Finding myself with a week off at Independence Day and having nowhere to go and nothing to do thanks to the restrictions placed on us by our ol’ pal COVID-19, I decided to cook up a bunch of stuff to vacuum-seal for future weeknight meals. On Monday, for no particular reason, I did a twofer. First up:
Kamado Braised Short Ribs
For this cook I used boneless beef ribs, which I often get at Costco. Other times I’ve made it with regular bone-in short ribs and it works exactly the same way, so use whichever beef ribs you can get your hands on.
Also, this is basically a stew, so if you’re playing along at home don’t feel compelled to follow my directions to the letter. Add what you like, and leave out anything you don’t. I make it different every time, but Monday I pretty closely following a recipe from John Setzler, of the Kamado Joe Cooking Channel on YouTube, and owner of KamadoGuru.com. I love his saying: “Cook more, measure less.”
Anyway, on to the recipe.
The night before you plan to cook, take about 1 1/2 – 2 lb. of beef ribs and coat them good with BBQ rub. (You could just as easily use plain old salt and pepper, or any other beef rub that suits you.) Bag them up tightly, getting as much air out of the bag as possible, and keep them in the fridge overnight.
On cook day, while you wait for the grill to heat up to around 250°F, slice the ribs into pieces, maybe twice as big as bite sized. If you’re using bone-in ribs, just cut them into single ribs. When the grill reaches temp and the smoke is rolling nicely (I used hickory), put the slices in over indirect heat and let them smoke for an hour.
While the ribs are smoking, prep the braise. Dice up one onion, and chop two carrots (this time I used heirlooms) and three stalks of celery. Heat a 1/4 cup of olive oil in a dutch oven, and cook the onions gently until they’re translucent. Add the carrots and celery, and stir occasionally until they’re tender.
When the ribs have smoked for an hour, remove them from the smoke and boost your grill temp to around 325º-350ºF.
While the grill is coming up to temp, go back to your pot and add one cup of chicken stock, two cups tomato sauce, 12 oz. of beer, some rosemary, thyme, and oregano, and a teaspoon of garlic powder. Bring it to just boiling, and add salt, pepper, or other seasonings to taste. (Keep in mind that the flavors will intensify during the cook as the braise reduces. Go easy on the salt.)
When it just reaches a boil, stir in the smoked ribs.
Put the pot in the grill and let it cook undisturbed for a half hour or so, then give it a stir, cover it with the lid, and cook for another hour.
After that hour covered, you’ll have a thick, dark, rich dish, ready for serving. Most often we serve this over rice, but this time we needed to use up some potatoes. Doesn’t matter; you can’t go wrong.
The second dish I cooked Monday was
Arroz Con Pollo
This meal is usually all cooked in one pot. Monday, though, since I already had the grill fired up and at my disposal, I changed it up a bit.
Start out with a pound and a half of chicken parts. The original recipe, which I found in Fine Cooking magazine issue #37, calls for bone-in parts, but we almost never have those on hand. We always have boneless skinless breasts, so that’s normally what I use. Also, to make it a little easier to eat when the time comes, I cut the breasts into more manageable pieces. Maybe two times bite sized, like I said above with the beef ribs.
Give the chicken a good solid sprinkle of salt & pepper.
Also, take about pound of Italian sausage –hot or mild, or a combination of both– and cut them into roughly 2-inch pieces.
Now, normally you’d heat some olive oil in your pot and sauté the chicken. If you’re using chicken parts, you want them done and starting to brown. If, like me, you’re using boneless skinless breasts, you want them to be ever so slightly underdone. They’re going to get a few more minutes’ cooking time later in the process, and if you get the skinless chicken completely done now, it will dry out when you get to those last few minutes. Either way, when the chicken is ready, remove it from the pan. Put the sausages in and cook until done. Add more oil along the way if needed.
Again, that’s all according to the recipe. But as I said before, Monday my grill was hot and I had plenty of extra room, so I cooked the chicken (again, stopping just short of done) and the sausage over indirect heat at about 350ºF.
Otherwise, though, I followed the recipe like normal.
In the aforementioned large pot over medium heat, add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil (which you’d already have if you cooked your chicken and sausage in the pot) and sauté one small chopped onion and 4 minced cloves of garlic until tender, about 5 minutes. Add 1 tsp. ground cumin, 1/4 tsp. paprika, 1/4 tsp. chili powder, and 1/2 tsp. ground turmeric, and stir for a minute or so to distribute it throughout.
Add a can of crushed (or diced) tomatoes, with their liquid, and 1/2 cup white wine or beer. Bring the heat up to medium high and cook for two minutes. Then add 2 1/4 cups chicken broth (or water) and 2 cups uncooked rice. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Return chicken and sausage to the pot and stir to distribute.
Reduce heat and cook, covered, at a mild simmer for 15 or 20 minutes until the liquid is absorbed and the rice is done.
This is a old(ish) family recipe that probably came from a label or the back of a package of some sort. It’s become a staple at my mom’s house for Christmas, but I make this all the time for dinner. We love breakfast for dinner, and we can usually get multiple dinners (or two dinners and some lunches) out of one batch. That’s especially important while we’re all self-quarantined for the corona virus. And also, this is REALLY easy to make. So here goes:
Brown one pound of breakfast sausage, or any other kind of sausage you’d eat with eggs. I’m personally partial to Jimmy Dean breakfast sausage, but it’s up to you. Drain off the fat.
Dice up enough white bread to cover the bottom of a greased 9″ x 13″ casserole dish. The written recipe says 6 slices, but we almost never buy sliced bread, so just cut up however much it takes. Note: This is a great chance to use up stale bread. You’ll never notice the difference.
Grate up two cups, give or take, of cheddar cheese.
In a fairly good-sized mixing bowl, beat 6 eggs, and then mix in 2 1/2 cups milk, 1 teaspoon dry mustard, and 1 teaspoon salt.
Now it’s all just a matter of assembly. Layer the cooked sausage over the diced bread.
Then layer on the cheese.
Pour the egg mixture evenly over the whole thing. At this point, you can refrigerate overnight if you wanted to make it ahead of time.
Otherwise, bake uncovered at 350°F for 45 minutes.
It should come out looking something like this. Let it cool for 5 minutes or so, and cut yourself a slice.
After it cools, cover the dish in plastic or cut the casserole up and put it in any kind of airtight container and this will keep great in the fridge for three or four days. But it probably won’t last that long. Oh, and it reheats beautifully in the micronuker.
More often than not, I spend the biggest part of my Sunday in the kitchen. Usually I make something, or a couple somethings, that we’ll have on hand to eat throughout the following week. It occurred to me that some of the cooks might make interesting blog posts. So here is the first of what might become a quasi-regular feature.
This week’s project was homemade meatballs from the Frankies Spuntino cookbook. It’s kind of a no-brainer of a recipe. You make it all in one bowl and just keep chucking in ingredients. But it’s a bit time-consuming because I find that, for the best results, you need to mix each ingredient in before adding the next. The upside is that one batch makes quite a lot of meatballs, so you get a lot of yield for the time spent. I use however many we need for whatever meal(s) we’re making and freeze the rest in vacuum sealed bags, two meatballs per pack. Then we can thaw as many or as few as we need for future meals.
Start with six slices of bread. Use a fairly good quality bread; not exactly fancy, and certainly nothing expensive, but also not Sunbeam or Wonder. Get something from the deli section in your grocery store and slice it yourself. (The Frankies cut off the crusts, but I don’t usually bother.)
Anyway, take six slices of bread and put them in a large mixing bowl. Fill the bowl with enough water to cover the bread, and let it get completely soggy. The book says “for a minute or so,” but in my experience the bread is soggy pretty much instantly when you run the water on it. Regardless, when it’s soggy, pour the water out and squeeze out as much water as you can, then tear the wet bread into tiny pieces.
Add in 2 pounds of ground beef and knead the bread into it until it’s evenly dispersed.
Next, work in 3 cloves minced garlic and 1/4 cup fresh parsley, finely chopped.
Then comes 1/4 cup grated pecorino romano or parmesan cheese, and 1/4 cup raisins (weird, I know, but trust the Frankies).
Now add 1 1/2 teaspoons fine sea salt or Morton’s kosher salt, about 15 turns of freshly ground white pepper, and 1/4 cup pine nuts (again, keep the faith).
Finally, add 1/2 cup dried bread crumbs and 4 large eggs.
Work it really good. Initially it will seem way too wet, but as you keep kneading it all together the eggs will become more and more incorporated. If it is still too wet to work with, add a bit more of the bread crumbs and keep kneading. The mixture should be wet, but not sloppy.
Preheat the oven to 350° F.
Roll the mixture into palm-sized balls, give or take, and place them on a baking sheet. (I’ve never needed to grease or oil the pan.)
Bake for about 30 minutes. They should be firm, but have a little give. You know, like a meatball.
Now they’re ready. Simmer some in tomato sauce, make a meatball parm sandwich, or whatever. When they’re cooled, you can refrigerate them for a day or two, or as I mentioned, freeze them for later.
What I did with mine on Sunday was slice up a couple of them and make a pizza:
I think I start roughly every other post on this much-neglected blog by saying I’m going to try to write more. But this time I mean it. I meant it all the other times, too. But this time I really mean it. My plan is to use this space as a kind of open journal. I don’t know exactly what I have to write about, but I’ve made it about as easy as possible by converting to a WordPress format, so I guess time will tell.
So anyway. Since the beginning of this new year also happens to be the beginning of a whole new decade, I thought I’d start off with a roundup of notable stuff in my life from the last ten years. A few of these things have been mentioned or written about in previous posts, but a roundup is a roundup. So here goes.
DEVILS: One of the biggest things Suz and I did in the ’10s was become season ticket holders for the New Jersey Devils. I thought I had pretty much struck gold when Suzy got interested in hockey in 2006. At that time I never would have guessed in a million years we’d (she’d) become avid fans. Ya just never know what life’s gonna bring.
It all started because we bought a partial package (I think it was 12 games) for the 2010-2011 season. We kinda thought we were shittin’ in high cotton even then. But when it came time to renew I asked the agent, just for giggles, how much it would cost for a full season. Of course it was quite a bit more expensive overall, but the per-game price was less than half what we paid for the partials. We thought we might as well give it a try, and ultimately we stuck with it for seven years. Over that time we built friendships with our fellow seatmates (and everyone at Hobby’s Deli), met players, had our photo made in the goal, watched warmups from the penalty box, toured the arena, sat on the bench…. By far the two most exciting times were going all the way to game 6 of the finals in 2011-12 ( Suzy even bought herself a playoff beard), and going to the Devils/Rangers game at Yankee Stadium in January 2014. But narrowing it down to only a few experiences doesn’t do it justice. The whole time was a blast.
TRAVEL: To celebrate my Mom’s and Suzy’s Dad’s 70th birthdays in 2011, we made a big family trip. Suz and I flew to NC, and the following day 10 of us headed out in a convoy to Nashville. We explored and toured the town for 3 days, and then moved the party over to Memphis for 3 more. We saw and did way too many things to recount here, but some of the Nashville highlights included the Country Music Hall of Fame, dinner at the Loveless Cafe, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a Ryman Auditorium tour (basically a religious experience), and of course, the Grand Ol’ Opry.
On Friday afternoon while we were taking a rest before dinner, I read that Sam Bush was going to be a special guest on the bill later that night at the legendary bluegrass venue, The Station Inn. Suzy and I immediately decided we had to be there, and my sister and her husband joined us. An outstanding show, which also introduced us to singer David Peterson and fiddle phenom Michael Cleveland.
Memphis highlights included Graceland (duh), touring Sun Studio (my second religious experience of the trip), and just walking around Beale Street where we spent two consecutive nights listening to Dr. Feelgood Potts.
In 2012 we spent my birthday week in Barcelona. We deliberately kept a leisurely pace, but we still crammed in a lot of sightseeing because we stayed right on La Rambla and almost everything we wanted to see was within easy walking distance. Of course we were thrilled to enjoy so much of Gaudi’s architecture, but Barcelona also happens to be home to a museum and foundation dedicated to my favorite painter, Antoni Tapies. And we were also completely blown away by the Boqueria market.
And we spent nearly a whole day at the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia
We visited friends in Ottawa for a long weekend in September of 2013. We all met at the Newport Folk Festival (more on Newport later), where the four of us stayed for several consecutive years at the same B&B. The Ottawa trip was more to hang out together than to really tour the city, but of course we managed to do some of both.
The last major trip we managed to fit in during the decade was a week in San Francisco and Napa in September of 2015. We met up with friends in both places and had absolutely gorgeous weather the whole time. First time in California for both of us.
COOKING and FOOD: I realized I was interested in cooking when I started trying to recreate my grandmother’s biscuits back in the early ’90s. Then after I began brewing my own beer in ’96, I started experimenting more in all sorts of cooking. But I really got concentrated on it after we moved to New Jersey, when I bought an offset smoker. Learning about rubs, marinades, different prep techniques, and how to tend the fire on long, low-and-slow barbecue cooks really set me off and running in the kitchen. About 4 years ago I retired the offset and made the switch to a kamado cooker; tremendously expensive, but well worth every penny. Unfortunately our work schedules are no longer very conducive to cooking at home, especially during the week. But nothing is better than spending a whole Saturday or Sunday in the kitchen, messing up every pot and pan we own.
Speaking earlier of beer, after going with a couple buddies to several tasting festivals in New York over the course of a few years, in May of 2015 three of us decided to start having our own tastings. Soon more members were joining us and before you know it, we gave birth to theMaplewood Ale and Lager Tasters (M.A.L.T) Club. We take turns hosting (i.e. – providing lunch) each month, everyone brings two 16- or 20-ounce beers to share, and a good time is had by all. Genius!
MUSIC and ARTS: Of course Suzy and I spent an awful lot of time on concerts, art shows, and assorted other entertainment over the last 10 years. Way too much, obviously, to write about it all. Here is a tiny smattering of the highlights.
As I wrote about briefly at the time, in 2011 I was asked to play guitar for a local writer who, taking a stab at something new, started writing songs. Over time she added a piano player, an acoustic bassist, and a drummer. They were some of the best musicians I’ve ever played with; each one of them well above my level. Playing with them was fantastic, and I stayed with it for about 5 years until other things got in the way, as they’ll do.
Easily one of the most impressive artists we discovered over the last 10 years was Jason Isbell. He’s the whole package; great voice, excellent guitar chops, and his songwriting is second to none. We heard the Southeastern album first, and then he just kept getting better and better.
Another big find was Lake Street Dive. Like many people, we learned of them from the concert film Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis. Just a couple seconds into their (one and only) song in that movie, we looked at each other and said, “Who is THIS!?” The next day, I bought every CD they had out at that time. In the years since, we’ve watched them grow from relative obscurity to selling out Madison Square Garden.
Other bands we fell in love with were The Wood Brothers, Gregory Alan Isakov, both of whom we heard first on The Loft channel on SiriusXM radio, and The Low Anthem, who we discovered at the Newport Folk Festival.
There are two albums that particularly stand out for me in this time, as well. Jake Xerxes Fussell’s What In The Natural World and Noam Pikelny’s Universal Favorite. On first listening, I wouldn’t have guessed that either of these records would stick with me like they have. I mean, to be clear, I liked them both a lot right off the bat. But over time, I find that both of them stay right at the front of my mind all the time. I think of one or the other, or both, nearly every day. Universal Favorite, especially, is an absolute gem.
In August of 2015, the Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department in Maplewood brought to town five Tibetan Buddhist monks from Drepung Loseling monastery in India for The Mandala Project. Over the course of a week in the Great Hall of the Woodland community building, the monks created a traditional mandala from colored sand. They worked on it eight hours per day, pouring the sand through long, thin metal funnels to create the image, which represents the cosmos as conceived in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The Hall was open to the public for the duration. After completion, and according to tradition, the sand is swept up and dispersed into a river or stream in a ceremony symbolizing the impermanence of everything in life.
In 2018, the Brooklyn Museum presented the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “David Bowie Is…” and there’s no doubt it was the best museum show I saw in the last 10 years. In fact it’s one of the best shows I’ve seen, ever. And I’m not even an especially big David Bowie fan. Of course he’s been around for my whole life, but even so, it’s astonishing to see, all at once, just how influential he was. There’s essentially no part of western popular culture that he didn’t affect or address in some way. There’s not much more I can say about it except that we spent more than three hours in the show, and if my back and feet would have allowed it, I would have happily stayed three more.
Another major entertainment highlight, also in 2018, was the play Yerma, at the Park Avenue Armory. We bought tickets based on nothing more than the fact that the lead role was played by Billie Piper, who had played one of our favorite characters on the TV show Doctor Who. When I read later that the play is about a woman who wants a child and can’t conceive, I thought, “Oh well, that doesn’t really sound like our kind of thing, but it will be a nice treat to see her in a play.” And it was. It also turned out to be one of the heaviest, most intensely gut-wrenching stories we’ve ever seen. Incredibly powerful. The audience was nearly silent as we left the building.
One more exhibit that stands out in my mind is Laurie Anderson’s Chalkroom, currently showing at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams, MA. Laurie Anderson has been one of our favorite artists since the ’80s, and we’ve loved a lot of her work through the years. But this show is a high water mark even for her. It was the first Virtual Reality experience for Suzy and me, and I was completely blown away. It is visually stunning, as I expected, but I was not at all prepared for how real it felt. Amazing experience. I hope the show is still there next time we go to MASS MoCA. I’d love to explore it more.
SOLID SOUND FESTIVAL: Years ago some friends we know from the Newport Folk Festival were telling us that one month before Newport they had gone to Solid Sound, a bi-annual festival in Massachusetts hosted by Wilco. Two years later, in 2015, we decided to meet them there. They were absolutely right; it’s a great festival. Located at MASS MoCA, your ticket includes full weekend admission to the museum in addition to the festival. So, as with Newport, the venue is as much of a draw as the music. Each festival includes two Wilco shows, a Jeff Tweedy show, and a full 3-day lineup of other music. We’re Solid Sound regulars now.
NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL: I like to tease my mother that she starts planning Christmas on December 26th each year, but the truth is I know a little something about how she feels. Every year when I go back to work the day after we get home from Newport Folk Festival, I start daydreaming about the next year. I have so many good feelings about the festival that I hardly know what to write. It has become such a part of our lives that I can no longer see it in an objective way. Our first trip there was for the 50th Anniversary in 2009, and with each passing year in the decade since, the festival has come to mean more and more to us. We skipped it once, in 2015, when we went to Solid Sound for the first time. Then when Newport weekend rolled around, we were crushed to have been so short-sighted. We decided then and there that we would never miss it again. The quality of the music is consistently outstanding, the venue –Fort Adams State Park– is gorgeous, and Newport is a great town. But it’s so much more than that. There’s something about that weekend every year that makes you feel like you’re more than just a spectator. You, along with everyone else, become a part of the experience. The shared sense of community and good will is unmatched. (So much so that I started a blog dedicated to fostering that feeling year ’round. Check it out at millionsofsmallthings.com.) The best weekend of the year, every year.
LUTHER: Although we brought him home in 2006, there’s simply no way to look back on the last ten years without writing a little something about Luther. He was the light of our lives for most of that time, and very literally changed Suzy’s life entirely. After a few puppy classes, it became clear that Luther loved “going to school,” and so did Suzy. Within a few years Luther was a Certified Therapy Dog and he and Suzy were visiting hospitals and nursing homes together. Soon after, Suzy was teaching classes and Luther was her demo dog. In just a few short years, Suzy had changed careers completely and become a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Even in his old age, Luther would occasionally come out of retirement for a day or two and go to work with Suzy at the behavior clinic to show some younger dog how it’s done. Unfortunately, after a couple bouts with cancer and a few other problems, we lost him in 2018. But, my God, what a life that boy had.
LIFE HAPPENS: Of course not everything in the last decade was happy and fun. I mean, we wound up with Trump in the White House, fergodsakes. I was never overly patriotic to begin with, but my first lesson from this administration is that I care a lot more about my country than I thought. I know this because I’ve never been ashamed to be an American until now. Only now, when everything I believe to be good and just about the U.S. is being shat on by The Powers That Be, do I realize how important it all is to me. On the other hand, however demoralizing and dispiriting it is to find ourselves in this situation, I’ve never felt more proud than I did standing with Suzy and some of our friends on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for the first Women’s March. Never happier than to see thousands upon thousands of people show up at airports across the country to stand against the travel bans. There are way too many things to list, but I detest virtually every move Trump has made in office, and I take solace in the fact that he meets with so much resistance. However futile it may seem, it matters. Thanks to Trump, I’ve never been more concerned about other people and my ability to have an effect on them, and I know I’m not alone. I know that eventually this will all be behind us and the future will be better than the present. I don’t know when, and it won’t be soon, but it will come.
Finally, I’ll close out this post by mentioning how we closed out our decade. In the Spring of 2018 I was unceremoniously let go from my job. I can’t precisely say it was a shock, since I knew business was slow, but I wasn’t exactly expecting it, either. Thankfully I have a lot of friends in my industry, an within two and a half weeks I found another job. But it’s in Pennsylvania, so it required us to move. We settled in Hackettstown, NJ, because it was approximately halfway between my new job and Suzy’s workplace.
Then, a little less than a year after we moved, Suzy lost her job, too. If we’d known that was going to happen we’d have most likely moved closer to my work. But we love our house and we’re quite happy in Hackettstown, so we have no regrets. Suzy has gone into business on her own, and our location makes it possible for her to continue to see some of her previous clients. So in the end, it’s all worked out pretty well.
So those were our big points of the decade, bringing us to where we are now.
Heading into the new year (and decade), I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how to be positive and keep some level of hope in the face of what I believe to be some of the worst times in our history. Then this morning, one of the first things I saw was this tweet from singer/songwriter Moses Sumney:
This comes to me like a punch in the gut. Viscerally disturbing.
While it is certainly not up to me to tell Mr. Sumney how to feel, and in fact I think I understand his despair, I’m compelled to say I could not disagree more. Now is exactly the time for art.
In the current moment we’re bombarded, mostly in real time, with news of every terrible thing that happens across the globe. Fire, flood, famine, war and violence of every kind, not to mention climate change and catastrophes of every other stripe. At the same time, we find ourselves coaxed and cajoled from seemingly all quarters to pick a side, stay within our tribes, be suspicious of others who don’t look and think like we do.
It is precisely during these times of division and strife that the arts have the most power. The act of creation is, intrinsically, a statement that we are better than our worst impulses; that we stand in defiance of destructive forces, indeed in defiance or our mortality; and most importantly, that every one of us shares a common humanity. The arts, perhaps more than anything else in our lives, prove to us time and again that, as Roger Waters has said, “..there is no ‘them.’ There’s only ‘us.'”
There’s never a bad time to create, but the more it feels “insane and futile,” the more important it becomes.
Starting today, I’m revamping my site to make it a little easier to update and control. Eventually I hope to incorporate all the content from my previous site, and then move on from there. I imagine it will take some time, but hopefully these changes will prompt me to keep the site more current and active.
These were the very first paragraphs I read on the very first day of this year. I suspect I may not read anything more beautiful or near-perfect for the rest of 2015.
“There is a coarse grain in the air of the American Experience, and know it or not it has marked all of us, the way coal dust etches fixed black lines upon the lungs of miners who feel the tug with every laugh and sigh.
It is a weather system all its own, our humid cultural atmosphere: sweet as magnolia, as oily and foreboding as gunmetal upon the tongue. From the auction block to the Harlem Renaissance and on to Selma; from the Appalachian Trail to Attica; from Lewis and Clark to Harpo, Chico, Sacco, and Vanzetti; Lincoln and Douglas through to Washington’s current rancorous desperations — our national narrative, historically, has been a moveable feast, both beautiful and brutal, and it’s never been more authenticall articulated than in the language of folk songs, for they stand outside of time and speak freely, with loyalty to nothing but the truth.
Understand that when I speak of folk, it is not as a genre distinction beholden to any particular tone or instrumentation, but rather is specific to songs — ones that grow out of a regional landscape, and speak to and of those who have done the same; thus the great long table has chairs not only for Doc Boggs and the Carter Family, but Little Richard as well. Sister Rosetta sitteth at the right hand of Louis Armstrong, the father almighty, but also across from Link Wray and Nina Simone; Leadbelly and Lee Dorsey; Charles Mingus, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Geechie Wiley, and Duke Ellington; Bessie Smith, and Hank Williams; all of them giving voice to the country’s collective ragged and weary soul, its ferocious and troubled heart.
Songs tell our story most authentically because, like us, they are constantly evolving within their framework, forever being reimagined and reanimated. Every time they are taken up and sung out they are newly ratified, as all truths demand to be. Facts are cast in bronze — throw shadows and collect dust, I mean to say, but Truth is a river; and it’s sliding moan is our familial song upon it. Songs deconstruct our singular experiences and reassemble them as useful mythologies, to be parsed and shared in both sharp unison and blurred harmony. “Spike Driver’s Blues” and “Pretty Boy Floyd” underscore our distinct human condition, our cultural character, more authentically and viscerally than does, say, the Constitution. They represent only two, but are true living documents that stride and wail, invite themselves onto our tongues and then into the air like sparks from a stirred fire; are rooted in suffering and borne aloft by the deep desire not to be.
Songs are our signifiers, lifting our spirits and bubbling beneath us like subtitles, explaining us to ourselves.“
Opening paragraphs of the articleGo Tell It On The Mountain: Greg Leisz And The Architecture Of Song by Joe Henry
Well, I’ve obviously done a spectacularly poor job of blogging in 2014. No doubt my two or three readers must assume I have given it up completely. Surprise! I am back to briefly mention a few highlights of 2014 which, had I been writing regularly, would have undeniably been among the topics herein.
For our first show of the year, Suzy and I saw Justin Townes Earle at City Winery back in mid-March. As seems to be the case with JTE, it was an extremely relaxed and informal affair. He wasn’t in particularly good voice for the first couple songs, but then he found his footing and it turned out to be an excellent show. JTE may never hit the level of near-genius that marked father Steve’s best work, but in my estimation, at just the moment when Papa Steve’s output has become progressively uninspired and lackluster, Justin keeps getting better and better with each successive record. I’m all in.
One Saturday in July, I headed to Oak Hill, NY with my buddy Jim to check out the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. Always mentioned along with Merlefest, Gettysburg, Telluride, and a few others as a top-tier fest, it’s one I’ve heard and read about for most of my life. As a veteran of more Merlefests than I can count, I was excited to see how Grey Fox compared. It did not disappoint. In fact I give it points over Merlefest for manageability. Merlefest is outstanding for what it is, and truly offers something for everyone all day, every day. But it is simply HUGE. Overwhelmingly so. Grey Fox is big enough to satisfy, but small enough to get around to everything you want to see.
As long as I’m on the subject of bluegrass, I’ll quickly mention another great City Winery show from just a couple months ago: the return of the legendary Hot Rize. Back after a 20+ year absence, with a new album and a corresponding tour, it’s as if they’ve never missed a beat. With the stellar guitarist Bryan Sutton filling the role of the late Charles Sawtelle, and Tim O’Brien’s vocal work standing front and center as always, there is simply no match for this band. This is as good as it gets, folks.
Another blast from the past came in December, when our old college friend Chuck came up from NC to go with us to see Richard Barone, Marshall Crenshaw, Don Dixon, and Marti Jones do a song circle in Woodbridge, NJ. We haven’t see Dixon & Jones since sometime in the ’90s, and they are every bit as entertaining now as they always were. And obviously, Crenshaw and Barone are nothing to sneeze at, either.
Speaking of friends, over Easter weekend I had the chance to reconnect with Ken and Virginia Miller. Sometime in January I noticed that during the winter months my efforts to manage the humidity for my Miller guitar had fallen short, and there was a noticeable separation right along the center seam in the top. It was purely cosmetic, but I contacted Ken to discuss it. Eventually I decided to use it as an excuse to go down and see his new shop. When he built the guitar, he and Virginia were in Tallahassee, but they had since moved to (my home state of) North Carolina. When the weather warmed up a bit –and, as luck would have it, the seam in the top pretty much closed itself back up– I took a little extra time off at Easter and drove myself and my guitar down to NC. That Saturday, my Mom and I enjoyed a scenic ride to the Millers’ beautiful new home, which has amazing views across the mountains and fields. The workshop is bright and spacious, and Ken soon set about re-glueing the (mostly gone) seam separation, and then tweaked the setup on the guitar. After that, we visited all afternoon, picking a few tunes on some of their new instruments — Mom playing the Acousteel, Ken’s take on the dobro/weissenborn slide guitar. And that’s without doubt the main attraction at Ken & Virginia’s home: Ken & Virginia themselves, and their warm, inviting hospitality. You simply couldn’t find two finer people to spend the afternoon with. Plus, you know, they have a lot of guitars
Of course the big item on our yearly musical agenda over the last few years has been the Newport Folk Festival, and this year was no exception. Highlights for us this year included Willie Watson, Valerie June, Milk Carton Kids, Ryan Adams, and Tweedy. As always, the festival was smoothly run, easy to manage, and it still offers one of the most beautiful settings you could imagine.
Another main item on our Newport agenda is our annual check-in on the progress of the restoration of The Coronet, which I’ve written about before. For us, no trip to Newport would feel complete without it.
We’ve made a lot of friends at the festival over the years, repeat customers like ourselves, many of whom also often stay at our usual B&B, and half the fun is always catching up with each other every year. This year we spent most of our time with out friends Katherine and Jeremy, from Ottawa, and their new son Finlay, and we were also particularly happy to reconnect with the first couple we ever met at Newport, our old friends Fred and Susie. We met at Newport’s 50th Anniversary Folk Festival, which was the first year Suzy and I attended, and sat together in the same spot again the following year. Since then, Fred and Susie had missed the fest for various reasons. It was fantastic to see them again.
While there, Fred and I talked about the fact that Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell were set to do a free show in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center a few weeks after Newport. Following a little discussion and several emails, Fred decided to come up and meet me for the show. It was extremely crowded, and initially it seemed that we may not make it in. Just as we were about to resign ourselves to listening from the sidewalk, they started letting more people in, and before we knew it we had scored some seats! Perfect weather, beautiful evening, great music, and free.
Finally, I’ll say that our most exciting find of 2014 was Lake Street Dive. Early in the year we watched the Showtime production of “Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis,” a concert film made in Town Hall in NYC. It features any number of our favorite artists, including Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings, Willie Watson, Milk Carton Kids, Patti Smith, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Joan Baez, etc. Somewhere deep in the film, suddenly there appears this band we’ve never seen or heard of, and they absolutely blew us away. As soon as the film was over, I ordered every CD they had available on Amazon.
Our first taste of seeing them live was at Newport, where they were the number one item on our to-do list. They were everything we’d hoped; tight arrangements and harmonies, polished without being slick. An infectious blend of jazz, soul, blues, and pop. Easily one of the top highlights of the festival for us this year, made even more special by the guest appearance of Mavis Staples, helping out on the song “Bad Self-Portraits.”
Four months later, in early November, we saw them again when they headlined two consecutive sold out nights at Terminal 5. As we hoped, the full concert experience was just as energized as the festival set, sustained over 90+ minutes. We LOVE this band. More please….
My first-ever iPod, affectionately referred to as the PigPod, died last week. I know it’s a trivial matter, but the internet is filled with extensive writing about meaningless things, so I’m jumping on that bandwagon.
The first time I ever saw an iPod, I hadn’t even heard of one yet. Friends had invited us for dinner, and one of their kids –just barely a teenager– had one. He was incredibly excited to show it off, and I pretended to be awed by it, but the truth is I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want such a thing. Sometimes I can be slow to catch on.
It was pretty impressive that it could hold 1000 songs. A thousand of anything is a lot; that much I understood. But at that time, none of my music was on my computer. I don’t even think I knew then how to get it onto my computer if I had wanted to. I may not even have known that it was possible to put it onto my computer. Besides, I already had a portable CD player, so why bother?
Soon after that I got into the whole SongFight! thing and cobbled together a digital recording studio, and started burning my tunes to CD-RW. In turn, Frankie Big Face, who then served with nary a hint of reluctance as my personal IT service, showed me how to rip mp3s from the CDs so that I could email my songs to the Fightmaster. But even then I only saw it as a means to that specific end. The iPod wasn’t anywhere on my radar.
Two or three years later, after we had moved to NJ, a co-worker’s husband gave her a new iPod for her birthday, fully loaded with all their music. As she was showing it to us the next day, I picked it up and, like magic, I suddenly understood. Understood so clearly that I couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t been able to understand it before. This thing was amazing.
A few weeks later my wife gave me one for our 17th anniversary. I don’t remember what I gave her, but it could not possibly have been as cool as my shiny new custom engraved 40GB PigPod. No way.
I spent the next weeks ripping our CD collection to mp3s, slowly but surely filling the ‘Pod with our tunes. It seemed to take forever, but one day it was finished and I could carry my entire record collection in the palm of my hand. To say that it changed everything may be a bit of an overstatement. But it changed a lot. No more deciding which CDs to take on a road trip, for example. Recommending a record to someone, and having it in my pocket right at that moment. It was an incredible feeling at the time.
Of course I know mp3s are not the optimal medium for recorded music, and in fact I have recently gone back and re-ripped all my CDs to lossless format. And I realize by some people’s reckoning that still leaves me at least one step behind, in that the current trend is back to vinyl LPs, audiophiles everywhere loudly proclaiming the warmth, depth, and general overwhelming superiority of the polymer groove. That’s all well and good. I miss my old vinyl records, and I often think about investing in a really kickass new stereo, including an awesome turntable. And someday I just might. But at the same time I don’t truly believe most people (and certainly not I) actually possess the ability to discern vinyl from CD, and probably not even from a 256kbps mp3. But regardless, that was never what the iPod was about. At least, not in my mind.
In retrospect, I think it’s really the ripping of the CDs that turned out to be –in the long run– the most interesting thing about having the iPod. Up until that point, I had spent my whole life leafing through my albums, and later our CDs, one by one when looking for something to play. I diligently kept them all in alphabetical order, by band name or artist’s last name, obviously, and spent hours keeping them curated, cleaned and protected. Now suddenly, all those songs were right there at my fingertips, all at once. Searchable by title, artist, album, date, or any other way I wanted to file them. The grooves couldn’t get scratched. They couldn’t be left out of their cases, or inadvertently filed in the wrong place. And I could see things about my collection that I couldn’t see before.
Without actually ever having counted, I could have easily told anyone who cared to know that we had more music by Emmylou Harris than any other artist. The first time I heard Emmy sing, I thought I might have died & gone to Heaven without realizing it, and over the intervening years I had picked up everything of hers I could find. But I would never have guessed that the second most well-represented artist in our collection would be Eric Clapton. Looking at it from the opposite perspective, I was shocked at what a small showing was made by Willie Nelson and Tony Rice, two of my all-time heroes.
Like most people, today I take iTunes pretty much for granted, rarely giving it a thought except to turn it on and, later, turn it off. But at the time, I had quite a few little revelations while loading it all up.
Of course like all things computerlicious, the PigPod was obsolete almost before it arrived at my door, and over the years our house has been home to numerous other iterations of the iPod, and now we’ve mostly moved past it in the sense that it is rare for either of us to actually listen to one. We have an old iPod Touch connected to our kitchen radio, but that’s background music at most. And the truth is the original PigPod has spent most of the last 5 years or so lying on top of the stereo system in the design studio where I work. And even there, it rarely saw any use.
Last week I brought it home and updated its contents so that my wife could use it in her workplace. Everything was fine when I synced it with iTunes, and we chuckled a bit at how we had kind of forgotten exactly how to use it. The next day when she tried to play it, the battery appeared to be dead. She plugged it in to charge, but it never came on again. She brought it home and I tried to resuscitate it, but it has simply spun its last spin.
My good friend Frank, often mentioned in this blog and on my website as Frankie Big Face, writes a really fun and interesting music blog called 9999 Songs. On occasion he invites various friends and colleagues to write a guest column. Over the holidays, I had the pleasure of stepping in to do the honors. Read my column below, and then head on over and enjoy the rest of his blog at 9999 Songs.
Wednesday, December 25, 2013
Today, I give myself the gift of the Guest Blogger. Monty Smith is one of my closest friends, an excellent guitarist and singer, and an astute observer of life. I’d rather spend an afternoon with Monty than do almost anything else. He brings his southern-born charm to this post about The Beatles, which I am sure you will enjoy as much as the song itself. Happy Christmas everyone!
Song #457 of 9999
Title: Don’t Let Me Down
Artist: The Beatles
Album: Let It Be
I suppose if you’re writing about popular music during the ’60s, choosing to write about a Beatles tune is rather obvious. On the other hand, they’re the Beatles, fergodsakes. Why wouldn’t I pick them? I’m hoping that my song choice, “Don’t Let Me Down,” is at least a bit off the beaten path.
I was born four months before the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. This means that, lucky for me, they were still together for most of my childhood, and still in very heavy rotation on radio until I was fully growed up and haired over. At first I was drawn to them by Paul’s gorgeous and profoundly accessible melodies, as is no doubt the case for many people. But by the time I was eight or ten I was already starting to realize that the confessional, heart- on-the-sleeve nature of John’s lyrics was where the real pay dirt was for me. Although I was too young to have any personal experience with the things he was writing about, it was clear to me even then that many of his songs were nakedly personal in a way I’d never heard from anyone else at that point in my life.
Forty years later, I’d still have a hard time thinking of a song that better embodies what I’m talking about than “Don’t Let Me Down.” I know there are more emotive songs in Lennon’s catalog — most obviously those from his post-Beatles primal scream period. And arguably some tracks from the Double Fantasy / Milk and Honey years were lyrically more personal. (Maybe even too much so.) But for me, at least, “Don’t Let Me Down” is a nearly perfect blend of melody and emotion in terms music, of fear and cautious optimism in terms of lyrics, and of plaintiveness and angst in terms of vocal performance.
There are some interesting nuts-and-bolts kinds of things to mention about the song, such as the fact that it is comprised of three song fragments Lennon was working on for the Get Back album, which eventually morphed into the Let It Be album. Apparently it was also inspired by (or at least lifts from) the chord progression from the 1968 Fleetwood Mac song “Albatross.” And there are some unusual counterpoint melody and metric things going on that Frank would undoubtedly point out and explain if he were writing this (because he is equipped to do so), and which I can hear but am not going to address further (because I am not equipped to do so).
So lastly, I will just point out that there are several versions of this song floating around. They recorded multiple versions during the Get Back sessions (one of which was released as the b- side of the “Get Back” single), and the version on the 2003 Let It Be…Naked album is actually spliced together from two different takes recorded during the famous rooftop concert on January 30, 1969. When I first decided to write this my intention was to determine which version is my favorite and recommend it specifically. But the truth is they’re all great. Just pick one and listen. It’ll be good for what ails ya.