Sunday, September 9, 2018

Live Review: The Jesus Lizard, Philly, September 8, 2018

"Oh, stop!" were the first words out of David Yow's mouth last night in Philadelphia as his band, the Jesus Lizard, took the stage at a sold-out Union Transfer and he waved his hand dismissively in a faux gesture of humility. A few seconds later the rest of the band was off into the crushing riffage of "Puss," and he was off as well: off the stage -- horizontally riding the crowd as he delivered his vocal chaos -- seemingly off balance, and off the hook. Within a few more minutes, as the band ground another song to a simultaneously punishing and precise halt, another Yow emerged.

The faux humility was gone. He knew they were killing it:

"Amazing. Fucking amazing," Yow said in wonderment of his bandmates. "I am SO HAPPY for you people to get to see this." And then a wry smirk came across his face: "This has to be the highlight of your life. I mean, after all, you live in Philadelphia."
          ________________________________________________________________
"One [Steve] Albini trademark was to mix the vocals very low -- on the Jesus Lizard albums that Albini recorded, singer David Yow sounds like a kidnap victim trying to howl through the duct tape over his mouth; the effect is horrific." --Michael Azerrad ("Our Band Could Be Your Life")
       ___________________________________________

My attempts to describe the sound of the Jesus Lizard invariably end up at some sort of melange of noise and math rock -- maybe the Butthole Surfers and Fugazi had a love child? (That's reasonably close, actually). But I most like what my rock-critic friend Mark Deming just today said about the band: "An amazing balance of precision and chaos."

Yeah. That's the one. Precision and chaos.

Mac McNeilly (drums) and David Wm. Sims (bass) lay down a thunderous groove, often in time signatures that seem familiar, but which then veer off to something more unsettling -- after which they return to the familiar. Repeat, ad infinitum. The two are so inextricably bound together that I just assume that they eat meals at the same time even when they are thousands of miles apart. They sound a little bit like it would if, in a cartoon, you threw a perfectly-tuned drum kit and bass guitar down the stairs, and they landed together. The rumble is frantic, but with the exacting perfection of genius musicians.

Over top of that rhythm ride two things, one providing shimmering texture and one... uh, not. Duane Denison's guitar is the texture. While McNeilly and Sims roar and seeth, Denison adds flavor, sometimes joining in the musical brutality of the rhythm section, but more often operating in (somewhat) more ethereal tones.

When I first heard this band, I thought vocalist David Yow's name was Yowl. It would fit. He provides most of the chaos. Yow speaks, growls, screams, and occasionally sings the words. Most of the time, I have to look up the lyrics; sometimes when I do, I wish I hadn't.

I knew all that -- I've owned this band's records for years -- but nothing prepared me for the first time I saw them live.

That first time -- inexplicably (I have no excuse) -- was last night.

Christ, it was powerful. It was, no shit, one of the greatest performances I have ever seen. My thesaurus is broken. I have no more words. Everything I just said about the nearly disturbing power of this band? In the live context, it's increased by several orders of magnitude. These men are all in their late fifties, just a couple years older than I am, but McNeilly attacks the drums with the testosterone-fueled aggression of a teenager and Yow spends song after song stage diving while continuing to vocalize as the crowd passes him around. Sims and Denison are less physically aggressive than their bandmates, but their musical delivery is no less precise, mathematical, and deadly.

I really don't know that in 41 years of seeing bands that I've ever seen anything better than the Jesus Lizard last night. And they went on for 26 songs -- 15 in the regular set and then three multisong encores. I believe the set was the same exact order as this one, but I'll post the Philly setlist when it gets published.

Ordinarily, I'd tell you what the very biggest highlights of the evening were, but every single song fit that bill. Yes, 26 strategic blasts of perfect tactical chaos. I'm a drummer; I've played in bands for years, and I simply don't know how they pulled off that sustained intensity for a whole set, and I don't know, specifically, how Mac McNeilly isn't in the fucking hospital, or, at a minimum, on long-term doses of anti-inflammatories.

I hit the drums really fucking hard, harder than most guys my age. But Mac hits them harder. Sometimes most of the joints in my body ache as a result of the way I play. In fact they ache so hard that a soon-to-be post will address the relative wonders of CBD oil for chronic pain. But... Mac, dude, sir, I do not know how the hell you do what you do. But please keep doing it.

This band is a multiheaded hydra of power and precision. And, yeah, chaos too. They have no peers.

It may take weeks for me to fully recover from this one.

Dig in:













Thursday, August 16, 2018

Aretha Franklin, 1942-2018

The Queen of Soul had been ill for quite a while, and I don't feel particularly well-qualified to wax poetic on her staggering value to the musical universe other than to say that it was profound. Goddamn, it was profound.

So I'll let Billy Preston tell you better than maybe anyone ever:

"I don't care what they say about Aretha. She can be hiding out in her house in Detroit for years. She can go decades without taking a plane or flying off to Europe. She can cancel half her gigs and infuriate every producer and promoter in the country. She can sing all kinds of jive-ass songs that are beneath her. She can go into her diva act and turn off the world. But on any given night, when that lady sits down at the piano and gets her body and soul all over some righteous song, she’ll scare the shit out of you. And you’ll know—you’ll swear—that she’s still the best fuckin’ singer this fucked-up country has ever produced.”

Indeed.

Here are a few that you may have forgotten.





Sunday, June 17, 2018

Anthony Bourdain: I'll miss him more than I might even have imagined


I'm not much on heroes. They invariably disappoint me.

But, at least for the ten-ish years that I "knew" him from his books and his "Parts Unknown" and "No Reservations" series, Anthony Bourdain seemed worthy of the title.

The guy was punk rock to his core: "Skills can be taught. Character you either have or you don't have."

His "fuck the chains; eat local" mantra was great advice. Quotes like "to me, life without veal stock, pork fat, sausage, organ meat, demi-glace, or even stinky cheese is a life not worth living" hit my paleo-ish/real-food heart right in the feels. I can't tell you how many times I've made the more-adventurous food choice -- heading for the nasty bits usually, like sweetbreads -- because Tony Bourdain urged us all to stop being so fucking boring with food.

Bourdain's near-constant touting of local (to the episode) musicians and artists was not just doing a solid for those folks, but indicative of an appreciation for the grittier aspects of art and music that made me always wish I could shoot the proverbial shit with him, preferably over drinks and hunks of meat. For godssakes, he had Mark Lanegan sing lead on the theme song. I felt like we dug the same stuff. His magic was in making a lot of people think exactly the same thing.

He was gloriously judgmental in his non-judgmental-ness (or was it the other way around?): "Assume the worst. About everybody. But don't let this poisoned outlook affect your job performance. Let it all roll off your back. Ignore it. Be amused by what you see and suspect. Just because someone you work with is a miserable, treacherous, self-serving, capricious, and corrupt asshole shouldn't prevent you from enjoying their company, working with them, or finding them entertaining."

Tony dished casual life advice with a smirk: "Next to making a proper omelet or wiping your own ass, knowing how to roll a joint is an essential life skill for any self-respecting member of society."

But to paraphrase one of the thousand or so Twitter accounts that I read when mourning his sudden death, Anthony Bourdain's greatest accomplishment by far was to try to make white-majority Americans less afraid of people that don't look like them. That approach obviously only succeeded to a point -- take a look at the festering nativist carbuncle that we elected as president if you think otherwise -- but it could make a person think. Hard. And lots of us did.

His LA episode wasn't about the sunshine or the glitz. It was about the vibrancy of the Latino community, in and out of the restaurant world. The Beirut episode somehow embraced all the contradiction of that war-torn spot and made it glow with beauty amidst the conflict. In the Bronx, he interviewed hip-hop legends and local artists.  In New Mexico, he embraced the mishmash of many cultures. And in Lagos a white dude from NYC taught us about Nigerian garage rock.

This is the description of the Houston episode on Wikipedia: "Tony showcases the extreme ethnic diversity of Houston, Texas. Anthony visits the Little India neighborhood; attends a quinceañera, meets with refugee students at Lee High School, as well as the principal, himself a former Vietnamese refugee; explores African-American 'slab' car culture with rapper Slim Thug; meets Vietnamese fishermen and Congolese farmers; and attends an Indian cricket game."

Notably, no episodes would have fit the description: "Tony hangs out only with privileged white people, doing privileged-white-people things, eating at cookie-cutter chain establishments, and acting like a superstar."

He brought diversity into our lives with an equal helping of empathy. He made you question your choices and your values: about food, about music, about friends, about world leaders and politicians. About life.

I'm not much of a TV guy -- for no reason other than I don't particularly sit still well while staring straight ahead without being involved in a dialogue. (Why do you think I force myself to meditate, hmmm?) But Tony Bourdain -- particularly on Parts Unknown -- was a big exception to that rule. I have my DVR set to record very very little, but it's been recording every single episode of Parts Unknown for a while now. Bourdain has been, and still will be, my default choice for an hour of unrelentingly interesting television.

Sure, I'm sad that I never met him, but I'm really upset that the world lost his voice. The brotherhood and sisterhood of iconoclasts of the restaurant world and elsewhere is down a member. The punks and the artists have lost an advocate. So have the disenfranchised, especially people of color, everywhere, whether in the back room of a New York kitchen or in a remote village in Laos.

I'm glad your pain's gone, Tony. I just wish you didn't leave with it.

Shit. Shit. Shit.
********************
Here are the closing five minutes of the Seattle episode. I'll eventually get through it without tearing up, I swear. But not yet.

Sunday, May 27, 2018

Five Years

Five years ago today, my dad passed away. I miss him sometimes, but, as I documented here, the last few years of his life were really rough, and I don't look back fondly on those at all. Back then I wrote some things about what was going on, and very few of them have seen the light of day. I found the simple act of writing to be cathartic. Here's one of those pieces. (It just kind of slams shut at the end because it was part of something larger at the time).

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No Fun

[1976 or so]

There was a real familial/fraternal tipping point sometime in my early teens. It was when my younger brother Paul and I both decided we were better off as a two-man team organized against the perceived oligarchy of our parents than we were battling each other in sibling rivalry.

We rode that partnership through a lot of teenage hijinks, and, thanks to cunning, planning and a solid bond with each other, we spent most of our time back then trying hard to do two things: enjoy ourselves, and not be like our father.

And that’s probably just two versions of the same thing.

Make no mistake: our father was a good guy underneath it all. He loved his family, and did his best to provide for us, but he was not, in any sense of the word, fun. He was very Catholic, in, yes, an über-religious sense, but even more so in a dutiful way. When I was a kid, my dad went to Catholic mass every day. And let’s put it this way -- and, really, I shit you not: I heard a lot more references as a child to “offering up suffering for the souls in Purgatory” than I ever heard any emphasis on, say, having a good time, or enjoying life. We would joke in later years that “the pope has Dad on speed-dial.”

A teenage friend, who was terrified of my stern-faced father, dubbed him “Party Bill” -- a nickname that stuck for years, through a lot of laughter, although Bill never knew about it.  There could not have been a less appropriate -- and, thus, irony being what it is, more appropriate -- moniker for him.

[April 2010]

Not long after his hospitalization in March 2010 -- after falling and spending three days on the floor before he crawled to a phone and called me, in a whisper, to tell me that he was “having some trouble” -- it became clear that, this time, the party had nearly ended abruptly. My dad had come perilously close to dying. When a living human body lies in one spot for that long, toxins build up so fast in the muscles that the kidneys become overwhelmed and can’t clear them all, leading to a potentially fatal condition called rhabdomyalysis. His rhabdo was advanced, and I was told that he wouldn’t have survived a fourth day on the floor of his house.

But he was tough. Good Christ, he was tough. A few years earlier, around 2007, he had fallen, alone, in his basement, causing a fracture of the tibia that was so close to “compound’ -- i.e., the bone breaking free of its corporeal prison to find daylight -- that the skin in the area was stretched from the pressure of the jagged, broken leg bone against it. His response to that accident was not to somehow crawl or scoot on his butt up the stairs to the phone and dial for help. No, he walked up those steps -- 13 of them -- and then sat in a kitchen chair until the next morning, waiting to summon help until he was “absolutely sure that it wasn’t just sprained.” The surgeon told me back then, “Your father must have a pain tolerance that is superhuman. I get squeamish thinking about taking one step on that leg and he took 15 to 20. And he damn near turned some of the bone into powder doing it. I have no doubt that he walked on it, as he says he did, because it is damaged in a way that matches that kind of behavior.”

By the way, my father later admitted that the real reason he didn’t call for help sooner when he broke his leg in 2007: he was afraid I would (again) bring up how maybe, just maybe, this time it was time to move.

So rhabdo a few years later, after a few days on the floor? That was just a bump in the road for Bill. He bounced back enough within a week or so that he was transferred from the hospital to a nursing-care wing at local place we will call the Q. He fought me hard on that one, but acceded when he still couldn’t stand up without assistance. Then, within another couple weeks, he was able to shuffle along slowly using a walker, and he was shifted to the next step down, so-called “assisted living.” The notion is that residents in that section of the Q can perform the basic tasks of life -- dressing, bathing, bathroom issues, etc. -- but need to have their meals prepped for them, and just generally get checked in on by staff a few times a day. Assisted living at the Q was apartment living, but with community meals that commingled everyone. So in one dining hall there would be folks with very moderate memory/dementia issues and others, like my father, who were there solely for orthopedic/physical problems.

Again, he battled me -- “If I can walk, why am I not going home?!” he yelled -- but the switch from nursing to assisted living was so seamless, from one building of the Q to another, that he hardly had time to complain. In fact, I think staff told him they were just taking him for a “short ride in a wheelchair.” He was mighty pissed off when I said, “OK, so this is your new apartment for now.” His first question, “What do I have to do to get out of here and go home?”

Those were his second and third questions too.

In 2010, my dad was not yet showing any outward signs of dementia. He was nearly blind, couldn’t walk without a walker -- and even then, did so with great difficulty -- and he was not a good candidate to return home, but, as a doctor put it to me back then, “His MRI shows a prior stroke and a normal, aging 80-something-year-old brain. He is old, stubborn and cranky. He even qualifies as miserable. But he isn’t incompetent. There is no doubt that he shouldn’t go home because he can’t get around. But....”

The doc trailed off. The unstated conclusion to his summary: we can’t legally keep your dad here against his will. We can make it seem as if he “needs to stay,” but if it comes down to it and he calls a cab, we can’t stop him from leaving.

But, almost immediately, the staff at the Q tried to incorporate my father into their daily routine. Maybe he’d like to join a group activity? There were many of those!

He refused every offer.

He sat in his room all day long listening to classical music on the radio, or occasionally turning the television to basketball or baseball. The only out-of-apartment adventures were for meals, and, he told me that he hated those “because the food is terrible and there’s nothing here but crazy people.”

Toward the end of April 2010 there was a standard monthly “care conference” held about my father at the Q. He had only one question -- repeated so many times that it became painful: “How do I get out of here?” When staff and I dodged his first few stabs at that interrogatory, he began yelling it. So the director of the Q tried to distract Bill with another subject: “Hey, let’s turn the floor over to Karen for a moment. She is the activity director, and, William [she said his name somewhat schoolmarm-ishly, somewhat singsong-ishly, in a way that made me cringe because I knew what he would think of that], Karen says that you haven’t agreed to participate in a single activity since you arrived here a few weeks ago.”

Karen (a lovely, polite, well-mannered young woman, speaking in a truly earnest and caring tone) stepped in: ”William, we really want you to enjoy yourself while you are here. But I need to know what it is you like to do. What do you do for FUN?” (She put heavy emphasis on that last word).

My dad looked at her incredulously, then contemptuously. Then he squinted a little, as was his habit at the time, peering through the fog of his awful vision, to glare one-by-one at each of the four other people in the room, including me. He paused, put his head down for a moment, then reared up a bit in his wheelchair, slamming the palms of his hands down on his thighs, and bellowed, louder than I had ever heard him speak: “FUN?! [Profoundly long pause for effect]. I’M NOT INTERESTED IN FUN!!!”

The care conference ended.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

I stopped eating fruit for now; here's why

I'm doing a little experiment, and it seems to be working.

I'm in pretty good shape fitness-wise for a mid-fifties dude. Nothing spectacular, but my deadlift is around 405 pounds, and my aerobic capacity rarely flags. I'm not remotely overweight (6'2"/180).

But good god, man, I'm banged-up. I have arthritis in both knees, my right elbow and both shoulders. It's mostly from 37 years of drumming (still doing that) and probably a bit from five-plus years of CrossFit (don't do that any more). I do what I can to avoid taking anti-inflammatory drugs, and most of that consists of keeping my version of paleo/primal on a low-inflammatory track. The food/inflammation nexus has been pretty obvious to a lot of us for a while.

But why the hell did my arthritis/creakiness seem so bad lately?

I could blame the pain on physical activity, but that's pretty much a constant; I haven't been ramping up my exercise (or my drumming) lately. So I decided to take a hard look at my food.

I cut out alcohol entirely for almost a month. Nothing. No effect.
So what the heck might it be? I eat: meat, fish, eggs, vegetables (but hardly ever any nightshades), a little cheese, a little heavy cream, coffee, water, fruit (various berries), and some nuts.

That's pretty much it. So I looked at that list and saw nothing inflammatory, except maybe the fruit and the dairy (and okay, theoretically, the nuts, but my O-6/O-3 ratio is 2:1, which is, as the doctors say, "fucking spectacular"). (Yup, that's what they say).

I hoped really hard that it was the fruit. :) Because cheese.

I like fruit, but I love cheese. So I started with fruit.

Realizing that I was eating a bowl of berries pretty much every day,  I vowed to eliminate them. My thought was that if fructose in the form of high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS) is an inflammation bomb, maybe some people (read: me) don't handle regular old natural fructose so well either.

I've told you before that I can do, or not do, just about anything if I think it's a healthy idea. Willpower is not my problem. Convince me that eating a handful of dirt every day is a solid health plan, and I am in. With bells on. The convincing is the only hard part. But quitting berries is not eating dirt. It didn't take all that much arm-twisting of the self-inflicted variety for me to give it a shot.

So I quit berries cold turkey. No gentle decrease. No trips to the berry methadone clinic. No hanging around sketchy street corners waiting to score some vaccinium cyanococcus. (Cue: Lou Reed). Cold turkey.

The result has been pretty dramatic. I was so used to limping the first few steps when I would just get out of bed or out of the car that, when I suddenly didn't limp in those situations within two days of beginning this regimen, I was all, "Whoa. No, really, wait! Whoooooaaaaaaaa. I feel much better than usual."

I'm two weeks in now. I feel really good.

I miss the berries. But I miss the pain less. It's not 100% gone, but I don't expect it ever will be. I'm all banged-up and have hobbies that keep banging me up. I may try eliminating dairy too at some point to see if that makes an appreciable further difference, but the nearly-zero-fructose approach (I say "nearly" because it's in most vegetables in small amounts) seems to be a very good thing for my arthritis.

And I don't really know what to say about why there isn't very much on the interwebs about getting rid of fruit as a possible source of fructose-based inflammation. Everyone tells you to shitcan HFCS, but almost no one says that eliminating actual fruit might help too. That's probably because of anti-oxidant positives from fruit. It's generally good for most people. It's... HEALTHY!

But I'm not sure it's a good thing for me.

One of these nights, I'm going to eat a big-ass bowl of berries to test the theory. I bet my joints ache the next day.

To quote Hunter Thompson, and those in my chosen day job, "Res ipsa loquitur."

Whatever works. And this seems to work.
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UPDATE (May 27, 2018): I think the issue really was fructose, and, in retrospect, I was eating a lot of it. The complete-elimination idea was a good one, and now I'm back to occasionally having some berries (occasionally = probably four times a week). Moderation and all that.... (I'm not always good at it).

"Float. Freeze. Listen. Walk. Alternatives to Traditional Meditation."


Last fall, the fine folks at Paleo Magazine had me write an article about alternatives to traditional meditation. I always viewed the end result as a sort of compendium of things one could do in addition to meditation, but, yes, you meditation-phobic folks can dig in too, if you want to just dip your toes into the Zen pond. (Then I'll get you hooked. Mwahaha).

The article ran in the Paleo Mag Insider, which is usually a limited-edition publication that only the highest levels of PM subscribers can get their (virtual) mitts around. But, as I said, they're fine folks over at the magazine, and they gave me permission to share the link to that edition. It's here. My article starts at page six, or you can read the whole thing by clicking on the photo above.

The best news? The PM folks liked it so much that they had me do the ultimate "prequel" article: about the What/When/How/Why of meditation. It's huge. It's in the April/May issue. 

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Shut your piehole and stop snoring -- a.k.a. why mouth-taping may be the key to better sleep and better health

"Don't get me wrong. He's a nice guy. I like him just fine. But he's a mouth breather."
--The Jesus Lizard ("Mouth Breather")

You've probably been told that it's much better to breathe through your nose than your mouth. But why? Aesthetics? Well, yeah, but that's not why.

Nitric oxide! A large chunk of your body's production of nitric oxide is triggered by nasal breathing. You inhale into the parasinuses, and nitric oxide is produced there through a chemical reaction (the details of which are waaaaay beyond my pay scale, but see more about it here). Mouth breathing doesn't just produce less nitric oxide than nasal breathing. It produces none.

Why should you care? Because proper levels of nitric oxide are critical to a whole host of metabolic processes: digestion, testosterone production, blood-pressure control, better sleep, better brain function, and the like.

So let's assume that you've got the nasal-breathing thing going pretty well when you are wide awake. Yer sizable maw isn't agape on a regular basis.

But then you lie down to go to sleep....

And your mouth drops open like you have a rock attached to your lower jaw.

You start snoring.

Your significant other starts complaining.

But it's not so bad that you ever head for a CPAP machine.

"I could breathe through my nose just fine when I sleep, if my mouth didn't immediately open when I nod off," you say to your health-conscious bad self. You might even say that to the person that's complaining about your snoring.

Let's examine these facts for a moment:

1. You are only snoring when your mouth is open.
2. If your mouth were not open, you would not snore.
3. If you were breathing through your nose, you would be getting seven to nine hours of additional nitric-oxide production.
4. If you were breathing through your nose, your main squeeze would stop considering asking you to sleep in another room.
5. Seriously, dude, you need to shut your mouth while you are sleeping. Better blood pressure. Better health in all regards. Better everything.

If only there were a way to close that thing up and force you to breathe through your nose.

There is: tape it shut.

I'm dead serious.

It's not my idea. If you were to Google this (admittedly odd) practice, you'd find all sorts of people have given it a shot. You'd find there are a variety of specially-made tapes to do the job.

There's a reason for that second part. The first time I tried mouth-taping, I slept like a rock, breathed through my nose all night, and my wife complimented me on my snoreless slumber. I also woke up with gross adhesive all over my mouth. That's because I used duct tape.

Pro tip: Don't use duct tape.

Second pro tip: Don't use painter's tape either. (I did this too for you, so you don't have to).

Buy an actual brand of sleep tape made to do the job without leaving you feeling like you've been huffing adhesive all night. (Seriously, that can't be good for you, can it?). I use this one. But Google the phrase "sleep tape" and a bunch of products come up for your perusal.

The verdict: IT'S INCREDIBLE!! Really.

I'm not snoring at all (says my wife, and she'd know). I am waking up a lot better rested.

Those two benefits alone are spectacular.

And yeah, it's a little weird at first.

Now, let's take a small time-out to say that if you actually have been diagnosed with sleep apnea, or you can't breathe through your nose because of a deviated septum or from a round or two in the ring with the world champ, or whatever, then check this whole mouth-taping "fix" out with your doc first, but I can't find anything negative about it on the web -- other than comments about its weirdness. Indeed, it seems to me that it could be a seriously cheap fix to a whole lot of bedrooms that are noisy for all the wrong reasons.

I love it. My wife loves it. That's all that matters here.

Your mileage may vary, and you'll hate this idea. Or, it may not, and I may have just changed your life. It's your call whether you decide to find out.













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.
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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.