Fare Thee Well, Grateful Dead

GratefulDead-fare-thee-wellSo, last night, at Soldier Field in Chicago, the Grateful Dead played what was billed as their last ever concert, which is to say that the “core four”, the four surviving members of the original band — Bob Weir, Phil Lesh, Bill Kreutzmann, and Mickey Hart — claim they will never again all play together after the run of five shows they just did.

I was fortunate enough to be able to watch the show via Pay-Per-View at a friend’s house, it was a very emotional experience, and today I find myself still reeling with feelings.

I’ve written numerous times, here at Fish & Bicycles about my longstanding love of the Grateful Dead and my unapologetic identification as a Deadhead. I’ve gone VERY deep with the Dead’s music over many years, and I’m so grateful for all of the fun, inspiration, and meaning it has given me and will continue to give.

One of the things that was so special about the Grateful Dead, and which partly explains why I’m so emotional about their grand finale, is that the band members were never rock stars. Instead, they felt almost like friends. After all, they cut their teeth at the Acid Tests, where they thought of themselves as participants in a communal experience, rather than hired musicians up on a bandstand, there to simply entertain the party guests.

Eventually, of course, they graduated to larger and larger venues, and were, by necessity, up on a huge stage at a distance from much of the crowd, but they weren’t egomaniacal showmen, prancing and strutting around the stage for attention, as if it was all about them. They simply made music and cared deeply that their shows should be meaningful, exploratory, and uniting experiences.

Another thing that contributed to the Grateful Dead’s appeal, especially to aspiring musicians like myself, is that, due to the improvisational approach they took to their music, pushing the envelope every night, exploring new ideas in front of a live audience, not every idea worked, a flub here and flub there, just often enough to remind you that they were human, so that you notice you still love them, warts and all, and they always pulled themselves out of the occasional train wreck, eventually.

Again, for an aspiring musician this is a powerful, powerful thing, it’s the thing that encouraged millions of people like me to pick up a guitar, learn some Dead tunes, and to stick with it, in many cases long enough to get good enough to play with other musicians, where the real fun starts.

Finally, the last element of Dead appeal derives from their hippie roots. I’ve mentioned my fondness for hippie culture before, and I still long to be surrounded by people who truly believe that love; peaceful, supportive, inclusive community; and freedom of expression are the most important things.

Last night, then, was decidedly NOT just another concert. It was a fond farewell, the end of a long, strange trip, it was friends saying goodbye to friends in all directions, it was the band saying goodbye to each other, it was Bob Weir choking up and struggling to get through the lyrics of his song Throwing Stones, and then Phil Lesh doing the same thing on his tune Unbroken Chain, at the realization that this will be the last time they will ever sing those songs with their bandmates of 50 years, it was the conspicuous and painful absence of Jerry Garcia who had been the heart and soul of the Dead, and it was the reverent, loving tribute that Trey Anastasio paid to Jerry, filling his shoes as best as he could, emulating some of Jerry’s classic tones, riffs, and licks, while bringing his own touches and voice, just as Jerry would have wanted him to do.

The show ended with one of the band’s more obscure songs, Attics Of My Life, a haunting hymn from their classic 1970 album American Beauty, a song about the power of music, and about how music is even more powerful when partnered with love and shared.

In the attics of my life
Full of cloudy dreams unreal
Full of tastes no tongue can know
And lights no eye can see
When there was no ear to hear
You sang to me

I have spent my life
Seeking all that’s still unsung
Bent my ear to hear the tune
And closed my eyes to see
When there were no strings to play
You played to me

Here, then, is that performance, which, even with crappy sound quality, moves me deeply once again. And, just to make up for the crappy sound quality, I’ve included the original studio recording, so that those not familiar with the song can hear more clearly the sublime beauty and lovely harmonies.

Fare you well, Grateful Dead, fare you well
I love you more than words can tell…

Headline of the Day: Not Your Ordinary Organ Transplant

adamandeveIt’s difficult to know where to start with this Headline of the Day installment, so perhaps I’ll just get right to it.

Dear readers, especially all you guys out there, brace yourselves:

Penis transplant patient to become a father

The Guardian

As cringe-worthy as the subject might be, I have to admit that I was powerless to resist reading the attending article.

And, I really wish I hadn’t, as several quotes induced sympathy pains the likes of which I’ve not experienced before and hope never to experience again.

The man’s penis was amputated three years ago after life-threatening complications arising from a botched circumcision. His penis had developed gangrene…

The man, whose identity is being kept secret, received his new penis from an organ donor in a nine-hour operation…

The professor said that even now there remains some risk of organ rejection. Evidence would include lesions on the skin…

Nine years ago, a Chinese man had a penis transplant, but his doctors removed the organ after two weeks due to “a severe psychological problem of the recipient and his wife”.

OWIE!!!!!!!!!

I know, it’s childish of me to exploit this man’s story for entertainment. But, I promise that I AM deeply sympathetic to what he’s been through and thrilled for him and his partner, that they were fruitful and able to multiply.

Sincerely!

Really, I mean it!!!

Eyecatchers: 2015 National Geographic Traveler Photo Contest

NationalGeo12-croppedIf, like me, your family had a subscription to National Geographic Magazine when you were a kid, before you learned to love reading, one of the reasons you LOVED the publication was because you didn’t have to read the articles to learn amazing things about the world beyond your neighborhood, town, city, etc.

Reason: The photography was mind-blowing — pictures are worth a thousand words, as is often said — and one could dwell on these pictures, could dwell IN these pictures, could get lost in these pictures.

One of the most popular posts I’ve ever published here at Fish & Bicycles, from July 2012 and titled Eyecatchers: Steve McCurry’s World of Bicycles, featured the photography of one of the magazine’s most acclaimed photographers, and the images I included in that post serve as fine examples of how photography can tell us so much about a place and its people, people in places we’ve never been or may never visit.

In addition to teaching us so much about the planet we inhabit, National Geographic has inspired millions of people to try their own hand at photography, and a fitting testament to how inspirational the magazine has been to so many is their annual Travel Photo Contest, where anyone, amateur or pro, can submit photos for prize consideration.

This Eyecatchers installment, was inspired by a selection of 2015 National Geographic Travel Photo Contest entries handpicked by The Atlantic, and features my favorites from this selection. (Please be sure, though, to visit The Atlantic in order to read the very informative captions to each photo.)

If you’re busy and have a lot on your plate, you might want to consider setting a timer with a loud alarm, as I will not be held responsible for readers getting lost in these photos and losing track of time. :)

Enjoy!

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Late Night TV Bandleader/Sidekick: Part II

THE LATE LATE SHOW WITH JAMES CORDENThis morning I posted this week’s Video Fridays installment, in which I touched on the late night TV talk show Host, Bandleader, and Sidekick roles, in response to the announcement yesterday that Jon Batiste will be Stephen Colbert’s bandleader on the new Late Show, coming this September.

My post was never meant to be an exhaustive exposé on the subject, and so my references to late night TV talk shows were far from inclusive, leaving out two shows in particular: Jimmy Kimmel Live! and The Late Late Show.

In my post, I mentioned that some late night shows have a bandleader AND a sidekick, while on others the bandleader doubles as the sidekick, and by coincidence, shortly after I posted that, I came across a piece on Salon.com this morning with the headline:

Reggie Watts, the weirdest guy on late night TV: How “The Late Late Show” bandleader is redefining the sidekick role

If you aren’t familiar with Reggie Watts, it is well worth your time to go on a YouTube binge, or check out back episodes from the show Reggie is leaving, Comedy Bang! Bang!, seasons 1-3 of which are now on Netflix.

And, since it’s still Video Fridays, and since we’re on the subject of late night TV talk shows, here’s a clip of Reggie doing his thing on Conan:

Video Fridays: Welcome to Late Night TV, Jon Batiste!

Jonathan Batiste and Stay HumanThere are traditionally, with a few exceptions, three primary personality roles in the late night talk show format: Host, Sidekick, and Bandleader.

Sometimes there’s a sidekick and a bandleader, like Ed McMahon & Doc Severinsen, from the Johnny Carson era Tonight Show; Conan O’Brien‘s Andy Richter & Max Weinberg; or Steve Higgins and Questlove, from Jimmy Fallon‘s Late Night and Tonight Show, but sometimes the bandleader is also the sidekick, like Paul Shaffer from David Letterman‘s Late Night and The Late Show, and Fred Armisen from the Seth Meyers incarnation of Late Night.

However these duties are allocated, it is an enduring formula for sure, and hosts, sidekicks, and bandleaders are high-profile gigs that, for many who have held these positions, marked career peaks.

With the departure of Late Show host David Letterman, we’ve known for over a year now that Dave would be replaced as host by former Colbert Report star Stephen Colbert, but today it was announced that Paul Shaffer’s replacement as bandleader will be…

…um, who the HELL is Jon Batiste?!

Embarrassingly, before today, I’d never heard of Mr. Batiste: embarrassing, because he’s a Julliard-trained member of a distinguished New Orleans musical family, and his music, a typically bluesy-funky New Orleans-style jazz, is something I enjoy VERY much.

It’s a huge boost in exposure for someone who has already garnered considerable critical acclaim, and the only downside is that Jon Batiste and his band, Stay Human, will be on The Late Show at the same time as The Roots are on the Tonight Show, forcing viewers to choose one over the other … or DVR one or the other on a regular basis.

I can’t embed it here, but Batiste’s appearance on The Colbert Report gives a nice preview of the chemistry they have together, and the videos I do have here, for this week’s Video Fridays installment, include today’s announcement, and a clip of a Jon Batiste & Stay Human performance that is guaranteed to get you excited that they will be on TV on a VERY regular basis starting in September.

Enjoy, and Happy Weekend, everyone!

Video Fridays: Double Hit of Rickenbacker 12-String Cover Song Goodness

rickI’m pretty confident in guessing that most guitar players who have stuck with the instrument for a number of years have at least tried playing a 12-string guitar, and from my experience as a guitarist, and from chatting with fellow guitarists for nearly 30 years, it is VERY common for said guitarists, myself included, to have purchased a 12-string guitar, only to sell it not long after, once we realize that it is pretty much a one-trick pony.

It’s a strange musical phenomenon, really. There are numerous unquestionably iconic songs, in folk, blues, and rock music, that feature the 12-string, either acoustic or electric, yet VERY few artists specialize in 12-string, and even if they do they eventually move on, either abandoning the 12-string altogether or featuring it in only a relative few songs in their repertoire.

The reason: A 12-string guitar almost always sounds exactly the same, lush and jangly, and VERY few musicians want every song to have that sound in it.

It almost seems unfair. How can something so pleasing become tiresome so quickly? Well, listen to more than three songs featuring the 12-string guitar in a row and you’ll get it.

That said, in small doses, the 12-string — especially, to my ears, the king of the electric 12-string, the Rickenbacker — is hypnotically beautiful, and so this week’s Video Fridays installment brings you a couple of mighty fine examples.

First up, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers do their version of a song, So You Want To Be A Rock & Roll Star, by The Byrds, THE band most associated with the 12-string electric guitar. Their earlier music, before they went Country, is likely the longest stretch of 12-string-centric music ever recorded.

The next clip features Matthew Sweet and John Hiatt covering a wonderful, underrated early Beatles song, composed by George Harrison: If I Needed Someone.

Enjoy, and Happy Weekend, everyone!

Alabama Shakes: The Real Deal

brittany-howardWhen I first heard the reverb-drenched, Soul-infused rock & roll of Alabama Shakes‘ 2012 debut, Boys & Girls, I was instantly hooked.

This band just seemed to come out of nowhere, fully formed and brilliant, a gorgeous mix of Memphis and Muscle Schoals, but with a guitar-centric rock approach, and a frontwoman, Brittany Howard, who is, in my opinion, an audacious superstar in the making.

That said, describing Alabama Shakes as “The Real Deal”, as I did in the title of this post, warrants some explanation.

See, pop music is littered with superficial formulaic poseurs, always has been, but it’s become a veritable pandemic in the music video era.

If I had to choose one musician who serves as a “Real Deal” benchmark, someone whom all other “Real Deals” must approximate, it would be the late, great Joe Cocker, circa the late 1960s through the mid 1970s.

In my obituary post for Joe this past December, I described him thusly:

If I had to use one word to describe Joe Cocker’s greatness, I would use the word commitment, because, when you watch and listen to Joe perform, you see and hear a man committing himself to the music to the fullest extent possible, giving himself over to it completely, giving all of himself without reservation.

There’s no way to fake what he did…

I’d add that Joe Cocker was no pretty face, and especially during his 60s and 70s heyday he’d never be mistaken for a fashion model.

With that in mind, consider this description of Brittany Howard, from an article in The Atlantic:

During the young band’s already-legendary concerts, she taps into what she’s called the “the spirit world”—“latching on to a feeling, riding it, trying not to come out of it. You stop thinking, you’re just performing—that’s the spirit world.” The ideal of a total-abandon performance, of being in the zone like an athlete, isn’t a new one for musicians. But it’s one that seems especially powerful in relation to Howard, a singer who rasps and booms in styles that recall icons from Robert Plant to Nina Simone.

Add the fact that Howard bucks the trend of the Barbie Doll pop singer, in all her voluptuous glory, and she more than meets the Joe Cocker “Real Deal” standard.

I’ve been listening to their sophomore album — Sound & Color, just released today — on repeat all morning, and as if they needed to garner any more accolades, they have absolutely earned them.

They could have easily played it safe here. Their first album sold respectably, but more importantly the tour that followed was marked by, as The Atlantic put it, “legendary concerts”, powerful TV performances, and critical acclaim.

But, rather than sticking musically close to their debut record, Sound & Color is stunningly bold in its variety, with some Southern Soul carryover accompanying elements ranging from jazz, funk, and disco to punk and psychedelia.

Quoting The Atlantic again, it’s “delightfully unglued”!

But, I’ll shut up now and let Alabama Shakes do the talking, with these recent SNL performances of Sound & Color tracks Don’t Wanna Fight and Gimme All Your Love.

Enjoy!