Thursday, September 24, 2015

Key West (09.23.15)

It may just be a bunch of pixels, but Key West is a visually stunning place for live music. Photo by Kat.

This is a tale of triumph and tragedy. Well, not really. Minor triumph and insignificant tragedy, I suppose. Okay, even that is silly hyperbole. I'll start again.

This is a tale of my show last night at Key West in Second Life. I have performed at Key West dozens of times. I've said many times that it's one of the best live music venues in all of SL, and I've meant it every time. In fact, it continues to prove itself in that regard time and time again. Previous to the show, I saw that as usual, Key West owner Liz Harley had set up a bill that was chock full o' talent. Nova Falta! Bi-Polar Express! Twinghost Ronas! And capping off the evening's festivities at the late 8-9PM set, the one and only me! It sounded like a great plan. Except it didn't happen that way. TG had to cancel, which happens to every artist occasionally, usually for good reasons. Of course, I didn't know this until I'd logged into SL to get ready for my show. A quick glance at the map told the tale; instead of the expected sea of green dots that showed the full house that one often finds at Key West, I saw that there were maybe three people there... my manager Maali Beck and two Key West staffers.


Okay, not really. In fact, it didn't bother me in the slightest, and I'll tell you why: never once have I performed at Key West to an empty room. That venue is excellent at bringing in people, and despite the fact that I started from basically zero, in typical Key West fashion, by the time I was strumming my first chords, we had a nice-sized audience that continued to grow as I played on. And play I did... it was one of the semi-rare nights that both my voice and my freshly-restrung guitar were sounding about as good as they get. I suppose that I can credit the new guitar strings for that side of things, but I honestly have no idea why sometimes my voice is laser-focus on pitch and sounding great, and other times I sound (to my ears, anyway) like a stressed-out goat. I'd like to know why this is the case, but I've been singing and performing live music since I was a small child, and I've never been able to narrow down between about a million factors that might be influential in this regard. To paraphrase the great Yogi Berra, who passed away yesterday, performing live music is 90% mental... and the other half is physical.

Rocking my crowd. Photo by Kat.

Having fun with people having fun. Photo by Kat.

I've literally never had a bad show at Key West. Photo by Kat.

Strumming, singing, laughing. That's a fine way to spend a Wednesday night. Photo by Kat.

One more thing about last night. Liz Harley, who owns and runs Key West, has spent a long time fighting a physical disorder. Earlier this month, she had been in the hospital for a surgical procedure, and has had Key West being run by her fantastic staff. I did not expect to see her at my show last night, but as I was getting set up to play, her smiling avatar popped up there. I know she's still very much in recovery mode and shouldn't overexert herself, but having her be at my show is probably one of the factors that inspired me to play my best. Liz has done so much for the SL music community, and is beloved by many. I thank her for all she's done, and wish her a speedy recovery (and share her opinion that antibiotics, though life-saving, really do suck).

Anyway, we ended up with a great crowd of enthusiastic music lovers, I did one of my best shows in recent memory, and it ended up being a terrific night that reminded me of all the positive aspects of live music in SL. Not bad, huh?

Key West set list...
Saved By Zero (The Fixx)
Gimme Shelter (Rolling Stones)
Bag Of Nothing (They Stole My Crayon)
Shame Chamber (Kurt Vile)
Underwater Underground (They Stole My Crayon)
*Nothing Compares 2 U (Prince)
On The Way Home (Buffalo Springfield)
Sleeper in the Valley (Laura Veirs)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
Don't Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Improvised Outro Tune (Zak Claxton)

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

Big, big thanks to everyone who took time out of their evening to come see me at Key West. You are always appreciated!
Helllor Highwater, Carol Greenwood, canisincognitus Resident, Alexis Fairlady, Chiral Euler, Isis Rexie, Landarbeiter Resident, Kat Claxton, Votslav Hax, Sesh Kamachi, RansomTalmidge Resident, Christine Haiku, CB Axel, TheaDee Resident, GregKat24 Resident, my wonderful manager Maali Beck, Key West hosts Tommi Bayn and Syd Baddingham, and most of all, the queen of Key West, Liz Harley.

Monday, September 21, 2015

Stand Up To Cancer/LC Live (09.19.15)

Enjoying a Saturday with good friends and good tunes, and kicking cancer's ass at the same time. Photo by Kat.

Maybe a month or so ago, my manager Maali Beck messaged all four of us in her stable of live musicians -- myself, Lyndon Heart, Taunter Goodnight, and Sassy Nitely -- to see if we'd be interested in performing at a fundraising benefit for cancer. None of us are unfamiliar with doing charitable shows in Second Life; we've each done dozens and dozens of them, for a wide variety of causes. But I wasn't entirely aware of the particular association for which this benefit was focused. It was called Stand Up To Cancer, so I did a little reading up. Their mission statement:

Stand Up To Cancer’s (SU2C) mission is to raise funds to accelerate the pace of groundbreaking translational research that can get new therapies to patients quickly and save lives now.

SU2C brings together the best and the brightest researchers and mandates collaboration among the cancer community. By galvanizing the entertainment industry, SU2C has set out to generate awareness, educate the public on cancer prevention and help more people diagnosed with cancer become long-term survivors.

So, it wasn't surprising that all four of us wanted to show our support. What was sort of crazy was that we were not only all available on that particular day -- if you think this is easy, go ahead and try and wrangle four musicians with different schedules and responsibilities -- but also could be on the schedule for back-to-back shows. The event itself was spread out over many days, across many SL sims and venues, but on Saturday September 19 at LC Live, Lyndon took the 2PM slot, Taunter was at 3PM, I played at 4PM, and Sassy did the 5PM show.

Left to right: Lyndon Heart, Taunter Goodnight, Maali Beck, and Sassy Nitely. Photos by Kat.

For a typical SL show, I arrive at the venue maybe 20 minutes before I am scheduled to go on, but that wasn't the case this time. Instead, I arrived a bit earlier -- like almost two hours early -- so I could check out what my friends were playing. I have to say that it's a matter of no small pride that I'm on this team with people like Lyndon, Taunter, and Sassy. Nothing against any of the other fine live performers of SL, of which there are plenty, but I think it's fair to say that all four of us bring a level of performance skill that sets us apart from many of the other folks who do SL shows. If I had to pick the one shared quality that allows the four of us to be somewhat special, it's that we all are able to establish a connection with our respective audiences. This isn't an easy task in the virtual world, and it's really an honor to be part of this little gang that we affectionately call "Maali's Kids".

I can't complain about the crowd. I never do, but I certainly wouldn't for this. Photo by Kat.

My view from the stage. Photo by Kat.

Me, defeating cancer one strum at a time. Photo by Kat.

In any case, my show went fine. Smooth as could be with the stream and the venue, and my songs choices seemed to work. I used to be super crazy careful about the songs I'd pick for a cancer benefit, never including songs that referred to death or sadness or anything negative. Over the years, I've lessened my self-imposed rules in that regard for two reasons. First off, I've had a number of my close friends get various kinds of cancer, and I've found that they certainly relate to both the light and dark emotions that music can impart. Second, it was impacting the variety of songs I could play, and the last thing I want to be is repetitive or boring in my shows. LC Live and their staff did a good job of keeping the show rolling with dozens of various kinds of SL artists, so hats off to them as well. We had a good crowd throughout the event, and raised a whole lot of funds. From what I heard during my portion of the show, the whole series of events was on track to raise a total somewhere in the range of L$1.5M, which is around $6,000 USD. That's a significant chunk of change, and it makes me proud that the SL music community of fans, venues, and artists can put other issues aside and work together successfully for these vital causes.

Stand Up To Cancer/LC Live set list...
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Summer Breeze (Seals & Crofts)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Comes a Time (Neil Young)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Pancho and Lefty (Townes Van Zandt)
On A Plain (Nirvana)
It's Choade My Dear (Connan Mockasin)
Never Run Away (Kurt Vile)
Wish You Were Here (Pink Floyd)
Ziggy Stardust (David Bowie)
Tea for the Tillerman (Cat Stevens)

Huge thanks to everyone who came out to the shows for Stand Up To Cancer. Each of you made a huge difference in someone's life. Since they may not be able to thank you personally, I do so on their behalf.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Islands of New England (09.16.15)

I'm baaaaaaack. Photo by Triana Caldera.

A number of interesting things happen when you take a full month (or more) off performing live music in SL.

First, you kind of forget how to do it. Not how to perform music, of course; if that's part of who you are, you can do it without even trying. No, I mean the actual act of getting ready and doing the show properly. Where do these cables go? Are my microphone levels the way I usually set them? How do I launch my stream? Did I send out invites to the right people? That kind of thing. It's amazing how quickly those details start to fade, even from a relatively short hiatus.

The second thing, in my previous experiences, is that SL audiences have short memories. As far as the SL music scene is concerned, absence makes the heart grow... absent. That's why I truly was not expecting a large crowd to show up last night at The Islands of New England, one of my favorite SL venues that I've played many times over the years. I was fine with that; it's up to me to be committed to performing on a regular basis, and any reader of this blog knows that my limited time for musical endeavors has been 100% focused toward wrapping up the album of my band They Stole My Crayon. So, my expectations weren't really high in terms of the crowd size, though I did plan on enjoying myself (because otherwise, what's the point?).

The first batch of people starts flowing in. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Enjoying watching the people watching me. Photo by Triana Caldera.

When I played my first song, my prediction seemed to be accurate. I'm not kidding; there were three people there when I strummed my first chord. One was my lovely manager Maali Beck, and another was the equally lovely event manager of TIONE, Christine Haiku. But then, as has happened so many times before in the nearly nine years that I've rocked Second Life, people started showing up. First another three. Then a batch of five. By my third or fourth tune, it was a packed house, and I felt the same level of surprise and gratitude as I've always felt whenever people take time out of whatever else they could have been doing to hear me perform live music.

That's what it's all about. No, not the size of a crowd, but the fact that anyone at all finds enjoyment and fulfillment of some kind from experiencing live music in the SL environment. And honestly, whether it's 10 people or 100 people who made the decision to come out to my show, I'm always appreciative, and I always put in the same effort to my performance regardless.

They seem to be having fun. I know I was. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Just me. Photo by Triana Caldera.

TIONE Set List...
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Pretty Pimpin (Kurt Vile)
America (Simon and Garfunkel)
Bag of Nothing (They Stole My Crayon)
California (Joni Mitchell)
*Underwater Underground (They Stole My Crayon)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Space Oddity (David Bowie)
After the Gold Rush (Neil Young)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)
Low Key (Tweedy)
Improv Outro Tune (Zak Claxton)

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

Huge thanks to all who came out to The Islands of New England and made my show all the more fun via your presence. Special thanks to those who helped support the show!
Parker Static, Diana Renoir, Alexis Fairlady, TheaDee Resident, RansomTalmidge Resident, Sesh Kamachi, Triana Caldera, Richy Nervous, my manager Maali Beck, and TIONE's most awesome person Christine Haiku!

Monday, September 14, 2015

Random Crayon Notes

This is what most of our band meetings look like. Bunny, holed up in his den in the Valley, with Christina and I here at the beach. We hold these meetings (or, as we call them, "scribbles") as often as needed to keep the ball rolling on our album's development. Some musical concepts are just much easier to communicate verbally than in writing back and forth to each other (as we do daily anyway).

Oh, hi there! I have a blog, don't I? I should probably use it and stuff.

I guess you could say I have good reasons to being an absent blogger. As most of you know, I usually write little reports of my live music shows in Second Life and elsewhere, and 100% of my musical focus lately has been on my band, They Stole My Crayon, which I'll tell you about in a moment. The lack of regular updates is also due to a weather phenomenon that I call "August Sucks and September Sucks Too". I don't know if global climate change is directly involved, but I will say that it's been a crappy, high temperature, unusually humid number of weeks here. Fortunately (and not wanting to jinx it by mentioning this), this Monday morning is overcast, and there's even a small chance of rain, with highs only in the mid-70s. If that is true, it will be heavenly today in comparison to recent days, and so it's high time to tell you what's been going on.

Meet Spencer Crewe, the Crayon Sharpener
I've mentioned Spencer a good number of times previously. But Spencer has always seemed more of a concept than a genuine person, at least in terms of his interaction with The Crayon. He's been a friend of ours for a long time; like Bunny and Christina, I originally met Spencer back in the early 2000s via online forums focused on our common interests in music and audio engineering. I've known him for close to 15 years, and have always enjoyed his personality and obvious wide-ranging knowledge about capturing sound in creative ways.

As we progressed through writing songs and recording demos, it became clear that for a plethora of reasons, it would serve our music better to have it mixed by an outside source. Spencer had mixed Bunny's last solo album, which sounded excellent. Spencer's other recording projects -- he's done many of them in and around his home town of St. John's, NL (that's in Canada, folks) -- all showed that his skills as an engineer were more than sufficient to work on our music.

Spencer has great taste in music and audio gear. Trust me, if your mixing engineer isn't insane, you may have picked the wrong one.

In April of 2014, we first approached Spencer to see if there was any possibility he'd be interested in working on our music, and he emphatically accepted. But since then, there's been very little action for him in regard to The Crayon. It really wasn't until the start of this year that we put the Crayon Car into high gear. As you know from recent posts, we did a couple of sessions at Phil O'Keefe's Sound Sanctuary Studio in Hesperia that essentially wrapped up the last of the recordings for the album... or did it? More on that shortly. In any case, we finally had tracks that we could ship off to Spencer and let him do his thing. Well, a couple of days later, we got back our first mix from Spencer. It was for our song "Underwater Underground". Spencer just wanted to see if he was on the right track in terms of our expectations. Let me say, on behalf of the entire band, that he fucking nailed it. His very first mix showed us that he was going to add something to the band that we could never have done on our own.

Spencer has now received a second batch of tracks, this time for our acoustic/vocal-oriented song "Got Guilt". I'm sure that it's going to be insanely great when we get it back. Working with Spencer has already made a huge impact on The Crayon, and we're now even more excited and committed to getting the album wrapped up and ready for prime time.

Good Stuff Gets Better
One thing that happens when you're getting ready to hand off your tracks to a mixing engineer: you get super focused on making sure that everything is 100% perfect, or at least as good as it's ever going to be. Sure, you can keep making additions and changes to a song after a mix is done... but it starts becoming a waste of several people's time and money. You're much better off thinking through every detail before handing off tracks for mixing in the first place.

Up early and ready to record. When I have a specific musical thing in mind that I want to capture, it's often difficult to focus on anything else until it's done.

We knew our song "River Shallows" had a couple of things that needed to improve before we started getting ready to give it to Spencer. For example, the original bass part was recorded hurriedly, before we'd fully absorbed the song itself, and had some sonic glitches that we didn't love. Also, the rhythm guitar part wasn't doing it for us. On Saturday morning, I opened up the song file on my Logic Pro X system. My intention was to re-do the guitar and bass, but then something else kept popping into my brain. It was the song's intro, and it really was rather pedestrian and boring. We'd done a couple of passes at it, but the phrase "polishing a turd" kept coming to mind. So before I even started on the new guitar part, I threw away the old intro and started fresh. We all agree that the new version is infinitely more in line with the sound we intend to project as a band, and that was inspirational to then go in and revise the guitar and bass parts to our liking. By Sunday afternoon, I had all these revisions complete, and it will almost certainly be the next song we ship off to Spencer for his mixing talents.

Christina and I take a break from recording (and to get out of my sweaty room on this muggy late summer day).

Much like "River Shallows", I find it likely that every song we'll be sending to Spencer still requires some small tweaks here and there. We have a list of our tunes and what remains to be done on them before mixing. It would seem that the most likely candidates that will next go through the "fine tooth comb" treatment will be "Again", "Bag of Nothing", and "Disarmed". I have no words to tell you how much I'm looking forward to this. No one but my fellow recording musicians will know the thrill of hearing your own music after it's been honed and polished by someone with the skill of a guy like Spencer. It's going to be an exciting couple of months while we wrap these things up and Spencer does his thing. After that... well, we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.