January 22, 2015

Writing on the (Yelp) Wall

In yesterday's Hartford Courant: Jojo's Coffee To Close At Month's End

If you can't get past the Courant's new paywall, the story is (mostly) a "...local business driven away by the economy and a big bad corporation..." (in this case, a new, nearby Panera)
The past few months for the Pratt Street coffee shop have not been good. It has lost money for the first time since it opened about 15 years ago. At the end of this month, he said, the shop will close.

"The last six months have been the toughest for us businesswise," said Sze, 56, standing next to the giant red coffee roaster, occasionally picking at the beans.
But buried deep in the article, some more fundamental truth:
He said for the hundreds if not thousands of insurance workers nearby, only a few darken his door. "A good amount of them come out and want something fast, and our setup is not designed for that."
Visiting the Jo-Jo's business page at Yelp provides ample evidence of this. Some snippets from many reviews:
  • "I have been loyal and loving. I have been forgiving, even though they have one very rude barista. Recently, it's been closed for no posted reason on days when they say they will be open."
  • "Hours read: 9am to 3pm on Sunday. I drove here on a Sunday obliviously expecting the place to be open. It was closed! Post your hours correctly!"
  • "When you have one person to act as cashier, barista, and general helper, you're going to get lines (check), slow service (check) and then rude service (check)"
  • "Rude, brash service at the register when asking about breakfast sandwichs with eggs.  Lady pointed up near the roof like I was stupid and I almost just walked out yet hunger can make you tolerate such."
  • "I've been here several times and had great service. Today was terrible, the cook was rude, the cashier was rude. Made us feel unwelcome. I will most likely not come back."
  • "I wanted to love Jojo's so much, and time and time again I have not been able to. Hands down, the biggest issue with Jojo's is the timing of it's service." 
And it's not like this is a new issue. I visited in October 2012, and in my Yelp review, wrote:
As I stood in a short (3-4 people) line, I watched as 5-6 people came in, stood in line for a bit, and left. I can just see a corporate coffee place coming in and kicking butt with the location - which would be a pity on a "local business" basis but probably a boon for those wanting a cup of coffee on a Sunday afternoon. 
Back in 2008, I wrote about The Romance of Small and Old Things and spoke of another beloved Hartford coffeehouse, La Paloma Sabanera.
Hartford recently lost a mini-landmark, La Paloma Sabanera. And it was a good place: great coffee, great people, a commitment to the neighborhood, a central gathering place for many communities. But it was not making money. And as a small business owner, I know that if you do not have income, you can't pay the rent, the heating bills, the cost of goods sold. It's just a matter of time before one runs out of money or energy, and has to close shop. But oh how romantic! How special a place! Would the shop have been any less special had it focused more on it's bottom line and less on the greater good? Perhaps. But it might also have remained open, to fight again.
I've only visited Jo-Jo's a few times over the years, and have never had a wonderful customer experience - and I'm probably batting about 0.500 when it comes to actually walking out with something to drink (as opposed to walking out empty handed because I did not have the time to wait). Multiply that by the "...hundreds, if not thousands..." of potential customers that Jo-Jo's has disappointed or turned away over the years, and you get the idea that this failure is less about Hartford, less about chains, and more about an inability to recognize the customers' needs and/or an unwillingness to meet them. 

January 10, 2015

Folk Friday at CT Folk: Lara Herscovitch and Kristen Graves

In what may be turning into a tradition, I wandered down to New Haven last evening for the first Folk Friday concert of 2015, featuring Kristen Graves and Lara Herscovitch. I really did not have any expectations - I knew both artists were CT State Troubadours (Lara in 2009-10, Kristen at present) and I'm sure I've run across Lara here and there (most recently, in a spoken word piece at The MOuTH at the Mark Twain House), but I did not really know what to expect.

Instead of the traditional, "two artists, one opens, one closes, and they do a few songs together", or the less common but still engaging "multiple artists in the round" format, Lara and Kristen have been actively practicing, and working together. Their preparation, reportedly handing each other their respective catalogs and inviting the other to "pick some songs we can do together", seemed a recipe for creativity and the unexpected. Lara confessed "that's a song I never do" (one that Kristen chose) and I imagine the whole of their performance was quite different than the sum of their individual performances.

It must be said - these two are an unusual pairing.  Lara is a cat person, and Kristen a dog person (for one), but I have a hard time coming up with two musicians who are seemingly more different. Kristen has the warm and fuzzy feeling of that first grade teacher who got down on the carpet and sang Pete Seeger songs; her crunchy hippie roots are not far from the surface. Lara is sharp as a tack (and wickedly funny) in a New York City kind of way, and seems like she could be lobbying the state legislature instead of playing folk music. Although she's not really that similar musically, I kept thinking of Lucy Kaplansky as I watched her sing and perform - polished, confidant, talented.

But both musicians are a lot deeper and more complex than my initial impressions. Lara brought an African chant / round she learned while visiting the continent, as well as a totally goofy C-O-N-N-E-C-T-I-C-U-T chant to the party (following Kristen's more staid "troubadour" song entry). Kristen dropped a few names (Yarrow, Seeger) without sounding pretentious, has a more wry but totally subversive sense of humor, borrowed a Uke for one song (seemingly on a whim), and wandered off stage for a bit to listen to one of her songs on Youtube because she forgot the chords.  There was a "what the heck will they do next?" feel to the evening that was totally engaging and fun.

Together, they were pretty wonderful. As they worked through their songs together, each stepped back to let the other shine, and their harmonies were a lot more lush and polished than one might expect from a "two solo artists sharing the stage" performance. I went in with a "I'll probably buy one CD, let's see who impresses me...." attitude, and walked out with one from each of them (Lara's 2009 "Through a Frozen Midnight Sky" and Kristen's 2014 "Now Ain't the Time for Tears"). I was not familiar enough with their music to note particular performances, but I'm pretty sure I'll be a lot more familiar the next time I hear them (and there WILL be a next time, pretty sure)

Lara has earned a little extra attention. She related a story about an encounter with a Boston blogger / DJ who refused to promote her show because she was not "folk enough" (told as a prelude to a song entitled "Folk You" or some such). And I kind of get that - there's a certain segment of the folk world that insists on sing-alongs, traditional tunes, and a willingness to pull up a log at a campfire on the drop of a hat. Lara seems like she might not want to be too far from a blow-dryer or curling iron for the folk fest camping experience to really resonate. And when she played the John Jenning's tweaked "Mississippi Lullaby" (from her more recent "Four Wise Monkeys") I could hear that Mary Chapin Carpenter drive and arrangement, and could almost hear her shining with a bass, drummer, and lead guitarist with a telecaster or a dobro.

All that being said, Lara and Kristen ended with "This Little Light of Mine", aided by Robert Messore (cajon) and Mark Zaretsky (harp) and you do not get more folk than that.

I'll be keeping an eye out for them, together and as solo performers. Neither has hit the Emerging Artist stage at Falcon Ridge Folk Fest, and both of them would be welcome additions, in my opinion.

CT State Troubadours indeed. Wonderful local music!


January 03, 2015

Frozen Buns Balloon Rally 2015

One of my many hobbies / interests is hot air ballooning. I crew or "chase" for a commercial pilot, Berkshire Balloons, and belong to a local hot air balloon club, the CT Lighter-than-Air Society (CLAS). And although ballooning might seem to be a fair weather sport, one can fly all year round. In fact, winter flying, with calm winds, cool air, and sparse vegetation, has it's own special charms.

Each year, on the first flyable weekend after new years, CLAS holds an informal balloon rally or fly-out called the Frozen Buns Rally. Commercial balloon pilots must make three take-offs / landings within a 90 day period to "stay current", or else they need to recertify. So a mid-winter flight is a great way to maintain certification - between the fall foliage season and early spring flying.

This morning, at the Aqua Turf Club in Southington, 14 hot air balloons made their way into the cold morning sky. 

The club will be holding an annual banquet later this winter; and then a period of quiet until the warmer weather returns. If you are interested in the sport hot air ballooning, do consider joining CLAS - pilots are always looking for crew members, you can get notice of fly-outs, festivals, and events, and you just might decide to take lessons and learn to fly yourself!

January 01, 2015

New Year, New Art

A dear friend, Audrey, gifted me with some artwork this holiday.

After Image
"After Image" by Mary Fussell

The piece is a watercolor original by CT artist Mary Fussell. Audrey is a bit of an arts community fixture and sponsor - and I have no doubt this piece is worth far more than I deserve or want to know.

It's lovely and has found a place of honor in my home. My art collection is somewhat eclectic and random - photographs by myself, by friends, and by strangers, a number of pieces of bird in various media and techniques, some framed posters and prints, and a few random abstract pieces I have been gifted, or purchased at charity auctions or benefits.

I do not really collect art per se; art, I think, collects me. 

#RealLiveTransAdult and the Trans Culture of Death

First, let me say that the recent trans suicide has affected me more deeply than most, enough to break radio silence and contribute a few tweets to hashtag . It's been moving reading these tweets over the past few days.

But to follow up, I have been for many years, and remain, very concerned about how the trans community embraces and promotes these tragic losses. In 2010, over on Helen Boyd's My Husband Betty message board, I posted (in response to a call to action about a recent trans suicide):
So no, I will not blog or post to facebook or increase the media footprint of this sort of event. Because there is another GLBT youth sitting out there right now feeling unloved and unimportant, and that young person might just decide that, like this young man, he or she is worth more to the cause as a beloved martyr than as an obscure, lonely youth 
And Leelah Alcorn's suicide note posted on tumbler points exactly in this direction:

My death needs to mean something. My death needs to be counted in the number of transgender people who commit suicide this year. I want someone to look at that number and say “that’s fucked up” and fix it. Fix society. Please.
Following that formula to it's logical conclusion, the more trans suicides the better. Get the numbers up...

This is not a new idea, back in 2011, David McFarland, of The Trevor Project, wrote an Advocate editorial entitled Our Role in Stopping a Suicide Crisis
But there are ways of talking about suicide that could increase the likelihood of other at-risk people attempting to take their own lives.  This is because suicide is closely tied to psychological well-being.

When we draw direct lines from sexual orientation or bullying to suicide, it can influence someone who is at-risk to assume that taking your own life is what you’re supposed to do next if you are LGBT or bullied. This may not seem rational, but attempting to take your own life is an irrational act.

As a caring community, we can help avoid making suicide appear like a logical choice by putting distance between statements or stories describing instances of bullying and instances of suicide.
I'm not sure what the answer is, not even sure there is an answer. The only thing I can come up with is visibility for those who choose life - but even that has its downside. Knowing how fraught a transgender life can be and the personal costs of visibility and outness, I wonder how many suicides by out and proud transfolk (and there are many, all of the suicide victims I have known personally have been post-transition, supposedly "over the mountain" in terms of this difficult path) could have been avoided by a little more turning inward, a little less flying the flag.

There are probably two dozen reasons why I have chosen a less public life, post-transition. Some of those are self serving, no doubt, aware of my own acquired cisgender privilege and ability to move through the world with my trans history below the surface. Some are based on my own awareness of the need to "affix my oxygen mask before helping others". Some come from watching transfolk ripped to shreds by others in the community for espousing other than the company line; my attitudes and beliefs are more nuanced and less politically correct and have drawn fire in the past. And some are based on an awareness of how transfolk like me have dominated the discourse over the decades, how perhaps the best way to permit other voices to be heard is to self-silence, to step off the stage.

Perhaps there are no good answers. There is another dead trans youth. Her image and name are already making their way onto the wall of beloved martyrs. And there is a lost and lonely trans kid sitting at a keyboard somewhere, balancing a difficult and seemingly intractable life with the fame and glory that a public death would bring.  

December 28, 2014

Christmas 2014: Four Movies

I caught four movies over the holiday season (which gives you a sense of what my holidays were like) - this rainy morning is a good opportunity to review them. 

Awake: The Life of Yogananda
This one arrived at Real Art Ways on Dec 19th, and has been showing ever since. A successful run despite a private showing on Dec 12th that many of my yoga friends and peers attended. Really wonderful use of archival footage, stills, and audio to relate the history of one of the first yogis to come to the west.

The film was divided between more or less concrete history (dates, places, anecdotes) and some discussion of yoga philosophy, and how / why it resonated with this country in that time (1920's onward)

A spiritual community friend related how the connection to an historic figure (through the archival material) made it very powerful for her, and I agree. I've never really known too much of Yogananda, and have not read The Autobiography of a Yogi but probably worth a read....

The Tale of Princess Kaguya
I'm not a huge anime fan in general, but I rarely miss anything that Studio Ghibli puts out, and this one is magical. A tiny girl, found inside a bamboo stalk, and adopted by an old bamboo cutter and his wife who dote on their "princess", and with the aid of gold and fine cloth gifted by the bamboo, work to elevate her to royalty.

I was quietly sobbing by the end with the Beauty and Truth of it all. Anyone who has asked the question "Who Am I?" will want to see this one, it's pretty powerful.

Into the Woods
I'm not a huge musical theater nerd - but there's something about Sondheim that resonates (yeah, I can pretty much sing Sunday in the Park, or Song and Dance, all the way through). This one was pretty good - I've seen the play in community theater a few times so did not have a lot to compare the movie to, but I found the score, songs, and plot to be so familiar and comfortable, and none of the actors were really inappropriate.

The play itself is somewhat challenging (with the "happily ever after" moment seeming to be the place that the mainstream audience would have been happy to have walked out on) and the drama and complications of the latter third not so easily communicated or expostulated.

But still, a lovely musical and tuneful experience. Almost nobody could even attempt to replace Bernadette Peters as The Witch, but Meryl Streep was wonderful. The rest of the cast was also pretty sharp, although Johnny Depp seems to bring too much camp / costumed baggage with him to be taken seriously in any role these days.

My only regret was seeing it on Christmas Day - too many people in the theater, someone wearing perfume sitting nearby, and a movie companion who wanted to see a movie, but not really THIS movie. Might be worth sneaking out for a matinee alone so I can stew in the music in peace.

She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry
Finally, a wonderful documentary about the women's movement, circa 1966-1971, with an opening night post-film discussion with director Mary Dore. Loved this movie - for the subject, for the narrative technique (present day interviews intercut with archival footage, stills, etc. of the interviewees). The movie hits many of the historic events, puts these into context, and covers many of the major cities - Boston, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Washington.

It was a large and friendly crowd at Real Art Ways, and there were audible sighs and smatterings of applause when key figures and events were brought to the fore (the publishing of Our Bodies, Our Selves, Shirley Chisholm, etc.) Like "Awake" - the use of archival footage was wonderful, so see these often careworn women (today) back when they were young, vital, angry, activists was immensely powerful and made it very real. 

Although reasonable short (90 minutes or so) the documentary packed in a lot - turning the spotlight on women of color, on the divisions between the more conservative NOW and the more radical Women's Lib, exploring the straight / queer divide, discussing the various causes and priorities (equal opportunity, equal pay, child care, reproductive rights, domestic abuse, rape, etc.) - with just a few nods to the present day movement (reproductive rights in Texas, slut walks)

Definitely a must-see....

December 26, 2014

2014 Recap

A little early, admittedly, but Christmas was kind of a bummer this year, so I decided that I needed a shot of personal affirmation, which reviewing the past year certainly does. I've linked in applicable blog posts / video / graphics as available.

Folk Music
2014 was a big year for live music. Leaving aside the juggernauts of the Falcon Ridge Folk Festival (my annual July retreat) and the New England Regional Folk Alliance conference (November, my first, and an amazing time), I saw (in general order):

The Yoga
A couple of years back one of my clients wrote a Linked In recommendation for me that included the amusing phrase "...Jude has developed a strong desire for the yoga...." and now I've infected others at the studio with the wording "...I'm here to do The Yoga...". 2014 was more of the same, teaching three regular classes a week, regular subbing, a monthly free intro class, as well as assisting the 2014 Teacher Training (my 5th year doing that)

My shoulders remain highly problematic (not helped whatsoever by all the extra weight I've been carrying), which keeps me out of a lot of my favorite power / flow classes; so yoga and I remain locked in a relationship best described as "It's Complicated"

Live Theater / Performance
One visit to Hartford Stage (Hamlet) and one to Theaterworks (Woody Sez) this year. I also got to Chion Wolf's "The Mouth" at Mark Twain House three times, went to see Mike Birbiglia in Boston (a distant friend tagged me for a trip north). And not really in the same category but a Colin McEnroe live show from NBMAA (Typewriter Exhibit) and The Colin McEnroe Show Fifth Anniversary party at the new Infinity Music Hall.

The Guinea Pigs and Making Music
We seemed to play fewer gigs this year but we ratcheted up the quality. Farmer's Markets (Billings Forge and Bozrah), MCC on Main (3 times), and Blue Back Square (1x) were augmented by a wonderful gig at the Manchester Band Shell and an "all originals" set at the Glastonbury Apple Fest. We also popped up in a CT Tourism ad for Hartford Hodge Podge that ran on CPTV for a while this summer.

In the personal performance realm, I stepped up to the mic at the UU East Coffeehouse a few times this year (thanks, Dan!), played bass for a few acts in the Camp Camp talent show, and led a Camp Camp lunchtime flash mob (Sweet Caroline) which was a lot of fun.

And in "sound engineer" mode, I ran the sound for Kirtan 3x as well as provided the sound for OM Street / Live Yoga on Lasalle for about 1000 yogis....

Film and Movies
Really, too many to even begin to list. I spent a lot of time over at Real Art Ways this year, and a few visits to Cinestudio - I caught a lot of the 2014 Oscar Nominees. I also snuck out to the local Rave Multiplex for weekday matinees when the spirit moved me. Highlights included the annual Oscar Nominated shorts (at Real Art Ways) as well as the Out Film Fest in may (I bought a festival pass, and went to a lot of the films)

Not a great year - between yoga commitments, summertime trips, and rain, I did not get out all that much, and missed a lot of the regular events (winter dinner, safety seminar, Plainville Balloon Fest). Nevertheless I did chase more than a few times, and flew at least once.

Home Repair and Renovation
Kind of a quiet year - I painted the back deck, I replaced my kitchen faucet, and replaced my kitchen floor tiles. I picked up and installed a home energy monitor (for personal and professional curiousity)

Not a good year, in the mortality department. My yoga teacher's mother Rita passed away this past year, as did Robert "Buck" Palter, father of my ex-partner Alex. We also lost Gil Dube, a long ago friend from the folk music world, and Laura Bupp, wife of my cousin Jeremy. I've thankfully not lost any aunts / uncles recently, but they are all getting up there and I expect we'll be saying goodbye to some in the coming years.

In Febuary, I assumed the role of condo association president (not that big a deal for a four unit association). I revamped my business website, got some new personal cards printed up (listing all my affiliations - yoga, ballooning, music, professional, social media), and started a new Residential Power and Energy blog

Went on a handful of hikes this year (mostly to the usual place) and spent quite a few hours walking the loop around Walnut Hill Park in New Britain (got to get back on that horse). I invested in, and installed, some new "street friendly" tires on my mountain bike - but have not really ridden much this past year.  also picked up a Fitbit which I use way too sporadically - but it's charged and ready to go in case of New Year's resolutions....

Finally, I snuck in one Red Sox game with camp friends, in May.

December 16, 2014

The Nields: Wasn't That a Time

I've been a fan of The Nields (in various configurations and levels of amplification) for most of their 23 years - first seeing them in a funky little bar in Bristol, CT called The Common Ground. I was told to get my tissues out when I watched this, and being all jaded and cynical, I ignored this advice, to my own peril. For folks who have been along for most of the ride, it's a tear-jerker of a valentine.
I've supported their crowd-funding project for the next CD, titled "XVII" - and if you are a fan, you might want to also - http://www.pledgemusic.com/projects/thenields

"Did you used to dance and bounce and sing with us?" - Guilty, on all counts, usually on a hillside in Hillsdale, NY. 

December 15, 2014

Dar Williams: The Honesty Room 20th Anniversary Tour

I made a last minute decision to trek up to Northampton, MA this past weekend to see Dar Williams on her "The Honesty Room" 20th anniversary tour. Dar (and opener, Jill Sobule, at least as much a draw for me) made a healthy dent in the Calvin theater, but there were plenty of seats left, including some higher priced Orchestra seats up front. I ponied up the bucks for a 5th row seat on the side, and was thrilled to be up close.

Dar and Jill getting ready to rock "Iowa" (with Bryn Roberts)
 Now, Dar and I go way back. We go back far enough that "The Honesty Room" was not out when I first encountered her - my first purchase was "All My Heroes are Dead" on cassette tape (!). In a 1996 Hartford Courant article entitled Dar Williams Finds Faith In Bristol Cafe, Roger Caitlin writes:
Every artist has a turning point, Dar Williams believes.

For her, it came one night at the Common Ground cafe in Bristol.

``I was going to quit,'' she recalls. ``I was going to get $100. Was it worth it to present my songs, my blood, sweat and tears before another crowd of beer and cigarettes?''

But something strange happened. ``I mentioned what inspired a song -- the Mafia in Middletown -- and heads turned around. People were listening.''

Sometimes, for a struggling folk artist, that's all you need.

``That gig gave me the faith,'' Williams said at a Connecticut Songwriters Association meeting in East Hartford recently. ``As a performer, that's what you need: The faith things are going to work out.''
Dar played the Common Ground many times, and I was at every one of those gigs. So yeah, we go back a ways. I bought "The Honesty Room" (the original Burning Field Music version) at Roaring Brook Nature Center, where Dar was a spotlight Open Mic performer, having not even risen to the level of head-liner yet, and she inscibed my copy "Thanks for listening....and for playing"

So this 20th Anniversary concert was a trip down memory lane, as Dar played each song from The Honesty Room, in order.
  1. When I Was a Boy
  2. Alleluia
  3. The Great Unknown
  4. When Sal's Burned Down
  5. The Babysitter's Here
  6. You're Aging Well
  7. Traveling Again (Traveling I)
  8. In Love But Not at Peace
  9. Mark Rothko Song
  10. This Is Not the House That Pain Built
  11. I Love, I Love (Traveling II)
Was quite lovely - songs that I had not heard Dar play in many, many years (although surely, having heard her play several dozen times, weighted towards the early years, I've heard them all at some point). A very sweet and generous trip back in time.

After the main event, Dar played a handful of other "oldies but goodies" - mostly from Mortal City: (As Cool As I Am, February, Iowa, The Christians and The Pagans). It was a hometown crowd for Dar (who lived in Northampton at the start of her career, and recorded THR in the area), with a special cameo by the young woman (then 5, now 25) whose "we both eat spinach, just sometimes, not all the time" tagged The Babysitter's Here recording.

And yes, not to forget Jill Sobule. I've seen Dar dozens of times; I've only seen Jill play live once (at the Inner Space in Hamden, not exactly Carnegie Hall) so it was wonderful to see her play to a big house on a large stage. She's quite wonderful - funny, talented, just the right amount of quirky and acerbic as befits someone who burst onto the music scene (with 1995's "I Kissed a Girl") and then never quite hit the top-40 the same way even as her musical career continued to be productive and creative. I've picked up several of her albums online that have gone into regular rotation, and will probably pick up a few more now that she has charmed me again. I did but her songbook this weekend and promised to hook her up with a steam train (she mentioned wanting to do a long train trip to write music).

I'd say that caps a pretty awesome year of music (which I will recap over the coming weeks) but you never know when and where I might find something awesome to go listen to between now and Dec 31.....

December 05, 2014

Website Redesign Fail: Real Art Ways

Dear Real Art Ways:

Please put your old website back up. The new one truly and verily sucks. I mean, it looks nice and all, but from a user experience perspective, it's nearly useless.

The ONE THING that I visit your website regularly to do is to find out movie showtimes. I'd go to your calendar page, which used to look like this:

And there, I'd easily see your film showtimes for the week, make some quick decisions about going to the movies, and perhaps even notice another upcoming event.

Flash forward to today - I visited your site to see what's playing - maybe catch a movie tonight. So here's the calendar page. And....I have no idea what is playing tonight.

There are four films listed as playing over Dec 5th, today's date, but no clue as to which films are playing today, nor what time said films are playing. So I dutifully click on Citizenfour (what I'm really interested in). There, on the far right, I see Dec 5th - No Screening. So I click back to the main page. How about Diplomacy then? Again, click, look, again, No Screening. Hit the back button. So now I am four clicks past where I used to be able to see the schedule, and I still have no idea what's playing. 

Turns out 4 clicks later, 8 clicks total, that Pelican Dreams is playing at 5:15 pm and Force Majeure is playing at 7:00 pm. 

Guess what, Real Art Ways? Your website is no longer useful to me. I will, in the future, be relying on Moviefone or Fandango or Yahoo to figure out what to see and when. 

That has two results that negatively impact Real Art Ways: 
  1. I'll be easily able to see what is playing at other area theaters, and might be lured away from your otherwise lovely arts center. 
  2. I will fail to see news about your live events, openings, special events, etc. that I suspect you would hope I would notice if I went to your site. 
I'm not being a bitch capriciously. I'm a member, I'm a fan, I regularly visit for movies, speakers, live events, arts openings, and social events - and I want you to continue to thrive. I will, no doubt, continue to visit often. But bad web design damages, and sometimes kills, businesses and organizations - even ones as good-hearted and progressive as yours.

Oh, and P.S. - Your site is not responsive, and all that hunting and clicking, annoying as it was on my desktop and tablet, is 10x as bad on my iPhone 5S. But you knew that, right? 

November 30, 2014

Jewmongous - Taller Than Jesus

I was sitting in the yoga studio lobby this weekend, lamenting the crass commercialism of Black Friday and the pervasive Christmas vibe in the air, and musing "I'm going into my cave until December 26th". One of our students, of Jewish background, quipped "Welcome to the tribe". Helluva big laugh. So in spite of my deeply rooted Roman Catholic bona fides (which have involved at various times, alter serving, 12 years of catholic school, folk mass musician, CCD teacher, lector, lay Eucharistic minister, a father who served in the Knights of Columbus and as a deacon, and a marriage officiated by a bishop), I feel emotionally ready to talk about one of my NERFA finds - Sean Altman, aka Jewmongous, and his album Taller Than Jesus. 

I stumbled across Sean / Jewmongous purely by accident. Sean was running around the NERFA conference in a blue tee shirt and suspenders, with an "S" emblazoned on his chest (a la Godspell) although the S was embedded into a Star of David. He had a quad showcase slot, in a room that my friend Kate Callahan was playing, and I had decided that night to park it and watch all the acts rather than wander around. So glad I did.

I'm all in a favor of a folk comedy / novelty act - going way back to Nancy Tucker, Jay Mankita, Fred Eglesmith, Christine Lavin, and Cheryl Wheeler (when she is not making me cry). Bring it on. But this seemed a little over the edge, a little too "in your face" and I was a bit reluctant. I think I even stood up and moved to the back of the room - intending to give him a little listen before I snuck out.

I need not have worried. Sean Altman is an accomplished sonrwriter, purportedly the "grandfather of modern a cappela" through his work with Rockappela, and songwriting credits ranging from PBS Kids shows, Schoolhouse Rock, and Wendy's commercials. No schlock here. 

As it was, I stood in the back and laughed my ass off through a short 15 minute set that included Taller Than Jesus (playing off John Lennon's "Bigger than Jesus" mis-step) and They Tried to Kill Us. I wandered off smiling and humming. the next day, I caught Sean in the NERFA lunch room, thanked him for his set, and reported my Saul like conversion - and he shoved a CD in my hands (I was very consciously not soliciting music all weekend, but the few times it came my way organically, I was happy to accept)

I've spent some time listening this weekend, and the mirth and delight have continued. Each of the tracks on Taller Than Jesus, rooted in the fine tradition of the parody song pioneered by Weird Al Yankovic (and for the record, I was listening to Weird Al via Dr. Demento on late night FM radio in the late 70's, while working the overnight shift at McDonald's, long before he had a label or sold a record). The overall theme is Jewishness - either specific to the religion, personal experience, or general cultural Jewishness.

But the interesting aspect of the disk is that each track spotlights a musical genre and nails it. "What the Hell is Simchas Torah?" is straight on modern klezmer, right out of Brooklyn hipsterdom. But then it gets weird in a way that brings a smile. "Today I Am a Man" is 50's Do--wop, "Christian Baby Blood" is an Irish bar band drinking song (think Dropkick Murphys), there are homages to western movie themes, big band, broadway, tango / latin, 60s surf rock. "Too Jew For You" vibes Elvis Costello's "Miracle Man", "Jew for Jesus" lifts an opening riff from "Do You Wanna Be a Rock and Roll Star?". The whole album is like an aural "find a word" puzzle or "Where's Waldo" - each resonance or echo brings a smile, and the "familiar but can't place it" numbers drive one mad searching for a musical reference or touchstone.

The writing is witty and smart, the musicianship is professional and well-crafted.

As a recovering Catholic, yoga teaching, agnostic with Zen leanings who is a little too anti-social to run off with the Universalist-Unitarians, I'm not really collecting Jewish humor albums. But I'm sure gonna share this with all my friends with the tribe!  

And Sean Altman, going forward, I'm a fan!

November 23, 2014

Mouths of Babes at Chestnut Tree Concerts

An unexpected treat last evening, trekking out to Oxford, CT for a house concert featuring Mouths of Babes

I say "unexpected" because I really did not know what to expect from Ty Greenstein (Girlyman) and Ingrid Elizabeth (Coyote Grace). I'm a Girlyman fan from way back, although to be honest I kind of embraced and enjoyed them as a group, and did not really parse their music individually.

Coyote Grace played the Falcon Ridge emerging artist showcase in 2009 (the micro-burst year) so for whatever reason (possibly collective PTSD, sorting out the merch trailer mess that year was kind of traumatic), they did not really catch my eye.

Seeing them was a real treat. Things I loved:
  • Great harmonies
  • Really fresh songs (Ty has been part of the Real Women / Real Songs project along with many of my faves, which has generated a few songs playes last evening
  • Diverse sound and instrumentation. Ty on acoustic guitar, electric guitar, banjo, and foot percussion, Ingrid on ukulele, U-Bass (she usually plays a stand-up bass), cajon, and harmonica. They even did a patty-cake number. No opportunity to get bored.
  • Ty and Ingrid - wonderful individuals and wonderful performers.
A little different from other Chestnut Tree Concerts in that they brought a small sound system and mic'd / plugged in. I can see the need (U-bass, foot percussion, electric guitar). Normally, I like to see what a group can do sans electronics (i.e. - Boxcar Lilies in April) - but the effects and amplification were judiciously applied; the sound was never problematic or intrusive. On a few numbers (a haunting electric guitar / echo, for instance) the electronics made the song work. 

Bottom Line: A wonderful evening and an opportunity to get to know a couple of artists I have perhaps let slip through the cracks, in terms of my musical attention. I picked up their new EP, Faith & Fumes, as well as the Coyote Grace disk Now Take Flight, an overdue bit of appreciative largesse from FRFF 2009.

November 22, 2014

The MOuTH @ Mark Twain House

One of my favorite arts / culture events in the region is the more or less bi-monthly spoken word / story event entitled "The MOuTH". A clear homage / dig at public radio's "The Moth" (which reportedly dissed Hartford's overture in terms of setting up a local Moth event), and very appropriately held at the Mark Twain House (Mr. Clemens loved a good story), I've been to most of "The MOuTH" evenings, and have even graced the stage (back in December 2013).

Hosted by the talented, and much loved Chion Wolf, with the imprimateur and able assistance of Twin House Director of Communications Jacques Lamarre, it represents the best of Hartford's creative class.

Last night was no exception, a nearly sell-out crowd, with wonderful stories (funny, dark, wistful, tentative) around the theme of "I Quit", a featured guest (Joey DeFrancesco, famous for his Joey Quits video and resultant website / social movement working for service worker rights), and a surprise performance by the Hartford Hot Several, featuring Ms. Wolf gleefully pounding on a fluorescent pink bucket along with a score of musicians of various levels of talent and costumery.

I will, of course, take a bow for prescience, having spotted Ms. Wolf on the media horizon way back in 2007-2008) - by dint of her Flickr page and photo junkets to the Plainville Balloon Fest, Bradley Airport (Airbus A380 Visit), and Hillary Clinton's campaign stop in town as well as her continuity work at WNPR (back before I realized it was all pre-recorded, I thought she might be living at the station on weekends). And I could swear, in a fit of semi-drunken over-sharing at Real Art Ways in the dark ages (between Colin's departure from WTIC and his arrival at WNPR), that I insisted he get Chion on board if he got a gig at WNPR, but I might be mistaken there.

In any case, Colin was present last night in spirit; the dude next to me was looking around hopefully and musing out loud to his seatmate that "Colin might be here", and one of the speakers dropped his name talking about her apartment, in a building here Colin used to reside. And although she gives mad props and huge gratitude to Colin for plucking her into the limelight, Chion stand firmly on her own two feet these days in terms of talent, celebrity, and passion.

Chion announced the dates, and themes, of "The MOuTH" for 2015, which I failed to record and can not seem to find online. But you can keep in touch via Facebook, as well as on the Mark Twain House events page. So happy this series will be an ongoing event.

November 18, 2014

Lighting the Stairs

A somewhat random home improvement post in betwixt and between NERFA updates and life updates.

The previous owner of my condo put up some basement walls that effectively blocked any light source from the stairway (a code violation, to be sure). I ignored the issue for a while, relying on a top of the stairs hallway lamp. Later on, I installed a small halogen "under counter" lamp on the wall, plugged into the switched basement lamp fixture, to light the stairs. But I never really loved that solution - the light was somewhat harsh, unidirectional, and blinding. When the light stopped working yesterday (fuse? bulb? not 100% sure...) I decided to replace rather than repair.

I took advantage of the seasonal holiday lights available at Lowe's  to buy a couple of strings of white rope lighting, which I fixed (using white plastic coax staples along the stair reads and along the ceiling / walls. The result is enough light to travel the stairs, without being too bright.

On the downside - the light along the stair tread really shows the collected dog hair; I will have to vacuum more regularly. And the whole thing is a little trailer park. But I'm good with that....

#NERFA 2014 (2 of 5): Conference Showcase Artists

I made a point to go to all of the conference showcase performances. A VERY brief synopsis of my thoughts and impressions, tweets in italics, and a note if they were Falcon Ridge emerging artists (because that gives me a personal connection).

Friday Night

David Amram - very inspiring, he left us with the directive to "Be Creative" - definitely got things off on the right foot.

Bobtown - Big fan in general, kind of obsessed with their version of Blue Oyster Cult's Don't Fear the Reaper. Loved their set. 2013 Falcon Ridge Emerging Artist alum.

Claudia Schmidt - How have I missed her? Amazing voice, amazing talent and personality. Must dig a bit deeper into her music.

Cassie & Maggie MacDonald - First of many talents artists from Canada. Loved their energy, their talent, their music. And so nice to see some younger faces in the community. Hard not to love Cassie & Maggie MacDonald. Charming and talented. #NERFA

Guy Mendilow Ensemble - Reminds me a bit of Hugh Blumenfeld (story-teller, Israel connection) with a lot more world music diversity. Loved his set, loved his energy and creativity. 2008 Falcon Ridge Emerging Artist alum.

Harpeth Rising - Love women in harmony to start with, and their celtic slant on it was especially welcome. Harpeth Rising is hard to explain. In a very good way. #NERFA #quirky #delightful

Dave Gunning - More Canada. Totally engaging, great voice, songs, and presence. "It's just like the muppet show backstage" #davegunning #NERFA and "What shall I do with these hands of mine" #davegunning #nerfa #imabeliever

David Jacobs-Strain - I'm just gonna say that bluesy slide guitar hits me in the first chakra. #davidjacobs-strain #nerfa

Saturday Night

Shtreiml & Ismail Fencioglu - Interesting, world music-ish, not my cup of tea but enjoyable. Fun to watch Jodi the ASL intepreter kick back with foreign lyrics.

SONiA disappear fear - Never really picked up on disappear fear (despite many visits to Falcon Ridge), so SONiA kind of stood on her own for me. I liked, but not smitten, but I could see how she resonates with a certain audience.

Modern Man - Totally amusing, loved the musical inside jokes (like clipping a capo onto a harmonica to raise the key).

Burning Bridget Cleary - Big fans from Falcon Ridge (2012 Emerging Artists) and from a local CT Folk appearance, blogged here. Did a good job, and the ladies coming front of house (to dance) and then into the audience (at the finale) must have driven the sound and lighting crew nuts.

No Fuss & Feathers Road Show - Another FRFF crew (2006, 2011, and 2012 Emerging Artists along with many other visits), and also a CT Folk appearance, blogged here, and a house concert. Big fan musically and personally, they did well. A finale front of stage, no mics piece with just cajon accompaniment struck me thus: No Fuss and Feathers Road Show. Ballsy. It worked. #NERFA

Jory Nash - More Canada, more great. "Sings like Simon, looks like Garfunkel. Helluva laugh.

The Don Juans - Veteran singer-songwriters Don Henry and Jon Vezner (Falcon Ridge 2009) teamed up for this showcase slot. Got me crying with "Where've You Been" which Vezner penned for wife Kathy Mattea.

Tim Grimm Band - a family affair. With wife and sons in tow. Kind of disarming, physically (strap a guitar on Hank Hill). His song "King of the Folksingers" about his friend Ramblin' Jack Elliot seemed both Dylanesque and a less than gentle poke at the Jokerman

November 16, 2014

#NERFA 2014 (1 of 5): Conference Overview

Just back from the 2014 New England Regional Folk Alliance (NERFA) conference, held at the Hudson Valley Resort & Spa, in Kerhonkson, New York (near New Paltz). Although I have been a folk fan for more than 25 years, a Falcon Ridge volunteer for 22, and a crew chief for the past 8 years, it was my first NERFA conference - and what an experience.

First, the facility. Although on first glance, the facility in the off season seems a little gone to seed; I'm sure it's a much different story in the summer, and I definitely warmed to it over the course of the weekend. I shared a room with a friend from Camp / Falcon Ridge, and our "lowest tier" accommodations (our choice, chosen for price and distance from the noisier spaces) were serviceable - a missing overhead lamp globe, a TV remote that did not work, a tiny bathroom, a thermostat hidden behind the TV console were all fairly minor issues. We survived. The price ($302 for three night, including meals) was perfectly reasonable.

And speaking of the meals - phenomenal. We were generally served two solid meals a day: 
  • Thursday - dinner
  • Friday - full breakfast  and dinner, with an afternoon happy hour with tables of appetizers and walk-around hors d'oeuvres
  • Saturday - continental breakfast, full brunch, and dinner
  • Sunday - continental breakfast, full lunch 
Buffet style with plenty of serving lines, some quality protein (chicken, fish, beef), yummy starches, and fresh veggies. Always some soup and salad, always a selection of desserts. Plenty of options for most guest; I did not hear a lot of complaints or concerns (vegetarian, gluten free, etc.)  Although I brought some snackage along, I did not need to dig too deeply into it.

The conference itself was also well run, generous, and welcoming. Each attendee got a nice name badge in a pouch that served as a place for money, business cards, a schedule, and artists cards. Everyone wore these throughout the conference which made for instant familiarity and point of contact.

In addition, registration gifted me with a NERFA napsack, a water bottle, a well produced conference book ( with all attendees' contact info), and (for first timers) a NERFA insulated lunch bag. Swag city....

The facility was 100% dedicated to the conference, which resulted in a kind of spilling over of music and conference material into every nook and corner.

Official conference bulletin boards spread throughout the lobby area were quickly covered in flyers, post-cards, and signs.  The ephemera and marketing quickly spread to other flat surfaces - window ledges, walls, hotel cabinets and decor, chair rails, etc. Several artists left CDs and download cards out for the taking, although most handed samples out to DJs, venues, etc. It was all a little overwhelming.

In addition, every common space was used at some point - as a meeting space, a rehearsal space, a song circle, or a jam session. There was an almost 24 x 7 bluegrass jam going on in the lobby; the only time it got quiet was right after sunrise, before breakfast. I caught a midnight lobby shot on Friday night - it was far busier most of the time.

There were five performance spaces - a large theater that held the entire conference (~800+), a smaller theater, a restaurant / bar, and two additional conference rooms set up for performance. And finally, there were a handful of more traditional conference rooms set up for workshops.

I've decided to blog separately about my conference experiences, including:
  • The festival showcase (two nights, eight artists per night, in the large Manhattan theater)
  • The "quad" showcases (two night, 20 artists per night in one of four performance spaces)
  • Miscellaneous artist encounters (Guerrilla showcases, and random listening opportunities)
  • Workshops
I'll make these linkable once the blog postings are up.

Finally, a few random conference / facility notes. There was, apparently, an indoor pool and jacuzzi, which I never did find or visit, despite bringing my swimsuit. There was morning yoga, taught by a musician / yogi Caroline Cotter - I brought up my yoga toys which meant there was plenty for folks who left their mats at home. There was a formal happy hour (two drink tickets supplied) and a small exhibit space.  And there was a free dental clinic for musicians (had to document a five year career) provided by MusiCares, which I thought was pretty awesome.

There was also an active mentoring program - folks could sign up for one-on-one mentoring on a variety of topic - performance, business, finances, marketing, booking, promoting, you name it.