Saturday, January 31, 2009

Dispatch from The Western Front - Jan. 31

The Western Front has been busy in January fighting off a flanking maneuver by corporate America that appears determined to draw all my energies and time away from fun things like this blog and into a quagmire of work.

So, apologies for the few number of posts recently. In about a week, I'll be back with some pre-Oscar movie reviews and an investigation of the album St. Jude by the band The Courteeners.

In the meantime, check out the Tiger picture I took when we were in India that I recently re-discovered under Photo of the Week over to the right, as well as an updated set of music I'm listening to.

And finally, here is a quote from my all-time hero Joe Strummer...

"If you want the floor, you need to get up on the table."

Ponder that.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Duck Record Defended

The other day the local sports radio station was discussing college sports in the northwest generally, and the subject of the rivalry between my alma mater the University of Oregon Ducks and the hated Oregon State Beavers came up. 

One of the on-air personalities said, "no doubt about it, Oregon State has the better football program...nobody other than USC has won more games over the past five seasons."

Well, that's not true. Must be wishful thinking from a sour Husky-lover.

Yes, it is true that USC has dominated in Pac-10 college football. No question there.

But, on the question of UO vs. OSU, the realities are that over the past five football seasons:
  • UO has won 41 football games, OSU has won, who has won more games? The Ducks.

  • UO has finished ranked #9 (2008), #23 (2007) and #12 (2004) while OSU has finished #18 (2008), #25 (2007) and #21 (2006), who has finished with higher rankings? The Ducks.

  • UO football finished 2nd in the Pac-10 in 2008, fourth in 2007, fifth in 2006, second in 2005 and fifth in 2004. OSU finished third in 2008, third in 2007, third in 2006, seventh in 2005 and fourth in 2004. So, a mixed bag, and clearly not enough to back up the "OSU is a better program" brag. OSU is more consistent as the third best Pac-10 program, but Oregon has more top 2 finishes over the past five seasons.

  • It is true that OSU has won 3 of the past 5 "Civil War" games, so give them their due. But it also needs to be noted that those wins were very, very close games (2 were OT wins) while the two Oregon wins were absolute blow outs...including the UO win in the recently concluded season. So again, not a clear indication that "OSU is the better program" by any stretch.
So, there you have it...proof that the statement "Oregon State is clearly a better football program than Oregon over the past five seasons" is false. You can see that in fact, the Oregon Ducks have won more games and finished higher in the season-ending rankings over the past five seasons than the Oregon State. Meanwhile, other typical measures to compare the two are a wash at best.

Sorry for the tangent everybody, but Duck honor needed to be defended...this needed to be set straight.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Obama to Republicans This Week - "I won"

After a week on the road for work, I caught up with the big political news of the week Friday and this morning. 

After watching the new president's inaugural speech, I am taken by his call to "pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and remake America." His call for our society to do big things, to put aside petty politics, leave behind clearly failed policies of the past and move forward with new ideas and in the spirit of fixing the problems we have was well received by me and, from what I gather, most Americans.

So great. Right guy, right message, time to move forward, do new things, get this country going again. There is a willing public seeking leadership, change and a return to better times. On top of that, Obama has a plan of action to start down this road that he's seeking to get passed into law.

All seems good, right?

Wrong. Despite all of the above, who do you think might impede progress? Who do you think would dig in, cry "foul," and reverse their previous stances simply to cause paralysis at the moment we need action? Yes, you guessed it...the Republican Party. 

Yep, like that creepy uninvited drunk loner guy at your party who is scaring off all the girls and talking like a braggart to the other guys about how cool he is and how he's gonna beat up someone tonight, the Republicans are single handedly orchestrating a national buzz kill of serious proportions. 

Sure, you may say to yourself that, hey, Obama is president and there is a Democratic Party majority in both houses of Congress so he should be able to do what he wants to. You'd be right, but you'd also be wrong.

Yes, both houses have Demo majorities and Obama is a Democrat. Yes, Obama and the Dems have a plan to get the country moving again. And sure, there's room to negotiate and change the plan to get all on board. However, in the Senate, the Republicans hold enough seats that they can filibuster and therefore defeat legislation Obama and the Democrats want.

And I learned this week that they are using the threat of using this minimal but significant amount of power to thwart Obama's the degree that Obama had to turn to Republicans this week amidst their false scare tactics of protest over "big government," "socialism," "more tax cuts," etc. to say to them, "Remember, I won." 

Hey, the Democrats are no great shakes. They're only a very little different that Republicans in my mind. But, Obama did win and damn it he should get his chance to enact new policies.

That is why I think this Republican maneuver so early in the Obama administration and contrary to the will of the citizenry is an ominous sign that the Republican Party will not take up Obama's call to meet these historic times as Americans rather than Ds and Rs and instead serve up their usual ration of partisan hate and obstruction of progress.

I mean, come on. All of a sudden, the party that presided over the biggest expansion in the size of government in U.S. history is deriding Obama's plans as "big government." Over night, the party responsible for turning our federal budget surplus of 2000 into the largest federal budget deficit in U.S. history is now saying Obama's plans will drive up deficits. Get the picture?  No credibility.

So, will the "creepy drunk guy at your party" (Republicans) succeed in alienating everyone at the party (our economy) - shutting it down for good? Or, will some of the level headed party goers (voters) shut him up or show him the door?

We shall see. The next month should be interesting in finding out the answers to those questions. 

Monday, January 19, 2009

Goodbye to the Worst U.S. President Ever

So here we are...the last full day of George W. Bush as president of the U.S. of A. 

Who knows what the next few years hold. Hope resides primarily in the vision and abilities of one Barack Obama. 

But, before the revision, the spin and the B.S. starts in full about Bush - because for sure it will come - I wanted on the last day of the Bush presidency to touch on a few things to consider in judging the job "W" did in running this country. Any ONE of the following would be grounds for considering Bush the worst president in U.S. history in my book, and there are PLENTY more examples one could add. But, below are five to ponder. I've listed these catastrophic examples of Bush's poor leadership in particular because I think they have had a direct effect on people in this nation, and certainly others:

1) U.S. attacked. The worst single attack on the American homeland by foreign powers in our nation's history occurred on Bush's watch. Think about this. The worst attack ever. Sure, Republicans say Bush "protected" America for seven years straight, but they always fail to remember that the 9-11 attacks  and all the deaths they caused happened on his watch despite clear warnings the president and his team received in advance. Literally historically poor leadership. By the way, the revisionism is already started. The other day in downtown Seattle, I saw a big billboard that said, "President Bush. Thank you for keeping us safe." 

2) Economic disaster. As an inevitable result of the "trickle down," rig the system for the rich, tax cuts for the wealthy, and the spectacular de-regulation of financial, energy and industrial sectors...not to mention an anti-union, outsource-friendly and "free trade" policy...this president and his party aided and abetted THE single worst economic crisis in this country's history other than The Great Depression  - so far as we know yet. High unemployment rates, skyrocketing costs for education, massive home foreclosures, increasing homelessness, more people without healthcare, record deficits (aren't Republicans supposed to be fiscally conservative?), a historically weak dollar and no hope for improvement. Thanks a-hole.

3) Needless war. Yes, most Americans would agree - and I do too - that we needed to go into Afghanistan to go after Bin Laden and the people who orchestrated the 9-11 attacks. But, that had zero to do with Iraq. Bush and Cheney "worked' the American public, the intelligence agencies and the U.N. to get a war started against Saddam predicated on a combination of "daddy issues" for Bush, trumped up evidence and "money making opportunities" for Cheney and the crowd he runs with. The result? Thousands of U.S. dead and wounded, not to mention a much higher toll for Iraqi's. Lets also not forget the war has squandered our Federal budget on Iraq rather than using it to either going after Al Qaida or spending it on domestic priorities. Our reputation around the world has taken a huge hit. There has been  massive grift by U.S. defense contractors. And perhaps the topper...we still haven't killed Bin Laden and shut down his organization, but Bush's decisions have alienated an entire region of the world against us. Want more terrorists? Bush helped create a whole generation of them. 

4) Monumental cronyism. This administration appointed buddies and cronies to high positions and the American public paid the price. This is best exhibited in the whole Hurricane Katrina fiasco in which Bush buddy and horse breeding association guy "Brownie" was in charge of...well, fucking up big time the response to the storm and it's aftermath. This ended up costing some people their lives, and others their livelihoods. And, I suspect there are unknowable millions that have gone to waste, fraud and abuse through Bush's appointments as well. 

5) Environmental incompetence. What a missed opportunity! At the very moment our country could use a transition to a "green" economy and all the historic economic and health benefits this could have brought to the U.S., Bush and company looked backward and short term instead of forward and long term. And what is the result? A tragic, and perhaps nationally fatal, missed opportunity to transition our economy, preserve the global environment and keep our edge on the rest of the world. 

Yes, there are lots of other things beyond these five examples that one could cite as evidence of the total and complete failure of the Bush presidency. Indeed. But I think these handful really tell the story. 

To summarize, at a critical moment in our history when we needed exactly the right leader at the right time, we got (and really, also chose and accepted) the exactly wrong guy and the wrong time in Bush. And for this, our nation is paying a heavy, heavy price that it will take decades to reverse. And for that, George W. Bush will go down as the worst president we've ever had.

I believe history will judge Bush harshly too. We can only hope wiser, more competent and leaders with the interests of all Americans prevail over the next 10-15 years.

Tomorrow, it's, "Welcome President Obama!"

But for at least one more day, it's "F-you George Bush!"

Thursday, January 15, 2009

A view of Hanoi, Vietnam

As a baby born in 1969, Vietnam features prominently in the TV, movies and books I read or saw growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s. That's one reason visiting Vietnam generally, and Hanoi in the north in particular proved to be such a fascinating experience when Diane and I went there in 2006.

Suffice it to say, we had a wonderful time adventuring around the labyrinthof streets in old Hanoi, shopping, meeting nice people, eating at fantastic restaurants (some modern, some a century old) featuring both Vietnamese and French cuisine, taking a cooking class and much, much more.

I recently posted a few of the many pictures I took in Hanoi on my Flick Photostream.

Click here for the Hanoi set if you want to check them out. 

Better yet, go to Vietnam and see the country. You won't regret it.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Concert Review - Glasvegas

NOTE: Anyone seeking info on the Feb. 28, 2014 show by Glasvegas in Seattle, please click HERE to see my review of that gig. I also posted a review of the band's 2011 appearance in Seattle HERE

And so it was that the four-piece band Glasvegas took the stage last Saturday evening, January 10, at the Chop Suey club in a city far, far from their Scottish homeland - a very distant outpost known as Seattle, Washington. With a set of urgent and soring songs, the band delivered live on many of the promises offered in their debut album, Glasvegas.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself.

For indeed, most shows are more than just a performance. Rather, if done correctly, a show is really a whole evening's worth of entertainment full of sights, sounds, people watching, food, drinks, a little controversy and a few surprises. Happily, the Glasvegas show had all of that.

Therefore, for this gig I'm going to give you a review of the evening we had centered around the performance - checking in on the venue, the scene, the vibe, the performances, questions and after-gig activities.

A Cast of Characters
I did not go to the Glasvegas show alone. Oh no. A few very good friends - Sean, Michael, Brian and Paul - all with mixed musical tastes and all trusting me that the gig would be good came along for the ride. Sean, Paul and I had a great pre-gig dinner at Quinn's Pub on Pike Street a few blocks from the show venue and then made our way over there and met up with Brian and Michael.

The most important point here - and it must be said truly for the entire evening regardless of the band - was that the show offered us a chance to hang out. Each of us has busy business and personal lives and we don't get to get together as buddies as much as we used to...and when we do it is often in the context of functions with our significant others. So, this night was really made simply by the fact that it was a true return to form "boys night out."
The Venue
Chop Suey is a small place, but one with pretty good acoustics and a great place to see a band up close and personal. Security was a little tight given that a person was shot and killed outside the club a week or so earlier. That meant a pat down before going in. But, that was it. No incidents or problems.

After a stop at the bar for a round of beer, we made our way to the increasingly crowded floor and picked a spot. At the Chop Suey you literally can stand at the back of the main floor and still see the whites of the performer's eyes. Official capacity is 550 people, and that number was surely tested last Saturday - very crowded.

The Scene and the Vibe
The crowd was about 80 percent male in my estimation, and simply there for good time. A lot of dudes in black, mixed ages from 21 up to my crew's early 40s age range. The floor in front of the stage filled up fast and you had to stand your ground in the drift to keep your spot. I was impressed that there were so many people hip to Glasvegas in Seattle.

Unlike some shows I've been to, we did not encounter any posers, thugs or a-holes. There was a mildly rowdy Scottish contingent in the house to support their local heroes. Mainly, they just chanted the chorus line from one of the songs as the band took the stage.

One phenomenon that I always encounter at shows was revisited here. Namely, that even though I'm a 6ft, 1in tall guy, INVARIABLY some guy taller stands right in front of me. And of course that happened again. It's actually kinda funny. Sure, you move...but he moves. You move again...he moves in front again. Eventually, this tree of a man must have headed to the bar permanently because by the time Glasvegas came on he was gone.

As all this was going on, my friend Michael pointed out the irony in the fact that while Glasvegas were performing their song Daddy's Gone, he himself the father of three, would not be at home with his children. Ha! Too true.

Finally, our prying eyes also spied a couple celebrities. In particular, Peter Buck from R.E.M. (he lives part time in Seattle) and the lead singer of the band Harvey Danger (a Seattle-based band). So, it was kind of cool to see that some established rockers shared interest in Glasvegas.

The Opening Act
The "support" act was a very pleasant surprise. Former frontman for bands The Libertines and Dirty Pretty Things, Carl Barat, played a selection of songs from both those groups...and he did so solo. No backing band, no other singers...just him and his electric guitar. Impressive and enjoyable as the crowd sang along to most of the tunes. Barat also drew my attention to a Washington state rule or law that apparently no alcohol is allowed on stage. He said this right before heading to the back of the stage for a quick chug of a beer in between songs...for which he drew a hardy cheer from the masses.

Check Barat's work out on iTunes. I don't think his solo efforts are there, but certainly records by The Libertines and Dirty Pretty Things are.
The Main Event
Dressed in black, the band came on stage at about 10:30 p.m. to the roar of the crowd and the shimmery wall of guitar that is the opening to their song Flowers and Football Tops. After the opener, they worked their way through a tight set of some of their best known songs. The full set list ran as follows: Flowers and Football Tops, Lonesome Swan, It's My Own Cheating Heart That Makes Me Cry, Please Come Back Home, Polmont On My Mind, Geraldine, Ice Cream Van, Go Square Go, Stabbed, Daddy's Gone.

(Photo taken by Michael Croan at the Jan. 10, 2009 show at Chop Suey in Seattle)

The band's sound is a mix of 50s rock, squeeley Jesus & Mary Chain racket, 60s girl-group mellodies, Phil Spector wall-of-sound and basic straight ahead rock.

Within that matrix, singer, guitarist and frontman James Allan has impressive stage presence and charisma and delivers his songs with a great deal of passion. As he sang, the guitarists and bassist whirled around either side and behind him as he worked up a sweat delivering his lines. Allan, who lost his thick leather jacket about half way through, on several occasions connected with the audience and signaled his appreciation to individual fans and the crowd at large.

See here for a video clip of the song Geraldine from this show.
Highlights to me were Gerladine, Daddy's Gone and Polmont on My Mind because in addition to being superior songs, I felt that Allan and mates really pulled the stops out in performing them - heightening the drama and really spilling their guts out. See my post here for more on the subjects and sounds of Glasvegas from their album. Daddy's Gone and Go Square Go elicited wide participation by the crowd as Allan dropped his vocals in deference to the masses enthusiastically chanting the chorus lines to those two songs.

The much talked about light show that goes with this band was not as aggressive as I'd been led to believe by reading reviews of previous shows. Lets put it this way...I didn't need to put on my sunglasses as anticipated. Additionally, I thought the sound carried well in the small club. Sometimes bands with big-budget sound blow out a small venue and you can't hear the singer or one or more instruments. So I wondered if their big sound could come across in such a venue. The answer is...yes, it can. The mix proved clear and the volume correct. As an added ringing ears the next day.

After wrapping up their last tune just over an hour after they came on, the band were done and the show was over.

Now, this wouldn't be a true review without some criticism. While various members of our little crew offered up critiques on some elements of the performance such as over-dramatic moves or elements of the sound, the one that we all agreed on as a clear problem was the lack of an encore.

This was a disappointment not just because it would have been great to hear more songs (and the band definitely had not exhausted their inventory of tunes), but more importantly because it seemed like - as my friend Brian philosophized at the time - there was a real "rock and roll moment" at hand for this up-and-coming band that they missed paying off. He was right.

At the end of their compelling set, frontman James Allan said that the following song would be their last of the evening, thanked the crowd and then they broke into a rockin' version of their song "Daddy's Gone." Then that was it.
How cool would it have been for Glasvegas to come back on for even only one more song? They had the opportunity to seize the audience, make them fans for life and leave 'em begging for more. But instead they left the stage, the lights went up and the roadies started disassembling their gear.

Look, I enjoyed the show a lot, but the lack of the encore is a bother that lingers. Was it because they simply didn't want to play more? Were they jet lagged coming in from the east coast? Were they following direction from their management? And if it was that, why not say, "what the hell" and do it anyway? How "hungry" is this band really? These were the questions we all were asking after the gig as we sauntered over to the nearby Elysian Brewery for a post-show pint.

Meeting the Band
Beers in hand and table secured at about mostly empty Elysian, our little group sat to debate the merits of the show, talk about the lack of encore and more generally compare notes on bands and music. As we did so, my friend Michael casually said, "Oh, there's the band." Sure enough, as he spoke, each member of Glasvegas and opening man Carl Barrat filed on into the bar.

After a few minutes, I got up the courage to go say hello to James Allan and his cousin/guitarist, Rab Allan. I thanked them for the show and for putting Seattle on their list of cities to tour. Both were approachable, gracious and really nice guys. After a few seconds more chit chat, that was that. I did ask Rab Allan about why no encore? In so many words, he said that their management company had booked this as a "small venue" tour and that for those they were told no encores.

Later, Paul Donoghue, the bass player walked past our table and we corralled him for a second. Again, a very nice guy willing to spend a few minutes with fans. We asked him a few questions about touring and song writing, and then the question about no encore. Donoghue gave the same answer as Rab Allan had and in the same manner. A very sincere and almost innocent..."well, the management said that's what we were going to do."

The band's drummer, Caroline McKay, also passed by our table and we extended the same thanks to her and she too took a moment to thank us for coming to the show. So, four-for-four on the "nice people" meter for Glasvegas.

I also spoke to Carl Barat about what he was up to. Yet again, a very approachable and nice guy willing to take a few minutes in a far-away city to chat with a fan. Very cool. He said that he's kind of in between projects right now and that playing the solo support slot for Glasvegas was fun to keep his chops up. He also admitted that doing the set solo was a bit scary. NOTE: I don't recall if he used the word "scary," but that's the gist of his comment as I recall it. More power to him!

In the end, it was a thrill to meet the performers. Thank you to them. It was also re-assuring to know that each are very real and approachable people. And of course, talking with them helped to get some perspective on the encore issue. My interpretation on that subject is that: a) the band's management called the shots on how long they would play and why, b) the band was either too nice, innocent or tiered to challenge management, but c) they should have. Easy for me to say, I know. And hell, it's not my band so who the heck am I to say anything. But, I humbly think there was a chance for the band to turn an enjoyable, above average performance into a crushing, never-going-to-forget moment and that didn't happen.

In Summary
This was a very good show and I give it a thumbs up. In the end, the band were in good form, passionate, engaged and delivered a set of unique and moving music. Other than the obvious encore issue, they certainly lived up to my high expectations. And, as mentioned before, the true value in the evening was a night out with good friends.

  • Check out Glasvegas' debut album called Glasvegas.
  • See them live if you can. They come to Seattle again in April.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Bad economy = better music?

Over the past 50 years economic times have sometimes lead to a rejuvenation and re-invention of rock and/or pop music and I'm wondering if the spectacular turd economy of the late 2000s will result in an influx if more intense, meaningful and new sonic innovation?

In the 1970s, oil shocks, inflation and unemployment (along with a bloated, silly and going nowhere music scene) helped spawn punk, new wave and rap in the U.S and the U.K.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s a similar set of economic and music industry circumstances helped birth grunge rock. While it may not seem as big a deal now in the rear view mirror, Mr. Cobain and his colleagues did us all a favor back then. Remember Poison? Mr. Big? Whitesnake? No? Well, that's because Nirvana, Soundgarden, Pearl Jam, Mudhoney and others made you forget.

Since then, the music industry has been on cruise control offering up a massive helping of "bitches and hos" rap, meaningless sugary pop "punk," diva acts, big hat country, stadium rock and nostalgia trips. Along the way, someone convinced the public that a DJ mashing together other people's songs and rapping over them was original. It's not and it's not entertaining.

Sure, there have been some great bands and performers come out of the past 10-15 years. But, for every Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, Glasvegas or Arcade Fire there are 100s of bands like Coldplay, The Dave Matthews Band (yes people, the honest truth is that DMB is boring fratboy crap), the Fray and others serving up vapid nothingness. And that's just in the rock area. 

Not even the real-time disaster parade of the George W. Bush years pushed music ahead. After all, after five minutes of "really caring," the people of this nation's primary response to the 9-11 attacks, hurricane Katrina and conservative attack on the economy was in the end a big, "eh...lets go to the mall then to Outback." This is not a culture ready to have an open ear or mind to new music. Nope, give them more of the same or more of what sounds like what they used to like years ago. 

I can only think of one exception of protest rock being really popular among the masses over the last eight years - Green Day's American Idiot. Yeah, most people were responding the nice tones and and pop soundscape. None the less, listen to the words on that album. 

Anyway, back to my main point... 

Will the all-to-real economic hard times and rising unemployment re-generate the music scene? Will kids without much of a future spend more of their afternoons in the garage working up a set of songs with some buddies on guitar, bass and drums to express themselves rather than eating cheetos and playing video games? Will their friends across town channel their bleak futures to take rap to new places and say something real? Will laid off factory workers pick up acoustic guitars and pen new and inventive country tunes expressing their situation? Will techheads whose jobs have been outsourced to India finally use their free time and expertise to create new and revolutionary electronic beats and sounds?

In short, will the societal dissatisfactions that come with massive layoffs, spectacularly expensive education, poor healthcare, the housing crisis, a weak dollar and other results of the past 20 years now culminating in the U.S. motivate music in new and interesting directions?

I'm going to say yes. I think the conditions are unfortunately right in the economy and the music scene that this will happen over the next couple years. But, for all our sakes I'd like to have the economic hardships addressed and improved sooner rather than later.

OK, those are my thoughts. Anyone care to comment?