Recently in Music Category

MLB and I spent last week at Horseshoe Bay, and it turned into quite a busy time. (Important Note: The following is the equivalent of showing blurry vacation slides from that trip with your parents to Knott's Berry Farm to captive friends who reciprocate by never coming back to your house, even when tempted by a Pecan Log from Stuckey's. If it will help, try to imagine me narrating this in Samuel L. Jackson's voice.)

Horseshoe Bay is a little different than many places this time of year...it's less crowded and quieter because a lot of folks with lake houses aren't particularly interested in boating or skiing in winter weather (although the typical Hill Country winter isn't what you'd call brutal). Nevertheless, we managed to fill our schedule with some memorable events. Here are some of the highlights:

Saturday

We were invited by friends to attend a Celtic music concert in nearby Marble Falls. None of us knew what to expect from the event, which was a fundraiser for The Phoenix Center, a local nonprofit that provides mental health services to children and their parents. The concert, billed as "A Celtic Christmas," was held in the Uptown Theater, a renovated 40s-era movie theater which, despite its name, is located smack dab in the middle of downtown Marble Falls. It's a funky little place, very cool in its own way, and provided an intimate setting for what turned out to be a surprisingly delightful three hours of music.

The evening featured two musical groups. First to perform was The Here & Now, a quartet of Austin- and Dallas-based musicians. The fiddle player, Niamh Fahy, is an Irish lass who serves as a music therapist for The Phoenix Center. She was also the driving force behind organizing the event.

The Here & Now perform what I'd call traditional Irish music, although I'm hardly an expert in the genre. It's contemplative and lively by turns, and always lyrical.

The Here & Now
The Here & Now

It's worth mentioning that we were seated next to the stage, so we had a great view of the proceedings, which included some impressive dancing by Emily and Gavin, a couple of youngsters with extremely quick feet.

Emily and Gavin
Irish dancers Emily and Gavin

Gavin did step dancing (usually associated with productions like Riverdance), while Emily's specialty was old-style. I know this only because I visited with her during intermission where I succumbed to her atomic-powered dimple and bought one of the group's CDs.

Following that intermission, the trio known as Celjun took the stage. Celjun is a band based in Lafayette, Louisiana, and they specialize in a music amalgam of Celtic and Cajun genres (hence their name, right?). Their music is a bit more raucous...probably something you'd expect to hear around midnight in an Irish pub (not that I'm personally knowledgeable about that). I was most impressed with the skills of Pete Dawson, the flautist/whistle player (whistleist?) who hails from Baton Rouge. If you want a sample of his music, check out this video beginning at the 3 minute mark.

Celjun
Ireland + Cajun Country = Celjun

Sunday

We took a day of rest from social activities and enjoyed some beautiful weather and a nice afternoon bike ride. And, as usual, Mother Nature provided some entertainment.

The Hill Country isn't really known for its fall foliage, but you can run across some spectacular, if isolated, examples.

Fall colors
Beautiful fall color

Beauty in nature comes in different shapes and sizes. MLB spotted this amazing fungus during one of our bike rides, and I later returned to photograph it.

Tree fungus
It Came From Beyond: fungus growing on tree stump

There's an owl who (get it..."who...who..." OK, never mind.) hangs around our house. He (or she) is elusive, and I generally spot her (him) only as a shadow gliding through the trees...until now:

Owl in tree
The Watched watches the Watcher

There's one more encounter with the animal kingdom I want to share, but in the interest of building suspense, it will come at the end. Please try to stay awake.

Monday

One of the primary purposes of this trip was to attend the annual Horseshoe Bay Members Christmas Party, a free dinner and dance held at the resort. It occurs on a Monday to reduce attendance (my theory, anyway), but if that's an effective strategy, it was difficult to discern based on the turnout. Anyway, we enjoyed the company of close friends as well as acquaintances old and new, and even got to do a little dancing.

Music was provided by the David Young Band, an Austin-based group featuring musicians who can play basically anything in any genre (we got everything from At Last to Uptown Funk).

This was our third time to attend this event, and we learned early on that a 20' x 20' dance floor doesn't accommodate the 500 or so people who want to dance, so our best bet was to get in some steps early on, while most people were still in the buffet lines. But the evening had an inauspicious start, because some sound system problems seemed to have the keyboard player doing a different song than the rest of the band, and we were all confused.

They finally got that sorted out and we were treated to a song we could actually dance to. But...it was a tango. Nobody outside of the movies plays a tango at a party...primarily because nobody actually knows how to do a tango. OK, that's an exaggeration, because, well...WE do. And so we did, alone on the floor (until mid-way through the song, an(other) older couple joined us). It was actually pretty great, and someone claimed that one table gave us a standing ovation at the end, although I'm pretty sure they were just heading for the open bar for vodka shots.

David Young Band
The David Young Band - Don't be fooled by the suits; they can boogie.

Later in the evening, the dance floor resembled a mosh pit, if mosh pits are ever populated by over-50 affluent wine-infused white folks in sparkly clothes. But I admit when the band led the crowd in doing The Stroll during an extended version of Uptown Funk, it was magically surreal.

Oh, did I mention that the whole thing was free?

Tuesday (hang in there; we're almost halfway finished)

Tuesday's plans centered around Christmas lights. But we first had a significant civic event to attend.

Today was the ribbon cutting for the new Horseshoe Creek Hiking Trail, and a pretty good crowd turned out in beautiful sunny weather for the event.

The trail begins near the Horseshoe Bay Mausoleum ("New niches coming soon!"), located on one of the highest spots overlooking Lake LBJ, and meanders along the Creek for just over two miles, down to Highway 2147. It's not a treacherous trek, but it is strenuous...hiking boots and a sturdy stick are recommended. We haven't yet done the hike, but it's on our "definite to-do" list.

The land for the trail was donated by Wayne and Eileen Hurd, who have donated untold amounts of acreage for civic use in the area. Mr. Hurd passed away in 2011, but Mrs. Hurd was present for the ribbon cutting.

Horseshoe Creek ribbon cutting
Eileen Hurd (center) cuts the ribbon to open the Horseshoe Creek Trail

I didn't even know that Horseshoe Creek existed, and it was a revelation to see (and hear) the live water coursing down and through the hills. I'm not sure it's always so energetic, but recent heavy rainfall had a wondrous effect.

Horseshoe Creek
Horseshoe Creek - a view from the new trail

That evening, we headed 20 minutes south to Johnson City with friends to take in the vaunted downtown square display. Each year, the courthouse and surrounding businesses go all out with lighted displays; the courthouse alone is draped with more than 100,00 lights.

We ate dinner at the Pecan Street Brewery (I heartily recommend the Pecan Sweet Fried Chicken), located directly across from the courthouse. After dinner, we braved the chill wind to walk around the square before heading back to HSB.

Christmas lights on the Johnson City square
A Christmas display on the Johnson City square

Christmas lights on the Johnson City courthouse
The lighted courthouse

The display was impressive enough to make the trip worthwhile. But wait! There's more!

On the way out of town, we pulled onto Highway 290 and something caught our eyes a couple of blocks away. Well, it would have been difficult to miss it, as it resembled nothing less than a premature sunrise, or perhaps a nuclear plant meltdown. Intrigued, we drove to the display on the grounds of the Pedernales Electric Cooperative headquarters, where we were greeted by a score of huge oak trees adorned with what we would later learn are 1.2 MILLION LED lights. Holy cow...I earlier described something as surreal, but this took the concept to a whole new level.

Lights on the PEC trees
Our electric bill payments at work

PEC has been doing this display for more than a quarter century; the blue lights were added in celebration of the organization's 75th anniversary a few years ago, and they apparently were popular enough (or difficult enough to remove) that they've remained.

Once our retinas recovered enough to drive safely back home, we resolved to drive into Mable Falls to view that community's annual Christmas display. In retrospect, we should have done that first, because pretty much anything will pale in comparison (both figuratively and literally) to the PEC installation. 

The town's "Walkway of Lights" has a gorgeous setting on the bank of Marble Falls Lake, and it's laid out as an out-and-back route of perhaps a quarter mile through hundreds of random holiday displays. It's a pretty impressive installation for a small town. It boasts of more than 2 million lights and 400 displays, but frankly, spread out over such a wide area, it's not as dramatic as some others (*cough* PEC *cough*).

Marble Falls Walkway of Lights
The entrance to the Walkway of Lights

On the other hand, it probably is more kid-friendly (not quite as overwhelming to the senses), and there were quite a few families exploring the trail.

We were a bit disappointed at how many "sculptures" had non-functioning lights; I guess it's hard to stay on top of 2 million of them. And the displays became a little repetitive. You can have only so many Santa-and-reindeer tableaus before they start to run together. There were some imaginative ones, though: Santa riding a jet ski; Santa in a helicopter; Santa gutting a reindeer to make jerky. OK, I made that last one up. But this is hunting country, so...

Wednesday

Nothing happened on Wednesday. Well, other than...

We made a day trip to San Antonio to do some Christmas shopping at La Cantera and The Rim. Despite the proximity to Christmas, both areas were remarkably calm, which was a pleasant surprise. 

By the way, if you're driving in from the north on Highway 281 and that area is your general destination, I strongly recommend exiting onto FM 473 a few miles south of Blanco and driving through Kendalia, then on to I-10, where you'll enter the interstate just a couple of miles from the Fiesta Texas exit. Believe me, even with the winding road and lower speed limit, you'll come out ahead by avoiding 281 as it enters San Antonio. Plus it's a much more scenic drive. Just try to come back before dark, as the deer encounters might be a bit intense.

On the way home, shortly before 5:00, MLB was noodling around on her phone and discovered that Andy Armendariz and 8 From the Gate were playing that evening at Pardner's in Lake Buchanan. Pardner's is an old-fashioned honky-tonk that features a decent dance floor, a live band every Wednesday night, and a crowd demographic that skews AARP-wardly. (The live music begins at 6:30 and ends at 9:30, so that should give you a clue.)

If you've never heard of 8 From the Gate (Quick...can you identify the source of the band's name? The answer is helpfully provided below.), don't feel bad; neither had we. But the music that MLB streamed sounded danceable, and we decided to forego dinner to get in some two-stepping before heading over to some friends' home to drop off a gift.

We arrived around 6:45 and the dance was in full swing. We recognized several of the folks in attendance, either from other dance venues, or from previous trips to Pardner's. It's a place for regulars, and you can count on most of the same people showing up every Wednesday.

Andy Armendariz and 8 From the Gate at Pardner's
Can't see it in the photo, but it was almost a cliche that
the steel guitarist played with a lit cigarette in his hand


It's a great place for people watching (we were particularly intrigued this night by the man pushing 80 years and 300 pounds, sporting a straw hat and denim overalls tucked inside cowboy boots, whose dance style was primarily limited to walking around the floor with much younger women...that is, until the band played Dwight Yoakam's Fast As You, and then he absolutely rocked out), and everyone is pretty friendly. As you might expect, the crowd isn't rowdy; the biggest downside is that it's not a non-smoking venue, and despite having a good ventilation system, we always leave feeling a little smoky.

The music was good, and we got in more than an hour of dancing before heading back to our appointment in HSB.

I mentioned that we had skipped dinner; dancing always trumps eating, but we were a bit peckish and intended to go to Marble Falls for a Whataburger or something equally...fast...after a quick visit with our friends.

However, it's good to have a gourmet cook for a friend, because they also had not eaten and were laying out a spread of leftovers that rivaled anything we had consumed thus far on the trip (up to and including chorizo-stuffed, bacon-wrapped dates and homemade chocolate-and-coconut truffles). Maybe next time, Whataburger.

Thursday (at last)


We spent the day at home taking care of some chores. The high point of the day (and perhaps the week) was when I discovered - following several frustrating nights of lukewarm-to-cold showers - that the hot and cold water connections on the shower were actually reversed, and all the work I had done to recalibrate the scald preventer in an attempt to get more hot water was actually just providing more cold. Sometimes, the best solutions are the easiest; I'm just glad I didn't give in to the impulse to call out a plumber, who would no doubt be blogging now about yet another idiot customer. 

And, incidentally, those of you who are more deeply steeped in the arcane plumbing arts are probably wondering what good a scald preventer does in a case like that. I can answer that with an assertive "none." In my defense, the mere presence of that device kept me from trying the ultimate solution until I simply ran out of options.

Following a wonderfully steaming shower, we headed for nearby Spicewood with our dear friends to observe a long-standing Christmas tradition of buying each others' dinners instead of exchanging gifts. They had recommended Apis as a good place for a special dinner, and it was.

Apis is one of those farm-to-table eateries that are all the rage nowadays; it's also an apiary, in case you're into bees (and who isn't?). Their menus are prix fixe, which is French for "you're gonna need a bigger wallet," so it's probably never going to be a replacement for the Bluebonnet Cafe. However, it serves nicely as a celebratory spot for special occasions.

Apis specializes in what I refer to as foo-foo food. You know, the dishes that are comprised of ingredients that require several adjectives to impress upon you their elegance and sophistication: it's not just crab, it's "Peekytoe Crab"; why serve mere pastrami when you have access to "Veal Brisket Pastrami"; and a simple radish can never compete with an "Easter Egg Radish." In other words, you pay by the adjective.

All kidding aside, the food was great, the atmosphere warm, and the service knowledgeable with just the right amount of solicitousness. Highlights for me included an appetizer of charred Spanish octopus (a whole tentacle, and I was able to resist the temptation to wrestle it, Lloyd Bridges-style, much to the relief of my table mates), and the Honey and Crème Fraiche Gateau, a dessert topped with a tiny curl of crispy honeycomb. OTOH, there was a small miss: I couldn't resist trying a sardine-based "snack" (which was sort of a pre-appetizer appetizer). I was interested to see what kind of magic they could work with sardines, but just as a pig with lipstick is still, at the end of the day, a pig...well, you can figure out the rest. (And no offense to pigs; your bacon is delicious.)

All in all, it was a great way to end a great week...and this seems to be a great way to end an endless blog post. So...

Not So Fast...

Those brave few of you who are indeed still awake may recall that I promised one last thing.

I grew up in Fort Stockton, about an hour's drive from Alpine where the high school football team is known as The Fightin' Bucks. Most of you may understand that that nickname comes honestly, as deer of the buck persuasion are known to lock horns, literally, to assert dominance and win a date with the homecoming queen, if you'll pardon the mixed metaphor.

We were returning home at HSB one evening before dusk and, as usual, there were a number of whitetail deer doing deery things in the open field across the street from our house. It so happened that a couple of them were engaged in the aforementioned ritual, and I managed to get a short video of the epic struggle on my phone. The quality is poor - we were 50 yards away in low light - but you should still be able to get a sense of how, well, ridiculous bucks look when they fight. I did speed up the video considerably; two minutes of this action is 90 seconds too long. (And keep your comments about the length of this post to yourselves.)




"8 From the Gate" is a rodeo reference. If you can stay on a bull for eight seconds after the gate opens to release your mount, then you've achieved a qualified ride. Good luck with all that, and let me know how it goes. [Return to the riveting account]
It's no secret that the Texas Hill Country is akin to Ground Zero for the state's live music scene. Austin is the mother lode for gifted musicians, but it seems that every surrounding town also has its own homegrown talents, and that translates to a lot of dancing opportunities.

I've already reported on some of our favorite Hill Country dance venues, which almost exclusively feature country music. MLB and I have enjoyed many country dances during the three years we've been transient residents headquartered in Horseshoe Bay, but we've not been able to replicate the active ballroom dance scene that we have here in Midland. I'm happy to report that we've made a couple of recent discoveries that significantly changes that situation.

The Flashbacks Big Band - Kingsland


A couple of weekends ago, our friends Doc and Sharon invited us to attend a Saturday night performance of The Flashbacks Big Band in the Kingsland Convention and Community Center [which is a pretty highfalutin label for a facility located in a town of 5,000 residents]. The promotional material billed it as a free concert and a dance, but we had no idea about how suitable the venue or music would be for dancing. Boy, were we pleasantly surprised!

According to the website, the Community Center includes a 4,900 square foot meeting hall, which is quite spacious...depending on the actual setup. As it turned out, the space set aside for dancing was more than adequate for the attendance. There were about 75 people present, but with 40 of them being members of a Sunday School class from a Baptist church in Marble Falls, the number of dancers was much lower.(1) (2) At any given time there were at most ten couples on the dance floor.

The Flashbacks were a revelation as well. Sixteen skilled musicians played classic ballroom dance tunes for three hours, with a sound as polished as anything you'd find in large cities. They're the real deal.

The Flashbacks Big Band

If you're a dancer, there are a few things to keep in mind. There's no food or drink available at the Community Center, but you're free to bring in anything you like. The floor is vinyl and a bit tacky, so leather- or suede-soled shoes are a necessity; apart from that, however, it's a really good dance floor. The dancers we saw that night were older, enthusiastic, but not really tuned into dance etiquette (one couple insisted on occasionally dancing clockwise around the floor, in opposition to everyone else). Dress is casual.

Also, the music skewed heavily toward fox trots and swings; don't expect to get much Latin dancing done. The band will take requests, but only for songs they've recently practiced, so don't be surprised if the response is "we'll make a note of that for next time." Finally, while there is no admission charge, tipping the band is encouraged because they are actually paying for the rental of the facility. My personal recommendation is to tip the same amount you'd expect to pay for a formal dance elsewhere.

The Flashbacks play at the Kingsland Community Center on the first Saturday of every month, 7:00-10:00 p.m.

The Republic of Texas Big Band - Lakeway


We extended our weekend stay in order to check out the Lakeway Activity Center where the Republic of Texas Big Band (ROTBB) was performing at yet another free concert and dance.

Lakeway is a thriving suburb of Austin, and the city's Activity Center is a multi-purpose facility featuring several meeting rooms and banquet halls. The banquet rooms can be configured several ways, with the largest layout being 3,675 square feet...again, potentially more than adequate for dancing.

Since this was our first visit to Lakeway and we weren't sure where the facility was located, we were among the first to arrive and thus picked out a table next to the dance floor. There were enough tables set up to accommodate well over a hundred people, but about half that number actually showed up...including a contingent from a local nursing home. Again, this was primarily an older audience, although there was a sprinkling of younger (i.e. 30-40 years) folks.

However, there were many more dancers in attendance than at the Kingsland event. We sat out several dances because of the crowded conditions. The dancers also tended to be a bit more accomplished than at the other venue. As at Kingsland, dress is casual.

The ROTBB was at least equal to The Flashbacks in musicianship (I noticed that one musician was a member of both groups), and had both male and female vocalists who were simply awesome. Their repertoire was slightly more varied, but still heavily tilted toward fox trot and swing tunes.

Again, this is a free monthly event - it's been taking place for five years - and it's strictly BYOE (bring your own everything). The floor is also high-end vinyl and well-suited for dancing provided you have leather- or suede-soled shoes. Tips for the band are encouraged; in fact, someone carries a bucket around to each table during one of the breaks to make sure everyone has an opportunity to make a tangible expression of appreciation. Unlike the Kingsland event, the band plays for two hours.

The Republic of Texas Big Band

My one suggestion for improvement is that the dance floor could be expanded by removing a row of tables on each side, although I'm sure it's difficult to predict attendance at a non-RSVP event like this. But considering the overall quality of the venue and the music, this is a rather insignificant complaint and is not a factor for future attendance.

By the way, the ROTBB makes occasional appearances at The Oasis on Lake Travis, a big honkin' restaurant and bar best known for its views of sunsets over the lake.

The Republic of Texas Big Band plays at the Lakeway Activity Center on the second Monday of every month, 7:30-9:30 p.m.

In summary, following several years of wandering through a virtual ballroom desert, we discovered in one three-day stretch that there's a life-sustaining musical stream literally minutes away. Country music may rule the Texas Hill Country, but big band music hasn't faded completely away.
 
(1) The reader should not be misled; not all Baptists are non-dancers, this writer being a prime example. [Return]

(2) It so happened that we attended services at that church the next morning, and we were greeted by a couple of people with "you're the dancers from last night, aren't you?"...in a purely non-judgmental way, of course. [Return]

Captured by The Highwaymen
June 8, 2016 9:26 PM | Posted in:

As I drove home after work yesterday, Mojo Nixon was interviewing Mickey Raphael on Sirius XM's Outlaw Country channel. I'm not a big fan of Nixon's work, nor do I usually listen to anything but music in the car, but I was intrigued by the subject matter. It seems that a new boxed set of music and video from The Highwaymen was released in May, and Raphael - who you might recognize as Willie Nelson's harmonica player - was talking about his experiences playing with Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, and of course, the Red Headed Stranger. It was fascinating stuff from an insider's perspective. 

In the course of the conversation, Raphael mentioned that a documentary about The Highwaymen had recently aired on PBS and is available for streaming via its website, so later that night I began to watch it. I found the video, entitled The Highwaymen: Friends Till The End, under the American Masters category (or you can just click this link), and it will be available for streaming only until June 25, 2016. If you're a country music fan, or simply interested in American popular music history, this is a must-see documentary.

The Highwaymen are credited as country music's first "supergroup"* although Cash was probably the only member who landed firmly in the middle of the traditional country music genre. Regardless of where you slot them in terms of music, all four are legends whose influences are far-reaching, and the claim that the roots of the so-called Outlaw Country genre began with them is hard to dispute.

The documentary traces the evolution of the group from its inception (the four first united during one of Cash's Christmas specials for TV, filmed in Montreaux, Switzerland) until its disbanding a decade later, in 1995. Jennings died in 2002 and Cash a year later. Kristofferson and Nelson are still active, although the former--who will turn 80 this month--is battling memory loss even as he continues to write and record.

Along with concert footage and interviews with the principles, the documentary features a great cast of supporting characters including:

  • John Mellencamp (who competed with Prince and Sean Combs for the most stage names); Mellencamp has collaborated with Nelson to produce Farm Aid for 30 years

  • Marty Stuart (who competes with Mellencamp for the most awesome hairdo)

  • Ray Benson (Asleep at the Wheel frontman)

  • Toby Keith

  • Jessie Colter (Waylon's wife), Annie Nelson (Willie's fourth and current wife), and June Carter Cash (Johnny's wife)

  • and several of the other musicians who backed the group.
Gene Autry, one of Willie Nelson's heroes, also makes an appearance.

The documentary provides a brief biographical intro for each of the four, with some great archival footage and photos (witness the clean-cut, pre-outlaw images of Waylon and Willie below). It explores the special bond that the four formed over their shared music...and trials. They each took a shot at success in Nashville, and found it was, well, let's say it was not to their liking. They chafed at the country "establishment" that controlled the music business, so they either left and made their own way, or stayed and through sheer force of will (and talent) bent the system to their own visions.

Photo - Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson in the early years
Waylon and Willie - The early years

The video doesn't shy away from the seamier sides of their lives, especially the struggles with substance abuse that Jennings and Cash fought (and eventually conquered). They also shared health problems; at one point, both of those men were hospitalized at the same time after heart bypass surgeries. We learn that Cash was in almost constant pain during his time with the group, thanks to a broken jaw suffered during botched dental implant surgery.

But they all had a spiritual side, and while the details aren't fleshed out in the documentary, you get the sense that they each had finally faced down personal demons, and their friendship and mutual support provided a calm and sense of peace that was perhaps missing for most of their lives. I had the distinct impression that had health not failed, they would still be happily making music together.

I've seen Willie Nelson in concert, but I never got to attend a show with the other men. Thankfully, through efforts like this documentary and the new recordings and videos, we won't miss out on some truly historic musical performances, and it's not likely a group with such charisma and talent will pass this way again.



*The term "supergroup" is used as a pretty wide net, encompassing musical acts as diverse as Cream, The Three Tenors, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer. It's a dubious appellation, and I apply a stricter definition than, say, Wikipedia. The Highwaymen definitely fit my definition (as do acts such as The Traveling Wilburys [George Harrison, Bob Dylan, Tom Petty, Roy Orbison, and Jeff Lynne] and the Texas Tornados [Freddy Fender, Doug Sahm, Flaco Jimenez, and Augie Meyers]), in which band members who each have a separate active and successful career come together for a limited time to tour and record, and then return to their primary careers.

Ten Cover Songs Worth Checking Out
March 14, 2016 7:08 PM | Posted in:

One measure of the success of a song is the number of cover versions it spawns. A great example is the multi-Grammy-winning Uptown Funk. I didn't bother getting an exact count, but the iTunes Store shows page after page of remakes (including inexplicable ukulele and violin renditions, and multiple acapella arrangements by college groups) of the song that's only about eighteen months old. 

In every instance, the covers of Uptown Funk are inferior (in my opinion) to the original, but that's not always true. Although purists might rightfully disagree, I find that remakes of older pop and rock songs are often better than the originals, or at least successful in reinvigorating tunes that have grown tiresome through repetition. In some cases, it's because of superior talent by the new artist; in others, modern production techniques (or changing tastes) give the cover an edge.

Here's a list of ten very recognizable songs that I think have benefitted by new treatment. Not every one is necessarily an improvement, but they all breathe new life into the original.

(Note: I was almost through with this post before I discovered the amazing SecondHandSongs website, which is to cover songs what IMDB is to movies. I could have saved a lot of time had I known about it sooner.)

  • Love Potion Number 9 by Neil Diamond (original - The Clovers): I have no clue as to why Neil Diamond would want to remake this song three decades after The Searchers made it into a big hit (and their version was a cover of the original 1959 recording). Perhaps it was a favorite from his youth. Regardless, Diamond's version is a less cartoonish/more adultish rendering.


  • Spooky by Atlanta Rhythm Section (original - The Classics IV): This remake has perhaps a bit more logic to it, in that James Cobb was a co-writer, as well as a member of both The Classics IV and the ARS. The redo is almost twice as long as the original, and both share a smooth jazz feel.

 

  • Sunshine of Your Love by Chaz DePaolo (original - Cream): As long as we're in the smooth jazz neighborhood, this version by American blues guitarist DePaolo ratchets the original version down a few notches without completing ignoring its rock roots. I don't know who's doing the singing, but Eric Clapton has nothing on her in the vocals department.


  • All About That Bass by Scott Bradlee's Postmodern Jukebox (original - Meghan Trainor): You'd be hard pressed to find a more sophisticated makeover than the one Postmodern Jukebox applies to Trainor's mega-debut song. Now, trust me when I tell you that I was attracted to this remake before I saw the accompanying video (with the attractive female singers who manage to claim that they're "no size 2" without bursting into laughter).


  • Gentle on My Mind by The Band Perry (original - Glen Campbell): It takes a lot of confidence to remake one of the most successful songs in popular music history, but youngsters that comprise The Band Perry do an admirable job of making it their own while still paying tribute to the original. Wikipedia claims that more than 300 different artists have covered this song, but I've not heard one I like better than this. (For some very interesting insight to the history of the original, I highly recommend the documentary film The Wrecking Crew, which profiles the amazing studio musicians that were instrumental to the success of many of the most recognizable songs in American history. Glen Campbell was one of them.)


Eleanor Rigby by Joshua Bell & Frankie Moreno (original - The Beatles): Joshua Bell is likely a familiar name, but Frankie Moreno (not to be confused with Frank Marino, a female impersonator) is probably less so. Moreno was the house act at the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas for a few years; he's now a touring musician and a staple in venues around Vegas and is one of the most dynamic performers working today. He and Bell team up to enhance the already classical vibes (the original arrangement takes its cue from Vivaldi) of one of the Beatles' most well-known ballads.


  • She's Not There by Santana (original - The Zombies): The Zombies made this a big hit in 1964, and Santana recycled it into another hit in 1977. The live version of this song is one of the highlights of a Santana concert, if you're fortunate enough to be present when they play it.

 

  • Gotta Serve Somebody by Tommy Castro (original - Bob Dylan): Dylan won a Grammy for this song in 1980, and it has the added recommendation of really making John Lennon mad for its religious themes. Castro added his bluesy interpretation in 2009.

 

  • Kiss by Señor Coconut (original - Prince): Prince is a musical genius, regardless of what he chooses to call himself, and his version of Kiss is basically flawless. What attracts me to this cover is the Latin flair that Uwe Schmidt (si, el Señor es Deutscher) puts on the song, and you know what a sucker I am for Latin music.


  • Good Lovin' by The Grateful Dead (original - The Olympics): OK, I saw you do that double-take. No, The Young Rascals did not record the original version of this song; they were a year late to the party after The Olympics released it in 1964. The Rascals' version is the best known, of course, but I'm kinda diggin' the Dead's 1978 samba spin. (There's that Latin beat again.)


Bonus! The Sound of Silence by Disturbed (original - Simon & Garfunkle): I'm late to the party on this one, as I just discovered this version. Sure, it was recorded last year, but the video below has more than 20 million views, so unless some of you are serious Disturbed fans, a lot of folks know about this version. Whether they recognize that the song title isn't exactly the same as the 1964 original is probably another question, albeit completely irrelevant. 

Anyway, this choice deserves a bit more explanation, because it has a really interesting back story. Disturbed is a metal band - not usually my musical cup of tea - and the lead singer, David Draiman, looks and sounds the part, because stereotypes. What I did not know is that he's Jewish and was for a time in training as a hazan or cantor (a director of liturgical prayer, chants, and songs in a synagogue). In a musical genre that often attracts neo-Nazi skinheads, he's aggressively pro-Israel and won't back down when confronted with anti-Semitism.

Draiman's raw, bordering-on-imperfect voice brings a growling, angst-filled vibe to S&G's classic that is frankly mesmerizing.



My Top 10 Latin [Dance] Songs
March 11, 2016 11:02 PM | Posted in:

My brilliant, funny (and much younger) cousin Wendy does a weekly Facebook post in which she reviews a song - usually after having a glass of wine - that's meaningful to her in some way at that specific moment. I'd point you to the posts but they're only for her friends and she doesn't know you that well. (I have threatened to repost her articles on these pages, since she refuses to blog them, due to some excuse having to do with raising three young sons or some such nonsense.) Anyway, I'm inspired by her to start doing some more music blogging, and I'm starting south of the border.

I've always had a fondness for Latin-flavored music, but it's been intensified over the past decade during which MLB and I started dancing. The Latin dances - primarily cha cha and rumba, but also samba and salsa (although we're not very good at them) are our favorite ballroom steps, and so we have a corresponding attraction to the music.

So, the following are the ten songs I'd take with me to a desert island with a dance floor located off the coast of Mexico (or somewhere in the Caribbean; my net casts pretty wide), in no particular order.

  • Accion y Reaccion by Thalía: Sometimes referred to as "the Queen of Latin pop," Thalía is a Mexican singer, songwriter, and more. This song is a celebration of what we have in common, regardless of our cultural differences. If this catchy song doesn't make you want to learn to speak Spanish, nothing will.


  • Smooth by Santana and Rob Thomas: Some of the songs in this list might be unfamiliar to you, but this won't be one of them, unless you've been living in a cave in the Ozarks for the past twenty years. According to this Wikipedia article, Smooth is the second most successful song in history (trailing only Chubby Checker's The Twist, which isn't Latin, AFAIK), as ranked by Billboard. It's also an absolutely flawless rumba/cha cha number.


  • Radio Sol by Mo' Horizons: You know what I like about Mo' Horizons (besides their musical talent)? They're not Latin, or from the Caribbean...they're German. You'll often find their tracks on those funky cardboard-enclosed "world music" CDs in little shops in Santa Fe and Marfa, and they'll invariably bring a smile to your face. I don't know what Radio Sol is about; heck, I don't even know what language it's in. And, of course, I don't care, because it evokes great memories of dive trips to the Lesser Antilles from back when international flying wasn't such a royal pain.


  • Tango by Jaci Velasquez: If you're thinking that name rings a bell, it may be that you know Velasquez from her very successful career as a contemporary Christian musician, where she's received seven Dove Awards. But she's also a successful Latin crossover artist, singing in both Spanish and English, and this is one of my favorites (so much that I used it as the soundtrack to a video I created and posted here four years ago). But, even though the title says otherwise, this is not a tango; it works better as a slow cha cha. 


  • Malagueña Salerosa by Chingon: This is a seventy year old song made more popular by its inclusion in the soundtrack to Quentin Tarantino's 2004 movie, Kill Bill: Vol. 2. Texas musician and filmmaker Robert Rodriguez scored the movie, and also played guitar in the all-star band he assembled primarily to create music for movie soundtracks. The song is the epitome of dramatic, passionate Latin music, and it's especially meaningful to me because we got to hear it performed live by Del Castillo in Fredericksburg at the Crossroads Saloon. Basically, Del Castillo is Chingon, with the addition of Robert Rodriguez. (More about Del Castillo below.)


  • Dance in the Moonlight by The Mavericks: I have a love/hate relationship with this catchy little samba. I hate it because every time I hear it, it becomes an earworm that I can't shake for literally days. This is another song that we got to hear performed live when The Mavericks came to Midland a couple of years ago. It was a terribly frustrating concert...because there's no place to dance, and it's difficult to sit still when the musicians get wound up.


  • So Nice (Summer Samba) by Bebel Gilberto: This is another older song (it was written in 1964, which doesn't seem that old to me, but I realize it's ancient history to some of you); this version was recorded in 2000 by the Brazilian singer Bebel Gilberto. This is another song with a misleading title; it's a bossa nova, not a samba, which is perhaps a distinction without a difference to most of us. Regardless, it's chill in every important sense.


  • I Never Cared for You by Del Castillo with Willie Nelson: Willie Nelson wrote and recorded this song in 1964, but he says that this version recorded with Del Castillo in 2006 is his favorite. The Del Castillo brothers (one of which, by the way, was a biomedical science major at Texas A&M) provide the intricate guitar stylings that reinforce the Latin flavor, and Alex Ruiz - who is no longer with the band - shares vocalist duties with Nelson. (Ruiz is also the singer on Malagueña Salerosa, listed above.)


  • Quizás, quizás, quizás by Andrea Bocelli and Jennifer Lopez: Again, we reach back in musical history to retrieve a classic. This song - the title to which translates to "perhaps, perhaps, perhaps" - was written in the 1940s and has been covered many times since. Doris Day did a winsome English version of the song in 1964, but there's just something about the Spanish version that elevates the romance factor of the rumba beat. Bocelli and J-Lo bring exactly the right mix of emotions to a classic.


  • She Bangs by Ricky Martin: We don't need to dwell on the irony of Ricky singing this particular song; we only need to focus on the insistent driving beat that makes this a cha cha that inevitably results in a sweat-soaked, oxygen-deprived post-dance glow. Well, just take my word for it.

UE Boom 2 Bluetooth Speaker
January 5, 2016 7:04 PM | Posted in: ,

One of the things I hinted for at Christmas was a Bluetooth speaker. I often like to have music going while working in the yard or the garage and while both porches and the garage have wired music capabilities, I like the idea of being able to remotely program the tunes.

Photo - UE Boom 2I didn't have a specific brand or model in mind, and I really wasn't looking for anything too expensive or high fidelity (I guess that's redundant, huh?)...I just dropped the hint to MLB one weekend while we were shopping in San Antonio. She immediately disappeared into the nearby Apple Store, and on Christmas Eve I found myself the happy owner of an Ultimate Ears Boom 2.

This cylindrical bit of audio technology is exactly what I had in mind, even though I had nothing in mind. It's got a great sound - enough to fill a big room - and it links to (and is controllable by) my iPhone, iPad, and home computer. It's rechargeable via USB, and the battery is rated for fifteen hours (I have yet to test that). Other thoughtful touches include a tripod mount and an audio-in connector in case you want to use it with a non-Bluetooth system. 

And here's the icing on the cake: it's waterproof (down to ~3' for 30 minutes). I don't plan to take it into the shower, but it would be an awesome addition to a long paddleboard session on the lake. At 7" in length and weighing just over a pound, it's easy to transport. We could easily strap it to our bike, as well.

I mentioned that the speaker is controllable by a variety of devices. This is done via installation of UE's free app, and the capabilities extend beyond on/off and volume control. The app provides an equalizer feature to fine-tune the sound and an alarm function that allows you to wake up to selected songs, albums, genres, artists, or playlists. It also provides access to something called "Block Party" that lets up to three devices alternate feeding music to the speaker, presumably in a party setting. (I'm too much of a control freak to have much use for this, however.) And, finally, the app allows firmware/software updates. Note, however, you can also do this via a computer via USB connection.

You can also stream to two Boom 2s (Booms 2?) from the same device, if you want to invest more money. This won't provide stereo capability; the sound from each is omnidirectional. But it would provide multi-room capability, as well as more volume.

I'm pretty enthusiastic about this speaker, so if you're also in the market, take this as a recommendation. Oh, and did I mention that it makes a groovy bongo sound when you turn it on?
Before we get started, take a listen to this (length - 39 sec):



I've probably mentioned this before but I worked as a DJ at a small AM radio station in West Texas during my high school and early college years. That was back in the late 60s/early 70s, and the Viet Nam war was hot. And while the draft was still in effect, the various branches of the military were also stepping up their recruitment efforts.

Wolfman Jack USAF Program labelPart of those efforts entailed what we would today call infomercials, but which back then were referred to as public service announcements (PSA). They came in the form of prerecorded programs, usually musical, which were interspersed with promos for a specific branch of service. Radio stations were required to run a certain number of hours of PSAs each month, and the military recruiting programs were a good way to meet those requirements.

As you can imagine, stations didn't run these programs during prime time. Our station ran them on Sunday mornings. They came to us as 15-25 minute LP records (that's vinyl, kiddies), one PSA to a side. They were dated and once they were played, they were trashed.

I managed to "rescue" a half dozen or so of these PSA platters that came to us from the Air Force and from the Marine Corps. The Corps' programs were entitled Jazz on the Potomac, and were precisely 14 minutes and 30 seconds of, well, jazz. (Frankly, I never really grasped which demographic they were aiming at. Were there really that many 18-to-22 year old guys listening to jazz in the late Sixties?) They were narrated by Felix Grant, who had an almost fifty year career in radio, and whose voice was apparently created with jazz in mind. Grant's narration was educational, focusing on the music - the style and history. He made a single, low-keyed pitch for the Marine Corps during each program. Here's an example (length - 76 sec):



The USAF, on the other hand, took a different approach. Their programs were narrated by the (in)famous Wolfman Jack, and featured current rock and pop hits. The Wolfman's pitch was less polished but more lively, in keeping with the musical selections. Following is a good example, this one targeting young women (length - 1 min, 42 sec):



The music on the USAF's programs was a rather eclectic mix. I managed to save three LPs - six programs - and each had four-to-six songs. I'm not sure why I feel it's important to archive this information, but I guess it's partly for personal reference and partly to capture a bit of cultural history. In any event, here are the program listings for those three discs.

Series #11 - Program 1 - Disc 1 - Side A (July, 1972)
  • Layla - Derek & The Dominos
  • It's Too Late To Turn Back Now - Cornelius Bros. & Sister Rose
  • Sympathy For The Devil - Rolling Stones
  • Immigration Man - David Crosby & Graham Nash
Series #11 - Program 2 - Disc 1 - Side B (July, 1972)
  • Tumbling Dice - Rolling Stones
  • I Need You - America
  • Questions - Moody Blues
  • Hot Rod Lincoln - Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen
  • I Didn't Get To Sleep At All Last Night - 5th Dimension
  • Hold Your Head Up - Argent
Series #11 - Program 3 - Disc 2 - Side A (July, 1972)
  • I Saw The Light - Todd Rundgren
  • Wolfman Jack - Todd Rundgren
  • What Is Life - George Harrison
  • Troglodyte - Jimmy Castor Bunch
  • Old Man - Neil Young
  • Blue Sky - Allman Brothers
Series #11 - Program 4 - Disc 2 - Side B (July, 1972)
  • 30 Days In The Hole - Humble Pie
  • People Make The World Go 'Round - Stylistics
  • Sweet Hitch Hiker - Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • Someday Never Comes - Creedence Clearwater Revival
  • Sylvia's Mother - Dr. Hook & The Medicine Show
Series #12 - Program 1 - Disc 1 - Side A (August, 1972)
  • Layla - Derek & The Dominos
  • Take It Easy - Eagles
  • Sunshine Superman - Donovan
  • Day By Day - Godspell
  • Brown Eyed Girl - El Chicano
Series #12 - Program 2 - Disc 1 - Side B (August, 1972)
  • Rip This Joint - Rolling Stones
  • School's Out - Alice Cooper
  • Whole Lotta Love - Led Zeppelin
  • Long Cool Woman - Hollies
  • Conquistador - Procol Harum
  • It's Too Late To Turn Back Now - Cornelius Bros. & Sister Rose
As an aside, none of those songs would likely have made the radio station's regular playlist (with the possible exception of Day By Day). The station format was "variety" or "middle of the road," and featured primarily country (or "country & western," as it was known back then) and easy listening music. So, the USAF platters were actually pretty cool collections from my perspective.

I'm in the process of digitizing these LPs, again for whatever historical value they might have). They're in pretty bad shape; I was not able to get the album covers and didn't have the foresight to at least put them in sleeves so they've been rattling around loose and uncovered for the past four decades. The flaws add a certain authenticity and character to them (sort of like my reflection in the mirror, or so I keep telling myself). Copyright law prevents me from ever posting the entire content online, but I've done what I could.
Blue Bell ice cream in grocery store
Our long national nightmare has ended

Our Labor Day weekend had a definite theme: Hills, Heat, and Humidity. Three consecutive days of 100°+ temperatures were bad enough, but when you factored in the humidity levels (~90% in the mornings; >70% in the evenings), even the slightest physical activity entailed copious sweating. Fortunately, we had plenty of changes of clothes.



We elected to leave the bike at home, so we spent some time each day walking or running through the neighborhood. That's where the hills came into play. I keep telling myself that running over those hills without having a near-death experience is just a matter of acclimation, but I'm either deluded or acclimation will require more than a once- or twice-a-month effort. (I'm pretty sure both factors are legit.) Nevertheless, we persevered, because we like to eat.

I didn't take any photos of the usually beautiful countryside because the drought has taken its toll on the landscape. Even the prickly pear pads are showing the effects of the lack of moisture. It's hard to conceive of how quickly the Hill Country transformed from a lush green, almost sub-tropical environment to a literal tinderbox of dead underbrush. In less than three months, the water level at Lake Travis has dropped more than three feet. The cloudy lining in this blue sky scenario is that rain is predicted for every day this week. Pray it happens.



One natural phenomenon in that area that isn't affected by the drought is the gathering of turkey vultures (or, as they're more affectionately known, buzzards) on the power line towers in the area. The birds begin gathering around dusk and spend the night perched on those towers. Walking near them is kind of eerie, in an Alfred Hitchcock sort of fashion. The birds are silent but never motionless, and you get the feeling that they're watching you carefully and if you stop moving for an instant, they'll assume you're road kill and swoop down for a bedtime snack.
 
Buzzards perched on towers
Buzzards perched on towers

These same towers are vacant the next morning, but the ground beneath them is littered with feathers, and reeks of...well, use your imagination.



We're always on the lookout for good opportunities to go dancing in the Hill Country, and this weekend was no exception. We continued our tour of the historic dance halls of Texas by visiting the Twin Sisters Hall located a few miles past Blanco on US Highway 281.

Twin Sisters claims it's the oldest hall in Texas, opening to the public in 1870. It's worth noting that Greune Hall in New Braunfels makes a similar claim - qualifying it as the "oldest continually operating dance hall" as it opened in 1878. Regardless, Twin Sisters is certainly historic, and well-preserved. It also isn't air conditioned (here comes that second "H"...and also the third one). The interior has a fair number of box fans scattered around the interior, but they didn't begin to succeed as an anti-sweating measure, especially considering the high energy music of the featured band on Saturday night.

Nevertheless, Twin Sisters could become one of our favorite dance destinations. The floor is spacious and in good shape, and there's plenty of seating around the perimeter. (They also have a rule against carrying drinks onto the dance floor...something Luckenbach should adopt.)

There are two downsides. First, they have public dances only on the first Saturday of each month. Second, beware when someone comes out and sprinkles an unknown substance around the floor. This is a completely unnecessary attempt to make the floor easier to dance on, but what it did for us is make it almost dangerously slick.
 
Twin Sisters Dance Hall
Twin Sisters Dance Hall - View of the stage
 
Twin Sisters Dance HallTwin Sisters Dance Hall - View of the main entrance

The band that evening was The Georges, with members hailing from from San Antonio and New Braunfels (they have a standing Wednesday evening gig at the aforementioned Greune Hall). They specialize in rockabilly music - or as they call it, Retro Rock. I'm not sure about the genre, but I can assure you that its primary feature is speed. Holy cow, did they ever play some fast songs.

The Georges
 
They did play a good variety of cover and original tunes, including songs by Dwight Yoakam, Waylon Jennings, Roy Orbison, and Elvis. (Conversely, there was a refreshing absence of "bro-country.") The lead singer, Jason George, has a powerful voice with an impressive range, and he's backed by some skilled instrumentalists. The only minor quibble we had with the performance was an occasional tendency to vary the tempo of the music during a song, which make dancing more challenging. In summary, while their musical style isn't one that we'd want for every dance, we'll certainly look for future opportunities to hear them.

Here's a [rather sedate] sample of their music.



In contrast to our experiences at the Mercer Street Dance Hall in Dripping Springs, the crowd at Twin Sisters was slightly older, although there were a few families present. But the dancers were also more skilled; we never feared for our lives because of the out-of-control "frat boy two-steppers" that are so prevalent nowadays. This could be because the location is a bit remote. 

In fact, if you're not glued to your turn-by-turn GPS, you can easily miss the entrance to the dance hall, which sits a few hundred yards off the highway and is hidden by trees. Ironically, it's easier to miss the entrance in the daylight, because at night they have the small sign lit from both sides by car headlights (yeah, no electricity for you!). But to make things easier for you:


New Toy: USB Turntable for Digitizing Albums
August 27, 2015 9:35 PM | Posted in: ,

Photo - Turntable

This arrived from Amazon yesterday afternoon...my first new turntable in, oh, about three decades. It's an Audio-Technica AT-LP120-USB direct drive model, and it's pretty awesome, considering my rather modest needs and expectations.
 
We have a turntable but it has a few shortcomings. First, it doesn't play 78 rpm records; more about why that's important in a moment. Second, it doesn't have an integrated pre-amp, meaning that it must be connected to a receiver or amplifier with a phono input. And, finally, it doesn't have USB connection capability (that should be obvious, considering that USB didn't exist in the mid-80s).
 
I chose this model primarily for a combination of features (all of the above) and price (I could have spent a lot more, but I'm not an audiophile and this turntable will see limited use). And I had two reasons for wanting a new turntable. I want to digitize my record collection. It's not extensive - maybe 200 albums - but it does have some sentimental value, and there are some songs that seem to be unavailable through the normal online channels. The album shown in the photo is a good example. Elbow Bones and the Racketeers had one hit in the 80s, A Night in New York, and the album where it resides isn't available in digital form on iTunes or Amazon.com.
 
Photo - Label of old 78 rpm recordIn addition, while packing my father-in-law's household possessions in preparation for his move to a new home, we ran found about forty twenty-four 78 rpm records, 10" in diameter which is smaller than the 33 1/3 rpm LPs we're accustomed to seeing, and neatly organized in sleeves in two binders. The labels on most of these records say "Sample Copy - Not for Sale" or "Special Record For Radio Station." They appear to be demo records, each containing one song, provided by the recording studios for radio airplay, and my FIL has no recollection as to how they ended up in his possession. Based on some quick internet research, they seem to be from the period 1950-1952. I don't think they are collector's items, but I would like to listen to them and capture some or all of the music in digital format. So, I need a turntable that will play 78s and also easily connect to a computer.
 
This turntable meets those needs and more. It also has tone-arm weight, tracking, and height adjustment capability, variable pitch control, and reverse mode (so I can reality-test the presence of all those purported Satanic messages on various records). Admittedly, the pitch control and reverse mode are nothing I'll ever use, unless I plan to become a DJ in my retirement years, but they're still fun to experiment with.
 
And, finally, the turntable has a switchable line-out/phono-out output so that I can connect it either to my A/V receiver or to powered speakers (as shown in the photo) or a computer (via the aforementioned USB connection).
 
What it doesn't have is auto start/stop. You have to manually place the needle on the record and then remove it at the end of playback. AT makes a comparable model with the auto capability, but I didn't want to pay the extra money.
 
This is also the first record player I've bought that required assembly after unboxing. The stylus, counterweight, platter, and pad all had to be installed, and then the tone-arm balance and tracking had to be adjusted to meet the specs of the stylus (2 grams weight recommended, if you must know). The documentation of the steps for doing all of this was quite clear, in direct contravention of the international standards for stereo instructions. And accomplishment of these tasks gives me the appearance of an audiophile without needing any actual competency.
 
The unit ships with the free, open-source sound editor Audacity which can be used to clean the digitized sound by removing the clicks and pops that plague vinyl. It also has some special capabilities and a recommended workflow for recording and cleaning sounds from 78 rpm records. This is more complicated than you might think; well, at least it's more complicated than I expected.*
 
However, before I can begin the digitizing process for the 78s, I'll need a new stylus. Styluses (aka "needles") for modern 45s or LPs are narrower and will damage the grooves of 78s, as well as pick up more surface noise than usual. 78s also usually require a heavier tone-arm weight to properly track. So, I've ordered this stylus from LP Gear that's specifically designed to fit the AT cartridge that came with the turntable. It's also designed for a slightly lower tracking force than many 78 styluses and I think that will help to extend the life of the records.
 
My ears aren't discriminating enough, nor is my A/V system sophisticated enough to discern the legendary "warmth" of vinyl-based music (vs. the alleged "coldness" of its digital manifestation), but there's something about the physical interaction with the medium that's pleasantly nostalgic. It's similar to the difference between holding a printed book vs. reading it on a Kindle or iPad. It's not necessarily better, but the differences are worth preserving, even if for reasons that aren't entirely logical.

*Between the time I started writing this post and when I actually published it, the new stylus arrived and I installed it and tested it with the 78s; it works perfectly. I've also installed and configured the software and connected the turntable to my Mac Pro, and that is also working well. Stay tuned for some audio samples!

Our Excellent Summer Texas Music Tour
August 3, 2015 8:48 PM | Posted in: ,

July was Live Music Month here at the Gazette, as we had the opportunity to hear - and sometimes dance to - the music of an interesting variety of Texas bands. Here's a quick rundown of what we saw and heard, and also a brief review of each venue in case you want to visit any of them.

The Fourth of July weekend found us at the Mercer Street Dance Hall in Dripping Springs. Two bands were on the bill that night: Silo Road, an Austin quartet playing Texas country and Americana and the headliner, the Tejas Brothers out of Fort Worth.

We arrived in time for just a few songs from Silo Road, but found them to be musically tight and danceable. We'd like to hear more from them in the future.

The Tejas Brothers are musically diverse, playing everything from George (Jones and Strait) to Joe Ely and Freddy Fender. Besides being excellent musicians, they're also polished entertainers, and whether you dance or simply listen, you'll enjoy their show. Frontman Dave Perez is an accordion virtuoso with vocal skills and personality to match.

Tejas Brothers at Mercer Street Dance Hall
Tejas Brothers

Venue Overview: Mercer Street Dance Hall is a relatively new (opened in 2013) venue with a unique terraced seating area, full bar, and a family-friendly non-smoking atmosphere. It has a good-sized plywood dance floor that was perfect for boot scootin'. The clientele was diverse, with a big local contingent sprinkled with Austin hipsters.

The following week we made our way to Buchanan Dam for the regular Wednesday live music dance at Pardner's, where Bubba Cox and the Can't Hardly Playboyz did not live up to their name, because those guys can flat out play some classic country and western swing. Bubba's 'Boyz are the house band at The Cotton Club in Granger, but they make the trip west to Buchanan fairly regularly. A highlight was the vocals of the keyboardist, David Kyle.

Venue Overview: Pardner's is the prototypical Texas honky tonk, with an octagonal (and very slippery dance floor that was often too crowded for spot dancing...you'll be fine if you keep moving, though) and a demographic that skews to late baby boomer (not a surprise when you consider the music starts at 5-ish on Wednesdays). It's a big venue, but be warned: smoking is allowed. Fortunately, we didn't see many smokers, and the ventilation system is top-notch.

Our next stop was at the historic Luckenbach Dance Hall to hear The Merles, an Austin quintet that specializes in "classic country and western swing." They had just begun their set when we arrived, and we experienced a bit of cognitive dissonance trying to match the look of the musicians with their sound. I won't try to guess their ages but I feel confident that the music they played was that of their parents (or grandparents). I would also venture to say that Bob Wills, Merle Haggard (the band's namesake), Patsy Cline, and Waylon Jennings would give hearty approval to their musical homage. Their drummer confirmed that they come by their musical tastes honestly; he told me he grew up listening to those classics in the cab of a tractor in the middle of a cornfield in Iowa.

We look forward to hearing them again.

The Merles at Luckenbach
The Merles

Venue Overview: Luckenbach probably competes with Gruene Hall for the title of best known dance hall in Texas. We've danced there on many occasions and always enjoy it. It's another family-friendly venue. The dance floor can be a bit on the crowded side, but on this particular night the tables and benches were arranged so that the dance floor extended down the center of the entire length of the hall, which seemed to open things up more than usual. Note that Luckenbach has no air conditioning, so come prepared to sweat.

We later traveled to Fredericksburg for the annual "Night In Old Fredericksburg" festival, which took place at the Gillespie County Fairgrounds. There was a variety of music throughout the day and night, and we sampled three distinctly different acts.

The first was a polka fusion group (that's totally a thing) from Austin called Off the Grid Band. Forget all of your preconceived notions about polka bands; these guys rocked. They did play some traditional German polkas and Cajun zydeco, but they also covered some rock and pop classics (e.g. the Stones' Paint It Black, Steve Miller's Swingtown and Mungo Jerry's In the Summertime). 

Highlights included the use of a Zendrum as the primary percussion instrument, and the absolute shredding skills of the picker who played a Steinburger-looking guitar. (Here's a good review of the band by a polka expert, which I'm not.)

Off the Grid Band at Fredericksburg
The Off The Grid Band

Venue Overview: OTGB was placed under a tent on a gravelly section of parking lot, so dancing was out of the question for us. That wasn't a problem as much of their music didn't lend itself to our style of dancing, but it was so enjoyable to listen to that we didn't mind. This is another band that we'd like to hear again, although preferably in a non-100-degree afternoon outdoor setting.

We returned to the fairgrounds later that evening in time to catch the end of the set by The Seven Dutchmen Orchestra. I counted nine people in the orchestra, so someone is confused about either nationality or gender. Anyway, this group does specialize in traditional polkas, although we danced one very nice waltz and then watched a Chicken Dance competition that went on far too long (one might say that's redundant, and I wouldn't disagree). If this is your musical stein of beer, keep an eye out for them.

The headliner of the night was the Chris Story Band, based in Kerrville although the members live throughout the Hill Country. We've danced to their music multiple times through the years - they've played in Midland on several occasions - and they're consummate professionals (for example, the piano player was in George Strait's band until his retirement last year). Their first set was a little too heavy on the "bro-country" genre that's unfortunately dominating the contemporary Nashville recording scene at present, but the group is quite versatile and you're sure to hear much that you like throughout the night.

The Chris Story Band at Fredericksburg
The Chris Story Band

Venue Overview: The evening dance was held on the "dance slab" at the fairgrounds, a huge uncovered circular chunk of concrete that will easily accommodate fifty couples or more. Although concrete is not the ideal dance surface, this installation is smooth and works just fine with leather-soled boots. And there's nothing quite as enchanting as dancing under the Texas night sky, with a slight breeze to dispel the day's heat.

Our final stop on this musical tour was at the annual "Beer By The Bay" festival at the Horseshoe Bay Resort. It's two nights of music, food, and of course, beer, held on the lush grounds of the resort hotel. We didn't attend the Friday night performances that featured Pam Tillis and Dale Watson, due to previous commitments, but we were there for the Saturday night performances. (In the interest of full disclosure, even though I'm calling this our "July Live Music Month Tour," the following took place on August 1st. I'm sure you can deal with that.)

The first of those was by Brandon Rhyder, another Texas Country (I'm using that as a genre; if you're from Texas, you'll know what I mean) singer/songwriter from Austin. He had a number of enthusiastic fans (and family members) in the audience, but frankly his music didn't suit us, and the sound system was unfortunately turned up to the point of painful distortion. It may be that the environment was such that we didn't get a chance to fully appreciate his talents.

Brandon Rhyder at Horseshoe Bay
Brandon Rhyder

The next performance was, for us anyway, everything the previous one was not. The Nightowls are a 10-piece soul/R&B/pop ensemble from - you guessed it - Austin, and they had the crowd on its feet throughout the night with original and cover tunes and choreography that evoked Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder, Earth, Wind and Fire, and the Temptations. We bought one of their CDs after the show, but this is a group that you have to see and hear in person to fully appreciate. Highlight: The closing performance of Shout, complete with audience participation.

The Nightowls at Horseshoe Bay
The Nightowls

The BBTB finale featured the legendary Asleep at the Wheel, a group that's been in continuous existence since 1969, although the only constant member is Ray Benson, its founder.

This was our first time to see this group live, and I had wondered if they could live up to the hype. Listen, you don't win nine Grammy Awards for phoning it in, and we found that, if anything, the hype fell short of the reality. You may not even like Western Swing, but if you get a chance to see them in concert, don't pass it up. Highlights included: a completely unexpected and animated sax solo by the steel guitar player, Eddie Rivers (whose persona up to that point appeared to be an incarnation of Junior Samples in a straw Stetson and pearl-snapped short-sleeved shirt); several astounding fiddle duets; and the ultra-bass notes that Benson hit on one song that could be the cause of the earthquakes that are starting to pop up around Texas.

Asleep at the Wheel at Horseshoe Bay
Asleep at the Wheel

Venue Overview: The grass-covered grounds of the Horseshoe Bay Resort are a pleasant setting for these performances, but it's a crime against nature to have groups like The Nightowls and Asleep At The Wheel appear at a venue without a dance floor. Nevertheless, more than a few people braved the lawn in front of the stage to dance, and MLB and I got in a very nice swing dance to one of AATW's tunes. OTOH, if you like to get up close and personal with the musicians, you'll find no better setting that this. There are no barricades in front of the small, low stage so one can get almost uncomfortably close to the performers.

Filling the Dance Gap
June 16, 2015 9:48 PM | Posted in: ,

I spent much of a Sunday afternoon downloading Seventies and Eighties TV show theme songs from iTunes and editing them* into gain-consistent 20-second clips with tasteful fade-ins and -outs to serve as fillers between songs in the playlist I'm compiling for an upcoming ballroom dance. If this sounds like fun, you must be a geek, like me. 

You may wonder why a ballroom dance would require the Batman theme as a transition between a fox trot and a waltz. It's a good question, and the answer is simple: it doesn't. But the interval between songs in a prerecorded playlist poses a challenge for the dance DJ or playlist organizer. Continuous music doesn't allow the dancers to gracefully exit the floor to either change partners or take a breather; a comfortable gap solves this problem. 

Now, if a live band has any kind of personality at all, it can fill the space with banter, but with a prerecorded playlist, the gap turns into an awkward silence. One solution is to provide a snippet of music to serve as a transition, such as this one:



Choosing the right music for this purpose presents its own challenge. A snippet of an actual dance song might lead some to believe that it was meant for, well, dancing, and that's awkward in and of itself, as it fades out after twenty seconds. I've found that people respond well to something whimsical and completely different from the dance music, and old TV or movie theme songs seem to perfectly fit the bill.

Not only does this approach fill the silence while providing time for the dancers to do whatever they need to do between songs, it also provides a source of conversation as they attempt to identify some familiar jingles that they may not have heard in a long time. However, one must consider the likely demographics of the attendees, who may be more familiar with the theme from I Love Lucy than that from Friends (or vice versa).

The downside to using filler music, or for that matter, filler silence, is that there's that much less music for dancing. A typical dance set for our group is about fifty minutes, with a ten minute break. That's time enough for about fifteen continuous songs/dances, but a 20-second spacer after each song means that you'll get one or two fewer dances per set. To be honest, most people don't dance to every song in a set, so that's not a big deal. And for those who have the energy to continue dancing, I'll populate the breaks with music, although those songs tend to be out on the fringes of acceptable ballroom dance tunes (think polkas, or country 2 Step, or cumbias).
 
*I use an audio editing app called DSP Quattro for tasks like this. Now that Apple has dropped its DRM from music purchased from the iTunes Store, you can edit songs directly from your hard drive, although the app must first convert them from the native .m4a format to the .aiff format.

Dancing Batman illustration created by Jesse Lonergan 

A [non-traditional] ballroom dance playlist
February 8, 2014 1:41 PM | Posted in: ,

Once each year, the Ballroom Dance Society departs from its usual practice of having live music and uses a prerecorded playlist for a dance. This is done primarily as a fundraiser, saving the cost of a band, but it also gives us a chance to expose members and guests to music that they might not otherwise associate with ballroom dancing.

I suspect that many people, when they think of ballroom dancing, conjure up visions of boring people sleepwalking through boring music, but nothing could be further from the truth. To make the point, here's the playlist that we'll be using for next Friday's dance. If you take the time to browse it, you'll see some traditional music that might conform to a stereotype (that doesn't mean it's not fun to dance to), but there's also a good representation of genres and artists that you might never think to put on the ballroom floor, like, for example, Delbert McClinton, Journey, Willie Nelson, and Santana.

Save the Last Dance for Me Michael Bublé Cha Cha
Some Kind of Wonderful Little Milton w/ Delbert McClinton Swing
Brown Eyed Girl Jimmy Buffett Rumba
Love Done Gone Billy Currington Fox Trot
Tennessee Waltz New 101 Strings Orchestra Waltz
You Are the Sunshine of My Life Stevie Wonder Rumba
I've Got The World On A String Michael Bublé Fox Trot
Blue Tango Jack Hansen And His Orchestra Tango
Fine Cindy Morgan Swing
Moon River Andy Williams Waltz
Sway The Pussycat Dolls Rumba
Fall Apart The Mavericks Samba
I've Got You Under My Skin Rod Stewart Fox Trot
Come Dance With Me Michael Bublé Cha Cha
Fallin' Connie Francis Swing
Little Rock Hayes Carll Swing
The Last Waltz Engelbert Humperdinck Waltz
Oh, Pretty Woman Roy Orbison Cha Cha
Kokomo The Beach Boys Rumba
Old Time Rock and Roll Bob Seger & the Silver Bullet Band Swing
Papa Loves Mambo Perry Como Mambo
Beautiful Day for Goodbye George Strait Waltz
Big Bad Handsome Man Imelda May Cha Cha/Tango
Dance In the Moonlight The Mavericks Samba
Mustang Sally Wilson Pickett West Coast Swing
La Cumparsita (Tango) Alfred Hause's Tango Orchestra Tango
Neon Moon Brooks & Dunn Rumba
The Best Is Yet To Come Michael Bublé Fox Trot
Waltz Across Texas Willie Nelson Waltz
To Be Loved Michael Bublé Night Club 2 Step
I Just Want to Dance With You George Strait Cha Cha
Smooth Santana Rumba
What The World Needs Now Is Love Jackie De Shannon Waltz
Fly Me to the Moon Frank Sinatra Fox Trot
Jalousie (Tango) Alfred Hause's Tango Orchestra Tango
Moondance Michael Bublé Fox Trot
Girl from Ipanema Big-T and the Bada-Bings Rumba
Nelly Bly Rick Shea West Coast Swing
The End of the World Skeeter Davis Night Club 2 Step
Something Stupid Michael Bublé & Reese Witherspoon Cha Cha
Could I Have This Dance Anne Murray Waltz
Mack the Knife Bobby Darin Fox Trot
Spanish Eyes Al Martino Rumba
Open Arms Journey Waltz
All for You Imelda May Swing

All of these songs are available via the iTunes Store if you want to sample any of them.

The Civil Wars || The Civil Wars
September 1, 2013 6:30 PM | Posted in:

Here's what you do. Go buy the best pair of headphones you can find. Not earbuds - not even those fancy-schmancy Sennheisers - get a good set of over-the-ear cans, although noise-canceling on-the-ear phones will also work. Set aside a couple of hours, and find a comfortable chair. Then go to the iTunes Store and download The Civil Wars, the recently-released eponymous album by the duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White. Plug in the headphones to your music-generating device, set on album-repeat, and be ye transported.

I don't know what genre The Civil Wars belong in. The iTunes Store labels the duo as "alternative," meaning that they also don't know how to classify them. They performed at the Grand Old Opry; does that make them country? They won a Grammy for the Best Folk Album, so perhaps that's where they belong. They sang Michael Jackson's Billie Jean on a VH-1 TV special; perhaps they're a pop group.

Frankly, it doesn't matter. Their ethereal harmonies and understated arrangements (produced by the amazing Charlie Peacock) demand your undivided attention (hence the headphone recommendation) and reward the diligent listener with an emotional roller-coaster of beautiful melodies and grown-up lyrics. If this is indeed country music, it's the Anti-Nashville version at its best, with nary a hint of ripped jeans, party-on-a-tailgate-by-the-creek, hot-southern-girls-and-cold-Texas-beer. And that's an extremely soothing thing.



Chicago: 40 Years Later
August 15, 2013 10:39 PM | Posted in: ,

On Tuesday night we went to the Chicago concert at the WinPAC, along with however many other people it takes to fill that venue (oh, it's 1,827 folks, according to the technical specs). The show was announced as a sellout and while I did see a few scattered empty seats, I'm sure it was due to unexpected conflicts such as labor pains and/or alien abductions.

Chicago's logoI've been a semi-fan of Chicago ever since the early days. I wouldn't classify myself as an acolyte, unlike my pal Berry, for whom Tuesday's performance was akin to a worship experience, but their eponymous 1970 album was one of the first two LPs I ever bought with my own money (the other being the Mothers of Invention's We're Only In It For The Money). I think most band nerds of that era - I was a clarinetist, with one whimsical dalliance with a baritone sax - were at least a bit enamored with the radical concept that guys playing something other than guitars and drums could actually be cool, although when it came to jazz-rock, I really preferred Blood, Sweat and Tears.

Anyway, Debbie and I attended a Chicago concert as students at A&M in the early Seventies, and while we didn't remember much about it (it was the early Seventies, dig?), the chance to repeat the event had some sentimental attraction to it. Here are ten takeaways from the concert.

  1. If you seek longevity as a musician, acquire some skill on an instrument other than your voice. Inevitably, the old guys lose the upper registers (or in the case of Gary Lewis, all the registers), but the horn players can rock it until the day they pass to that Great Spit Valve in the Sky. Chicago has done a good job of finding younger replacement vocalists (who are also great instrumentalists) while keeping a core group of four original members.

  2. On the other hand, it doesn't matter how menacingly you thrust your trombone at the audience, that instrument will never be sexy. (I'm looking at you, James Pankow.)

  3. The WinPAC continues to impress as a classy venue, but bands need to realize that they're not playing to a 50,000 seat amphitheater, and the audience really can hear quite well even if the volume is only cranked to, say, eight. An eleven on the volume dial is just painful. (And then again, I'm willing to entertain the plausible suggestion that I'm simply getting old and crankly.)

  4. According to the female half of the couple with whom we attended the concert, Colour My World is a frightfully boring song. I confess that I had forgotten how much I agree with that assessment.

  5. On the other hand, I could have listened to Chicago's arrangement of Steve Winwood's classic I'm A Man all night long - even cranked to 11 - as well as the encore performance of 25 or 6 to 4.

  6. To the person sitting either directly behind me or next to me who made an unfortunate dining choice before the concert I offer one word of advice: Beano. Seriously, folks...it's an intimate venue; skip the pre-concert beans and broccoli next time. K'thx.

  7. Wally Reyes is a fairly recent addition to the group, giving a stellar performance as a percussionist, and apparently having the best time of anyone on the stage, judging by the big grin on his face throughout the performance. Based on his enthusiasm and energy level, I would have never judged him to be almost 60 years old.

  8. As long as I'm complaining about the loud music, I might as well throw the lighting guys under the bus, too. We're sitting there in the cozy semi-darkness and suddenly we're hit with a few hundred-thousand-candlepower spotlights, and it's not an enjoyable experience, unless you were planning on burning out your retinas later anyway. Don't do that. We don't care if the band sees us or not.

  9. I attribute this next observation to the relatively advanced average age of those in attendance, but we as a group were an awfully polite bunch of drivers when exiting the parking lot after the concert. Despite the large crowd, traffic moved quickly, and I saw a lot of considerate people taking turns letting people into the flow. Well, there was one driver in a Mercedes coupe who apparently had more important things to do than the rest of us, but the exception made the rule even more obvious.

  10. I wonder if I was the only person in the audience who, after hearing Walter Parazaider's flute solos, thought it would be really great if we could get Jethro Tull to come to Midland.

    ...I might as well crank it to 11 myself, with a bonus observation...

  11. What's up with encores, anyway? Who are we fooling? Who are they fooling? Just play the song(s) you knew all along you were going to play, and spare us the requirement of offering the adulation that earns us the privilege of hearing them. K'thx.

Lauding Lund (Corb, that is...)
August 4, 2013 6:14 PM | Posted in:

Much to the chagrin of my professional musician friends, I don't usually buy albums. In the age of digital downloads, I pick and choose the songs I like best, and ignore the rest. I realize this is a symbolic slap in the face to those artists who put a lot of time and thought into crafting an album (although I secretly wonder why all that time and thought generally wraps up with an even number of songs...ten, twelve, or - occasionally - fourteen; does creativity abhor an odd number?). Nevertheless, it's rare that every song on an album resonates with me, and I feel no guilt in refusing to pay for those that don't.

Album cover - Cabin FeverBut I made one of those rare exceptions this weekend, when I ran across Corb Lund's Cabin Fever, an album released last August. I confess that I was actually seeking a single song that I'd been hearing on Sirius-XM lately, but I got to noodling around with the other cuts on the album and realized that there wasn't a stray in the herd.

If you were to combine the lyrical prowess of Randy Newman, the authentic cowboyishness of Chris LeDoux (rest his soul), and the utter defiance of any categorization of Willie Nelson, you might begin to construct a musician like Corb Lund. He's a Canadian who launched his musical career as the bass player for the speed metal band The Smalls (although Lund disputes that musical label as well).

In any event, I find the stories that Lund tells in his songs to be fascinating, although you have to listen fast because the guy can cram more lyrics into less time than any rapper in the hood. But beyond that, the music itself is imaginative and diverse. On Cabin Fever, he cycles through western swing, boogie-woogie, Marty Robbins-style balladeering, roadhouse blues, and straight out rock and roll, and throws in a few songs that can't be pigeonholed. And you can always detect a thread of dry, self-deprecating humor running through the lyrics, as if you and he are sharing an inside joke.

And he somehow manages to make yodeling cool.

I managed to find videos of three of my most favoritist cuts from Cabin Fever. Anyone who ever showed steers in 4H or FFA, or who owned and/or worked on a ranch will appreciate the sentiments of Cows Around. (There's a live acoustic solo performance of this song on YouTube and it's worth watching, but I wanted to showcase the overall musical prowess of Lund's band, the Hurtin' Albertans.)  Dig Gravedigger Dig is an ode to an under-appreciated occupation; the video is a great showcase for Lund's sense of humor (it steals a scene from Thriller, for example). And, last but certainly not least, The Gothest Girl I Can seems to be dedicated to Abby on NCIS, and is guaranteed to make you want to dance.

If you can't resist the call of songs with titles like Priceless Antique Pistol Shoots Startled Owner (a cautionary tale about off-the-books firearm sales) and Mein Deutsches Motorrad (an ode to BMW motorcycles) - and, really, who can? - I strongly suggest downloading Cabin Fever and giving it a dozen consecutive listening.






8 Track Lookback
June 17, 2013 6:36 AM | Posted in:

Attending the Happy Together Tour concert last week put me in a musical nostalgic mood, and I rediscovered these in my small Museum of Obsolete Technology:

Photo of 8 track tapes

These are the only survivors from the dozens of 8-track tapes I accumulated during my high school and early college years. I'm not sure of the strategy behind the selection of these tapes, other than they represent a wide range of genres. For the record, I wasn't a Black Sabbath fan - I didn't even realize Ozzy Osbourne was a member until a few decades later; I think this was my form of rebellion in my small West Texas hometown of Fort Stockton.

However, I did love the jazz-rock genre, hence the Chase and Chicago tapes (although my favorite group in that vein remains Blood, Sweat and Tears). I also had multiple albums from Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and who didn't love the [Young] Rascals? Grand Funk Railroad was straight-ahead rock and was in good company with Jimi Hendrix, Cream, and Steppenwolf. (Of course, once I started dating, there was an interesting shift to artists such as The Lettermen and Rod McKuen (gasp!), and the soundtrack from Romeo and Juliet. Funny how those things work.

I mounted a Radio Shack 8-track player in the family's barebones late-Fifties Ford, which my parents won in a raffle at the local drive-in. The car had a straight-six motor, and the engine compartment had enough spare room to sleep in. Anyway, it didn't have a radio - heck, it barely had a glovebox - so the 8-track was the only musical option available at the time.

I bought a couple of speakers but never figured out how to mount them in the car, so they sat in the backseat floorboards. I did, at least, hide the speaker wires running from the dashboard to the backseat, preserving the classiness of the installation.

Nevertheless, there were many enjoyable hours spent listening to the music emanating from that player. I mastered the skill of coaxing tape back inside the case (some of you may remember how often those tapes came unwound), and recognizing when to swab the tape deck playback head with rubbing alcohol to remove the residue that built up over time and spoiled the otherwise pristine sound. Well, it was pristine compared to, you know, silence.

Confession: I'm still using an 8-track storage box, with the partitions removed, as a receptacle for small parts and doo-dads (a technical term of art) in the garage.

It's hard to believe that I now have 3,719 songs (including quite a few of those on the tapes pictured above) of significantly better audio quality available in device that's a quarter of the size of just one of these tapes. There are some things I'm nostalgic about, true, but going back to 8-tracks tapes isn't one of them.

Rain/Dance
May 29, 2013 10:09 PM | Posted in: ,

Even though there is some Biblical support for the adage that if you want to hear God laugh, tell Him your plans, I've never bought into that concept except as it applies to plans that are clearly contrary to His will. And so when I tell you that we took our bike to Fredericksburg for a long weekend of riding and ended up getting on it not even once because it rained every day, don't believe for a second that I think God broke a region-wide drought just to foil our plans.

Not that it didn't cross my mind.

But I do believe that when a door closes, a floor opens, and thus we found ourselves in the happy position of dancing through an entire Memorial Day weekend, in ways we never imagined. But I'm getting ahead of myself. And I hope you're intrigued enough to stick around for yet more vacation slides.

But first, you need to know that I now plan to devote my life to becoming the premier frottoirist in Texas, if not the world, as I've come to realize that the rubboard represents the pinnacle of musical achievement in the history of mankind. There's really no higher calling.

Frottoir player - Zydeco Angels
My new musical hero

Accommodations

We booked three nights in the "Gabrielle" unit of the Patio Sisters bed & breakfast (motto: "big bed...no breakfast"). If you follow the preceding link, you'll see a professional presentation of the photos I took, shown below, except you'd never know there was a toilet by looking at the professional pictures. So I recommend going with mine, especially since I spent so much time on them. But it's your call.

Exterior View Our door had a name The patio The fireplace More patio We never even uncovered the hot tub The interior was spare We were never sure of the barrel's purpose Good bed, excessively pillowed Country chic ceiling Metal-lined shower with bumpy floor Ah...there's the toilette

Here are the takeaways from the weekend's accommodations:

Pros:

  • Great location - within walking distance of Main Street, but far enough to escape much of the traffic noise.
  • Quiet
  • New constructions - clean and well-maintained; everything worked
  • Comfortable bed and effective HVAC
Cons:

  • The corrugated metal and rustic wood motif was a bit tiresome
  • River rock on shower floor very uncomfortable on some feet, and overhead "rain" shower head may not be everyone's cup of tea
  • No closets. No chest of drawers or bureau. No problem if you don't mind living out of your suitcase.
There was a time when I'd have listed "no breakfast" as a drawback, but the current standard seems to be to provide certificates good for breakfast (or, frequently, lunch) at local eateries. In this case, we had certificates for $7 each for each night's stay, and the restaurants were ones we liked anyway (Bejas Grill, Rathskeller, Java Ranch, etc.). The certificates never cover the entire cost of a meal - at least, not the way we eat; YMMV - but it's a nice gesture, and beats the meager "continental" breakfasts served by many B&Bs that still give lip service to the second "B."

Dining

I already touched on that above, so we may as well round things out. Frequent visitors to Fredericksburg will recognize the following:

  • Peach Tree Tea Room - sandwich sampler and chilled avocado soup ($$)
  • Pasta Bella - eggplant parmigiana ($$)
  • Bejas Grill - fish tacos, chips and hot salsa ("hot" as in who microwaves their salsa?!) ($$)
  • Hondo's - grilled mahi mahi sandwich ($$)
  • Navajo Grill - beef tenderloin and lemon pie with a brûlée topping and fresh berries ($$$$)
Oh, and this...

Big honkin' German pancake
Big honkin' German pancake

Shopping

It rained on and off through the weekend. Did I already mention that? So the time that we would have spent on the bike was instead spent going through every store on the main drag. Every. Store. Fortunately (for me), the only thing we bought was foodstuffs, and empty calorie stuff at that.

That means we passed up some real finds.

Cowboy wine bottle holder
This would be an elegant addition to any decor

Nature

The Texas Hill Country has not completely escaped the drought that has ravaged most of Texas, but it's faring pretty well this year - especially after last weekend. Did I mention that it rained all weekend? San Antonio got some historic, flooding rainfall, and while Fredericksburg wasn't similarly afflicted, I suspect that over the next week or so the landscape will start to display the luxurious green hues that should be the norm. Also mosquitos, stifling humidity, and fire ants, but what's lemonade without a few lemons?

I understand that the bluebonnet crop wasn't quite as good this year as in the past, but that doesn't mean that the wildflowers didn't make a showing.

Wildflower-filled pasture
Wildflower-filled pasture

You don't have to get out of the city limits to enjoy nature. This guy was sunning just a block from Main Street.

Turtle
Witness some of the worst looking legs and feet in the Animal Kingdom

We went for a walk around the neighborhood at dusk on Sunday, and were mesmerized by the sight of dozens of fireflies twinkling all around us. Fireflies make make even really good things better.

We also drove through a number of neighborhoods, with an eye toward possibly investing in some real estate at some point. There were some very nice neighborhoods where people had seemingly neglected their properties, as we saw broken and even boarded-up windows. This was puzzling and a little disturbing until we learned that the town had been hit by a monster hailstorm about a week earlier...softball-sized hail had done a number on houses across the north side of Fredericksburg. We saw big agave plants that had been smashed to jelly, and oak trees stripped of their foliage; cars were missing moonroofs, and houses had tarp-covered voids where skylights once resided. Bad mojo, and the only thing that would have kept something like that out of the news was the F5 tornado that tore through Oklahoma the following day.

Entertainment ("Here there be dancing")

You perhaps heard that it rained most of the weekend, thereby stifling our cycling plans. We even skipped our planned outing to Luckenbach on Friday night, not wanting to deal with the muddy conditions. But we're nothing if not adaptable. As it turned out, the annual Crawfish Festival was taking place within walking distance of our B&B, and for $15 each, we got weekend passes to live music starting around lunch each day.

Variety was the musical theme for the weekend. On Friday night, we danced to country music by Jake Hooker and the Outsiders, on Saturday night we danced to big band ballroom music (at the Hangar Hotel, at a fundraiser for the USO) provided by Bill Smallwood and the Lone Star Swing Orchestra, and on Sunday afternoon we boogied to zydeco as performed by Jean-Pierre and the Zydeco Angels. And somewhere in there we squeezed in some Latin moves to an arrangement of Santana's Black Magic Woman as ably rendered by the Walburg Boys (who, in an awesome display of musical versatility, also provided some of the best yodeling we've ever heard, although, frankly, that's not saying all that much).

There's something about copious amounts of crawfish and Cajun music that makes otherwise normal people make questionable choices in haberdashery. Beer might have also made a contribution.

People wearing crawdad hats
Head-mounted crustaceans: cutting-edge fashion trend

The dance floor at the Hangar Hotel was small and tacky (in the sense of being sticky, not in poor taste, although to a dancer the two are synonymous). Also, because the orchestra had "swing" in its name, and there was a swing dance lesson beforehand, most of the dancers seemed to feel obligated to dance swing steps to every song, which made doing foxtrots and waltzes somewhat challenging. But it's a rare thing to be able to dance to a big band doing the standards of times past, and we enjoyed it thoroughly.

Hangar Hotel dance
All reet, you jive hep-cats

The floor was slightly less crowded at the Crawfish Festival, especially on Sunday afternoon.

Dance area at the Crawfish Festival

The thing about good music and an open floor is that it leads to, well, dancing...and that dancing can originate from unexpected (but delightful) sources.



So, what's your excuse?


That gentleman rolled in with his walker and spent most of the afternoon twitching in his chair until he finally couldn't stand it any longer and had to give in to the urge to surge.

The music, by the way, was provided by the aforementioned Zydeco Angels.

Jean-Pierre and the Zydeco Angels

That's Jean-Pierre on the squeezebox, but the real star is, of course, the rubboard player. Did you know you could get special rubboard gloves? They're the mark of a true professional; here's a closeup:

Gloves of a frottoir player

Actually, these are very high-tech compared to most, which use either bottle caps or thimbles to generate the percussive sounds. Also, rubboards (aka frottoirs) are not exactly cheap. But I'll let nothing stand in my way of becoming a world-class washboardist, so I'm cashing in my 401K. Pretty soon.

So, we didn't get to bicycle around some of our favorite haunts, but we didn't let the rain dampen our enthusiasm. It pays to have a fallback passion, one that doesn't depend on the weather. As long as we can find some good music and a bit of floorspace, we'll do just fine. And last weekend, Fredericksburg repeatedly rose to the occasion.

Samba Ambitions
May 14, 2013 9:53 PM | Posted in: ,

Note: Miss me? I missed you. I'm trying to ease back into this blogging thing, and the best way to do that is to either (1) steal something from someone else, or (b) repeat myself. Being the overachiever I've deluded myself into thinking I am, I choose to do both. Miss me?

Maybe it's the influence of Dancing With The Stars, or perhaps the impending change of seasons that will usher in beach-like weather (if not actual beaches), but MLB and I have had an urge to dance ourselves some samba lately. Unfortunately, samba is our weak link; we rarely get a good song from the dance bands around here, so we don't practice it, and so we frankly suck at it. But that's gonna change, because The Mavericks are making it impossible not to samba, thanks to this song.



Seriously, can you resist that beat and the fun they have with that song? Neither can we. And so instead of watching the DWTS results show, we were practicing boto fogas, traveling voltas, and samba maxixes.

Need another example of a samba from a more familiar genre (assuming you're a Texan, of course)? Clay Walker is happy to oblige:


Remembering Chris LeDoux
January 2, 2013 6:34 AM | Posted in:

I was listening to music on my iPad last weekend and Riding For A Fall came up on the playlist. It made me think about the great music provided by Chris LeDoux, and what we lost when he died of cancer in 2005.

LeDoux was a rare talent - a world champion rodeo cowboy and a six-million-record-selling musician whose high-energy shows inspired one Garth Brooks to up his onstage game. (And the way Brooks returned the favor is a great story in itself; scroll down the bio page linked above to read it.)

Following are three examples of his music. Riding For A Fall contains one of the great phrases in all of country music, and LeDoux writes about the downside of being and aging and ruggedly independent loner.

Why doncha turn back,
Just saddle up and backtrack
You know you'll never find a love quite like hers.
On a cold and lonesome evenin'
What the hell good's your freedom?
Don't you think it's time you hung up your spurs?

What'cha Gonna Do With A Cowboy was recorded as a duo with Garth and it, too, paints a pretty accurate picture of the challenges of living with one of those guys. Unfortunately, I couldn't find a video of the two of them doing the song; I'm guessing that the recording was a studio project only. (And here's a bit of Gazette trivia: in an inexplicable lapse of judgment several years back, I recorded my own version of this song and posted it on the blog. Fortunately for all, that post has somehow been "lost.")

The final video is For Your Love, and it shows a side of LeDoux that can only be described as zany. I think he and his band had a lot of fun making the vid, and while it's not the pinnacle of cinematic achievement, it's also a lot of fun for his fans.

RIP, Mr. LeDoux. Thanks for the songs, amigo.






Ask and Ye Shall Receiver, or Not
November 28, 2012 9:28 PM | Posted in: ,

Have I mentioned that we got a new A/V receiver a couple of months ago? Astute Gazette readers may recall this tragic post in which I documented our tragic inability to watch 3D movies at home because of our tragically old-and-busted equipment (which was really neither, but technology is a harsh mistress).

It's a Pioneer SC-57, and it's supposedly the first all-digital amplifier to hit the consumer market. What does that mean? Danged if I know, but it sounds impressive, both in terms of specs and in actual listening. But, man, was it a major headache to hook-up and configure.

Here's how it looks inside our built-in cabinet:

Photo of Receiver

Note the three boxes atop the receiver, all of which are reminders of my shortcomings as an audiophile. The squatty one on the left side is Pioneer's WiFi receiver that theoretically allows the receiver to lock into our home network, but Pioneer's instructions for configuring it are inscrutable and so its primary purpose is to look tech-y-ish.

The two boxes with the glowing blue eyes are 50-watt Dayton digital amps, and I have mixed emotions about them. If I had more competence and/or patience, they would be unnecessary, because each of them powers a pair of stereo speakers on our front and back porches, respectively. The receiver is supposed to have the capability of doing that itself, by routing signals from two of its speaker outputs to the second and third zones, but, again, I never could get that configuration to work. I know I'm overlooking a simple setting somewhere, but after a couple of hours of fooling with it - including countless trips out the front and back doors to confirm that, yes, we have no decibels - I gave up and went to Plan B. 

Plan B is actually documented in the receiver's user guide, and while this may sound like rationalization (and it probably is), it's a superior alternative, apart from having to spend another $200 to make things work right. This approach doesn't tie up the aforementioned speaker outputs, so I can have true 9.1 surround sound (although there is that pesky detail of having only seven installed speakers). It also gives a tiny bit more control over the sub-zones as I can more quickly adjust the volume of the porch speakers via the amplifier control, whereas there's a fair amount of button pushing to do it via the receiver.

Regardless, I consider it a victory to now have functioning multi-zones, along with the 3D capability. 

Regarding the latter, while 3D is still barely out of the gimmick phase, it's still pretty cool in a nerdy way. And, best of all, it works right out of the box...or, technically, boxes, since it require three of them to give those lovely glasses their raison d'être.

Music Review: "Old Angel" by The Lost Dogs
August 19, 2012 5:56 PM | Posted in:

If you're seeking music that's a bit out of the mainstream, something that defies easy characterization, perhaps an album of story-songs, let me direct you to The Lost Dogs' 2010 album Old Angel, a musical tribute to "America's Main Street," Route 66.

Cover of 'Old Angel'The proprietors of the iTunes Store haven't figured out how to categorize The Lost Dogs, but that's understandable. (By the way, if you search for the group's complete catalog in the iTunes Store, be sure to search on both "Lost Dogs" and "The Lost Dogs," as neither search term by itself yields complete results.) Their albums are evenly split between the genres of "rock" and "Christian and Gospel," and, in my opinion, neither does the music justice. Something like "alt-country Christian Americana rock" might be more accurate.

The songs in Old Angel tell stories about the people and places along the historical Route 66, and those stories span the decades from the days of the Dust Bowl to the present. You'll recognize landmarks, natural and manmade, in the lyrics (Missouri's Devil's Elbow and the Cadillac Ranch in the Texas Panhandle are two examples), and hear accounts of hope and desperation and restlessness, of peace and joy and redemption.

This is not an overtly Christian album - this may be the only "gospel" album out there where "damn" is used a couple of times as an adjective (and, again in my opinion, is completely justified, especially when describing the heat in Bakersfield, California) - but the spirituality of the musicians is evident throughout. Also evident is the outstanding musicianship and creativity. In fact, I recommend listening via a good set of headphones at least once to catch all the nuances of the performances.

Some of the past releases by The Lost Dogs are filled with irony and satire; Old Angel is not, notwithstanding song titles like Israelites and Okies. It's unabashedly sentimental about a piece of Americana and the people who traveled and continue to travel its length in search of a better life.

Here's a sample from the album, an amateur video filmed on a California beach, so it doesn't do complete justice to the music. But you'll get a sense of the musical gifts of the members of The Lost Dogs.


Garth in Vegas
August 4, 2012 7:17 AM | Posted in:

I can't remember if I mentioned this, but we spent a couple of nights in Las Vegas on our way back from our recent San Diego vacation. The main reason we did this was to attend the Garth Brooks show at the Wynn Hotel. We've never been huge Garth fans - his confessed infidelity and subsequent divorce didn't exactly endear him to us - although we appreciated his skill as an entertainer. But we'd heard rave reviews from people whose opinions we trusted, and it just happened that he was going to be performing at the same time we would be coming through Vegas.

It's worth noting that Brooks usually appears just once a month in Las Vegas, and nowhere else. The story goes that while he was happily retired, Steve Wynn made him an offer he couldn't refuse - not a horse head in bed, but a barn full of money. Each month, Wynn sends his private jet to Claremore, OK (or as close as it can get) to pick up Garth and, usually, Garth's newish wife, Trisha Yearwood. Brooks does four shows in this small venue during the weekend and Steve flies them home in time to feed the livestock on Monday, or whatever they do that makes them want to get back to Oklahoma.

I'm going to provide a more complete review below, but if you're impatient, here's what you need to know: if you have the chance to see Garth Brooks at the Wynn in Las Vegas, do it. I don't care if you love or hate country music, you'll be glad you did. It was one of the most enjoyable shows we've ever attended, in an venue, in any genre.

Here's the deal - it won't be what you expect (unless you read on, and then it will be, unless Garth reads this and decides to change things up to keep me off balance. I wouldn't put it past him). We expected a concert where he performed his hits, but he sang perhaps only about five of his own songs. Instead, the theme of the show was his account of the musical influences, dating back to his childhood, that provided the inspiration for his sound. 

He started with the 60s and worked his way, a decade at a time, to the present. Along the way, he performed snippets of music by entertainers as diverse as Merle Haggard and George Jones (his dad's Holy Musical Duo), Simon & Garfunkel, James Taylor (whom Garth idolizes to the point of embarrassment), Don McLean (of American Pie - the song, not the gross movies - fame), George Strait, and even Bob Dylan (in a hilarious parody in which he skewers Dylan's tendency for unintelligible lyrics).

Garth's skill with a guitar is impressive, which is a good thing since he's the only musician on the stage, and the guitar is the only instrument (besides his equally impressive voice). I keep having to expand my list of Top Guitar Performances Of All Time.

What really made his performance special is the way he seamlessly wove stories from his childhood and later life in and out of the musical influences. The surprising thing is that Brooks is a truly funny, engaging guy, and I seriously doubt that an audience attending a show at a comedy club would laugh more than we did at this concert. It helps if you grew up in rural America, but most of his humor is universal...or at least universally American.

I mentioned Trisha Yearwood. I understand that she doesn't always appear; I don't know if that's true, but she did make an appearance while we were there, and she was Garth's musical match. She sang one solo song, and they did a duet (one of the highlights of the show, really), and we felt privileged to get to hear her in person.

You might expect that after such an amazing performance, we'd have come home and downloaded everything Garth Brooks has recorded, but that's not the case. We're still not big fans of his music (in general; there are a few exceptions). But we are now and always will be huge fans of his performances.

If you're wondering why I'm not posting any photos from the performance, it's because we're apparently the only people in the universe who actually believed the stern "NO CELL PHONES" warning on our tickets and left them in the safe in our hotel room. Of course, when we got to the venue, every single person had their phones out and were fooling with them. (I didn't, however, see anyone taking photos during the performance; I'm quite sure that would have resulted in a quick ejection.) Never fear, though; I've employed my finely-honed skills as a sketcher of historical events to provide you with a hyper-realistic picture of the performance. Why, it's almost as if you're right there in the Wynn with your good pal Garth. (Pay special attention to the carefully selected Western font designed to evoke the feeling of Americana that is perfectly epitomized by Friends in Low Places.)

Sketch of Garth Brooks

Tall City Bluesfest: Doing Midland Proud
July 30, 2012 8:50 PM | Posted in: ,

For a variety of reasons, we attending only the final evening of this year's Tall City Bluesfest, but if what we experienced was representative of the whole event, Midland is going to make its mark in a big way in this musical genre. We were very impressed not only with the talent the event attracted, but also with the organization of the event, and with the obvious public and corporate support.

The crowd at the Tall City Bluesfest

As with any music festival, there were vendors and merchants, both local and from out of town, but it's really all about the performers. And, wow, did they ever deliver!

The venue - Centennial Plaza in downtown Midland - is utilized to maximum benefit, with two "headliner" stages set up on the north and south ends of the plaza, an indoor acoustic set stage inside of Midland Center, and the "Community Stage" for lower-billed acts in the plaza's amphitheater. The benefit of this arrangement is that the music is continuous. While one performance is going on, the next act is setting up on another stage. This also ensures that the crowd circulates, and the movement helps maintain a sense of excitement.

Of course, not all the performance venues are created equal, and some of the performers found themselves on a stage that mimicked a solar oven. Fortunately, the temperatures in the mid-90s didn't faze the local band Weatherstone, as they rocked the crowd without missing a beat.

Stylized photo of Weatherstone
Weatherstone

Meanwhile, inside the air conditioned comfort of Midland Center, Dallas musician Aaron Burton was providing a pleasant musical backdrop for the shoppers browsing through the vendors' booths. 

Stylized photo of Aaron Burton
Aaron Burton

The festival organizers did a great job in turning Midland Center into an inviting place to escape the heat, with bar-height tables scattered in front of the stage, inviting people to linger but not plant themselves. There were even a few arm chairs set out for those who were in more desperate need of relaxation.

Even though we were at Bluesfest to catch the headline act, we greatly enjoyed hearing musicians that were hitherto unknown to us. A prime example was Guy Forsyth, based in Austin. Forsyth has won awards for best blues musician and best male vocalist in Austin, which is no mean feat, and he's also been recognized as the "Best Miscellaneous Instrument Player" for his mastery of the saw. (He's modest about this accomplishment, being quoted as claiming "...you don't have to play the saw very well to be the best saw player most people ever see...I'm just sayin'.")

The saw was just a peripheral part of Forsyth's act. He's an outstanding guitarist, an incredible harmonica player, and by far the best and most versatile vocalist we heard. He's also great with the crowd, possessing a dry, self-effacing humor. He reminded me a lot of Alan Tudyk, the actor well known for his roles in Firefly and Serenity, among many others.

Stylized photo of Guy Forsyth
Guy Forsyth

The primary reason we made time for Bluesfest (in fact, we skipped a dance, so you know how serious it was) was the appearance of Tommy Castro and his band, The Painkillers. If I had a musical bucket list, seeing Castro in concert would be close to the top of the list. He rarely appears in Texas, something he acknowledged, and I hope his experience in Midland (with a stop in Austin to "visit friends") succeeds in luring him back more frequently.

Photo - Tommy Castro
Tommy Castro and his bass player

Castro is the real deal. He's got a great blues voice, and is one of the best guitarists you'll ever hear, and he's surrounded himself with other musicians at the top of their games (his keyboardist in particular was, in a word, astonishing). But what really sets him apart is his obvious love for what he does. At one point, he climbed down from the stage and mingled with the enthusiastic fans crowding the front of the stage, all the while playing a blistering solo without missing a beat, and with a big grin on his face throughout.

Photo - Tommy Castro
Tommy Castro and some adoring fans

Midland should be proud of what Lisa Grissom, the festival producer, has pulled off. This is a first-lass event that has the potential of being world-class. The only impediment to success is the landlocked venue, which will never accommodate more than a few thousand attendees. And to be honest, from my perspective, that's not a drawback. I hope the musicians are willing to trade off quantity for quality.

Del Castillo
June 30, 2012 7:35 PM | Posted in: ,

During our recent visit to Fredericksburg, Texas, we caught a performance by Del Castillo, a band that was hitherto unfamiliar to us. The group was appearing at the Crossroads Steakhouse & Saloon, which is a relatively new (opened in early 2010) restaurant on Fredericksburg's main drag (across the street from Hondo's, if you're familiar with the area). 

We had a very good (and high dollar) meal in the restaurant and then took a stroll before returning to the "saloon" part of the establishment for the musical entertainment. The band was supposed to go on stage at 9:30 but that was apparently just a loose suggestion, because it was almost an hour later before they appeared.

They were worth the wait.

We've seen Santana in concert, and Los Lonely Boys. Both groups are icons of Latin rock, and both provide high energy shows featuring blistering guitar work that borders on unbelievable. And in my opinion, Del Castillo merits having either of those groups as an opening act. That may sound musically sacrilegious, but only to those who haven't been to a Del Castillo performance.

Photo - Del Castillo in concert in Fredericksburg, Texas
Sorry for the poor quality; it was the best my phone could do.

Brothers Mark and Rick del Castillo front the band and share the role of lead guitarist. They both play classical nylon-stringed amped guitars, but these are classical guitarists like no one you've ever heard. The following video showcases some of their talents (although this isn't a performance by Del Castillo the group; rather, it's an "all star" group, named Chingon, assembled by Austin filmmaker Robert Rodriguez - who is a pretty fair picker in his own right and introduces the song - but features the del Castillo brothers as well as their lead singer Alex Ruiz). If the song sounds familiar, it's Malagueña Salerosa, which was used by Quentin Tarantino in the soundtrack for Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (watch for Tarantino's "cameo" in the video, which was filmed at the premiere for the movie).



Electrifying as they sound in the video, they're even more so in person.

I was especially impressed with Rick del Castillo, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the British actor Alan Rickman:


See, I told you so.

I was even more impressed to learn that Rick graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in biomedical science. He has something to fall back on if the music gig doesn't work out.

I don't think he'll ever need that sheepskin.



We had a great time in Fredericksburg, and sitting ten feet away from the band with only about a hundred other people, and getting to dance to some great Latin rock and blues right in front of the stage was a highlight of the trip. We finally had to call it a night though when the band told the bouncer to waive the cover charge and let in the folks who were listening from the sidewalk. This resulted in one couple doing their impression of "dirty dancing" - much to the amusement of the band, and horror of some of the other spectators - and I told Debbie that when the hookers take to the dance floor, that's our cue to take our leave.
On Saturday, May 12, Debbie and I drove to Fort Davis to attend the annual fundraiser for the Marfa public radio station (KRTS 93.5). This year's event was held at the H.E. Sproul Ranch, located about seven miles northwest of Fort Davis, and included a donated artwork sale, catered dinner, and barn dance. We never pass up the opportunity for dancing in interesting places, and this event took place in a spectacular setting.

If you're familiar with the Fort Davis area, but have never been to the Sproul Ranch, you take Highway 118 toward McDonald Observatory, then turn onto an unpaved road immediately before you come to Prude Ranch. The ranch lodge is about 2.5 miles down that rather rough and occasionally treacherous road.

Photo of ranch road

Despite some recent rain, the landscape was still obviously suffering from the ongoing drought. Nevertheless, the natural and manmade scenery is awe-inspiring, as shown below. The structures on the top of the mountain are part of the McDonald Observatory complex.

Photo from ranch road

The ranch complex consists of a lodge, several suites, a barn, and a beautiful swimming pool that epitomizes the concept of an oasis.

Photo of ranch road
Photo of ranch road
Photo of ranch road

The preceding photo represents one of the abundant visual anachronisms that occur where 21st century technology is placed into an Old West setting. The rather large contraption in the background is a radio telescope, and it wasn't until I did some research that I learned that it's part of a network of such devices called the Very Long Baseline Array (VLBA). The VLBA consists of ten radio telescopes spanning more than 5,000 miles, from Hawaii to the Virgin Islands, and is used to conduct a wide variety of scientific research. (For another photographic perspective of the Sproul Ranch telescope, scroll down a bit on this page.)

The art show was an interesting event. All the pieces were 5"x5" and were for sale at the set price of $93.50 (corresponding to the radio station's broadcast frequency). It was sold on a first-come, first-served basis, and while Debbie and I didn't get there early enough to get our favorite piece, we did score a pretty cool quilted square made by a Fort Davis artist named Kathleen Morris. Here's a scan of the piece:

Scan of artwork

Note the wonderful little ocotillo in the lower right corner, complete with red flowers. I think we got a great deal.

At the beginning, I implied that our primary motivation for attending this event was the dance, and we weren't disappointed. Doug Moreland grew up in Fort Davis (his dad now lives there), and his brand of western swing is a lot of fun to listen and dance to. I got the impression that this isn't necessarily his regular group - there were just three of them - but they had a great sound and each one was a gifted musician. Moreland is shown below playing the fiddle; according to his website, he's also a chainsaw artist.

Photo of Doug Moreland and band

The dance floor wasn't large, and it got even smaller when they moved tables in from the dining tent, but, fortunately, not a lot of people danced. The only downside was when a well-meaning but inexperienced volunteer dumped a two-pound bag of white cornmeal on the concrete floor to make it easier to dance on. We tried to politely warn her that she was overdoing it, without effect, and sure enough, a little later an older couple (older than us, even!) slipped and fell. Fortunately, only their pride was injured. The photo below shows how the floor looked after a several dances; it looks like we were two-stepping on an ice rink! You can imagine how our boots looked after kicking through the corn meal dust.

Photo of ranch road

Overall, it was a great time and we'd do it again in a heartbeat. I have no idea how much money the station raised, but there were several hundred in attendance, including at least four couples from Midland.

We didn't stay at the ranch lodge; it was booked up. Instead, we stayed at the Harvard Hotel in Fort Davis (across the street from the Limpia Hotel, and next door to the drugstore). The Harvard is owned and operated by the Sproul Ranch, and offers very nice, quiet accommodations. And breakfast at the drugstore is hard to beat!

Random Thursday - The Weekend Edition
May 5, 2012 3:41 PM | Posted in: ,

Readers note: I'll be employing hash tags after each brilliant observation. Hash tags are the hipster's way of connoting sarcasm, or implying irony, or providing context. All the Kool Kidz are doing it. #educatingn00bs
 
  • I continue to be intrigued by the new image being cultivated by J.C. Penney. But I am a little puzzled by the fact that the company has two domain names and two websites. JCPenney.net is their corporate meta site, and JCPenney.com is their retail shopping site, and the only thing they have in common is the logo. Whoever sold them on the idea of having to maintain two separate online corporate identities gets my vote for salesman of the year. #smilingwebdesigners
     
  • I see that yet another local neighborhood is protesting the apparently surprising development that someone wants to drill for oil in the big honking pasture adjacent to their homes. And, once again, the protestors display a puzzling lack of understanding of basic property rights (especially considering that most of them probably bought their expensive homes using income that originated in the oilpatch, directly or indirectly). According to the newspaper report, the driller has gone beyond what's required in the city's ordinance to mitigate the impact of the drilling on the neighborhood, but that's not getting in the way of the residents' outrage (and, apparently, neither is the legal fact that the mineral owners have the legal right to access their underground assets). There's only one thing that will make them feel better - well, other than not drilling at all - and that's if they get a cut of the revenue from the drilling. #moneymakeseverythingbetter
     
  • Is there anything more annoying - besides hipsterish hashtags - than opening a brand spanking new box of cereal and finding that the Machine In Charge Of Bag Sealing, in a fit of non-union-sanctioned overzealousness, has glued the inner plastic bag so that there's no way to open it other than finding a pair of scissors - which,  frankly, is an impossibility at 6:00 a.m. - to cut it, after which the bag is too short to seal properly which will probably eventually result in a family of deadly scorpions taking up residence in your Grape Nuts and we all know that's bound to end badly for all involved?*  #1stworldproblems

  • And speaking of Things That Invariably Make Life More Challenging, why do flat tires never occur on beautiful cool days? It's apparently a requirement that you must change a tire either in a blizzard, or in heat sufficient to melt the tire to the asphalt on which it rests. #immutablenaturallaws

  • You know how when you're driving and you observe that everyone driving faster than you is a jerk and everyone driving slower than you is an idiot? (Not that I've ever felt like that.) I think there's a corollary that applies to lawn maintenance. Everyone whose lawn is in better shape than yours is a profligate water waster with messed-up priorities, and everyone whose laws looks worse than yours is a redneck with poor hygiene and deficient civic pride. (Not that I've ever felt like that.) #castingthefirstlandscapingstone

  • The Tall City BluesFest has announced its 2012 line-up and, man, am I stoked! They've managed to coax Tommy Castro out of California for the Saturday night show. If I had a bucket list, attending a Tommy Castro concert would be on it. I don't have one of those lists, but I plan to check this one off anyway. Here's what you have to look forward to if you're in Midland July 26-28. #anticipation



*You might have forgotten that this paragraph was actually phrased as a question, so I've included this handy footnote to remind you why the question mark appears. #seekinggrammaticalclarityinananalretentivefashion

A few weeks ago, during a post-dessert foray through Barnes & Noble, my eye lit upon a book resting on a table, notable for its thickness and heft, entitled 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die (And 10,001 You Must Download). Now, normally, when I find a book that looks promising, I look for it in e-format but in this case, the treeware version called to me.

Book coverThis is 960 pages of musical history, profiling in chronological order the editors' choices for the most influential recorded songs - by decade - beginning with Enrico Caruso's O Sole Mio, recorded in 1916, and ending with the Gorillaz 2010 recording of Stylo. Each song is described in terms of its influence, with tidbits of trivia about the artists, the context of the recording, and in many cases, other artists who covered the song or who were influenced by it. Some great photos accompany the text.

If you love pop, blues, or rock and roll (sorry, country fans...the British editors knoweth not what they do), you should get this tome. While I'm not familiar with many of the songs - I lived through but ignored the whole punk genre, and continue to ignore rap, for example, and the Anglo-centrism of the editors focuses on some UK artists I never heard of - you may still be interested in how they fit into the progression of musical history. And, frankly, any book that recognizes the genius of Dolly Parton's Jolene has something going for it.

And for those songs that are familiar, the accompanying stories and trivia are fascinating. For example:

  • None of the Beatles played an instrument on Eleanor Rigby.

  • Pete Townsend so admired Smokey Robinson's lyrics in The Tracks of My Tears that he lifted one of them to entitle the Who's Substitute.

  • Macy Gray and Marilyn Manson grew up in the same Canton, Ohio neighborhood.

  • Aerosmith's classic Walk This Way was inspired by a scene and line in the Mel Brooks movie, Young Frankenstein.

  • When Jimi Hendrix purred "move over Rover" in Fire, he was referring to an actual situation where his bass player's mother's Great Dane was interfering with his attempts to put a move on Jimi's girlfriend in front of the fireplace.

  • Lani Hall, the singer on Sérgio Mendes & Brasil '66's Mas Que Nada (one of my favorites, by the way) learned the Portuguese lyrics phonetically, and sang them so convincingly that Brazilians thought she was a native speaker.

  • The editor assigned to Paul Revere & The Raiders' (I'm Not Your) Stepping Stone labels that band "the first great punk band," and then makes a convincing case. Incidentally, did you realize the band was formed in 1958.

  • The drummer on Peggy Lee's 1958 hit, Fever, played with his bare hands, without  sticks. 
And, finally, many artists have recorded Save The Last Dance For Me, but the first #1 hit recording belonged to The Drifters in 1960. The lyrics of the song have a special meaning for the writer, Doc Pomus, because he...well, you'll have to get the book to learn the rest of the story.

Photos from book

Hypin' Jorge
January 30, 2012 9:28 PM | Posted in: ,

The band had just finished a very credible version of Merle Haggard's classic Workin' Man Blues [which is playing in the background as I type this...the newish version featuring Willie Nelson and Merle's son Ben] and I mentioned to friends how great it was that young musicians continued to pay tribute to the greats of country music. 

The band was from Abilene, and consisted of five young men, the oldest of which was perhaps 25. Through the course of the evening, they did covers of musicians as diverse as Johnny Cash, Dwight Yoakam, and Johnny Paycheck. While they didn't necessarily improve on the originals, they also didn't embarrass themselves or discredit the sources, and a good time was had by all.

But back to the conversation with friends. One of them recalled a time "about thirty years ago" when she attended a tractor pull at the Ector County Coliseum. During intermission, she said a young band hauled their gear into the middle of the track, and started playing. The sound was bad - too soft to be heard over the well-oiled tractor crowd - and a few people started booing. 

Someone found the right switch and the music got loud enough to be heard, and someone yelled out, "hey, ya'll quiet down...that feller's pretty good!" The youthful band managed to capture the crowd's attention and hold it for a couple of songs, which is all the time they were given, and they even got a good ovation when they finished. Without fanfare, they dragged their equipment across the dirt and out of the Coliseum. 

My friend had a big grin on her face as she revealed that she had been fortunate enough to be present at one of the earliest public appearances of a guy who turned out to be a fairly successful country musician. You might recognize the name: George Strait.

George has gone on to make music history, recording more #1 songs (58) than any artist in history, in any genre, and he's showing no signs of slowing down. His most recent album, Here For A Good Time, is a showcase of his sometimes under-appreciated range of styles. Strait manages to keep country tradition alive without slipping into by-the-numbers stereotype. I wouldn't go so far to say that he's the anti-Jason-Aldean, but if you're tired of the over-produced pop-oriented Nashville sound, here's your Strait, man.

Tony Joe White / Dave Alvin: Subsonic Vocals
December 28, 2011 9:10 PM | Posted in:

One of my Christmas gifts was an iTunes gift card, and I always use such windfalls as an excuse to look for music that's a little outside the mainstream. Coincidentally, a song on SiriusXM's Outlaw Country station caught my attention, and so I went searching for it. 

Although my car radio's readout often truncates artist names and song titles (an ongoing source of annoyance, by the way; the display itself appears to have twice as much space as is actually used), I was able to discern that the musician was Tony Joe White &...someone...and the song title was Closing In On Th (thanks a lot, illogical 16 character limit). But the iTune Store's search led me to a 2004 album by TJW entitled Heroines, and his duet with Lucinda Williams called Closing In On The Fire

The album contains four additional duets, matching White's deep gravelly muttering with the lovely voices of country stars Shelby Lynne, Jessi Colter, and TJ's daughter, Michelle White. These are fascinating combinations. If all you know of Tony Joe White is Polk Salad Annie, Heroines will likely be a perception-altering album. The dark, languid blues are still present, but several on this collection have a Latin flavor.

Here's a live version of Can't Go Back Home, the duet with the Grammy Award-winning Shelby Lynne.



Speaking of distinct and deep voices, are you familiar with the music of Dave Alvin? He describes himself as a folk singer, but if so, it's a version of folk that I've never before experienced...lose the mental picture of Peter, Paul & Mary, or Woody Guthrie. His latest album, Eleven Eleven, was released last June. Watch the following video of Johnny Ace Is Dead, and check out the guitar solo beginning at around the 2:30 mark and tell me if that sounds like "folk" to you. [By the way, as one of the hallmarks of folk songs is the telling of stories, true or not, Alvin's Johnny Ace definitely qualifies, as it recounts a true story. Johnny Ace was a very talented but equally stupid R&B singer from the '50s.]



Here's another performance that's a better showcase for Alvin's voice, a live version of Harlan County Line. I can't help wondering how a duet between Tony Joe White and Dave Alvin would sound. If nothing else, it would provide a good test of the capabilities of your audio system's subwoofer.


The Little Willies
December 19, 2011 8:44 PM | Posted in:

Don't try to read anything into the post title. It simply refers to a group of musicians who have successful careers on their own, but who enjoy getting together from time-to-time to perform, and they're about to release a new album entitled For The Good Times. This album is essentially a cover tribute to some of the classics of country music.

If that title sounds familiar, you're probably recognizing it as the song that made Ray Price's career. Did you also know that it was written and recorded by Kris Kristofferson?

Photo - Norah JonesAnyway, back to The Little Willies. I may be the last person on the planet to realize it, but the group consists of four men and one woman, and that woman is none other than the incomparable songwriter, singer, and pianist, 9-time Grammy-winning Norah Jones, who also happened to attend the University of North Texas in Denton (where my lovely bride spent the first two years of her college career before wising up).

For The Good Times is now available for pre-ordering via iTunes and Amazon.com, and will be released on January 10, 2012. I've heard one cut from the album, the band's cover of Dolly Parton's haunting Jolene, and it's worth the price of the album all by itself. 

If you're looking for music that pays tribute to the history of country without copying it, I suspect that this will more than fill the bill.

Cleaning up iTunes Album Art
November 19, 2011 2:58 PM | Posted in: ,

We went to a dance a few weeks ago and the band performed a song that we weren't familiar with, but it was catchy enough that I looked it up when I got home. It turned out to be Forget You by a pudgy hip hop musician named Thomas Calloway; the cognoscenti will know him as Cee Lo Green. Apparently Mr. Green is a rapper of international import (and I have to wonder how he might feel about old white people doing the cha cha to his music). He's also got a dirty mouth. I'm sure you're shocked to find that out about a rapper.

As it turns out, Forget You is the sanitized version of the original title, which is very similar in that it begins with an "F" and ends with a "You." *wink, wink* Cee Lo apparently doesn't mind compromising his artistic vision in order to make some more money selling his music to people who still find the so-called F-word offensive - mostly old white cha-cha'ers. I'm sure you're shocked to find that out about a rapper.

Anyway, the album from which the song comes is titled using the non-sanitized name of the song, and it's prominently displayed on the over. OK...it could be worse; a couple of strategically placed asterisks keep us from figuring out what the song really says. Fine, I say; he can title his album and song whatever he wants, as long as I have a clean alternative. Only, the album art in iTunes doesn't meet that criterion, and I didn't like the original album cover being displayed on my phone or iPad (or 46" TV when streaming via Apple TV). What to do?

Fortunately, iTunes gives you some control over these situations. First, you can name the song and album whatever you want. Just highlight those fields in iTunes and type in the new names.

Second, you can replace the album art with whatever you want. (This feature was initially intended to let people scan in their old LPs or 45 record jackets to use for obscure music without artwork in iTunes. I'm not sure they envisioned it would also be used to alter offensive artwork.) Simply highlight the song in your iTunes music catalog (I think you'll have to do this for every song on an album, but I haven't tested that; I have only the one song by Mr. Green) then select "Get Info" under the "File" menu. In the resulting window, there's a tab entitled "Artwork," and this allows you to add and delete artwork. If you click "Add," you can browse to the file you want to upload in place of the current artwork. That's all there is to it. 

Well, other than creating the replacement artwork. I'll leave you to your own devices in that regard. In my case, since the album cover is just black text set against a yellow background (very creative, Mr. Green!) - the better to shock you, my dear - I simply created replacement text to overlay the original.

Following is the after-and-before artwork (I didn't show the "before" by default out of consideration for your delicate sensibilities). Drag that vertical bar to the left to reveal the original cover, if your curiosity gets the best of you.
Yeah, I know the fonts don't match. That really wasn't the goal, you know?

Another 15 seconds of "fame"
September 13, 2011 6:19 AM | Posted in: ,

Remember this post? No? Can't say that I blame you; it dealt with some pretty obscure subject matter.

Book coverWell, unless you're a musician and music historian who's writing a scholarly book about the musicians of Alabama including Gene Sullivan and who had almost despaired of finding a photograph of Mr. Sullivan...until he stumbled across this here blog-like thing. And if you do happen to be Mr. C.S. Fuqua, you might just want to include the scanned photograph from the Gazette in Alabama Musicians: Musical Heritage from the Heart of Dixie, which is scheduled for publication this week and will be available from Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble, and the publisher's website.

Mr. Fuqua was kind enough to notify me today via email of the book's impending publication, and to send along a PDF of the book cover and the section of the book about Gene Sullivan. I particularly liked the accompanying image.

Scanned Photo

It looks like an interesting book. I'm going to order two copies. One for me to read, and one for my mom, because she'd never forgive me if I didn't.

Also, it's just another reason why I keep blogging (however sporadically)...you never know when even an obscure post will touch a nerve or fill a need for someone else.

Q. Are we living in the End Times? A. Yes.
July 11, 2011 2:18 PM | Posted in: ,

Jim Denison was our guest preacher yesterday. His message centered on the End Times, and he opened it with the question and answer that comprise the title of this post. Simply put, when Jesus Christ conquered death and the grave 2,000 years ago, He fulfilled all the Messianic prophecies.

Every. Last. One. Of. Them. (Yeah, I dislike that twee construct, but sometimes it just works.)

And when He did, that ushered in the End Times...the Countdown to end all countdowns, so to speak. It doesn't matter what your eschatology is, because the ending is certain, and the only thing that should really concern you is whether you're ready for it.

But I'm not here to preach, not today, anyway. I'm here to party, or at least set the mood to celebrate the reality that Good will eventually win out over Evil. Dr. Denison's message brought to mind a musical commentary on the subject. And I've invited my special amigo, Paul Thorn, to offer his special twist on the Big Bang Theory...the real one at the END, not that other fake one. Enjoy, and remember: bottle rockets are two for one, but salvation is free!


Random observations while contemplating an age-old question: exactly how much Angel Food Cake is the equivalent of one piece of chocolate cherry fudge cake?

Oh, and reader beware. Here there be snark. In large quantities. And possibly *gasp* sarcasm.

  • Think the EPA isn't out of control? First, they* want to shut down the oil and gas industry in West Texas because of a lizard, and now they're going after the U.S. Navy, claiming bin Laden's burial at sea is an egregious example of ocean pollution.

  • OK, maybe that's a bad example; hard to disagree with that judgment. But it's interesting to note that BP was all in favor of the burial at sea, so they wouldn't be the only ones responsible for scum in the ocean.

  • You were warned, weren't you?

  • Julianne Hough was the featured entertainer at last Saturday's American Cancer Society Round-Up at the CAF Hangar. You probably know her best from Dancing With The Stars, which she has abandoned in order to pursue careers in music and movies. She's billed as a country musician, though, and while my definition of country music is pretty broad and flexible, I just couldn't stretch it far enough to encompass most of her music. Much of it was so pop-ish as to be indistinguishable from every other young energetic blond female singer on the scene today.

  • That's not to say she isn't talented - she is, very much so - but her musical choices didn't work for us. Ironically, the most country-sounding songs were also the ones that rocked the hardest, and those were very good indeed. It's hard to say what demographic she's shooting for, but I'd like to see her stay a little edgier. She'll never compete with Gretchen Wilson or Miranda Lambert in that regard, but even Carrie Underwood can play the bad girl (or mad girl) when it suits her.

  • Frankly, Julianne was upstage by the other act that played before and after her, Midland's own The Rankin Twins. They graduated from Midland Lee High School a few years ago and are now based in Austin, with one CD to their credit and another coming out this week (May 14th, to be exact). Their music is danceable rockin' country, even if they have one of the geekiest-looking backup bands in the business. And to top it off, they're Aggies. Whoop!

  • One last thing about Round-Up (which is a hugely successful fundraiser for the ACS...the live auction alone raised more than $200,000 Saturday night): the CAF Hangar is a marginal venue for such an affair. I'm sure the organizers couldn't predict the 99 degree temps that were present at 7:00 p.m., but they surely suspected that the non-air-conditioned facility wouldn't be too comfortable, as they provided cardboard fans at each table. And to add insult to [imagined] injury, they appropriated all the men's restrooms for the women, and place a few porta-johns outside for the guys. And did I mention that they didn't light them? I'll leave to your imagination the condition of those facilities at the end of the evening, factoring in the effects of the open bar.

  • The drought continues in West Texas. It's so dry that the deer are coming into town looking for water. In fact, someone slammed one with their car last week, just down the road from us (on Mockingbird Lane just west of Hwy. 349, for those who live around here).
*OK, technically it's the US Fish & Wildlife Service that's hot and bothered about the lizard, but the joke** doesn't work as well if it's factually accurate. Work with me here, will ya?

**OK, technically it's debatable whether this qualifies as a joke. Give me a break, will ya?
Willie Nelson's concert in a less-than-packed Horseshoe Arena last night was a model of efficiency.

His bus backed through the doors of the coliseum at around 7:25 p.m., behind a stage that was a model of minimalism: one snare drum, two beat-up amps, a piano, and a couple of microphone stands. Willie appeared ten minutes later- wearing his trademark black t-shirt tucked into his old-man jeans (I'd call them dungarees if I actually knew what that meant), wearing a dime-store black felt hat that inevitably gave way to a series of pre-tied bandannas which he routinely pitched into the audience to their apparent great approval.

Without fanfare, he hitched up his pick-worn guitar Trigger - an instrument which, like Willie himself, has been rode hard and put up wet - with that funky hooked strap, and launched into a musical performance that was, well, workmanlike, if not inspiring. Did he know where he was? He never gave any indication - none of those "helloooooo, West Texas!" or "gee, it's great to be in Midland!" cliches employed by insincere lesser lights. In fact, in keeping with the theme of spareness, he wasted few words on the audience (a brief exception being his introduction of a couple songs - I Ain't Superman and You Don't Think I'm Funny Anymore - he wrote while laid up following "that carpal surgery").

Willie's voice remains clear and strong, and his guitar playing, if not always precise, is consistently passionate. (And surprisingly energetic at times. During one song, the title of which escapes me at the moment, he jackhammered a crescendoing beat, steady as an electronic metronome, that made me fear that poor Trigger would finally shatter into a hundred shard, strings ricocheting throughout the venue, and possibly taking out one of Willie's big-haired female fans.)

He paid musical homage to some of the great "outlaw" country artists, including Billy Joe Shaver, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Ray Charles (OK, that one's a stretch), and the original outlaw himself, Hank Williams. Sometimes, the tunes were almost unrecognizable as he put his on spin on the old songs, but that's forgivable. After four decades of singing them, you'd also be forgiven for trying to find something fresh.

Willie has surrounded himself with good musicians, which should surprise no one. His "little sister," Bobbie, is an excellent pianist, especially on the more honky-tonkyish numbers, and the virtuoso harmonica player, Mickey Raphael, brought a welcome dimension to the band's otherwise sparse sound.

Almost precisely 90 minutes after starting, he unhooked his guitar, tossed the last of the bandannas, and exited the stage. The crowd cheered expectantly, anticipating an encore in response to its standing ovation...an anticipation that wasn't fulfilled, as the roadies immediately began packing equipment and clearing the stage. But I heard no complaints about the short show; people were instead marveling, "well, he is almost 80, after all."

I'm not a huge fan of Willie Nelson's music (gee, was it that noticeable?), but I must admit that this was a very enjoyable way to spend 90 minutes (and I'm trying to ignore the fact that it worked out to $1/minute, based on our ticket prices). Every Texan should experience him in concert at least once, and find some comfort in a storytelling style that seems to be fading from the musical landscape.


Black Rings of Distraction
April 7, 2011 3:37 PM | Posted in: ,

I had a big ol' Random Thursday post ready to go, but at the last second I decided you were probably tired of that meaningless, Content Free™ junk, so I pulled the trigger on a project that's been rattling around in my head for a while, ever since I ran across this website. It's called Center of Attention, and it's simply a series of scanned artwork from vinyl records, both singles and LPs (if those terms are meaningless to you, there's a reason you're still sitting at the kiddie table at Thanksgiving).

Now, this is all well and good and no one can argue that this piece of our cultural history should be preserved, if only so that codgers like me can recall a time when we mastered our technology rather than the other way around. But it also occurred to me that this focus omits something that's arguably even more important: the other stuff that comprised the records. You know, the black stuff (although it wasn't always black, now that I think about it)...the vinyl. So, here's my Big Idea: I propose to complete what Simon Foster's Center of Attention began by immortalizing the vinyl part of the records. Classic, huh. Don't hate me because I'm creative; I'm sure you have skills that I don't have, like macrame or curling.

I'm not going to completely try to be the yin to Center of Attention's yang, and not just because that sounds weird, but also because I don't think I have many of his records in my collection (although I do have the album, The Shape of Things to Come, by Max Frost and the Troopers; Simon is displaying the the B-side of that song, Free Lovin', on a 1968 single). He's got a lot of old R&B and blues records, and my tastes ran to mainstream pop and rock, with the occasional foray into the weirdness of artists like Frank Zappa. But, I think there's room in this field for all of us, don't you?

So, here's the deal. I'm scanning my 45s, and editing out the cover art so we can focus on the exquisite and unique beauty of the vinyl. Here's my first offering, a classic by the Monkees (and written by Neil Diamond), called A Little Bit Me, A Little Bit You. But, silly me; I'm sure you'll recognize it as soon as you see it, even if you're not Dr. Arthur Lintgen.

Scan of 45 rpm record

OK, I know what you're thinking: "How do we know this is the authentic scan?" I could have pulled a fast one and substituted C'mon Marianne by the Four Seasons. It's a fair question, given the relatively low resolution of the image. I did the original scan at 200 dpi, magnified 600%, and the resulting scan is almost 300 megabytes, not really conducive for putting on a website, but absolutely detailed enough to provide a good sample. To wit...click on the image below to see the uncropped version of the cropped image (there should also be another teensy button on the popup that allows you to expand the image to its full, magnificent size).

Detail of 45 rpm record

If you happen to be a geologist, you might think this is reminiscent of core sample, with its layers of strata, and I guess that "H" at the bottom would represent - I don't know - Hell? There's got to be another explanation, but I got nothin' at this point. Perhaps a Discological Historian can enlighten us about the random letters and numbers inscribed near the center of each record. Are they the earliest anti-piracy efforts? Or just inventory tracking devices? Or something more sinister (I keep going back to the "H for Hell" thing)? It's questions like this that provide the scholarly justification for the time and effort I'll be sinking into this project. Don't thank me; that's just the way I roll.

So, what do you think? Is this research worthy of the Fire Ant imprint, or should I continue my quest for excellence in another direction?

By the way, I'm not the first yahoo to get the idea of scanning a record, much as I'd like to make that claim. This guy did it, and then developed software that could "play" the scanned image. Show-off.

The Beatless
March 17, 2011 6:37 AM | Posted in: ,

I made a couple of jesting comments on Facebook and Twitter about this article describing the first documented case of something called beat deafness, wherein a man named Mathieu "can't feel music's beat or move in time with it." But it's a bigger problem than those researchers probably realize.

I'm sure that complete beat deafness is indeed rare, but beat "hard of hearingness" is quite commonplace, based on my perception of what often takes place on the dance floor. And this is an indictment of my own skill (or lack thereof), as I occasionally have trouble finding and staying with the beat of certain songs. For example, Unchained Melody gives me fits; I find that I can get started OK, but somewhere along the line the beat just disappears. Fortunately, Debbie never seems to have that problem and can keep us on the beat - and still manage to follow my lead (a miracle in itself).

Musical beat is not just an important issue for dancers. It's also a big deal for those who provide music for dances. The most popular bands are those who know how to select music that's easy to dance to (yes, Dick, your teenaged American Bandstand reviewers knew whereof they spoke), and that implies that it has a beat that's not too fast or slow for the step it's associated with. Nobody wants to dance to a waltz that's dragging along at 50 beats per minute, or frantically zooming at 180.

I have newfound respect for musicians who have both perceptiveness and skill to make danceable music. As I mentioned yesterday, we used prerecorded music at our last ballroom dance, and I volunteered to build the playlist. While I included mostly songs that dance club members had suggested or that have been popular at previous dances, I found that some of those songs had multiple arrangements using - you guessed it - different tempos. It was harder than I expected to choose just the right tempo. If I had only used a tool that could quantify differences in tempo, perhaps I could have made better decisions.

Screenshot of BPMTapper
Guess what? That tool exists, in the form of Cadence BPM Tapper, a free desktop application (Mac-only) that allows you to play any song and "tap" along (using your space bar or your mouse button) to the beat. The app computes the beats-per-minute for the song, and if you're playing the song via iTunes, it will export the computed tempo to the BPM field in that application.

Simple, no? Well, remember my comment about beat-hardofhearingness? I've found that some songs are harder to tap along to than others. You also have to deal with the phenomenon where a song may have a very rapid tempo but the dance steps are done according to half-time. That is, a song's tempo may be 180 BPM but the steps are actually 90 BPM. So, which do you use in iTunes...180 or 90? I finally decided it didn't matter as long as I was consistent in my choice, for a given step. All rumbas must be analyzed in the same fashion, as should all triple swing songs.

I've always wondered why the BPM field in iTunes wasn't populated, and now I think I have the answer: it's harder to compute than you might think. I would guess that programming a computer to accurately assess the BPM of all possible songs would be a daunting task. The same company that built BPM Tapper also sells more full-featured applications that work on both Macs and Windows computers, as well as iPhones. Those apps will, theoretically, analyze your entire music library or playlist in batch mode, without the need for you to tap along with any of the songs. However, I've been less than impressed with the results, at least on the iPhone version.

The real value of BPM Tapper isn't necessarily in the absolute calculation, but in your ability to compare songs once tempos have been established for each. If we determine that an arrangement that's 80 BPM is too slow, then we just need to look for one that's, say, 90 BPM.

At the end of the day, I'm just glad we didn't have Mathieu manning the BPM Tapper. I suppose there's a certain amount of prestige to being the first person identified with a disorder, but I'd rather be able to dance better than Elaine.
Alert readers (and I know that includes all of you, because you don't let me get away with anything) will recall that our dance last Saturday night featured something different, something that to my knowledge had never been tried in the 20 year history of the Ballroom Dance Society: prerecorded music in place of a live band.

I'm happy - nay, ecstatic - to report that the experiment was a smashing success*. Not only did we save a bunch of money, which was the primary motivation, but we got a lot of positive feedback from those in attendance (some of whom were pretty skeptical going in).

Of course, the music playlist was instrumental (ha!) in the event's success, but we had a secret weapon that was the cherry on the sundae, the icing on the cake, the sugar in the tea. OK, you get the picture. We actually did have a band...sort of:

Photo of cutout band figures

We created this "band" from foam board, and set it up on the Midland Country Club stage with the sound equipment (basically an amp and an iPad) hidden behind the drummer. It added a bit of atmosphere that somehow made the unattended music seem less, well, unattended. In fact, there was a steady stream of people throughout the night having their photos made in front of the band (which someone dubbed "The Cutouts").

This Madmen-style of black silhouettes with minimalist white accents provides a classy effect that's surprisingly striking. The photo doesn't really do it justice. If you look closely, you'll note a pearl bracelet on the singer's wrist, and a hint of a shirt cuff on the trumpet player. The shirts on the bass and sax player and drummer are actually just two pieces of white foamboard glued to the black backing board. The bandstands are flat, but appear to be 3D because of the way they were drawn.

There's a lesson here: sometimes, you need to go a little above and beyond what's expected to help people decide to accept a significant change.

If you're interested in the playlist, I've uploaded a version of it (we made some minor changes before the dance) to the iTunes Store. This link will open in iTunes if you have it installed on your computer.

*We did learn a few things. Ten seconds is just about the right gap between songs, if you don't have a DJ. The Rascals' version of Mustang Sally is too slow. If you can hear everyone's feet on the dance floor, the music needs to be louder. You can never play too many waltzes. Who's Been Talkin' by the L.A. Blues Alliance makes for a smokin' rumba. Jaci Velasquez, who's better known for her Christian contemporary recordings, has a song called Tango that's really a cha cha...and it's another fantastic dance song. And even George Strait and Willie Nelson create some great ballroom dance music!

Seeking Silence
February 22, 2011 3:27 PM | Posted in: ,

I solved a tricky little problem today and want to document it in case anyone else encounters it. But first, some background.

Our ballroom dance club is trying something different at our March dance. Up to now, we've always had live music, and that tradition will continue. But, for a variety of reasons, we're going to try some prerecorded music, sort of DJ-style...without the DJ.

I've created a play list in iTunes of about 50 songs for the evening, providing a wide variety of music for the most popular steps (foxtrot, waltz, swing, rumba, cha cha, tango, and salsa), and we're going to stream the music through a sound system via an iPad. The music is outstanding, but when Debbie and I gave the play list a run-through (well, a dance-through, to be exact), we discovered an unanticipated problem. There's not enough time between the songs.

Now, you would typically want the DJ to keep the music going in a continuous stream, but this isn't a nightclub or mosh pit. Well, sometimes it does resemble a mosh pit, but that's mostly unintentional. Anyway, ballroom dancing is a bit more formal, and we want to give people some time to get on and off the floor.

Here's the problem. iTunes, by default, puts two seconds between each song in a play list, and there's no preference or option to change that. There is an option to cross-fade songs (one fades out while the next fades in), but that doesn't help us a bit.

I tried googling a solution and found that this situation is not a problem for the vast majority of folks. In fact, most people want to know how to shorten the gap between songs. I did find one suggestion to put a short recording of, well, nothing in between each song but that seemed inelegant and tedious. Surely Apple, in its ubër-elegant and ultra-non-tedious design, had a better solution.

Uh, nope. I posted my dilemma on the discussion board on the  Apple website and the only workable solution that was suggested was - you guessed it - an "empty" audio file used as a spacer between songs. (This approach is reminiscent of a staple of website design back in the 90s, before CSS, when we used 1 pixel transparent GIFs to provide the desired spacing around various elements on the website. Can you say "inelegant" and "tedious"? And, uh, "effective"?)

So, I found a 15-second "empty" mp3 and downloaded it (it was advertised as a free download; I just hope the creators actually cleared the copyright issues around that bit of silence). I then imported it into iTunes, and dragged it into my play list.

Once in the play list, I copied-and-pasted the mp3 as many times as was needed to separate the songs, and then dragged the instances of the mp3 through the play list to provide the inter-song gaps. That's when I realized again the genius of Apple's iTunes music database approach. The actual "song" resides in one place; the duplicates are simply pointers to that one song.

Why is this important? Well, I discovered that 15 seconds was too long. That pause borders on uncomfortable. Ten seconds would be just about right. But that means I have to delete all those 15-second gaps, find a 10-second mp3, and repeat the import/copy/paste/drag process, right? Wrong.

If you select "Get Info" under the "File" menu in iTunes for a highlighted song, it provides an option (under the Option tab - go figure) for specifying a start and end time for the selected song. This allows a sort of on-the-fly cropping of an audio file, and it was the perfect solution for my "got 15 seconds of nothing but need only 10" problem. I simply selected one of the instances of the silent mp3 and set the end time to 10 seconds. As if by magick, all the other copies of the mp3 took on that same setting throughout the play list.

Now, this is where the elegance finally appears. Since I haven't physically edited the sound file, there are still 15 seconds of silence contained therein, and if I decide I want a larger gap, I can restore up to the full amount with that single setting. (There is a complication if I want to use, say, a 10 second gap on one play list and 15 seconds on another. In that case, I'll need to physically duplicate the original mp3, rename it, and import it to iTunes.)

So, there's a pretty detailed solution to a rather obscure problem. But if someone out there needs a way to increase the gap between songs in iTunes (that's a little trick to help Google find this post) then I'm happy to share what I've learned, and my job here is finished. Heck, I'll even provide a link so you can download your own slice of silence.

I'll let you know how the dance turns out. We're a little nervous. Ballroom dancers are such traditionalists, and they're like a pack of rabid hyenas under a full moon if things don't suit them.

Santana in Las Vegas
January 20, 2011 3:46 PM | Posted in:

I made my first visit to Las Vegas last week, and I don't plan on returning anytime soon. The exception would be if someone offers us tickets to see another performance by Santana at the Hard Rock Hotel, which was the high point of our trip.

The show is called Supernatural Santana: A Trip Through the Hits. The title is an allusion to the group's 1999 album, Supernatural, which won nine Grammy Awards including Album of the Year. It's also fitting given Carlos Santana's apparent fixation on mysticism and spirituality that falls just a wee bit outside the mainstream. More about that later.

Our seats were dead center, nine rows back from the stage, and afforded a great view of the proceedings. I had an immediate regret for not bringing my camera; I didn't expect that cameras would be allowed, but people were openly shooting photos and video throughout the concert. I took a few pictures via my phone's camera, but the quality is not good. Still, you can get a sense of the stage setup. Click on each photo to get a bigger version.

Santana in ConcertSantana in ConcertSantana in Concert

The third photo above shows Carlos with his double guitar setup. If you caught his live performance of Maria Maria on Dancing With The Stars last season, it will be familiar to you. Not being a guitarist, I couldn't tell you why he uses two instruments on that song, but I can tell you that the results justify the means.

The next surprise came when Carlos announced that several of the band members, including himself, had been dealing with bouts of bronchitis. As a result, he did almost no singing, but that proved to be no hindrance to our enjoyment of the music whatsoever. In fact, Carlos's strength has never been his vocals, but he does know how to surround himself with gifted musicians, and the current lineup was amazingly talented. This is an All Star band, without question, and each member has a deep and impressive resume.

There were two lead vocalists, Tony Lindsay and Andy Vargas, each with different-but-complementary styles. The trumpet player, Bill Ortiz, and trombonist, Jeff Cressman (who looks like a high school science teacher but way cooler) were not relegated to background sounds but had frequent and impressive solos. The keyboardist, Dave Mathews (no, it's a different one) had biceps like a longshoreman, and the bass player, Benny Rietveld, grinned nonstop through the entire 2+ hour performance.

Santana has three percussionists: Raul Rekow on congas, Dennis Chambers on trap set, and Karl Perazzo on everything under the sun. The other guitarist and backup vocalist, Tommy Anthony, had a mobster vibe going along with a surprisingly pure tenor voice.

And, of course, Carlos Santana fronted the whole group, perpetually moving around the stage, acting as maestro but never demanding the spotlight. Carlos was born in 1947, and he's never tried to be younger than he is, but you couldn't tell his age by listening to his guitar playing. His fingers are as nimble as ever.

One of the things I've always liked about Santana is the variety of the music. Sure, it's always got a Latin-tinge, but genres don't mean much to the group. One of my favorite songs of the night was a 70s-style funkfest, with each member of the band showcasing his talents. Then, completely out of left field, they do a rendition of She's Not There, the 1964 hit from The Zombies, featuring Tommy Anthony on vocals.

Of course, they also played all the classic Santana hits, from Black Magic Woman to Oye Como Va to Smooth. After the concert ended, the obligatory standing ovation brought the band back on stage where they picked an odd selection for their encore: Soul Sacrifice, the song featured in the Woodstock movie. I say "odd" not because it's not a great song, but bands typically don't save their longest pieces for the very end of the concert, when they're already worn out. (Perazzo in particular was visibly dragging by that point.) But it was evident that these guys love what they're doing, and they really like working with each other. Their enthusiasm for the music was perhaps even more attractive than their considerable talents.

There were only a couple of weaknesses in the overall experience. First, either the sound tech was continuously rotating the master knob toward 10 or our ears were just hammered into submission, but the music seemed to get louder and louder through the evening, to the point where it was actually painful in a few places. (I know; if the music's too loud, you're too old.) Second, Carlos really needs to stick to playing music and skip the preaching. At one point while introducing a song he rambled on about the equivalent of rainbows and unicorns past the point of comfort. On the other hand, he's never been shy about his spirituality, so I guess it just comes with the territory. And, of course, I'd have been perfectly comfortable if he'd been sharing a message of Biblically-correct Christianity, whereas I suspect that would have had many others in the audience wriggling in their seats in dismay.

The bottom line is simple: if you're a fan of Santana, or of Latin-flavored rock, this show is a must-see. Performances will continue at the Hard Rock Hotel in April and May, and it's a better excuse than most to make a quick trip to Vegas. You won't be disappointed.

Random Thursday
December 9, 2010 8:55 AM | Posted in: ,

Scattershooting while making frantic preparations to defend the Gazette against the inevitable attack by WikiLeaks sympathizers who are targeting high profile websites.

  • While most people probably look for novels to read during summer vacations, the year-end holiday season is also a good excuse to look for some light reading, especially when curled up by a fire and accompanied by a steaming mug of coffee as a howling north wind propels tumbleweeds across the front porch. If you agree, here are a few recommendations.

    • Tim Dorsey authors an ongoing series of semi-related, genre-busting novels set primarily in Florida. They're what you might get if you mashed up Florida Monthly, True Crime, and Mad Magazine. Or, if you prefer movie metaphors, they're the result of retaining the Coen Brothers and Monty Python to remake Scarface. If a series of books whose primary recurring character is a serial killer can be described as delightfully zany, then Dorsey has nailed it. I've read Triggerfish Twist, The Stingray Shuffle, and Hammerhead Ranch Motel (and I'm starting on the latest offering, Gator a-Go-Go), and they've been uniformly entertaining and ever-so-slightly disturbing...in other words, the perfect mindless reading choice as an antidote to the holiday frenzy. (Now, here's something weird. The preceding links lead to Amazon.com's website because even though I've download all of these titles to my iPad via Apple's iBook Store within the last two months, iBooks no longer lists any of Dorsey's books. Would love to know the story behind that. Update: OK, the iBooks store once again has the books.)

    • If "action thrillers" are more to your liking, check out Whitley Strieber's Critical Mass. Be forewarned, however, that this novel is almost too realistic in its depiction of a scenario in which radical Islamic terrorists literally take the world hostage. Strieber goes to great lengths to describe the mindset and motivation of jihadist Muslims, and the effect is chilling. His eye for technical details, ala Tom Clancy, adds a riveting context to a complex and all-too-plausible plot. (I read this one in good old fashioned treeware form, from the Midland public library no less. What a quaint experience!)

    • Then there's Jim Butcher's Side Jobs: Stories From the Dresden Files. Harry Dresden is Chicago's only professional private investigator who also happens to be a wizard (as in Harry Potter, not Gilbert Arenas). Side Jobs is a collection of short stories and one novella describing Butcher's battle with the supernatural forces of evil that inhabit the spirit world of Chicago, although, inexplicably, he never strays into Chicago politics. Too scary, I guess. Anyway, the stories are infused with humor and all the elements of good fantasy, and are mostly PG-rated in style. There's a whole series of Harry Dresden novels, and this book is a good way to gauge your ongoing interest.
  • Let's talk music for a minute, as long as we're on the subject of holiday diversions. The "Pick of the Week" at Starbucks is a free iTunes download of Pink Martini's arrangement of the Christmas standard, We Three Kings. I sampled it last night, along with other cuts from the group's new "nondenominational holiday" album, Joy to the World, and I was pleasantly surprised by the unique arrangements of some old favorites, and the inclusion of some songs I'd never before heard.

    For example, Elohai, N'tzor is based on the Jewish Amida, the "Standing Prayer," there's a version of White Christmas sung in Japanese, Auld Lang Syne is set to a rollicking samba beat, Ocho Kandelikas is a tango combination of Spanish and Hebrew, Silent Night has verses in its original German, as well as verses in Arabic and in English, and the familiar Carol of the Bells is presented in its original Ukrainian form of Shchedryk.

    If you're a Christmas purist, this is perhaps not the best choice, but if you enjoy hearing different takes on the holiday season, this is a great addition to your collection. And for those of us for whom Christmas is all about Jesus, the multi-ethnic approach to the album is an actual (however unintentional) reminder of the universal Gift that God gave to the world, manifested in the Savior's birth.

  • And, finally, give a listen to Colt Ford's Chicken and Biscuits and decide whether it represents all that's wrong with country music today (A duo with rapper DMC? A song called Hip Hop in a Honky Tonk, featuring Amarillo native Kevin Fowler?) or if it's the embodiment of how country artists can embrace changing musical tastes without losing those "down home" roots. As for me, I just happen to think it's a lot of fun.

Getting i on Music
December 8, 2010 5:22 PM | Posted in: ,

I saw this on Facebook earlier today but didn't take the time to watch it until my pal Jeff emailed a link to me. It's definitely worth 7 minutes of your time.


See, this is what happens when geeks are allowed into worship bands. The next thing you know, we'll have rappers doing the preaching. Oh, wait...

The times, they are a'changing, and with it, a lot of terminology. If this trend continues, will we begin to see:

  • cool guys trying to pick up girls with the line, "I'm the lead iPhoneist for ________"?

  • marching bands lining up with an iPad line?

  • iPhones providing musical accompaniment in Church of Christ worship services? ("It's not an instrument, it's a phone.")

  • an updated version of The Message where Psalm 33:2 reads Praise the Lord with the harp; make music to him on the iPod touch.

  • adolescent boys kicking the doorstep and giving the excuse that they can't come play baseball because they have to "practice the stupid iPad"?
I started to Photoshop an iPad onto the body of a guitar for this post, but, of course, somebody already beat me to it...and it's an actual functioning instrument.

Oh, I almost forgot. If you want details on the apps used in this performance, check this out.

Quantifying Melodic Similarities
December 6, 2010 12:45 PM | Posted in: ,

I read a science fiction short story many years ago where the plot involved someone composing the last possible piece of music. Every combination of musical notes had been created. I don't recall the author (it sounds like something Bradbury or Lieber or Ellison would come up with), or even the rest of the plot and how it was resolved, but I do remember thinking how sad it would be - and that this was not an impossible scenario. There are a finite number of note combinations. That number is, of course, staggeringly large (someone has made a pretty convincing attempt to compute it) but given enough time, we could run out of melodies.

This came to mind as I continued to think about this post about the obvious (to me, anyway) similarities between songs by Joe Ely and Toby Keith. Rob left a comment linking to another comparison of two similar songs; that comparison involved an analysis that went well beyond simply hearing a tune and thinking it sounded very familiar.

And then I began to wonder what the criteria are for determining whether a melody is so similar to another that it can be deemed a violation of copyright. I suspect it's a pretty subjective judgment - but is it unnecessarily so? Music and mathematics have much in common, more so than I understand, and surely there's a way to perform an objective computation that would spit out a "percentage match" between two songs. And, indeed, a Google search for "mathematical comparison of two melodies" turns up a number of scholarly articles on the subject.

Then there's this article with the enchanting title of Statistical Comparison Measures for Searching in Melody Databases (PDF format). Such research has undoubtedly informed the technology behind such music identification software as Shazam and SoundHound, which are so scarily effective as to be, as they say, indistinguishable from magic. In fact, Slate described in layman's terms the approach employed by Shazam:

The company has a library of more than 8 million songs, and it has devised a technique to break down each track into a simple numeric signature--a code that is unique to each track. "The main thing here is creating a 'fingerprint' of each performance," says Andrew Fisher, Shazam's CEO. When you hold your phone up to a song you'd like to ID, Shazam turns your clip into a signature using the same method. Then it's just a matter of pattern-matching--Shazam searches its library for the code it created from your clip; when it finds that bit, it knows it's found your song.

Obviously, it's much more complicated than that, and Shazam's co-founder, Avery Li-Chun Wang, published a scholarly paper (PDF) describing the technology in more detail. And as good as Shazam is, some think SoundHound works even better (it will also identify melodies that are simply sung into a microphone). Unfortunately, SoundHound's explanation of its technology laps over into the magical realm with its references to "Target Crystals," and the company is obviously protecting intellectual property.

In any event, I wonder if these math-based, objective comparisons of melodies have ever been used in a court of law to determine copyright infringement, and if there are any quantified guidelines to be used by judges and juries in making such calls. Gee, if there was only some way of searching a database...

Say, that song sounds vaguely familiar...
December 3, 2010 8:21 AM | Posted in:

I made this observation on Facebook yesterday, but I'm obsessive-compulsive enough to feel a need to expand it here. My Facebook comment got zero responses and so I don't expect that this post will garner much discussion, but I'm doing it anyway, out of principle.

Toby Keith has a relatively new song that's getting some airplay on local radio stations. It's called Bullets in the Gun and it's one of those catchy nihilistic outlaw ballads that sounds sort of edgy and dangerous and features ill-fated lovers and guns. It also sounds dangerously similar - in attitude and melody and cadence - to a song written by Robert Earl Keen, Jr. and popularized by Joe Ely called The Road Goes on Forever. Watch these two YouTube vids and judge for yourself.




If you scroll through some of the comments on Keith's video, you'll see that I'm not the only one who's noticed the similarity. (Not that that's necessarily cause for rejoicing; YouTube comments tend to not fall toward the thoughtful end of the spectrum, although there is a subset that's noticeably superior in terms of insight and sophistication, aka "Those Who Agree With Me.")

Don't get me wrong; I like Toby Keith and a lot of his music. And there's really nothing new under the sun, especially in the music world. But I find it hard to believe that Keith wasn't strongly influenced by Keen's song, which was written decades earlier, and which any serious fan of modern country music will be familiar with. It would have been great if Keith had at least sent a nod in the direction of Keen/Ely when he described how his version came to be (scroll down to Product Description). After all, he'll make about a thousand times more money on it than either of those guys did.

I also don't subscribe to the Everything That Comes Out of Nashville is Crap theory of country music, although some guys can make a pretty convincing and entertaining case for that. But things like this do tend to foster an us-vs-them attitude.

Oh, and in case you're interested, here's REK performing the song his own self:



Using Actors In Place of the Real Thing
November 24, 2010 7:00 AM | Posted in: ,

Did you catch Gwyneth Paltrow's performance at the Country Music Awards a couple of weeks ago (watch it on YouTube)? Paltrow is, of course, an Oscar-winning actress, and with more than forty movies under her belt, is probably intimidated by nothing. But it had to give her pause, appearing before many of the most talented, experienced performers in the world of country music - at an awards show, no less, where everyone is already in a judgmental state of mind - and pretending to be a country singer herself in her public singing debut.

Paltrow stars as a washed up country singer in the upcoming movie Country Strong. Gee, that sounds awfully familiar; wonder where they came up with that idea? Of course, copying Crazy Heart isn't a bad strategy, considering that it won Jeff Bridges an Oscar. And playing a country singer on the big screen also has some mojo; just ask Reese Witherspoon, who got an Oscar for her portrayal of June Carter in Walk the Line.

But Witherspoon's portrayal had something important in common with Jamie Foxx's performance in Ray (another Oscar-garnering appearance). They were portraying real performers who were either dead or no longer active. When you can't get the actual person to play themselves, it's natural to look for an actor who can do a credible job.

Which brings me to my mild complaint about Paltrow being cast as a country singer. Don't we already have enough real country singers who are also gifted actors? Did they have to look for someone with no musical background (being married to a rocker doesn't really count), who had to learn to sing, and learn to talk country, and learn to have big hair, to play this role?

As good as Paltrow is, I can't help thinking that someone like Carrie Underwood, Reba McIntyre, or Faith Hill could do just as good a job on the acting front while being completely authentic as a country musician (and let's not get into bickering about the state of country music today, 'k?).

It's all about box office buzz, I know. Gwyneth Paltrow's name on the poster guarantees an additional xx millions of revenue for the movie, and that's fine. I like Gwyneth Paltrow, and I'm very impressed with her poise and, yes, her voice. And it didn't hurt her credibility to be paired onstage with Vince Gill. But puh-leeze don't try to tell me that she's got a future in country music. Let her take a show on the road through East Texas and Missouri and Southeast New Mexico and Gillette, Wyoming for a few years and then let's talk. In the meantime, we've got plenty of ladies who've earned the right to represent country music.

Apple to increase iTunes previews to 90 seconds
November 5, 2010 1:23 PM | Posted in: ,

It's about time, literally and figuratively. The AppleBlog reports that iTunes song previews (for tracks longer than 2.5 minutes) will be tripled in length, to 90 seconds.

I've long argued for this change. Thirty seconds simply isn't long enough to decide if you like a relatively unfamiliar song (or a familiar one in a new arrangement) well enough to pay for it. I predict that this will indeed lead to more music purchases via the iTunes Store, which is Apple's argument to music labels in support of the change.

I can think of at least a couple of occasions where I've taken a chance on a song based on its short clip, and found that the clip is the equivalent of the 30 seconds of really funny material in a trailer of an overall lame ninety minute movie.

The report says that Apple got push-back on this change from some recording labels, presumably for fear that people would either just listen to the track samples rather than buying the whole songs or somehow record them. That's a ludicrous argument, but I'd be perfectly content if Apple appeased them by providing a lower-quality sample to make such unlikely piracy even less realistic. After all, when I listen to a sample on iTunes, I'm not trying to assess the sonic accuracy and every nuance of the song; I just want to understand what I'm buying before I buy it.

Thank you, Apple, for making a rational business decision that benefits the customer.
Update [October, 2011]: C.S. Fuqua has published a book entitled "Alabama Musicians: Musical Heritage from the Heart of Dixie." Why do I tell you this? Because Gene Sullivan was from Alabama, and Mr. Fuqua included a chapter about him in the book. He also included the photo shown below, and provided yours truly with a nice attribution. I recommend the book, and not just because my name appears in it; it's quite interesting.

Below is yet another scan from Debbie's mom's collection of '30s and '40s memorabilia. This one features a couple of musicians, Wiley Walker and Gene Sullivan. I hadn't heard of either of these guys, but there's a pretty detailed bio here.

Sullivan was a boxer before turning to music, perhaps to avoid the burden of expectation that would accompany such a prestigious pugilistic appellation.

This flyer appears to be a promo for a tire company in Lubbock (the floating tire is obviously superimposed on a photo of the musicians; one can only guess at their relationship to the company). According to the bio, they worked radio stations in Fort Worth and Lubbock, so it's safe to assume that they were well known in Lubbock at the time this flyer was produced.

Flyer - Wiley Walker and Gene Sullivan

The duo formed in 1939, which seems to correspond with the general vintage of the collection of the miscellany I've been scanning and posting on this site. In 1941, they recorded "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold," which Elvis Presley turned to money when he recorded a pop version in 1956. Here's a recording of the original version, courtesy of YouTube.


Below is another scan from Debbie's mom's collection of '30s and '40s memorabilia. The Chuck Wagon Gang is still going strong (I wonder what the original group would have thought about the idea of a website?), billing itself as "the oldest recording mixed gospel group still performing with ties to the original founding."

The scan appears to be a promotional flyer, on heavy card stock, and it highlights the group's appearances on the era's Big Dogs of Texas radio: WBAP (Fort Worth), KPRC (Houston), and WOAI (San Antonio).

The "Bewley" in the name refers to Bewley Mills, a flour company. What was it about flour companies that made them sponsors of musical groups on the radio?

According to the group's website, at one time the Chuck Wagon Gang was Columbia Record's second highest selling artist, behind only Xavier Cugat and just ahead of some upstart hillbilly named Johnny Cash.

An interesting tidbit is that even back then, musicians assumed different names for their public personae. In the case of the CWG, Dad was Dave Carter, and he was the father of Anna (real name Effie), Rose (Lola), and Jim (Ernest). I have no idea who Cy is...perhaps the announcer?

Flyer - Bewley's Chuck Wagon Gang

Radio Imagination
October 15, 2010 8:41 AM | Posted in: ,

In my hand, if I pointed it just right
You oughta heard what come to me at night
On that little transistor, my big sister's radio.

So many DJs from so far away
You oughta heard the records they would play,
On that little transistor, my big sister's radio.

Tommy Castro's song, Big Sister's Radio (from his most excellent album, Painkiller), paints a picture of a time and practice that's probably quite familiar to those of us who grew up in rural areas during rock-and-roll's "Golden Age" (I'll let you figure out when, exactly, that was). I have fond memories of sleep outs in our back yard, under star-filled West Texas skies, listening to the same kind of transistor radio described by Castro ("...one speaker...one dial").

Depending on weather conditions, we could pick up border-blaster stations from just across the Rio Grande (XERF, XELO), Fort Worth (WBAP), and of course, everyone's favorite, KOMA in Oklahoma City.

KOMA was cutting edge rock-and-roll, and I was oddly mesmerized by the incantation of the exotic places where various dances, concerts, and drag races were taking place...such as Lawton, Hutchinson, Enid, Elk City, and Liberal. I could only imagine how cool those places were. (And, to paraphrase Paul Simon, reality could never match my sweet imagination.)

Anyway, these memories were resurrected by another item from Debbie's mom's collection of memorabilia, which I introduced yesterday.

Promotional photo of Monte Magee


I haven't been able to find much about Monte Magee. On this site, there's a reference to his being a radio personality from San Antonio, and in a catalog of copyright entries, under Musical compositions, there's a reference to a 1938 song entitled In that old fashioned way where the music and words are attributed to a Monte Magee. That year is consistent with the dates of the other items in the memorabilia collection, so I assume it's the same guy.

Now, in case you're wondering, 1938 was WELL before the time I was listening to KOMA on that little transistor radio, and I somehow doubt that the DJs of my time were wearing suits and classy striped ties. But I'm sure some kid, somewhere - perhaps in another area of rural Texas -  was held in thrall by Magee's voice and music.

Light Crust Doughboys
October 14, 2010 8:37 AM | Posted in: ,

Debbie was going through some of her mom's memorabilia a couple of weeks ago, and ran across a flyer for "Parker Willson and the Light Crust Doughboys."

I suspect that most people in Texas have at least heard of the LCDs, which, according to Wikipedia (the font of all human knowledge, or at least semi-informed opinion and/or conjecture) bills itself as "the longest-running country band in the world."  The group was created in 1931 to promote the products of Burrus Mill and Elevator Company of Fort Worth, Texas, back when radio advertising was in its infancy. That company's president, Pappy O'Daniel, was parodied in the movie, O Brother, Where Art Thou? The LCDs had a very popular live radio show that ran more than twenty years. For a comprehensive history of the group, check out a book entitled The Light Crust Doughboys are on the air: celebrating seventy years of Texas music.

Near as I can tell, Parker Willson fronted the band as emcee during the period around 1939-41. The photos below are scans of the flyer, and the reference to Vocalion Records on the reverse side seems to indicate that this was a promotional piece put out by that studio. The Vocalion label was discontinued in 1940 (again, according to Wikipedia), which further narrows down the age of the flyer.

Click on each thumbnail to see a larger version of the image.

Scan of flyerScan of flyer

Bluegrass Funk/Pop: Heavenly or Hellacious? You decide...
September 27, 2010 12:59 PM | Posted in:

What's with all these bluegrass musicians doing covers of contemporary songs? First, there was Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby covering Rick James's classic funk hit, Super Freak:



Now, a bluegrass group called The Cleverlys has resurrected the 80s pop classic, Walk Like an Egyptian, originally performed by The Bangles.



I have to admit that the latter performance borders on mesmerizing, especially the scary drummer. I'm not sure I'd want to meet up with him during a canoe trip in the Ozarks.

Latter link via Neatorama
Have you noticed the new L.L. Bean TV ad that's set to some of the lyrics of Harry McClintock's Depression-era song, Big Rock Candy Mountain? If not, here's it is, via YouTube:



This strikes me as an odd choice of music for a company which, I assume, wants to be incredibly sensitive to the sensibilities of its customers. The ad takes a brief snippet of lyrics and puts them into a setting that conveys a carefree sense of adventure and wonder, but the original song in its entirety is much darker and filled with references that I'm sure L.L. Bean would not want to be associated with.

The ad wisely omits lyrics such as "There's a lake of gin we can both jump in," "...little streams of alcohol come a-trickling down the rocks," "There's a lake of stew and of whiskey too," and "...where they hung the jerk that invented work." (According to Wikipedia, the original version of the song also contained a verse laced with profanity and a vulgar reference. You can read all the lyrics, sans that original verse that never made it to an actual recording, here. Ironically, the website with the lyrics is the National Institutes of Health's "Kids' Pages.")

Granted, this song has been recorded many times through the years by such family-oriented artists as Burl Ives and included on the Care Bears Karaoke CD - with "sanitized" lyrics, of course - and I suspect that many if not most listeners have no idea about the context or actual lyrics of the entire song. But that still doesn't lessen my surprise that it would end up in a national advertising campaign for a company like L.L. Bean.

This is an interesting area for marketers. How much should the overall context of background music matter to the advertisers? Does the reputation of the writer or original recording artist play into the decision to use a song? Is any connection between song lyrics and ad message, however tenuous, sufficient justification to use that song? And will we thus eventually hear a Michelin ad backed by Why Don't We Do It In The Road?
This guy is a walking advertisement for rotator cuff surgery. But he does seem to enjoy his work.


The Steno Concerto
July 8, 2010 4:01 PM | Posted in: ,

I think this speaks for itself.


It's always something
June 28, 2010 9:36 PM | Posted in: ,

Remember my excitement over this? The new A/V receiver was a welcome addition to our home theater setup, and I was quite happy with it...until we installed a new Sony Blu-ray player and immediately discovered that something was not quite right.

Whenever we'd try to watch a DVD, the TV would display a fuzzy pink-tinged picture, something that I'm pretty sure didn't accurately reflect the content of the disc. Then, it would display a message like "resolution not supported" and go blank. The cycle would start over, and while it occasionally would end with the DVD playing properly, more often we had to give up on it. The problem was that I was never sure if it was the DVD player, the receiver, the TV, or a combination of two or more of them. All three have the capability of upconverting non-HD signals, and I feared that they just weren't playing well together. And, of course, the documentation read like, well, stereo instructions.

I tried everything I could think of...swapping out HDMI cables, toggling the conversion settings on all the devices, and...well, that's all I could think of to try, to be honest. I finally had the brilliant idea of connecting the DVD player directly to the TV, and it played perfectly. That, combined with the fact that even the cable box/DVR that was routed through another HDMI connector on the receiver led me to believe that the receiver's HDMI circuit board had issues. I googled the problem and found that others had experienced HDMI problems with Onkyo A/V receivers, albeit not with our particular model.

The receiver is still under warranty, so I contacted the store I ordered it from (Vann's Inc., via Amazon.com) and they immediately diagnosed it as a defective unit and offered to exchange it or issue a refund. I was very impressed, until they added that these options were available only if I shipped the unit back to them in the original packaging. That packaging included a box big enough to house a refrigerator, and we didn't want to use an entire spare bedroom just to store an empty cardboard box. So, Vann's washed their hands of the issue.

Next stop: Onkyo's customer support. I emailed them and received a response within a couple of days (along with an apology for the delayed reply). They directed me to one of their service centers for warranty work. Of course, the closest such center is in Denver, so I've got to ship a 40 pound piece of electronics up there and the turnaround is 2-3 weeks, assuming they have the parts in stock to fix it. So be it.

The upside is that we've greatly simplified our remote control situation once more. And we can still watch the Blu-ray player by connecting it directly to the TV. But the absence of surround sound makes an HD DVD a less than satisfying experience. What I really miss is the ability to play music on the front and back porches.

Why am I sharing this? No real reason, other than it might help someone else diagnose a similar problem. And, I guess, also to point out that in light of the kinds of problems we could be having, this one's not too bad.

Random Thursday
June 10, 2010 9:38 AM | Posted in: ,

Did you notice that I posted three times yesterday? It's almost like I'm a real blogger. It wore me out, though, so don't get used to it.

This Random Thursday post is going to be a little different than most, because I'm going to freestyle it, sort of like Kid Rock on the CMT Awards last night. Which, by the way, I didn't see because Debbie was off partying at the country club and didn't remind me about it, but I have viewed a few clips via the CMT website. I know most of you country music purists think that pairing Kid Rock and Hank Williams, Jr. is blasphemy, but it's stuff like that that keeps the genre commercially viable and allows the more traditional musicians to keep earning a living. That's my story, anyway, and I'm sticking to it. (Whatever happened to Collin Raye, anyway?)

Race Across America (RAAM - Motto: "Where'd that "M" Come From?") started this week (or continues to start...the women started on Tuesday, the men started yesterday, and the team race begins on Saturday). In case you're not familiar with it, RAAM is a bicycle race across...well, you know. People claim that the Tour de France is the world's toughest bike race, but I disagree. RAAM racers ride further than TDF riders, and they do it in days, not weeks. There are no rest days, no drafting, and no team support for the solo riders. Even the teams ride relay-style. The course features a horrifying 100,000 feet of climbing.

A couple of the solo women are riding recumbents. Barbara Butois hopes to be the first French woman to complete the race, and Sandy Earl is an American.

In honor of RAAM, let's check out a couple of cycling-related resources. There's something about the bicycle that makes people want to customize or improve on its style. I think it's the inherent simplicity of the basic form, and the direct connection between rider and vehicle that stirs the imagination. Here are two articles that showcase some beautiful and/or bizarre permutations.

I particularly like the model with the square wheels (in the second article), and also the bicycling monorail concept in the first article. Here's the demo video of the latter:



However, given the weather we've experienced lately, the thought of pedaling inside a plastic box isn't particularly appealing.

You'll notice that a lot of the futuristic designs incorporate spokeless wheels. I believe the more proper term would be "hub-less" wheels, as there are actually solid bicycle wheels, without spokes but with conventional axles, whereas the concept bikes have direct attachment and drive via the wheel rims. I think they could actually incorporate spokes for additional rim strength while still keeping the rim drive. Anyway, here's an article describing in more detail a design developed by engineering students at Yale. It looks overly complicated and heavy, but undeniably cool. I just can't figure out where you'd attach the playing card.

In closing, I guess I really do need to post more often, given the obvious influence I have over, well, society in general. Yesterday, I was a harsh critic of the traffic light synchronization in Midland. Mere hours after posting that, I drove down Big Spring from Loop 250 past Florida Avenue without hitting a single red light. (A couple might have been orangey as I went through the intersections, but, still...) So,
if you have any social injustices or personal pet peeves you want addressed, just send 'em to me via the Gazette and I'll get right on it.

Musical Interlude
April 17, 2010 10:51 AM | Posted in: ,

You don't have to be a fan of Justin Timberlake's music (I'm not, particularly) to get a kick out of the following video. It's enough to admire the combination of geekishness, musical talent, and arcane tonal implements. Oh, and cowbell. Be sure to stay with it until the keytar enters (around 4:25 or so).

Brett Domino (the head geek) will surely be an integral part of the Napoleon Dynamite sequel, if ever there is one.



Heavy Sound
April 6, 2010 4:22 PM | Posted in: ,

Consider this the equivalent of a "Please Do Not Disturb" sign, as the new A/V receiver showed up a day early and I can't be bothered with trivia such as clients or work.

Here's how you know that you're about to tackle a serious piece of electronic equipment:

Photo of packing box

"At least 2 people"? Granted, it weighs forty pounds, but it sounds to me like somebody's got an overzealous legal department.

The really scary thing is that the owner's manual weighs almost as much as the receiver.

Overdue A/V Upgrade
April 1, 2010 4:02 PM | Posted in: ,

March was a good month, business-wise, and so I'm splurging on a new A/V receiver. This definitely falls into the category of "luxury" but it will fill several "needs":

  1. When we built this house two years ago I wired it for 7.1 surround sound. We had the four rear speakers installed in the ceiling at the time so they could be painted to match, but two of them have never been connected because our current receiver is an old-and-busted 5.1 model. The new receiver will enhance our listening pleasure by approximately...let's see, carry the one...20%. (The new box is actually a 7.2 receiver; I guess the .2 means that we could run two sub-woofers, but I have no idea why I'd want to do that. I value our drywall too much.)

  2. Our current receiver also does not have an HDMI connector, meaning that the digital HD cable signal is bypassing the receiver completely, going from the cable box directly to the display. So the picture is great, but the audio - well, not so much. Plus, whenever we want to watch a DVD, I have to plug a separate S-Video cable into the side of the TV, which looks ugly in addition to being less than optimal for picture quality. (I knew that eventually I'd have HDMI capabilities, so I didn't go to the trouble to run an S-Video cable through the wall to the TV...in case you're wondering.) The new receiver has six HDMI ports, which should pretty much satisfy our hi-def connection needs for, say, the next two decades, or until something better comes out next month.

  3. This means that we can upgrade to a Blu-Ray player if we so desire. Perhaps April will be a good month, too, although Blu-Ray machines are becoming almost ridiculously inexpensive, at least compared to where they started.

  4. And, finally, because the new receiver supports music streaming by Ethernet, I can finally see if the CAT-5 cable I had run from my office over to the A/V bookshelf actually works. Or, to be more precise, I can finally see if I know how to hook things up so that my computer will talk to the receiver and make sweet music together.
The biggest compromise I made with this selection is that Onkyo's receivers are "Sirius-ready" but not "XM-ready." But I don't have my XM base station connected in the house anyway, so I'm not anticipating that to be a great loss.

What I am simultaneously dreading/looking forward to is disconnecting everything from the old receiver and trying to get it all plugged into the right places on the new one. And, because of the "cascading upgrade" effect, I'll have to do this multiple times, as I move the old receiver into another room to replace and even older one, and move that even older one into a room without one at all.

Workout Playlist
March 11, 2010 2:15 PM | Posted in:

I'm watching season two of NCIS (the one where McGee comes on board and Kate gets whacked) on DVD during my exercise bike workouts. My usual workout is 45 minutes plus cool-down and each episode is a bit shorter than that, so I often either ride in silence for a few minutes or put on my headphones and listen to my iPod. This morning, however, I got engrossed in the music and never switched over to the TV.

Now, I realize that song lists are generally pretentious and/or boring to readers, because the poster is probably trying to communicate how cool or open-minded or sensitive he is by the music he chooses. But, mine is the exception. Really.

  1. Jump the Blues - Wayne Hancock (rockabilly-meets-western swing featuring some virtuoso pickers of the steel persuasion)
  2. I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink - Merle (the Pearl) Haggard (amazing at how many words rhyme with "drink" when you're from Oklahoma or Texas)
  3. Horse Doctor, Come Quick - Corb Lund Band (best tribute to a veterinarian I've ever heard)
  4. Too Much Tequila/Perfidia/Ciliegi Rosa (medley) - Gruppo New Condor (you may not recognize the names but you know the songs)
  5. Ciliegi Rosa - The Mambo Kings Orchestra (what can I say...I was already in the mood; this arrangement is firmly entrenched in the Seventies)
  6. Confidently Wrong - Jason Eady (great lyrics wrapped in a solid country two-step)
  7. Oh Well - Billy Burnette (cover of Fleetwood Mac song; love the string bass break)
  8. Hillbilly Bone - Blake Shelton & Trace Adkins ("I got a friend in New York City; he never heard of Conway Twitty...")
  9. Gunpowder and Lead - Miranda Lambert (a cautionary tale for guys who think they're tough)
  10. Why Don't We Just Dance? - Josh Turner (I'd like to hear Josh and Trace Adkins do a bass-off)
  11. Blindsided (Mile High Klub Remix) - Lucy Woodward (I don't know; I just love Lucy)
  12. I Want You - Savage Garden (this song reminds me of another one, you know?)
  13. You Don't Have to Say You Love Me - Dusty Springfield (it was last on the list, and it's hard to cool down when Dusty's heating things up)

"When The Money's All Gone"
March 3, 2010 1:17 PM | Posted in: ,

Good time Charlie's on the evening news
The party's gone public, grab your dancin' shoes
Pass it around 'til we all get stoned
We'll all come down when the money's all gone.

Everybody's livin', everybody's high
Everybody's sellin' so buy, baby, buy
Everything's had and nothing is owned
Around it goes 'til the money's all gone.

[Chorus]
When the money's all gone we'll get back to work
Get back in the garden, get back in the dirt
It's an ill wind doesn't blow some good
We can put it back together the way that we should.
It might not be the worst thing after all...
When the money's all gone.

There's only so much that can go around
The top goes up but the bottom goes down
Call it what you want to
Tell me I'm wrong
We'll all find out when the money's all gone.

When the money's all gone we'll get back to work
Get back in the garden, get back in the dirt
It's an ill wind doesn't blow some good
We can put it back together the way that we should.
It might not be the worst thing after all...
When the money's all gone.

Lose a little, you can scream and shout
But you gotta lose big 'fore they bail you out
They'll buy the bank so they can take your home
They don't need you anymore when the money's all gone.

When the money's all gone...
When the money's all gone.

When the Money's All Gone
Jason Eady & Kevin Wilkins


I've been listening to Jason Eady's music a lot lately, especially the preceding song from the album of the same name. The iTunes Store puts his music into the Country genre, but I think that's too limiting for the mixture of delta blues, zydeco, rock, and gospel that wraps around lyrics that manage to be simultaneously intelligent and catchy. When The Money's All Gone is a perfect example. It's as good an economic commentary as you'll find in the Wall Street Journal, and a heck of a lot more danceable.

Caution: Band at Work
January 20, 2010 7:56 AM | Posted in: ,

Former Midlander Kyle Lent owns a recording studio in Georgetown (TX) and is also the lead guitarist for The Justin Cofield Band. The band is embarking on what it calls a "Grand Experiment," an aspect of which involves allowing us to watch their recording sessions via webcam.

If you've ever been curious about what goes on during a professional recording session, this is your chance to find out. They're streaming a session this morning beginning at 10:00 a.m. I assume that they'll provide a link somewhere on the above-referenced sites to allow you to tune in. (Unfortunately, I have a client meeting at the same time so I won't be able to watch.)

Update: I just realized that "Wednesday, January 19th" is an impossibility for 2010. Kyle, you need to check your calendar, bud.

Rediscovering Country
January 13, 2010 8:05 AM | Posted in: ,

One of the unanticipated benefits of taking up ballroom dancing is the expansion of our appreciation of different types of music. While we've acquired the habit of judging all music we hear by the American Bandstandesque criterion of being "easy to dance to" (something that's admittedly distracting when it occurs at church), we've also found that dancing creates a hitherto missing physical connection to music, and this added dimension has opened us up to new genres. For example, we listen to more jazz and "easy listening" pop (think Michael Bublé). That shouldn't be too surprising, though, as those genres have historically been associated with ballroom-type dancing.

More unexpected is a new appreciation for country music. As our dancing abilities have improved, we've become more discerning in matching up music to dance steps, and we were surprised to find that country music isn't just an endless series of Two Steps. We've waltzed, cha-cha'd, rumba'd, and swung to country songs. And the Two Step is really just a straight-line foxtrot. About the only steps we've not been able to apply to country music thus far are the tango and the samba, and we're so clumsy at the latter that we don't miss it. [Update: George Strait's River of Love is a pretty good samba.]

I listen almost exclusively to the Outlaw Country station on the Sirius XM station in my car, and Debbie has her car radio tuned to a local country station (she's less enamored with the "outlaw" version of the genre, and I have to admit that some of the stuff they play can be pretty obnoxious; 50 Cent has nothing on David Allen Coe when it comes to filthy lyrics). But the channel is also one of the few places where you can routinely listen to some of the country classics: Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Hank Snow, Hank Williams, Bob Wills...to name a few. I've also been introduced to some of the newer artists like Corb Lund, Lucinda Williams, and Cross Canadian Ragweed (which isn't Canadian at all, unlike Corb Lund).

In the "mainstream" side, musicians such as Jason Aldean, Darius Rucker, Zac Brown, and Randy Houser are breathing new life into the genre. Heck, I even like much of what Taylor Swift does, although it's a bit of a stretch to call her "country" (even so, the fact that she writes most of her own material is impressive to me).

Perhaps it's just that one can re-listen to the hits from the 60s and 70s only so much, or that modern pop/rock is too angsty and boring. Or perhaps it's that country music has appropriated what's best from those other genres while still maintaining (for the most part) its original character. It could be that, more often than not, country artists express moral values via their music that more closely aligns with ours. Whatever the reasons, country has breathed new life into our iPods and radios (and dance steps...we're not half bad Two Steppers nowadays). And for someone living in West Texas, that's got to be a Good Thing.

Random Thursday
December 3, 2009 8:38 AM | Posted in: ,

It's warmer this morning in New York City than in Midland. So, maybe there is something to that whole global warming thing after all. Which reminds me...I need to go delete some emails. Be right back.

...

Now, where were we?

  • This is pretty exciting. Local singer/songwriter/attorney (and fellow Aggie) Ron Eckert has a new Christmas song out just in time for, well, Christmas. (What are the odds?) The song is entitled The Wench Who Stole Christmas and it's available for purchase and download via CDBaby. The really exciting part is that Wench is one of the featured new listings today on CDBaby's home page (as of a few minutes ago, it's actually the first featured song on that website). Ron will eventually have a couple more original Christmas songs available, but Wench is the one that's getting some area radio airplay. Do him a favor and buy a copy. Better yet, call your local radio station and request the song, and if they say they don't know anything about it, give 'em the equivalent of a teen eyeroll. [Disclosure: Ron's is one of my website clients.]

  • I see that the White House party crashers are now claiming that a dead cell phone battery prevented them from hearing the message that their names didn't make the White House guest list. I guess that excuse is the modern equivalent of "the dog ate my homework," and is only slightly more plausible than claiming they were the victims of alien abduction or sleepwalking. Actually, they might have had more credibility had they claimed that a sleepwalking alien dog ate their cell phone battery.

  • Someone on Twitter yesterday put forth the notion that Tiger Woods should perhaps hereafter be referred to as Cheetah. *rimshot*

  • I realize it's not a laughing matter, but I still get the giggles from a mental picture of Elin Nordegren whaling away on her husband with a 3 iron, and him finally making a clumsy Escalade escape, only to careen off various inanimate objects, with her in hot pursuit. I guess he's fortunate that he doesn't make his living as a big game hunter.

  • We spent a very pleasurable evening at the Petroleum Club's Christmas Ball last night, courtesy of my wife's employer. The music, company, and food was all first-rate, as you might expect. However, because of where we were seated, we were among the last tables to be served, and the band had already begun playing by the time we started in on the softball-sized chunk of filet. When a particularly danceable song started, we adjourned to the dance floor...only to return to find that an overly efficient staff had removed our meals!

    To add insult to injury, one of the fellows at our table had been left with a solitary dinner roll on his bread plate, and as he reached for it (apparently noticing all the covetous glances from his tablemates), a white-coated server grabbed it from the table and made off with it. No bread for you!

    Fortunately, we had availed ourselves of plenty of appetizers and had put away enough of the main course that we weren't exactly deprived of calories. But you can bet that when the dessert arrived, we never let it out of our sight.
In closing, I noticed that one of my cousin-in-laws posted this on his Facebook page: Just received from the UPS guy the radioactive particles and magnetic field sources needed to help my son begin his science project. This is going to be great! Yeah, I can't think of a single thing that could possibly go wrong in that scenario. Just to be on the safe side, I suggest avoiding the central part of Texas for, say, the next 50,000 years.
While watching the following video of the Muppets performing Queen's classic Bohemian Rhapsody, it occurred to me that they would be perfect to do a cover of something - anything - by Meatloaf. But why stop there? I want to see a Muppet version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Even if you're not a Queen fan, be sure and watch at least the last 20 seconds or so.


Four Hands and a Guitar
October 31, 2009 9:40 AM | Posted in:

Playing a guitar is difficult enough when all I have to worry about are my own hands and fingers. This is amazing. [Via Neatorama]

Beautiful Big Bend Video
October 21, 2009 7:42 AM | Posted in: ,

The following video is a part of a series produced by The Austin Stone Community Church. The ethereal music is provided by former Midlander Kyle Lent.

The video captures the amazing beauty of the Big Bend area that exists not just in awe-inspiring panoramas, but also in exquisite details. If you have a love for West Texas, I assure you that you'll to happy to spend eight minutes watching this production.

"A modern spiritual"
September 18, 2009 10:48 AM | Posted in: ,

Was Lawrence Welk really this clueless? (H/T Charles at Dustbury.com)



I initially thought this was a very well done spoof, but I'm now pretty sure it's legit.

Here's a tip: just because a song mentions Jesus and Mary - even as proper nouns instead of exclamations - doesn't make it a "spiritual."

Confession: I still have Tarkio Road, the album from which this song came, on vinyl. And, yes, I knew what I was buying when I bought it.

Take a Chill Pill and get your groove on
August 21, 2009 4:33 PM | Posted in: ,

We've been enjoying our neighborhood's new clubhouse and pool, but one thing that's missing from the summertime-at-the-pool experience is music. Even decades later, the smell of sunscreen* evokes memories of Groovin' or Crystal Blue Persuasion or anything by the Beach Boys, all of which were on the continuous P.A. playlist at the big pool at Fort Stockton.

The tinny little speakers in our iPhones are better than nothing, but not by much. On the other hand, we didn't want something that was too big to pack easily in a beach bag or that would have enough oomph to intrude on others whose musical tastes don't correspond with ours (to call our tastes eclectic is an understatement).

A little googling turned up a likely candidate with the catchy name of Chill Pill. This diminutive pair of speakers clip magnetically into one tidy package for storage, but when separated and connected to a sound source, put out a sound that, and I write this without the least bit of exaggeration, is amazing.

The speakers are powered by an internal lithium battery that recharges via your computer's USB port (or iPod A/C adapter).

The neatest feature? The top of each speaker is spring-loaded and with a twist they pop up a bit and provide a little boost in the bass output. They won't rattle any windows, but, again, that's not what we wanted. Still, the frequency range is pretty incredible for speakers of this size.

For $40, I have a hard time believing you'll find a better sounding pair of speakers for your iDevice than the Chill Pill. Highly recommended.

*OK, back then the preferred tanning application was baby oil. Can you say "deep fried teens"?

The King & Celine
August 12, 2009 8:01 AM | Posted in: ,

Considering that more than 1.5 million people have viewed the YouTube video of Céline Dion performing with Elvis Presley, this may not be news for you. But neither I nor my wife had seen it, and I figured that there were likely a few of you for whom this will also be new. I recommend it for several reasons. First, the video itself:


As I said, I find this compelling for several reasons. First, I like the song (If I Can Dream of a Better Land), which, despite its naive and vaguely hippie-ish lyrics (not to mention its questionable theology), still provides some dramatic musicality.

Second, I like both performers. Dion is one the biggest-selling female singers in history and one of the few contemporary performers that I'd pay to see in concert, and Presley's musical legacy is unquestioned. Michael Jackson may have been the King of Pop, but Elvis needed no such qualifier.

Finally, I'm intrigued by the technology that brought two performers from different generations (the original footage for this video was from a 1968 concert, the year Dion was born). The video is one of those productions where your first thought is wow!, followed closely by I wonder how they did that?" With regard to the second thought, well, to borrow a line from Apple, there's a video for that:


Some YouTube commenters excoriate the creators of this video (Hollywood technical experts David C. Fein and Marc Fusco, operating on YouTube as "2livefools") for what they deem to be unfair criticism of the techniques and quality of the "spliced video," but I think the creators are simply offering unbiased and expertly professional observations. They're making no judgments about the quality of the performances (indeed, they go out their way to comment that it appears that Dion's performance was intentionally toned down out of respect to Elvis).

  • Anyone who's tried their hand at editing videos will appreciate the effort it takes to achieve something like this. And while 2livefools repeatedly state how simple it was to create the duet, that's only because they're no doubt used to working with the latest technology (hardware and software) and large budgets. For the rest of us, this pairing of Elvis and Céline represents sufficiently advanced technology as to be indistinguishable from magic.

P.S. If you're a purist and insist on a Canadian-free version of Elvis's performance, here's the original:

 

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