Monday, April 30, 2018

Joshua Tree (04.26.18 - 04.29.18)

Relaxing on a boulder in Joshua Tree. Photo by Kat.

We -- Bunny, Christina and I -- just arrived back from a wonderful (but too short, as always) vacation in Joshua Tree, CA. Joshua Tree is our default vacation spot when our brains need a break from the daily routine of work and responsible life in general. You'd think that after years and years of going to the same spot, we'd have already grown bored with the area or at least already experienced everything there is to see there, but no... each visit to the desert always seems to be a unique experience in some way. On this particular trip, we had a number of firsts that all made the trip completely enjoyable and memorable.

We Accidentally Took the 10
My standard route to the desert has always been to head out on the 91 from there at the beach, cut north on the 605, and then take the 60 almost all the way out to the desert where it rejoins the 10 shortly before the 62. Got that? Good. Anyway, the day we departed on our trip -- Thursday April 26 -- we were talking and laughing and jamming tunes on the 605 north and suddenly I was like, "Hey, why is the exit for the 10 coming up? Did I pass the 60? What the hell is going on?" So basically, as opposed to turning around, I just took the 10 east all the way out to the desert by accident, and it was fine.

Miss your exit? No worries, there are always other ways to get where you're going. Red is our route there, blue the route back.

Welcome to House of the Hammock
We've stayed at the rental cabins of The Desert Lily Inn on many occasions, splitting our visits between Casa Rosita and Rancho Rincon. This time -- particularly because both of those cabins were booked -- we stayed at one of Carrie Yeager's properties that we hadn't been to before. Hacienda de la Hamaca was fantastic. It was much less rustic than her other places, which admittedly took away from a bit of the charm of the experience, with no dirt roads and such to deal with in getting in and out of the place. At the same time, it was absolutely luxurious... a nicely appointed place with large bedrooms, multiple bathrooms, and a great kitchen and living room areas for us to relax in style. The back patio area in particular was lovely, with a large shady veranda that ran the length of the building... the perfect spot to hang out with the rabbits, hares, quail, and lizards that romped through the yard.

Bunny having a meeting with his bunny friends in the backyard at Hacienda de la Hamaca.

Myself, Bunny and Christina on the back patio.

Full Moon Fever
As we noted that first night there, it was, for all intents and purposes, a full moon during this trip. Conversely, Christina and I have often planned these excursions around the time of new moons for the purpose of skywatching in the non-light polluted desert area. This trip was the first time we could admire the beauty of the desert in both day and night. It was great.

Go West Young Band
We started things pretty simply for our first excursion into Joshua Tree National Park for this trip. In fact, we've gotten to know the area so well that we put together playlists of music that we knew would go well with the surreal landscape of the desert, so we first enjoyed some slow driving through the park while listening to excellent songs in a multitude of genres. We casually stopped by Cap Rock and then went up to Keys View for the incredible sight of the entire Coachella Valley from about one mile in elevation.

After that, we decided to hit Barker Dam. It's one of the most well-known and popular areas of JTNP. Last time we went, it was so crowded that we blew it off, but we knew that if we didn't make it in on Friday, it wasn't going to get any better on Saturday. So, off we went, but soon found that the park had closed the eastern section of the trail, which forced us to head toward the dam in the direction we'd usually use to return. It was really neat and interesting, and gave us a new perspective on this awesome short hike.

Breakfast on Friday morning. We usually eat very well, both tastily and healthily, while we're in the desert.

Bunny and I, one mile high, at Keys View. Photo by Kat.

They Stole My Crayon at Barker Dam.

Bighorn Sheep Encounter
It was on our way back from Barker Dam that something amazing happened which was absolutely a highlight of this trip. Bunny was walking in front as we trudged through the sandy path, but then he suddenly froze and held up a hand. I noted that a small group of people a ways down the path coming in the opposite direction were similarly stopped, and then I glanced to the right. About 20 yards away, standing on level ground with us, was a magnificent bighorn sheep, a mature ram with his species' namesake horns pointed in our direction. In all my travels of the desert, I had never once seen one of these majestic creatures, and suddenly there was one directly in front of us. All the humans in the area stayed still and quiet, taking photos as the ram seemingly posed. After a few minutes that felt like an hour, he slowly turned and made his way back up into the rocks. Look, I've seen things up close in the desert that have blown my mind, including large snakes and coyotes and so on, but that sheep was something I'll never forget.

I've seen tons of wild animals while exploring Joshua Tree. This was my first Bighorn Sheep. Photo by Kat.

Being there next to him was a magical experience. Photo by Kat.

Fancy Desert Grilling
After getting back to the cabin -- er, luxury house -- after our exploration of JTNP on Friday, we were starved. As usual, we'd secured a ton of provisions at the grocery store in Yucca Valley on our arrival, but we knew ahead of time that instead of just cooking in the kitchen, we had a new choice in food preparation at the new cabin. There was a fancy gas grill on the back patio. Not quite "roughing it over a fire in the wilderness", the gas grill was excellent, and Bunny became the grillmaster as we ate delicious barbecued chicken and corn that night.

Full Crayon Jams
After dinner, we picked up our instruments. The desert, for whatever reason, is super inspirational for creating new music. We didn't plan anything out. Instead, we just allowed our fingers to find chord progressions and riffs that we could play together. Usually, on the musical side, it's just me and Bunny who do this kind of on-the-spot songwriting, but this time, Christina joined us in a big way, playing both bass and glockenspiel on our little jams. We recorded everything we did, and I can 100% guarantee that some of the themes we came up with will end up on a They Stole My Crayon album in the future. We stayed up pretty late, making music the whole time, and finally called it a night.

After the sun went down and we'd had our dinners, the instruments came out each night, and we captured some terrific stuff for future Crayon music.

No Fear at the Hall of Horrors
Over the many times we've visited Joshua Tree National Park, we've been through a good chunk of the various trails that don't involve a major (6+ mile) hike. One spot we'd never gone before as a group is a hiking/climbing zone called Hall of Horrors. I'm not 100% clear why it has such a frightening name; there might be some kind of passageway through the large rock formations that could be kind of scary. On Saturday for our first stop, Bunny and Christina and I had a lovely walk around the place that was off the beaten track a bit and was therefore less crowded than many more well-known areas on a perfect spring weekend. It was pretty cool being in a spot with very few people where the paths weren't completely clear, finding our own way around the lovely Mojave Desert.

Traipsing through the desert with my fantastic friends.

Bunny and Christina explore a crack in the rocks.

There were plants and birds and rocks and things.

Time for Pappy's
There's nothing new about our visiting Pappy & Harriet's on our trips to Joshua Tree. If we don't plan ahead and don't get reservations, we don't get to go. After cruising around to a few more spots in JTNP (including our regular stop at Hemingway Buttress where we always find cool places to explore and boulders to scramble on), we headed back to the Hacienda, got cleaned up, and then went straight up to Pioneertown where we had rather early reservations made weeks earlier. Pappy's has become super popular and cool, with the downside being that getting a table on a weekend needs to be a pre-planned activity. But plan we had, so at 5:30, we rolled in and got seated quickly. I can't describe the taste of food that comes off that magical grill there, but the three of us had a wonderful time eating way too much meat and drinking beers from mason jars.

Bunny and I being rock stars -- or at least eating dinner -- at Pappy & Harriet's.

Checking out the desert people outside of Pappy's with Kat.

More Jams
Back at the cabin that evening, we picked up our instruments once again and kept the Crayon jams going. In total, we created about 7-8 very useable song ideas with a ton of potential for continued development, way more than any previous trip where we might be lucky to get 1-2 usable new tunes. I'm already looking forward to the coming weekend so I can start fleshing out some of these musical ideas, since we recorded all of them.

A Blustery Drive Home
We had a relaxing Sunday morning, and then cleaned up Hacienda de la Hamaca and loaded our stuff for the usually uneventful journey home. There's nothing unexpected about hitting high winds while driving the 62 on the open plain toward the foot of the mountains just north of the 10 freeway. That's why there are those thousands of iconic wind energy machines in the San Gorgonio Pass. It's windy all the time there due to the terrain and the temperature variations between the desert and surrounding areas. But as we started our drive home on Sunday, it was already a very gusty day, and as I guided the Jeep down the mountain pass, it became apparent that this would be a memorable return trip. The wind was insane! I had to hold the wheel with both hands, making constant adjustments to try and keep us headed in a straight line while other cars were also being tossed around into both lanes and occasionally the shoulder. It was, in layman's terms, scary as fuck.

But once we made it all the way down and drove the 10 West for awhile, things settled down and I could drive in a more relaxed fashion than the "we're all going to die" stretch of road. Arriving safely home that afternoon, we were tired and gritty but happy, and already looking forward to the next trip to J-Tree, whenever that may be.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

The Islands of New England (04.25.18)

The Islands of New England is one of the best places for live music in all of SL. Photo by Kat.

As anyone who even remotely knows me is aware, I love the Mojave Desert here in Southern California, and visit multiple times each year if possible. Today, along with my bandmates in They Stole My Crayon (Bunny and Christina), I'm pointing the Jeep in the eastward direction and once again heading out to Joshua Tree. I have no words to tell you how happy I am to be spending a little time out there among the yuccas and lizards. Especially in times where life seems somewhat overwhelming and a little bit of a reset of the brain is required, there's no place on Earth like Joshua Tree to accomplish that goal. I'll certainly be doing a post upon my return to report on whatever shenanigans we get into on this short trip.

But early on this Thursday morning, while I wrap up some work responsibilities and wait for Bunny to arrive, I have some time to tell you about my show last night at The Islands of New England in Second Life. I've spent a long, long time doing shows at that venue, but each show always seems to feel like a special occasion there. I'd say one reason is that their event manager, Christine Haiku, really does a great job of choosing artists who mesh well together, and last night was a great example of that. My show was wedged between Scottish performer and excellent fingerstyle guitarist Jukebox Diesel and my amazing Nashville-based performer friend Sassy Nitely.

My view from the stage. Photo by Kat.

Making people happy is what makes me happy. Photo by Kat.

I love this place. Photo by Kat.

When I arrived about halfway through Juke's set and turned up the stream audio, the first words out of my mouth were, "Oh shit, now I have to be good." Christina made a remark to the tune of, "Wow, I'd pay to see this guy play in real life," and I was like, "Oh, thanks a lot for the extra pressure." But it was all in fun; I really love being inspired to focus on my own performance by seeing seriously talented musicians playing at the same show.

Since my voice had continued to heal after my round of sickness, I felt more confident in my vocal range for this show, but still kept the set list more on the mellow side of things. That also worked well for staying within the scope of the music that Juke and Sassy were doing. We had a terrific crowd there that included the majority of my Zakster fans/friends. I'm always happy when, on the rare occasions that I have more than one show within a few days, that the same people come out to see me again. What I always do is make sure that the show I give them is significantly different from the previous one in terms of vibe and the songs I choose for my set. The one exception was "Among the Leaves", the Sun Kil Moon song I debuted the other night and liked it so much, I decided to do it again.

The Islands of New England set list...
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Say Goodbye (Beck)
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
Peaceful Easy Feeling (Eagles)
Among the Leaves (Sun Kil Moon)
Roxanne (The Police)
Blue Shadows on the Trail (Randy Newman)
So. Central Rain (R.E.M.)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Faded in the Morning (Unknown Mortal Orchestra)
Possession (Sarah McLachlan)
Baker Street (Gerry Rafferty)
Pretty Pimpin (Kurt Vile)

Massive thanks to all who came out to the show, with extra big thanks to the following who helped support it!
MiaMackleby Resident, Sassy Nitely, LadyEllenT Resident, Robert69 Little, RoxxyyRoller Resident, go2smoky Resident, Alex Zelin, Kat Claxton, Asimia Heron, hildegard269 Resident, TheaDee Resident, Aurelie Chenaux, Triana Caldera, my lovely manager Maali Beck, and The Islands of New England's wonderful event management team of RansomTalmidge Resident and Christine Haiku!

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Serenity Gardens (04.23.18)

A great crowd and cool tunes at Serenity Gardens in Second Life. Photo by Kat.

When life hands you lemons, don't make lemonade. Make lemon bars! They're delicious, and much easier to prepare than you think (see below). But in a less metaphorical sense, when life has you getting over a cold and you have a live singing music performance scheduled, don't despair. Instead, test out your voice and determine what you are actually capable of singing. Then sing those songs, and don't sing the ones that you can't. See how easy this is?

In all seriousness, there's a judgement call you need to make when sick. Can you actually be entertaining? Can you sing or play at a level that's enjoyable for the audience, and not embarrassing to yourself? Do you run a risk of doing damage to your vocal chords, or making yourself sicker for longer? If you can answer those questions and still feel like doing the show, then do it!

The show must go on. Photo by Kat.

Getting Low
I first started coming down with this shitty cold exactly two weeks before my show last night at Serenity Gardens. It was at that show on April 9 that I suspected I was getting sick, and then spent the subsequent two weeks with all of the fun symptoms of a bad head cold, which included losing the ability to even speak for a short while. Singing was completely out of the question. Still, knowing I had two weeks to recover, I was hesitant to cancel my next show, hoping I'd get well enough to perform. By the time I was going to be putting together my set list for the next show, I knew that I still didn't have my usual vocal range... but that I was also capable of singing fairly competently in a lower register. Would it be my best show from a singing perspective? Most definitely not. But it forced me to go through my repertoire and see what songs in there would be possible while avoiding anything strenuous.

So that's what I did, and it ended up being really cool. I played a good number of songs that I hadn't done in quite awhile, and even risked debuting a never-before-played cover of Sun Kil Moon's "Among the Leaves", which went super well.

Getting my low voice on at Serenity. Photo by Kat.

How to Make Lemon Bars!

Serenity Gardens set list...
Lost Cause (Beck)
Don’t Let It Bring You Down (Neil Young)
Wakin on a Pretty Day (Kurt Vile)
*Among the Leaves (Sun Kil Moon)
Blue (Joni Mitchell)
Walk on the Wild Side (Lou Reed)
Things Under Trees (They Stole My Crayon)
Welcome to the Machine (Pink Floyd)
Bring On the Night (The Police)
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
Gardenia (Iggy Pop)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)

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

Massive thanks to all who came to hear me sing the low notes, with special super thanks to the following folks who helped support the show!
JustOneMore Loon, Trouble Streeter, AaronCabottJones Resident, Sesh Kamachi, not4gods Resident, Asimia Heron, go2smoky Resident, RansomTalmidge Resident, Christine Haiku, Sassy Nitely, TheaDee Resident, Kat Claxton, Tyche Szondi, Alex Zelin, my terrific manager Maali Beck, and the great team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Serenity Gardens (04.09.18)

When I got onstage last night, I was still deciding if I was getting sick. Turns out I was. Photo by Kat.

Yesterday, I suspected something to be true, and as of this morning, I am 100% sure of it: I am sick, and it's pissing me off.

Look, I know everyone gets sick from time to time. This particular illness seems to be some standard virus that has taken up residence in my throat and sinuses, and if it follows the usual pattern will end up migrating down to my lungs and making my life fucking miserable over the next week or so. I have that to look forward to. It's probably a cold of some kind. It's probably not the end of the world, and yet still, I am annoyed, and have no choice other than to try and continue working and going on as usual. That's life.

Meanwhile, I feel like utter crap, and as I mentioned to my crowd last night at Serenity Gardens in Second Life, I was pretty convinced that I wasn't going to be able to do the show as of yesterday afternoon, when this crud first started coming on. It was right around the time of day yesterday when it was announced that the offices and home of Michael Cohen, Trump's attorney, had been raided by the FBI. At first, I thought I was feeling weird due to the adrenaline rush from hearing that news, but as the excitement wore down, the physical feelings remained. I nearly got in touch with Ilsa Flanagan so I could cancel in time for her to bring in a replacement artist. Instead, I decided to soldier on, and just hope that my voice would hold up for an hour of singing.

The Show Must Go On
Surprisingly, it did. Sometimes, as a performer, you can mentally work around the illness and get through the show. A big caveat: that can be done for one show or maybe two. For people on tour, people who act in ongoing theatrical productions, people who have to get on stage and be good night after night... well, it catches up with you eventually and the results are not worth it. Performing takes a ton of energy, and if you're good, it's physically and emotionally exhausting. It's difficult even when healthy. When you're ill and your body needs its extra reserves of energy, performing while sick can be a really bad idea.

One good thing about playing in virtual worlds: no need to blow one's avatar nose. Photo by Kat.

Still glad I did the show. It made me happier than I would have otherwise been. Photo by Kat.

Nevertheless, we ended up having a really solid show, with an excellent crowd and a set list that went over super well. Unintentionally, I'd pulled our a batch of tunes that were in the early '80s alternative/new wave genre, and they really seemed to resonate with the audience. As I said, I was happy that I was just able to get through the songs, but everything also went very well performance-wise. I basically got lucky; it could have easily turned the other way.

The only other thing to note in regard to this show is that it was the first time I've performed "Beacon", the song that Jon Larson and I wrote in tribute to victims of gun violence, and whose proceeds are being donated to March For Our Lives Action Fund. I wasn't sure how this duet would go being done by a solo performer, but I thought it was pretty good, and the crowd seemed to agree.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Everybody Knows This is Nowhere (Neil Young)
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Everlong (Foo Fighters)
Walk on the Ocean (Toad the Wet Sprocket) 
*Beacon (Claxton & Larson)
*Major Tom (Peter Schilling)
Perfect Day (Lou Reed)
Spirits in the Material World (The Police)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Box by the Cliff (They Stole My Crayon)
Save It For Later (English Beat)
Radio Free Europe (R.E.M.)

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

Big thanks to all who came out to the show, with special thanks to the following who helped support it!
go2smoky Resident, Tpenta Vanalten, Sesh Kamachi, Trouble Streeter, TheaDee Resident, Aurelie Chenaux, Triana Caldera, Kat Claxton, my lovely manager Maali Beck, and the great team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde.