Tuesday, November 24, 2015

The Islands of New England (11.23.15)

This is what musicians like to see from the stage... a lot of people enjoying themselves. Photo by Triana.

Each time I write a report about my increasingly rare live music shows in Second Life, I'm never completely sure if it's going to be my last one. Don't get me wrong; I love performing in SL, and performing in general. And my shows have been really, really good in recent times. I have no intention of leaving the SL music scene, nor have any reason to do so. But as I look at my current calendar of shows, I literally have nothing booked on my schedule. I've spoken before about the reasons for this. A person can't have everything in life, and when I decide to dedicate my musical time to wrapping up the album for my band They Stole My Crayon, or need to spend time on work and family responsibilities, or choose to only play at venues that directly compensate their artists, those are my choices. Time is limited in life, and at some point, every person makes decisions to prioritize some aspect of their lives over others.

But I'm pretty sure that I will continue playing live in SL, and I could only be so lucky if each show I do comes close to last night's performance at The Islands of New England. Even before I'd started the show, a bunch of very cool musically-related things had happened that day. I got a lot of great feedback on my new song, "The Waiting Boy", including a very positive response from Nicholas Stevenson, a UK-based musician whose work I respect in a big way, and my musical friend Lyndon Heart, who immediately wanted to learn and cover the song. I'm thrilled that a song that came together so quickly was met with a plethora of excellent reactions, and it really goes to show you that there's almost no corollary between the amount of time/effort that goes into creating a song versus how much people like or dislike it.

The Islands of New England seems to be a place where people really appreciate well-performed live music. Photo by Triana.

So, riding high on those good vibes, I got another reason to smile when, after I sent out a notice about my upcoming show that evening, it got retweeted by the official Second Life Twitter account. I can't say for sure, but the rather large crowd I pulled in for the show just might have had something to do with the notice going out to 44,000 people in that way. Even though SL was acting up a bit and people were having some trouble logging in, the venue filled up pretty quickly and I was very happy not only to be playing to a lot of people, but to a great combination of people who were friends/fans as well as folks who hadn't heard me before, and seemed to be enjoying themselves. That's a great feeling for any musician.

I never complain about the size of my crowd -- it's the quality, not the quantity that matters -- but having 44,000 people get this Tweet via the SL feed didn't suck in any way.

The show itself was about as good as any I've ever done (and better than many of them). Without consciously going in this specific direction, the vibe of my recent shows has been more serious, with slower songs and a focus on the song itself, rather than the spazzy-ass performance. I don't mind being the silly, wacky, fun performer guy, but I also like being thought of as someone capable of delivering music in a serious, thoughtful way (while still having a pretty damn good time up there on stage). I chose this show to do my new song live for the first time, and although it will get smoother as I get more used to playing it, the debut went fine and was well received. One other note: the folks who run TIONE smartly booked my friend Sassy Nitely to perform after me, and I really enjoyed her set. She's been stepping up her game as a performer, and it's a good feeling to recognize the musical skills of people you truly like.

TIONE set list...
America (Simon and Garfunkel)
Don't Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young)
Again (They Stole My Crayon)
*The Waiting Boy (Zak Claxton)
Never Run Away (Kurt Vile)
Fire & Rain (James Taylor)
Big Yellow Taxi (Joni Mitchell)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
†Walk On the Ocean (Toad the Wet Sprocket)
Everlong (Foo Fighters)
Underwater Underground (They Stole My Crayon)
It's Choade My Dear (Connan Mockasin)
Tea for the Tillerman (Cat Stevens)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.
†I've only played this song once before, it seems, in November 2011. It's a fine song, but the main reason I played it at this show was that so many people kept drawing comparisons between my new song and the vibe of this band, I felt compelled to revisit one of their most well-known tunes.

So many thanks going out to the people who took some time out of their day and came to the show at New England last night, especially the following who helped support the show!
BAT8997 Resident, Alltra Violet, Lizzy Nightfire, Triana Caldera, LolaGoetz Resident, RansomTalmidge Resident, Mafia Citron, Eli Schlegal, chizay Bluebird, Richy Nervous, Sassy Nitely, Barbara Mixemup, Celeste Ewing, my always-awesome manager Maali Beck, and TIONE's host Sesh Kamachi and fantastic events manager Christine Haiku!

Monday, November 23, 2015

New music: "The Waiting Boy"

I really love my weekends. Like the majority of people who are reading this (yeah, you), I work pretty hard from Monday through Friday, and while I'm past the point of needing to go out to clubs and parties and such to enjoy my free time, I really require those couple of days each week to shut down my responsible brain and get some relaxing chill time in my life. This particular weekend, I had nothing specific on the agenda other than to kick back with my lady.

But as they say about the best laid plans of mice and men, something happened to change that scenario. I picked up my guitar and my hands started doing things they hadn't previously done. Side note: I have no idea how to write a song. The only way I've ever been able to do it is to try and not play the guitar while I have the guitar in my hands while playing it. If I try, nothing happens. It's the cruel irony of being a creative person. Anyway, I strummed a few chords, and started humming along with something that seemed to be a melody. Then I said to Kat, "I think I'll do a little work on music," and fired up the computer software that allows me to record things. I started layering tracks of drums, acoustic and electric guitars, and bass. It slowly started becoming an actual song... minus any singing, for the moment.

By Saturday night, I had most of the music done. On Sunday morning, the in-progress tune was still very much in my head when I awoke. After a bit of back-and-forth in my own brain about what the song was about, it came to me in a flash that lasted about three seconds, which was fortunately enough for me to start writing little phrases and thoughts. By mid-afternoon, it was done, and I recorded two tracks of myself singing. Finally, I added a rather understated organ solo, and... well that was all. No tweaking, no messing around, no second-guessing myself. I did a mix of the tracks very quickly, again without giving it much thought, and then bounced the song down to an MP3 file and uploaded it to SoundCloud, which you can hear above.

So... that's all, I guess? I've had songs that I've worked on for years to vary degrees of success, and songs like "The Waiting Boy" which were fully realized in less than a day. Note that I still consider this to be a demo... I'd like to refine certain aspects of the tune. But the final version should sound pretty similar to where it's at right now, and you can expect it on the next Zak Claxton album, whenever I get around to making that. For the time being, I'm happy to be having the first new original solo tune that I've been able to share in almost six years.

Feel free to let me know what you think by commenting here or on the SoundCloud page. Enjoy.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Joshua Tree Trip (11.12.15 - 11.15.15)

Anyone who knows me even remotely well is probably aware of a few things:

1. I write and play music.
2. I cook and eat food.
3. I love the Mojave Desert.

The breathtaking view from our backyard at Rancho Rincon. Photo by Jess.

For this entry, let's focus on that third thing. My earliest trips to the desert happened as a Boy Scout. We had camping trips, hikes, and bike journeys through that magical place when I was a child, and then as a teenager in the later high school years, I'd accompany my friends to that area for various kinds of shenanigans with details that probably shouldn't be documented in any form. But from then (in the mid/late 80s) all the way up until 2010, I somehow forgot that the desert was a special place to me. No wonder I went through some rough mental/emotional times during that period.

But in fall of 2010, my ladyfriend Kat and I were looking for a vacation spot to visit together that didn't involve long plane flights or exorbitant costs. Living in Southern California, there are many place to choose from within a half-day's driving distance. Kat had been a huge fan of "desert rock", the sub-genre of music also known as "stoner rock" that came from (or was inspired by) bands and musicians living in the desert communities. I believe that was one of the main reasons that we decided to visit Joshua Tree in October of that year.

From the moment that she and I pulled off Highway 62 and started heading deeper and deeper into the land of yucca trees and coyotes, we were hooked. She fell in love with JT for the first time, while my fascination with the area was immediately rekindled. In the five years since then, we've been back again and again. We took our friend Jess for the first time in June 2011, and then took our pal and bandmate Bunny along in June 2012. You'd think that we'd had enough of the place by then, but no; we again had Jess join us in March 2013. Later that same year, in October, Kat and I went out there only to have the federal government shut down the day before our trip (which still was great, even without being able to visit the National Park). In June 2014, we again visited with Bunny, and Kat took her mom there (without me, being busy with work at the time) last spring. I guess it's pretty clear that we think of Joshua Tree as a special place that one simply can't get enough of, and we still have no intention of going elsewhere on our rare vacation times.

Back To the Present
Enough reminiscing. For this trip, we invited both Bunny and Jess to come with us, and we were completely thrilled when they both accepted. We started planning for this trip about three months ago. Due to a variety of circumstances, this was to be my first vacation of 2015. Side note: don't go a year or more without a vacation. It's not good for either your mental state or your ability to be a productive person. Anyway, needless to say, this trip was very welcomed by the time the date finally arrived.

Bunny arrived at my place at 11:00 that morning, followed shortly by Kat. After a quick run to the store for road snacks, we picked up Jess, who had just stepped off a plane from Minnesota, at LAX at 12:30. We were all hungry and grabbed lunch before hitting the road. The three-hour drive of about 150 miles was smooth and fun, with lots of goofy conversations and good tunes happening. By late afternoon, we rolled into JTree and first headed for the Desert Lily B&B, where we said hello to the lovely innkeeper Carrie Yeager, who has become a friend over the years we've stayed at her places. For this trip, we booked Rancho Rincon, one of Carrie's rental cabins where we'd previously stayed. We got the keys, rolled down the street, and unpacked. That evening, we just absorbed the desert vibe. It was beautiful... a bit chilly, but clear and lovely. One thing about Joshua Tree: you don't really need to be "doing" stuff all the time, or any time for that matter. The world of nature surrounds you, and sometimes just being quiet and looking around at the flora and fauna is as good as it gets.

We spent a good portion of our time hanging around the cabin and doing our first official jam as They Stole My Crayon. It went as well as I expected. Video capture by Jess.

The first two nights, we enjoyed the fire pit that Bunny tended, roasting weenies and s'mores and all that good stuff you can do outdoors. Photo by Jess.

I did manage to do a wee bit of yoga with Kat while we were there. It was actually an excuse for me to run around half-naked. I would have been fully naked but... it was cold, and shrinkage was a distinct possibility. Photo by Jess.

Heading into Hidden Valley with Jess, Kat, and Bunny.

These are my friends.

They Stole My Crayon in the desert, again.

The Paris Connection
One thing was new for this trip, something that was good but not entirely welcomed: we had Internet/cellular service at the cabin. A new cell tower must have been recently installed. Normally, we go entire multi-day trips without knowing anything about the outside world, and the disconnection from society is a welcome change.

This year, one of us surprisingly noted that their phone was showing full service. On Friday evening, I thought it might be cool to post a picture I'd taken that day, and popped into Facebook to do so. That's when I saw the news about the terrorist attacks in Paris. I bring this up now only to note a rather odd coincidence, and a personal connection to what had happened. One of the bands that came out of the desert scene is called Eagles of Death Metal. The last time I was in Joshua Tree before this trip, we'd gone up for a special event for EODM member Dave Catching's birthday, held at the world's best roadhouse, Pappy & Harriet's. We had two bands that we were happy to see performing that night: Fatso Jetson and Eagles of Death Metal, and the show was a total blast. We are also fans of Dave's Joshua Tree-based recording studio, Rancho de la Luna, which was recently made much more well known via an episode of "Foo Fighters Sonic Highways" HBO series.

Anyway, it soon became clear to us that the band playing at the historic Bataclan venue where the majority of the attacks took place was indeed our friends of EODM. We ascertained that none of the band was killed, but we also knew that despite this, the fun-loving band would be shattered by what had happened. They've since released a very positive statement about the event, and it's my opinion that after taking an appropriate break, continuing to rock is the very best thing that Jesse Hughes and his merry brigade could possibly do to continue to make the world a better place.

Outside the amazing Pappy & Harriet's, getting ready for yet another meal of a lifetime.

Inside Pappy's, pausing from shoveling food in our faces for a quick picture of Kat and myself.

Jess and Bunny... two people who rock hard.

How To Do Nothing
I'm not sure how most people plan vacations, but I have a nagging fear that they try and set up things to do the entire time they're supposed to be relaxing and recharging. That sounds like hell to me. My to-do list in the desert would have gone something like this:

- Eat food when hungry
- Stand outside and stare at the horizon
- Look at rabbits and chipmunks
- Go somewhere if we feel like it

And so on. In my daily life, I am very bad at doing nothing, and pretty much fill my days with responsibilities and creative tasks. There was no problem putting all that aside while in Joshua Tree. Sure, we had some things that we wanted to do... trips into the Park, a dinner at Pappy's, and so on. But a good chunk of this trip was purely putting everything aside and being relaxed and content, and I think we accomplished that with flying colors. I give us the highest marks in overall laziness and sloth. We rule.

Here's To Next Time
I don't know when our next trip to Joshua Tree will be, but I do know there certainly will be a next time, and a time after that. A wise person once said, "What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, but what happens in JTree stays with you for a lifetime." I can't agree more.

Amazing sunset photo by Jess.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

The Back Room (11.16.15)

Yup, this was definitely a good way to spend a half hour of a Monday night in November. Photo by Kat.

Let me tell you a little bit about live music venues in Second Life: most of them are just fine. They have a stage, they have places for people to sit, or to stand around, or to dance. And that, along with the ability to re-broadcast an audio stream, is really all you need. People can show up, see and hear and live music show, and the responsibility of the party running the venue is complete.

But much like real life, there are places that make a huge effort to provide an ambience that gives audience members and performers alike the feeling that shows there are meant to be a special occasion. How they go about doing that is as individual and unique as the people who create these online environments, and much of what one person prefers can be a purely subjective choice that may not apply to everyone else. For me, there are a couple of key factors that separate the really great venues from the merely acceptable ones.

1. Size, or lack thereof. While I appreciate some people's desire to create a massive hall with 200-foot-high ceilings, giant open spaces, and massive stages that would proportionately be able to host a Broadway-style performance, the fact is that the better SL venues are designed to corral the audience in a defined space that is more like reality. A smart builder can make a venue that still holds plenty of avatars comfortably, but gives everyone a feeling of intimacy between the audience and performer.

2. Design details. We've all seen it. The way that lighting is arranged. The way that elements such as seating, artwork, and other aspects are placed here and there. The fact is that some people have skills and experience that exceed others' in terms of the ability to attractively create a space for live music experiences. It should be no surprise that many of the same design details that make a real-life venue look impressive are those that are often overlooked in the virtual world.

All this is just a preamble to tell you how last night, I got to perform at the grand opening of a new venue that's the brainchild of a great friend of mine (as well as a fellow live musician): Barbie Horsley, aka Sassy Nitely. The place is called The Back Room, and it's located on the same set of sims as Key West and Key Largo. It's really no surprise, then, that The Back Room is every bit as visually impressive -- perhaps even more so -- as the other great venues in that location. But it also has that quality of intimacy that I personally really prefer in any venue. All in all, I was hugely impressed the moment I arrived. Barbie had booked a really good series of performers to open her new place: Quartz, Dominoe Effect, Camme Carver, myself, Bat Masters, and Lyndon Heart (in order of performance). She did a very smart thing: each artist had a 30-minute slot. While most of us prefer to do a full hour set on most occasions, this arrangement allowed a good number of musicians to get their shows in while retaining a big portion of the audience (who would have otherwise been expected to stay around through some six hours of music). The result was that the place stayed pretty packed through all the shows I saw.

Here's something else that doesn't happen very often, at least to me. About an hour after I wrapped up my show, Barbie sent over a link to Showtime Magazine, a blog that covers the entertainment scene in Second Life. The article writer Edith Halderman had posted a very complimentary piece about the new venue that included pics of each performer that night. She said...

The room was packed with other performers as well as those featured this evening. I sought refuge in the loft and happily sat on a comfortable chair with no one around. As I looked around, I noted that the list of people present read like a who’s who on the SL live music scene.

A correct assessment, and an unexpected happy surprise to get a little press from an SL show. My half-hour slot went very well, I should add. I was grousing a little while we were on vacation in Joshua Tree over the weekend... "I have to play a show the day after we get home!" Well, I am beyond thrilled that I was included in this event, and my 6-1/2 song set was surprisingly good, considering that I'm performing rather rarely in SL these days and had just spent the four previous days running around like a crazy person in the middle of the desert.

Great place, great vibe, great tunes. Photo by Kat.

Even my grumpy avatar seems to be enjoying himself, kinda. Photo by Kat.

Again, hell yeah to great venue design by someone who understands the details that make a good place great. Photo by Kat.

The Back Door set list...
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Pancho & Lefty (Townes Van Zandt)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Sleeper in the Valley (Laura Veirs)
Shame Chamber (Kurt Vile)
Tea for the Tillerman (Cat Stevens)

Gigantic thanks to everyone who came and saw me at the grand opening of The Back Room, especially the lady who made it all happen: Sassy Nitely! Thanks to all for the constant support over the last 9+ years of my doing live music in Second Life!