Monday, May 18, 2015

Almost Circumnavigation of Grape Island

Everything was pointing toward Plum Island Sound on Sunday the 17th, and I followed the pointers towards the sea.  I've only been blogging about a few of my kayak trips lately, but this was one I should mention.

I've had my Wilderness Systems Pungo 14 (named Ruby) since late last summer, and I'd been dying to really get her out and go through her paces.  The tide was right, the wind was forecast to be perfect (more on that), and it was a beautiful, sunny mid-Spring day, well before most boats hit the water.

We drove out to Great Neck, Ipswich, arriving just after 10AM.  The fog was drifting in from the ocean and shrouded everything mysteriously.  I knew that Plum Island was over there however, and started up quickly, right across the mouth of the Sound, letting the ripping incoming tide toss us around and force us to the North.

Rounded the point with the (most recently) abandoned house on that Eastern shore, and the tide was perfect an hour before change-over for me to attempt a circumnavigation of Grape Island.  There were the largest ospreys I've ever seen (including one flying close overhead with a fish), cormorants, gulls, ducks, swifts, and eventually a few snowy egrets and white herons.  There were acres and acres and acres of salt marsh just starting to swell with grass.  I wandered in and out among the sunken hummocks of mud and thought I had picked the right path to get around.

Grape Island was beautiful with sudden massive bushes of lilacs, thick stands of maple and pine, and the muddy-rocky shoreline you'll see on a tidal island in the Northeast.  Unfortunately, it was swamped with invasive bittersweet, and even the tallest pines were draped in it.

Couldn't make it all the way around and so backed up to my starting point and got swept in the last bits of the incoming tide up the Western side of Plum Island.  I was paddling away and Ruby was cruising, going faster and faster with the strengthening Southeast wind.  This was perhaps going to be a problem: the forecast had been for "5-7 knots from the Northwest, becoming calm by afternoon."  What we experienced was totally the opposite.

Ruby and I eventually turned about when the maintenance barns for Parker River Refuge came into sight, and headed directly back for Grape Island, cutting across the winding channel and almost directly into the stiffening wind.  Only a handful of boats were out that sunny Sunday, and we all knew how to be courteous to each other.  Ruby sure showed her pace here, as we just ate up that distance and kept true to the line, backed by the steadily increasing outbound tide.

Paused for a short snack stop at the Northern end of Grape Island, and then drifted the few miles back to the beach at Great Neck, pushed by the powerful tide.  It was a little more than 3 hours in all, but I could have stayed out there for a while, what a beautiful day and what a great kayak!

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Jorma Solo at the Bull Run

Jorma Kaukonen has recently issued what could be his best solo record, which is saying a lot since others he's done have been so excellent.  Ain't In No Hurry was produced by Larry Campbell and has Larry, Teresa, Jack, and Barry all over it ... the usual suspects.  His schedule is all over the place (including coming to the area with Jack, Larry, and Teresa in 6 weeks, which we're going to miss!), but he stopped by the Bull Run for a solo concert on Friday, May 15th.

We didn't get the dead-center front table but were two to the left of that, and got there early enough to grab the seats fronting the stage.  After we enjoyed another nice Bull Run dinner, Jorma came on with his off-yellow flannel shirt, his silver hair, his butcher's hands, and his library of excellent songs.  He's one of my favorite songwriters.

Jorma played one set and had the packed house just drooling, hanging on his every syllable.  You could have heard a pin drop at times and at other times people throughout the room screamed in delight.  He was as Southern-Ohio folksy as ever, engaging in a little conversation with the fans, playing Death Don't Have No Mercy for B.B. King (who had just passed away), and telling a funny story about Jack Casady at his estate on the Isle of Jersey.

We would have loved to have seen a band with Jorma, but we knew we were going to be in for an evening of concentrated excellence with him solo, and we sure were.  He took his time, he wasn't in no hurry, and he knocked every one of these songs out of the park with his beautiful voice (in better form than I'd ever heard it), and his awesome guitar.  I may be remembering the order wrong and/or missing a couple, but here's what he played:

True Religion
The Other Side Of the Mountain
Ain't In No Hurry
Death Don't Have No Mercy
Hesitation Blues
Barbecue King
In My Dreams
Come Back Baby
Where There's Two There's Trouble
I Am the Light Of This World
Good Shepherd
How Long Blues
Bar Room Crystal Ball
Water Song
Know You Rider
Never Happen No More

Jorma stayed on the same acoustic with nylon strings all night (with thumb-pick and fingers), but switched to a ringing one with steel strings and a wide fret board for Bar Room Crystal Ball (top of my desired list for the night) and Water Song (only one of the best songs ever).

He referred to playing at the Dear Jerry extravaganza in Maryland the night before (he did Sugaree on electric, we heard it on the web) and said that he'd wanted to play the next song, but was told that he couldn't.  Then he launched into Know You Rider and killed it of course.  Probably wouldn't have been fitting for him to do a song at a Jerry tribute that he always (debatably) played better than Garcia.

There were several outbursts and standing ovations throughout the night, including me after Death Don't Have No Mercy, which was just incredible.  We rang the place with some of the loudest applause I've ever heard there when he moved to finish, but after standing away from his chair for a bit, nodding and smiling, he came back and did Never Happen No More for us.  Some people still wouldn't quit, begging for a second encore, but Jorma had enjoyed himself and was now done.  He'd been in Maryland the night before and had to be in Manhattan the next night.  I hope to be as active in my 70s!

What top-notch music and what a great way to spend a mid-Spring Friday night.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Alpine Valley, 1989-07-19

We’ve been going to the Grateful Dead “Meet-up At the Movies” the last few years, and it’s always been in August.  But they suddenly announced the next one back at the end of March, with not much time to get ready.  What was going on?  It must be that this video release (1989-07-19, East Troy, WI (Alpine Valley Music Theatre)) was holding up plans for other “50th birthday” releases, so they wanted to get it out of the way.  I think it likely that this one will be released commercially sometime after the live event.

But anyway, seeing the last few movies in theaters has been a lot of fun, so we went ahead and got tickets to this one, on May 4th at the Lowell Showcase Cinemas.

I met Dave and Sarah at the train station, we had a great dinner sitting on the sidewalk of Fuse Bistro on Palmer Street (a warm/hot day at last!!!), a couple of fancy beers, and then booked on over to the theater, where the Deadheads were definitely convening and getting ready for a movie.  The theater itself was only a quarter full, but we all had a great time, with everybody applauding desultorily and a few dancing in front of the screen and in the aisles.

We were a bit familiar with the show since the “Downhill From Here” video is from the show two days before at Alpine Valley, and for some reason includes the last 3 songs from the first set of the 19th!?!  The question was if they’d be reprised in this film or what.  And the whole stand is fantastic, considered by many to be one of the best of that period, which no less an authority than Bobby says is the peak of their career.  Phil had selected the first song of the second set (Box Of Rain) for his From the Phil Zone record.  So we were psyched.

We got great seats, and the sound was very good; I could have used a little more volume in all, and a bit more of Phil in the mix but I’d say it was better than the last two Dead movies we’d seen in theaters.  The lighting and production values were very good; they had a consistently dark, back-lit look that was easy on the eyes and set a great mood.  The credit sequences were nice and simple, no need to gild the lily here.  But the camera work was a little bizarre and got tiresome.  It seemed they had no more imagination than to zoom in, zoom out, pan right, and pan left … over and over.  Their close-ups were way too close (we don’t need to be able to count the blotches on Jerry’s face), and when they panned it seemed to have no purpose at all other than to do something with the camera.  During Space the cameras couldn't figure out where to focus, so zoomed in on Billy's abandoned drum set, then zoomed out, then zoomed in, then zoomed out, ad nauseum.

Besides those technical details though, it was a fantastic experience … we were there for the music and it was beyond excellent.  We came away saying the same thing the experts had said, that the first set was ridiculously awesome and the second set, though it had its not-great stretches (TOO was just not the same in 1989 as compared to what it had been in 1969), was pretty awesome itself.  Highlights for me were some excellent guitar work on Mama Tried > Mexicali, a stunning Althea, and Morning Dew in the second set.  Other great moments were the ensemble singing on Box Of Rain (though at other times the singing was not far above average), Garcia’s leads on Foolish Heart, possibly the best West L.A. I’ve ever heard, and of course the following Desolation Row and Deal.  These last 3 are the ones that are on Downhill From Here and were mostly shown with different camera angles, though some were literal repeats.

Here’s the setlist:

Set 1
Hell In A Bucket
Sugaree
Mama Tried >
Mexicali Blues
Althea
Victim Or The Crime >
West L.A. Fadeaway
Desolation Row >
Deal

Set 2
Box Of Rain >
Foolish Heart >
Looks Like Rain
Terrapin Station >
Drums >
Space >
The Other One >
The Wheel >
Morning Dew

Encore
Turn On Your Love Light

Closed with an uninspired 80's Lovelight, and then we all applauded, whooped it up, and took off for home.  It was suddenly another Monday night with a long work week ahead, but we were all smiling because for a few hours we’d just been back in 1989 with the Grateful Dead!

Friday, May 1, 2015

Tom and the Rose Of Roscrae

We were way overdue to see one of my top musicians, Tom Russell, and we heard he’d be at Club Passim for the first stop of the tour to promote his new record.  The record (The Rose of Roscrae) came out a few weeks before the concert and is fantastic.  It’s an Irish-western-traditional-modern folk opera on two CDs that has everyone in the world singing on it, in all different styles … exactly what you’d expect from the great Tom Russell at this stage of his career, but better!

We met at On the Border as always on Wednesday April 29th, and then trickled across the street to Passim in time for a nice dinner from their new menu.  Cousin Kate was there, as was Dave Palmatier, who had interviewed Tom on WUMB that afternoon, but it was not a full house.  Tom was accompanied by Thad Beckman, and came out wearing all black (including his cowboy hat) and a white scarf.  The hat and scarf soon were discarded and Tom and Thad ripped it up seriously.

After opening with a bit of Carrick Fergus to set the stage, they dove into Hair Trigger Heart and had the audience singing along raucously very soon.  Tom has a way of rambling and had a lot of explaining to do, to set the songs for the audience who weren't already familiar with the opera (I’d read the libretto so knew it very well, and heard that afternoon's interview).

In the first set Tom covered all the strong tracks you'd expect him to cover from the record, including Johnny Behind-the-Deuce, I Talk to God, He wasn't a Bad Kid, and Tularosa.  He also did what I consider the best song on the record, the Ian Tyson co-write When the Wolves No Longer Sing.  We were at table 10 and so could be easily seen from the stage and Tom seemed to know that I knew that he was going to sing Wolves,  This was his first introduction to The Committee (except for 8 years ago of course).  He and Thad closed with a bang with Tonight We Ride.

Kind of a "what you'd expect" concert so far, though what you expect from Tom is supreme excellence.  But they came out for the second set and broke the mold with a vengeance.  Tom started off with a bit of Ragland Road (as he had with Carrick Fergus last set), but then left the new record behind and delved into the last phase of his career with St. Olav's Gate (ok, three phases ago), East of Woodstock West of Vietnam, the amazing, amazing Guadalupe, Nina Simone, and Stealing Electricity.  He also had Thad do a track from his most recent record.

OK, time for the greatest hits part of the show.  Tom was as talkative as ever; he did Navajo Rug with all the "ai-ai-ais" you could handle and then gave Blue Wing an extended introduction, including mentioning that it had won "best Tom Russell song ever."  I shouted out that I'd voted for Bowl Of Red (I actually went for Blue Wing too of course, it's possibly the best song ever written), and he laughed and said that he wrote that back in the 40s!  He asked for a closer and someone came up with the wonderful suggestion of Let the Credits Roll, which he played extremely well.

I talked with Tom after the show and related the story of The Committee.  I remembered it as 4-5 years ago but when I got home I realized it was more like eight years ago!  Another wonderful night with one of the best musicians around, and I hope he has great luck on this and future tours, and with his new record. 

Sunday, March 29, 2015

Pine Hill Project in Cambridge

Richard Shindell is an all-star and a triple-threat folk musician: songwriting, guitar, and voice.  Some of his best work has been with accompaniment by another all-star, Lucy Kaplansky.  I heard that those two had finally united for a project, and then heard that the two of them were playing in Cambridge with Larry Campbell and Teresa Williams, who are way up on my list of all-stars themselves.

Club Passim was hosting them, but the concert was at the historic First Parish Church in Cambridge, right on the corner of Church Street in Harvard Square.  Another case of getting tickets as soon as possible of course.

The Pine Hill Project's record came out in the meantime, produced by Larry naturally, and with him all over it.  I heard Shindell interviewed on WUMB a few days before the concert.  Dave Palmatier asked him where the name came from, and Shindell talked about Thoreau saying that he "Needed to climb up on the Pine Hill" to clear his mind.  Thoreau meant this metaphorically.  He went on to say that as an individual, he felt he should be able to "find a Pine Hill within myself."  Shindell also said that he (not Thoreau) was a Deadhead (when asked about their cover of I Know You Rider).

Anyway, we had an early Saturday dinner at Russell House Tavern in HSq and then sauntered over to the church well before the doors opened, only to find 50 people already in line!  Made it in eventually and went right up to the front, where there were unaccounted-for seats in the first pew ... which we grabbed.  Campbell and Williams came out for a first set with Jeffrey Hill, who was filling in for the AWOL Byron Isaacs.

They were fantastic.  Larry had several acoustic guitars on stage and stuck to them, while Teresa played some fine rhythm.  They did If I Had My Way, Lamps Trimmed and Burning, several originals we hadn't heard (they have an album coming out in June), a Louvin Brothers song, Big River, and were just absolutely excellent.  We talked to Kate and Mager at the break and they were gobstruck, especially by Teresa's emoting on Lamps, which we'd seen on display at the Lesh and Friends concerts last year.

Then the break and finally Richard and Lucy came on and I have to say their set did not meet expectations.  There were some great moments, like Larry playing some fantastic mandolin on Wichita (the Welch song), Lucy's new song Reunion, Richard's re-imagined Are You Happy Now, the beautiful Rain Just Falls, etc.  But there was lots of boring tuning, slow song after slow song, Richard practicing his electric guitar licks on stage instead of sticking to what he does well, a laborious Next Best Western, and more tuning.

Don't get me wrong, the set was delightful, though it was below my expectations.  Richard and Lucy sound so good together it's criminal, and Larry is just a marvel, taking over Wichita and many other songs on mandolin, rocking out on guitar, and playing some of the best, most ethereal pedal steel I've ever heard.  Another highlight was Lucy's Ten Year Night, which is a fabulous song ... those two have written some of the best modern folk songs.  But this was another slow dirge and what we needed was some pep, especially in a hot and stuffy church on a Saturday night with our pews getting more and more uncomfortable.

They finally concluded with what we'd been waiting all night to hear: their cover of I Know You Rider.  Again, done very well, featuring some technically fantastic leads from Larry, but done slowly.  Larry tried to get a jam going and did for a while; Lucy almost had to push him out of the way so she could get back to the mike and sing another verse when what this needed was some freelancing.  Oh well.

They brought Teresa out with them for the encore: Greg Brown's Oh Lord I Have Made You a Place In My Heart.  More excellence here: Teresa fit incredibly tastefully between Richard and Lucy, possibly channeling Dar Williams from the Cry Cry Cry record.  But this wasn't quite the rocker we were hoping for ... oh well again.  They were done and left the stage to a fitting standing ovation, this was a band of all-stars after all and though I may grouse, there was a ton of excellence shown.

Long walk back up Mass Ave. to our parking spot, but there are signs that another brutal New England winter may be on its last legs, and it was Saturday night!

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Dave and Phil Alvin in Cambridge

Dave and Phil Alvin were so off-the-charts fantastic at GRF last summer, and when we saw they were playing Sinclair in Cambridge, we grabbed tickets immediately.  Made it to busy Harvard Square on the first full day of Spring and were able to squeeze into the parking lot on Church Street, then get in line at the club.  We looked around when we got inside but finally figured what the heck, we were going to stand in front of the stage, right between the brothers.

The Far West opened and played a rocking, tight set that warmed up our eardrums, including a Hank Williams song.  Dave came out to join them for the last number, Townes' White Freightliner, which they killed!

Then one more beer and the place was suddenly packed, squishing us a bit up against the stage.  Dave and Phil came out with Dave's ace band of Lisa Pancratz, Brad Fordham, and Chris Miller, and they proceeded to tear the place up.  The band was on like you wouldn't believe, Phil was doing his jaw-dropping vocals, and Dave was as supreme as ever on the blues-rock guitar.

We were so close to Dave (basically 2 feet when he was at his mike), that we could see details of his guitar style.  He had a thumbpick that he plucked with his forefinger, and used two other fingers to pick the higher notes.  He had three tight rings on his right hand that looked functional (as well as stylistic), helping him keep his fingers stiff.  The nails on his left hand were all polished and cut short, helping with his quick precision on the fretboard.

Phil played acoustic guitar on most numbers, but pulled the harps out of jacket and jeans pockets and wailed away, trying to make as much noise as his younger brother.  At some points when he was really blowing you could see the glands on his lean neck puffing up bigger and bigger.

And the band was having such a great night, this was incredible stuff.  Lisa for one was having a fantastic night, and actually smiled and bowed to the crowd, as opposed to the stiff manner she had shown when we'd seen her before.  I think they really appreciated to reception they got from the full room of people.  Kate came up front for a few numbers and we all heckled Dave ... he loved it.

We picked up a setlist from the stage after the show, but they digressed a bit here and there.  I think this one is accurate:

All By Myself
I Feel So Good
Key To The Highway
You've Changed
How You Want It Done?
Southern Flood Blues
Border Radio
Out of Control
The Stuff They Call Money
Truckin' Little Woman
What's Up With Your Brother?
Please, Please, Please
Dry River
One Bad Stud

Encore:
Johnny Ace Is Dead
Marie, Marie
Break On Through To The Other Side
So Long Baby Goodbye

I was glad to hear so many old Blasters songs, in particular Border Radio, and One Bad Stud from the Streets of Fire soundtrack (actually a Leiber-Stoller song).  Phil just killed the James Brown song Please Please Please ... possibly the highlight of the night.  They of course rocked out on Dry River and gave Lisa a break for an excellent drum solo.

We were pleased with the long encore.  I called Marie Marie, which was not tough to do :) ... a classic case of Dave writing a song for his older brother's excellent vocal instrument.  Break On Through was actually just a band-introduction interlude, interspersed with a few Doors lyrics.  Then they rocked out one more time and Dave and Phil posed for the crowd and then left while the band went on and on, finally finishing with a flourish.  They're off to the Iron Horse tonight and then to Australia and New Zealand, which I hope is ready for them!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Fare Thee Well buildup, part 1??

As mentioned, the Grateful Dead (or at least Phil, Bobby, Billy, and Mickey) announced in January that they will be doing a 50th anniversary, final three concerts over the 4th of July weekend in Soldier Field, Chicago, with Trey Anastasio, Bruce Hornsby, and Jeff Chimenti.  The event is being billed as "Fare Thee Well."  But of course, this announcement immediately raised a number of questions such as:

  • only three shows??
  • only Chicago?
  • only Anastasio?  why??
  • what about Tom Constanten and Donna Godchaux (who are also surviving members)?
  • will there be special guests?
  • how much do I have to pay?
  • do they realize what a big deal this is and how many people will do ridiculous things to attend?

Answers to some of these questions have been forthcoming.  They claim these 3 shows in Chicago are it, though people continue to doubt that.  They’ve mentioned that any choice of guitarist would be second-guessed and this is as good as any.  BUT, they seem not to have been prepared for the incredible ticket frenzy this announcement has created.

Their first round of tickets was offered through mail order and they got over 400K requests.  The Dead ticket office has expressed dumbfoundedness at this, saying that this is “many, many times the number we expected.”  I think most people in Deaddom would have anticipated this, but not them??

In the meantime, we decided that even though the price would be high, we wanted to go and would try for a couple of the hotel/ticket packages they were offering.  We planned to drive and Ricky planned to fly from Denver.  The subsequent swamping of the GD TOO with mail orders caused them to delay both the internet sales of the packages and the “general public” internet sale, and so we had to wait on the edge of our seats, counting down the days until February 27th.

I worked at home that morning and was set up with three computers with 7 open browser sessions as the 10AM CST on-sale time approached.  5 of my sessions crashed with server errors up to 15 minutes *before* the sale opened.  2 sessions were able to get through to their index page and I could click through to the individual pages offering room/ticket choices.  However, every choice I made returned a “no rooms available” message, which I interpreted as a database-too-busy error.  I kept on clicking and clicking, hoping to get a request accepted, but no such luck.  Eventually most of the pages returned “sold out.”

Finally after 50 minutes or so, the organizers (CID Entertainment) sent an email with direct links to the room selection forms for those who had been unable to get through at all.  But by that point everything was sold out, including the VERY expensive super-vip packages.  I read later that the available packages had sold out in 1 minute!

Originally we’d said that we were only interested in going if we could get a hotel package.  But we talked and agreed that we should try for any tickets in the general public sale the next morning, and worry about where to stay if we could get them.

On Saturday morning (2/28), Dave, Sarah, and I were each at our computers with a 4th open on my desk.  We were ready when the sale started, and were hoping to get 4 tickets for each day.  Dave tried to get Friday tickets, Sarah Saturday, and me Sunday and also 3-day passes on the other computer.  This sale was handled by Ticketmaster and they have a robust queuing system for frantic ticket sales.  But when we submitted our requests as fast as we could, we still got “over 15 minute wait” messages right away.

Dave and Sarah’s requests for Friday and Saturday never went through … their pages must have timed out and died though they never got error messages.  My Sunday requests were denied a few times (“no tickets available at this time, try again”) after long waits and I eventually gave up.

My 3-day requests on 2 browser sessions did finally get through!  But the tickets we were offered both times were in section 356, way up in the stratosphere to the back left of the stage, and were listed with a “these seats have no view of the stage” warning.  The organizers had decided to sell seats in the whole stadium instead of just seats with a view (“go 360”) and even these seats were around $60 plus fees.

We agonized about it for a few minutes while the “you have ?? seconds left to buy these tickets or you will lose them” ticker counted down.  But we finally decided to decline.  We were so psyched to go see the concert, but when we visualized showing up with that level of psych for three days in Chicago and then getting such disappointing seats in the far reaches of a football stadium where we’d just have to sit and watch the TV screens, we decided to stay home and hope for a more local option for watching it remotely.  We were ready to spend a lot of money on going, but the worth of it with just those tickets plummeted in our minds.  We’d been very excited about the experience, but realized that without the payoff of seeing the stage we might be very disappointed.  And we did not want to spend that much money/effort for an ultimately disappointing/frustrating experience, even though I’m sure it would have featured plenty of positive moments too.  Sure, we could have left the seats and tried to hang out in the concourse, but we realized thousands of others would be trying this and it would not be a mellow experience … in fact it might get nasty.

The sale ended and the reports about what had just happened (and the aftermath) started.  Not only had the hotel packages sold out in a minute, according to Ticketmaster the queue when the sales opened on Saturday had reached 500,000 requests, a new Ticketmaster record.  Since then the secondary market has been going crazy.  Reliable sources have reported that a ticket package was on sale for $1 million, and are currently reporting that 3-day tickets (for good seats) are going for as much as $116,000, and cheap individual tickets are averaging $1,350.

This means I could have bought those tickets and resold them at minimal hassle (at this date, Ticketmaster for one makes it very easy … just log in to your account and click “resell my tickets” and name your price … they get 10% of the price).  I could have easily sold the 24 tickets (8 tickets for 3 days) for $1000 each, even though they were “no view.”  When I log on to secondary sale sites now I see tickets in section 356 going for that price.  But I’m very glad I didn’t do that.  We decided that we would have been disappointed with those seats for this marvelous event, and we did the right thing to let other people snap them up.  This was not the time to enter the rip-off culture … though a profit of $22.5K for an hour’s work is pretty good (the 3-day tickets for 4 seats were @$755)!

So we’re going through stages of shock and rationalization, as are many, many other Deadheads all over the world.  Billboard reports that they would estimate ticket demand “in the millions.”  I think it’s clear that the Dead could have gone on a lengthy farewell tour and sold out football stadia all over the country.  But this isn’t happening.

People at the Dead50 site are in shock too, as I say.  But their last update says, “If you do not have tickets, please know that we are working on various ways to help everyone experience these shows in a way that will help you share this special moment with us.”  We think it possible that they will offer closed-circuit simulcasts at select theaters throughout the country, possibly in Boston, but more likely in Port Chester NY, where we’ve been recently to see P&F.  So we’re staying tuned!