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Natural Thing

Poi Dog Pondering – Natural Thing

This past weekend I was down in New York for a pair of Poi Dog Pondering shows at the City Winery. I’d never been there before but I knew that the floor plan is pretty tightly packed tables and chairs. This sounds great for quiet, intimate performers, less of an ideal fit for a band that can swell up to a dozen musicians and usually has everyone dancing.

It had been so long since they’d had a concert near us that I was a little worried the first night. What if it wasn’t as great as it used to be? If this was my last chance, would it be the kind of show I’d be happy to have as my last memory of them live? I mean, we’re all getting older, you know? The last time they were on the east coast (six years ago) they did an acoustic five-piece show and played in some unlikely places so I figured that was probably more the model we would get. I am happy to report that they were seven people strong, just about all of my favorite band members were there, and they brought along all the necessary instruments to rock the house.

We weren’t sure what to expect in terms of the setlist since they’re working on a new album but it’s not out yet. They started out with some of their oldest songs which are more conducive to that seated environment. We were right up front, as is our preference whenever possible (when you’re short, this is pretty important), and you really couldn’t move your chair at all. The pace picked up with each song and I was dying to get up and dance . But when the band got to this song, and the line, “everybody stand up!” I felt like they were issuing a call to action. I couldn’t sit still any longer. I freed my chair from the next person’s chair leg and joined the growing crowd of people dancing in the aisle. Ah, much better.

The second night we were packed in tight again but this time I had my dance spot staked out ahead of time. I found out later that after Friday’s show, the wait staff were told on Saturday to make sure not to get in the way of people who were dancing. Pretty cool stance for the venue to take, considering we were dancing in the only area where they could move around carrying bottles and glasses of wine.

On Saturday I brought my sister along with me. The woman sitting to my sister’s left introduced herself and said she came from an extended family of Poi fans and they’d all flown in from across the country for this show. She proceeded to tell us that her brother had passed away about two years ago and they had hired Frank (Orrall, leader of the band) to come and play on their deck as a kind of memorial service. She introduced us to her husband, then her brother who’d come from Los Angeles, a sister up from Georgia, another sister from I don’t remember where, her parents were a few tables over and her brother’s widow was with them. She’d come down from upstate New York. Aside from Frank playing on their deck, this was her first real Poi show.

I have to say, I got choked up about this whole scene before the show even began. There are several songs that Frank has written that address death and dying, but always in a positive light somehow. It didn’t surprise me that they had asked Frank to come and play for them; my funeral playlist starts with a Poi song too. But it’s more than that. He has this magnetic quality, this positive energy that creates the kind of devotion that brings people in from all over for a Poi show. That keeps us coming back two or three nights in a row, even after six or seven year absences. It’s not readily captured in video or audio because it’s missing the interaction with the other band members and the audience. In real life however, on several occasions, I’ve watched people at their first Poi show just fall under the spell that’s been cast in the room. It isn’t like you’re blown away, it’s more like you’re lifted up. You feel lighter.

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L-R, Ron Hall, Frank Orrall, John Nelson, Susan Voelz.

One of the woman’s party said Frank knew they were all there. Shortly after that the band came on stage and Frank said, “This is for our brother, Jamie,” the woman’s brother, and they played that same song that leads off my funeral playlist. It’s a lovely, quiet instrumental song and, this family, I really couldn’t look at them or I was going to lose it.

The setlist varied, though they started off in a similar older to newer, slower to faster song progression. This time I didn’t wait as long to move to my dance spot. More people were already up dancing than the previous night. The woman we’d been talking to came over and joined me. Then my sister and her sisters. At one point my sister asked to borrow my phone to take a picture, not of the band but of the audience up dancing. She said she’d been to the City Winery a dozen times before and had never seen that many people up dancing. By the end of the night the whole place was up dancing. It was a first for the City Winery.

I couldn’t have been happier. I was happy for them that the shows were such a success. I was happy for the woman and her family who so clearly enjoyed the show and I know just the kind of cathartic release this was for them. I was happy that I’d been able to see one of my favorite live bands and dance and bask in that glow after so many years.

Last week I remembered that the Amazon music app on my phone has any CD I ever purchased through the site available to stream for free. I’d bought their album “7” when it came out in 2008 through Amazon so I fired up my phone-Bluetooth-radio set up in the car and hit play. As I drove home it started to snow, and I didn’t even care. Nothing was going to wipe that smile off my face.

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Chapel Hill

Sonic Youth – Chapel Hill

My recent posts lamenting the weather prompted one friend to say she felt so sorry for me and wished I could live someplace warmer. That was my sole goal when I applied to colleges. My family was well-versed in small New England liberal arts colleges and Ivy League schools, but once you passed the Mason-Dixon line, it was the land of the unknown. After only two Maine winters, I was hell-bent on going someplace warm and I didn’t much care what programs the schools offered, I just wanted to be where it was warm.

My mother refused to pay the application fee for any California schools so I decided to just apply to all the big state schools in Virginia and North and South Carolina. Not Georgia, that seemed too far south (I know, I know, but I didn’t then). Off went my applications to UVA, William & Mary, UNC-Chapel Hill, and UofSC-Columbia. My mom thought this was a really bad plan and insisted that I apply to two schools in familiar territory that her youngest brother had attended; one in CT, the other in a Philadelphia suburb. My dream school was Chapel Hill, with William & Mary a close second.

What we didn’t know was that these schools were much harder to get into if you were an out-of-state resident. I had bombed my junior year of high school because I was pissed off about leaving New York and moving to Maine. With less than stellar grades and only decent SAT scores, I didn’t make a convincing case. Chapel Hill only accepted 15% of its students from out-of-state residents. The Virginia schools allowed as much as 30% but the competition was strong. Needless to say, I didn’t make it.

In the end I had to choose between South Carolina and the Philly ‘burbs. I really wasn’t excited about either one. I’d had my heart so set on Chapel Hill that everything else seemed like a disappointment. My mother reasoned that if I intended to transfer anyway, good grades from the school she knew would look better than good grades from a giant state school that no one knew much about. While that made sense, the deciding factor for me was something I’d read in a brochure than came in the fat envelope from South Carolina.

It was a little piece filled with testimonials from students and there was this one girl who said her favorite thing about UofSC was sharing the bathroom with 20 other girls. I’d hardly ever known a day when I’d had the bathroom to myself and I was quite certain that my 17 years of sharing the family bathroom with my five siblings and parents had made me immune to any possible charms of a group bathroom experience with 20 girls I didn’t know. Plus, if that was considered printable by the school, it stood to reason that other people also shared that girl’s view and I was going to be a real fish out of water. South Carolina was out, and the deposit was sent to my uncle’s alma mater.

I did try to transfer, but I was slightly better informed the second time around and of my original group of schools, I only tried for William & Mary, where I still didn’t get in. I continued to carry a torch for North Carolina, Chapel Hill especially, but I recognized that my chances were even worse as a transfer student and maybe caring about the programs and majors was a better reason for choosing a school than just its happening music scene and lack of a harsh winter.

Years later when I was living in DC, a good friend from high school was going to Duke for her master’s. I rented a car and drove down to spend a few days so I could finally see if it was the perfect place for me. I hung out in Durham, made my pilgrimage over to Chapel Hill, and wound up my visit by meeting with someone in Raleigh at the North Carolina Museum of Art. I was working in one of the Smithsonian museums at the time and we’d been in contact with them regarding some piece in an exhibit so I figured it was my foot in the door. The person I spoke to was very nice but said it was pretty rough to work in a publicly funded art museum in a state where Jesse Helms was your senator. Oh. Yeah. I remembered happily signing a friend’s absentee ballot when he was voting for Harvey Gantt against Jesse Helms only a couple of years earlier. Hmmm, that was something I hadn’t spent much time thinking about.

I briefly flirted with the idea of graduate school down south, falling hard for Savannah College of Art & Design’s master’s program in historic preservation, but I didn’t end up going that route. I’ll never say never but at this point I think it’s unrealistic to uproot the family and though I hate the winter here, I am usually pretty happy about the political climate at least.

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Today is the Day

Yo La Tengo – Today is the Day

It was snowing as I drove to work this morning. Of course it was. I was driving in the snow, making do with my phone-streaming-Bluetooth combo which was playing some ok music but not exactly what I want, and suddenly I thought, that’s it. I give up. You win, winter, you win.

My eyes stung. A heaviness came over me. It’s like I can feel the weight of all the snow, dragging me down. It’s cumulative, you know? If it could just melt a little in between storms, maybe it wouldn’t be so bad. If it could be even close to an above freezing temperature on the rare occasions when the sun does make an appearance. I’m not asking for a lot. Sure, I want the snow to be completely gone, but I’d settle for a day that’s 35°F and sunny.

I can’t go away. I can’t quit winter. I just have to live with it. Today is the day it got the better of me. You defeated me, winter. You made me cry. Are you happy? Is that what you wanted?

The Only Place

Best Coast – The Only Place

Dear New England Winter 2015,

Fuck You.

XO,
Ellen

Seriously, I’ve had it. I never truly considered LA as a place I could ever live for all the stereotypical reasons. I’ll admit to being an east coast snob. But I watch this video and…I just want to cry.

Blizzard warning in effect, snowplow scraping by; I want to live in LA and be a music supervisor and own nothing heavier than a jeans jacket. Sigh.

Next stop, Hawaii.

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San Francisco Days

Chris Isaak – San Francisco Days

I was awakened at five something this morning by the sound of the snowplow going by. Again. It’s hard to sleep through, what with the loud scraping noise followed by that beep! beep! beep! of the truck backing up and then – thunk! – as the plow hits the ground again and more scraping as it turns the corner.

My mother just returned from a week-long visit to San Francisco to see my two sisters who live out there. My oldest sister moved first and slowly lured several other friends and family out to the city by the bay. At the time she lived in a house with a view of the Golden Gate Bridge, when there wasn’t any fog. You’d wake up in the morning and go out to the living room and boom! It was easy to see how so many people decided to make the move. All the more so if you’d left behind winter grossness and still had an uncertain number of weeks more of it waiting for you upon your return.

When I was a young teenager, my dad lived in southern California for a couple of years. One summer trip we made a tour of California and saw San Francisco but trips with your parents (my dad, at this time in his life especially) when you’re that age are never your idea of fun. So I consider the first time I really saw the city to be a trip I made in February one year in my twenties.

I’d been living in Maine, losing my mind from all the snow. I tried the power of suggestion* and bought travel magazines and books about Caribbean islands, poured myself steaming hot baths and imagined I was in the tropics. It wasn’t working. My sister a year older than me, who had only a year or two earlier been enticed to leave Maine for San Francisco after experiencing the wow factor of our oldest sister’s place, convinced me I needed a vacation. I’d come to San Francisco for a few days then the two of us would go to Hawaii for five days, after all, San Francisco wasn’t vacation for her, and I’d get my tropical island dream.

My oldest sister picked me up at the airport. It was February. She had one of those little Jeep-like cars with open sides and the air was warm and flowers dotted the hillsides. “Wow,” I said, “it’s like spring.” My sister replied, “It’s not like spring, it is spring.” Suddenly the idea of moving to San Francisco didn’t sound so far-fetched after all.

I didn’t do it, obviously, but I have been out there a couple more times. Once in June for a wedding, when a busy schedule kept me from really doing anything on my own, and then another time in 2007 when I went for a conference. I’d offered to stay with my sisters to make it more affordable for work to cover the trip. My sisters pulled out all the stops again but by then I had two kids and moving that far away wasn’t in the cards. I enjoyed every last minute of being somewhere warm with green and flowering things and on dark mornings when I hear that snowplow go by, I am tempted by the idea all over again.

* It was also somewhere around this time that I went through a Chris Isaak phase. All his songs sound like warm weather. Just saying.

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Dead Sound

The Raveonettes – Dead Sound

I’m afraid the tape deck in my car is dead.

At first I chalked it up to the cold weather, after all, I don’t function well in below freezing temperatures either. It was working fine and then suddenly not at all. However it didn’t make a difference if the car was warm or the tapes were warm, if they were in the middle or ready to play a full side. I would put the tape in and it would play for a few seconds then auto-reverse to the other side, then flip back, and after flipping back and forth a few times, it would spit the tape out.

I have one of those cassette adapter things that you stick in the tape deck and then plug into the headphone jack of an iPod or your phone. When I didn’t have a tape I wanted to listen to and the radio wasn’t interesting, I’d connect my iPod. Like so many of my things, my iPod isn’t the latest and greatest. It was a replacement Apple sent me for my first iPod (a 4GB Nano, the tall skinny ones) which had some kind of battery issue. I never had a problem with it but they were offering to replace it for free so I took them up on it. I got a newer Nano, 8GB this time, the little square one with a clip. No Bluetooth, no connecting to WiFi. It was good enough for the gym or the occasional plane or train ride though.

When I had new music I wanted to hear in the car, I’d download it to the iPod and then I could pop in the adapter and listen to it. I could listen to playlists that I’d made for friends or family and burned to CDs so I could test them out in my last car (that had a CD player, no tape deck). It was sort of like having the best of all car stereo options, even if it took a little juggling to make it work. There was definitely some primitive family charm about it too.

For a couple of days this past week I didn’t drive my car because of the various snow storms causing school cancellations. When I got in today, I crossed my fingers and tried a regular cassette (a full album purchased new back in the day). It sucked it in and I could see it wasn’t lying flat like it ought to be. Nothing I tried worked. I tried the cassette adapter, which it spat out immediately. I didn’t dare to try one of my homemade tapes because I didn’t want to risk it getting stuck in there forever or eaten. I gave up and listened to the radio. I pouted.

This leaves me with the regular radio and the various music and radio apps on my phone. I have a Bluetooth FM transmitter so I can stream stuff through the car radio. It works pretty well but I don’t keep my music on my phone and my iPod doesn’t have Bluetooth. If you have any radio stations you like, pass that info along and I’ll look for them in one of those apps.

Sigh. People have long asked me how I can stand my long commute and do I listen to audiobooks or something to pass the time. I have only really minded the drive when traffic or weather makes it take much longer than usual or if I have to be at work or home by a certain time and there’s nothing I can do to shave any time off of it. Usually, I have used that time as my indulgent blast the tunes and sing along as loudly as I want to time.

I can limp along with the phone and the Bluetooth set up but if I want to get to a place where I can really listen to what I want in the car, I’m going to need to upgrade something. Either I’ll have to upgrade my Rdio subscription (I currently pay for the web only version – it assuages my guilt of using a streaming service and I don’t have to hear ads when I listen at work) to include mobile or upgrade the stereo. I don’t think you can get a new stereo with a tape deck these days.

It also means Tape Deck Tuesday is on hiatus until I can figure this out. I haven’t completely given up hope of it fixing itself or me tinkering with it in my usual way, but neither of those things is going to happen when there’s all this snow everywhere. I have really enjoyed those little strolls down memory lane and I’ll miss the fun I had sharing the back story of some of these treasures. Fingers crossed that it’s just a temporary problem.

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50 Words for Snow

Kate Bush – 50 Words for Snow

I’ve got 50 words for snow, but not one of them is nice.

Earlier this week that blizzard that all the New Yorkers complained was a bust, dropped close to two feet of snow on us. My kids had an early dismissal from school on Monday before things got bad and my daughter has yet to go back. More snow is forecast for Sunday night/Monday morning.

My main concern was that we would lose power. The last time a blizzard moved through here it switched over to freezing rain and then back to snow again, which resulted in lots of downed power lines. It’s one thing to lose power in hurricanes (that’s happened twice – Irene and Sandy), but when there’s no power and the temperature outside is below freezing, it gets cold inside, fast. I was not eager to repeat the experience. I bought food we could eat cold, I made sure we had flashlights ready, I left the heat up overnight. Luckily nothing happened, except all that snow that needed to be shoveled away.

I don’t find the snow pretty. I am incapable of seeing anything other than hours of shoveling, the inevitable melting and re-freezing creating ice rinks in the driveways and on the sidewalks which in turn leads to twisted ankles or wrenched backs. It depresses me. It stops being bright and white after one day and instead is gray and brown with hard, dirty chunks everywhere. Why can’t we hibernate like bears? Just sleep through it all and then come out of it when the weather starts to get nicer.

Soon I will have had too much and I will start dreaming about Caribbean Islands and Hawaiian vacations. I’d even settle for California or some other place with no snow but yes, palm trees. In the end I will be lucky to find a greenhouse I can stand in for twenty minutes. Spring can never get here fast enough.

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Modern Love

David Bowie – Modern Love

My brother was a huge David Bowie fan and my mother hated David Bowie. But my mother also worked full-time so my brother took advantage of her not being home in the afternoons and my other two sisters and I received a daily education in all of David Bowie’s great achievements. We were schooled on Ziggy Stardust, we looked at the cover of Diamond Dogs unsure of what to make of it, we sang along to “Queen Bitch”, I did a report for 9th grade English class on “Kooks.”

My brother went off to college in 1982. In 1983 David Bowie released Let’s Dance. This was not my brother’s David Bowie. This was more like my older sister’s David Bowie. In fact, the cassette I listened to in the car today is the original 1983 copy that my sister bought, complete with a little sticker with her initials on it to identify it as hers in her college dorm room. This was dance-y Bowie, and not in a “John, I’m Only Dancing” way. It was produced with Nile Rodgers, after all. For my brother, worshipper of punk, hater of disco, this was a step too far.

Listening to it now, some of the songs are not really that far of a departure from some of his previous work, but the hits were really big hits. If you’ve been a fan of a band or musician when they’ve been less adored by the general public and then they suddenly become everyone’s favorite, especially if the album they’re now getting all the attention for is one you don’t like, it puts a real strain on your relationship with that band. I know a little something about that. So in hindsight, I’m sympathetic to my brother’s plight. At the time, though, we little sisters thought it was pretty cool that David Bowie had made an album you could dance to with your friends.

Last week was David Bowie’s birthday and I presume my brother has long since forgiven the now 68-year-old for Let’s Dance, but it wouldn’t surprise me in the least to know that he doesn’t own it. Judging by the fact that this tape was abandoned by everyone and found by me in my mother’s basement when we were there recently, I’d say it’s no one’s favorite. That and no one has a tape deck anymore. Long live my car’s tape deck and Tape Deck Tuesday for these trips down memory lane!

 

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Could You

TV on the Radio – Could You

For New Year’s Eve, I took the kids down to Brooklyn because my sister was having a party. Two of my other sisters would be there and my nieces and nephew, so there would be lots of family hang time, even if it was a big, noisy party that went on until 4 a.m.

My nieces were having their friends over as well so there was a pretty good sized teenage contingent at the party. Some of the kids were the children of my sister’s friends and in some cases both the kids and the parents are friends. One of my niece’s friends, a 13-year-old boy I’ll call Joe, arrived with his parents and quickly disappeared with my niece and her other friends. My sister had been telling us that just before school let out for the Christmas break, Joe had come out to his parents and his friends. It seems like they all suspected as much already and having it out in the open was a relief. The big news was that he had also let another guy in their class know, and told him that he was interested in him. Much to everyone’s great delight, the other boy had written YES on a sign and was waiting outside of school for Joe at the end of the day.

My daughter (also 13) said that at midnight, Joe got a text from his new boyfriend and everyone was so happy for him. I spent some time talking with Joe’s parents that night and started 2015 off feeling good about people and about the next generation. No one would have been open about being gay when I was in eighth grade. In fact, I’m pretty sure I was someone’s beard for about two weeks back then. Here, not only was Joe confident and comfortable about coming out, it was practically just a formality, and the one relationship that changed because he did so, was one that changed in his favor.

I know this is far from everyone’s reality. I’m just glad for Joe that it is his. And I’m glad to be a part of a community with people like Joe’s parents and my niece and my sister and her other friends. I’m glad that my kids are growing up among people who are accepting of differences and that they are modeling that behavior themselves.

One of my Christmas presents from my mother was a gift card to the record store where I once worked after college. I picked up Seeds by TV on the Radio and it’s been in heavy rotation ever since. I highly recommend the whole album.

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Nothing More

Alternate Routes – Nothing More

It has been two years to the day since the school shooting in Newtown, CT. This song was written to support the organization Newtown Kindness, which was founded by the parents of one of the children who was killed that day.

I live in a town very much like Newtown. These horrible events always seem like they’re happening somewhere else, someplace not like where you live or happening to people not like you. But not on that day.

To tell you the truth, I cry every time I hear this song, only takes about 30 seconds in.