Sunday, September 17, 2017

"She said, 'You wanna go for a ride?'" -- Live Review: The Afghan Whigs, Philly and NYC, 9/12/17 and 9/15/17

"It's a really good band, man. We're playing great shows. Even on an off night, we're better than most. And if we're on, no one's better."
-- Greg Dulli

If a band leader is going to talk like that, his band better deliver the goods.

On Tuesday night at Union Transfer in Philadelphia, and again on Friday in New York City at the Bowery Ballroom, the Afghan Whigs validated all of Greg Dulli's claims -- in spades.
***************

The number of bands that have successfully come back after a long layoff and released great new albums is small. Mission of Burma certainly did that. Sleater-Kinney did too. So did Superchunk. But it's a short list of successes in that regard. (And no, I'm not going to name the failures, but their ranks are legion). The Afghan Whigs, two albums into a career restart after their 2001 split, are breathing the rarefied air of bands that have truly done a reunion right.

My reaction to 2014's Do to the Beast album -- their first after the layoff -- was something along the lines of: "Very good, gentlemen, but I feel like you can do even better next time." It was a solid effort, but not up to their very best. When your previous output includes a three-album run with the brilliance of Congregation (1992), Gentlemen (1993), and Black Love (1996), standards are high. But on their latest album, the Afghan Whigs stepped up their game to meet higher expectations. In Spades is not only a collection of ten great songs; it has cohesion. It's truly an album -- a record that sounds its best when played in order. Sure, "Demon in Profile" is a menacing/soulful single unto itself, but In Spades is no collection of random songs. It flows.



I wondered how the new album would translate to the live setting. It's a little quieter on the whole than most AW albums.

I shouldn't have wondered.
**************
Tuesday night in Philly, we got the more typical tour setlist. It looked like this. The set was heavy on the new album, but it also spanned the Whigs' career. And, as always, it did so with a little extra power than the studio albums.

This band has made its living delivering brilliant albums full of soul/funk influenced rock, but nothing on those records fully prepares you for their live show. It's James Brown fronting the Who with more than a small dose of punk rock. It's why you started listening to rock music in the first place: the sweat, the grime, the dynamics, the groove. That Dulli quote that led this article? Fuck yes. That's the thing with this band: a "normal" AW show is better than most bands can offer; an "on fire" one is the product of one of the very best live bands in the world.

In both Philly and New York, I witnessed the "on fire" version of the band.

Philly highlights mostly came from the "pin your ears to the back wall" version of the Whigs -- the band that thunders and grooves with metallic precision ("Debonair," Light As a Feather," "Honky's Ladder," "John the Baptist," "Amphetamines and Coffee"). But it wasn't only the big/loud/funky Afghan Whigs that ruled the roost that evening. The quiet hush of "Can Rova" -- complete with a gorgeous tribute to recently-deceased guitarist Dave Rosser -- left no dry eyes in the house, and the lighter "slight return" take on "Going to Town" was unexpectedly powerful amidst its deep smolder. Additionally, somehow -- fucking somehow -- the band figured out how to make "Demon in Profile" even more soulful: have opener Har Mar Superstar (he's the guy lip-synching in the above video) actually sing the song while the Whigs backed him. It was devastating. And then there were the final two songs -- the Who-ish "Summer's Kiss" where drummer Patrick Keeler added Keith Moon-ish fills that the original cried out for, but never had, and the classic Whigs closer, "Faded," which featured a foray into "How Deep is Your Love" before heading back into its own Who-ish finale.

I was spent by the end of it. "These are the end times, Philadelphia. It's time to make some noise," Dulli had exhorted us. We made the noise. They made the bigger noise. It was a goddamn cathartic roar of a gig.

"How could they top that?" I wondered.

"Hold my beer, dude," the band replied.
***************

Friday night's show at the Bowery Ballroom was intended to be something special right off the bat. It was announced later than the rest of the tour and the format was preordained: the band would play a first set consisting entirely of the In Spades album start-to-finish, and then there would be a second set. Yes, Har Mar came out and sang "Demon In Profile" and it was even tighter than in Philly. The full-album format also meant that the three lesser-played songs on In Spades would get a full airing. Of those, both "Copernicus" and "The Spell" were played perfectly, but, wow.... "I Got Lost."

Greg Dulli spoke to the crowd just before the band launched into "I Got Lost." He told us that, live, it was the least-played song on the record, but that it also held a special place in his heart because it was the one he wrote after he learned of Dave Rosser's terminal cancer diagnosis. Then he told us something that hit my punk-rock heart hard. He spoke of Grant Hart's death and told us: "If I hadn't seen Husker Du back in 1984, I wouldn't be up on this stage." I have no doubt that that statement is true, because Husker Du changed a lot of lives, mine included. Then Dulli said that he hung out twice with Harry Dean Stanton, and a smile crossed his face. "I Got Lost" felt like a New Orleans funeral for the honor roll of the recently-deceased: a triumphant mix of sorrow and celebration.







The song that closed the first set -- "Into the Floor" -- continued that theme. "I remember you always this way," Dulli sang, before letting the band thunder for the last minute of the song and bring it to a close. It was a brilliant move playing the album from beginning to end like that. All of its studio track-to-track cohesion shone through amidst that extra BOOM that the live Whigs bring to everything.

And then there was set number two. That second set was a mix of the familiar from the tour -- four from Do To the Beast that made frequent, if not nightly, appearances in the setlist --and then the surprises. There were some covers: Prince's "I Wanna Be Your Lover (which had also been played in Philly), "Dear Prudence" (which, despite being a straight take on a Beatles song, really was a hell of a version) and Sinead O'Connor's "Mandinka."

It's 48 hours later and I am still singing "Mandinka" because of how great the Afghan Whigs' version of that one was.




Dulli joked right after that one: "That vocal was so high my balls are way up in my body." Judging by what followed, he recovered quickly.

The surprises didn't end there. One of my favorite songs from the '90s run by this band was "My Enemy." They haven't played it much on the current tour, so in the spirit of "why not?" they whipped it out on Friday night. The fact that it sounded like it had been played every night was a testament to just how tight this band is live. It was just like this one, which I give you because Dave Rosser is in it:




There were two other highlights to the second set at Bowery Ballroom: a "Debonair" that was somehow just a little more menacing and savage than the one in Philly, and a version of the Twilight Singers' "Teenage Wristband" that was the sort of life-affirming take on a crowd singing along to a balls-out rock song that still has me flying high a couple days later. I don't have a video of Friday night's version, so, in keeping with the theme of giving you a version with Dave Rosser, there's this:




The Afghan Whigs are a force of nature live. They played, by my count, 32 different songs over these two nights and left me wondering how anyone else can match them live. Many will try -- I see a lot of bands -- but I wonder if any will succeed. Greg Dulli's self-assessment of his band is dead-on.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Cyrus



It's the little things, like when you go to prep their meals, and now suddenly there are only two bowls. Or when you go to give them their "right before bed" biscuit, and you grab three and, half a second later, you think, "Damn. Right...." and you put one back. Or when, for the first time in three years, you walk through your kitchen, free to change direction at will without being impeded by a knee-level nearly-concrete noggin, followed always -- always -- by a wagging tail, even when the knee/noggin collision was pretty hard. And then there's the middle of the night when you realize there's no longer the chainsaw sound of a pit bull snoring.

*********************
By and large, you expect your dogs to traverse through this life in the order that you got them.

However, that rule goes out the window when you adopt an old dog.

All we knew about Cyrus when we met him in early 2014 was that his life had been miserable thus far. He and two younger dogs had been taken from a local home by the SPCA. The living conditions were awful. That house was filthy and there was not enough dog food. In fact, the lack of food was the source of Cyrus's facial cuts. His own daughter had attacked him over some scraps.

At the time, we didn't even really know how old Cyrus was.  We just knew that, although he looked like he'd gone a few rounds in a losing title match, he had good energy and tail-wags to spare. My wife and I volunteer at the county animal shelter where he'd been brought and so we got to know him over a few months of shifts there. We kept expecting him to get adopted based on his unfailingly -- some might say absurdly -- positive attitude. But a few things seemed to be impeding his adoption: (1) he was clearly not a young dog; (2) he was scratched-up enough that he looked like he'd been the victim of a fighting ring; (3) his paperwork said he didn't like other dogs.

With three other dogs in the house at the time, we initially didn't even consider adopting Cyrus. We'd walk him when we were at the shelter, but we couldn't bring a cut-up old guy who hated other dogs into our pack. But then we slowly noticed something: he didn't really seem to dislike other dogs. He seemed mostly indifferent to them. There are, generally speaking, two kinds of dogs: "dog dogs" and "people dogs." Cyrus was clearly a people dog -- he loved all people -- but, despite his history of getting his ass kicked at least once by another dog, he didn't actually seem to fall into that subset of people dogs that hate other dogs. He just didn't care.

So one day, my wife came home from the shelter and said, "I think I found a dog that we should take in." When I asked who it was, she said, "You're going to be surprised. It's Cyrus. He's kind of old and he's really hurting on the concrete floors at the shelter. He's suffering, and no one's adopting him. It's been months." I agreed. And so we developed a plan.

For three to four weeks, we used baby gates and ran the house like a prison. When the minimum-security inmates (our usual three at the time) were loose, the maximum-security inmate (Cyrus) had to be behind the baby gates. And vice versa. He was just happy to be here:



The system worked like a charm. They got all their suspicions out of the way over that time. Eventually, we'd let them hang out together as long as we were supervising.

Not long later, we had scenes like this:


We had brought him home on July 14, 2014. When we took Cyrus to his first vet appointment, we got a surprise: he was even older than we thought. The vet guessed nine or ten years old. At the time, I remember saying that, in light of all his years of rough living, we'd be lucky to get two years out of him.

We got three.

We were lucky to have him in our lives. Cyrus loved us both, but he spent every day with my wife, who works almost entirely from home, and so he established a regular routine for a pit bull: following his favorite person around. Upstairs, downstairs, outside, inside, from room to room to room. Only the basement was off-limits (the cat box is down there; the dogs aren't allowed), and so, if she went down there, he'd wait for her at the top of the basement stairs, wagging his tail. If she were out of the house, I would immediately become his favorite person, and he'd pull the same routine with me. If we were gone, he would deign to hang with the other dogs. But mostly, he hung out in my wife's office with her.



We used to joke that Cyrus's nightmare was to be alone with his thoughts. He didn't like to go outside alone. He could be bursting at the seams to pee, mind you, but he'd insist on waiting for another dog to accompany him. Solitude was not a priority for him; it was the enemy to be avoided.

Cyrus was also young at heart, but old of body. So he'd grind his gears trying to keep up with Milo, our younger male boxer/hound mix. And grind he did.... He came to us with significant arthritis, but it got worse. He played hard, and he slept more and more. Slowly, but surely, he picked up the nickname "Captain Naps." He'd build a pillow fort on the couch and settle in.


Sometimes his napping was so sound that he'd sleep right through the arrival of one of us through the door. Then suddenly he'd wake up, startled, barking an alert: "Invader! Invader!" <pause> "Oops. It's you! Hi!!" and he'd wiggle and wag.

Always the tail would wag. Cyrus was so pleasant that, in what turned out to be his final weeks, when he was going to a water-treadmill physical-therapy routine that he hated, he'd still wag his tail through every part of the adventure except the time in the water tank, and he'd even wag there a little. We used to joke that if we just took him on rounds through our town to meet everyone, he would have been elected mayor soon thereafter.

But old age is rough. Cyrus didn't just have arthritis. There was more going on inside. A few months ago, an ultrasound to try to figure out the source of stomach problems revealed a mass on his spleen. We spend a lot of money on our dogs' medical care, but we also try to take a balanced approach to pain management and comfort for them. And surgery to do a biopsy on that mass seemed like too much for a 12- (or 13, or 14) year-old dog. Back then, we knew the clock was ticking. (The clock's always ticking, by the way; hug your loved ones, canine and otherwise).

We had a few months after that of helping him through daily struggles. The stairs became a really big deal. Getting onto the couch required assistance. He was tougher than most dogs to read because his pain tolerance was so high. He never whined. But he grimaced and grunted a little. And he fell down the stairs more than he grimaced. He'd "run" out into the yard, and faceplant when his back legs would just stop working. The faceplants and grimaces were getting more frequent.

A few days ago, my wife -- who is really good at these decisions (I tend to wait a little too long) -- said to me, "I looked in his eyes today and I don't think he is happy anymore. He's still trying to be the tail-wagging guy that we love, but he's really miserable." And sure enough, Cyrus had begun spending almost all his time hunkered down on a dog bed, looking sad.

So yesterday we did the right thing, with a vet who loved Cyrus so much that she actually apologized at one point during the procedure for getting a little emotional herself. "Sorry guys, I'm probably not helping here," she said at one point. No, she was definitely helping.

We're getting awfully experienced at handling all these end-of-dog-days decisions. In less than four years, we've had to make the tough call on three different elderly dogs. But every time, as you hear that big sigh as they let their last breath go, you know you made the right move. He was sad and hurting; he's not anymore.

Thanks, buddy, for some great times. It was the shortest stay ever, but you packed a lot of love into three years.










Friday, July 21, 2017

Live review: Warpaint at Williamsburg Hall of Music, July 18, 2017


Generally speaking, when it comes to music, I'm all about grit and sharp corners. The Minutemen. The Stones circa Exile on Main Street. Uncle Tupelo. The Band. Neil Young. Social Distortion. Sleater-Kinney. Even the gloomier things that I gravitate towards -- early Echo and the Bunnymen, early Cure, Joy Division, and the like -- have more angular and dynamic bits than you might think.

That's my way of telling you that sometimes I'm surprised at how much I love Warpaint.

But, seriously, I love Warpaint.

Warpaint is the sheen and gloss of the interwoven guitar work of Emily Kokal and Theresa Wayman over top of one of the most solid rhythm sections going. Jenny Lee Lindberg plays intricate Jah Wobble bass grooves that lock down hard with Stella Mozgawa's stellar timekeeping. "Timekeeping" does not imply a Charlie Watts laid-back-in-the-pocket approach, mind you. Try and casually tap along with this:




You got lost, didn't you?

Stella Mozgawa can play drums in circles around us all, but she can also settle into the deepest darkest groove with Lindberg. Sometimes, like in "Keep It Healthy," she does both.

And then there are the vocal harmonies. Jesus, the vocal harmonies....

I like Warpaint best when they work inside that dark chamber of chill. But they have a whole 'nother side too, what the Mekons called "a dance band on the edge of time."

Tuesday night at Brooklyn's Music Hall of Williamsburg (in a FREE show, no less) all sides of the band were on glorious display.

For fans like me, who like the denser/deeper excursions into the dark groove, Warpaint did more than half their debut EP, Exquisite Corpse. "Krimson" was particularly sublime.




And, moving away from that EP, "Keep It Healthy," "Love is to Die" and "The Stall" were all in that same neighborhood where the early Cure get together with Massive Attack in a trance-like swirl of stunning. 

Conversely, the kids who came to Brooklyn to dance got "New Song," "Heads Up," and "Dre" from the most recent album and "Disco//Very" from the self-titled album.

Through it all -- whether purveying a dark trance, a joyful dance, or both -- the formula was simple, yet spot-on: the alchemy of Lindberg and Mozgawa's nimble, yet muscular, rhythms blended with Wayman's and Kokal's chiming, jangling guitars. I'm a drummer, so my rhythm-section prejudice is alive and well. I'm pretty fixated on this one. Jenny Lee Lindberg is a blast to watch onstage; she's either in a closed-eyed dance/groove or smiling and laughing with the ever-perfect Mozgawa. But this whole band conveys an unremitting in-the-moment "Yaaaaaassssssss!"-filled joy onstage that is a rarity to watch. Nothing bugs me more than a band that mails it in. Too many bands mail it in.

Warpaint does not mail it in.

If I have one regret, it's that they didn't play this one in Brooklyn:



For my money, it's their finest moment -- from the brilliant weirdness of Stella Mozgawa's drag on the initial groove to the way it all comes together into that "She said" final verse. I was sorry to see them omit it from the set.

But that's my uber-fan pickiness. I'm really happy that I made it to this particular show. Last October, I saw Warpaint at Union Transfer in Philly and they blew me away that night as well (including a sublime "No Way Out"). I was psyched to see that their upcoming tour opening for Depeche Mode (in monstrosity venues all over our fine land... no thanks) was taking a few breaks to allow for headlining Warpaint gigs in places like my home base of Philly. And then... I realized I am going to be out of town when they play Philly. Damn.... So this one was extra special.

There's a great account of the Brooklyn gig at Brooklyn Vegan, along with a set list and an array of stunning photos from photographer Ebru Yildiz that make me glad I didn't bother with crappy iPhone pics.

Warpaint are on a roll.


Monday, July 10, 2017

Live Review: King Crimson, Red Bank, NJ, July 9, 2017



What is King Crimson? The answer is notoriously hard to pin down, because the band has rarely stayed the same for very long -- in sound or in membership. The monster morphs at will -- the "will" in question being that of Robert Fripp, guitarist extraordinaire and the only constant in a nearly 50-year span of King Crimson.

I won't pretend to know everything there is about King Crimson, nor to have been a life-long devotee of the band. I bought their first album -- In the Court of the Crimson King -- around 1977 or so, as my Yes/Genesis prog days were giving way to my Clash/Jam/Damned punk days. By then, Crimson was on hiatus, and, already being the sort of gig-obsessed music fan that I still am, when I realized that fact, post-purchase, it took a little gild off the lily, as it were, for me. I liked that record, but never quite got around at the time to loving it because, when I bought it, the band wasn't a practicing entity any longer. By the time that status changed -- 1981 and the Discipline album with a reformed four-piece Crimson -- most of my listening had moved on.

So when that early-'80s reunion occurred, I skipped out on all that, somehow, and, while I was busy listening to some genius American and English punk in the early '80s, the boys in Crimson were putting out some of their best material (I later learned).

Then they split again; then they were back together in the early '90s for Thrak, with some of the same characters from the '80s plus more.

I still didn't catch back on.

There were a few more releases, more tours, membership changes. Me? I didn't really check back in for quite some time.

Then, about 2010, not having given a thought to anything Crimson-related in years, but beginning to revisit some old prog and jazz, I stumbled across a cheap copy of Red. I bought it, eager to delve into what one reviewer has called: "a new type of heaviness. . . one that effectively disengages itself from the blues-derived riffology practiced by the big three of early 70s hard rock – Sabbath, Zeppelin, Purple – and instead creates a starker, colder, darker version of heavy that nevertheless still delivers serious cathartic thrills."

I like cathartic thrills. I like dark. I like heavy.

I dug in.

I dug it.

I was hooked. The mid-'70s version of Crimson that released the trio of Larks' Tongues in Aspic, Starless and Bible Black, and Red was significantly more dangerous than the first-album version of the band. Yup, that means that I followed my purchase of Red with those Larks and Starless albums. I loved them. If they lacked anything, it was solid production. They sounded, well, a little old, but, god, they sounded good. And weird. And dark. And, yes, dangerous.

If the fringes of punk rock had taught me anything, it was the adage, "Punk is whatever we made it to be," and, it appeared to me, nothing was more punk in spirit than the ever-shifting persona and sound of King Crimson.

The next step for me was to explore the '80s and '90s incarnations of the band. Sure, I could have headed for the band's second through fourth albums from the early '70s (post-Court, but pre-Larks), but reviews told me that the '80s and '90s versions of the band had more in common with the power and unpredictability of Red than did those second through fourth albums where it seemed, from the reviews, things were a little lighter, albeit still challenging. I didn't want light. I wanted thundering, disjointed darkness with a side helping of weird.

I loved it all, but I fell particularly under the trance of this one:




Sure, it's prog as hell overall -- with Tony Levin anchoring down the basic rhythm on his Stick contraption while Bill Bruford plays drums in circles around and over and under him and Belew and Fripp weave with shards and spindles of broken glass -- but the harsh edges are the best punk to me as well. It challenges; it pulls you back close; it punches you in the face.

********
Fast forward to 2016. 

I read an article about a King Crimson tour. They had seven members and three of the seven were drummers. It sounded heavy and dark and (there's that word again) dangerous. Moreover, from what I read, the typical setlist that tour was, for the first time, spanning the entire Crimson catalogue as Fripp and company reestablished their five-fingered death grip on songs that had long lay dormant, but they did so in a rejuvenating way. This was no greatest-hits/resting-on-one's-laurels/cranking-out-the-same-old-crap tour. This was experimental and cutting edge, but with the feet of the beast planted in many different eras, stirring the musical pot.

"Don't disappoint me, gentlemen," I muttered as I hit the "buy" button on the 2016 live box set. "Radical Action to Unseat the Hold of Monkey Mind" is the title. Readers of this blog will know that I'm definitely against the hold that monkey mind sometimes has on me. I'm also most certainly in favor of radical action to unseat that hold. I had high hopes.

The album did not disappoint. For my money -- and there are likely legions of Crimson fans worldwide that will want to draw and quarter me for this statement -- it is the best thing the band has ever done. That tinny-production complaint that I blasphemed regarding some of the older albums? Not here.

It's heavy. One of the discs is called, with tongue planted firmly in cheek, "Mostly Metal." But it kind of is. The 2016 takes on "Larks' Tongues" Part 1 and 2 render them nearly different songs. "Red" has a little extra oomph and I dare say that there is not a studio version of one of these songs that I prefer to the Radical Action version.

There are also a few newer compositions that hold their own. I was ready for a Crimson appearance in Philly.

They announced a tour. Philly wasn't on it. But Red Bank, NJ was. Re-muttering, "Don't disappoint me, gentlemen," I hit the "buy" button on a single second-row ticket that I bought when I could not find anyone that was both willing to spend the substantial price for a ticket to this tour and not already busy that night. I was going to be on a rare solo trip for this show.

**********
Fast forward to Red Bank, July 9, 2017.

First observation: the crowd is a bit of a dude-fest. I can't say I expected any different. But the lines for the men's room are going to be epic. The queue for the merch counter was already considerable at 7:10 when I walked in for the 8 p.m. show.

Second observation: damn. Mr. Fripp and company apparently do not want their photos taken while playing. Honestly, I totally get the no-video thing, and I get the no-flash thing. But no pics at all? I was sitting right in front of Gavin Harrison and I would have some pretty formidable shots of him playing drums if it weren't for the rules, maaaaan. But the rules were so clearly stated (signs!) that I didn't dare violate them from my vaunted spot near the front.



Third observation: sweet mother of god, I'm glad I brought earplugs. The speaker stack was, oh, seven feet in front of me at most. 

Final observation: my mind is fully and completely blown.

Here is a link to the setlist.

Sure, I'd have liked a little heavier concentration on the Discipline/Beat era if I were writing my own "perfect" Crimson setlist, but this was, hands down, the tightest band I have ever seen in my life. They hit on almost all eras of the band, and paid a little extra effort to re-work songs so the "now" version of everything presented a cohesive feel. Go listen to tracks from the band's early years, then some from Red/Larks and then some from Discipline and Beat, and tell me you hear one band. Nope, but when those songs are performed by King Crimson circa 2017, they all come from the same primal core. I like the studio versions of almost everything they played (full disclosure: "Islands" has never been my cup of tea) but the 2017 live versions of everything truly breathe "radical" life and dynamics into all the songs.

The most "radical" concept of "Radical Action" is clearly the use of three drummers. Apparently it was going to be four drummers this tour, but that plan got scrapped along the way. But three is still one more drummer than I have ever seen playing at the same time on a stage and I wondered: would it all be a giant mess? With a resounding, "No!" the trio of Gavin Harrison, Jeremy Stacey, and Pat Mastelotto somehow managed not merely to avoid getting in one another's way, but they made everything better, as if they are actually constituent parts of a six-handed drummer with one collective brain and two feet. The fills never clashed, spinning glorious circles around one another, and the rare moments of simultaneous collective bashing were exactly the oomph the songs demanded at those spots. From my second-row position directly in front of Gavin Harrison, I'd say he's the most Bruford-esque of the trio, but it may be that my seat location led to prejudice in that regard. All three of them were jaw-droppingly skilled, and when they alternated fills -- like on "Lizard" or "Indiscipline" -- it made me simultaneously want to practice drumming more often and just give up. These men can play.

Speaking of "Indiscipline".... As a devotee of setlist.fm, I had noticed that most of the second sets this tour opened with that favorite of mine. When this one didn't, and the band launched at that juncture into a pounding, menacing take on "Larks' Tongues Part 1" instead, I shrugged it off. They were killing it anyway. I was good. By the time they played "Easy Money" as the third song of that set, I had mostly cast aside any thought of "Indiscipline."

Trust Robert Fripp to always keep me on my toes. Tony Levin began the rhythmic trancelike tap of the opening lines on the Stick, and they were off to the races on "Indiscipline." On the studio version, or even the live version in the video above, the intro section is short, much less than a minute. But 2017 Crimson is not mired in the past. It does what it wants to. It wanted to ride that intro groove for what seemed like a full five minutes. Levin played the bass part in 5/4 (or is it sometimes 6/4, or 11/4? Oh hell, I don't know) and locked that down while, I swear, the drummers alternated fills designed not merely to enhance the song but in a spirited competition to try to do the impossible: make Levin stumble. Levin emerged unscathed from the battle; he cracked a few grins, but he did not drop a beat. For five minutes of fury. And they paused for a second, as if all the air were momentarily sucked out of the room. Then.... pow. The main riff began and the band was on fire. But then came the biggest surprise of all -- a harmonized, sung jazzy vocal from Jakko Jakszyk and Tony Levin. I don't know if I like that vocal better than the original Belew one, but it was stunning. To quote the lyric, "I wish you were here to see it!"

What about, well, everything else? It was all perfect. There are many little moments that are etched on my brain:

-- Mel Collins' sax work that added a glorious Coltrane-esque skronk to whatever he played on.

-- Fripp strumming the hell out of his guitar to start Larks Pt 1, and nothing coming out, until it built slowly, methodically into a wall of noise.

-- My unremitting freaking joy when the usual first-set closer ("Islands") ended and the band didn't move. Instead, they all looked to Fripp, who began "Larks' Tongues" Part 2. It thundered and was the perfect finisher to the the opening set.

-- Every little visual cue traded between musicians, particularly Tony Levin's apparent near-constant bemusement, Jakko's and Fripp's beaming pride as Gavin Harrison took a drum solo that even I loved (I really don't like most drum solos), and the grins of delight between drummers as they took their turn on increasingly challenging fills.

-- Just how perfectly "Cirkus/Lizard/Red" is as a trio of songs in the middle of a set. Those first two are a bit similar in vibe, coming from the same album, but "Red" is, originally, a whole different level of menace and noise. The 2017 Crimson solution? Bring the first two up to the level of the last one. I like the studio versions of "Cirkus" and "Lizard" just fine, but what happens to those songs these days, with three drummers, and a significant increase in attack, is a wonder to behold.

-- The setlists are perfectly constructed to leave us spent and exhausted in all the best ways.

-- And, finally, yes, this, even though it sounded too "normal" for the rest of the night in many respects. It's a great song, and they did it well:





I could go on and on.

I think I already have.

Damn, what a performance. I'm psyched for the next tour already. Philly, gentlemen? I hope so.


Sunday, June 25, 2017

Bring on the vegetables, or why I've started to think: "Vegetables first."



The idea started with a realization -- as ideas tend to do. OK, actually it started with an expletive, as my ideas tend to do.

"Shit. I really need to focus more on eating vegetables."

Let me clarify, though. I eat a lot of vegetables, if "a lot" is measured on a scale of "everyone jammed into this particular baseball stadium [or wherever humanity congregates] at this moment." In other words, I eat more vegetables than "most people." But this is America. "Most" of us are overweight. I'm not and I don't want to be.

You probably eat more vegetables than "most people" too. You likely wouldn't be here if you weren't interested in good health, and vegetables are awesome in the good-health department. Antioxidant-rich vegetables are particularly great.

But do you really eat "a lot of vegetables?" Or do you just eat more vegetables than "most" people?

I got into a lazy habit over the past few years of making fermented vegetables a large portion of my vegetable intake. They are good for you -- probiotics and all that -- but no one eats as many fermented vegetables as they would fresh vegetables. I didn't either.

But there's a bigger issue here. If I think the dead-animal part of my plate is overly large and the vegetable portion overly small -- and I'm right about that -- how did that really happen? Was it just the laziness of reaching for that jar of Wild Brine fermented veggies more than I was cooking vegetables? Yeah, sure, that had something to do with it, but the bigger problem, for me anyway, is one of mindset.

Here's how I traditionally think about the answer to the question: "What's for dinner?" It begins with an animal: chicken, beef, lamb (mmmm, lamb), fish. Only then do I think about what the vegetable will be and it's only an add-on in my brain to the animal protein. You know, like: "chicken and asparagus," or "lamb and broccoli," etc.

I've decided to knock that shit off.

The plan is called Vegetables First.

I bulk-cook a lot. I don't mind eating the same things -- or bouncing back and forth between a few things -- for days and days. I used to bulk-cook meat and vegetables, but there was always -- ALWAYS -- more meat than vegetables in the pot

Now I've started bulk-cooking vegetables -- huge pots of things like eggplants and red peppers, or Brussels sprouts, or broccoli. I still bulk-cook meat too, usually still with vegetables, but the answer to "What's for ____ [breakfast/lunch/dinner]?" begins with one of those bulk-cooked vegetables. Only then do I consider what animal protein I am adding to my vegetables. It leads to conversations with myself that go:

"What's for lunch?"
"Um, eggplant and peppers. And I'll add some ____ [lamb, sardines, beef, chicken, whatever dude] to that."

The difference, measured in numerous ways -- increased vegetable consumption, decreased meat consumption, lower grocery bills -- is insane. The ratio of meat to veggies on my plate is less. I'm eating so many more antioxidant-rich vegetables, and our grocery bills are lower. And yet I'm still low-carb.

But, you say, loudly: "HOW WILL YOU GET ENOUGH PROTEIN???!?" Let's put it this way: I've never been in danger of eating too little meat since I started my paleo/primal journey and I'm still not. Yeah, I'm eating less meat, but the main difference is that I am eating a lot more vegetables. It's like I'm living that piece of advice from Michael Pollan about: "Eat [real] food. Not too much. Mostly plants." I've even been working out more lately too, and haven't had a bit of trouble with "recovery." Take that, protein-powder junkies.

My primary mantra in this lifestyle has always been "whatever works for you." Only you know if you should be eating more vegetables and only you know, if the answer is that you should be, whether a "vegetables first" mindset will help you eat more. But it sure does here.

Like they say in the law, "Res ipsa loquitur."
The thing speaks for itself.
“Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.”

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Lower Wolves last night at Boot and Saddle in Philly

Someone made a GIF out of us, and it cracks me up. This is from our set of early-REM covers last night at the Boot and Saddle in Philly.

Friday, March 10, 2017

Early 2017 stuff, or: How I briefly disappeared from the blogosphere and found some unexpected new happiness

It's early March. Okay, it's more like the early part of mid-March. I knew I'd been neglecting this blog a bit, but whoa.... Going over two months without a post is no way to run one of these things.

The only positive side of this neglect is the explanation. It's not some generic pablum about being "busy"; instead, it's more like: "I STARTED THIS COOL NEW THING!!"

The COOL NEW THING? Teaching. And, yes, that's kept me "busy."

I'm a lawyer during the day. You may recall that we don't talk about that much here. We still don't, but I'm reasonably accomplished at what I do, and so a while ago a colleague noted to me that a local law school was looking for an adjunct professor. "You should totally do this," she said. "It'll be something different, and you have a lot to offer the students in terms of real-world practice and courtroom experience."

I initially made "How dare you interrupt my cushy comfortable day-to-day existence with a challenge" noises that sounded a lot like, "Ummmmm. <pause> Ughhhhhhh. <pause> Really? <pause> Ahhhhh, shit. <pause> I mean maybe. <pause> I've taught seminars. And I definitely would have a handle on this course, which is basically 'how to do my day job.'" More grumbling noises followed.

She saw the crack in the armor: "Come onnnnnnn. It's all about giving back, you know."

She got me. In the grand scheme of things, life is really all about giving back. I've done lots of "giving back" work over the years. Coaching kids. Escorting patients at a women's health clinic past stupid protestors that were yelling hateful things. More recently, I've been volunteering with shelter dogs for a while now. It was time to focus again on people....

So I contacted the prof who was running the program. She liked my experience level -- not my law-school teaching experience level, mind you; that was non-existent. She liked my real-world experience level. I was in.

It started out as a lot of work. A lot of work. For me. The class has to prepare a brief and argue an appeal in front of a panel of mock "judges." The legal problem they were given is reasonably interesting, but it's complicated as hell. It's also in an area of law that I knew nothing about before I saw the problem. Nothing. That phrase is not hyperbole on my part. Nothing. Nada. Not a damn thing.

So a few weeks before the semester started, I had some time off from the day job and I dug into the assignment/problem. I mapped out all of its permutations, muttered profanities under my breath, and eventually "got" it -- "it" being the gist of the whole thing, in rather extreme detail. Dealing with, and explaining, extreme detail is part of my day-to-day practice of law. I wondered aloud how second and third-year law students would do with this sort of detail though....

And then I had a horrible memory: way back in law school I had a class like this and it was a bit of a nightmare. The prof did not give us a lot of guidance on the legal problem. Instead, he taught us the generics of how to brief and argue a case, but he left the legal intricacies of the actual assignment to us. That didn't work out so well for me. I got off on the wrong tangent and turned in a draft brief that, in hindsight, was awful, misguided and just plain wrong. The teaching assistant gave me a deservedly horrendous review and then she made suggestions to improve the final product. I followed those suggestions and did okay with the revisions, but I recall thinking to myself that I could have done so much better if only I hadn't gotten so far off track initially.

So I made a vow that no one in my class was going to get left that far behind.

One of the attractions of this course to an adjunct coming in from the real world is that the profs teaching the individual sections are given a load of freedom regarding how to convey the material. There's a pre-made syllabus that we are handed, and we get suggestions on what we might want to do each week, but the actual content is up to us. We aren't robots and we aren't treated like we are. It's cool that way. So I chose to teach the course the way I would have wanted to be taught it when I was in law school. It's not a legal-research course; it focuses on advocacy skills. Amidst trying to convey various written- and oral-advocacy skills, each week I have also tried to dig a little deeper into explaining the law related to the assignment, thereby honoring that "no one left behind" pledge. You can't advocate for something that you don't understand.

I think the plan is working. Everyone is at least in the neighborhood, legally speaking, in which he or she needs to be. Sure, some students demonstrate a little more complexity of thought and understanding than others regarding the assignment. I expect that. It's a mandatory course and everyone doesn't respond as gleefully as others to being compelled to a task.

But I'm totally digging watching the lights burn a little brighter in their young-lawyer brains. That whole "joy of giving back" thing? Yup. Yup. Yup.

But back to the "busy" part of the deal, and why I haven't been here at all.... Damnnnnnnn if all this teaching work didn't crush my free time early on in the semester. I mean... I have a day job for eff's sake. So ordinary work hours weren't going to be spent on teaching work. Weekends and nights were where I'd have to fit it all in. There were assignments each week, early on, that I had to evaluate and return with comments. It was rewarding, in that I'd get to fine-tune a lot of already good work. But the time crush was stressful at first. Those close to me might tell you I was a little wound up. They might even tell you I was a lot wound up. They might even have heard me say at one point that there was "no way in hell I can ever do this again because I have no free time at the moment."

I may have said that. I was lying. That was weeks ago. In the interim, I've gotten some great feedback that lets me know the "plan" seems to be working. All the students seem to have the basic legal understanding regarding the assignment that I wanted to make sure they had. Some are miles past "basic" in that regard, but everyone is up to speed. I'm pretty happy with that. I'm really happy with that.

The semester's not over. We are only at the halfway point. Drafts of their final assignment are due this week and, necessarily -- because life is like that -- some people are going to perform better on the actual task than others, but I like to think that no one is going to feel that horrible "lost" feeling that I did way back when. And that makes me feel really good.

So there's the story of my blog silence. Yeah, I've been busy. Not generically busy, but really specifically busy. I had no idea I was going to like this gig this much. Old dog. New tricks. Giving back. Good times.















Saturday, December 31, 2016

"It's the new year and I want to lose a lot of body fat." This is the simplest way I know.

It's the end of a year, and the beginning of a new one, and people get inspired to try to make big changes. One of those is "losing a lot of weight."

If you're really effing serious about that one, I know how to do it. It's not the only way. It's not the most exciting way. In fact, it's downright dull. But, good lord, it works -- if you actually do it. And it's not a diet with bullshit calorie restrictions. You won't be hungry or, worse, "starving."

So -- again, if you're serious about the "a lot" part of "losing a lot" and not engaging in some sort of recurring end-of-year self-loathing ritual -- you could do these things:

THE MENTAL(ISH) PREP:

1. Forget about "weight loss," and think instead in terms of "fat loss." That's what you actually care about: how you look and feel, and how your clothes fit, not what number is on a scale.

2. Throw out your scale. Or put it in a closet. The next time you get to step on it? That's when you need to weigh your luggage for a flight. That's also the only time. The scale is a self-defeating tool that gives you utterly irrelevant feedback on a number (weight, a.k.a. mass) that means almost nothing at all. As an example, the same person can weigh the same at two different points in time and look completely different, depending on his/her body composition. Losing body fat makes you look awesome, but it does not necessarily change your body weight. Presumably, you wish to look awesome, not engage in a numbers game.

3. Stop hating yourself. Easier said than done, I know. But really, you're not actually any of the pejoratives that you use to refer to yourself. Yes, you probably are, factually speaking, carrying around more body fat than you want to -- or else you wouldn't be reading this -- but you are not any of those other names. You are loved, and you are great. This is not new-agey bullshit on my part. It's science. Negative attitudes about yourself are stressful. Stress causes cortisol production. Cortisol is a fat-storage hormone. (This won't be the last time you read the word "cortisol" in this post). You want to minimize cortisol. That begins with a simple mantra that you, indeed, are awesome and can do anything you want.

WHAT TO DO:

1. Meditate for at least ten minutes every day. Every day. Why? That cortisol thing that I just told you about. Meditation reduces stress. It doesn't matter whether you think it's "working." If you are bothering to do it -- just ten minutes a day -- it will "work" even if you don't think it's doing anything. Really. Believe me when I tell you that if you don't have ten minutes a day to meditate, your stress problems are dangerously off the charts. Or, as the Zen people say, "If you don't have ten minutes a day to meditate, do 30 instead, because you need it."

2. Powerlift heavy two or three times a week, always with at least one rest day in between. "Heavy" means heavy for you, not trying to hurt yourself by competing like a jackass with your stronger friends. Power lifts mean deadlifts, squats and presses. If you don't know what they are, join a gym and have a trainer/coach show you. Really. That does not mean the Olympic lifts (snatch and clean/jerk) that so many CrossFit gyms are doing. There is nothing wrong with Olympic lifting but those are technical speed lifts. Yes, they require strength, but they really require a ton of technique and speed. The power lifts more simply demand direct/brute strength and, consequently, more directly engage metabolic systems that impact fat loss. And no, you will not get "huge" from a basic powerlifting regimen. Did you suddenly look like Ben Johnson last time you tried to run fast? No. Lifting heavy things will make you lose fat. You will not magically wake up one day looking like one of those guys that picks up cars and logs in a strongman competition. By the way, why only two or three times a week? Why the emphasis on rest days? (Are you ready?) Yup, cortisol. Overtraining is stressful. Stress causes cortisol production. It's like a broken record, I know.

3. Walk at a brisk pace (whatever that is for you) 60-90 minutes a day. Every day. Every damn day. Really. Aim for a 75-min average. So yeah, do 60 one day and 90 the next if you like. Or do 75 every day. Walking, not running. Walking. Every day. If you miss a day because of weather, don't freak out, but don't skip a day very often. Do not do any other "cardio" or "metabolic conditioning/metcon" work. Why the walking emphasis? It stokes the metabolic engine in a low-stress way. There are people in CrossFit (and other) gyms all over the country that are significantly fatter than they want to be but they are grinding themsleves into bits four or five or more times per week at the gym doing hard conditioning or "cardio" work. There are also people that want to lose a lot of fat that are running to lose it. That's nuts, and wildly counterproductive. Those exercise regimens are cortisol bombs. Put bluntly, a fat person with a huge cortisol problem is not doing him/herself any favors by creating more cortisol through those kinds of exercise. Yes, over-exercising can make you fatter. Walk every day for 60-90 minutes. Powerlift two-three times per week. That is a low-cortisol/fat-burning exercise routine that beats all others if you are trying to lose a lot of body fat. Walking is also meditative as hell. (See #1 above). You know what that reduces? Cortisol. You could begin to think this post is mostly about cortisol. Because it is.

4. Eat three meals a day consisting of well-raised animal protein (meat, fish, eggs) and vegetables that grow above the ground, plus -- depending on how fatty the cut of meat is -- some added fat like avocado or olive oil or real butter. (Fattier cut of meat? Don't add much fat. Eat horrible/grim no-fat white-meat chicken cutlets full of sadness? Add some good fat). Fat keeps you full. It does not "make you fat."** No snacks. (Yeah I know). I repeat: no snacks. If, in the beginning, you are going to have to fight the urge to snack, bring more of the food you ate for your meals as a snack. This will teach you to eat more at meals, because bringing snacks along is a pain in the ass. There is no calorie counting here. Eat at meals until you are full. Yes, full. No shitbag magazine low-fat starvation crap. Eat until you are full, like nature intended. Again, you eat: animals, vegetables from above the ground and some good fat. That's it. Note, I didn't tell you what not to eat. That's because instead I told you what to eat. If it's not an animal, a vegetable from above the ground or a good fat, you aren't eating it. "Wait!" you say. "What about fruit? It's good for you." Yes, it can be, but remember that this is a plan for big fat-loss. There will be plenty of time for fruit one day, but the sugars in the fruit are not going to help you in your quest to lose a lot of fat. Same thing with starchy below-ground veggies like potatoes. You can do freaking delicious things with meat and veggies. There are great paleo cookbooks out there. Buy them. Note the phrase: "You can do...." Yes, you are cooking at home. If you want to lose a lot of body fat, that is.... Restaurants are not going to help you lose fat. They are trying to overwhelm you with flavor, not body comp. In fact, here's a mantra for you: restaurants make people fat and they like it that way.

5. Drink water, seltzer, coffee or tea. That's it. Don't drink soda/pop, not even "diet."(Artificial sweeteners often still trigger your body to produce insulin, which operates with cortisol to... you guessed it... store fat).  Don't drink alcohol. At all. I repeat: don't drink alcohol. Alcohol destroys/inhibits significant fat loss. Don't smoke/ingest weed. Do you know a fat weed smoker that kept smoking weed and got thin? No, you don't. When you are high, you make horrendous food decisions.

6. Sleep at least eight hours per night. Why? Yup, cortisol. Sleep deprivation is stressful. Stress triggers cortisol production. If you are meditating every day (and you will be) this sleep thing will be a snap. Meditation ends stress wakeups, which cause excess cortisol.

That's it. Don't tell me it's not sustainable. I know people that have done it and made huge improvements in body comp. If you don't want to do it, that's okay. No one is forcing you. But it's plenty sustainable. I am also not telling you to never eat things ever again that aren't meat/vegetables/good-fat. I'm just telling you not to eat those things now while you are trying to lose a lot of body fat. This isn't asceticism. It's science. Science about.... cortisol. You may have heard of that by now.

Every day: meditate, sleep, walk, eat smart, drink smart.
Two or three times a week: lift heavy.

If you actually follow this plan, you will lose a lot of fat. Really. You will not be hungry or crazy. This is not a diet. You are eating to satiety (fullness) every time. There is no calorie restriction here and no weighing or measuring food. There isn't even a shit-ton of what you currently think of as exercise.

This plan may not be "easy." But it sure is simple. And it works.

Go forth and make some big changes. or not. Your call.

____________________
** If I were going to hashtag this food plan, it would be #LCHF. Translation? Low-carb, healthy fats.


Sunday, December 25, 2016

Another twist on mindfulness: the no-alcohol experiment switches gears... to "almost no alcohol"

80 days.

Jules Verne had Phileas Fogg circumnavigate the globe in that amount of time.

I didn't do anything nearly that dramatic. I just didn't drink any alcohol during that time. It was a science experiment, and I learned a lot of things. A lot of things. Let's take a quick look at a few of those things:

1. Alcohol is like a fat-storage mobilizer, or maybe, more specifically, consuming it regularly inhibits fat-burning. Stop drinking alcohol for a couple months, and the fat storage slows while the love handles disappear. When fat goes away and you look better in and out of your clothes, you feel pretty damn good about what you are doing with your life. I'm seriously in favor of feeling good about life.

2. Alcohol is estrogenic. Regular alcohol is regularly estrogenic. Guys my age really don't need to do regularly estrogenic things. Not doing regularly estrogenic things helps hormonal balance (testosterone!), which helps fat loss and general feelings of awesomeness. There might be a theme here.

3. A body sleeps better when it isn't processing alcohol. Self-explanatory? Mostly, but I am also a lot less likely to wake up to pee in the middle of the night if I haven't had a drink. Sleeping through the night most nights is a beautiful thing. That helps hormonally-balanced fat-loss too. You also feel like a million effing bucks. You know....

4. There definitely seems to be a theme here.

5. Mindfulness. I have a stupid/mindless drink too easily/reflexively if I'm bored at night at home -- unless I mindfully don't do that. I'm in favor of mindfulness, in all aspects of my life. This 80-day experiment was like a secret Zen trick that I played on myself. Yay for secret Zen tricks. Always.

6. Time goes slower at night if I don't have a drink. I have no clear explanation for this one, but I noticed it early on and found it to be 100% true for the entire 80 days. The time between the end of the work day and going to bed seemed a solid hour (or more) longer without a glass of wine or whiskey involved. Maybe mindful living enhances your awareness of everything? Sounds plausible, anyway. It sounds likely, as a matter of fact. Whatever it is, I like it. I like it a lot.

7. Total alcohol abstinence is pretty easy** for me. Frankly, it was stupidly easy even though crazy things (like election season and much of the holiday-party season) happened during that time***. This 80-day experiment wasn't difficult; it was just unusual. I've never gone that long in my adult life without a drink. But what I really like is doing whatever the hell I want, not operating under a set of rules just to follow them. So, having accumulated a pretty clear set of facts, and having done this portion of this stunt for a sizable period of time, my science-driven plan going forward is to adopt the following state of mind: I'm going to keep abstaining... except when I don't. Put more precisely, I'm not planning on buying any alcohol for my house, or drinking alcohol at home at all. But if I'm out socializing? Yeah, I might have a drink. I don't want to return to regular shorter weeknights, regularly estrogenic behavior and regularly disrupted sleep, all of which would result if I started having a daily glass of wine or whiskey again. But having a social drink with friends here and there? Yeah, I'm down with that. In fact, that social drink is what I miss, not the stupid drink at home.

So the experiment goes onward, but it's in the next phase -- the one called "only drinking if I'm socializing." (I'm 54, not 24, so my socializing is pretty modest). This plan requires more thought (for me) than total abstinence. It requires mindfulness, intent and generally staying even more on my game than usual. It also leads to even more awesomeness. Or that's the plan anyway.

Let's go.

_______________________
** I make no bones about the fact that I never got into this abstinence experiment out of a sense of addiction or being out of control. I was just tweaking my body's chemistry. It's what I do -- a relentless quest for self-improvement through lifestyle choices/modifications. If you have an addiction issue with alcohol (or maybe if you just aren't anything like me), not only might quitting alcohol not be "easy" for you, but going back, even to an infrequent drink with friends, could wreck your whole fucking life. As the chief used to say to the assembled cops in Hill Street Blues: "Let's be careful out there."

*** A small point regarding big changes: there's never a "good" time. Whether you are trying to quit something, start something healthier, make a big life move, etc., if you look ahead on the calendar there is always an event in the future that you could point to and say, "OK, right, I'll do [the big life-changing thing] right after that happens." Fuck that. Do or do not do, but don't delay because of that future thing; there's always a future thing.


Friday, December 2, 2016

Impermanence





Dogs. They aren't geniuses but they know more than we might think.

This is a cover of a Camper Van Beethoven song that Mondo Topless did on our 2010 album while I was the drummer.

The psychedelic bridge of the song features Emmy Lou, our long-deceased Husky mix on "vocals."

I played this last year at one point and Holly, our recently-passed Golden Retriever, got really upset and confused. She went looking for Emmy, whom she knew well. I never played the song again out of respect for Holly.

There are big tufts of Holly's hair outside in the dog yard from the last time she got brushed. They are like small tumbleweeds, gradually disappearing in the wind. I just opened the door to let Milo inside and he was transfixed somewhere between confusion and horror. He'd sniff her fur ball and then look at me, utterly bewildered and a little frantic, as if to ask where she is.

Fuck. She was always the lowliest member of the pack and I didn't think they would even miss her. Who knew?