Saturday, June 22, 2019

SL16B Music Faire (06.21.19)

Rocking the residents of Second Life at SL16B Music Faire. Photo by Kat.

This, being the morning after I did my live music performance at the SL16B Music Faire, seems as good a time as any to talk about how I got into Second Life. I may have told this story before; feel free to skip down if you've heard it.

In October 2006, I was in a long distance relationship. Christina and I had become acquainted a number of years previously via an online forum for people into music and audio recording (how we met there is a story unto itself, having to do with Tenacious D and a notorious Internet troll, but I digress). She was living near Seattle, WA at the time; I was a thousand miles south here in Redondo Beach, CA, a suburb of Los Angeles. We'd discovered our interest in each other, traded many thoughts via text, and had met for the first time in person earlier that year, in San Francisco in February. We were together again in Las Vegas in April. She visited me here in June. I headed up to Seattle to see her in July. In between those trips, there were constant phone calls and so on, as you'd imagine.

So we had a good thing going, but this constant traveling back and forth to see each other wasn't the easiest way to maintain a relationship. One day, my friend Mike Burns -- a guy I'd known since high school who'd been a close buddy and a bandmate -- called me up and asked if I'd heard about this thing called Second Life. I vaguely knew it was some online virtual world, but had no other concept about it. Mike was excited because Duran Duran had an island there (I had no idea what that could even mean) and that I should check it out. that evening, I happened to be on the phone with Christina as we often were, recounting my day and such. I mentioned this virtual thing to her, and she said we should check it out. So while we were on the phone, right then and there, we visited SL. Signing up at the same time, we were able to choose the same surname (back then, SL forced you to select between a preset list of last names, which was probably easier for their database maintenance at the time). We picked Claxton out of the available names. I chose to be Zak; she picked something that was already taken, and then went with her second choice, which was Kat.

What we found was that via SL, we could be "together" in a way that was more more tangible than being on the phone and writing text back and forth to each other. This idea of having some 3D representation of ourselves was pretty new and exciting at the time. We really didn't know much else about Second Life at all. During those early days, we'd get into world each night after work and go on little virtual dates... using the search function and finding places to explore and things to do together. It was really great; it provided a sense of togetherness in a way that wasn't possible for us in the real world at the time.

Kat and I in an SL skybox circa 2007.

It was during one of those "dates" in fall 2006 that we looked at the events list and saw someone was doing a live music show. The artist's name, in case you're wondering about the very first SL show I ever saw, was Keiko Takamura. The venue was a small beachside camp spot; I don't recall the name. There weren't many people there, probably ten or fifteen. But I do recall my reaction, which was, "Wait... I can play live in this Second Life place?"

The rest is pretty much what you'd expect. I'd been a longtime performing musician and an audio/Internet technology person for years and years, so in many ways, SL music was made specifically for someone like me. I already had the necessary hardware, and it didn't take long to figure out the streaming software aspect. Before the end of that year, I was trying out my own shows... beginning at my own little parcel for audiences made up of friends, and then expanding into open mic events and little tips-only shows at little venues. Within a couple of years, I was performing very often for pretty good crowds in SL, and at the same time was writing new music so I'd have some more original material to do at those shows.

Kat eventually moved here with me in 2008, but the acceptance of those new songs by my SL crowds led to my decision to record an album that I released in 2009, with Zak Claxton having become more than just the arbitrary avatar name I'd picked, and instead being the stage name I'd continue to use for all of my musical endeavors since then.

Why the History Lesson?
It was in 2008 that I did my first performance at a Second Life birthday event. It was SL5B. Back then, the entire event was run by residents. In fact, at that point, Linden Lab seemingly had very little to do with SL at all, beyond running the servers and making the software. Each year in June, a team of volunteers put on an event that celebrated the anniversary of Second Life's beginnings. The event was smaller but not dissimilar to what it is now; a showcase of what makes Second Life cool and fun. I've been maintaining this silly blog for so long, I did document my SL5B shows that day 11 years ago.

Being a noob at SL5B in 2008. Photo by Kat.

Since then, I performed an an SLxB event a number of times. I did Zak Shows at SL8B and SL9B. Then, at SL12B in 2015, for the first time, Linden Lab got directly involved in their own anniversary event, and I was trepidatious about it... but it ended up going really well. They held an audition process -- which is really the right thing to do for myriad reasons -- and I ended up getting one of the performance slots. Upon their request a couple of years later, I did the SL14B show in 2017 and the SL15B last year.

And that brings us to SL16B, which just kicked off on June 20. The Music Faire (rebranded from its previous name of Music Fest), held yesterday and today, seemed to go extraordinarily well this year. It's like many things in life that repeat; as they happen over and over, they get refined and improve. There's a pretty tight process that they have for running these things, with a green room location for sound check and a system of having stage managers who teleport you around to various locations. They really have it down to a science. And yeah, there are still the same challenges from a technical standpoint... lag happens when there are hundreds of avatars in the same location, and so on. But it's really not a big thing, and I felt the show was really good.

Me, doing what I do, at SL16B Music Faire. Photo by Kat.

The main stage at SL16B Music Faire used a '50s diner vibe, per the theme of the event. Photo by Kat.

Nice crowd. Photo by Kat.

Yup, that'd be an SL audience. Always fun. Photo by Kat.

Why I Play SLxB Events
On a personal basis, it's a great opportunity for me to play music for a bunch of folks who'd never heard of me before that day. I always try and make those SLxB shows pretty representational of what a typical Zak Show is all about, doing my usual combination of indie music, singer-songwriters, and original stuff that people will generally hear at most of my shows. I also use the opportunity to promote the messages and causes that are important to me. That might not be what everyone wants to hear, and that's fine; as entertainers, we have a responsibility to use those moments to reach a wider audience. A friend of mine, a very well-known musician who is outspoken on certain causes, once told me that, "The only reason people wouldn’t do it is based on selfishness and fear."

I made it a point yesterday to mention two topics that are crucial to me, each one associated with songs I'd chosen to play. First was the separation of families and treatment of detainee immigrants at the US southern border ("I Am a Child"), and the second one was equality of LGBTQ people ("She Keeps Me Warm"). I know for a fact that both topics caused me to have some of my audience depart who either didn't agree with or didn't want to hear about such things, and that is 100% fine. As per my famous pal, I am always willing to forego some tips or subsequent bookings for my own selfish purposes as opposed to keeping quiet when I have a literal stage to raise awareness of these important topics. As Elie Wiesel said, "We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented."

The opportunity to get to know some new folks and have them hear my music and my message is always a positive moment for me, and hopefully for them as well. Photo by Kat.

SL16B Music Faire set list...
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Summer Breeze (Seals & Crofts)
Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
I Am a Child (Neil Young)
She Keeps Me Warm (Mary Lambert)
America (Simon & Garfunkel)
Crosses (José González)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Hunger Strike (Temple of the Dog)
Shame Chamber (Kurt Vile)
If You Could Only See (Tonic)
*SL16B Improv (Zak Claxton)

We had well over 100 people at this amazing special show, and I want to thank every one of you... with extra special thanks to the following who helped support the show!
LXIX Tomorrow, Alora Ascot, VioletSunflower037 Resident, Nina Brandenburg, swedishfox Ghost, Maeve Branner, Adara Tae, Alexis Fairlady, GaGaQueen Resident, Triana Caldera, Asimia Heron, badgerofzen Resident, go2smoky Resident,IndyanaJjones Resident, Cordelia Cerise, Diana Renoir, siouxsieincognita Resident, Bee Blackrain, Kat Claxton, Mika Rainfall, JoelleAshes Resident, Swan Elan, kromlex Resident, Michael Takakura, backstage coordinator SilvinaWild, stage manager CB Axel, and Linden Lab's Lead Community Manager who helps the whole thing happen, Xiola Linden!

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Serenity Gardens (06.17.19)

Me doing what I do at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Kat.

Here's something I've noticed. When people make the otherwise noble effort of stepping up to defend the rights of others, there's an interesting and specific phenomenon in regard to the LGBTQ community versus other marginalized groups who experience discrimination. Here's what I mean... you often see phrases like, "I'm not gay, but I am in favor of same sex marriage," or perhaps, "I'm straight, but I am an ally to LGBT people and will support them."

Seems like a nice thing to do, and it is. But... why the need to clarify up front? I mean, no one says, "I'm not black but I support equal rights for African-Americans." Why? Because in most cases, people can look at you and see you're not black. You also tend to never read, "I'm not a woman," or "I'm not an endangered species of butterfly," but regardless of their great intentions, people really do feel the need to be absolutely clear about their own sexual orientation before offering their support for gay/lesbian/trans people. I suppose the reasons are obvious. Despite their willingness to state their support, it's at least equally important to most folks to not be mistaken for someone of a different orientation than their own. There's no external indicator that someone is gay... no skin color, no particular set of facial features, no flashing neon sign. Furthermore, going back a long, long time, being mistaken for being gay could lead to dire consequences, and in some cultures still can. Homosexuality has been condemned and discriminated against for so long that the very idea of someone thinking you are gay is frightening to many, and I suppose you can't blame them.

But I don't do that, and I'll tell you why: I don't care if anyone mistakes my sexual orientation. If someone wants to assume I'm gay, or straight, or otherwise, that's their prerogative. And if someone asks, I'm happy to tell them. But I don't feel a need to make a big announcement about it every time I want to offer my support. If you don't need me to say that I'm not a fish when I state my opposition to polluting the oceans, you should feel the same about how I support equality of sexual orientation.

All that being said, I'm sure that the important aspect is the support itself, and if you do feel that need to clarify your own orientation, that probably doesn't bother anyone at all. As I said, I just found it interesting from a standpoint of human behavior. And why am I even talking about this? Because it's June and in the spirit of Pride Month, I decided to perform some music at each of my shows this month that honored the courage of the openly LGBT community, and I did so last night at Serenity Gardens.

Rocking the Grid
I should once again mention that for these past few shows at Serenity Gardens, having Grace McDunnough playing before me is a huge pleasure. I adore her as a person and her music is fantastic. My show went well, and really, they all do at that venue. I pulled out two songs that were previously unplayed by me... the Gordon Lightfoot classic "Sundown" -- a song with a darker theme than I'd previously realized before playing it -- and a light pop song by Mary Lambert called "She Keeps Me Warm". That was the song I did to acknowledge Pride, since Mary is an LGBT artist who first composed the song as the hook for the massively popular Grammy-nominated hit "Same Love", and then re-did it as a full solo song. It's lovely, and I enjoyed the opportunity to perform it.

A lovely summer evening for whipping up that live music. Photo by Kat.

Serenity Gardens is such a nice, laid-back vibe. I always enjoy it. Photo by Kat.

Ow
One other note. I don't think it's a big deal, but last night after I finished the show, I had a hand that was in pretty serious pain. It came without warning, this pain that was focused around the knuckles of my index finger of my left (fretting) hand, and the knuckle was kind of inflamed and red and not happy at all. Musicians are understandably paranoid about problems with their hands, and I iced it last night and it seems quite a bit better today. I'm hoping it's nothing serious or anything that will continue to affect my playing in the future. Think good thoughts for me, please.

It's mostly better today, but like most serious musicians, I get a little freaked out about my hands.

Serenity Gardens set list...
One of These Things First (Nick Drake)
*Sundown (Gordon Lightfoot)
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)
The Arrangement (Joni Mitchell)
*She Keeps Me Warm (Mary Lambert)
Everyday I Write the Book (Elvis Costello)
Rocky Mountain High (John Denver)
Norwegian Wood (Beatles)
Don't Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young)
Perfectly Calm (They Stole My Crayon)
Little Wing (Jimi Hendrix)
So. Central Rain (R.E.M.)
Pretty Pimpin (Kurt Vile)

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

Huge thanks to everyone who came out to the show, with special thanks to the following who helped support it!
AaronCabottJones Resident, Diana Renoir, Lauralynn Foxtrot, Trouble Streeter, Tyche Szondi, Kat Claxton, jhd2909 Resident, Barbara Mixemup, Celeste Ewing, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde.

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Serenity Gardens (06.03.19)

Happy birthday (almost) to me. Rocking Serenity Gardens on a Monday night. Photo by Kat.

As my audience at Serenity Gardens last night heard way more times than they ever wanted, this week, I am turning 50 years old. I've known many people who turned 50... friends, coworkers, relatives. Most of them, at the time, claimed to feel better than they assumed they would at this age, and now that I'm here, I agree. It's a phrase I've heard my whole life... "50 is the new 40", and it sounds like a load of shit, honestly. I think I'm doing pretty well at 50, at least in the important aspects of being relatively healthy and having maintained a good set of priorities, and having had what I consider to be a fortunate life thus far.

Here's a funny thing: it's always said that a person tends to be liberal in their youth and grow more conservative as they age. In my case, I was somewhere between centrist and apathetic for much of my youth and early adulthood, and have grown exponentially more progressively liberal and politically active starting in the early 2000s and ramping up in recent years. Apart from generally doing things ass backwards, perhaps that's been a driving force in retaining my youthful vibe, assuming I have one.

In any case, it's super hard to be objective about one's self and the generation surrounding you. Instead of just going on instinct -- which will also tend to favor one's ego -- I try and use a little actual evidence that a good number of people who are the same age as me in 2019, those born in 1969, seem to be a little less old than 50-year-olds of years past. I mean, come on.

Dave Grohl. Jennifer Aniston. Paul Rudd. Matthew McConaughey. Jack Black. Gwen Stefani. Jay-Z. Donnie Walburg. Cate Blanchett. Ice Cube. Gerard Butler. Christian Slater. All born the same year as me. That's not bad company to be in. Even looking at non-celebrities, like my high school classmates and so on... most of the 50-year-olds I know, both men and women, seem to look pretty good for their age. Most of them don't look like the 50-year-olds I knew growing up. They seem healthier and less aged overall. Why? Well... I could speculate that compared to previous generations, mine has prioritized healthy activities and habits. We're probably more likely to exercise and eat better, and less likely to smoke and drink and so on.

Me on the verge of my 50th birthday. I don't think I look old. I don't feel old. I'm not even worried about being old. I sometimes worry about not getting old, but that's a topic for a whole other blog post. Photo by Jess Smith in Joshua Tree, May 2019.

And, of course, there's the superficial side. It could be said that people these days are a little better at hiding their age than past generations were. Here's something you may or may not know about me: I don't give a flying fuck about looking old. Some of the coolest, hippest, most influential people I know of are way older than me. I don't dye my hair, I don't use any special skin stuff or hair product. I don't do almost anything beyond basic hygiene things. So, if I look a certain way that seems younger than my years, it's just good genes and pure luck, I suppose. I do work out daily, which may help a bit, but I do that just to feel good. Any benefit of youthful attractiveness is purely a side effect.

Old Man Sings at People
It really did turn out to be a great final live music show of my 40s at Serenity Gardens. We had a super crowd, with a whole bunch of my Zakster friends/fans in attendance. For the second show in a row at Serenity, I had the incredible Grace McDunnough playing before me, and she is absolutely one of my personal favorite SL performers of all time. Grace and I go way back, and I enjoy her every bit as much as a human being as I do a fellow musician.

Serenity Gardens makes me comfortable as a performer, which means I'm less inhibited and more likely to do a fun show. Photo by Kat.

Side view of me rocking. Photo by Kat.

The amazing Grace McDunnough! Awesome like a possum. Everyone loves her, or at least everyone should. Photo by Kat.

I had briefly considered doing an entire set of songs from 1969, but... nah. Don't get me wrong; there are a ton of great songs from that year! But really, I don't like limiting myself in that way, and besides... if it was going to be my birthday show, I wanted to play more of a variety of stuff that I personally enjoyed. So I did.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Carry Me Ohio (Sun Kil Moon)
Gardenia (Iggy Pop)
Pecan Pie (Golden Smog)
Peace Love & Understanding (Elvis Costello)
Old Man (Neil Young)
Badge (Cream)
Free Man in Paris (Joni Mitchell)
Daniel (Elton John)
Radio Free Europe (R.E.M.)
Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie)

Big thanks to every single person who came out to my unofficial birthday show, with special super thanks to the following who helped support it!
Kat Chauveau, Nina Brandenburg, dls Falconer, Diana Renoir, bblbabe Resident, Trouble Streeter, love2play2 Resident, Andydennis Enchanted, TheaDee Resident, Asimia Heron, Kat Claxton, go2smoky Resident, Tyche Szondi, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde.

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Zak Claxton Happy Fun Show on Facebook (05.27.19)

You can watch a rather low-res version of the whole show here, if you want.

The story of why I decided to do a live streaming video music show on Facebook yesterday (the show known to my friends/fans as the Zak Claxton Happy Fun Show, going back to its origins over a decade ago) starts a few months back. My typical performance schedule these days is one show every two weeks, with an occasional extra show thrown in here and there. While I knew that while I didn't want to increase the frequency of my shows in Second Life, I still felt like I just wasn't getting out there enough. So it was probably back in February when I started mentioning to Christina that I was going to do a ZCHFS video show during some weekend in between my typical shows in SL. But then various things happened. For one, I actually did ramp up my SL shows significantly for awhile. Another was a lovely case of bronchitis that became the launching point for my continuing efforts to quit smoking. And then earlier this month, I spent a weekend in Joshua Tree, where doing a live music show isn't really feasible (more on that below).

But yesterday was Memorial Day, and everything seemed to make it the perfect day to put on the guitar and fire up the camera. Everything, that is, except one: both Kat and I were physically not feeling so hot. I won't get into the details, but let's just say that it might be awhile before we order poke from a particular place again. Anyway, in the late afternoon, I finally decided that it wasn't so bad that I couldn't sing and be mildly entertaining, and also that doing a show would stop me from sitting around and moping and feeling sorry for myself.

It turned out I was right. I quickly threw together a list of songs, and, with no kind of announcement, started up my streaming software and was suddenly there on people's phones and desktops. I thought it went great and the folks who tuned in seemed to have a good time, and I felt physically better afterwards than I had beforehand. Turned out to be the right thing to do.


Why Facebook Live? Why Not Just Do More SL Shows?
It's a funny thing; I had several people mention something that some of us forget in our virtual world myopia. There are thousands of people who perhaps were regular steady visitors of virtual places like Second Life who, for a variety of reasons, stopped going in-world entirely. There are millions more who never got into SL at all, but have become part of the literal billions of people who are on social media every day. By confining your performances to being exclusively in SL, you are limiting your audience to the folks who are in SL on a regular basis. And yes, I know what you're going to say... that SL is monetized, that you can get tips and so on. That's understandable! But for many of us who enjoy the art of real life performance but don't have the bandwidth in life to go play clubs, do tours, and so on, the act of being "in person" even on video is an important part of our lives as a musician. I would also add that for those of us that create and sell original music, it's completely necessary to break out of our avatar selves and be able to promote yourself -- as an actual human -- beyond the limitations of a virtual environment.


How Do You Stream Music and Video from the Desktop to Facebook Live?
Facebook doesn't have a live option for the desktop, so you just use your phone, right? Sure... if you're into amateur hour. Phones aren't designed to deliver the kind of high-quality audio that people enjoy for listening to music. I'm not talking about on the listener's end; I mean the tiny little microphone that your phone employs has no chance of representing the full range of frequencies and dynamics needed for real music. In fact, that microphone is designed to accentuate the frequencies of the speaking voice (because, duh, it's a phone), meaning the midrange frequencies are bumped up for purposes of intelligibility. This is good for phone calls, and really crappy for music.


Anyway, what I do for my ZCHFS on Facebook is pretty simple. I set up exactly as if I'm doing a show in SL, which is simply running my guitar and microphone into an audio interface (mine is a Focusrite 6i6, not a particularly expensive interface but a good one nonetheless). For my Facebook Live shows, I have a special app for the Mac called Livedesk for Facebook Live. I would assume that there's similar software for Windows machines as well. I remember when I first got it, I had super low expectations. It seems to be one of those apps that some guy created in his parents' basement. But I will say, it just works exactly as I'd wanted it to. The full version (allowing to your stream for more than five minutes) costs twenty bucks, which is a pretty small price for what it does. You launch it and you log into Facebook just like any other external app. It automatically recognizes my USB-based audio interface and video camera. And... that's it. I press the broadcast button, and there I am, popping up on my friends' Facebook walls in full 1080p resolution. The one thing I recommend for serious live streaming: make sure your bandwidth is solid. If possible, use a hardwired connection as opposed to WiFi or cellular. Doing this remotely, like from my trips to the desert, sounds fun but without my good audio gear and excellent bandwidth, it wouldn't be all that great to experience for you folks.


ZCHFS on Facebook Live set list...
Say Goodbye (Beck)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Pancho & Lefty (Townes Van Zandt)
Cat’s in the Cradle (Harry Chapin)
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
America (Simon & Garfunkel)
Among the Leavs (Sun Kil Moon)
It's Easy Like Walking (The Sadies w/Kurt Vile)
Save Me (Aimee Mann)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Don’t Let It Pass (Junip)

Huge thanks to everyone who saw the show! I have no way of knowing exactly who was watching, but I can thank everyone who happened to make comments or sent reactions on Facebook!
Dreama Collins, E Marie Robertson, John Sams, Kaj Qinan, Bunny Knutson, Nina Rose Setner, Kirsten M. Max, Christina Lee, Tony Barker, Kate McCridhe, Bibi Burke, Rachael Emborg, Jena Ball, Heather Williams, Kristine Schomaker, Jeff Iverson, Daniel P O'Donnell, Mike Maglione, Rusty Seisenbacher, Joseph Tuff, Camme Carver, Vladimiro Renoir, Patty Flyingbear Rose, Trulte Andersen, Nymbus Broome, and everyone else who hung out. Thank you! Special thanks to Christina for helping me run the show and taking pics.

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Serenity Gardens (05.20.19)

I used my show at Serenity Gardens as a platform for expressing my views on women's rights... and for playing some fine-ass music. Win-win. Photo by Kat.

Last night's show at Serenity Gardens in Second Life went really well. Unsurprisingly, I have something else to talk about before we get to the topic of my live music show, which is the recent attack on women's rights in the USA. The reason I bring it up -- other than it being one of the most important possible topics in the world right now -- is that I based a good portion of my show on this theme. See? I may seem random, but... okay, yeah, I am.

You've likely been following the news over the past month or so in which a number of states have passed new laws or are in the process of doing so that, going against the will of the nation, make abortion all but illegal. Many of these laws are so draconian that even in cases where a woman is a victim of rape or incest, or her life is in danger as a result of her pregnancy, not only will she not be allowed to have an abortion; doctors who perform them could face life in prison. Some states have gone so far as to criminalize abortion for the women themselves, seeking murder charges against a woman who aborts an embryo so early in the pregnancy that the woman might not have had a chance to ascertain that she is pregnant. That's right; in the insane bizarro world in which we live, a woman could get the death penalty from these "pro-life" governments.

The extremist states that are passing these severe restrictions on women's rights include Alabama, Georgia, Ohio, and a handful of others. Most seem destined to head to the Supreme Court in the attempt to overturn the landmark decision Roe v. Wade that made abortion legal in the United States in 1973. While couched in the framework of caring for new life, the reality is that these laws are about subjugating and controlling women themselves. If they weren't, the men who impregnate the women in the first place would also be liable for any penalties... which, of course, they are not. In fact, nearly every one of these forced birth extremists who write and support this kind of legislation are men themselves.

Here are the forced-birth extremists of the Alabama senate. They are the people who want to control female bodies in every possible way. Notice anything similar about them?

And -- as long as we're being real here -- these laws aren't even about pregnancy; they're about sexual control. The men who push these laws through want to control who women choose to have sex with, and the circumstances of those sexual encounters. Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez backs me up on this theory...


There are many other places to get informed on this topic than my silly blog, so I'm not going to write another 50 paragraphs on it (though I easily could). Boiling down the entire debate to its essence, the goal here is to keep abortion as a safe and legal medical procedure for all, and not go backwards to the days when only the wealthy could get backroom abortions and the poor were forced to use the coat hanger. Yeah, that's not some fictional horror; that's real. I will end this little blog on a positive note: the women of the USA will not stand for this shit. It's as simple as that. They are strong, they will organize, and any politician who supports these laws to subjugate and control women will soon find themselves in the unemployment line, including the president. It's ironic, since many of those same politicians are the same who generally try and eliminate help for the jobless, so after they're out of office, they've essentially fucked themselves. I find I have no pity.

Dat Show Doe
So, with all that stuff on my mind, I made it a point to tailor my set list with some songs that spoke toward women's empowerment and freedom from oppression. I don't know if the music gods were smiling upon me, but when I looked at the lineup for the evening at Serenity Gardens, it could not have been more appropriate to have anyone but the amazing Grace McDunnough performing in the slot before me. Beyond being one of my personal favorite musicians in SL purely from a standpoint of talent, Grace is a person who is a huge fighter for equality. I've known her for over 10 years, and while our paths don't cross all the time, it seemed almost karmic that she'd be there on this particular evening.

I always, always, always have good shows at Serenity Gardens. No exceptions. Photo by Kat.

Um... has this always been on top of the Serenity Gardens stage? I know that Tilly and Ilsa are cat people, but this kind of hammers home that point. Photo by Kat.

Good people enjoying good music. Photo by Kat.

Grace and I are also simpatico from a musical standpoint, and it's a good crossover between her crowd and mine in terms of people who would likely enjoy our respective tunes and performance styles. While many of my shows at Serenity Gardens have me kicking off the evening, it was cool having some of Grace's crowd hang out for my show, and then be joined by my loyal Zaksters as they arrived. All in all, it was a really decent turnout. My only criticism -- of myself, as usual -- is that my set list seemed to have me hovering at the very top end of my vocal range, pitch-wise. I did enjoy pulling in a few songs I'd never done before in SL, including a jazzy number by Michael Franks, an artist whom I will always associate with my late father who had a propensity toward those mellow sounds of the mid/late '70s.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Loading Zones (Kurt Vile)
Crosses (José González)
Pickles (Zak Claxton)
Moonage Daydream (David Bowie)
Everything Is Scary (German Error Message)
Lucy’s (Girlpool)
Alabama (Neil Young)
*Girls Just Want to Have Fun (Cyndi Lauper)
*Blowin’ in the Wind (Bob Dylan)
One (U2)
Redemption Song (Bob Marley)
*The Lady Wants to Know (Michael Franks)
I Believe When I Fall In Love (Stevie Wonder)
Cinnamon Girl (Neil Young)

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

Thanks to all of you who came out to the show, and for listening to me express my support of women's rights. Extra special thanks to the following who helped support my show!
Nina Brandenburg, go2smoky Resident, Trouble Streeter, Kat Claxton, Alex Zelin, Triana Caldera, Tyche Szondi, TheaDee Resident, Celeste Ewing, Barbara Mixemup, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Joshua Tree (May 9-12, 2019)

How many times have I been to Joshua Tree, you ask? Exactly not enough times is the answer. I started going to the Mojave Desert on scouting and camping trips in my childhood, and then, in October 2010, I wanted to introduce Christina to the area. We went back in June 2011, taking our friend Jess with us. The following year in June 2012, we took Bunny along for the ride. We went again in March 2013 (with Jess), and again in October of that same year. In November 2015, we went with both Jess and Bunny. We had a great trip there in March 2017, and again in April 2018. Surely we've done all there is to do and seen all there is to see there by now, right? Well, that's certainly not true... but even if it were, you can't feel all there is to feel in a place like Joshua Tree, and that will be the case no matter how many times we visit. I could turn around and go again next weekend if life's circumstances allowed for it. Since it's more likely that I won't get back there again for some time, though, I thought I'd write about my recent trip that lasted from Thursday May 9 through Sunday May 12.

WEDNESDAY MAY 8
This trip actually started before it started with the arrival of our friend Jess Smith. As mentioned above, Jess has accompanied Christina and I to Joshua Tree twice before. She flew out from Minnesota on Wednesday evening, and for dinner we went across the street to Miyoda Ichiriki, our excellent neighborhood sushi spot. We pigged out on various rolls and delicious bites of fish, and then headed back home to rest up for the next day.

Eating way too much sushi with Christina and Jess on Wednesday night.

THURSDAY MAY 9
As has been my pattern in recent years, I had some work to do before we could roll out of town, and I begrudgingly did so while also getting packed and ready to go. Since we were going with four people -- Bunny would be heading down here to accompany us -- we decided that our little Jeep Patriot was going to be super cramped, so we rented a larger SUV for the trip. It was our plan to get another Jeep, a new Grand Cherokee, but Hertz gave us a Ford Explorer XLT 4x4 instead. It was actually a really impressive vehicle and did just fine for our traveling and adventuring needs during the trip. Christina and Jess picked it up that morning. After Bunny's arrival, we loaded up the rest of our stuff into the SUV and hit the road after grabbing some trip snacks and hitting McDonald's for some poor nutrition.

It was a pretty uneventful drive. At one point, Christina realized that she was running dangerously low on caffeine, so since we were in no hurry to arrive, we did something we rarely do: we pulled off the freeway and stopped at a Starbucks. I believe we were somewhere in Moreno Valley at that point. Getting quickly back on the road with our gigantic cups of steaming brew, we once again turned on the eclectic road trip playlist that I'd procured for the occasion, and before we knew it we were heading up the 62, then going through Yucca Valley and into the amazement that is Joshua Tree.

Rancho Rincon, our favorite of Carrie Yeager's lovely cabins at The Desert Lily in Joshua Tree. Photo by not me... I always forget to take these kinds of pics.

After unloading the SUV, we typically all turn around and head back into town for some grocery shopping. The set of rental cabins where we stay -- owned and managed by our wonderful friends at The Desert Lily -- all have kitchens with pretty much everything you need to cook good meals. However, Bunny and I became rather paralyzed after the long drive, so Christina and Jess kindly took care of the shopping duties while Bunny and I pulled out our guitars and went to work on some music making (after ducking a few swoops from some bats). We did a few new tunes, inspired by our desert environs. In defense of our laziness, after the gals returned, he and I put away the groceries and then made dinner... a salad and some spaghetti with garlic bread. Yum.

Bunny and I ended up recording four or five new songs that evening, so that was cool. Also cool: the weather. Literally. It's never actually been raining in the desert during any of the trips we'd done this far, and we knew going in that precipitation was expected. But standing at the back of Rancho Rincon (our pretty cabin), lightning was visible all over the local valley, and eventually the rain kicked in. It was pretty awesome. It had, of course, been a long day of traveling, and I didn't stay up super late.

FRIDAY MAY 10
The first full morning of our vacation is pretty typical. Jess is still on Central time, so she tends to awaken pretty early. I'm still on midweek work time, so I generally don't sleep in much either. Bunny, however, is a person who naturally prefers to stay up super late and sleep in accordingly. Regardless, we knew we want to take advantage of the day, so I took over kitchen duty and whipped us up some french toast and bacon. We relaxed in the lovely tranquility of the area, but before too much more time had passed, we headed into the main attraction... Joshua Tree National Park. We stopped on the way to say hi to Carrie Yeager, the proprietor of The Desert Lily whom we've patronized for nearly a decade now, and met her beautiful new doggy friend Joya.

I will say -- without complaining at all, mind you -- that over the past ten years or so, the number of people inside the Park increases each time we've visited. I'm not sure why it's becoming more and more popular. It's been there a long time, so why now? I really don't know. But I will say that our first stop, which was at Barker Dam, was more full of people than I'd even seen it before. That didn't make it any less fun as we walked the trail and back. Next stop was at Cap Rock, where we had some snacks and I scampered up a rock (as I tend to do).

After that, we decided to hit a much less popular area, but one that's becoming one of our favorites: Hall of Horrors. It's nice in that it's more of a spot for serious climbers, and the general tourist traffic is tiny compared to the popular places like Barker Dam and Hidden Valley. We barely saw another person as we explored that area, thought we did run into plenty of lizards, black-tailed jackrabbits, and desert cottontails. It was awesome, even as I berated Bunny for leading us on dubious trails on the way back.

From the rear: Jess, Christina, Bunny and I somewhere on a trail.

Jess and I under a large rock.

Bunny and I at Barker Dam. It was chilly when we started out and then the sun broke through, so I'm not just being shirtless for sexy reasons.

The rest of the gang pointing at something while I do selfie duties at Hall of Horrors.

Jess and Bunny exploring a crack.

Being silly at Hall of Horrors.

We did need to get back to the cabin to clean up a bit, because we had rather early reservations at our favorite restaurant in the area: Pappy & Harriet's. A roadhouse of sorts, it's located up in Pioneertown and is both a renowned live music venue and an absolutely fantastic steak place. All four of us ordered rib eyes, and we ate until we all had the meat sweats... and then ate more. It drizzled a bit on our way back down to the cabin, and we chilled there for the remainder of the evening, looking out through the darkness at the thunderstorms that rolled through.

Ready to eat an amazing dinner at Pappy & Harriet's.

I mean, just look at that. OM fucking G.

Jess and Bunny plan their dinner attack strategies.

SATURDAY MAY 11
When you take your first trips into Joshua Tree, chances are that you want to spend every second exploring as much of the park as possible, and over my many trips, I've cruised around every hiking spot from the Cholla Gardens to Skull Rock to Hemingway Buttress to Quail Springs to Keys View to... you get the idea. And they're all so great that I've gone back to all of them multiple times, and will do so again on future trips. But there's no rule that you have to treat each trip completely as a hiking expedition. Christina and Jess wanted to use the day to do some rest and relaxation, so Bunny and I once again used the time (and the inspiration of the desert) to make some music.

Jess made her famous egg bake for breakfast, which was completely delicious. After some more lounging about, Bunny and I grabbed our guitars and worked through another big batch of songs. In total, we ended up doing 11 songs on the trip. Are all of them great? No, hell no. But many of them might be the launching point for some new They Stole My Crayon songs, and a couple of them were legitimately really good. I know we'll be fleshing those out over the subsequent weeks and months.

Bunny and I looking far more serious than we actually were at Rancho Rincon on Saturday.

I don't know why I'm looking like a ginger fuzzball in the afternoon sun, but there I am with my Dream Team.

Bunny, Jess, Christina and me on our porch at the Rancho.

Saturday was also all of snacking, chilling, and enjoying the unseasonably cool weather. On that day and over the course of the trip, I also did a number of Facebook Live videos form Rancho Rincon, using the surprisingly strong WiFi signal that had been added to the cabin since our last visit. Dinner that evening was grilled chicken breasts, baked potatoes, and asparagus. Yum.

Later that evening, the sky had cleared up enough to make use of the telescope we'd brought, so as the day drew to a close, I enjoyed watching Bunny, Jess and Christina looking at the moons of Jupiter from the back yard while we toasted marshmallows on an open fire.

SUNDAY MAY 12
No matter how long you stay in Joshua Tree, it never seems long enough. We lazed about a bit on Sunday morning, and then had a delicious bagel-based breakfast. But we knew the vacation was coming to a close, and Jess had a flight to catch from LAX, making the timeliness of our departure a little more focused.

With the better WiFi signal from the cabin, I continued to do little Facebook Live videos at various chill times throughout the trip. Here was my flow of thoughts on Sunday morning.


We got our stuff packed into the SUV and cleaned up the Rancho. We always make sure that the places we stay look immaculate, since we're always sure that we'll want to head back there at some point as a welcome guest. Speaking of which, we went by the Lily one last time to drop off the keys and say goodbye to Carrie and Joya. I'm sure we'll be seeing them again in the not-distant future. The drive back home started pretty typically, but then we ran into a major unexpected traffic snarl on the 10. Fortunately, that cleared up quickly, and the rest of the ride home was smooth and uneventful.

Christina always jokes on our way out of Joshua Tree that we're coming back up the following weekend, but there have been times that I actually considered the idea. I've also seen her poking through real estate listings on Zillow or the like, toying with the idea of buying a place up there. To be clear, I don't think I could appreciate desert life 12 months per year as much as I do on our sporadic visits, but there is something neat about the thought of having a place up there that could be ours to stay in whenever we wanted. Something to consider for sometime down the road.

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Serenity Gardens (05.06.19)

Every other Monday night for the past couple of years, you'll find me here onstage at Serenity Gardens in Second Life. Photo by Kat.

It's always funny to me how easy it is to deceive yourself into the definition of "normal". I'll use performing music in Second Life as an example. For some musicians, it's normal to do two, three, even four shows in a single day, and to do that basically every day. That is absolutely insane to me. And yet, for those folks, hearing that I rarely want to do more than one show per week seems to be an unthinkably sparse schedule. But over the last couple of weeks, I ended up doing five shows... which for me is a lot! And, like most things in life, those standards can change over the course of time. A number of years ago, when my personal schedule allowed it and I was open to more frequent SL shows, doing a few shows per week was my norm (though I never, ever liked doing more than one in a day... ugh). But like many things in life, there's no right or wrong answer to this, other than, "Do the frequency of shows that you can enjoy and that the crowds will support."

In any case, it feels like I've been up on the virtual stages a lot lately, and I'm frankly rather glad to have a couple of weeks ahead of me with no shows on my calendar. I find it's not only good for me, but also for my audience. Trust me, I know it's quite possible to burn out on any one performer, in SL or otherwise. It's good to give my fans and friends, as well as myself, a little break... from me.

Heading To The Desert
If you know me, you know that I try to get out of the city at least once per year, and my destination is nearly always Joshua Tree National Park in the Mojave Desert. Christina has accompanied me on each of the many trips we've taken since I first introduced her to the place in 2010. The two other people who have often gone with us are our good friends Jess and Bunny. For this upcoming trip, both of them are joining us.

People ask us, "What do you guys do out there?" and without being a smart-ass, the answer is simply, "Whatever we want." Obviously. there's the park itself, over 1,200 square miles of incredible desert wilderness filled with wildlife and amazing landscapes. We're not hardcore hikers or climbers. We love going into various areas of JTNP and just cruising around the trails. Important note: it's not a camping trip. Like, it's the opposite. We stay in any one of several cabins that are better described as nicely appointed small houses. We cook full meals and also eat out at some of the cool restaurants there in the area.

Heading back to JTree this week with Jess, Christina, and Bunny. The last time all four of us went together was in November 2015.

But we also usually take a bunch of time just to chill and relax, and enjoy being away from the grind of work and responsible life. Many have described the desert as a place where you can reset your spirit. I don't know about that, but I do know that going there helps me stop fixating on the negative aspects of life, and that my challenges seem much more able to be resolved after I return. I will almost certainly be writing a post-trip report upon my return.

Dat Show Doe
Perhaps because of the fact that I've done a bunch of shows (per my scale) recently, I really wanted to pull out some songs that don't often hit the set list for Monday night's performance at Serenity Gardens. While I didn't pull out anything new, a good number of the songs were among those that haven't been done even once in the past few years. I particularly enjoyed playing "Perfectly Calm", a song that we wrote for the They Stole My Crayon album but didn't make the cut for the final song list. The song is in limbo; I don't know if it will be recorded for a subsequent TSMC album or a Zak Claxton album. It has musical elements that could take it either way. In any case, I hadn't done it live except for one time in spring 2014 right after it was written, and it was good to try out again. I think it held up nicely.

Me, rocking. Photo by Kat.

I always enjoy the energized crowd we seem to get at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Kat.

One thing I like about Kat's photos at my shows: she's taken so many of them that she seems to seek out interesting angles. I've never even seen Serenity Gardens from this vantage point. Neat. Photo by Kat.

We had a good crowd at Serenity Gardens -- better than I'd expected, given all my recent shows. As has been the case as my smoking cessation efforts have progressed, I was pretty happy with the clarity and pitch center of my voice, my guitar playing was on point, and most people seemed to have a good time. That's all I want from a show.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Never Run Away (Kurt Vile)
I’ve Been Waiting for You (Neil Young)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Catamaran (Yawning Man)
Black Peter (Grateful Dead)
Learning to Fly (Pink Floyd)
Come Around (Zak Claxton)
Man on the Moon (R.E.M.)
Perfectly Calm (They Stole My Crayon)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
What I Got (Sublime)
The Crystal Ship (The Doors)
The Weight (The Band)

Thanks to everyone who came out to Serenty Gardens for the show, and special super-duper thanks to the following who helped support it!
Rosie Arnaz, Kat Chauveau, Lyric Serendipity, RandyAllways Resident, Leyah Renegade, Aurelie Chenaux, Trouble Streeter, Turn Pike, Kat Claxton, TheaDee Resident, Wanderofitall Resident, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde.

Thursday, May 2, 2019

Lutz City of Templemore (05.01.19)

It seems that each time I perform at Lutz City of Templemore, it's on a stage I'd never seen before, and it's always amazing. Photo by Trouble Streeter.

My first show in the month of May was held on May 1, at perhaps the most beautiful and inspiring place in all of Second Life, which is at Lutz City of Templemore. Before I tell you more about that, let's talk about the date itself.

International Workers Day (aka May Day)
One thing I should mention before delving into this topic: I am not a Communist. Reading back that sentence just made me feel like I've been transported back to the 1950s and am testifying before a congressional committee. But it's true. While I am a left-leaning liberal who believes in certain aspects of socialism, at the end of the day I'm just another asshole capitalist like most other Americans. That having been said, the concept of worker's right are, to me, a very important aspect of human rights. A few simple ideas that we completely take for granted -- things like having weekends off work, or limiting the typical work day to eight hours, or not allowing young children to work -- only happened as the result of labor unions forcing these issues. It's impossible to argue that these concepts have not been to the benefit of humanity, and have spread from the USA to many countries around the world. You'd better believe that I support these rights and restrictions on how companies would otherwise treat their employees.

The Actual May Day (aka Beltane, Kevadpüha, Vappu, Calendimaggio, and Many Other Names)
Going back to antiquity, May 1 has been celebrated as a springtime holiday in many countries and cultures around the world. Oddly enough, much like the USA doesn't use May 1 as its Labor Day (which is instead the first Monday in September), we also don't have any specific celebration of May Day here either. This is a celebration of springtime itself. It's slightly different from place to place, but the event itself is generally pagan in origin. And really, what a great date to express the enjoyment of nature itself here in the northern hemisphere! The start of May often has lovely weather. It just feels like a good time of year to be alive... and speaking of life, in most places, there are all the signs of renewal and rebirth that remind people how life continues on. I can imagine that the people of ancient cultures were given hope and optimism each time they saw the new flowers blooming, the birds hatching in their nests, and the overall idea that things will be okay. I can fully get behind this kind of celebration.

Getting Back to Templemore
So, it was May 1, spring was in the air, and I had a show to do, and I was happy about it. As I mentioned not long ago, after a dearth of shows toward the start of the year due to time conflicts and other issues, it's been kind of cool to be back on what is for me a heavy schedule of live music performances. I wouldn't want to do that all the time, nor would my schedule and time demands allow it. But I've done three shows in the past five days, and it's felt really good to explore different areas of my musical material at each event.

Templemore has been around for awhile, but in several different incarnations. The current one -- and probably my favorite -- is called Lutz City of Templemore. The sim's main designer Luis Lockjaw, a guy who I definitely consider a friend, named the place after Garrett Lutz, who was a regular part of the Templemore community before his passing at a regrettably young age due to ALS. Garrett had expressed to me his respect for my covering the band Sun Kil Moon, so I make it a point to do more of those covers each time I play there in tribute to him. Also, it's really appropriate music for the vibe of the place, which is why I'd been playing that music there in the first place.

People enjoying (hopefully) my set of indie/art music at Templemore. Photo by Triana Caldera.

My view from the stage. Photo by Trouble Streeter.

Me, in pixel form, playing tunes at Templemore. Photo by Triana Caldera.

The beauty of Luis's designs at Templemore cannot be overstated. Photo by Triana Caldera.

When I play Templemore, I put together a set list that's very different from most of my shows. You'll find little in terms of comfortable and familiar material. I tend not to play songs there that most people know, which is risky as a performer. But really, it's one of those situations that I know what's right for the place, and I can only hope that some of the people who show up for my shows there can appreciate and enjoy what they're hearing, even if they've never heard it before. One exception, as shown in my set list below: if I have a song I've never done before by an interesting artist whose vibe fits the feeling of Templemore, I'll happily do that there. Hello, Bowie.

One more note about this venue... it's not "a" venue. It's a full sim that is continually added to and modified. It's very common for me to show up for a gig there and find myself at a stage I've never seen before, and each time there's something incredibly cool in its unique detail. My May 1 show was in an outdoor setting, standing on a small stage set up in an overgrown clearing with decaying bleachers forming the backdrop. Like all of Luis's builds, it blew me away from the moment I arrived.

Lutz City of Templemore set list...
Among the Leaves (Sun Kil Moon)
Loading Zones (Kurt Vile)
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
Don’t Let It Pass (Junip)
We’re Your Friends, Man (The Bevis Frond)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
So. Central Rain (R.E.M.)
*Moonage Daydream (David Bowie)
Lost Cause (Beck)
Half Moon Bay (Sun Kil Moon)
Wildflowers (Tom Petty)
Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell)
How Soon Is Now? (The Smiths)

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


Big thanks to all who came out to hear me rumble the Templemore stage, with special thanks to the following who helped support the show!
Tyche Szondi, Diana Renoir, Rusty Seisenbacher, Triana Caldera, KaraMariah Resident, Trouble Streeter, my lovely manager Maali Beck, and Templemore's team of Bee Blackrain, LaurieC Resident, and the amazing Luis Lockjaw!