Music Is My Strawberry: How concert-going saves me

It’s true: I go to a lot of concerts. I go to shows, small and large, in my own town; I drive up to Indianapolis (50-60 miles or so each way, depending on which side of the city) several times a year; I’ll happily hit the road for a greater distance if the timing is riight and the show is promising. I’ve driven to Chicago, Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Nashville, even Kansas City (480 miles each way) on multiple occasions. I’ve gotten on planes just to see a Springsteen show. I’ve imposed on family and friends and spent money on hotels when a rational person would have saved it for retirement or a rainy day. Some shows have been better than others, but I don’t regret a single dollar or a single mile. (3,420 of those miles in 2014, according to my calculations. I try not to add up the dollars.)

If you’re not this kind of crazy, you probably wonder: what’s the deal? Some friends accuse me, good-naturedly, of having too much fun. And it is fun, of course it is; I love the highway driving, I love meeting up with far-flung friends in the GA line, I love the music itself and most of the musicians. But this thing goes a whole lot deeper than “fun.”

Buddha told a parable in sutra:

A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.

Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted!  (http://deoxy.org/koan/18)

tiger

photo: catlovers (flickr)

We are all, every day, being chased by tigers. My own are no more ferocious than anyone else’s; they are middle-aged tigers, fur glistening with typical middle-aged fears. Money, loved ones’ health, my own health, work, love, mortality. Like anyone in her mid-fifties, I’ve noticed that a few of these have reared up lately and bared their fangs at me. A few months ago I experienced a minor eye problem which is not in itself sight-threatening, but it left me with a good-sized floater that sometimes makes me think a speck of a small flying thing is hovering near my face – could be a gnat, could be a tiny angel, in which case I hope I don’t slap it by mistake – and it reminded me of how some of my older friends say they no longer like to drive at night. I’ve noticed that myself; driving at night isn’t really a problem for me, but it takes a little more conscious alertness than it used to. It’s altogether possible that, some years down the road, I won’t be physically able to strap myself into a husk of silver metal and send myself hurtling down the highway at 65mph in search of music.

Those tigers will eventually – at least that one named Mortality – get me. I’ll be ripped to bits. There’s no way out of that.

Music is made of time. It has a great beat and you can dance to it. The right music throbs you to your bones and blood. Once I sat down at a rock show where everyone was standing, just so I could feel the bass line rumbling through more of my actual skin: my seat was literally shaking with it. Music also takes place in time. One moment the lights are up, the audience is talking and laughing and drinking; the next moment darkness falls and the band slips onto the stage and the tiny lights of amps and transmitters glow across the darkness like nighttime tigers, and the stage lights rise and the audience rises and the great roar rises and whatever room I’m in, a tiny club or a big arena, becomes limitless in space – but still firmly grasped, suspended, held by time. Music has a time signature. Time has signed its contract, time owns it, and me.

When I’m at a concert, I am made of time. I am also living completely in the moment. Music immerses me like nothing else. It captures my senses, my muscles, the beating of my heart. It’s really hard for me to hold still when the music is great. At the very least, I nod my head or sway a bit. At a rock show I’m liable to be the one standing, bobbing, dancing like a giddy maniac. I am listening to music with bone and breath and muscle. If it’s good, I am immersed. I have learned that even singing along can be a kind of listening.

Most days, I worry a lot. And I plan a lot. I love planning for a music-related road trip – charting the route, choosing the hotel, making lists of what to take! But as mindfulness experts and Zen masters point out all the time, living in the present is important. When I’m immersed in music, nothing exists but the moment. Sometimes, it takes that level of immersion to help me let go of the everpresent shadows of my personal tigers. It’s like a long hot shower for the soul. I come out clean.

That strawberry is not just the idea of sweetness. The physicality of music is important. It is muscular, embodied. When you panic, what do you do first? You suck in your breath and then you hold it there, tight as you can. But if I am singing, I am breathing. If I am dancing, even if my actual muscles are relatively still because it is a quiet seated show, my heart is beating. Music involves me intellectually (how does the Edge make his guitar do that??), emotionally (cue up any sad song), and unlike many of my other pursuits (hello poetry), physically. It gets me the hell out of my own head better than anything else I know.

And yes, a lot of my concert-going travels, near and far, are done alone. I have nothing against going to concerts with other people – I do that sometimes too. I enjoy sharing great music with people who appreciate it. It’s fun to hang out in line beforehand, lovely to have someone to save my spot if I duck out for a pre-show pit stop, great to swap opinions over a beer or two afterward. But sometimes, in the middle of a show, I’ll be vaguely aware that someone is leaning over to say something to me, only to find that I’m … not really there. I mean, I’m there, in or near my seat. And I’m there, in my body, in the moment of the music. But I’m not paying attention to my companion. I’m so focused on the music itself, immersed in it, unable/unwilling to surface. I’ve never felt lonely in the middle of a show, even if I’m in an arena with 20,000 strangers. Because I am there with the music. It’s like the actual music is my date. That’s so weird when you put it into words like that, but that is how I feel, when it’s good.

Like a good date, a good concert leaves me little love notes. Sometimes for years afterwards. When I think about my first Bruce Springsteen show, back in September of 1978, all I have to do is remember standing atop a couple of folding chairs on the floor, dancing and singing while the band rocked “Twist & Shout,” and my face breaks into a silly grin no matter what. I remember sitting close to the stage when Joshua Bell was performing, noticing how the violin’s tone sounded ever so slightly different depending on whether the face of the instrument was tipped slightly towards or away from me, and it changed how I understood mathematics, how I perceived the measurement of space and time.

"Little Steven" guitar pick

I remember waking up in a hotel room in Chicago one morning and finding out that my mother had been diagnosed with cancer. In the pocket of the jeans I’d worn the night before was a guitar pick handed to me by Little Steven at the end of that night’s show. I carried that guitar pick with me, a tiny reminder that joy continues to exist in the world and that it is always waiting for me on an arena floor or in a seat somewhere. (My mother is fine, by the way. But the reminder persists, and persists in being necessary.) I even love the painful little love notes, like the purple toenail I still have two months after two great U2 concerts because I kept stubbing my toe on the tiny step up into the bathroom of my hotel room. Even that reminds me how much I loved those nights, how much I was willing to put up with in order to find what I was looking for.

Not every show is that life-saving, of course. Most of them are good, now and then I hit a dud, a few of them are truly great. I’m always chasing those moments, barreling down highways in search of them, city to city, chasing those flighty little angels.

I don’t just sit there at a show, consuming it. I let it consume me. (If they are angels, let them be ablaze with falling and with glory.) That’s why I like to be close to the stage when I can – I love not just to be immersed but to be an actual part of it. A good concert leaves me tired, maybe even bruised. I don’t just pay my money and passively take something that I’m given. I let the music give to me but I give back to it as well. There’s a definite exchange of energy: love put out there, love returned.

The vine I’m clinging to is fraying, and it’s burning my hands. Those two mice are gnawing busily away. I can smell the tigers’ breath, pungent with blood. But that strawberry: that single, perfect strawberry is so very, very sweet.

one single strawberry

photo: WIlliam Warby (flickr)

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Filed under music, ramblings

Love, Technology, and Rock & Roll: Notes on Two Nights of U2 in Chicago

Chicago skyline

Intro

You will probably be surprised to learn that, at the ripe old age of 54 and having attended rock & roll shows since the mid-1970s, I made it all the way to 2015 without ever seeing a U2 concert. It’s not that I haven’t liked them – I’ve never NOT liked U2. Mostly, for years, they were one of those bands who’d come on the radio and I’d turn it up and think, golly, I do love this song, I should really pick up more of their albums one of these days. (There are a LOT of bands like that, to be honest.) I almost went to the St. Louis show on the 360 Tour, but I had neither a viable car nor anyone to go with at that point, and between overly complicated travel logistics & the whole stadium thing – it was all just so *big* on that tour – I just didn’t do it. (And I’m one of the few people I know who quite likes the “No Line on the Horizon” album.)

Then “Songs of Innocence” came out, and I quite liked that as well. Plus, Mr. Springsteen wasn’t making any kind of noises about touring anytime soon, and I was feeling the need for a big old arena rock show. So when the U2 Innocence+Experience Tour was announced, I was on board for Chicago.

When they first announced the tour the shows were in pairs, and they said nights 1 and 2 would be distinctly different. As it turns out, that ended up not being the case – and then when the stage and big-screen setup was revealed, I realized that my seat for night 1 was right smack facing the edge of the big screen (which I was told was pretty integral to the show) so I wouldn’t be able to see what was on the screen *at all*. And my seat for night 2 was waaaaaaaaay up in the rafters. Terrible seats, both of them, I thought. Plus, three more shows were announced *after* I had bought my tickets for nights 1 and 2, any of which would have been more convenient for travel than the Wednesday/Thursday pair I’d just spent what was for me a lot of money on. So, I was actually feeling a little cranky about the shows, half tempted to scrap it all, try to sell the tickets, and go on with my life.

Good thing I didn’t.

tl;dr

So here’s the Reader’s Digest Condensed Version. “I’m not a rabid U2 fan. I like arena rock shows generally. Should I go see U2 on this tour?” My answer is, YES. For sure. That is, unless you can’t stand the new album (because it really does form the centerpiece of the show – as a new album SHOULD, I think), or unless rock shows with a strong, predetermined narrative bother you. (At some point, though not today, I plan to write more about what I see as an essential tension between the scripted/theatrical and the spontaneous/improvised – something that I think is a pretty interesting tension to explore in the context of rock & roll. After all, improv is theater too.)

The technology is great, the songs are great, the show’s narrative works really well and incorporates both new and old songs for the most part seamlessly. The band seems enthusiastic about performing and the audience is also enthusiastic. It’s an immersive experience, emotionally and musically engaging.

Bono in the spotlight

Bono + spotlight: they love each other

Well, if you can’t stand U2 (as several of my friends can’t), you probably shouldn’t go. Bono hasn’t stopped being Bono, you know? Ha! (I actually do like the “little megalomaniac,” as he called himself on stage one night. Would we be best pals if we met in real life and were in a social position to hang out? Doubtful. But I’m not paying my ticket money to have a best pal. I have friends who will hang out with me for nothin’, believe it or not. I’m at a rock show to see a rock star. And Bono’s pretty good at that. But I digress.)

Obviously I can’t compare this show to previous tours. And yes, I envy my friends who saw them in the early years, for sure! But you gotta live in the present, and live music for me is very much about being in the moment, not regretting the past or worrying about the future. And this moment, this tour, this show, is pretty great.

So, on to my more detailed (okay, verbose) thoughts on the shows that I saw.

Arrival

Getting to Chicago is, for some reason, always fraught for me. It’s just a little over 200 miles, not a bad drive at all, but I always end up at my destination frazzled, later than I’d planned, and muttering things under my breath about traffic and not being a city girl and I don’t know why I put myself through this. This trip was no exception. Despite the best efforts of my perfectly good GPS, I took TWO wrong turns in Gary, and of course I managed to roll into town at about 5:30 so I felt like I was rolling into a greatest-hits double-bill show by Chicago and Traffic. I had just enough time to check into my hotel, change clothes, eat a quick snack of cheese and Fig Newtons and a banana, and get over to the arena; the ticketed start time was 7:30 (I knew the show wouldn’t start until eight-ish) and I got to my seat around 7:45 or so. Just enough time to breathe for a minute, and to think about getting an overpriced crappy beer but not to actually do anything about it.

I love, love, love the minutes before a rock show starts. The GA floor was filling up rapidly – I’d thought about trying to pick up a GA ticket, but between getting there so late and the packed-like-sardines appearance of the floor, I was glad I hadn’t; at 5 foot 1, if I’m farther back than three deep or so from the stage, I’m probably not going to see much unless I can get some space between me and the people right in front of me. My seat was, indeed, pretty much smack behind the edge of the big screen, so I knew I wasn’t going to be able to see that. But I was on the aisle, which is always pleasant, because that way even if there’s a big dude in front of me (which there usually is) I can edge out into the aisle and see. And I was in row 5 behind the smaller stage, which – I suddenly realized – was very, very close. I didn’t know whether I’d see much of U2’s faces, since I was behind the stage, but whatever I saw would be from pretty dang close. And my view of the larger stage, at the other end of the arena, was pretty much unobstructed.

It was going to be OK.

A bit about the stage setup, for those who haven’t been to one of these shows and haven’t been following on social media or whatever. So there’s a big, rectangular, fairly traditional-looking stage at one end of the arena. It’s open on all four sides (U2 is doing interesting things with the sound on this tour, so there are no speaker stacks behind or on the sides of the stage, in fact very little equipment to speak of other than the instruments and mics and a few guitar amps). Then there’s a long runway or bridge spanning the length of the arena, and there’s a big screen hanging from the ceiling that’s the length of this bridge; the screen goes up and down during the show and performs various functions – I saw it described as the Swiss army knife of big screens, and for sure, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a corkscrew in there somewhere.

Then at the other end of the arena is a smaller, round stage with no speakers or equipment on it to start with. The big stage is the “i” stage and the small one is the “e” stage, each stage’s surface painted with its respective letter – fitting the “innocence + experience” theme of the show. The entire floor is general admission standing, with two areas near the “i” stage set aside as the “Red Zone” where people pay exorbitant prices for VIP tickets and the money goes to U2’s global anti-AIDS charity, (RED). Because of the setup, even the people with the worst spots on the floor are less than half the width of the arena away from at least some part of the stage – not that much farther back than the back of the pit at a Springsteen show. And the whole band performs extensively from both stages as well as from the runway and even from inside the big screen, so everybody gets a chance to be close-ish at some point. It’s actually a really good setup.

U2 stage & screen

City of Blinding Lights

Night 1 Notes: Until the End of the World and Then Some

Thanks to social media, I knew that Patti Smith’s “People Have the Power” would play over the PA just before the band came onstage. So when that song started up – and the lights dimmed, and the volume rose, making it an actual part of the show – I stood up and got ready. (That’s such a great song, too. Especially LOUD, with people singing along.) What I hadn’t realized was that Bono enters from the “e” stage. People around me got really excited and then whoa! There’s Bono! RIGHT THERE! Ha! Fun moment.

He starts singing the “oh, ohhh, oh” intro to “The Miracle (of Joey Ramone)” and acknowledges the crowd, then saunters down the runway and then the band kicks in and holy crap, when you’ve had as many huge hits as U2 it takes a bit of nerve to open with one of your new songs I think, but it works REALLY well as an opener. Is there anything that feels as great as that first big bass drum blast and that first ferocious guitar of a rock show? Some people like fireworks or roller coasters. I’ll take this instead, any day.

I won’t go through the entire setlist song by song, but I’ll hit some of the high points. Mostly, the narrative of the show works really well. A little tribute to the Ramones, who inspired and influenced them to start playing, followed by one of their very early songs (night 1 was “Electric Co.” and night 2 was “Out of Control” – both sounding incredibly fresh and joyful). “Iris,” Bono’s love song to his mother who died when he was young – “She left me, and left me an artist,” he says, talking about how artists create in order to fill the empty places in their own lives and hearts – was heartfelt and quite moving.

“Song for Someone,” another love song (this time thinking back on when he fell in love, still quite young, with the woman who would become his wife) was also lovely although this was where I began to notice that the rumors about Bono being sick were probably true, as his voice did sound a bit ragged around the edges. Didn’t impede my enjoyment of the show, honestly, but I’m not a vocal purist either. Vocals can be a bit off and still be OK for me. But guitars, man – you gotta tune those!

The heart of the show is about the intersection of personal and political pain, loss, and rage – and how coming of age is about love and loss (the innocence/experience thing). The segue from “Sunday Bloody Sunday” to “Raised By Wolves” to “Until the End of the World” is wholly scripted, with technology and choreography and everything planned down to the second, but it’s completely *present* and some of the most intense moments I’ve witnessed in a rock show. The three songs flow from one to the next; as SBS ends Bono’s singing “I can’t believe the news today” over and over, there’s an audio montage that sounds like going from one radio station to another with snippets of news about a car bomb and other radio snippets from the same moment, and Larry’s standing in the middle of the bridge with a single drum, alone and perfectly still, ringing out single ominous drumbeats.

And then BOOM – the big screen flashes white and there’s an explosion sound that shakes you to your core and ricochets around the arena like a Star Wars explosion in a surround-sound theater. I’ve not heard anything quite like it on this big a scale – it’s just a moment, but it’s quite a feat of audio, really. Made the hairs on my arms stand up. And then “Raised By Wolves” which isn’t my favorite on the album but in this show it is ferocious and sinister and chilling. It ends with Bono on his knees muttering parts of the 23rd Psalm, then muttering “comfort me” and finally screaming, “COMFORT ME” – it’s so intense I get goosebumps just thinking back on it. And then “Until the End of the World” which is whirling and apocalyptic and … just everything, everything. I’m not sure I have ever felt so *immersed* in a rock show before, not even Springsteen at his most emotionally riveting.

There’s a tiny intermission at that point, which I’d heard about and thought it was weird but you know what, after that three-pack I kind of needed to sit down and breathe for a minute! There’s a video on the big screen, animated, Johnny Cash singing “The Wanderer.” It only lasts about four or five minutes, during which time crew members scurry around the smaller stage setting up a drum kit and other equipment. Then the next couple of songs have the band playing actually *inside* the big screen, with animation enhancing them – turns out the screen is actually a cage of sorts, with the lights and animation and whatnot being projected on a closely woven mesh and not a solid “screen” really at all. It’s quite ingenious actually. You kinda have to see it. Then they troop out of the screen, still playing, and all four take up residence on the smaller stage for a few songs.

I’m a big fan of the Edge, and I gotta say, it was incredibly fun to be that close to him to witness firsthand his “Mysterious Ways” dancing/playing. And “Elevation”! That was one of my favorite songs from either night – again, the recorded version is not necessarily one of my favorite U2 songs, but the energy was just off the charts with the audience singing and dancing along. It wasn’t exactly like being in a small sweaty rock club with the band, but it was about as close as you can get in a 20,000 person arena. So, so fun.

The rest of the show was loaded with the big hits, played well, with cool lighting and screen effects. “Pride” sounded amazing, as did “Beautiful Day” and “City of Blinding Lights.” And “Where the Streets Have No Name” basically never fails, does it? So great. I left the arena afterwards feeling washed clean, feeling bigger and bolder and ready to take on the world. If a rock show does that, it is without question a success in my book.

U2 on the

not quite like a sweaty rock club, but I’ll take it

Intermezzo: Doing the Ticket Shuffle

Thursday I enjoyed some downtime walking around the Lincoln Park neighborhood near my hotel. (Did you know there’s a diner in Lincoln Park called “The Edge”? Yup. Right around the corner from my hotel, open 24 hours, and it’s nothing super special but you can get breakfast all day, and at lunchtime on Thursday it was quiet enough that I didn’t feel bad about taking up a table for a couple of hours so I could have a leisurely meal and write in my journal for a while.)

I thought about how close I’d been to the “e” stage the night before, and I thought about my ticket for that night, waaaaaaay up in the rafters. I’ve had this feeling before: after being so close to the band, how can I bear to be so far away? Yes, I’d like to see the big screen, but… ugh. I decided that there were probably some seats in the sections to the left and right of mine that would still be close to the “e” stage but would be at an angle where you could generally see the screen. Oddly, those weren’t tier-1 pricing seats, like my behind-stage seat they were tier-2; for months I’d been looking at available seats and just could never bring myself to buy the most expensive (non-Red Zone) tickets, which were nearly $300. Just couldn’t do that, nor could I bring myself to pay a scalper much above face value. But if one of these would pop up…

I kept poking at Ticketmaster and StubHub all day, just in case. And around 3 pm, lo and behold, there appears a single ticket in the section just to the left of where I’d been. In the third row. I knew there was very little chance I could sell my single seat in the rafters that late in the game, and I decided to splurge anyway. Section 107, row 3, here I come. When I do something crazy like this – like the very expensive last-minute ticket I picked up for Paul McCartney a while back – I can tell if I’ve done the right thing because I kind of start dancing. At least in my head. And that was happening. So.

Got to the arena with a little more time to spare than the first night and found my seat, which was in the middle of the row, next to a rather large man who was eating something quite … er … aromatic. He asked me, a bit crankily, if I was going to be screaming the whole time. “Probably,” I said. Then my neighbor on the other side sat down – a middle-aged woman, with her husband in the aisle seat on her other side – and proceeded to start coughing like she had bronchitis, and asking her husband if he knew whether there was going to be an opening act. I guessed that they might not take too kindly to my “screaming the whole time” either. And directly in front of me, a fairly tall man. Greeeeeat. I was starting to think I was going to regret my last-minute ticket purchase and maybe I should just leave and go up to my original seat in the rafters.

Next to the tall man in front of me was a young mother, in the second-row aisle seat, with her daughter who was probably around six or seven. Super cute kid. And, well. As the lights went down and “People Have the Power” started to play, the young mother realized that the front-row seats in front of her were vacant, and she & her daughter upgraded themselves. I gave it about a half-second’s thought before I slipped down into the second-row aisle seat she’d been in. Tapped her on the shoulder and promised to give her her seat back if she got kicked out of the front row by the rightful ticket holders. And we shared a moment of joy at our suddenly-improved seating luck. I could indeed see the screen, and I was still really close to the “e” stage, and I was behind short people and could see both stages perfectly, and all of a sudden I was very much in my happy place. Yeah!

Night 2 Notes: You Look So Beautiful Tonight

A very similar setlist to night 1 in most respects – the first set featured “Out of Control” in the “Electric Co.” slot, and the second set had a little more variation. Emotionally and musically, still basically the same show. Bono’s voice was decidedly rougher Thursday night – I’ve since heard that the poor guy had bronchitis, which isn’t fun for anyone, much less a singer! By the last song, “One,” he’d pretty much given up singing; he took maybe half a verse and the audience was happy to help out by collectively taking on the rest.

Despite an ailing frontman, I thought the show still had great energy and resonance. The three-pack that closes the first set seemed to have a little less intensity and impact than on night 1, but it’s hard to say, since night 1 also had the “first time I’ve witnessed this” sheen for me. It was really really lovely to get “Bad” towards the end of the second set; despite a rough vocal, it’s one of my absolute favorite U2 songs and I was excited about it.

The middle bit of this show was the highlight for me, most definitely. I was, as I mentioned, in the aisle seat in the second row of one of the sections to the rear of the “e” stage. I was wearing an Amnesty International t-shirt, and that’s one of the band’s pet causes, so I was hoping I might get a nod of approval from someone at some point. (It says “Fighting Bad Guys Since 1961” – which, since I was born in 1961, is so perfect.) I was also directly behind an attractive young woman and her adorable small daughter, as you’ll recall. For at least one of those reasons, and perhaps a combination of all of them (with the added special sauce of me dancing and singing like a giddy maniac), the Edge spotted our little section during “Mysterious Ways” and grinned at us. So that was fun. Then during “Angel of Harlem” he zeroed in on us, stood right in front of us and played directly to us, smiling, for what felt like ages. (I timed it on someone’s YouTube video. It was actually about a minute. Time does funny things sometimes.) “Angel” was never one of my favorite U2 songs, but it’s now taken up residence in my head as this fantastic memory.

For me, there are few nicer moments during a rock show than feeling absolutely joyfully immersed in the music, making eye contact with one of the musicians, knowing that they see how much you’re loving what they are doing, feeling like they’re happy to be there too. In the best of those moments, this exchange of energy happens and it’s a pure and beautiful thing. I can only guess at how it feels for the performer; different, I’m sure, but I bet they love those moments too.

I really loved watching Edge both nights. As a (semi-lapsed, I guess) guitarist, I was fascinated by watching his technique. There were times when he was playing really fast but his hands were so, so quiet – just pure economy of motion that allowed him to play both super fast and super clean. He seems totally centered as he plays, and moves around the stage so gracefully. (Which is why it’s pretty funny that he managed to fall off the stage during one of the early shows on the tour. He wasn’t hurt, but I don’t think Bono is ever going to let him live it down. “Some people have fallen off of this stage, you know,” he said on one of the nights. “But when the Edge falls off stage, it’s like throwing a cat off a wall – he always lands on his feet.”)

Later on during the show, he comes back to the “e” stage for part of “City of Blinding Lights” – the “oh you look so beautiful tonight” part. He’s standing there in the middle of the stage, singing his harmony on that line, and the audience is circled around him, singing it back to him, pointing at him. That was a really shiny, fun moment too. And eye contact, AGAIN. Oh hello there, Mr. The Edge. I feel like we’re almost getting to be friends now. Hee!

The Edge on stage with guitar

Oh, you look…

Oh, the screen! I could see the screen, which I hadn’t been able to the night before. And it is an amazing amazing piece of work. There are times when the band is performing inside the screen and the images on the screen part to reveal them. There’s a moment when the Edge is playing inside the screen and Bono is over on the “e” stage, and Bono reaches out his hand and the giant electronic Bono being broadcast on the screen suddenly has the tiny-by-comparison, real human Edge dancing in the palm of his hand. So many other neat moments on that screen that I won’t spoil for my friends who have yet to see the show. Whoever designed it should get some kind of an award, because it’s very, very well done. I’m usually anti-high-tech for rock shows, you know? I like them gritty, sweaty, human without too much fancy lighting or theatrical effects. But somehow, this band and this show manage to make it work so that it enhances the music and the narrative created by the music. WELL DONE.

“Well done” by the audience too, which sang along with great enthusiasm, especially on the big 1980s hits. My favorite had to be “Pride (In the Name of Love)” which you can just scream along to for days and when the whole arena is doing it, it’s just miraculously loud and joyous. And given recent events in this country, that song was especially resonant for a lot of us, I think. And (I know I’m jumping around a bit here), how about that bass line on “Bullet the Blue Sky”? Freaking incredible at that volume. Both nights, I had to sit down for a moment and just let that tremendous roar rumble through me. I cannot say enough good things about the U2 rhythm section. Adam Clayton – does anyone have more fun playing rockstar while playing propulsive, just-funky-enough bass lines? And Larry Mullen Jr. – for a guy who verges on scrawny, he certainly makes that drum kit thunder. His work on “Even Better Than the Real Thing” was a particular joy to behold. What a powerful heartbeat those two create.

Lastly, a word about “Every Breaking Wave.” I fell head over heels in love with this song when I heard bootlegs of early versions of it on the 360 tour. When I first heard the full band version on “Songs of Innocence” I felt like it had lost something, that it was maybe over-arranged, although I’ve grown to love that version too. On the i+e tour, there’s a piano that literally rises out of the “e” stage for just this one song, and the arrangement is simple – just the Edge on piano and Bono singing. It’s really lovely, and yet I feel like this song (which I still adore, in whatever form it takes) hasn’t found its best arrangement yet. To my ear, it’s still missing something. I’ll be interested to see how (if) it evolves over time.

Aftermath: a moment of surrender

The day after my two shows started out bleary and half-awake (because who can go to sleep within a few hours of so much energy?? so I was up late) – and became a flurry of excitement about five minutes after I sat down in the hotel breakfast room only to find out that the Supreme Court had just ruled in favor of marriage equality. It’s a bit surreal finding out news like that before you’ve finished your first cup of coffee. I spent the day doing a little sightseeing, then decamped to a good friend’s apartment and had dinner with four friends I don’t see nearly often enough. So fun, and so good for my heart and soul.

Saturday was an absolutely gorgeous day, lots of sun, low humidity – also a bit surreal after a very rainy stretch. I hit the road for the drive home and managed NOT to take any wrong turns in Gary, for once. At my first rest stop I checked Twitter to see what was happening in the world and found out about Bree Newsome committing a beautiful act of civil disobedience and taking down the Confederate flag in South Carolina.

A bit later, I was blasting a bootleg from an earlier show on this U2 tour (I know I definitely liked a concert if two days later all I want to listen to is that same band, preferably live, preferably recent). Bono’s been singing a bit of “The Hands that Built America” at the beginning of “Pride” on this tour, and it’s (I know I keep using this word) lovely; when the opening notes of “Pride” rang out on the boot I turned it WAY up, blasting down the highway, singing at the top of my lungs. “In the name of love! What more in the name of love?”

And then “Beautiful Day” – at the line “after the flood, all the colors came out” I just started weeping. I was picturing the photos I’d seen of the White House and other landmarks, not to mention the Facebook profile photos of many of my friends, all lit up in rainbow lights to celebrate marriage equality. Who’d have thought I would see this in my lifetime? There is still a lot of work – a LOT of work – left to be done. But what a moment, all the same, you know?

I was picturing Bree Newsome up on that flagpole, taking down that symbol of the past, knowing she would probably be arrested and the flag would probably be put back up – but also knowing that her act would help millions of people take heart and find the courage to take some action of their own. I was thinking about how heroes are just brave, crazy, ordinary humans who are willing to be seen.

And I was thinking about how, at those two rock shows, all the technology was fantastic and yet what was I over the moon about? A minute of joyous eye contact exchanged with the guitarist. The pure ringing sound created by human fingers against steel strings, amplified a millionfold to become a clarion call. I thought about what it means to be human, what it means to put yourself out there, what it means to acknowledge the tension (a tension essential for both activism and rock & roll) between the need for independence and individuality and the longing for community, acceptance, love.

After the flood, all the colors came out. It was a beautiful day.

Driving down the highway, weeping so freely I had to pull over and get myself together before I could go on. Everything was just washing over me in a great flood, and I couldn’t stop it and I didn’t want to stop it. My heart felt open and my eyes felt open and I was holding so much gratitude for everything that is good in this world. And that’s a lot.

Oh! You look SO BEAUTIFUL tonight… you look so beautiful, rock & roll. You look so beautiful, those precious nights when you catch yourself fully living in the moment. You look so beautiful, humans who push themselves to the limit of what they are afraid of doing, what they need to do. Humans who take risks like pulling down symbols that hurt the people they love. Like singing for all you’re worth whether you are a rock star with bronchitis or a middle-aged lady in the middle of a crowd. Like facing headlong the breaking and the broken places in your heart, and making art out of them, and using that to bring people together somehow. You look so beautiful, humans who hurt each other and love each other and fight with and for each other. You look so beautiful tonight.

Thank you, U2. I needed that.

Chicago 1 setlist | Chicago 2 setlist

Crappy cellphone photos by Anne Haines; videos as credited on YouTube

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Back to Basics: Notes on content strategy, reference librarianship, and my Confab talk

hainesTo say that I am thrilled to be presenting a talk at Confab Central this coming May would be a hu-freaking-mongous understatement. Confab is THE conference on content strategy, and it’s a ridiculously great experience. The first year I attended (2013), I arrived in Minneapolis as a newbie with a strong interest in content strategy and a desire to learn more; I left feeling confident in saying that I am a content strategist. It’s a conference full of presentations that make me think and teach me new things, impeccably organized by smart, friendly people who think of every detail to make sure attendees can use all their energy on learning and connecting rather than having to stress out about logistics, and it fosters a lovely community of content strategists that has been an amazing resource for me throughout the year.

So you’ll understand why, when I submitted a talk proposal and got the email that it had been accepted, I literally sat at my desk staring at the email with my hand over my mouth for a good two or three minutes. I felt like I’d just been given a ticket to Cinderella’s ball or some such. It was incredibly flattering to think I might have something smart enough to say in that setting.

Then I realized I actually had to, um, write the damn thing. (And then get up in front of people and present it, but we’re just not going to talk about that part right now. LA LA LA I CAN’T HEAR YOU)

My talk is titled “If She Knew What She Wants: Librarian mind-reading tricks for fun and profit.” (That link will take you to a short summary of the thing on Confab’s website.) It’s something I’ve been chewing on for a couple of years. A lot of content strategy work is all about communicating with our clients, stakeholders, colleagues, and so on. And a lot of that communication revolves around problem-solving, in one form or another.

The first step in working with someone to solve a problem is to make sure you both know what that problem actually IS. Right? This is also what happens in reference librarianship. A patron will come to the ref desk (or get on your “Ask a Librarian” chat, or email you, or whatever) with a question, and part of what you have to do is figure out what it is they really want to know. I mean, if they start out by saying, “I’m looking for a book” – grabbing a random book off the shelf and handing it to them isn’t the answer they want! Okay, that’s a little extreme; that’s like someone asking “Do you know what time it is?” and answering “Yes.” (I know you do that. Smartass.) In that case, you know good and well that there’s more to the question. More complicated questions work pretty much the same way. Except more complicated.

And that’s a lot like what happens in content strategy. If a potential client contacts you and says “Hey, I need some content for my new website” – you can’t just send them a dozen random PDFs and an invoice and call it good. Right? (Except again, usually, more complicated.) There are times when someone needs stuff from you, and unless you figure out how to work together with them to figure out what it is they really need and what you can do to fill that need, you’re screwed. My theory is that the reference interview techniques that librarians have developed over the past 50-75 years or so will actually be helpful to content strategists who are working with stakeholders who need their problems solved.

So I’m working on the talk. (Except when I think, hey, let’s write a blog post. Um, procrastination much?) And in the information gathering stage, I’ve gone back to read some of the basic writings about reference librarianship, in particular the reference interview. A lot of this is stuff I read back in library school, 15 years ago or so, before I had any reference experience whatsoever. I’m reading Robert Taylor on question negotiation, Dervin & Dewdney on neutral questioning, and so on – also some newer work that’s come out since I was in library school (oddly, in school I didn’t read much about how reference interview techniques might or might not apply in a chat-reference situation – since, you know, such things didn’t really exist back then!). I’m also going back to a few of the basic content strategy texts – Halvorson, Kissane, people like that – to see what they’ve said about communicating with stakeholders, and to sort of check myself to make sure what I’m talking about really DOES apply to this kind of work.

It is so, so interesting to go back to the basics of something when you’ve been actually doing that thing for a while! Some of the literature on reference work that seemed really dry and theoretical before makes SO MUCH SENSE now. Turns out, I must have really paid attention to Dervin & Dewdney in library school, because neutral questioning (which some writers have redubbed “sense-making questions”) is something I do all the freakin’ time now.

And not just when I’m at the reference desk. Woe betide the Facebook friend who posts something like “hey, can anybody recommend a good restaurant in Bloomington?” because I will inevitably come back with questions like “hey, what kind of restaurant are you looking for? what kind of meal do you want? what’s the occasion?” I mean, I need to know stuff like that! Otherwise I’m going to send them to the downtown Bakehouse (which is where I’m sitting right now to eat a veggie burger and a lemon cupcake and to write this post) without realizing that what they want is a place for a kinda-fancy, but not necessarily pretentiously-so, place for a celebratory anniversary dinner. In which case, maybe go a couple blocks away and try FARMbloomington.

And then other Facebook friends will chime in with their recommendations, and it drives me crazy because they so often just say “Oh, go to the Uptown, because I really like it.” I want to know why they’re recommending it, what it is they like about it – otherwise, how do I know whether it’s a useful recommendation for me or not? If you tell me to go to Janko’s Little Zagreb, I might want to know you’re suggesting it because their steaks are amazing – if I’m a vegetarian, that recommendation is not worth much to me. (So yeah. If you’re asking for restaurant recommendations, you should probably mention if you’re a vegetarian. Or incredibly broke. Or celebrating your wedding anniversary. See how it works?)

On Facebook, somebody might well be asking a question like that just to amuse themselves, or to compile the canonical list of Bloomington restaurants liked by their friends. But if you’re working as a reference librarian or a content strategist, people aren’t usually just asking you questions to kill time. They’re asking because there’s a problem they are trying to solve, a task they want to accomplish, something they want to do or create or make happen. And your job is to figure out what that is before you try to give them an answer. Kind of like how, when you’re creating a website, you aren’t just putting content there for the heck of it – you need to figure out who your users are and what it is they need to be able to do, and then you can figure out what content to put there. (Why, yes, I do think there is a huge overlap between how you need to think in order to do user experience work and how you need to think in order to be a reference librarian.)

Anyway, that was all a little circuitous. But I am having a lot of fun revisiting some of the library literature, and thinking about how some of it applies very nicely to the non-librarian world, specifically content strategy. In the back of my mind I’m chewing on the possibility that both reference librarianship and content strategy offer tactics and strategies that are helpful in the much larger context of problem-solving in general. At least, when the problem-solving involves dealing with other human beings, which I think a lot of problems do. (People. Such troublemakers!)

By the way, if you wrangle web content in any way, I cannot possibly say enough good things about Confab. You should go. You really should. It’s not cheap (tip: if you enter the discount code HAINES2015 when you register, you can get a discount equivalent to the early-bird rate that you missed out on a while back), but if you can get your workplace to splurge a little, it is so so worth it. (I haven’t even mentioned the fact that they feed you really well. Breakfast, lunch, and all the snacks you could possibly stuff into your mouth between sessions – and we’re not talking stale muffins or rubber chicken either, the food is always super great!) For a much better-articulated post describing what’s so great about it, go visit Jonathan Colman’s blog post on “Why You Should Go to Confab.” And hey, if you go, you can hear me speak a little more coherently (I hope!) about the reference-content-strategy-problem-solving-hoo-ha stuff I’ve rambled on about so ramblingly today.

If I ever get the dang talk finished, that is. Time to get back to work! See you in Minneapolis?

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My Six Top Musical Moments of 2014

Musically speaking, I was a very lucky girl in 2014 – I saw some really terrific concerts, many without even having to leave my lovely smallish town. I tried, and failed, to come up with a Top Five Concerts of the Year listing – but how do you compare a teensy two-person show in a teensy dark little club in downtown Bloomington with a giant arena spectacular featuring approximately one billion E Street Band members and supporting musicians on stage? You really can’t, and yet that describes two of my favorite shows this year.

So I’m going to come up with a list of my favorite musical moments. Lots of great shows, but these were the moments that made my jaw drop, made me shriek with glee, made me hold my breath so as not to miss a note. These are in chronological order, because I can’t figure out how to rank them.

  1. Josh Ritter (at the Buskirk-Chumley in Bloomington), “In the Dark” With a small acoustic group, Josh Ritter gave an absolutely luminous performace for which I was lucky enough to be front row center. For “In The Dark” the stage and house lights were turned out and Ritter & band came out to the very edge of the stage to perform barely-lit and completely unplugged – risky, but an absolute goosebumps moment, stunning, filled with hush and echo. My first time seeing Ritter, and I was pretty well knocked out – does anyone else, short of Springsteen, perform with such an air of absolute joy? 
  2. Bruce Springsteen/E Street Band (at the US Bank Arena in Cincinnati), “Lost in the Flood” One of the songs I’d never managed to hear live and had been longing for – had even brought a sign for it once or twice when I had a GA ticket. I’m grateful for the person who brought a sign for it on this night, and the song was just as ferocious and spectacular as I could have hoped. It transitioned right into “Because the Night,” a pairing perfect as any fine wine could offer. Honorable mention goes to “Dream Baby Dream” that same night, cellphones lighting up one by one in the audience till the arena was spinning with stars; honorable mention as well to Springsteen’s Nashville show, not so much for the show (which was excellent as usual, especially the darkest-encore-ever salvo of “The Wall”/”Point Blank”/”Born in the USA”) but for the spectacularly fun few days I spent with great friends there. 
  3. Amanda Shires/Jason Isbell (at Schuba’s in Chicago), “Mutineer” I was lucky enough to see this absolutely gorgeous cover of one of Warren Zevon’s greatest songs twice this year, once at an Amanda Shires show with Jason Isbell sitting in with the band and once at a Jason Isbell solo acoustic show with Amanda Shires supporting on fiddle & vocals. I give the slight nod to the Schuba’s performance, partly because it was my first time hearing it, partly because I was with friends who appreciated it as much as I did. I just want these two to sing me this song every night before I go to sleep so I can float away on a little cloud of bliss – is that too much to ask? Honorable mention: Isbell’s appropriately loud-and-sweaty show at the Bluebird in Bloomington, where he performed with his band the 400 Unit and blew the roof off that little club multiple times. As a side note, though both Isbell’s “Southeastern” and Shires’ “Down Fell the Doves” came out in 2013, I listened to them about a bajillion times in 2014 – if I had to pick two studio albums as the soundtrack of my year, these would probably be the ones. 
  4. Rosanne Cash (at Clowes Hall in Indianapolis), “Ode to Billie Joe” Again, I was lucky to see this multiple times – in South Bend, Bloomington, and Indianapolis. Rosanne Cash’s “The River and the Thread” shows, in which the first set consisted of the album played straight through followed by a set of other material, were a major highlight of my musical year. No, she hardly varied the setlist at all – but it was one of the most perfectly constructed setlists I’ve ever witnessed, so why screw around with a good thing? I’m sometimes skeptical of “album shows” but the album performed live creates a near-perfect journey, and then the second set pleased the audience with a number of Cash’s hits and old favorites. “Ode to Billie Joe” harks back to the landscape and themes of the album, and each time the audience initially responded with raucous applause as they recognized the familiar song – and each time, by the midway point of the song, the audience had gone absolutely still. Cash sings the song like it’s something she’s just witnessed and she NEEDS to tell you the story right now, and her vocal reveals the darkness and mystery at the heart of a song you’ve heard a billion times and maybe hadn’t really thought about. I give the slight performance nod to the Clowes Hall show only because that was the rowdiest audience so the transition to breath-holding silence was the most remarkable. Honorable mention to “Money Road” at all three shows, which closed out the first set with an unexpectedly ferocious – and entirely delicious – guitar rave-up. 
  5. Pearl Jam (at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis), “Imagine” This was my first time seeing Pearl Jam (I know, I know, about time!) and I was appropriately blown away by the energy and passion both onstage and in the crowd. The first encore opened with an acoustic set, kicking off with Eddie Vedder performing John Lennon’s “Imagine” for the first time at a PJ show – just Vedder on guitar and vocal with Boom Gaspar adding a bit of keyboard. My initial expectation was that it would be a bit cliché, but in that sold-out arena with thousands of voices joining Vedder’s heartfelt vocal, it became a real goosebump moment. Honorable mentions from this show: “Footsteps” which is just a fantastic song and didn’t let go of me for weeks following the concert, and the absolute no-holds-barred kick-ass rock of “Porch.” 
  6. Lera Lynn (at the Bishop in Bloomington), “Fire” Yet another cover makes my list. Lera Lynn was a favorite musical discovery this year; her album “The Avenues” has been making a lot of best-of-2014 lists for good reason. Her whole show at the Bishop was great and had that “you’re not going to be seeing this artist on a stage this tiny much longer” feel to it; I single out her cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Fire” mainly because it was not only a great cover (YouTube it; she does cool things with this song!) but because it was a real pivot point in the show – starting with this song the setlist went somewhat out the window and the audience interaction kicked into high gear. 

So that was 2014 – lots of other great moments too, of course. 2015 is shaping up nicely so far; I’ve got tickets for Iris DeMent, Keb’ Mo’, Glen Hansard, the Gaslight Anthem, and a U2 doubleheader in Chicago among others. As always I’ve got my eye out for announcements from my favorite artists and venues; in particular, I’m hoping Nils Lofgren will make use of some E Street downtime to play some stateside shows after his UK winter tour. (The Midwest would be lovely, but I’ll get on a plane for this one if I have to.)

It’s been a crazy year in the world, with a lot of things that just make me want to hide under my blankets and never leave my house again. Music helps. Ann Powers hit the nail on the head with her essay accompanying some best-of-the-year album picks. There are probably more important things in the world than so-and-so musician singing such-and-such song and giving me goosebumps – in fact, delete that “probably”! – but those moments kept me alive, kept me getting up in the morning, reminded me that the world is worth holding on to. And you know, that’s not such a small thing after all.

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Pearl Jam, Scottrade Center, St. Louis, 10-03-2014

Yeah, yeah, I know… dormant blog… bla bla bla. I know I’ve promised to revive it before. I think I’ve just been unfocused about why I even have the thing. Let’s try to start back up with a little concert review, shall we?

When you are a serious fan (knows all the words, has lots of bootlegs, travels for shows, compares setlists, would instantly recognize any of the band members on the street, etc.) of one band and then you go to a concert by another band in a similar genre, it’s a little like attending services in a church that’s in your same religion but a rather different denomination. It’s both familiar and a little disorienting. As a pretty serious Springsteen/E Street Band fan, I attended my first Pearl Jam show in St. Louis on October 3, and while it didn’t feel like “home” the way a Bruce show does, it was good. Really, really good.

Pearl Jam St. Louis button

Shout-out to the guy sitting next to me, also a big Bruce fan, who gave me this button at the end of the show. Super nice of you, man!

I have been, for years, a pretty casual Pearl Jam fan. I know the radio hits, of course. I’ve got a few of their albums, though I don’t know those albums backwards and forwards. In the weeks before the show I did make an effort to listen to them more, and I picked up the most recent album (Lightning Bolt) and gave that one particular attention. While I’ve been a casual fan, I guess I have to qualify that a bit, because a lot of casual fans wouldn’t drive 200 miles to catch a show. I’m still not sure what tipped the scales; I’ve heard for years that they put on an excellent show, but it wasn’t until this tour that I decided I needed to see them. The most logical shows for me to catch were either Cincinnati (about a 2.5 hour drive) or St. Louis (about a 4 hour drive). I’d been to Cinci already this year for a Bruce show, and I have a couple of friends in STL that I knew I’d like to see; the fact that when tickets went on sale I wasn’t able to nab anything better than an upper level for Cinci but found a good lower for STL was the clincher. Also, STL has several reasonably priced hotels within walking distance of the arena, so you don’t have to pay “event” rates for parking. (A note for St. Louis traveling show-goers: if you stay at the Pear Tree Inn, just down Market Street from the Scottrade Center arena, the restaurant next door has a shuttle bus that will take you there and bring you back afterwards for two bucks a person each way. It’s walkable, but so nice to have another option that doesn’t involve shelling out money for parking.)

I do love a rock & roll road trip.

I will say this. If you’re a casual, or even relatively casual, fan and you go to a show, plan on being OK with hearing songs you don’t necessarily know, or know well. Don’t plan on talking through them. Plan on listening to them and enjoying them and maybe even falling in love with them (Footsteps, I’m talking to you – what a killer song!). The St. Louis setlist gave us a nicely-balanced mix of big hits (Jeremy, Daughter, Even Flow, etc.), deeper cuts, and a couple of covers. The first set was very solid, the band super tight and the audience extremely responsive. “Even Flow,” “Not For You,” and of course “Jeremy” were highlights of this set. The second set opened with Eddie Vedder seated alone onstage, where he gave us a stunning, utterly heartfelt cover of John Lennon’s “Imagine.” Not a huge surprise to get this, I suppose, since he’s just released this song as a charity single on iTunes – but apparently it had never been performed at a PJ show before, only at Vedder’s solo shows. This was followed by “Just Breathe,” a song I got sick of on the radio but which sounded really lovely tonight. The aforementioned “Footsteps” is, I gather from reading some of the fan boards online, infrequently performed and one some fans have been chasing for a while – it was a highlight for me too, and I’d probably only heard it a couple of times in my life before. After a fun “Last Kiss” performed directly to the audience seated behind the stage (classy move, PJ!), the set returned to the louder material – “Chloe Dancer/Crown of Thorns” was outstanding and “Porch” was a major face-melter.

The third set (officially the second encore) blew the roof off the place. “Alive” was a highlight for me, and “Baba O’Riley” was just a lot of fun. I tried hard all night to resist comparing the show to a Springsteen show, wanting to take it entirely on its own merits, but the late-in-the-show, house-lights-up, loudly-singing-audience atmosphere reminded me of, say, “Born to Run” followed by “Rosalita.” You know, the point in the show where it’s no longer even about the song itself but about the energy in the arena, the joy of collective release, and the need to throw yourself into it even though you’ve been rocking for well over two hours – both band and audience giving it everything they’ve got. A glorious feeling.

I was sorry to get neither “Black” (a song I’ve always absolutely loved, and the one that probably came closest to pulling me into PJ fandom way back when) nor “Sirens” (I guess some people think this is a bathroom-break song, but it’s probably my favorite on the new album) – but you can’t have all the songs in every show, and I have no quibbles with the setlist, which was nicely balanced and flowed very well.

The band’s energy seemed excellent; this was the second show on this US leg of the Lightning Bolt tour, and they seemed glad to be there and definitely back into the groove after three months of downtime. Next time I’m definitely aiming to sit on Mike McCready’s side of the stage – he was SO much fun to watch, and an interesting guitarist. I’d been a little concerned about Eddie Vedder, having heard that he did something to his leg in Cincinnati and was seen limping badly at the end of the show – he acknowledged the injury at one point in St. Louis, thanking the doctors who’d fixed him up. He seemed to be moving just fine, spending a lot of time looking intently into the audience and going into the crowd a bit. He also seemed to be in a great mood. At one point Vedder and McCready did this thing where they were leaning on each other’s backs and going lower and lower until they both lost control and crashed down on the stage; I looked up at the video screens then and Vedder was grinning like a fool. I LOVE it when the band members seem like they are having fun on the stage, enjoying the show, enjoying one another’s playing and one another’s company. (One of the reasons I love the E Street Band so much – every show has a lot of that.)

First Pearl Jam show – in the books! And it definitely won’t be my last. And you know, it does say something about a band when, twenty-plus years into their career, they can put on a performance strong enough to continue pulling in new fans, or at least to convert casual fans into the more serious variety. Well done, guys. Well done.

* * * * *
Slideshow: Pearl Jam at Scottrade Arena, from the Riverfront Times

Setlist, review and photos from Speakers in Code

 

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Greetings from the Polar Vortex

photo of icy treesAnd greetings to anyone who might still be following this blog! Yes, it’s true, I’ve been frozen in the polar vortex… we haven’t had it as bad here as folks just a few miles to the north, because when the storm came through on Sunday we skated right on the rain/snow line for quite a few hours. I woke Sunday morning to about two inches of snow, but then it changed over to rain… and sleet… and slush… and snow… and freezing rain… and some big fat white globs that rocketed straight down from the sky and looked for all the world like a giant horde of birds was flying over and pooping on us. Every time I looked out the window, we were getting different precipitation. I fully expected frogs to start falling from the sky at some point.image of radar display showing precipitation

Eventually it started to change back over to snow, and I went outside to clear the 2-3 inches of pure gross slush off my windshield and other parts of the car before it froze solid overnight. That was a very, very smart move on my part. This morning I saw a guy across the street trying to chip about 2-3 inches of pure gross frozen-solid slush off the windshield of a mini-van with what looked like a kitchen spatula. He was also not wearing a hat (the temperature was hovering around 5 below zero at that point), so I’m thinking he might not have been the sharpest snowflake in the tundra. But I felt a little smug as I looked out at the perfectly clear windows of my own car.

Anyway, to make a long story short (too late, right?), the temperature dropped below zero shortly after midnight Sunday night/Monday morning, and stayed there until around 11 am on Tuesday. We didn’t get the foot of snow that Indianapolis got, but our roads are covered with bumpy frozen slush, which has its own … er … joys? Campus was officially closed both Monday and Tuesday, which was fantastic, as I am relatively sane and didn’t really want to venture outside in the 30-below-zero wind chill. I have been very, very lucky in that my furnace never gave out on me, I never lost power (a lot of people did), and my pipes didn’t freeze. It was on the cool side in the house even so, but I bundled up in fleece and blankets and enjoyed the heated throw I bought on Saturday for the occasion – as did the cats. I have basically spent most of the last three days underneath various combinations of lap cats. It’s been very, very nice.

3 cats on top of electric blanket

note the box in the background, which has not been opened & contains a brand new space heater bought for the occasion. If my furnace had given out during the polar business, I was PREPARED.

 

High Hopes album artSome people bake cookies when they have a snow day… I apparently write album reviews. If you’re interested in knowing what I think of the new Springsteen album, you can read my review over at Blogness on the Edge of Town. It won’t surprise anyone that I mostly like the album; when I write about music I’m actually less interested in the kind of review that pins the album with a certain number of stars or whatever, and more interested in just delving into it and asking “what’s going on here? what does the artist’s intention for this music seem to be, and does he succeed?” Especially with someone like Springsteen, who’s earned my respect and trust as an artist over the years, I make the assumption that he knows what he’s doing; I am more interested in examining the trajectory of the album and poking at it to find out what makes it tick. I’m not articulating this very well, I think. And I’m not really a music reviewer; to the extent that I have a strategy for doing that sort of thing, it comes more from what I’ve learned about workshopping poetry than from anything else. Anyway, I have a lot of thoughts about the album that didn’t make it into what I wrote, so stay tuned for more, perhaps.

Stay warm and safe out there, everyone – if you go out, wear your hat and mittens and for goodness’ sake clear the snow off of ALL your car windows before you drive! (I shoulda been a mom, huh?)

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No Surrender: On writing retreats

Boardwalk leading down into the woods towards the falls

Clifty Falls State Park

A few years ago, I spent several summer days (a little less than a full week) at Clifty Falls State Park, working to finish a book-length poetry manuscript. This writing retreat was generously funded by an Individual Artist Grant from the Indiana Arts Commission.

On the one hand, the retreat was a success. I got into a routine: breakfast, coffee, check in online, then dive into the manuscript for a few hours. When my head got too full of words, I’d go outside and tromp around in the woods for a bit. (On one jaunt I was tremendously startled by a wild turkey who happened to pop out of the shrubbery just as I walked past. Those things are HUGE! I think s/he was just as startled as I was…) And I came away with what felt like a finished manuscript.

Desk with papers all over it and coffee cup

Work in progress, Clifty Inn

On the other hand, the retreat was a failure, because that manuscript racked up a pretty good pile of rejection notes when I started submitting it to publishers. Sigh.

On the other other hand, it was a success, because once I’d put together that manuscript and felt “finished” with it, I was able to move on from those poems and began writing some that were very different from the ones I’d been writing for quite a while.

Since I don’t have that many hands, we’ll call that retreat … a partial success. I’m certainly glad I did it, and I learned a lot about putting together a manuscript that week too. I spent some of my time listening to three Springsteen albums I have always thought were masterpieces of sequencing, albums that have a definite storytelling/emotional arc – Born to Run, Darkness on the Edge of Town, and Tunnel of Love – and tried to figure out which of my poems made the most sense as my manuscript’s “Thunder Road.” Most importantly, I learned to settle down, center, and dive into the work in a way that felt really good.

When I read poems from my manuscript-allegedly-in-progress, “Chasing Angels,” last weekend – and as I prepared for that reading – I realized I hadn’t looked at that manuscript, or even thought about it much, in at least a year. I’d thought I might be ready to abandon it. But the poems felt alive to me again as I dug through them picking out which ones to read. It kind of surprised me. And I think I’m ready to pay attention to “Chasing Angels” again.

So… I’m planning another retreat. This one’s going to be more intense in some ways; I’m going in February, and I’m getting a cabin with (omg) NO INTERNET. (At Clifty Falls, I stayed in the inn, in a lovely room with a jacuzzi and internet.) I’ll be able to hike over to the lodge in the park with my iPad in tow and check email or whatever, and I might have a weak-ass 3G signal from the cabin – in Brown County I occasionally find a spot where I get 3G, but it’s not that widespread – so for the most part, getting connected will require a 10-15 minute tromp. Which isn’t that bad (not exactly roughing it, I realize) but for someone like me who pokes at whichever device is closest every five minutes or so, and checks Twitter and email on her phone last thing before falling asleep at night and first thing after waking up in the morning – it’s going to be a challenge. Poetry Unplugged. (Also known as: “If you want internet you’re gonna have to put on pants.”)

For some people, four days of near-solitude would be the challenge. And I know I’ll have moments when it’s too quiet and I can hear myself think too well. Mostly, I’ll miss the cats! I don’t have aloof, low-maintenance cats; all three of mine are usually right near me at any given moment, and usually if I’m sitting down at least one (sometimes two, occasionally three) will be on my lap. As I type this, in fact, I’ve got one sprawled across my legs, just on the other side of the laptop I’m typing on, purring up a storm. But I am used to solitude, and pretty comfortable with it. And if I really need to see another human being, I can go over to the lodge – I could even eat a meal or two in the restaurant there.

I’m not exactly going to be cut off from civilization – the cabin has electricity, heat, plumbing, a TV. There’s a wood stove (failed drafts probably make excellent kindling!) and a deck overlooking a wooded ravine. I have no idea what the weather will be like – it could be 50 degrees or it could be below zero – but if it’s at all reasonable, I will tromp around in the woods to clear my mind every now and then.

I might take a guitar, in case I am inspired to write any of the manuscript’s protagonist’s songs. (Here’s hoping I don’t have any nearby neighbors.) I will certainly take binoculars, as it’s not at all unlikely that I’ll see some wildlife – deer, raccoons, eagles, maybe even another turkey to scare the crap out of me. Mostly, though, the plan will be – once again – to emerge from the retreat with a “finished” manuscript in hand, ready to start sending out. It’s a little different this time, as I cobbled together a version of a manuscript some time ago. But that version is waaaaaay too long, and I’ve written a few more poems for it since then. My hope is that after being away from it for a while, I’ll be able to take a harder look and excise the weaker poems.

Anyway, it’s a few months away, but I am looking forward to it. I think it will challenge me, probably in ways that are as unexpected as a big-ass wild turkey jumping out from the underbrush. I’m not in a position to take a month-long residency at a fabulous place like Yaddo or McDowell, even if I thought I could get accepted there. I probably couldn’t even swing two weeks, given the realities of vacation time limitations and cat sitter bills. So I’m taking four days, and by golly I am going to make the most of it.

Onward!

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