Sunday, December 30, 2012

The only thing that ever works for me when it comes to stress management

I have had this mantra -- maybe it's been more like some sort of dorky Official Paleo Drummer Motto -- for a while now that goes something like this: "You can't eat your way out of bad sleep, and you can't exercise your way out of bad eating. So fix things in this order: 1. Sleep. 2. Food. 3. Exercise."

And I really believe that, and try to live by it. If I am sleeping poorly, then, no matter how well I eat, I am not at my best, and exercise might even be counterproductive under those circumstances. And I know from years of allegedly "healthy" eating (Low fat! Vegetarian! Whole grain!) that exercise can only do so much when you are inflaming the bejeezus out of your body with irritating foods.

But I think I need to update the motto.

Because stress management needs to be in the top spot.

And I knew that already, but I think I was sort of melding that into the "sleep" category. But, at least for myself, I think it needs a spot on the list all its own. Right at the top: 1. De-stress. 2. Sleep. 3. Food. 4. Exercise.

It's not that I am a walking ball of tension at all times, but I pretty consistently have what could fairly accurately be described as a "metric shit ton" of things going on at once. And that's cool.... at least until it's not.

But when it's not, it potentially messes up *everything*.Those wise ancient Chinese and their proto-medicinal ways had it right: the digestive system is just hopelessly and completely intertwined with the mind. If I am stressed, acid reflux/GERD shows up. Sleep gets disrupted. I am sure when those two things are out of whack, then proper nutrients aren't being absorbed from food. Then I go to do a CrossFit workout and feel like I have no energy. Add more stress. Stir, repeat and blend into a cosmic death spiral.

It's awesome.

So what's a drummer to do? Mostly -- and by mostly, I mean, basically, it's all I have because it's all that *ever* works -- there's meditation. I simply cannot properly keep stress at bay if I don't meditate, and, once again, I am learning that if I just make the time, preferably right when I wake up and right before bed, to meditate, then everything else falls so beautifully into place that it is almost indescribable.

And, honestly, this kind of pisses me off.

Because, in simple, non-medical terms, what the hell? How can staring at a wall and doing steady abdominal breathing for 15-20 minutes make such an extreme difference in my entire life?

I have no idea.

It borders on new-age whackadoodle nonsense (NAWN). And I do not subscribe to NAWN in any form.

But it works. Calm the mind and you calm the digestive system. Calm the mind and you sleep better. Sleep better and have a calm digestive system and you absorb nutrients from food better. Digest your food better, and exercise will be much more beneficial, as opposed to being another source of stress. On the other hand, fail to calm the mind, and you never get properly started on the whole sleep/food/exercise Axis of Awesome.

It seems like such an easy choice for me, but I forget it so often: calm, peaceful happiness or cosmic death spiral of stress.

OK, so I am hereby resolved -- and I really effing hate new year's resolutions as a general proposition, but whatever works, ya know? -- to meditate every day, twice a day preferably, during the entire month of January. And then, once I am feeling so good that I have reached my happiest state (which is some top-secret blend of Ron Swanson and Tigger that reaches a primo spot on the "charming v. really?" axis that I hope doesn't annoy the living crap out of everyone I know more than I already do when I am not at my, ahem, "best") I will keep on that path past January.

Because a few things seem really obvious, but get lost along the way: your time on the planet is brief; you really ought to enjoy the ride and not let the bad people and things get you down; and when you keep all that bad stuff properly managed, enjoying that ride is a lot easier. Duh. Double duh.

So that's my January plan: 1. Stare at a wall twice a day. 2. Watch everything all fall into place again.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Braised paleo garlic/mango lamb ribs

We get in a rut of eating around here fairly often -- not a bad rut, mind you. We aren't going on candy benders. But we often still find ourselves eating about the same six or so (nutritious, wonderful) paleo meals in a rotation. So I vowed that, Christmas seeming like sort of a special event, I would make something (anything!) for Christmas dinner that broke the usual mold.

Christmas was super-quiet here this year. We skipped the usual trip out to Michigan to visit my wife's family, and my family wouldn't be around until a couple days later. So, what kind of special recipe could I make for me and my wife?

I went to Whole Foods and headed for the meat case. Staring at me (do ribs actually stare?), at a price per pound that I normally wouldn't pay for anything except a delicious distilled product from the Scottish isles, were lamb ribs. Cool. How hard could that be?

The interwebs offered me this recipe. I basically used that person's cooking method, but I totally disagree with the assessment that I read somewhere that the fat is to be avoided. It's delicious and, if you are using grassfed lamb, nutritious as well. But, as often happens, I had to make a few adjustments so my wife's paleo autoimmune protocol wouldn't be compromised.

Or at least not by me. When she opened the bottle of vino ("It's Christmas!!!"), at least the dietary compromise was her own and not foisted upon her.

Anyway, it was delicious, and, like the crap blogger that I am, I forgot to take a pic. And, really, it was so delicious that the window of opportunity for photo-taking was brief. There were no leftovers.

If you wanna relive the moment, it'd go like this:


--racks o'lamb ribs
--garlic, minced
--dried mango, chopped up
--ground black pepper

I am being purposely vague about the amounts because it's a flexible recipe. Our two racks had about eight ribs in each. I used two bags of dried mangoes from Whole Foods, about five cloves of garlic, and the rest in a proportion of 1:1:0.5:1 (cinnamon, cumin, salt, pepper). In other words, use half as much salt as the other three of those ingredients.

Do this:

--preheat oven to 275 degrees
--in a baking dish (lined with foil if you want easy cleanup) put the minced garlic and mangoes down as a bed for the lamb
--in a bowl, combine the cinnamon, cumin, salt and pepper and then rub it all over the ribs. Rub it on pretty thick. I really have no idea how much I used, but you'll be fine. Just keep the proportions as described. Lay the racks on top of the mango/garlic bed
--add water to the pan until it covers about one-quarter to one-third of the way up the ribs
--cover the dish with foil and let it cook for three hours
--yes, three hours. You are braising this, and braising takes time
--remove the foil and turn the heat up to 375
--cook for another 20 to 30 minutes until the ribs are browned

The idea here is that the garlic/mango slurry creates a chutney-ish concoction that you then eat with the ribs. It is pretty amazing.


- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Friday, December 21, 2012

Two simple gun-control suggestions, a.k.a. forget the flashy bans and do something that might really matter

This morning, I heard Donny Deutsch on MSNBC say something like, "I wish people would stop saying gun control and just talk about assault-weapon control." And I thought, "You have to be kidding me." If you are going to do something meaningful to combat gun violence, focusing on assault weapons may miss reforms that are both easier to pass and implement, as well as broader and more effective.

See, as I understand it, an "assault-weapons ban" has all sorts of problems and loopholes and restrictions before you ever get to the part about whether targeting a supposed class of weapons will actually *do* anything meaningful. (A small point on the "meaningful" angle: the Newtown shooter apparently used a .223 rifle that people would now like to ban as an assault weapon. Does anyone think that if his mom hadn't owned that gun, he wouldn't have done the same horrific things with the two semiautomatic, non-assault-weapon, pistols that he had? I don't). There are, by any measure, a whole lot of assault weapons already legally-owned in this country. Is anyone talking about confiscating *those* guns? I don't think so, for a simple reason: if you think deporting 12 million illegal aliens would be not-so-feasible (and you'd be right), try tracking down and seizing all those guns. Then, even if you found them, I am fairly sure that there is a massive "takings" issue under the Due Process Clause for government to confiscate a formerly legally-owned item without fair-market-value compensation. And then, even if you spend that money, what exactly are you banning? There is a mighty definition problem when the word "assault weapon" is bandied about. The classic in-effect automatic/semiautomatic distinction is pretty easy: pull the trigger and how many bullets fire? One? Or more? But "assault weapon?" That .223 rifle sure as hell looks like what lots of folks call "an assault weapon," but Connecticut has an assault-weapons ban that didn't make it illegal. Would gun manufacturers then simply scrap making all the old guns, and make new ones that a ban doesn't cover? Would we then have a dog-chases-cat scenario of government monitoring all new guns to classify them?

In short, an assault-weapons ban sounds like a mess of legalities, definitions, potential compensation issues, and then a question of whether you have actually done anything other than switch the weapon of choice to something else. And, yeah, a high-capacity-magazine ban sounds the same to me -- a boatload of definitional/takings issues with questionable return. As I understand it, the Newtown rifle had a 30-shot cartridge. He fired more than 30 shots, so he reloaded. Do we doubt that he would have reloaded those pistols if he had to?

How about a different, broader focus? How about specifically two things?

First, close the colossally stupid, nearly inexplicable "gun-show loophole" that exempts gun-show sales from background checks. Does that one even require explanation? Has anyone ever figured out the sense of that loophole? Either you need background checks or you don't. I think you do to keep guns out of the hands of felons and the mentally-ill. And if you do, what in the world is the point of that loophole?

Secondly, can't we sensibly require gun owners to lock up their guns if they aren't at home, providing access only to those who have passed a background check? And before your answer is that that law would be ignored, a simple corollary proposal goes with it: you have to report a stolen gun within 48 hours. That requirement could have the result of drastically reducing the number of burglaries in which guns are stolen. Guns that are locked up, particularly in a gun safe, are harder to steal. And the incentive to comply will be strong. If you own a gun and it gets stolen, and shows up in a future crime, it will be obvious whether you reported the theft. It may also be obvious that it wasn't locked up when you weren't home, unless it was stolen out from under your nose. It seems like an easy reform, and one that is not a gross imposition on gun owners. Hell, every gun owner I know has most of his or her guns locked up anyway.

What I think is important in this debate is to remember, first of all, that there is a right to own a gun in the home, according to the U.S. Supreme Court. So, as I have said before, forget going after *that* right. You would be going up against the constitution, as interpreted. Instead, how about focusing on a way to reduce violence with those guns? Nothing is going to lower the homicide rate to zero, but, on the other hand, full background checks for all sales, plus a lock-when-not-home requirement could actually prevent guns from falling into the hands of those who are not legally authorized to have those guns -- criminals and the mentally-ill.

Hey, Mr. Vice President, when your panel of experts gets together, keep the approach simple, and effective.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Paleo dairy-free egg nog, the super-easy version

The other day, I ran across this recipe for a dairy-free/paleo egg nog. And I was intrigued. See, I never really liked traditional egg nog. The milk-shake-y consistency was OK, but the sweetness was always gagworthy. So, honestly, I don't think I have had egg nog in 20 years, or more. And before you tell me that rum or bourbon always helps, I would rather just have the rum (dark, please) or the bourbon. Or better yet, a delicious single-malt whisky from Scotland. But I digress....

However, that recipe was of interest to me because it is coconut-milk based. Coconut milk has a bit of natural sweetness to it, and it's a great source of medium-chain fatty acids and lauric acid (although even better for the lauric acid is coconut oil, but I digress again....)

So, I started looking over the recipe and looking over the contents of our spice rack and pantry. And I decided to make a few changes.

We didn't have honey, and, even if we did, like I said, I am not a guy really motivated by sugar. In fact, overly sweet stuff repulses me, so I decided to go sweetener-free. The coconut milk was going to carry the sweetness load. We also didn't have nutmeg. It also looked to me like that recipe called for absurdly paltry amounts of cinnamon. And finally, to hell with the frou-frou topping. I don't have time for that nonsense. So here's where we ended up, but all credit to the initial idea goes to Primally Inspired, the site that first posted the recipe:


--2 14-oz cans full-fat coconut milk. (Not light. Not some chemically, seaweed-encrusted, soybomb shit in a carton labeled "coconut-milk beverage." Full fat. From a can).

--Six egg yolks. Now, here is where it gets tricky. I would no more ingest a standard-issue raw egg yolk from a factory egg than I would go dumpster diving for food. It seems like a good way to get, as the doctors call it, really fucking sick. However, Whole Foods sells real oh-my-god-yeah pastured eggs, with yolks so orange  that they give you hope for the future of the human race while simultaneously  making you hum this. So I would seriously advise using those, and still, y'know, ultimately, you're on your own on this one, kids. If Chicken Little pooped all over that egg, then you never know. Play smart. Live free. Go make something else if this part scares you.

--a lot of cinnamon. At least a tablespoon. I used a little more.

-- a tablespoon of vanilla extract

--a tablespoon of allspice.

--a tablespoon of "baking spice," which, not being terribly familiar with the "baking" portion of our spice rack, I am not sure whether this is a standard-issue item, or whether it is some weird stuff that just we have. It has cardamom and anise seed in it, among other things. (Kudos to my wonderful wife for the allspice and baking-spice suggestions. I would have punted at: "Fuck it; we don't have nutmeg," but she came to the rescue). If you don't know what this is, then just use more cinnamon and allspice, or buy some nutmeg. Mankind got to the moon years ago; you'll figure this out.

Do this:

(Are you ready? It's tough). Mix everything together really well in a pitcher. (Oh, that was hard). My wonderful wife suggests that a blender might be helpful. I politely rejected this aspect of her advice, free from regret. A bigass spoon worked just fine.

Now, however, you have an executive decision to make. If you are mixing this up for your friends with the primary goal of getting schnockered in a Christmas-y way without the, er, burden of adding booze to each individual glass, then pour however much rum or bourbon or whatever you want into the pitcher and see who can belt out the best version of this after a few schlogs o'nog. I chose not to do this because: (a) my wife doesn't really drink much, and (b) I was afraid I would screw it up; better to add to each glass to get the amount/proportion right. I also learned later that the non-alcoholic version makes a pretty nice topping for frozen fruit, aka, "Christmas paleo egg-nog ice cream." Whoa. Anyway, when it came time for the alcohol-included version for my glass, I used dark rum, because the lighter stuff is too sweet for me. I was, once again, regret-free.

In the end, I dug this stuff immensely. You could mess with it in a myriad of ways: Cinnamon sticks. That fancy topping in the original recipe. Honey if you are a big baby and need it sweeter. Whatever. Have fun, and happy holidays of whatever sort you are celebrating.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Why I stopped watching the president's speech last night

There I was, watching the president's speech in Connecticut last night. I was curious to see where he would go with it. But I got thrown off course quickly, and gave up, which is a shame because I bet he said some good things.

See, I don't believe in a god or gods. I just can't wrap my brain around it. I am not hostile to people who do. I believe in religious freedom to the nth degree. I think you should think whatever you want to think about those issues. I have friends who are devout believers in a god (mostly Christians) and friends whose personal belief system revolves, like mine, more around things like science and reason, and doesn't go near issues of the supernatural. And I have a whole lot of friends somewhere in between those polar opposites. It's all OK with me because I believe in personal autonomy. I would never tell you what to think about issues of gods, religion and the like.

So why was the president leaning so hard on the supernatural in that speech, or what I saw of it?

If you are a believer in a deity -- and most of America is, if polls are to be believed -- try and imagine for a minute how utterly shallow and preposterous it sounds for anyone to attempt to comfort someone who is *not* a believer with a statement like, "Well, at least those innocent victims are wrapped in God's loving embrace now."

It's fine for you to believe that, and I have no interest in disrupting your belief system, but there is a decent minority of this country -- and huge swaths of many other Western democracies -- that equate that kind of talk with delusion. Even worse, I am betting -- as a simple matter of numbers -- that somewhere amidst the surviving families of those 26 victims there are people who don't believe in the supernatural.

I wonder what *they* thought when told that their deceased relatives were "in a better place."

I even heard the phrase "God's plan" in that speech.


It's one thing for pastors and other official religious leaders to invoke the supernatural at times like this. It is to be expected. But I think it is ... well, the best word I can think of is "weird" ... for the president to do it as some sort of comforting and inclusive gesture. Sure, it's comforting to the majority, I suppose, but he was, quite likely, standing in front of some non-believers last night telling them that their dead family members were somehow doing better today.

And trust me, unless you are religiously-inclined, you most definitely don't think that.

Maybe "weird" doesn't cut it after all. It is something more obtuse than that, as if he never considered that some of those notions might be grossly offensive to some of his intended audience. And really, when the point of a speech is healing and comfort, you really want to avoid offending.

I basically like the president, and I don't think for a second that any of his predecessors would have been *less* inclined to invoke the supernatural last night. I also don't think he was trying to be controversial or offensive. But, really, in a speech where "inclusion" was more important than ever, I wish he had just stuck to comforting those families for their losses and said whatever else he wanted to say about gun policy and the country moving forward. Instead, he shut out some people; I hope, for their sakes, that none of those people were the surviving families.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Newtown and the aftermath, and finding the negotiable points regarding gun control in the U.S., as opposed to just making more noise

I wasn't originally planning on saying anything about yesterday's awful shooting in Connecticut, except two things: (1) to wish the best for the survivors, their families and the families of the deceased; I can't really begin to comprehend what it must be like to lose one's five-year-old child to a bullet. And (2) to credit a lot of heroic teachers/school-staff and first responders. The tales are still emerging of school-district employees plucking children out of harm's way. It makes you think that maybe, just maybe, the world is not *just* an awful place full of awful people. Nihilistic thoughts don't do much for my mood, but their attraction in times of hideous behavior is, unfortunately, deep and powerful. I'd rather think that most people are better than all that, or that at least some of them are, or, at the very least, that there is an outstanding group of five to ten percent that lead the way to good in times of bad. There was some amazing human spirit shown in Newtown yesterday amidst the correspondingly worst side of one person's humanity.

But then, I got onto Facebook. And I saw a lot of political posturing. My first reaction to that posturing was not a positive one. You might think, person on the left or the right, that your motives are pure and humanitarian when you leap onto this type of tragedy and start suggesting the need for -- or, on the other side, the lack of need for -- legislative solution to some (or all) issues related to guns in the U.S. of A.

And mostly, whether you were coming from the left or the right on that issue yesterday, I will respect the fact that you probably *thought* you were doing the right thing. I didn't find it terribly helpful though. I found it reactionary, in the purest sense of the word. Grab the tragedy and make political hay of it. Even with the best of motives, it was a little gross and unseemly, on both sides of the gun-rights issue.

But, lord knows, that unseemliness is, as the kids say, "viral" today. I have seen variations of these buttons on the FB in lots of folks' feeds today, and, in some instances, they have adopted the button of their liking as their profile photo. Awesome.

So I will give up on the notion of suggesting that we all take a little time out from turning tragedy into political theatre, even with the best of motives.

Instead, I might as well talk about the subject that you folks were all hot to get on yesterday: gun control. But I want to come at it from a little different perspective.

There is a talk-radio guy named Michael Smerconish who runs his show out of Philly. I generally agree with much of his take on many issues. He tacks toward the political center on many points, finding fault with the right and the left. But, most importantly, I like his *presentation* of issues whether I agree with his view or not. His governing motto is: "Angry is over."

Sadly, when it comes to a lot of political issues -- but particularly, maybe more than any other, gun control -- angry is a long way from over. There is a lot of hysteria.

Generally speaking, when attempting to convince those who disagree with you on anything -- but especially hot-button issues -- that they might need to rethink their position, leading with invective isn't going to accomplish anything. So, really, if you think that either "Fuck guns" or "Fuck gun control" is going to be a winning motto, or, more importantly, a way to get the conversation started, you are likely to be wrong.

So let's begin the conversation, instead of by screaming at each other, with a couple basics on gun issues here in the U.S.

-- Despite the wishes/beliefs of the hard left to the contrary, there is -- not because I say so, but, rather, because the U.S. Supreme Court says so -- a constitutional right to own some sort of gun in one's home. You can love that D.C. v. Heller ruling; you can hate it. Your view of it is, however, irrelevant. It is a fact because, like all constitutional facts, the Supreme Court is the last word on such things, and they have spoken. But, before you have a small fit about militias and all that, let's move to the next point....

-- Despite the wishes/beliefs of the hard right, beyond the act of outright *banning* the ownership of basic firearms -- handguns, standard-issue hunting rifles and shotguns (and quite likely *not* military/"assault" weapons) -- most other gun-control measures are fair game for the political process. This means that, democracy being what it is, legislatures at the State and federal level are able to weigh in on what is a desirable, in their view, level of regulating the practical application of the constitutional right to own guns. Again, you don't have to agree; it doesn't matter whether you agree. It is a constitutional fact at this point, because the guys and girls in the black robes say so.

So, believing that pie-in the-sky theorizing and bloviation gets one nowhere without a healthy dose of practicality, I propose the following:

If we are going to debate gun-control measures, let's get rid of phrases like, "Fuck guns," and, correspondingly, "Fuck gun control." First of all, that sort of talk isn't going to do any more than preach to the choir on your side of the issue while simultaneously offending the people you are trying to convince to change their minds. But, more importantly, the ship has sailed on both of those points of view here in the United States. Gun ownership is not only a fact of life; it is a constitutional right. Because the Supreme Court says so. But that right is subject to reasonable regulation. Because the Supreme Court says so.

So let's debate what reasonable regulations are without the invective, but, even more importantly, let's debate it within the strictures of how the Supreme Court has set up the issue for us.

When we do that, we quickly have to take a big point for gun-control advocates off the table: a ban on handguns.

It can't happen, not because I say so, but because that is exactly what was rejected in the Heller case. So forget it. That's gone. Put away all the studies that cite Canada and Europe and the sensibility of handgun bans. Sensibility has nothing to do with it. We live in a post-Heller nation where basic gun ownership, including handguns, is a right guaranteed by the constitution. You don't have to like it, but if you want to talk gun control in the U.S., you have to accept it and move on to the next point.

When you take handgun bans off the table, what are you potentially left with in terms of gun control? A lot, in a sense. You can talk about restrictions on military-style weapons, types of ammunition, sizes of clips and magazines, background checks, etc. and *that's* when you finally (Finally!) get to the only viable areas of debate, but I say "in a sense" for a reason: I am not actually sure that most of those restrictions really *do* anything (although really strong background checks are, in my opinion, probably the best of the bunch).

And, correspondingly, I'm not sure that they *don't*, either. I think it is a fair point of debate. I know that, at least as I understand it, at least one of the weapons used yesterday was an AR-15 that is illegal to own in Connecticut under their state assault-weapons ban. If that's true, that wasn't a very effective ban. Would it be more effective if it were nationwide, i.e., federal? I don't know. Do stats bear out that the prior federal assault-weapons ban reduced the number of gun deaths, or did it just switch the lethal weapon of choice from an illegal assault weapon to a constitutionally-protected handgun or shotgun? I don't know that either. What about those background checks? Lord knows, El Al hyperscreens its air passengers on the spot in this, The Computer Age. Couldn't we do that with a gun purchase? Again, I don't know. But *these* are the points, all of which focus on effective *and* constitutional gun-control measures, that need to be debated and researched.

And they need to be debated calmly and rationally within the bounds of Heller. So, lefty friends, let's excise the phrases "Fuck guns" and "Ban all (hand)guns" from your negotiating stance. Righty friends, let's get rid of "Fuck gun control" at the same time. There is going to be *some* level of gun control in this country and, yet, it isn't going to be as much as the left wants. That's a cold hard fact. So let's focus on efficacy within the legal bounds that the Court has set up for us, and leave the invective at home. I don't know if a reasonable solution is out there, but I *do* know that there is no other way that there is a chance of finding it.

UPDATE: as it turns out, that AR-15 was legally-owned, i.e. not covered by the assault-weapons ban, which begs the question of what kind of ban that was anyway. It also points out a sad truth that trying to ban weapons by description is a tough thing to do effectively.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

20th century American bloody mushroom cult (Concert review: Yo La Tengo at Maxwell's December 11, 2012)

In another post (and another), I told you all about my love for Yo La Tengo, Hoboken's finest contribution to the annals of indierock. For the serious YLT junkie, there is no gig-going opportunity greater than the eight-night run that they do, most years since 2001, at Maxwell's in their hometown for Hanukkah. From my home in the wilds of rural NJ, Hoboken takes a little effort to get to. The easiest way is to pretend you are headed into the Holland Tunnel (into NYC) and then basically hang a left at one of the last possible opportunities before being sucked into the Big Apple. Right, the Holland Tunnel -- what a freak show *that* ride often is -- but when YLT, and particularly YLT at Hanukkah, is the reward for slogging through heavy traffic, the trip is well worth it.

So what was I to think when yesterday's traffic was nearly non-existent, and the painful ride was, well, painless? After a delicious festival of meat and greens at Dinosaur BBQ in Newark, I sailed into Hoboken without a hitch, parked in a nearby garage for the ridiculously bargain price of $10 and waltzed into Maxwell's to meet my friend Kyle. Were the gods of karma warning me that tonight's show would be a snoozer?

I refused to believe it. Yeah, a few years back, I had drifted away from YLT just a bit. The glory of their '90s albums had given way to an overwhelming quiet in the first half of the 2000s that didn't quite excite me like their earlier stuff. But, ever since 2006's  I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass and 2009's Popular Songs, YLT were, to quote Frank Constanza, "back, baby." Both of those records contained a few longer, noisier, glorious anthems that the early 2000s records had lacked. And even the quieter songs on them had a certain groove that seemed to be lacking just a few years earlier. But, oh... Those.  Noisier.  Ones. Double-emphasis on "glorious."And of course, in September, I had just seen that wonderful Philly gig. All of this added up to a refusal in my mind to think that I hadn't suffered enough in traffic to see a great gig. Hell no, they were going to rule.

But, really, how often does one enter a gig of *any* band with such high hopes and have them completely fulfilled? In my experience, not often. Call it the exception. Call Yo La Tengo maybe (just maybe) the best damn live band out there right now. Call it all whatever you want.
It was, very simply, to quote my friend Kyle at her first ever YLT show, "totally amazing."

Indie/jangly/psych kids Real Estate opened. I could complain that I wish they had a little more distortion in their weapons cache, but, damn, if they didn't shimmer nearly perfectly. They won huge points with me for keeping their set to a manageable length and for not copping a rockstar vibe at all. I liked 'em. Then Todd Barry -- yeah, the very funny comedian -- came out for a short set (YLT Hanukkah shows always have a comedian on the bill) and he was very very funny. I am no connoisseur of comedy, but I dig edgy, sarcastic, brutal and funny. He was all those things. Nice work, sir.

On to the main event.... Now, I've told you that I like YLT at their most earthshatteringly aggressive/loud. But I really *do* dig the quiet Velvets-y bits in between. I just don't want them to dominate the show. The setlist was, dare I say, perfect in striking that balance (and thanks to Jesse Jarnow at the Frank and Earthy Blog for the setlist; Jesse is The Man for all things YLT, including Big Day Coming, his book about the band, which I reviewed here):

Spec Bebop
We’re An American Band
The Crying of Lot G
20th Century Boy (T-Rex)
Out the Window
The Point of It
The Summer
Don’t Have To Be So Sad
Double Dare (acoustic)
Big Day Coming (fast)
Nothing To Hide
Mushroom Cloud of Hiss
Burnin’ For You (Blue Öyster Cult) (with Todd Barry on drums)
Our Way To Fall (with Martin Courtney of Real Estate on vocals)

I have always thought of Spec Bebop as a little bit of a filler song on 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One -- a nice lead-in to We're An American Band (a YLT original, not a Grand Funk cover), but still a bit of a lesser beast in the formidable company of the rest of that wonderful record.

I swear..... I will never think that again. See, last night the drummer for a band called Oneida -- with which I am, at the moment still unfamiliar, but that moment isn't going to last long -- named Kid Millions, sat in with YLT for the whole main set. Wow. Just total effing wow. He was the perfect addition. He played around, under and with Georgia when they drummed together. But never drowned her out or walked on her. The man had subtlety and groove to spare. When James hit the button on an iPod to start the set with a jacked-up (in volume) track of the drum part from the album version of Spec Bebop, I thought, momentarily, "WTF? You have two drummers up there already!!" But, I was so wrong. Georgia and the Kid layered all over and around what was already playing and it was a tribal groovefest to which James and Ira added keys and bass, respectively, to let us know that this was no early-'00s quiet set.


We were off to the races. And it was a dynamic race at that. We're An American Band got so intense in its rising and falling waves of power that Ira, having switched to ear-shredding guitar for that one, was bleeding from his hands by the time the song finished.

Things got a little quieter for Lot G, but that was -- along with Don't Have to Be So Sad -- one of the early '00s songs that benefitted a lot from the extra drumming of Kid Millions. It swung; it grooved, just a little more than before, and the rest of the band responded in intensity. The VU would be so proud.

The last time I saw YLT do 20th Century Boy was New Year's Eve 1999.... wearing gorilla suits. Yes. Really. It was very funny, but I had kind-of assumed that was a one-off cover, y'know with the timeliness of it at the time. But no. In the YLT Hanukkah tradition of "we're much more likely to cover it if there was a Jew involved with the original" the band resurrected the cover to great effect. James owned the vocal. And then they blasted through Out the Window, both drummers grinning giddily through much of the whole thing.

Things got quieter for the next three, but, as I said, "quiet" never equated with "dull." These songs were gorgeous and perfect (except maybe I remember a bit of a skronky keyboard on one, but no matter....).

And, for godssakes, even the transition songs were perfect. Double Dare is usually an electric stunner, but its acoustic-y version was intense, but not loud. It had all the power, but none of the growl of the original.

And then came that growl.... OK, more like a *howl*....

I kid you not when I say that the closing four songs of the main set were a perfect ever-building wall of  attack and power. The full-on electric version of Big Day Coming is, I believe, the song I have seen YLT do over the years more than any other, and it just keeps getting a little more bold, a little more ballsy. Put two drummers on it, and it gets bigger, stronger, faster. And they ran it straight into Nothing to Hide which then, just like in Philly a few months back, ran right into Decora. And I remember thinking, "This is all so crazy that I think we're gonna get a Mushroom Cloud of Hiss tonight." And, damn, if Decora didn't end and James launched into a booming, speeding bassline of, yes, hissssssss.

If, as they are not at all prone to do, YLT were to ask me what one song of theirs I would want them to play, the answer is simple: Mushroom Cloud of Hiss. I went a little nuts.

In case, you aren't familiar with it, it goes like this:

It thunders; it roars; Ira screams his head off and turns colors that could lead the casual observer to call 9-1-1. It is awe-inspiring. And it is extra beautiful with two drummers pounding the effing bejeezeus out of it, and then, on the no-drums part, both grabbing guitars to add to the feedback, leaping back to their drum kits to finish it all up.

It *had* to be the last song of the main set. It was that great.

And it made me extra happy when I realized that it hadn't been played at last year's Hanukkah run because Ira was coming off a rough illness and played a lot of songs sitting down. Mushroom's intensity was more than could be asked for last year. This version made up for that in spades. Wowzers. A stunning return to physical form.

I have seen a bunch of cool Hanukkah-show encores, involving Ray Davies and David Johansen, among others. But seeing the band get back onstage and, with Todd Barry -- yes, the comedian -- on drums, blast through a Blue Oyster Cult radio hit, well, that was just as ridiculously perfect (nice lead vocal from James on it as well). The show then ended with an understated, intense take on Our Way to Fall with the lead singer of Real Estate helping out on backing vocals. Perfect.

And it was one for the record books. My only regret was that I wasn't able to get tickets for another night. *That''s* how fast these things sell out. I'll be anxiously awaiting the new album and a 2013 tour. What fun.

UPDATE: if you were obsessive like me, and so inclined, you could go here and follow the link to  download the entire show, quite legally with the permission of the band, for free. It's all great, but the main set is downright hypnotically and/or chaotically beautiful from Don't Have to Be So Sad onward. Wow.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The boy looked at Johnny (and the girl was even better than the boy): Neil Young and Crazy Horse with Patti Smith in Philadelphia, November 29, 2012

I have previously raved on about my love for the new album from Neil Young and Crazy Horse. Psychedelic Pill is a return to (ragged) glory, not perfect, but nevertheless a shining testament to the joys of the Horse in all their dynamic rage. To say that I was eagerly anticipating Thursday night's show at the Wells Fargo Center in Philly would be a gross understatement. It held the promise of the unrestrained, albeit longwinded, triumph that was the Weld tour in the early '90s. Sing a little, jam a lot, sing a little more, jam a lot more.

You don't pay Neil and the Horse to be succinct. Nor do you ever expect them to follow the rules, maaaaaan. And if a band devoid of an editor and flouting convention at every turn was all a concertgoer was in search of, then Thursday night's show delivered in spades. But, sadly, I left the arena with somewhat mixed feelings.

Overall, it really was a very good show. The setlist -- fairly static from night to night this tour, except for a rotating cast of encore songs -- went like this:

Love and Only Love
Born in Ontario
Walk Like a Giant
The Needle and the Damage Done
Twisted Road
Singer Without a Song
Ramada Inn
Cinnamon Girl
Fuckin' Up
Mr. Soul
Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black)

Encore: Like a Hurricane

And, lord, they were soaring through those first few. Like a number of his similarly-aged contemporaries on guitar (Ted Nugent, despite his sometimes wretched mouth, comes to mind), Neil has continued to grow in epic bounds as a lead guitar player since the 1970s, leaving far in the dust the guy who did the minimalist solo on the title track of On the Beach for a feedback/volume/overdrive/distortion-driven approach that sounds a bit like Lee and Thurston from Sonic Youth channeling Hendrix and Leeds-era Townshend. He really and truly has his shit together in this department. And the three longer songs of the first four (Love..., Powderfinger and Walk....) were drenched in rising and falling waves of distortion-riddled power on the solos. And those solos went on and on with highs that screamed and lows that thundered and rumbled. And it really was glorious. Yes, raggedly glorious even. (You may see what I did there; yes, again).

And then... Walk Like a Giant ended. Or at least, it should have. But it didn't. Long after the solos (and the singing and the continued solos) died down, and even after the three or four minutes of noisy pounding that bring the tune to its close on the recorded version had ended, the feedback and drones went on....

And on and on and on.... And then, in the cheesiest display of cheesiness ever, while the band droned, roadies launched paper and plastic bags into the air to be blown across stage by big movable fans. See, kids, a storm was coming, or, with all the panache and skill of a third-grade school play, that's what Neil wanted you to think. So the band droned more and more and the roadies threw trash into the air and, oh god make it stop.... I didn't check the time, but it had to be at least ten minutes of pretty senseless feedback. Mind you, this wasn't the sort of feedback-within-a-solo feedback that, well, kind of rules when wielded appropriately. This had all the subtlety and control of, well, things that have no subtlety and control. My metaphor-maker cannot hope to convey to you how dull this was.

And I really *like* expertly-employed noise, but this was pointless. Worse, it was lengthy and pointless.

But, yes, that episode of "What the Fuck, Neil?" eventually came to a close, and there was, on the video screen, "rain" (remember, a storm was blowing through) and eventually Neil did the Needle... solo acoustic. And that was fine (and brief). Twisted Road, with its paean to the Dead and Roy Orbison, was also done (quite fine, albeit not earthshatteringly, thank you) solo acoustic and then, perhaps (but not definitely, because I haven't told you about Fuckin' Up yet), I witnessed a potential award winner in the category of The Stupidest Thing I Have Seen Onstage In A Very Long Fucking Time.

Neil did a new song called Singer Without a Song. It is pretty dull. I like him at the piano -- The Bridge, L.A., etc -- but this was nothing like those. This was just dull. And, OK, everyone gets a dull song. But then dull morphed into stupid. For most of the song, a not-at-all-unattractive woman wandered the stage with a guitar case in hand. She never went near a microphone.

See, she was (get this....) the, um, singer without a song.

Just fucking kill me now. The third-grade-play antics of the close of Walk Like a Giant had, at this point, devolved to first-grade. Really, dude? You paid a hot-looking woman to wander the stage to prop up your atrocious new song? Ugh. The glory of those first few tunes had nearly completely faded.

Ramada Inn followed. And I thought it had a super-laconic start.... like overly-laconic. And, tainted by the nonsense of the previous section of the show, I was getting jaded. I might have even been getting cranky. I might have even told the dancing -- no, make that jiggling and undulating and repeatedly bumping into me -- enormous man next to me, in what my wife would call my "annoyed voice" and sporting what my kids would call my "Clint Eastwood face," and while drawing an imaginary line in the space between us, something like, "DUDE! You need to move the fuck over. Now." He may have moved a lot.

And then Neil, always a giver and a taker, saved the day. Motherfucking hell, the solos in Ramada Inn were gorgeous and dangerous and awesome. I mean he just *attacked* the guitar. And Poncho followed him wherever he went, slashing and driving the rhythm guitar when needed, and backing way the hell off when not. It was inspirational, and, yes, concert-saving, especially after what had immediately preceded it.

And Cinnamon Girl was, truly, a beautiful thing. Hell, I wouldn't have really guessed that I ever needed to hear that one. It's a perfectly good song, but I have heard it a lot. But they hit it hard, really hard. Ralph the drummer seemed to take a particular joy in throwing in the "Whoo!" more than once during the solos. They were giggling and having a great time.

And Fuckin' Up followed. And, see, I feel like I have a special bond with this song. My brother and I used to play this in a band in the early '90s, and, because there is, you know, potty talk in the lyrics (OK, in the title, even), no one but the most devoted Neil fans knew at the time that it wasn't our song. Said potty talk prevents it from ever being played on the radio. And it really is a thundering beast of a tune. And, traditionally, the Horse has a blast with it, extending it a bit with juvenile bluster. I always love it.

And for most of it -- OK, for the whole song as written -- it was great. But then juvenilia lapsed into double-dumbness. Much like on Walk Like a Giant, the extendo-ending became as long, or in this case longer, than the song. For eight minutes or so, Neil and Poncho devolved into third-rate disco funksters who sang about, yes, fucking up. And then it ended. And then it started up again. And my friend David loudly declared, "Neil, you are losing me!" And I had to agree. I have nothing, in theory, against twenty minutes of Fuckin' Up. I have a lot against twelve or so of those minutes having almost nothing to do with Fuckin' Up (except lyrically involving the word "fuck" over a barely-funky funk beat).

And then, well, Mr. Soul and Hey Hey, My My (Into the Black) saved the day again. Both were blistering and savage, riddled with distortion and feedback-choked solos, and I wondered to my jaded self how Neil manages to save the day so often. Whether it is this show, or, well, his career, it is always an up and down ride with the old man. You, apparently, have to put up with interspersed nonsense every time. It's just that this show was, on the whole, awfully heavy with the nonsense. For a 2.5-hour set, counting the furious, longwinded, heavy-as-hell, pretty sweet take on Hurricane that was the encore, I think a good 45 minutes was crap. Boring crap. The rest was varying degrees of brilliant.

Adjust that ratio a bit and my take on the show would be significantly more positive than it appears.

And maybe, just maybe, Neil kind of got his ass handed to him by opener Patti Smith that night.

Patti went to high school just outside of Philly. She has a special bond with the area, and you could tell right from the outset that she was digging the hell out of this gig. She came through the music business in the mid-'70s when she had to scratch and claw and fight to get every break. It was an absurdly male-dominated business at the time, and she did it her way, not theirs. The four albums from Horses through Wave that constituted her early career are compelling, urgent records that you really ought to own. And then she took an enormously-long break to start a family, and, eventually, bury her husband, former MC5/Rendezvous Band guitar genius Fred "Sonic" Smith. After Fred's death, Patti then dove headlong back into music, and, while the albums have never been as great as those first four, she is, at age 65, still one hell of an energetic performer.

And she has two sides: there is the poetess/priestess/hippie/flowerchild who dominates much of her later work, and then there is the venom-spitting punk. Both made well-timed appearances on Thursday night. The set looked like:

Dancing Barefoot
April Fool
Beneath the Southern Cross
It's a Dream
People Have the Power
Land >> Gloria

Barefoot started the proceedings with a happy yet insistent urgency. God, that riff is timeless, and the band rode it home. And Patti kept telling us how great it was to be in Philly. And for most of the set, she was a dancing, vibrant performer that hid her age well but mostly worked the poetess portion of her persona. She was beaming, but here and there, the intensity grew. Fuji-San started quietly and boomed by the end. So did Southern Cross. It's a Dream? Meh. It's a weak Neil song (from a a weak record, Prairie Wind), and it went nowhere. Then People Have the Power did what it always does: made me think, "Great verse, way too goofy chorus," but I know that some people really dig it, and the band certainly got into it. The intensity was back.

And then, holy shit...
A strange shift in personality came over Patti. Gone was the hippie kid, and out came the punk. Yup, the same one I saw rip through a savage version of "Rock and Roll Nigger" (from the Easter album) a few years ago in Camden, NJ that could have stopped time right then and there. She took off her shoes, opting for a barefoot stomp. She spat. The guys in front of me looked at each other like they never saw a girl do that. And she started chanting: "The boy was in the hallway...."

Land is one of those songs that everyone should know. I knew it before I ever knew it, hearing Ian McCulloch insert many of its lyrics into live versions of early Echo and the Bunnymen songs before I had ever heard all of Horses (I was a little slower to embrace NYC punk than the stuff from England that I had jumped on back in '77 and '78). God, it was spectacular. I tried to hold down my excitement until I was sure they were really going to do it rather than just use the opening poetry to launch into something else. And man, did they do it. Lenny Kaye and Jay Dee Daugherty, on guitar and drums respectively, have always been able to lay down a galloping beat better than, well, maybe anyone. And they galloped with style, and ferocity. And Patti did the Watusi. And then, just when I thought it couldn't get any more intense, they sent the gallop of Land straight into the gallop of Gloria. Seamlessly, perfectly and, oh man.... G-L-O-R-I-A....

It was, really and truly one of those "I am so glad I just saw/heard that because that was Top Ten of All Time-worthy" moments.

It was *that* good.

So, when you read my Neil review, and think, "That jaded, cranky, perfection-demanding bastard just insulted my hero and expects too much out of an aging rock star," remember that I had *just*, moments before, seen an aging rock star do it exactly like it was intended to be.

Rock on, Patti. Rock on, Neil. Just remember, old guy, that, occasionally, less is more, and intensity is not the same as just making more noise.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad