Video Fridays: Rock&Roll Is In A Coma, And Rhett Miller Should Be HUGE!

Rhett_Miller_2013Two weeks ago tonight, while I was in Los Angeles for my mini-vacation, I had the great pleasure to see a music performance that both totally satisfied and baffled at the same time.

Rhett Miller is the frontman and primary songwriter for a band I love a lot, Old 97’s, and he appeared at Largo, a very intimate space, for a show he called Wheels Off: The Rhett Miller Show, described thusly:

Modeled after an old-school variety show, Wheels Off will feature music, comedy, a little bit of discussion, and maybe even a skit here and there.

It.Was.A.Blast!

Rhett started off playing a handful of solo-acoustic songs, a fiddler joined him for a few songs, a comedian did a brief set, Rhett and the fiddler did a few more songs, Rhett and some gal did a humorous skit based off Charles Schulz’s Peanuts comic strip, with Rhett as Charlie Brown and the gal as Lucy, Rhett returned by himself for a few songs, the bass player from Old 97’s, Murry Hammond, joined him for a handful of songs, and finally they were both joined by the fiddler and Largo fixture, songwriter and film score composer Jon Brion.

So, like I said, the show was totally satisfying, but the baffling part can be summed up by what my friend said to me when the lights came up for intermission:

How the HELL is this guy not HUGE?!!

It’s a valid question.

On paper, Rhett Miller seems to have it all. He’s a natural frontman, a highly charismatic, likeable entertainer; he’s got killer, youthful good looks; he’s a rock-solid rhythm guitarist; his voice is strong, with good range; he can summon quintessential Rock&Roll snarls, shouts, and screams; his lyrics are loaded with witty wordplay and vivid visuals, with themes running the Rock&Roll gamut, from sweet and romantic to rowdy and raunchy.

Oh, and he’s constantly writing new music and touring! Old 97’s have released 10 full-length LPs since their debut in 1994, and Rhett has four solo albums under his belt.

The only explanation I can come up with for why Rhett and Old 97’s are not HUGELY successful is a sad one that impacts me personally.

Straightforward, guitar-centric, American roots-based Rock&Roll, I’m afraid, is in a coma. I’m not prepared to declare it dead, because there’s no telling whether or not there will be any significant renaissance in the future, but right now Pop and Hip-Hop rule, and right here in Bellingham, Washington the most popular genres in the bars and other music venues are Funk, Classic Rock, and acoustic Americana.

The band in which I play rhythm guitar and sing lead vocals has a hard time getting gigs, because we play straightforward, guitar-centric, American roots-based Rock&Roll covers, and we intentionally do NOT play radio hits. It’s a matter of principles. Many of the bands we cover can be heard on the radio, but I, personally, can’t bear to listen to Classic Rock radio, where the same hits are played over and over and over again. You’d never know that these bands put out albums with 10-12 songs on them!

I hear over and over again that bar patrons like bands to play songs that they know well and can sing along with, but I don’t want to be a human jukebox! Why pay me and my band to play when you could just turn on the radio or play a Pandora station? What happened to going out to see music performed that you may have never heard before?!

Anyway, fortunately, Rhett and Old 97’s have a devoted cult following, I proudly count myself among their numbers, and I’ll wrap things up here singing their praises and presenting two clips for this week’s Video Fridays installment. The first has Rhett performing a solo-acoustic version of a song, Out of Love, from his 2012 album The Dreamer, and the second features Old 97’s playing a song that my band covers, Barrier Reef, from their 1997 album, Too Far To Care.

Enjoy, and Happy Weekend, everyone!

Gaudy, Pimped-Out … Spiders?!

peacock-spiderNo, the photo you see here is NOT that of a rejected Muppet design for a skit about an alien from outer space. (Clicking on the photo to enlarge is a MUST!)

Rather, via Treehugger, you’ll be astonished to learn that this is an actual, real-life arachnid, more specifically, it’s a variety of Peacock Spider from Western Australia.

Yes, it’s a real spider, but this creature might as well be a Muppet, considering the nickname researchers have given to this particular species: Sparklemuffin.

Yes, Sparklemuffin. Who says scientists can’t have fun?!

Many male animals, birds especially, use bright colors and elaborate behaviors to attract females, and the Peacock Spider is no exception. Therefore, the spider’s gaudy, pimped-out appearance only tells half the story, and you absolutely MUST see this arachnid in action.

It’s dynamite!

The first video is a short snippet set to music, and the second contains more footage as well as some great info on the spiders.

Enjoy!

To Write, Or Not To Write Original Songs

scaleI came across an article at Wired.com today that touches on something I’ve thought about a LOT!

Since I am a musician and play in a Rock&Roll band, since I play a guitar specifically, THE iconic instrument of Rock&Roll, the instrument most commonly used to write Rock&Roll songs, I am often asked whether or not I write original songs.

And, for years, I’ve had a pat answer that includes these points:

  • No, I do not write original songs.
  • Yes, I’ve tried, but the world is better off without the songs I’ve written.
  • There are only so many notes and combinations of notes, only so many chords and combinations of chords, only so many words and combinations of words, it’s all been done.

Back to that Wired.com article, the author starts off referencing a couple of recent high-profile cases, and one legendary case, of alleged songwriting plagiarism, and he posits essentially what I stated in my third bullet above, that, mathematically speaking, with only 12 notes in the Western chromatic scale (he actually uses the figure of seven notes, omitting the sharps and flats), there are only so many combinations you can make of these notes, therefore only so many songs that can be written, and so plagiarism is unavoidable, regardless of intention.

It doesn’t take long, reading the Wired piece, to conclude, thanks in part to the author’s clear and oft-stated admission, that he doesn’t know much about music theory.

Additionally, about halfway through reading, I was reminded of an axiom of my own invention, which states that over-analyzing art kills it. (I also argue that it induces pain in puppies and kittens, but some disagree with me on that point.)

And yet, I believe he makes a valid point.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that I’ve heard thousands and thousands of songs over my 50 years, and I’ve learned to play some thousands of these thousands on the guitar. As a result, I’ve learned a lot about how songs are constructed, and one thing that jumps out at even a novice guitar player is that many, many, many songs share the same or similar chord progressions.

My attempts at writing an original song, then, go something like this:

Ok, let’s start by strumming this G chord, la-la-la, nice…

This feels good! La-la-la…

Now, let’s move to a C chord…yeah…I like that! La-la-la…

Hmmmmm, where to next? La-la-la…

Let’s go to D…um…wait a minute!…

Shit! That’s a Beatles song!

In music-theory-speak, this chord progression is referred to as I-IV-V. The song is in the key of G, because it starts there (I), then it goes to C, which is the fourth (IV) note in a G Major scale, and then it goes to D, which is the fifth (V) note in the scale.

HUNDREDS of songs have been written using the I-IV-V progression, and thousands more have used the same exact chords, just in a different order. (Check out this great article at Gibson.com, titled I-IV-V: The Little Chord Progression That Could, where they break down just 10 well-known songs using I-IV-V.)

Now, put these chords in a different order and add a minor chord — I-V-vi-IV — and the list of popular songs using the progression is staggering. (See many of these songs put together in a briliant medley in the video below.)

This is why I don’t write original songs, and why anyone who does earns my deep, deep respect. Because, they’ve heard the same thousands of songs that I have, and yet they conclude they’re capable of writing something that no else ever has.

That is awesome.

Cognitive Dissonance: Trader Joe’s Edition

cheese-foodYesterday, while browsing the sizable cheese selection at Trader Joe’s, scanning for any organic choices available to me, the product you see in the photo here caught my eye. (click on the photo to enlarge)

Now, I’m a HUGE proponent of buying organic products, but the questions this one inspires are many, important, and even funny. Here are just a few:

Rumors That Fish & Bicycles Was Dead Were Only A Little Exaggerated

basscycle2Forgive me readers, for I have…

It’s been 10 days since my last post.

And while there really weren’t any rumors of my death, at least none that I know of, for part of my absence it very nearly felt like I was dying.

It started out so innocent: a brief report that I was taking a mini vacation, then I was off to Los Angeles for a 5-day visit with old friends. And yet, on the day I was to return to Fish & Bicycles, I suddenly became very ill, I missed the entire week at my job, and I’m only just now feeling able to write something.

I’ll spare the gory details of whatever flavor of flu it was that got me, but suffice to say it kicked.my.ass.

On the bright side, the trip to L.A. was everything I’d hoped for. Reconnecting with my longest-standing, dearest friends felt like wrapping myself in a cozy old wool sweater I’ve had since high school.

I’ll be back tomorrow with something more typical for me, inspired by my grocery run to Trader Joe’s today.

Hint: It has something to do with food. (/wink)

Fish & Bicycles Takes A Mini-Vacation!

basscycle2Well folks, it’s time for me to take a little break!

I’m flying down to Los Angeles, CA today, a city I lived in from 1988 to 1993, a city that, as I discovered, was not a good fit for me, but a city where I lived with a buddy I’ve been friends with since grade school back in New Jersey, a friend who was the best man at my wedding, a friend who still lives there, and I’m way overdue to pay him a visit.

Icing on the cake, two other New Jersey friends we’ve kept in touch with all these years, friends we hung out with through high school and college, will be joining us, one flying in from Maine, the other driving up from San Diego.

It’s a strange, and I’d say unfortunate, thing that it is so commonplace in our culture to move away from close friends with whom we spent such formative years, chasing careers and some vague and non-guaranteed future happiness. It’s like an amputation. Those friends were a part of me, and there’s a part of me that doesn’t seem to exist when I’m not with them.

Oh, we get on with our lives, and the phantom pains subside, and if we don’t make an effort the friendships die and fade away. We four, and a handful of other friends of that vintage, haven’t let that happen, but it seems an awful shame that for many it does.

I’m SO looking forward to seeing these people who are so dear to me, and feeling whole again.

I’ll be back here at Fish & Bicycles on Tuesday, March 10th. In the meantime, if you’re so inclined, please feel free to browse around here in any of the following ways:

  • Tags: In the sidebar, under Stuff About…, you can click on any of the Tags and see all the posts I’ve done that have at least something to do with those topics.
  • Recurring Series: At the top of the page, hover over the Recurring Series drop-down menu and select from options like Celebrating Progress, which applauds businesses adopting sustainable practices; Eyecatchers, a collection of photos, graphics, and videos that have, well, caught my eye; Video Fridays, my favorite video of the week pick; and more.
  • Archives: Towards the bottom of the sidebar, select a specific month to see everything I posted in that time period.

Cheers!

Bill Clinton Deserved The Portrait He Got

Bill-Clinton-PortraitSo, I’m late getting to this, but I’ve been thinking about it on and off since the news broke.

Two days ago, artist Nelson Shanks admitted that when, in 2006, he painted a portrait of then former President of the United States (POTUS) Bill Clinton, he included in the portrait a reference to the Monica Lewinsky scandal that led to Clinton becoming only the second president in history to be impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives.

In the portrait, pictured here, you can easily see the reference, and Shanks explained the reference to the media thusly:

“If you look at the left-hand side of it there’s a mantle in the Oval Office and I put a shadow coming into the painting and it does two things,” Shanks said. “It actually literally represents a shadow from a blue dress that I had on a mannequin, that I had there while I was painting it, but not when he was there.”

The shadow “is also a bit of a metaphor in that it represents a shadow on the office he held, or on him,” Shanks said.

Full Disclosure: I’m NOT a social or political conservative. I am an unapologetic liberal.

And yet, Clinton’s affair with his intern Monica Lewinsky, and how he responded to getting caught, caused me to lose all respect for the man whom I twice voted for.

Right wingers like to smear liberals by suggesting that, in addition to all kinds of sins and transgressions, we’re just fine with people sleeping around and having affairs. Not true.

So, since I’m not a fan of the religion’s judgmental rubber stamp known as “sin”, let me explain why I objected to Bill Clinton’s behavior and why he lost my respect, with this list of reasons, in no particular order:

  • I don’t think stupid people should be President of the United States, and any man or woman who has made it through the court of public opinion and the media gauntlet involved in running for any office — Clinton was elected Arkansas Attorney General, Governor of Arkansas five times, and, of course POTUS — knowing all that that entails and how under the spotlight and microscope these offices are, and yet chooses anyway to have an affair with an intern…in the White House!!!…is stupid, Rhodes Scholarship notwithstanding, and should not be chief executive and commander in chief of the most powerful country in the world. The affair was, of course, wrong for other reasons, for example…
  • When people get married they are making a solemn vow to commit to another human being, until death do they part, and it’s a beautiful thing to do, not because the bible or some other religious document says so, but because marriage is a powerful contradiction to how humans otherwise see each other as replaceable and expendable. And if our president breaks his wedding vow, how do we know, then, how seriously he takes his oath of office? Some might argue that human beings can be failures at relationships but geniuses and very effective and successful in other areas of their lives, maybe that’s true, but I still don’t approve and they still lose my respect.
  • When you are the most powerful man in the world and you have an affair with an intern, you obviously have no clue about the relationship between privilege, sexism, and oppression. This man should not be POTUS, and when, under another oath, this man characterized the affair as “I did not have sex with that woman!” because, reportedly, only oral sex was involved, well, that’s just disgusting insult to injury and a disgrace to the office.

Now, it should be noted that many news outlets reported this story incorrectly, referring to the Shanks portrait as the official presidential portrait, which it decidedly is not.

While the Shanks portrait, as mentioned, painted in 2006, five years after Clinton had left office, IS part of the permanent collection at the National Portrait Gallery (though currently in storage), the official presidential portrait was painted by artist Simmie Knox, commissioned in 2000, while Clinton was still in office, completed in 2002, and it now hangs in the East Wing of the White House.

I’m not naturally inclined to hold grudges, but at least for now, I still think Bill Clinton deserved the portrait he got. He abused his power, he lied, he was stupid, and we need SO much more than that from our president.

If the polarized, dysfunctional, corrupted state of our government didn’t have such dire consequences, if we weren’t entrenched in perpetual war, doing nothing substantial about climate change, and allowing the wealthiest 0.1% to own as much as 90% of the population does, combined, I might be more forgiving.