, the members of Sun Kil Moon fluctuate between various people with whom he records and/or tours. Mark tends to write all of the band's music and lyrics, unless it's a special project (like when he did his second album Tiny Cities, which only included reinterpretations of Modest Mouse songs for some unknown reason). The band's name, by the way, was inspired by the Korean boxer Sung-kil Moon. Boxing is one of the themes that Mark returns to often.

"Ålesund" from Admiral Fell Promises (2010)

"Carry Me Ohio" from Ghosts of the Great Highway (2003)

2. Mark Doesn't Make It Easy to Be a Fan
Most musical artists/bands these days have things like Facebook pages, or Twitter or Instagram accounts, or some way of allowing fans to quickly and easily feel connected to the band, or share their news, concert dates, photos, or whatever. Mark doesn't seem to use any of that shit. In a way, I find this to be really admirable. All of that image/personality stuff does is take away from the music, and I get the idea that the music is really important to him. In any case, like a number of serious artists, Mark seems to struggle between the necessity of self-promotion to allow his music to generate income versus the desire to remain somewhat anonymous and be allowed to create his art without the trappings of fame.

Another note in this regard: much like Neil Young, it doesn't seem like you know which Mark Kozelek you're going to get when he releases a new recording or you go to see him live. His musical styles of choice are varied, and he often does live versions of songs that are very different compared to his studio recordings. Speaking of live shows, Mark sometimes seems overtly antagonistic to his audiences... another quality he shares with Old Neil.

""I Watched the Film The Song Remains the Same"" from Benji (2014)

"Richard Ramirez Died Today of Natural Causes" from Benji (2014), live at Pitchfork Music Festival 2014

3. Mark Is From Ohio and Is Around My Age
I didn't have to do much research to know Mark was from Ohio. Ohio gets mentioned in a ton of his songs, in titles and lyrics. Like Mark, I was born in the late 1960s in Ohio. Unlike Mark, I never really lived there past early childhood. That's not this story, though.

"God Bless Ohio" from Common As Light And Love Are Red Valleys Of Blood (2017)

4. Sun Kil Moon Grew from Red House Painters
Mark's first widespread recognition as a musician happened starting in the late 1980s, when his band Red House Painters was playing around the San Francisco area, eventually getting signed to 4AD Records in 1992. Red House Painters almost immediately became a critical success. A number of their albums and songs were noted in a number of "best of" lists. Due to a bunch of label mergers and other factors, Red House Painters found themselves without a record deal, which was probably a tough time for a band that seemed to have all the markings for big success. In 2002, Mark put together the first incarnation of Sun Kil Moon along with his former RHP bandmate Anthony Koutsos and others.

"Katy Song" from Red House Painters' self-titled album (1993)

5. Mark's Songs are Intimate and Story-Like and can be Depressing as Fuck
Some lyricists prefer to invoke nebulous concepts in their songs, allowing the listener to derive their own visions and meanings. Mark doesn't do that, though he's certainly no less poetic than the most analogy-fueled writer. No, Mark tells stories, very specific stories. Listening to one of his songs is often more like watching a movie. You stroll along with Mark through some event in his life, which sounds way too precise and defined to be a fictional invention. Like any writer, Mark explores ranges of emotion in his lyrical content, but overall, his stuff leans into the melancholy more than any other direction. The mood is often deeply introspective, with expressions of guilt and reflections of remorse being common themes.

It's not for everyone, this music. And even for those of us for whom it is, it isn't for all the time. Apart from the lyrics, Mark's intricate yet hypnotically repetitive music compositions are often punctuated by interesting classically-oriented interruptions and segues. Another musical observation: Mark has also -- purposefully, I believe -- altered his approach to singing over the years. He's shown himself to be capably melodic and clear-voiced at times, especially on earlier material; on other songs and albums, his voice is more close to a spoken-word rasp. I like both approaches, and they seem to always fit the feel of the music.

"That Bird Has A Broken Wing" from Among the Leaves (2012)

6. Mark Is An Incredibly Great Guitar Player
I've been playing guitar since I was seven, over 40 years ago, and attended some of the best music schools in the country, and have spent a career peripheral to the music industry. I know very quickly what a highly-trained, highly-practiced player sounds like. Mark Kozelek, as I was completely unsurprised to find out later after becoming familiar with his music, is a well-studied classical guitarist. His instrument of choice is almost always the nylon-string classical guitar. You hear Marks classical background all the time, in small flourishes, in the way he voices chords and intervals... this is not some typical pop/rock guitarist. It also is one of the elements that makes it exceedingly difficult to cover many of his songs. While I have some background in classical guitar, a) I'm really out of practice in the style, b) I don't currently own a performance-worthy nylon-string guitar, and c) I don't even have any fucking nails on my right hand that I could use to approximate his style. Three strikes, and I'm out of being able to play most Sun Kil Moon songs at my live shows. It's probably better that way, frankly. Most of Mark's material is so complex and deeply personal that I have a difficult time doing it justice.

"Half Moon Bay" from Admiral Fell Promises (2010)

7. Mark Releases Music Under His Own Label
In addition to releasing Sun Kil Moon music, Mark's Caldo Verde Records puts out recordings for Mark's solo material (alone and collaborative) as well as artists like Jesu, Kath Bloom, Heirlooms of August, Corrina Repp, and others.

"Hey You Bastards I'm Still Here" from Mark Kozelek & Desertshore (2013)

8. Mark Acts and Seems Really Busy To Me
Mark appears in films occasionally. He was a band member in the 2000 Cameron Crowe film Almost Famous, playing the bassist for the fictional band Stillwater. He was also in the films Vanilla Sky and Shopgirl, and played himself in a 2015 film called Youth. I also get the idea that Mark is one of those people who is constantly working, usually on multiple projects at once, and tours (and therefore travels) a lot. I believe his home base for many years is San Francisco, but he always seems to be on the move.

Mark (left) in a scene from Almost Famous (2000), in which he plays Larry Fellows, bassist for Stillwater.

9. I Can't Think Of Any Music Like His
I can definitely pick out some precursor musicians whose songwriting and performance styles are reminiscent of Mark's. As a classical guitarist, he's expressed a love for Andrés Segovia, and my familiarity with that master allows me to hear elements of his style in Mark's playing. When I think about acoustic-centric indie-folk artists whose vibe imbues melancholy, I have to think of people like Nick Drake, Elliott Smith, and Leonard Cohen. I have no idea if Mark was actually influenced by any of these musicians; I certainly was, and have since been influenced by Mark as well. That's the way it goes.

But Mark's music, with its melange of vibes and instrumentation and arrangements, is not directly like any other artist I can think of offhand. Perhaps that's one reason it has such a high level of appeal to me. When I hear something that doesn't make me immediately think of something else, that's usually the first thing that draws me in.

"Birds of Film" from Universal Themes (2015), possibly my favorite song of Mark's