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.