Sunday, August 29, 2021

My Top Ten Rolling Stones Songs

Well, Charlie Watts has died. The Wembley Whammer is no more. There have been lots of great eulogies and tributes over the past five days, and I don't need to write another one. I will simply say that the Stones have been a part of my life for a long time, and Charlie was one of the essential elements -- some say the most important one -- that made that band so great.

In any case, while it's very difficult to whittle that storied band's output over the course of almost six decades to a limited number of favorites, here are my top ten. Note that this is my top ten, not the top ten. My reasons for enjoying these songs might have little to do with yours, and the list is based on my unique experiences in life that have some association with the music. It's in alphabetical order, because I can't possibly rank stuff of this greatness.

Can't Ya Hear Me Knocking (Sticky Fingers, 1971)

This song kind of has it all. A super edgy riff by Keith, a great drum performance by Charlie, and a super Jagger vocal. And then a whole improvised jam at the end which is beyond brilliant, featuring a killer sax solo by Bobby Keys. It was the first thing I listened to after hearing that Charlie was gone. That must mean something.

Gimme Shelter (Let It Bleed, 1969)

Well, when you have a song that becomes the go-to sound for defining an entire era in history, you've probably done something pretty cool. It pulls you in with that soft yet menacing descending vibrato-laden progression by Keith, but I will always listen through to hear Merry Clayton's voice crack during her solo section.

Monkey Man (Let It Bleed, 1969)

This is the Stonesiest song ever. It's built around a raunchy open-tuned riff by Keith, has that fucking great Nicky Hopkins piano throughout, and has an undertone of druggy antisocial badness that helps define that band in its greatest mode. Mick's vocal on this is perfect; it's the swagger that defined rock moving forward. When I started curating this list, it was the first song I wrote down... draw your own conclusions.

Paint It Black (Aftermath, 1966)

A little personal note. I was born in 1969, so a big chunk of the Stones' output happened either before I was alive, or before I was old enough to be my own person with my own musical preferences (more on that below). However, in 7th grade or so, I got ahold of a Rolling Stones compilation album on vinyl LP called Hot Rocks 1964-1971, and I wore out the grooves with the number of times I played it. Almost all of my deepest familiarity with their earlier series of hits came via that album. I loved the Middle Eastern-sounding melody here. Cool stuff and very adventurous for 1966.

Shattered (Some Girls, 1978)

Here's a point where I can give credit where credit is due. I was the oldest in my family, but my best friends had older brothers and/or sisters, and it was through them that I got my initial exposure to some of the coolest music that I enjoy to this day. I was just nine when Some Girls came out, but while hanging out at my friends' homes, I heard this album on constant repeat and grew to love it before I even really knew who the Stones were. "Shattered" had that great phaser sound on the guitar, and the bass was played by Ronnie Wood in a way that makes this ode to New York City distinctive in the Stones' catalog.

Start Me Up (Tattoo You, 1981)

So, as I may have mentioned before, Tattoo You was the very first album of music I went and bought for myself, and the reason I bought it was "Start Me Up". I don't know what it was about that song. Again, the sonic uniqueness of Keith's riff was big, but Charlie turning the fucking beat around on the first drum hit of the song (snare on the one? What the fuck man?) made it impossible to stop listening once it started. A little tidbit on that album: I assumed it was brand new when it came out (I was in 8th grade at the time), but not really. They'd recorded most of those songs at various sessions between 1972-1979, and were basically considered outtakes originally intended for other albums, which blows my mind. 

Sway (Sticky Fingers, 1971)

People seem to forget that the Rolling Stones had three guys who played along with Keith Richards on guitar. The early stuff was by the tortured genius and co-founder Brian Jones. The later stuff was done by the always seemingly pleasant Ron Wood. But right in the middle, between 1969 and 1974 when the band was, in my opinion, doing its very best work, was a guy named Mick Taylor. There is some controversy about "Sway" with Taylor claiming he deserved a writing credit on the tune, but regardless of that, his solos on both the bridge and outro are among the best guitar work that's ever been on any Stones recording. Even without the guitar, that chorus ("It's just that demon life has got you in its sway") is so... fucking... good.

Sympathy for the Devil (Beggars Banquet, 1968)

Hard to not include another generation-defining song here. For me, I think "Sympathy" was also my introduction to the concept of the anti-hero. It's also interesting that the Stones never considered themselves a "political band", and yet this song and "Street Fighting Man" off the same album were the soundtrack of the youth movement and cultural change, and both faced controversy as a result. As a kid, I just loved the beat and the vibe. I still do.

Under My Thumb (Aftermath, 1966)

Might as well get this out of the way: did a number of Rolling Stones songs have elements of misogyny? Oh yeah, most definitely. I'm not going to write a novel explaining or justifying this, but in the case of "Under My Thumb", I've always had the feeling that the protagonist of the song is more hurt than intent on being evil. I get the idea that he's dreaming that the girl could be controlled by him, rather than actually being the controlling person he paints himself to be. Anyway, I loved the marimba part by Brian Jones, and the fuzz bass by Wyman is terrific as well.

The Worst (Voodoo Lounge, 1994)

Here's the only song on my list that's a) not a hit of any kind, b) from the band's later period, and c) sung by Keith Richards instead of Mick Jagger. It's also the only one from this list that came out when I was in my 20s, married, and had a real career-focused job, as opposed to in my childhood. From the first time I heard it, I like the "guilty as charged" tone of the narrator here. Still great. Simple but beautiful.

Impossible-To-Not-Mention Other Amazing Stones Songs...

2000 Light Years From Home, Angie, As Tears Go By, Beast of Burden, Bitch, Dead Flowers, Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker), Emotional Rescue, Get Off of My Cloud, Happy, Heart of Stone, (I Can't Get No) Satisfaction, It's Only Rock 'n Roll (But I Like It), Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Little T&A, Midnight Rambler, Miss You, Mixed Emotions, Moonlight Mile, Mother's Little Helper, Play with Fire, Ruby Tuesday, She's a Rainbow, She's So Cold, Slave, Some Girls, Street Fighting Man, Tumbling Dice, Undercover of the Night, Waiting on a Friend, You Can't Always Get What You Want

Feel free to mention your own Stones favorites in the comments... and include what you love about them!

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Lutz City of Templemore (08.07.21)

There are few places in Second Life more beautiful than Templemore, especially on a lovely summer weekend afternoon. Photo by Kat.

If you happened to read my blog from my previous show earlier this week, you may have noted that I gave a little foreshadowing to my plans for my show on Saturday at Lutz City of Templemore in Second Life. I said...

"My musical theme for this show was "mellow summer goodness", and for the most part, I stuck with songs that would be familiar to the crowd I expected at Hotel Chelsea. I have another show at another venue this coming weekend where I'll likely play more indie music and deeper cuts. It always balances out."

So, am I so incredibly organized that I fully plan set lists for multiple shows extending far out into the future? Oh God, no. No, not at all. But looking at that previous show's repertoire, which had a lot of great songs that everyone knew and could sing along with, I was aware that I'd want to be a little more adventurous for my next outing to the stage.

It doesn't always mean that my audience is going to be into all the stuff that I'm into, and there's always a calculated risk that some folks really just want the comfort of familiarity when they check out a live artist in SL. But I have found over the years that by nature of most SL people being open to new things in general, they are often receptive to hearing music they haven't heard before.

Where Do I Find Interesting New Music?
I know I've addressed this before, but it's worth bringing up every so often. I have a bunch of resources to discover new music that I might like. It's helpful that I know the specific styles and subgenres I like, but no matter what you're into, someone out there is cranking out great new music you'd love if you could just find it. As it turns out, you can.

  • Bandcamp is an entire online platform designed for music discovery. As a recording artist, I am a huge fan of Bandcamp because they allow us to price our music very flexibly (allowing fans to listen to music before buying and then pay what they want in many cases), pay artists fairly, and give people great tools to discover new music based on the genres they prefer, or via suggestions based on the artists they like. TIP: Scroll down the main page to the "Discover" area, and start sorting music on Bandcamp based on your musical tastes.
Bandcamp has tons of great music to choose from, mostly from independent artists like me. In fact, go there right now and check out some Zak Claxton or They Stole My Crayon.

  • Radio Garden is incredibly fun. Spin the globe and check out streaming radio stations from around the planet, or use the search features and pick out stations that match your musical interest. Each little green dot is a radio station, and the larger dots represent city area where many stations are available to check out. TIP: open Google in a new tab to search terms like "Best Shoegaze Radio" and then check out the results using Radio Garden. 
I've found great stations across the USA and throughout Europe, Asia, and Africa using Radio Garden. Plus, the globe interface is fun and can truly allow you to discover new things by happy accident.

  • YouTube is now one of the primary methods of music listening in the world. It's not surprising, since the world's largest video service has a huge built-in audience. Nearly every band and artist who have released music commercially has it available on YouTube... like me. I have a few go-to YouTube channels that are focused on the styles of music I enjoy. One of them is run by a mysterious guy named David Dean Burkhart, and if you're into indie pop, bedroom pop, shoegaze, dream pop and related styles, he's a good starting point. 
I've spent many a Saturday afternoon digging through the new releases on David Dean Burkhart's YouTube channel. If I like an artist, I'll use the links provided to learn more about them and to buy their music. This happens a lot.

Back to the Show
I will tell you, we didn't have a huge crowd at Templemore's lovely Conservatory Stage, and there's a wide range of factors why that happens sometimes. I've performed music in Second Life for almost 15 years now, and all performing artists in SL can tell you stories of having 15 people at a show and then 50 at the next. The day and time of your show, the venue, the invariable aspects of competing with people's time for leisure activities in and outside of SL... it all factors in.

That being said, what was much more important to me was the quality of the show itself, and my wish for more people having been there is based on it having been a fucking outstanding show. The songs all worked together, my voice and guitar were doing everything I wanted, and honestly regardless of a small audience, I did a kick-ass show that would rival any of them.

I've said it many times: the coolness of the show is not dependent on the size of the crowd. For the few folks who were there, they got one of my better shows ever. And the reverse is true... I've had some awful shows on packed sims before. Photo by Kat.

Me onstage. So, you might laugh, but my big, colorful tip jar you see me using at other venues just doesn't aesthetically work at Templemore. That's why I created this little cardboard/plywood tip sign just for use at that venue only. Also, still masked in SL, just like real life. if someone has a problem with that, they're probably someone whom I'd rather not be at the show anyway. Photo by Kat.

Templemore set list...
Swirl (Charlie Martin)
Blew the Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Bang and Blame (R.E.M.)
El Invento (José González)
River Man (Nick Drake)
Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm (Crash Test Dummies)
Among the Leaves (Sun Kil Moon)
Bird of Paradise (Cory Hanson)
Box by the Cliff (They Stole My Crayon)
Faded in the Morning (Unknown Mortal Orchestra)
Starman (David Bowie)
If I Had a Tail (Queens of the Stone Age)
Jesus Ranch (Tenacious D)

Huge thanks to those who came to Templemore for the show, with extra thanks to the following who helped support it!
daralish Resident, Brooks Conundrum, Trouble Streeter, Kat Claxton, Zigmal Resident, my manager Maali Beck, and Templemore's terrific co-owner Grace Sixpence and hostess Amaya Mavinelli!

Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Hotel Chelsea (08.03.21)

Bringing along the mellow summer sounds at Hotel Chelsea. Photo by Kat.

I always have the best intentions of writing updates to this blog whether or not I'm doing live music shows, and inevitably that takes a back seat to other things I have to do. It begs the question: do I write blog posts because I have shows to report, or do I do shows since it gives me a reason to blog?

It's too early in the morning to consider these philosophical questions, and I'm not even done with my first cup of coffee, so we'll table that for the time being. I did have a terrific show last night at Hotel Chelsea in Second Life, and we'll talk about that after some other stuff.

Welcome Back (Not), COVID
Things had been going so well. I was actually feeling a glimmer of optimism that with the huge rush of people getting vaccinated from the start of the year through June, we'd have a good chance of pretty much wiping out COVID-19 and getting back to a more fun and relaxed lifestyle by this fall.

That feeling started diminishing as June turned to July and the realization set in that a certain group of people were so deeply brainwashed that they were never going to get vaccinated. And then, the numbers started reflecting the results of their poor decisions.

Data from the New York Times. That sharp upward trend began in mid-June as COVID restrictions were lifted and people became more at ease with interacting with others in public without wearing masks. Almost all the new cases are the Delta variant of COVID-19, though that's definitely not the last mutation that will affect us.

Why Should I Care if You're Vaccinated?
This is super easy to understand, but requires a tiny bit of knowledge about how viruses work. Just a tiny bit. You're smart. You'll get this.

You know how each year, there's a new flu shot? That's because the influenza virus isn't one thing. It's a very old virus that mutates over the course of time. As you recall, some forms of the flu have been more dangerous than others. Around 1918, the H1N1 form of the flu virus infected 500 million people -- one-third of the world’s population at the time. It killed at least 50 million worldwide, with about 675,000 flu deaths occurring in the United States.

But H1N1 isn't the only form of influenza virus. H3N2, H1N2 are variants of the original flu virus, and each of them has its own mutations. It's a constant battle to create effective flu vaccines that protect people from these diseases that in some cases can still be deadly. With me so far?

SARS-CoV-2 is the name of the virus that causes the COVID-19 illness. However, it has proven to be very adaptable and quick to mutate to similar forms that might not be as effectively fought with current vaccines. Within a matter of months, the initial forms of SARS-CoV-2 had mutated to another strain that, while producing similar terrible life-threatening results, was even more transmissible due to higher viral loads in infected people. That version is currently the most predominant one around the world, and is called B.1.617.2, also known as Delta.

When a good portion of the world's population is sick, dying, or dead, keep in mind that we could have wiped out this disease the same way we did polio and smallpox... and these folks convinced you to do otherwise. Photo from The Guardian.

So What?
Well, Delta isn't the final form of SARS-CoV-2. It continues to mutate, and especially in areas where not enough people are vaccinated, other strains are already around, and more will be forthcoming. In addition to Delta, there are currently also variants including Lambda, Gamma, an unnamed variant known as B.1.621, and recently Epsilon forms of COVID around.

Fact check: true.

We already know that we're going to require booster shots to help protect people against these mutations. But what happens when a variant comes around that is resistant to all known vaccines? The answer is horrifying. It could be far, far worse than the current total of deaths and severe illnesses of the past 20 months.

Why does your choice to not be vaccinated affect me? Because of you, the virus gets spread further and has a higher rate of mutation, and eventually my vaccine doesn't protect me anymore. Because of you. C'mon folks.

Enough on that nightmare. The point is that with enough people vaccinated, and people continuing to respect social distancing and masking, we can lower the odds of these mutations becoming widely spread. So please... get vaccinated and encourage people you care about to do so. There have been enough stories of people who wished they'd been vaccinated while on their deathbed. It's terribly sad. Do the right thing.

How About that Show?
We had a terrific show at Hotel Chelsea. I typically plan a set list a few days before any given show. The factors that go into my choices are myriad. How am I feeling? What's the weather like? What's going on in the world? How's my voice holding up? These questions all boil down to a general amorphous vibe, and I plan the set accordingly. My musical theme for this show was "mellow summer goodness", and for the most part, I stuck with songs that would be familiar to the crowd I expected at Hotel Chelsea. I have another show at another venue this coming weekend where I'll likely play more indie music and deeper cuts. It always balances out.

A nice big crowd, and I think more and more of Max Kleene's folks are staying for the Zak Show each time I play Hotel Chelsea. Bonus. Photo by Kat.

It's funny (not really) that I was kinda planning to remove my mask in SL by now. As soon as I can confidently be safe indoors in public in real life without a mask, it will come off in SL as well. Photo by Kat.

This was a really good show. Supportive, enthusiastic crowd, a set list that worked well, and my enjoying the whole thing. Photo by Kat.

Hotel Chelsea set list...
Peaceful Easy Feeling (Eagles)
Saved by Zero (The Fixx)
Doin’ Time (Sublime)
Sundown (Gordon Lightfoot)
*Mmm Mmm Mmm Mmm (Crash Test Dummies)
Woodstock (Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young)
Free Man in Paris (Joni Mitchell)
Pecan Pie (Golden Smog)
Say Goodbye (Beck)
On The Way Home (Buffalo Springfield)
Rhiannon (Fleetwood Mac)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)

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

Huge thanks to each and every person who hung out for my show, with super extra thanks to the following who helped support it!
Tyche Szondi, Harlow Davi, Diana Renoir, Diadorine Lane, KriJon Resident, Szaas Szteiger, Trouble Streeter, Maximillion Kleene, noowun Wind, Kat Claxton, Nina Brandenburg, El Elephas, my terrific manager Maali Beck, and Hotel Chelsea manager Shyla the Super Gecko!