Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Ever Feel Like Starting Over?

Here are the lyrics to every song I've ever performed live as a solo artist. Every so often, I want to set it on fire.

Look at that photo above. Look at it. It's a pile of paper, and on each of the sheets comprising the pile are words, and those words are the lyrics of songs that I've performed live as a solo artist. Some are songs I've written; most are not. Most -- in my subjective opinion -- are good songs. The earliest one in this pile was written by Irving Berlin in 1926 ("Blue Skies"), and the most recent was written in 2017, most likely by me or one of my bandmates in They Stole My Crayon.

It's quite the collection. There are well over 400 songs there. Classic '60s rock by the Beatles, Stones, and Doors. Mellow gold from the '70s by Seals & Crofts, James Taylor, and Harry Chapin. Some '80s pop tunes by Madonna, Elvis Costello, and The Police. Lots of '90s grunge by Nirvana, Soundgarden, and Stone Temple Pilots. There's a ton of alternative and indie music from the '00s and '10s from artists and bands a lot of you have never heard of, like Kurt Vile, Unknown Mortal Orchestra, Connan Mockasin, and Midlake. They all have enough value to me that at some point, I chose to learn the songs and perform them in front of people.

That having been said, from time to time, I feel like taking this pile, dousing it with lighter fluid, and throwing a match onto it to watch it turn to ashes.

There's an old saying that goes, "Familiarity breeds contempt." Part of my occasional negative outlook toward these great songs is simply due to the fact that I've done so many of them, over and over, for the past 10+ years (and in some cases since I was a high school student in the mid-80s) that while there's a degree of comfort in being able to perform them with little effort, I can get burned out on them. Example: let's say your favorite meal was filet mignon, garlic mashed potatoes, and asparagus. Now eat that same meal every single night for a month, and tell me how much you'd look forward to tasting something new. You get the idea.

But that's probably not the main reason I am, from time to time, in hate with the music I play.

Comedian Louis C.K. told a story while speaking at a memorial service for George Carlin, and it affected me. He explained that he'd developed a comedy routine over a period of 15 years, and kept doing it over and over, and eventually grew to hate it. At the same time, he was understandably frightened to throw it all away and start fresh. But that's exactly what he did, and it's become his pattern ever since... create new material, hone it over the course of a live tour, have it culminate in the form of a big special, and then... toss it. Even if it was great. Perhaps especially if it was great.

Louis did the same routine for 15 years, and then threw it in the trash. I admire that. It's terrifying, but I know where he was coming from.

You're Going To Throw Away All Of Your Songs???
What are you, nuts? No, of course not. Music is different from comedy, or any other art form for that matter. There's nothing wrong with the songs I've been performing, in some cases for most of my life. But if I have a goal for my live performances, it's going to be to continually add more material, both originals and covers, and keep expanding my repertoire. It's going to be to not give in to the understandable desire to play it safe.

An important note: this has nothing to do with musical styles or genres, or keeping up with "new" music. I could give a shit whether a song was created in 2017 or 1817 or 1317, or any time in between. I have zero concern about trying to sound like whatever is playing on people's Internet streams and car radios right now. If anything, I'm even further removed from that kind of effort. My only inspiration is to stay inspired, and I'd rather accept the nervousness of performing fresh material than face the inevitable burnout of only doing the stuff that's so easy for me to do.

You'll continue to hear the stuff that you enjoy, I promise. But there will also be more and more stuff you haven't heard me do before. You might like some of it, and you might hate other parts of it, but either way, we'll all get to walk that tightrope together. That pile may look big right now, but as far as I'm concerned, I haven't even scratched the surface of what might be possible if I stay open and try out stuff that you'd never imagine some guy with his acoustic guitar turning into an enjoyable and memorable listening experience.

Saturday, June 24, 2017

Second Life Music Festival at SL14B (06.23.17)

A huge crowd listens to me performing on an amazing build at SL14B's Second Life Music Fest. Photo by Thea Dee.

It's funny, the way things go.

As Robert Burns once wrote, "The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry." My plans, as of a week ago, were to do four shows in six days. I'm happy to say that I made it through three of them, and each of those was outstanding. And then I awoke today feeling horribly sick, and had to cancel the fourth and final show, which was to be at Elysium City of Templemore. Neither my voice nor -- perhaps more importantly for my kind of show, my energy level -- was nearly up to the task. However, I'm not here to dwell on the one show that didn't happen. Instead, let's talk about yesterday's excellent gig for the Second Life Music Fest at SL14B.

Some background: a couple of years ago, in 2015, I performed at the first official Second Life Music Fest. I found it to be a really cool experience. A couple of months ago, I got a message from Xiola Linden, the lead community manager for Linden Lab. She wanted to know if I'd be interested in performing at this year's event as part of the SL14B festivities.

It's interesting because as most of you know, I'd been performing less in Second Life over the past year or so than any time going back to my start in 2006. The reason was simply that I have limited time to devote to musical activities, and creating my band They Stole My Crayon's debut album had chomped up many of the hours that I could have previously used to do live shows in SL and otherwise. When Xiola sent her invitation, I had to think twice as to whether or not I was a good choice to represent Second Life musical artists at this big show.

Me, performing live at Second Life Music Fest. Photo by Thea Dee.

By happenstance, I'd recently told my manager Maali Beck that we could start gradually ramping up my shows in SL. The band's album was successfully released last year, so I was cool with getting back into playing more frequent SL gigs. Well, who knows why these things happen, but it was shortly after Xiola contacted me that Maali booked some new venues for me, and other things started popping up to the point that I suddenly had four shows in six days lined up. So, any concern I might have had about about my validity as a proper representative of SL music was kind of out the window.

None of this matters, by the way, because I'd accepted Xiola's invitation immediately on the spot, and all that other crap was just floating around my head for awhile.

As you can see from the pictures, the build for the area was outstanding. I really expect nothing less of those folks, but they never fail to impress me. The Music Fest portion of the event was held on their Stage Left build. It was so massive that I barely was able to visualize it in its entirety, but the huge work of art itself was titled "The Guardian", created by artist Walton F. Wainwright (known in SL as Faust Steamer). The stage was perched on top. To get there, they'd set up an interesting teleport mechanism. People rezzed at the bottom of a nearly vertical set of steps, and then would go into a little pool and pop up near the performance area.

"The Guardian" structure at SL14B. You can see the large stage area on top, being dwarfed by the overall structure. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Exactly three minutes after I strummed my first note, an alert went out that we SL musicians enjoy hearing, when we rarely do...


For any non-Second Life people reading this, that message means that the area of Second Life where I was performing was so packed with attendees that it could literally not accommodate another person. Think of it like a server that's hit its limit in data storage. In real life terms, it's the equivalent of a venue selling out and hitting its maximum capacity. For any person to get in at that point, it meant someone else had to leave. My show remained filled to capacity for the entire hour. Much of that is due to the fact that these events are promoted far and wide. The night before, an email blast about the Music Fest had gone out to literally millions of Second Life users, with my name as the headliner for day one. If I couldn't get a maximum crowd under those circumstances, there was no other situation that would be more promising.

Doing my Zak Rock for a big and presumably happy crowd. Photo by Triana Caldera.

The only challenge involved for this show was choosing a set list. It's not as easy as it seems. In total, I've got somewhere in the range of 400 songs that I am comfortable and prepared to perform live as a solo artist. Some of these are originals (both from my solo work and my band), and the rest are covers that span many different genres, eras, and vibes. For an event like this, where people from all areas of the world and all walks of life are represented, I tend to try and meet a number of goals:

1. Play the stuff that I can do well.
2. Make sure to use the opportunity to expose people who haven't heard me before to my (and my band's) original music.
3. Play songs that people are familiar with so they can relate to and enjoy the performance.
4. Don't be afraid to perform some cool music that perhaps most people haven't heard, but might like once they hear it.

It's not easy to hit each of those goals with just 12-13 songs possible in a one hour time slot. Compounding the task was the fact that, disturbingly, I was feeling a scratchiness in my throat not long before I was to start my show, which further removed my confidence that I'd be able to perform at my best level. Had my SL14B Music Fest show been slated for today or tomorrow, there's no way I'd have been able to go on. But since I was apparently just on the verge of getting sick as I obviously am now, I got through the show pretty well.

Second Life Music Festival at SL14B set list...
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Never Run Away (Kurt Vile)
America (Simon & Garfunkel)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Carey (Joni Mitchell)
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)
Carry Me Ohio (Sun Kil Moon)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Fire & Rain (James Taylor)
After The Goldrush (Neil Young)
Pigs On The Wing - Parts 1 & 2 (Pink Floyd)

One of the great things about playing an event like SL14B is the chance to have a bunch of people who'd never heard me before to listen to my performance. There was a nice, big crowd for the whole show. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Xiola, the enthusiastic lead community manager for Second Life maker Linden Lab, surrounded by my friends and fans. Photo by Thea Dee.

I always enjoy each opportunity to show the world how Second Life remains a remarkable platform for live music performance. Photo by Thea Dee.

Thanks so much to all the people involved in Second Life Music Fest and SL14B, with special mention of the following people who helped support my show!
strum Diesel, Agadir Flanagan, LadyNyah Resident, Isadoradean Rossini, Asimia Heron, Luriel Lykin, Kathleen Blachere, Lampithaler Resident, Triana Caldera, Jennytryit Resident, TheaDee Resident, stage/stream managers CB Axel and Laura Polke, SL14B leads Diana Renoir and Doc Gascoigne, and the amazing Xiola Linden!

Thursday, June 22, 2017

The Islands of New England (06.21.17)

Enjoying a great crowd made up of great friends at The Islands of New England's "Superhero/Supervillain Night".

Photos for this post courtesy of Triana Caldera, Aurelie Chenaux, and Asimia Heron. Thank you!

Continuing my "June 2017 Mini-Tour" of Second Life, I hit my second stop at The Islands of New England on Wednesday night. It's funny how these things come together. Most of my shows are booked by my manager Maali Beck. While most SL musicians are probably screaming at their management to get them more shows, my instructions to Maali over the past year or so have been the opposite: do NOT overbook me. My life has been way too busy to devote the amount of time and preparation it takes to do live shows properly, and what little time I'd had to spend on music-related activities had mostly been dominated by working on the They Stole My Crayon album.

But now things are mellowing out a bit, and I let Maali know that she could slightly ramp up the number of Second Life shows to which I can commit. That having been said, last night's show at New England came about with a little conversation between friends. Back in May, I was chatting on Facebook with Christine Haiku, who manages the live music events for the venue, and my friend and fellow SL music performer Sassy Nitely. We were reminiscing about some of the many fun shows we've done where Sassy and I play back to back, and decided then and there to schedule another such event. I didn't know at the time that I'd be doing four shows in the same week, but in a way I'm glad... if I'd thought I'd be too busy, I'd have missed what ended up being one of the most fun nights of live music I've experienced in... well, ever.

Superheroes and Supervillains
We decided to make the night a themed event. It's weird for me, because I'm very much a "come as you are" kind of performer. I don't like giving my audience restrictions on what they can do, what they have to wear and so on. That having been said, the crowd was freaking awesome, full of people in outfits depicting Wonder Woman, Deadpool, Iron Man, and many other heroes of the fictional world. After spending some time looking around for an outfit for myself and coming up with jack shit, I put on my handy Star Trek TNG uniform and performed as Captain Jean-Luc Claxtard of the Federation Starship Enterbutt. It worked.

Speaking of butts, I have to relate a little tale. As I looked down from the stage while performing, Sassy was dancing away in an excellent Harley Quinn outfit with its pair of ultra-short shorts. I -- being pretty much unable to filter anything that is coming out of my mouth at any time -- started making lascivious comments about Sassy's ass. This happened three or four times during my show. It's also a sort of tradition for me at New England that if the performer after me is a close friend and I have a minute or two left in my set, I'll improv a little song for them to welcome them to the stage. So, long story short, that's why my last tune of the night is called "Sassy's Ass".

I can tell you, it's every bit as much fun for me being up on the stage as it is when I'm in the audience for a great show like this one.

The Islands of New England is always a great place to perform, mostly because the people who come there really appreciate good times and good live music.

Can you really blame me for being somewhat ass-obsessed at this event?

The Islands of New England set list...
Save It For Later (English Beat)
Something Else (Zak Claxton)
Free Man in Paris (Joni Mitchell)
Summer Breeze (Seals & Crofts)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
Starman (David Bowie)
Linger (The Cranberries)
It's Easy Like Walking (The Sadies w/Kurt Vile)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Tea in the Sahara (The Police)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Pretty Pimpin (Kurt Vile)
*Sassy’s Ass (Zak Claxton improv)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL. Probably the last too, in this case.

Big thanks to the excellent crowd who came out the the Zak and Sassy Superhero show, with special kudos to the following folks who helped support my set!
Ericc Arkright, Hogan Baily, Turn Pike, Aely Witte, Triana Caldera, RoxxyyRoller Resident, RansomTalmidge Resident, Asimia Heron, Sesh Kamachi, Triana Caldera, Tyche Szondi, Aurelie Chenaux, TheaDee Resident, my excellent manager Maali Beck, my wonderful and talented friend with the great ass Sassy Nitely, and -- most of all -- the always amazing Christine Haiku for having me back on her stage so many times over many years. Thank you all!

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

Serenity Gardens (06.19.17)

Standing next to Thea Dee just after wrapping up my show. Photo courtesy of Serenity Gardens.

It was 5:53, my show at Serenity Gardens was starting in about five minutes, and the only people there other than myself were my manager Maali Beck and the two lovely ladies who run the place, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde. As usual, I started worrying about it.

[17:53] Zak Claxton: speaking of people... MAALI WHERE ARE MY PEOPLE?!?!?!
[17:53] Maali Beck: they are COMING!!

And, of course, she was right. You'd think after over ten years of doing shows in the online virtual world of Second Life, I'd have a little more faith that people do come to my shows, and it's almost always more people than I expected or could have predicted. Unlike a real life concert, where people arrive early, mill around, get drinks, and hang out before the musical event starts, people in SL tend to teleport in within seconds of the start of a show... because, why not? As a typical paranoid and oversensitive artist, it can drive one batshit, and nine times out of ten, I convince myself that absolutely no one is coming. And then, I glance up at the end of my first song, and a whole bunch of people are out there applauding and presumably enjoying themselves. Maybe that's something I'll get over someday... but probably not.

That having been said, it was a really nice show at Serenity Gardens last night. It was my second time there, and since I'll be performing every other Monday night for an indeterminate amount of time, hopefully it's indicative of how my shows there will go moving into the future. It really is a lovely spot. Few places in SL have as much focus on foliage as their design theme, and Serenity Gardens is overflowing with beautiful blossoming trees all around. It's a nice and airy outdoor venue. And, like I said last night, it's the people who make the venue, which includes both the management and the audience who comes around. Serenity Gardens has had a good vibe in both aspects each time I've played there so far.

A couple of notes: first, last night's show was the kickoff of my unplanned mini-tour of SL, with shows on Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday of this week. It's been a long time since I've done a bunch of shows in a compact time frame like that, and it's actually pretty cool. Second, my voice has been unusually cooperative lately. It's actually doing what I want it to do, which is weird, because it often has a mind of its own. Granted, that didn't stop me from fucking up a song or two by doing things like juxtaposing the second verse with the first, but even while making the error, the voice sounded pretty damn good. Finally, I decided to do a bit of a theme with my set list, and pulled out an unusual amount of songs from '70s singer-songwriters and rock artists. No one complained. I can tell you that for subsequent shows this week, it will be a completely different group of songs at each of them, so hopefully everyone got their fill of that style, because I'm moving on to other stuff soon enough.

One final note.... I've previously mentioned the "SL Performer Diet". While working out this morning after last night's show, as usual, I dropped about a pound and a half compared to the previous morning. This is literally all the sweat that pours from me while I play live, in SL or otherwise. Of course, it's all water weight, and it will be back by tomorrow as I rehydrate and all that. But it's a real thing. When I talk about being sweaty after a show, it's not a little dampness. It's "shirt soaked through like I just ran a 10K" sweat.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Fly Like an Eagle (Steve Miller Band)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Pancho & Lefty (Townes Van Zandt)
Space Oddity (David Bowie)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Cat’s in the Cradle (Harry Chapin)
Sex & Candy (Marcy Playground)
Landslide (Fleetwood Mac)
Help Me (Joni Mitchell)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Behind Blue Eyes (The Who)
Tea for the Tillerman (Cat Stevens)

Huge thanks to all who came out to the show, including the following who helped support it. Thank you!
RoxxyyRoller Resident, Christine Haiku, Sassy Nitely, RansomTalmidge Resident, TheaDee Resident, nitesoft Resident, Sesh Kamachi, my wonderful manager Maali Beck, and lovely Serenity ladies Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde.

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Serenity Gardens (06.05.17)

Enjoying a cool crowd and a beautiful environment at Serenity Gardens.

Many, many times on this very blog you're looking at right now, I've noted that I enjoy playing at Second Life venues that are new to me. This is still true, though it's a more rare occasion than it once was for me. I perform less live shows overall in recent times, and it's easy to fall into the pattern of playing at familiar old spots where I am comfortable and know what to expect.

What I didn't expect last night for my first show at Serenity Gardens was a good-sized, engaged crowd that included a bunch of my Zakster fans and SL musician friends. Think about it: it's Monday evening. People on the west coast are still at work, or sitting in traffic on their way home. It's a venue that I haven't played before, so my fans aren't necessarily familiar with it. Since the venue was doing a grand re-opening, I also had to assume that they didn't have a steady crowd of regulars who would be populating their dance floor. And yet, despite all that, we managed to have what I consider to be a really good, successful show. I'm booked to perform there bi-weekly, on every other Monday evening, and I'm looking forward to more shows there.

Onstage for the first time at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Aurelie Chenaux.

The crowd at Serenity Gardens enjoys some mellow Zak tunes. Photo by Aurelie Chenaux.

Here's a point that some other venues may want to note. I teleported into Serenity Gardens, and like ten seconds later... BAM: performer group tag was provided. BAM: payment of my fee was made. BAM: the venue confirmed that they had my stream info and were all set. I have to say, hats off to the Second Life music venues who are on top of things (which is most of them, really). I didn't have to worry about anything other than playing guitar and singing. Especially at a place I'd never played before, it was highly reassuring for the Serenity staff to handle all the business right away.

At new (to me) places, I like to do a show that a) is representative of the range of stuff I play, and b) not super "out there" in terms of the familiarity I can expect of the audience. This show was good, and I think the songs I chose for the event worked well based on the above criteria. I also had some specific reasons for several songs. I did "Good Morning Good Morning" to commemorate the 50th anniversary of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band", and "Wonderwall" as a little nod to the folks of Manchester, UK.

Serenity Gardens set list...
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
California (Joni Mitchell)
Say Goodbye (Beck)
Carolina in My Mind (James Taylor)
America (Simon & Garfunkel)
Pretty Pimpin (Kurt Vile)
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Good Morning Good Morning (The Beatles)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Sleeper in the Valley (Laura Veirs)
Wonderwall (Oasis)
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)

Huge thanks to all who got to witness me losing my Serenity Gardens virginity! May there be many happy shows there to come. Special thanks to the following who helped support my show!
jlafleur Resident, Maurice Mistwallow, Tyche Szondi, strum Diesel, Valhala Vollmar, Asimia Heron, Jenna Dirval, RansomTalmidge Resident, TheaDee Resident, Meegan Danitz, not4gods Resident, Aurelie Chenaux, my great manager Maali Beck, and Serenity Gardens' awesome staffers Ilsa Wilde and Tilly Rose Wilde!