Monday, September 26, 2016

Stand Up To Cancer at BS's Bring-a-Friend (09.25.16)

Doing my thing -- with a happy crowd and a sad guitar. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Sometime in August, my friend Still Braveheart hit me up on Facebook to ask if I could do a show for the Stand Up To Cancer charity. I told her I'd be happy to, but that my schedule was really nuts. At the time, we were preparing our They Stole My Crayon album for release, and I had a bunch of other stuff going on.

"Also," I wrote back to Still, "I'm heading for the Twin Cities Jam in mid-September, so I can't book anything directly around that time frame."

"The jam is why we are doing it the full month," she replied. "I will be up there too."

So, that was great news. I got to meet Still in person for the first time while in Minnesota -- many hugs were involved -- and we scheduled a date a full week after the Jam ended for me to do a show for the great charity that she champions. I also somehow managed to avoid getting seriously sick, like seemingly 90% of the others at that Jam experienced directly afterwards. So, everything was perfectly ready for me to do a successful fundraising show, right?

Uh, not quite.

See, I'd had a little problem upon my flight home from Minneapolis. Normally when you "gate check" an instrument, it is handed back to you immediately as you step out of the plane. The reason is easy to understand: a gate-checked instrument is not supposed to be stowed in the area with the rest of the luggage. It's usually put where the airplane transports pets, in a pressurized, temperature-controlled areas. Much like puppies and kittens, acoustic guitars don't like the extreme environments of flying 35,000 feet in the air. They also don't like being tossed around and banged against other luggage. So when I stepped off flight 604 at LAX, I was already perturbed that I had to wait for over 20 minutes for the crew to find my guitar. Then, as I walked along, it became obvious that the instrument case was freezing cold, and that there were ding marks on the outside of the brand new case. It had obviously been thrown in with other luggage, and I will never again be able to recommend American Airlines to my fellow musicians who travel with gear.

What does this have to do with my show? Well, this part is my bad: I did not plug in and test the guitar after that flight. I did inspect it thoroughly (it looked fine). I did play it acoustically (it sounded fine). But I didn't plug it in like I would for a show, and we were only four or five songs into that show before I regretted that decision. The guitar started cutting out, or giving a garbled version of its usually beautiful sound. The long story short: while the guitar was banged around in its case during the flight back to LA, the connection to the pickup was loosened. It only took about two minutes to fix it after the show and its perfectly fine now, but for one of the only times in almost ten years of doing live shows in SL, my guitar failed me when I needed it.

I almost had to finish the show a cappella. My guitar kind of participated enough to continue to the end. Photo by Triana Caldera.

That having been said, other than the intermittent and crappy-sounding guitar, the show went fine. We got some cool people to come out and make generous donations, which was the only purpose of the event in any case. I was somewhat forced to change my music-based show into a comedy routine of my screaming at my guitar each time it started cutting out on me, but these things happen. As I told the crowd, the only thing I refuse to do is give up, and I made it through the hour with my crippled instrument limping along with me, and it all turned out okay.

One last note... a really important one. Stand Up To Cancer's 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." It's a charity where 100% of the funds received goes toward its stated goal, and I'm happy and proud to be able to offer whatever small level of support I can.

BS's/Stand Up To Cancer set list...
Free Man in Paris (Joni Mitchell)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Fire and Rain (James Taylor)
Rikki Don’t Lose That Number (Steely Dan)
Underwater Underground (They Stole My Crayon)
Carry Me Ohio (Sun Kil Moon)
Everyday I Write the Book (Elvis Costello)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
How Soon is Now (The Smiths)
Shame Chamber (Kurt Vile)
Things Under Trees (They Stole My Crayon)

Huge thanks to all who came out and gave generously

They Stole My Crayon on the Radio (09.23.16)

Listen to an excerpt of the broadcast. Courtesy of 89.9 WJCT.

One of the main reasons that I like my band They Stole My Crayon has nothing to do with the music itself. It has a lot to do with the interaction between myself and my bandmates Bunny Knutson and Christina Lee. The only reason the band happened in the first place, back in 2012, is that we were hanging out together having a silly and fun time, as we tend to do as old friends. That level of frivolity has maintained itself throughout the years we've been friends and bandmates, and we tend to do things in somewhat unique ways.

An example happened last Friday night, when we'd heard we were going to get our first radio airplay of our music. The three of us are big NPR listeners, so it was a complete thrill to find out that an NPR affiliate, Jacksonville-FL's 89.9 WJCT, was going to give us a spin on DJ John Maycumber's acoustic alternative show String Theory. We knew that "Got Guilt", the opening track on our debut album, certainly met the requirements of being both acoustic-based and alternative, and felt pretty good about the idea that John could fit the tune into his program set pretty well. At first, we didn't hear back from him, and then when we initially did, we ended up getting bumped (which, by the way, happens a lot, whether it's an appearance on a talk show or any other promotional opportunity where there are a lot of entertainers competing for attention). But the following Friday night, which is when String Theory airs, we got a pretty solid confirmation that we'd be on.

The Crayon has an interesting way of communicating. We all live in Southern California -- Christina and I in the same home -- but Bunny is all the way up in the Valley. So, we get together in person less than many might assume. And, of course, we all have jobs and stuff that keeps us from hanging out and doing band stuff in person as much as we'd like. What we do instead is have these real-time conversations within a private Facebook group that we've used for years in putting together the album and so on (the only non-bandmate in that group being the "fourth Crayon", our mix engineer and friend Spencer Crewe). It just so happened that Friday night, Christina was cruising around the desert with her family, who'd come down from Seattle on a pre-scheduled trip. I was here in Redondo Beach, and Bunny was up in Tarzana. However, despite the distance, we weren't going to be "apart" during such an auspicious moment in our band's history.

So, there we were on our Facebook group, chatting away at 8PM on Friday night, and all of us listening to WJCT over the Internet stream of their broadcast. We had no idea when we'd be played, and we were all having a lot of fun while the show ran through its eclectic playlist. Then, about five songs into the hour-long show, I started getting text messages from friends and fans who were watching the show's online listing update. "OMG YOU'RE NEXT!" was the one that caught my attention.

Our little band being played on an NPR station. Image courtesy of Kirsten Max.

And sure enough, as a song trailed away, we heard the familiar (to us) sounds of Bunny's acoustic guitar playing the opening sequence of notes for "Got Guilt", followed by Christina's, mine, and finally Bunny's voices. Being a hyper-critical listener, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the audio quality of the stream held up pretty well for our music. When the song ended and we all congratulated each other, we continued to listen to the show, and after another song went by, John Maycumber (bless him and all DJs who still do this) back-announced the set so far. It was even better than we expected.

"... also, They Stole My Crayon before that. We'll dedicate that one to everyone in my first grade class, heh heh heh. "Got Guilt", name of that one."

Awesome! We couldn't have been happier. While Bunny and I have both had our music played on various radio stations, it was Christina's first experience hearing herself on the radio. It's still a very big deal for a musician to hear his or her original works broadcast to a large audience. There's no guarantee it will happen again, though we're certainly going to be making more efforts in that regard.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Second Life Twin Cities Jam (09.15.16 - 09.18.16)

Note: for this blog post, I'm brazenly stealing images that have popped up all over the Interwebz. Please consider people like Gwampa Lomu, Kat Claxton, Gina Catenazzo, and many others credited for these fine pics! Above: the entire group of musician and superfan Twin City Jammers.

5:40am shouldn't be this harsh when I usually awaken just 20 minutes later at 6:00. But I got past my morning fatigue pretty quickly; it was the day that we were departing for the Second Life Twin Cities Jam for which we'd registered months ago, and I was excited. We were scheduled for a shuttle pickup to LAX at 6:55, followed by a four-hour flight to Minneapolis/St. Paul.

The first fun thing that happened was at the airport itself. I was having a last cigarette before entering the security line, and Kat and I were going to take a selfie (something we tend to do at airports for reasons that are inexplicable even to us). While we were doing so, I noticed a person creeping into the picture frame in a photobombing attempt. I snapped the pic and then turned around to find Lauren Payton (aka Maddison Thespian in SL; you'll find that I sometimes use SL and RL names interchangeably, depending on what I tend to call the person in question). She was on our flight, it turned out, so we hung out and chatted. It was like the Jam was already starting from 2,000 miles away.

LAX selfie with Kat; level-10 photobomb by Maddie.

Flying high with Kat, somewhere over America.

The flight was smooth, and after we landed, Jess Smith (aka Triana Caldera), one of the Jam organizers and (more importantly) one of our best friends, was there at MSP to pick us up. We tried to tell her we could just grab a shuttle and she wouldn't hear of such a thing. After arriving at the Best Western in Eagan, MN, we got checked in.

One general note about any SL Jam: you don't want to miss a thing. It's pretty rare for people to be hanging out away from the group. Even people from SL who may tend to be more introverted than the average human seem to be right there in the midst of the action. Not many folks are staying alone up in their rooms, or being apart from others (and even when they are, it's when folks sequester in little groups with their close friends, and even then, it's usually not for long). Besides, the only way to get in on the musical action is to be there amongst your musical peers... but I'm getting ahead of myself.

The main room wouldn't be available until the following day, so Kat and I joined the other early birds in a small conference room, where there was food and snacks, and we started the process of saying hello to old friends whom we only see at these sporadic events, as well as meeting some of the people with whom we hadn't yet had the pleasure. A few were "Jam Virgins" who were making their first appearances as musicians or fans at an SL Jam; others were simply people who hadn't been to the Jams that Kat and I had previously attended in San Diego (2011), Nashville (2014), and Orange County (2015), but many had attended others we hadn't gone to, places like Dallas, Chicago, Montreal, London, Florida, and elsewhere. As usual, it was great to see the human faces behind the avatars. Second Life may offer an idealized version of the human experience, but I've always been a guy who is more interested in exploring the heights and depths of reality.

Getting silly (already!) with Kat and Jess on Thursday night.

That evening, Ed Lowell had arrived with his truckload full of live sound gear. While he and some others unloaded mixers and PA speakers and monitors, I decided to entertain the entertainers by doing a batch of '70s/'80s TV themes that the lovely Deb Haas (aka Taunter Goodnight) was calling out. We were still very much running on Pacific Time, so even though it was getting pretty late, when Jess had to make a run by the house she had purchased only a few months before, we wanted to accompany her to check it out. It's not like we head that way very often, and wanted to see it while we could. It was astonishingly large and pretty. A side note: Minnesota is, especially during this time of year when the heat and humidity of summer has passed and the onslaught of frozen temps of winter have yet to begin, amazingly beautiful. I certainly couldn't live there year around; my body is too accustomed to the mild climate of Southern California to even consider it. But they picked a perfect time to host the Jam there. I loved it.

TV theme time with Taunter.

After a long day of travel and fun, we slept soundly that night. While some folks seem to enjoy staying awake for days on end throughout these events, Kat and I aren't among them. There's a name for the condition when you lose interest in partying all night; it's called "getting old", and we enjoyed a night of good sleep instead. The real fun was about to begin.

As is the case at most Jams, the hotel where we were gathered offers a complementary breakfast. The main rule of all musicians in the universe is to eat free food whenever it's offered and available, but we nearly missed out. Still being on West Coast time, we slept until 8:45, and Kat kindly got out of bed and wandered down the hall to pick us up food and coffee before the breakfast area was shut down. After feeding and showering ourselves, we headed down to the Jam area. One note on the showers, which will be my only complaint of this entire blog: they sucked! You'd get the water temperature set between freezing and burning, and then it would randomly jump to one or the other while the shower progressed. I learned to be ready to jump out of the water stream when either occurred.

But that's a pretty minor thing to bitch about. I got dressed and grabbed my guitar. My advice to musicians at a Jam: always have your instrument readily accessible. You might have a total of ten seconds notice before being called in to participate in a song performance, and if you're planning on running up to your room and back to grab your guitar (or iPad or whatever you need to do your thing), the song will be done before you're ready to go.

There were three rooms being put into use for the Jam: the aforementioned conference room, another small room which would be used for accessible gear storage, and the main Jam Room itself. But if you know anything about performing musicians, you know that having an "official" area to play means nothing at all. We don't need no steenking room, mang! So that morning while preparations were being made by others, a group of people gathered under a staircase (how typical, huh?) and pulled out guitars and started playing. Old friends like Lyndon Heart, Gina Stella, and Kaklick Martin were there, and I also met a guy named Collin Martin. He seemed super nice and was obviously a talented player and singer, so we and some others pulled chairs into a circle and started screwing around on random songs, rarely finishing them but having lots of fun in the process. It was a cool warm-up moment, and full of laughter.

Friday morning musical trolls lurking under the stairs.

The main Jam Room would be available at noon. Meanwhile, despite having had breakfast, we were hungry once again, so Kat, Jess, Lyndon and I went out to Jake's City Grille and lunched. I have to mention that Lyndon, in addition to being one of the most talented musicians with whom I've ever had the pleasure of performing, is simply one of the greatest people to hang out with. I enjoy every time our paths cross.

By the time we got back, the Jam Room was pretty well set up. Various guys were in the process of testing each mic and cable, so what better kind of sound check is there than just doing a tune? I've never been shy about kicking off any musical event; someone's gotta go first, and if no one else does, I'm happy to break the silence. I had nothing prepared, so I just plugged in and started strumming. Grif Bamaisin joined me for an impromptu "Welcome To the Jam" song while musicians and various SL friends filtered into the room.

"Welcome to the Twin Cities Jam. Expect some feedback."

The format of this Jam -- which I couldn't have more strongly supported -- did not involve people doing long, individual sets on their own. Instead, the entire Jam was a "3-Song Signup" format. Musicians would just request a slot on the schedule, which was then put up in the back of the room via projector. Then, depending on what kind of tunes they were doing, they'd either recruit specific people to play along (and possibly do a bit of rehearsing in the hallways beforehand), or simply be joined randomly by others who would just pop up onstage. This is the true essence of a Jam. It's exciting and fun for both the performers and the audience this way, and keeps everyone involved at all stages. There was a constant cycle of different people onstage at all times, and I loved it.

That afternoon and evening, I hopped onstage with a bunch of friends, new and old. Lyndon and Taunter joined me, Grif, Max Kleene, and MrMulti Writer for a few tunes. Then I hopped onstage with Strum Diesel, who is as energetic a performer as I've ever known in SL. I've been an admirer of his for years, so rocking a few tunes with him (along with was Max, Ben Cleanslate and others) was a huge pleasure. I also sat in on lead guitar for some tunes with Kaklick... playing along to his originals is always a blast.

Getting rolling with Grif, Lyndon, and Taunter.

I'm never "Stuck in the Middle" of these people. Wait, I actually am.

Rocking with Strum.

Jamming, SL Jam-style.

A short while later, I wandered into the hallway, and walking past the prep room, heard Lyndon, Max, and Kaklick working out some heavy vocal harmonies. I had to get in on that shit, and a short while later the four of us were onstage doing a killer set of "Listen to the Music", "Harvest Moon", and "The Weight", backed by Ben on bass, DennyMac on lead guitar, Hojo on fiddle, Collin Martin on the cajon, and Cellandra Zon on bongos. Not that I make these kinds of comparison, but musically, it was one of the tightest groups with whom I've ever performed at an SL Jam. It was good enough to actually take out and play live in real life. I've heard much worse from actual bands.

I know what a good band sounds like. It sounds like this. If you could listen to the photo above, you'd agree.

Great music usually means great fun, for both the band and the audience.

Speaking of "actual bands", we did have two of them there at the Jam, each of an entirely different nature. This was the second time that I've been to an SL Jam that included The Follow (Amy, Troy, and Mat), and they are obviously a tight, talented unit. A very familiar SL-based streaming band, Quadratix, comprised of Max, Ben, and DennyMac, also did their thing live. Fun to see in both cases.

I didn't sign up for my own three-song set that night; I'd been on stage enough for the time being, and wanted everyone to get their turn. Dinner that evening consisted of the wonderful ribs created by Suzen Juel (Juel Resistance) along with some yummy pasta dishes and salad and such. I was quite happy -- and full, and tired -- as I fell asleep that night.

It was, once again, the call of free breakfast (and coffee, of course) that pulled us out of bed before 9am on Saturday. The day began like most Jam days, with people hitting the stage starting at 10am and going continuously from there. After backing Suzen during her set, I got my name on the list and did a few tunes that I've played often in SL, including "Heart of Gold" and "Airport Bar". Then I nabbed Lyndon to joined me onstage for one of my own tunes, "The Waiting Boy". He's covered it before, and I mentioned it was a huge honor to have another musician appreciate your work enough to do it themselves.

Doing my solo stuff Saturday morning.

I seem to making a point about something. I should probably shut up and play my guitar.

It is never not fun playing with Lyndon Heart. Never.

There were a ton of great performances that day... way too many to mention. One set that I had high expectations for didn't disappoint; seeing Voodoo Shelton and Mulder Watts do their stuff live was probably a highlight for everyone who appreciated their excellent musicianship. As I sauntered back into the room at one point, I saw they'd posted the schedule of "Random Pairings". This is fun part of many jams where they literally put the names of all performers into a box, and then pick them out two at a time. Whoever comes up together has to then pick a song and perform together. I've had some great fun doing this in the past, and am always happy to play with whomever I am paired. This time, I'd be lying if I didn't say I was more than little happy to see myself paired with Max. He's not only a super-talented SL musician, but also a great guy whom I've known nearly the entire time I've been in SL (which will be ten years in October). We match well musically, and the only challenge was choosing a song to do. Knowing that Jess is a massive Foo Fighters fan, when we hit on "Learn to Fly", I knew it would be a cool one, and it was. We traded off on lead vocals. I enjoyed the hell out of it.

Being randomly paired with Max did not suck at all.

Rocking with Max, doing some Foos.

This is what an SL Jam is all about. It's about other things too, but people don't like me taking pics of that stuff.

Speaking of Jess, I was proud of her when she gathered the courage to join in and do a song. Paired with Gandalf Mornington, they did a nice version of "Amie". After that, there were more 3-song sets, and I'd promised Kaklick that I'd back him up on his originals, which I did, on bass, along with Krell Karu on guitar and Max on Cajon. It's really difficult to remember each and everything that happened... it was a constant stream of combinations of players that came and went. I can tell you that over the past five years I've been going to SL Jams, the level of musicianship and strength of performances has gone upward for damn near everyone. It was truly impressive. I'm hesitant to name more specific people (because I don't want to leave anyone out... there were tons of outstanding performances all around). Over the three days, I was super impressed by both people I didn't know well, like Collin, Dominoe Effect, Cryptic Harmony, Hojo Warf, Damon Welles, and more... and by the folks I've heard for many years in SL, like Lyndon, Max, Strum, Suzen, DennyMac, and many others. Even those who I got to know from just hanging out, like ProfessorShowbiz, ToySoldier Thor, Tyche Szondi, Olivia DeCuir, and Luka Mikoyan, made my trip worthwhile along with old SL/Jam friends like Heavenlei Lexenstar, Meegan Danitz, Gwampa Lomu, Ray Weyland, Gaia74, Still Braveheart, and my good buddy GMetal Svatur.

Gandalf with Jess, who did a great job stepping in with some vocals.

Playing bass for Kaklick, along with Max on percussion and Krell on lead guitar.

I think we set new selfie records that night. Here I am with Heavenlei while others selfie behind our selfie.

All good things, as they say, must end. It's the unfortunate reality that these events always feel too short. But I feel that the Twin Cities Jam was one where the time was well spent, and we made the most of it.

One big memory I'll take from Sunday is the time that Kat decided to join me for a complete 3-song set onstage. While she's a member of my band They Stole My Crayon, her experience performing live in front of an audience is lacking, and the Jam was a perfect opportunity for her to get her "stage legs", with an accepting and friendly crowd. We got up around lunchtime and with Max once again on cajon, did "Help Me", "Blew the Dust Away" (a Crayon tune), and "Wish You Were Here", where we were joined by a slew of our pals like Lyndon, Ben, and Strum. It was a great way for us to wrap up our TC Jam experience.

Performing live with Kat, along with Max and others. Awesome!

A bow after a "white man dance-off" with Collin Martin (which we both lost, somehow).

After some pizza lunch, it was time to make the rounds and say goodbye. I won't forget seeing poor Lei at that time, tears flowing copiously as she bid her friends farewell. That's what happens when you build these amazing relationships with people around the world who you don't get to see whenever you feel like it. I think that as a result, the people who attend SL Jams really develop this massive appreciation for each other, even though we span many different backgrounds, age ranges, places of original, races, religions, sexual orientations, and other things that would normally differentiate us. Our love for this completely unique thing that's hard to describe to others who haven't yet experienced it is undeniable.

Seriously, this is like the iconic Iwo Jima photo, except with selfies.

One last note: the people who organized this Jam should be thanked over and over again by everyone. They dealt with a lot of stuff that we all took for granted, and perhaps not everyone was truly understanding and grateful toward the hard work that went into this. It was amazing how smoothly it went, and that's due to the work of Taunter Goodnight, Triana Caldera, Smidge Frimon, Paula Leeming, Suzen Juel, and David Devaney. If you enjoyed your experience there, give them all the credit.

At MSP with Kat, ready to head back to Los Angeles.

Around 2pm, Jess once again insisted on escorting us back to the airport, so with our packed bags, off we went. After some more last hugs, we got through security, boarded our uneventful four-hour flight across two-thirds of the USA back to Los Angeles, and were home. Was the time away and the long travel worth it? You betcha, as they'd probably say in Minnesota. I've been in just about every music performance environment that exists, and there's nothing quite like an SL Jam. In fact, there's nothing even close.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

They Stole My Crayon Lyrics Videos: "Things Under Trees" and "Again"

Now you can sing along with Bunny and the rest of The Crayon with these official lyric videos!

The "Things Under Trees" lyric video is a "re-master" of the original video we created in fall 2014, with a freshened look and (of course) the final album version of the song.

The "Again" lyric video is a brand new creation. As usual with everything in this band, we made it ourselves.