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

Monday, May 29, 2017

Elysium City of Templemore (05.28.17)

Templemore, one of the most impressive designs in all of Second Life. Photo by Kat.

I don't recall how and when I first heard about Luis Lockjaw, the creative genius behind a number of Second Life environments called Templemore, but I do know when I met him in person. It was at the Nashville SL Jam in May 2014, a little over three years ago. There weren't many of us from California who made the trek to Tennessee, and I was surprised that this young-looking dude from Compton had gone all the way there just to hang out. But the more I got to know Luis, the more I became aware that he was the type of person who'd go to the end of the Earth itself to be supportive of his close friends.

It's impossible to describe the level of detail that goes into his Second Life creations. Mere pictures don't do them justice either; the only way to experience them is to immerse yourself by being there in person. His designs have always seemed to go beyond the technological limitations of SL. I'm pretty well versed in the creation of virtual worlds, and to this day I still don't really understand how he does what he does. But it's more than just making things work like he wants them to. Ultimately, he approaches the designs of the Templemore environment the way a fine artist takes his or her brush to a canvas. It's a talent that may not be teachable, in the same way that some musicians seem to be born with a gift that no level of training can imbue. I will tell you one thing that gives Luis an advantage over most SL designers: his real life job has him building and tearing down and rebuilding event settings at the Staples Center here in Los Angeles. One day, he might be assisting in the creation of a stage for an awards show, and the next for a basketball game, and so on. Because of that, I believe that he sees things from a viewpoint that takes him beyond the audience perspective, and beyond that of most people who try and create virtual environments of any kind.

Elysium Theatre, looking amazing. Photo by Kat.

A great-looking build is inspirational for great performances. Photo by Kat.

I've performed at a number of stages and locations under the Templemore umbrella over the past few years. Each of them has been incredible in its own distinctive way. The current incarnation -- Elysium City of Templemore -- is perhaps the coolest one of them all. As an artist, Luis seems to be inspired by the beauty of decay. Textures show signs of rust and wear. You'll see a lightbulb or two that are out. There are cracks and chips meticulously placed on various surfaces. It's not a perfect world that Luis creates; the thing that sets him apart is, rather, the purposeful inclusion of imperfection that so many virtual designers seem to ignore. It's spooky and fascinating, and I love playing there.

It's a rare pleasure for an SL event to be promoted in the way that Templemore can do.

For yesterday's show, being on the Sunday in the middle of a three-day holiday weekend, I didn't have high hopes for a big crowd. I figured most people would be on vacations or recovering from days at the beach or barbecues. Plus, I was the opening act of an evening that included a couple of other really high-quality SL musicians -- Twin Ghost and Loreen Aldrin. And yet, for whatever combination of reasons, I ended up with an excellent audience who seemed to be really engaged in the music and enjoying themselves. It had been over two months since my previous show, and when you don't play on a regular basis in Second Life, you tend to not draw as good crowds. I'm happy to say that we had a great showing of both my Zakster fans and new folks, including a bunch of people who would probably come to Templemore events regardless of who was playing. It was great.

A great crowd in the midst of a holiday weekend. Photo by Kat.

The man behind the amazing environment of Templemore, Luis Lockjaw. Photo by Kat.

One moment that made me laugh happened before the show started. 99% of the time, when I arrive at a venue and get ready to do my show, I simply walk up and jump onto the stage, and then start setting up for my show. But the fact is, there's so much to see at Templemore, I wanted to check out what things looked like backstage, so I went through the side door and walked into a little hallway, and then around back, inspiring the following exchange:

[16:43] Luis Lockjaw: Zak that was so cool
[16:44] Luis Lockjaw: you walked your ass back stage to get on stage
[16:44] Zak Claxton: I did
[16:44] Luis Lockjaw: the only person to ever do that
[16:44] Luis Lockjaw: \o/
[16:44] Zak Claxton: might as well use these amazing designs as they should be

A couple of other notes. Despite coming off of a two-month hiatus, I felt my show was pretty good. I spent a good amount of time over the two days before the show getting my guitar playing and singing voice back into shape, and I think that helped. I also chose a set list that I thought would be complementary toward the vibe of Templemore, and that seemed to work as well. Second, even though I'm a physically fit person who exercises daily, that show kicked my ass, as the good ones tend to do. Not only was I a sweaty mess afterwards, but while hurrying to get my show wrapped up and clear the stage for the next performer, I managed to bash my Takamine guitar directly into my forehead while taking it off. Yay me! It really wasn't that bad of an injury, though I do have a nice little lump there as evidence.

Happy and sweaty right after my show at Templemore. Photo by Kat.

Templemore set list...
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
Saved by Zero (The Fixx)
Things Under Trees (They Stole My Crayon)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
*Linger (The Cranberries)
Hunger Strike (Temple of the Dog)
Swing Low Magellan (Dirty Projectors)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
It's Easy Like Walking (The Sadies w/Kurt Vile)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Carry Me Ohio (Sun Kil Moon)
How Soon is Now? (The Smiths)

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

Big thanks to everyone who came out to see my show at Templemore, with special thanks to the following who helped support it!
go2smoky Resident, TwinGhost Ronas, RoxxyyRoller Resident, Robert69 Little, Diana Renoir, Tracy Redangel, Aria Lazuli, Asimia Heron, Aurelie Chenaux, Grace Sixpence, Tyche Szondi, Kat Claxton, Kayliegh Lykin, TheaDee Resident, and the entire staff of Templemore who do such great work, including Bee Blackrain and, of course, Luis Lockjaw.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Some of My Favorite Chris Cornell Songs

Chris Cornell, 1964-2017

Maybe it's a good thing that I am tremendously busy, and haven't really had time today to dwell on the death by suicide of Chris Cornell... nor do I have time to give the man a proper eulogy right now. Instead, below are seven songs in alphabetical order (mostly Soundgarden) that I think exemplify the qualities that made him one of the most talented and unique musicians that lived within my lifetime. There was no one on the planet who had his combination of raw, natural talent and pure inventiveness, and it's just shocking and saddening that it's over now. Rest in peace.

Black Hole Sun

Burden In My Hand

Hunger Strike


Pretty Noose

Rusty Cage


Monday, April 17, 2017

My Pal Foot Foot (04.17.17)

I think there's a saying about things having to get worse before they get better. It sounds like complete bullshit to me, but there is at least one situation in life that many people go through in which it's undeniably true, and that's having a medical procedure that hurts, with the knowledge that it's going to make things better in the long run.

Speaking of "run" that's something that's off my list of things to do for the moment, along with "walk without limping" and "stand without leaning" and "showering with both feet in the tub" and so on. I'll stop complaining vaguely now and tell you that on Friday morning, I had some minor outpatient surgery on my right foot. It was for a fairly common ailment that, while not serious, had been bothering me for something like six months, and it's something that I'll be really, really glad to have out of my life entirely.

But it doesn't really work like that, at least right away. You have to get past the trauma of having a scalpel shoved into you first. So, I've spent the subsequent three days complaining about it to anyone within earshot. And honestly, try doing ordinary things but keeping all of your weight -- in my case, about 180 pounds -- on one leg. It gets old, fast.

On a related note, my experience with the podiatrist I saw was great. She was super friendly, kept me at ease, and there was very little pain while she did the surgery. I see her again on Wednesday morning, when I finally can have this collection of bandages removed from my foot, and assuming all has gone per the plan, things should start getting better quickly after that. I'm really looking forward to little stuff like being able to take a proper shower (I can't get the surgical site wet, so it's been these half-assed showering sessions with only one leg in the tub, so I am being very literal about the phrase "half-assed" in this case). I'm also looking forward to walking and standing with equal weight on both feet. I'm really, really looking forward to doing my morning workout without favoring one leg, something that's plagued me since Thanksgiving or so.

All things considered, I have a lot to look forward to and am feeling pretty optimistic about that. The challenge, as it often is for me and many people, is being patient while the foot heals. I'm a guy who truly enjoys his mundane routine, and even something as small as this throws me off a lot. Can't shower, can't drive my son to school, can't walk without limping, can't exercise... but it's all short term, and hopefully in another week, I'll be back to my normal active self.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Joshua Tree (03.23.17 - 03.26.17) & "Blew the Dust Away" Video

I'm not going to write a novel-length post about our recent trip to Joshua Tree. Almost everything I've had to say about that wonderful desert area has already been said, by me and many others. Instead, here are a few specific memories.

The Mother of Invention
The park was the most crowded we'd ever seen it. Not surprising: the weather was perfect and tons of people were flocking to all of the desert areas in hopes of seeing flower blooms from the recent rains. This didn't impact us very much except in one way: we'd planned on getting some footage for a They Stole My Crayon music video at Barker Dam, and it was so packed that we literally could not find a single parking spot, much less plan on a secluded filming location. So, we blew that off and instead went to an area of the park none of had been before... right next door at Echo Rock. The base of the rock formations there is a dry river bed, and perfect for what we wanted to do.

Bunny and Snake
Bunny had spent his entire life without any close encounters with rattlesnakes (the one poisonous snake indigenous to our area) until a couple of years ago, when he had a terrifying experience in the Santa Monica mountains while walking his dogs. Well, on Sunday of our trip, he took two steps off the trail to photograph some flowers, and was met with a huge specimen of Crotalus oreganus. Looking down at this scene from a rock that I'd scampered up, two things happened in a split second: first, I heard its rattle, which was shockingly loud. Next, I saw Bunny jump back in what seemed to be a world record-setting reverse broad jump, scratching his legs up on some dry brush in the process. Other than the resulting cuts and scrapes, no one was harmed in this adrenaline-inducing desert moment.

Shooting the Video
We didn't have a specific plan for making a video while on our trip, and had we gone there and left the cameras at home, it would have been a great little vacation regardless. Since we had all three members of the band together in one spot, it seemed like a good idea to try and grab some footage just in case something could work. It's a lovely location, after all. So a few times over the four days, we filmed ourselves in various places in the park and near our little cabin, Casa Rosita, doing lip-synch to our own music. While we do intend on doing more planned, storyboarded, "produced" videos for other tunes, "Blew the Dust Away" had a musical vibe that we all agreed would work for the footage we got. So, after getting home and doing some creative editing, we were able to formally debut the resulting music video the following weekend (Sunday April 2, to be specific). Check it out.

In case you're interested in such things, we shot it on Kat's Nikon Coolpix at 1080 60p, and edited in Final Cut Pro X. I think we were surprised that the result of this $0 budget video came out with little compromise than what we'd have wanted regardless of budget for the "Blew the Dust Away" vibe, and we're proud to finally have an official music video out there for The Crayon!

Some Pics
Beers at Casa Rosita, our little unofficial home in the desert.

We did some good cooking on this trip, including this egg bake brunch that Christina whipped up. Yum!

The Crayon in the park in the Jeep.

Joshua Tree Saloon. A band with beers.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Islands of New England (03.22.17)

Playing some tunes, laughing with friends. A typical night at The Islands of New England in SL. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Hey blog. I haven't been here in a month or so. How ya been? Not mad at my absence, hopefully. It wasn't intentional; I just haven't been doing any live shows lately.

Actually, that's not true. Just last weekend, in an act of extreme randomness, I picked up a bass and turned on Facebook Live, and did a playthrough of multiple Rush songs. Twice. Frankly, while that was silly and fun, it was a bit of a wankfest. Nothing wrong with Rush, mind you. It's just not really representative of the music that I do on a regular basis, even if it was a fun surprise to do something completely unexpected. Regardless, it wasn't exactly what I'd call blog-worthy. If you really need to see me wearing a kimono and doing a B-minus impression of Geddy Lee's godlike bass playing, you're welcome to do so.

But last night's show at The Islands of New England in Second Life certainly was worth a few words. I play so rarely in SL these days that I do try and make each show somewhat special. TIONE is a place where I feel very comfortable, which means it's more likely that I'll stretch out a bit and try some new stuff from time to time. One way I can tell that the show will be good before I strum a single chord is to glance up at the audience. When I see a majority of green name tags -- the indication in SL that someone is your friend -- that's always a positive note. Perhaps just as good is when I see people whose tags change to "Zakster" sometime during the show, meaning they asked for an invite to my fan group. That means I did or sang or played or said something interesting enough to make people want to know when and where I'm playing next. That's a good feeling, and one I don't take for granted.

The actual show that I performed went well... mostly. On a positive note, I did a couple of songs I'd never played before. One was an oldie. Speaking of Rush (above), it was a band that I -- like many young musicians of my generation -- was really into in my teen years, along with a number of other progressive and hard rock bands who play intricate and challenging music. I had a short-lived Rush cover band called Permanent Waves when I was about 15. Yeah, really. The reason I don't play much music by that band is very simple: a) Geddy's voice is nearly impossible for me (or anyone) to cover well, and b) per above, I've moved on to other areas of interest in terms of the style of music I prefer to perform. However, Thea Dee is one of my good friends in SL -- who happens to also be a person with whom I went to college. She's a massive fan of the band, and I've long wanted to pick out a song by Rush that was somewhat within my vocal range and possible to cover on solo acoustic guitar for her benefit. That song turned out to be "Entres Nous", and it went fairly well, I think. The other new song was truly new; "It's Easy (Like Walking)" was released a couple of weeks ago on the new album by The Sadies, and it features one of my favorite singer-songwriters dudes: Kurt Vile. The moment I heard it, I knew I'd be covering it.

My shows are equal parts music and silliness. Sometimes more silliness than I expected. Photo by Triana Caldera.

People seem to have fun either way, so it's all good. Photo by Triana Caldera.

One hilarious side note. I got to the end of my set and had time for one more tune, so I launched into "Say Goodbye" by Beck. I did the first two chords, and then my brain completely blanked on how the song actually goes. While I do have lyrics sheets, I don't use any chord charts while I perform. Twice, I tried to get the relatively simple song rolling, and twice, the launch was aborted at takeoff. The result was, I must admit, pretty damn funny, when I eventually gave up and ended with a completely different song.

TIONE set list...
Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Things Under Trees (They Stole My Crayon)
*Entres Nous (Rush)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)
*It’s Easy Like Walking (The Sadies/Kurt Vile)
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
†No One Knows (Queens of the Stone Age)
You’re Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
Sleeper in the Valley (Laura Veirs)
Big Empty (Stone Temple Pilots)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.
†I've only done "No One Knows" once before, in April 2014, also at TIONE coincidentally.

Huge thanks to all who came out to the show... especially the following who helped support it!
Trouble Streeter, Triana Caldera, KarlPeterKP Resident, RoxxyyRoller Resident, gracelenrose Resident, RansomTalmidge Resident, pimaren Wulluf, Aurelie Chenaux, Tyche Szondi, Lyndon Heart, TheaDee Resident, my great manager Maali Beck, and TIONE's wonderful event manager Christine Haiku!

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

MadPea's International Food Fair for Feed-a-Smile (02.20.17)

Playing some guitar and feeding some smiles. Photo by Kat.

I enjoy daydreaming. It's actually a very healthy and productive use of time, I feel. Through those brief moments of fantasy and reflection, sometimes it's possible to visualize concepts that may seem illogical at the moment, but gives you a pathway for it to possibly come to fruition. So, when I do a performance for a charitable organization as I did last night at MadPea's International Food Fair in Second Life, I imagine someone donating a small amount of money toward the cause, and think that perhaps that very donation was the one that got to the right child who grew up to become a doctor or scientist or teacher whose work eventually helps thousands and thousands of other people.

It really doesn't work like that, I'm well aware. Each charitable donation is a tiny drop in a bucket that always needs to be refilled, but that big bucket is made up of a whole lot of droplets. Each one matters. Who knows which one is going to find its way to that deserving beneficiary who will pay it forward in his or her own way? Whether it's the shows I've done to fight cancer, to rescue animals, or many other very worthwhile causes, I do allow myself to imagine that the small amounts that get raised while I perform have a direct impact on someone out there. The thought puts a smile on my face every time.

This particular show -- one of a huge series of events between February 18 and March 4 -- was benefitting a cause that's dear to me: Feed-a-Smile, the charity run by my friend Brique Zeiner that funds the Live & Learn in Kenya NGO. I've posted many photos of the kids who are the recipients of funds raised through Feed-a-Smile. The money goes to help keep them fed, and to create a learning environment in Africa where they can grow up to hopefully become productive adults. While it's kind of selfish of me to say this, I must admit that being able to see the direct results of my efforts to help them via the photos and stories of their success helps drive me to keep doing benefit shows for them.

Rocking some Zak tunes, Crayon tunes, and other people's tunes. Photo by Kat.

Is that Doubledown Tandino scaling the wall while I perform at MadPea's food fair? Of course it is. Photo by Kat.

It's a good thing that the show itself happened to be for an important cause... because I was feeling like shit yesterday. I had a (thankfully rare) bout of insomnia the night before, and throughout the day had been experiencing some physical issues that certainly didn't put me in the best frame of mind to put on my usual upbeat show. But then, and who knows why this is the case, about an hour before I was schedule to go on, I got a second wind of sorts and found myself ready to rock. It could very well be that the act of psyching myself up to play, doing vocal warm-ups and tuning my guitar and all that, is what got my energy to the point where I felt like I could perform at my best level. By the time I strummed my first chord, I actually felt pretty great.

The show itself was quite good. I've been happy lately at the way my voice and guitar are working, and as my own biggest critic, that's saying something. They had the area set up so that the audio from my stream went out to all of the many sims that were set up for the food fair event, and I made it a point to let people know who might happen to be listening while browsing around the fair to come by and check out the show. As time went by, more and more people started filtering in so that toward the second half of the show, we had a really nice-sized crowd. I know for a fact that the event was a success; when I started the show, the contribution tally was around L$1,400,000, and this morning, the tally is at L$1,543,000 and counting. A good portion of that fundraising was done via the food fair itself, but it's nice to consider that my generous fans helped kick in around L$150,000, or about $600 USD. That is pretty amazing, and will have a direct impact on the kids in Kenya. Going back to my daydream, maybe that's the amount that allows one of the kids to get the food and learning materials he or she needs to move to the next level, and perhaps they grow up and create a cure to some disease that affects someone close to me. Yeah, I know; the chances are small... but there is a chance. There's always a chance of good things happening when you stay optimistic and keep working toward a goal.

By the way, as I noted before: the Food Fair event continues through March 4, so here's a SLURL where you SL folks can go check it out.

MadPea's Food Fair/Feed-a-Smile set list...
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
California (Joni Mitchell)
Fire & Rain (James Taylor)
Love Hurts (Everly Brothers)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Polly (Nirvana)
I Am A Child (Neil Young)
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Appetites (Jib Kidder)
Sour Girl (Stone Temple Pilots)
Things Under Trees (They Stole My Crayon)
Behind Blue Eyes (The Who)

Gigantic thanks to everyone who came out to my show, especially those who were able to support Feed-a-Smile with your donations. You all helped to make the world just a little bit better. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

Friday, February 3, 2017

The Islands of New England (02.02.17)

The Islands of New England is more than a pretty place to play live music. The people who visit there make it what it is... one of the best venues in all of Second Life. Photo by Kat.

Performing live shows in Second Life is similar to sex: it feels good, it's physically and emotionally fulfilling, and people applaud when I'm done.

Wait... let's try this again. So, last night, I played for the umpteenth time at The Islands of New England, a terrific live music venue in the virtual world of Second Life. I play there as often as I do for two reasons: first, because for whatever reason, Christine Haiku (who manages the venue's bookings) seems to like what I do, and second, because I really, really like playing there. Those are good enough reasons for just about anything. Since I'm unable to play much (or at all) in January each year, February is a time where I start ramping back up in doing SL shows, and New England was the perfect place for me to kick off my "Zak's Still Here Tour '17". It's not much of a tour; I don't have any other shows booked at the moment. But I trust that I will soon enough.

Here's something that any musician will tell you: when you're sounding good, you perform better. Pretty obvious, eh? What I mean is that music performance is like a wheel. If your guitar is sounding good and your voice is doing what you want, you then have more confidence and the performance itself gets even better. The opposite, negative aspect is also true. I'm happy to say that for last night's show, right from the get-go, I knew it was going to be a good show. A few minutes before I started, I strummed my guitar -- an acoustic-electric Takamine Pro Series P5DC that has become my go-to instrument for SL shows -- and it sounded so good in my headphones that I felt inspired to try and sing at a level that would match the great sound my guitar seemed to be making. It didn't hurt that I also took a good hour before the show warming up my voice.

"Why bother doing that?" you ask. "It's just an SL show." I have to tell you -- and this is just my opinion, for what it's worth -- that if you don't give a shit about every single performance, you shouldn't bother performing at all. I try and make the effort to do the best I can each time I'm playing music in front of people. The audience is taking time out of their day to come hear me do what I do, and the last thing I want to do is be a disappointment to them. Will every person who comes to my show like what they hear? No, of course not; music itself is extraordinarily subjective. But for those who appreciate the style of music I play, I want to give them a special and memorable experience each and every time. I want the people who are checking me out for the first time to want to come back again. I want my terrific longterm fans, the Zaksters, to be able to enjoy each show despite having attended dozens (or hundreds, in some cases) of previous shows. I know it sounds silly, but I genuinely feel a sense of responsibility to be entertaining to those folks who click the link and find themselves listening to what I do.

I don't have many ways to make the world a better place to live for other people, but within the scope of what I am capable of doing, my only goal of each music performance I do is that people get to the end of the hour feeling a little happier than they were when I started my first tune of the night. Whether it's through the choices of songs I do, the way I sing and play guitar, or the fun and camaraderie that seems to happen at my shows, I think I hit that goal more often than not. Happy people tend to make positive decisions and actions, and maybe my silly little shows are one drop in a bucket that can prevent the bad things in life. You never know.

Nine out of ten dentists agree: my shows are fun, whether you're all that into my music performance or not. Photo by Kat.

Joel joins me onstage for a delightful little dance while I played his improvised theme song. Photo by Kat.

One final note: Christine Haiku has a unique ability (at least in the SL music scene) to pair performers for shows that works really well. Each time I play at TIONE, it seems that the person who's performing before or after me is a great fit in some way. This time, as Christine has set up in the past, it was Joel W. Corey Tamas who played after me. Joel is a Canadian man who has a band called Red Heaven. He and I are almost exactly the same age... he was born about two weeks before me, some 47-1/2 years ago. We have a lot in common in terms of life experiences, political and cultural outlooks, and more. While our performance styles are very different, we enjoy a lot of the same influences, and our respective audiences seem to appreciate what each of us do. While he and I met purely by chance through the virtual music scene, we've become better acquainted via Facebook, and I consider him a genuine friend at this point. He's a talented guy, a funny and compassionate human being, and I wanted to take the opportunity to acknowledge how much I enjoy and appreciate our friendship.

The Islands of New England set list...
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Man on the Moon (R.E.M.)
Mary Jane’s Last Dance (Tom Petty)
How Soon is Now? (The Smiths)
Lost Cause (Beck)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Carry Me Ohio (Sun Kil Moon)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Tea in the Sahara (The Police)
Black Hole Sun (Soundgarden)
For What Its Worth (Buffalo Springfield)
Nearly Lost You (Screaming Trees)
*Joel (Zak Claxton, improvised)

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

Huge thanks to all who came to the show, with special thanks to the following people who helped support it.
Bonita Denimore, AinemacLir Resident, Joel Eilde, Tyche Szondi, Lylah Landar, RansomTalmidge Resident, Richy Nervous, Sesh Kamachi, TheaDee Resident, Kat Claxton, Diana Renoir, Aurelie Chenaux, my terrific manager Maali Beck, and most of all, TIONE's superb manager Christine Haiku!

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Veterans Isle/Homes For Our Troops 01.29.17

So, I can play guitar and sing for an hour and help an injured vet get a home? Sign me up.

Did you miss me? I'm back.

Each January, my life gets turned upside down via my industry's largest trade show. In my non-virtual life, I do marketing for the musical instrument, professional audio, and related industries, and January is when the NAMM Show happens. I actually start my preparing for the show in November or earlier, making the holiday season and start of each year a whirlwind of business activity, leaving very little time for actual music making or performances of my own. As a result, each year I need to block out weeks of my Second Life music calendar with the words "ZAK UNAVAILABLE", and in fact, about the earliest I can hope to get back into performing in SL is about a week after the show ends.

Coincidentally, that's when this month's benefit for Homes For Our Troops had been set up by my fellow musician and friend Frets Nirvana, held at Veterans Isle in Second Life. The NAMM Show wrapped up on January 22; his benefit, which happens on the last Sunday of each month, was on the 29th. Since I managed to not get sick at the show and my voice was reasonably healed after four days of yelling in a convention center, I was glad to help out, and at the same time perform my first Second Life event of 2017.

I've played many charitable veterans events in SL. As I've explained before, as a pacifist and a person with a progressive political outlook, it truly bothers me that these people coming back from military engagements with severe injuries are so often neglected by the government who sent them there in the first place. Frankly, as I mention at the shows, the act of being compassionate toward others is not tied to any political affiliation. It's an area where we should all agree. These people need our help due to the egregious negligence and lack of funding by the government. Should it be that way? No, of course not. But it is, and the least I can do is spend an hour playing guitar and singing, if it helps them even a little bit.

We got a nice crowd of very generous people and raised a good amount for HFOT. Mission accomplished.

Having not played live for about six weeks, it took me a little longer than usual to get warmed up and ready to rock, but all things considered, the show went pretty damn well. I pulled out a couple of tunes that I've done very rarely in my SL shows, and we had a good number of my Zakster fans who probably enjoyed the variety.

HFOT Set List
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
Is She Really Going Out With Him? (Joe Jackson)
Falling Down
 (Zak Claxton)
Better Man (Pearl Jam)
†Sunny Came Home (Shawn Colvin)
Comes a Time (Neil Young)
If It Makes You Happy (Sheryl Crow)
It’s Good to be King (Tom Petty)
*Car on a Hill (Joni Mitchell)
Again (They Stole My Crayon)
Accidents Will Happen (Elvis Costello)
America (Simon & Garfunkel)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.
†My last performance of "Sunny Came Home" was all the way back on July 17, 2012.

Huge thanks to everyone who came out for the show and helped this great cause. You're all awesome.