Tuesday, August 28, 2018

Serenity Gardens (08.27.18)

Good crowd, good tunes, happy Zak at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Thea Dee.

Kat is in Europe right now. At this very moment, she's in Copenhagen, Denmark, having just wrapped up a few days in Reykjavik, Iceland. Why is Kat in Europe? Because she wants to be! This is her first time exploring the continent purely for the joy of travel (as opposed to for business or a stopover at an airport), and it's something she's always wanted to do. The ultimate truth is that life is shorter than we'd prefer and your window for doing things like traveling the globe -- while you're young enough to have the energy to enjoy it and old enough to appreciate and afford it -- is pretty small. So, she planned a trip that takes her through the cities above along with Rome, Venice, Paris, London, and Dublin, with shorter stops in places like Athens, Pisa, Milan, Basel, and Wales. She'll have spent over three weeks there, said and done, before heading back to the USA.

Guess who's not in Europe? Me! While we both would have loved to do this trip together, that isn't even close to the realm of possibilities for me. I own a little company that does various kinds of marketing communications (aka advertising and PR), and I rarely have the ability to take three hours off work, much less three days, and three weeks is a ridiculous premise. Here's a little factoid: there have been many occasions that, after wrapping up a great rock and roll show in SL and saying goodbye to my faithful fans, I have to open up a spreadsheet, continue formatting a PowerPoint deck, or post some content for my clients. I'm not complaining about this in any way, I promise... I'm happy with my life. But the idea of heading off to Europe for a few weeks isn't remotely real for me, so while I miss Kat in her absence, I'm glad she's doing something she wanted to do regardless of my ability to be involved.

Ultimately, any good relationship involves a combination of togetherness and independence. It's an unfortunately common behavior for folks who never attain a certain level of maturity to insist that every aspect of life be at the control and approval of the spouse or significant other. Kat and I have both been married and divorced previously, so perhaps we grew out of that way of thinking, or learned via trial and error. In any case, she's free to do as she chooses, and I'm happy to support her in the things she wants to do.

Rocking in the Pixel World
Obviously, while out of the country, Kat's not able to attend my SL shows. Trying to get into SL on hotel/public WiFi is just silly, and besides that, the time difference means that I'm performing in the middle of the night for her. But life goes on, and I had my regularly-scheduled bi-weekly show at Serenity Gardens last night. I actually had a pretty close (for me) cluster of shows lately, having played on Wednesday and Sunday before Monday's show, and I wanted to be sure that the people who were attending multiple shows in a short time frame each got a somewhat unique experience, so I dug deeper into my repertoire and pulled out some tunes that I play more rarely.

I often tell my crowd at Serenity Gardens that it's the best time of the week, since they made it through Monday and have six full days until the next one. Photo by Thea Dee.

Me, onstage, doing what I do. Photo by Thea Dee.

That was fun, and the show went great, but I should note that there are some tunes that I absolutely love, but still aren't best rendered by one person with an acoustic guitar. The fact is that a song is made up of many parts. There's the basic aspect of a chord progression and a melody, and that's obviously the most important part. But there's also the aspect of the arrangement... the choice of instruments and vocals and various sound sources that comprise the song. And then there's the production itself, which, in certain kinds of music, can be every bit as important as the song. Anyway, there are some songs that I can certainly play, but should think twice about doing so based only on the idea that they need those other elements to be truly enjoyable to hear. That's probably why several of those songs stay deep in my song list and don't get pulled out very often. I remember after I play them, and then put them away again for years.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Possession (Sarah McLachlan)
Heart of Gold (Neil Young)
Shame Chamber (Kurt Vile)
Always Tomorrow (Zak Claxton)
Ashes to Ashes (David Bowie)
Breaking Us In Two (Joe Jackson)
Vendetta (They Stole My Crayon)
Psycho Killer (Talking Heads)
Mad World (Tears for Fears)
Carey (Joni Mitchell)
Things Behind the Sun (Nick Drake)
Polly (Nirvana)

Big, big thanks to the folks who came to the show, with special hats-off to the following who helped support it!
Trouble Streeter, dls Falconer, Marieleeblanc Resident, Kat Chauveau, Jukebox Diesel, ElusiveButterfly Ember, Aurelie Chenaux, TheaDee Resident, Celeste Ewing, Barbara Mixemup, my lovely manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde.

Monday, August 27, 2018

Veterans Isle/Homes For Our Troops (08.26.18)

Starting my show at Veterans Isle for Homes For Our Troops. We pulled in over L$100,000 during my one-hour set, thanks to my amazingly generous crowd and the folks who run the events and match donations. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Here's how I find out that I have a show to perform in Second Life: I get on the Internet (duh), and the home page of my web browser has a preview of my Google calendar. I glance at it as I open a new window, and see that my manager Maali Beck has added a date to the schedule. It's all very efficient and businesslike, which works for me. That, by the way, is exactly how I learned that I had a benefit show for Homes For Our Troops scheduled for the last Sunday in August. I got online one morning and there it was, magically appearing on my calendar.

The news brought a smile to my face. I've performed shows for Frets Nirvana's efforts at helping military veterans for years and years now. At least once a year (and always on the last Sunday of the month; Frets is smart keeping that a regularly scheduled event), I find myself at Veterans Isle in Second Life, performing music to help bring people in to make donations to this cause.

I've written about this many times before, so I'll be brief about it: I am as anti-war as anyone you'll meet. I think war is an archaic way of solving problems. It's barbaric and has no place in modern society. And, worst of all, the actual agenda for many wars throughout history is usually driven by greed... sometimes to get resources like food and oil, and other times for a lust for power and control. But those aspects of war are not driven by the people who are actually tasked with fighting. The human beings who put their lives on the line have the least to gain and the most to lose. Many of them come back after armed conflicts with their bodies and minds torn apart -- assuming they come back at all, as many do not. My father was a Vietnam-era vet; my ancestors and relatives fought in the revolutionary war, WWII and more; even my lovely ladyfriend Christina is an Army veteran, as are many of my friends.

So, I have personal connections to these people who fight wars and protect the USA. Moreover, it sickens me that the US government doesn't take better care of its military after their service is complete, and that we need to rely on private organizations to allow these brave people to lead a dignified life back home.

A good-sized crowd at Veterans Isle. More people means more donations, which is why the whole thing is happening in the first place. This was a great show. Photo by Triana Caldera.

Why Homes For Our Troops?
There are plenty of musicians who are leery about doing charity shows of any kind for the obvious reason that it's quite possible to take advantage of people's kindness and goodwill. One of the most important factors in getting people to want to be involved is a) proving the legitimacy of the charitable organization, and b) having transparency in showing that the huge majority of the funds donated do go to the proper recipients (and not get spent on administrative costs or executive salaries).

When I first did shows on Veterans Isle, the charity being supported was the Wounded Warrior Project. I'm not going to say anything bad about that worthy cause, but based on some of the factors mentioned above, Frets changed the recipient of our fundraising to Homes For Our Troops, and with a little investigation, I strongly support that decision. HFOT is very highly rated by charity watchdog groups, with an A rating from Charity Watch, an 89% grade from Charity Navigator, and a Platinum level rating from GuideStar. They give almost 90 cents of every dollar collected to their program services. All of this info can be independently verified. It should go without saying that HFOT is a genuine 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, meaning that they meet the criteria to be tax-exempt (and have to make their cash for very transparent to retain that status).

If you're still questioning what makes Homes For Our Troops a good choice of charities, check out the story of Marine Sergeant Toran Gaal below.

What I Do, and What Really Matters
Before you start saying, "Oh, that Zak is a wonderful person for using his music to help those in need," please be aware of something important: what I do is very easy for me. I log into SL, I get on a virtual stage, and I sing and strum guitar for an hour. I throw a little money into the charity too, but the huge amounts come from my friends and fans who attend the shows, and the generous people who match the funds. During the hour I performed yesterday at Veterans Isle, we raised about L$100,000, which is around $400 USD. That's pretty damn great. That's a significant amount of money for this cause. Again, my show is just a reason to bring people together, and hopefully I am entertaining while getting the importance of the charity's message across. The heroes are those who donate their own hard-earned money to support the cause, and I am extraordinarily grateful that the people who come to my benefit shows are able and willing to do so.

HFOT set list...
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Comes a Time (Neil Young)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Sleeper in the Valley (Laura Veirs
Pancho & Lefty (Townes Van Zandt)
America (Simon & Garfunkel)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
*Can’t Find My Way Home (Blind Faith)
Hand In My Pocket (Alanis Morisette)
Pigs on the Wing (Pink Floyd)
Washed Away (Zak Claxton)
If It Makes You Happy (Sheryl Crow)
Pickles (Zak Claxton)

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

This is the spot in my blog where I usually thank the folks who attended and helped support my show. Since I don't accept any payment or tips at charity shows, here's a list of people who happened to be at the show as indicated by my chat log. Thanks to each of you for being so wonderful and generous!
Dahlea Milena, Waya Snowpaw, Roxeerolla, Grizzly Nightfire, GJackie Winkler, Bri Mcmahon, William Hawksby, Aurelie Chenaux, Thea Dee, Kacey Rad, Sunshine Palmyra, Triana Caldera, Lukis Core, Anastasia Yanwu, RoxHardcore Cyberstar, Denisse Bee, CookieMarco, Kipp McKeenan, my terrific manager Maali Beck, and the man who tirelessly makes these events happen month after month, year after year (and a damn good guitarist to boot), Frets Nirvana!

Thursday, August 23, 2018

The Islands of New England (08.22.18)

Enjoying the show at The Islands of New England. Photo by Kat.

Sigh. I've just returned from dropping off Christina -- aka Kat Claxton -- at LAX. She's heading to Europe for three weeks, and it's a trip she's wanted to take for many years. I'm happy for her, of course, and were I not in a situation where a long period away from work wasn't feasible, I'd have loved to go too. But I'm not the kind of person that would hold back their significant other from things they wanted to do just because of my lack of interest or ability to be involved. That having been said, I really don't like it when she's gone, and while I am a capable adult who can manage just fine on my own, her presence here will be missed.

Meanwhile, there's a ton of shit -- good shit, bad shit, exciting shit, boring shit, and every other kind of shit -- going on at the moment. My son has his first college classes starting next week. All manner of craziness is going on in the government of the USA, which seems to require my checking various news sources about 80 times per day. And, of course, there are the mundane aspects of getting work done, maintaining a home, and all that stuff we all do. It all eats up time and energy.

Side note: I'd been half-heartedly encouraging myself to use the time while Kat is gone to spend a good amount of time in the evenings and weekends on working on new music. I have at least three different projects I could be writing and recording right now... my solo stuff as Zak, my band stuff with They Stole My Crayon, and a whole other thing that isn't baked enough to even mention just yet. I know myself pretty well, and I'm not entirely convinced that I'll actually accomplish any music at all while she's away. We'll see. Regardless, I have a cornucopia of activities to keep myself preoccupied while she is traveling, so my cup runneth over and boredom is really not something that concerns me.

The Show
I always like performing at The Islands of New England in Second Life. I've been doing shows there on a fairly regular basis for about 7-8 years now. I think one of the things I enjoy best about it is that the folks who run the place -- Christine Haiku in particular -- have a better understanding about what goes into a show in SL than most folks do. Christine always refers to my shows as "concerts", and when I first heard her say that, I felt it was a slightly overblown term to use for what we virtual world performers do. But really, in my case and that of many others, it really is enough of a focused performance that it could be considered a concert experience. I carefully curate a set list that I plan based on many factors and tailored to the place where I'm performing. I try and engage with my audience at every single show. I hope that at least sometimes, they close their laptops or walk away from their computers at the end of a Zak Show and feel like they got some decent entertainment from the comfort of their own homes.

Anyway, knowing that, I feel very much at ease at TIONE, and whether we get a big crowd or small, I put the same amount of energy into the performance and do the songs I think people would like to hear (whether they know it or not). Hopefully, I occasionally introduce people to the music of bands and artists they might not have heard otherwise, and it's an outlet to perform my own music (which people would definitely never, ever hear if I wasn't out playing it in SL). I have never once felt forced to conform to any one musical style or vibe at TIONE, and always feel appreciated there. I can't ask for more than that.

Photo by Kat.

Photo by Kat.

Musically, as usual, I had some thoughts behind my set list. "This Afternoon" was one of a couple of songs I'd written about missing Kat before we lived together. "California" is literally about someone traveling through Europe and wanting to come home. There was a theme there, albeit a subtle one. Also, I pulled out songs I hadn't played before by Depeche Mode and Chastity Belt (one of Kat's favorites, actually). I'd say it was a fine example of a Zak Show.

One final note: while we'll still be sweltering in a heat wave or two over the next month here in Southern California, we are quickly approaching my favorite time of year in autumn. I only mention this now because fall has a big effect on my music, and I'm hoping for some seasonal inspiration coming soon.

The Islands of New England set list...
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
One of These Things First (Nick Drake)
*Enjoy the Silence (Depeche Mode)
Washed Away (Zak Claxton)
Among the Leaves (Sun Kil Moon)
*On the Floor (Chastity Belt)
On The Way Home (Buffalo Springfield)
Pickles (Zak Claxton)
Games Without Frontiers (Peter Gabriel)
California (Joni Mitchell)
Waking Light (Beck)

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

Big thanks to all who came out the the show at TIONE, with special thanks to the following who helped support it!
Alexis Fairlady, Triana Caldera, RansomTalmidge Resident, hynesyte Harbour, go2smoky Resident, Anastasia Yanwu, Tyche Szondi, TheaDee Resident, Kat Claxton, Aurelie Chenaux, my great manager Maali Beck, and the always wonderful Christine Haiku!

Tuesday, August 14, 2018

Serenity Gardens (08.13.18)

Rocking Serenity is the best thing that can happen on a Monday night. Photo by Thea Dee.

It was Friday night of last week, just after I'd wrapped up the work week, when Bunny pinged me on our secret They Stole My Crayon hotline. Here's what he wrote.

"Would you homies be interested in doing some ICS-like musical expulsion activities on an upcoming weekend or two, from the comforts of our respective home studios? I feel like I could use an ICS kick-in-the-pants lately."

This requires some explanation. "ICS" stands for Immersion Composition Society. It's something that Bunny was involved with for years and years, and it's a brilliant idea that started up in Northern California. Take a group of songwriters and have them force themselves to write a big batch of songs in a short time frame. Frankly, I'm not very good at it; as soon as I stumble onto some kind of musical idea, it's very hard for me not to want to fully flesh it out. The entire point of an ICS exercise is the opposite of that... to knock out a ton of brand new tunes without a bunch of editing. The actual goal is 20 songs in a 12-hour period per the original ICS idea, but there are really no specific rules.

Back to the present. I had a few boring plans for the weekend involving household chores, but those could be pushed back. I agreed to jump in and do some ICS-style writing the following day. Bunny and I agreed to shoot for 10 songs in a roughly 6-hour period. One of the aspects of an ICS exercise is to not have any preconceived ideas, so while I have other musical themes I'd been working on, I didn't turn to any of them, and just dove in fresh on Saturday morning. Spending a day creating music is a rare luxury for me, and I found I was really enjoying the process. Did I get to 10 songs? Nope. Due to the aforementioned habit of getting sucked too deeply into each song to move on to the next, I did exactly half that... but I did manage to do five songs over the course of a half day, which is pretty great. Bunny, in his usual insanely creative way, did do 10, and several of his have the potential to be really great tunes that will likely end up as TSMC songs. I should note that a few songs off our last album did originate from Bunny's ICS sessions. These writing activities are totally worthwhile.

What I Wrote
Out of my five songs, one of them might end up being good stuff for The Crayon. But there were two of them that I felt were worthy of performance at my show on Monday night at Serenity Gardens in Second Life. They were simple and acoustic based, but apart from those similarities are as different as could be. The first is called "Washed Away", and is about the somewhat depressing but realistic idea that long after the current GOP administration is gone, the actions they took will leave their mark on the world and will be hard to erase in some cases. Listen to the rough demo below.

The second song, "Pickles", is probably the fastest song I ever created in my life, and is about the cat who lives next door. It's pretty self-explanatory and very silly. The entire song, from conception to creating the music and lyrics to the recording you hear below, happened in about 20 minutes.

In case you want to hear Bunny's impressive output of ten songs -- and probably the better way to take advantage of the ICS concept -- here they are.

Please keep in mind that at least in the case of my tunes, these are just demos; very little work went into making them sound particularly good. As music creators, just capturing the idea is the most important aspect at this stage. All the refinements will happen later, if and when a song is recorded "for real".

More from the Show
Up until last night, for my bi-weekly Monday night shows at Serenity, I had been the opening act of the evening for over a year. It was rather nice last night to see that Ilsa had changed up the schedule and I had a singer named Bill473 playing before me at the 5PM slot. Seems like a good guy, and it was cool having a built-in crowd at the venue from the start.

In addition to debuting "Washed Away" and "Pickles" at the show, I also finally covered a Nick Drake song that I'd been meaning to do for a long time. I dedicated "One of These Things First" to my friend and Zakster fan Aurelie Chenaux, since she became a huge ND fan after I introduced her to his music. Since Kat was still at work, several of my Zaksters filled in by sending me some great photos that you see here on this blog, so extra thanks to them.

Playing live music while the sun sets in the virtual world and the real one. Photo by Aurelie Chenaux.

Probably playing "Pickles". Photo by Diana Renoir.

"Meow meow meow meow meow meow meow." Photo by Thea Dee.

I can honestly say I've never had a bad show at Serenity Gardens. Photo by Thea Dee.

Sun's going down, happiness level is going up. Win-win. Photo by Tyche Szondi.

Serenity Gardens set list...
Free Man in Paris (Joni Mitchell)
Six Underground (Sneaker Pimps)
*Pickles (Zak Claxton)
Mother (Pink Floyd)
*One of These Things First (Nick Drake)
On A Plain (Nirvana)
Low (Cracker)
The Man Who Sold the World (David Bowie)
*Washed Away (Zak Claxton)
Thanks Anyway (Zak Claxton)
Crazy Little Thing Called Love (Queen)
A Day in the Life (Beatles)
Serenity End of Show Improv (Zak Claxton)

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

Giant thanks to all who came out to the show, and extra special thanks to the following who helped support it!
dls Falconer, Tyche Szondi, Asimia Heron, go2smoky Resident, Aurelie Chenaux, TwizidxxKitty Resident, Diana Renoir, my excellent manager Maali Beck, and the fabulous team at Serenity Gardens, Tilly Rose and Ilsa Wilde.

Saturday, August 4, 2018

Ladybird's Cellar Grand Opening (08.03.18)

I got to be the very first musician to play live at Ladybird's Cellar, and it was awesome. Photo by Kat.

Every time I think I've done everything in live music performance in Second Life, something new comes along. For example, while I've performed a few times at the grand opening of a new SL venue, I'd never been the very first performer to grace a brand new stage until last night, when I had that unique honor at Anastasia Yanwu's place, Ladybird's Cellar. Ana is a very sweet woman who I've known for many years, at first through her close friendship to my buddy and fellow musician Sassy Nitely. I then got the chance to meet her in the physical realm back in 2014, when Kat and I went to Tennessee for the Nashville SL Jam. Ana even sat in on a song with me there and sang harmonies.

It was a couple of weeks ago when Ana hit me up on Facebook to see if I was available at 5PM on a Friday, and told me about her new place. I was delighted; doing a 5:00 show on a Friday sounded perfect. I've been extraordinarily busy with work lately, which is great as a small business owner. But it also means that I can really appreciate any opportunity to relax and unwind, and what better way to do that than strapping on the guitar and doing an hour of live music at the end of another grueling week? I told her yes immediately.

I love this photo gallery of featured performers at Ladybird's Cellar. It will be great to see this get filled in with all the best musicians in SL, as I'm sure will eventually be the case. Photo by Kat.

The lineup for the grand opening: a Sassy Nitely sandwich, with Liam Wakeman and I as the bread. Photo by Kat.

Does the Venue Matter?
Here's something I find fascinating that I'm sure I've pointed out before on the occasions where I play for the first time at a venue in Second Life, especially a brand new place like Ladybird's Cellar. You might think that in a virtual world, the venue itself has no effect on the performance of the artist. After all, we're still in our same physical space where we always play music... most likely a bedroom or office or den or the like in a home where we have our music stuff set up. A side note: it doesn't take a lot of music gear to perform in SL. You have your instrument (or whatever source of sound you use), a microphone for singing assuming your show involves vocals, and an interface that gets your audio into your computer. That's really it, other than any stuff you want to add for your specific kind of performance. The sound gets streamed out via some software, the stream address is set at the SL venue, and the people hear you. It's pretty awesome that it's even possible.

Sorry, got side tracked. The point is that as a musician, you're there in your room, and you're using the same gear, so why would it make any difference at all how you perceive the environment where your avatar is? I won't speak for all SL performers, but I imagine many of them feel the same: it makes a HUGE difference! As musicians, even though we're focused on performing, we are also in this immersive virtual world, so it simply feels different playing in an open outdoor space versus a small club. The decor and vibe of the build do affect your mindset as a performer in the same way that playing different types of venues in real life do. How close is the audience? What's my view from the elevated stage area? These things matter, even if it's to a degree that's so small as to almost be imperceptible. But it's there.

Being in this kind of SL venue -- as opposed to a bar, an arena, a beach, an open field -- makes a difference in your vibe as a performer. Photo by Kat.

Ladybird's Cellar is totally gorgeous. Classy while still feeling intimate and fun. Photo by Kat.

Of course, the biggest factor of what influences your performance is the audience itself, and different venues attract different crowds. I had no idea what to expect crowd-wise for the opening of Ladybird's Cellar. Even with my own little base of Zakster fans, I had no idea how many of them would be available to come to a show on a Friday evening... a day/time that I usually don't perform. I was really pleased that so many folks made it out for the show at a new place. By the time we were a few songs in, the space was feeling pretty full, and I was definitely inspired to put a lot of fun energy into the show as a result.

Sassy Nitely, Anastasia Yanwu, and Kat dance while I do my musical thing. Photo by Kat.

A stalker's view from outside of Ladybird's Cellar. Photo by Kat.

Ladybird's Cellar set list...
Airport Bar (Martin Courtney)
Pretty Pimpin’ (Kurt Vile)
If I Had a Tail (Queens of the Stone Age)
Play With Fire (Rolling Stones)
Among the Leaves (Sun Kil Moon)
Say Goodbye (Beck)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Alison (Elvis Costello)
Abrasion (They Stole My Crayon)
I Believe When I Fall In Love (Stevie Wonder)
Wildflowers (Tom Petty)
Man of Constant Sorrow (Traditional)
Tribute (Tenacious D)

Massive thanks to all who came to the grand opening of Ladybird's Cellar, with special shout-outs to the following folks who helped support my show!
Anashara Resident, Smidge Frimon, Langarhans Resident, MzAllison Resident, Diana Renoir, Helena Kiama, Asimia Heron, go2smoky Resident, Thunder Insippo, Kat Claxton, Alex Zelin, Sassy Nitely, driver Fallen, TheaDee Resident, and most of all Anastasia Yanwu... congrats on a terrific grand opening!