February 15, 2014

Mike Birbiglia in Boston

Traveled up the the Wilbur Theater last evening to see Mike Birbiglia in concert.

 Not my usual stomping grounds, but a friend from a long-ago mindfulness series, who has remained a connection through the magic of a few common friends and Facebook, had picked up tickets before she realized it was Valentine's Day and her usual concert buddies would be doing coupled things. So she reached out, and I am so glad she did.

Not sure I've ever been to a large venue "comedian" concert - the CT Forum does not quite count, perhaps some comic nights at a bar. In some ways very much like a concert (I could swear I've been to the Wilbur in my youth, maybe to see Pretenders or Cheap Trick or somebody back in the day, although a lot of these halls look the same) in some ways a bit less crazy and loud. Lot of women in the crowd, I think a tribute to Mr. Birbiglia's audience as well as the date.

I got familiar with Mike Birbiglia mostly through This American Life (follow the link for a page of all his contributions), his book and movie Sleepwalk with Me, and the 2009 TAL livecast Return to the Scene of the Crime. Last night, I realized our roots are similar (Catholic school, he grew up in Shrewsbury MA, near my alma mater Worcester Polytechnic Institute). Topics included yoga(!), laties vs. earlies, religion. Mike brought forth a few self-effacing "inappropriate performance" stories, including a Muppet TV show (his first word was a swear), a baseball writer's dinner (he failed to notice the honoree was blind and tried to shake his hand, then got an attitude when the guy ignored him), a christian school (he riffed on Jesus, the socialist Jew, returning, who, as he noted "are not high up on most Christians' list of favorite people")

It was a great evening, although I was not perhaps laughing hysterically, my face hurt from smiling. Opening up form Mr. Birbiglia was comedian Jon Fisch who did a good job, mining the "single guy" thing with funny stories abouttoo many meals at his favorite sushi place, his nieces, his lack of hair.

And so nice to get out of my "rut" - Thea, my friend, is lovely, creative, and engaged in life (singing, art, etc.) - and it was fun to just hang out, chat, ride the "T" in from Riverside, and hit the big(ger) city.

February 12, 2014

Madame President

I was called to a meeting of my condo association last week, and, as I expected, I was elected president of the association.

Truthfully, it's not that big a deal - we're a small (four unit) building, each of us is an officer, things roll around. Kate, the outgoing president, is moving to a new place in Newington and renting her unit out, the other two owners are an older retired woman who had a mild stroke (she's OK, but not great in the memory department) and a young single guy who is not really that interested. So....it's me.

Not that hard a job really - we have a handful of regular expenses: insurance, water & sewer, a small shared electric service. We have a few regular maintenance tasks - lawn care in the summer (I've been doing it) and snow removal in the winter (seems to be kind of ad hoc at this point). And the seasonal stuff, power washing, trimming trees and bushes, etc.

Along with my responsibilities, I was handed a meticulously balanced checkbook (I have not kept a personal check register in many years), and an antique accordian-fold file (about the size of a microwave oven). My first official duty was to run down to Staples for a plastic file box replacement, some hanging folders, and a PAID stamp (no particular reason, what's the point of being president if you do not get to stamp stuff).

I spent this evening going through the falling apart accordian folder to see what we have. Water and electric bills going back over a decade. Checking account statements for close to 20 years, ranging from Fleet, Bank of America, Webster, and Farmington. 15 years of insurance documents (State Farm and Travelers) including a roof leaking problem in 2006 that was probably ice dam related, and I've thought about it this year as well. Federal tax forms, state of CT incorporation stuff, some old legal documents, and small piles of snowplow, landscape, and maintenance records.

We're not a very progressive association - the condo fees are very low (agreeably so for all concerned) and we're not making a lot of major repairs or upgrades. The bank balance seems healthy. So for now, it's stay the course.

I have some geekery to set up - Kate emailed me a very old and barely useful spreadsheet of expenses / income (I can do much better), she's been keeping the record of condo fee payment in a chart that is one step above crayon. I see in the archives that a past president did an annual budget projection that I'd like to resurrect, and I'd like to send out a periodic condo association letter to keep folks updated.  

I'd love to do some things this summer - trim the trees, create a bricked garbage / recycling can area (presently some plywood on the ground), perhaps repave the parking lot and add a few spaces (presently 6 spaces for four units, I and the guy on the end get one space, would be nice to have two)

I've been coasting for a few years now in terms of "adult responsibilities" - time to step up again! 

February 09, 2014

Oscar Nominated Shorts - Documentary

I got out to see all three of the "Oscar Nominated Shorts" shows at Real Art Ways this year. Plenty of time to see these before Oscar night.... visit the official Academy Awards site for a list of the films, trailers, and movie websites. I'm putting these in order presented.

CaveDigger / Jeffrey Karoff
Amazing story of a man whose passion is to dig beautiful, artistic caves into the sandstone of New Mexico. Amazing for both his creations and his story (many of his caves were commissions)

Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall / Edgar Barens
A amazingly sensitive portrait of an embattled, alcoholic WWII vet, imprisoned for life for killing the drug dealer who supplied his son (who killed himself as a teenager), during his past days in prison hospice. A very difficult film (more tissues) but quite stunning for it's compassionate portrayal of this man, his estranged but loyal son, and the other prisoners who staff the prison hospice.

Facing Fear / Jason Cohen
Not part of the showing, but here's the trailer.

Karama Has No Walls / Sara Ishaq
Not part of the showing, but here's the trailer. 

The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life / Malcolm Clarke and Nicholas Reed
Not part of the showing, here's the trailer. 


Oscar Nominated Short Films - Live Action

I got out to see all three of the "Oscar Nominated Shorts" shows at Real Art Ways this year. Plenty of time to see these before Oscar night.... visit the official Academy Awards site for a list of the films, trailers, and movie websites. I'm putting these in order presented.

Helium / Anders Walter and Kim Magnusson

A lovely little story about a sick young boy in hospital, and a story-telling janitor. Helium is the place the janitor makes up when the boy complains that heaven (where folks are telling him he will be going to) sounds boring. Charming, in every way, really creative in both concept and the fictional land of Helium. My vote for the Oscar because I am a sucker for sick kids and a little magic. Also, pass the tissues.


The Voorman Problem / Mark Gill and Baldwin Li
Kind of a one note joke / sci-fi kind of thing about a prisoner who may or may not be a God. Why yes, that is Martin Freeman (The Hobbit (Bilbo) / Sherlock (Watson) as the assuredly human protaganist. Was short and amusing, reminded me a little of 2011's "God of Love" (which won) although a much more compact and punchy piece.

Avant Que De Tout Perdre (Just Before Losing Everything) / Xavier Legrand and Alexandre Gavras
A terrifying slice of life as a woman with two older kids attempts to flee her abusive husband, with the aid of her fellow workers and supervisers at a department store. The abuse is hinted at and uncovered slowly, by the end, I was on the edge of my seat. Really powerful stuff that totally communicates the helplessness and terror of a woman and family in that situation.

Aquel No Era Yo (That Wasn't Me) / Esteban Crespo
Kids in war zones are good fodder for both documentaries and live action shorts. This one was also terrifying (with good reason) and also a bit of a tear-jerker. Three aid workers travel into a war zone to rescue child soldiers. They come across a band of child soldiers with sobering results. But at the end, perhaps a little redemption. Triggering on a lot of levels, so be warned.

Pitääkö Mun Kaikki Hoitaa? (Do I Have to Take Care of Everything?) / Selma Vilhunen and Kirsikka Saari
Goofy, swell, funny. A real life family who can't seem to get it together, but end up having a good time together nonetheless. Combine Roseanne with Vicar of Dibley. Loved it.

Oscar Nominated Short Films - Animated

I got out to see all three of the "Oscar Nominated Shorts" shows at Real Art Ways this year. Plenty of time to see these before Oscar night.... visit the official Acadamy Awards site for a list of the films, trailers, and movie websites. And oh yeah, the "hosts" of the show, an animated ostrich and giraffe (Clive and Martin) were hilarious. Perfect transitions between films!

First, the animated shorts:

Feral / Daniel Sousa and Dan Golden
Very conceptual, artistic film of a young boy lost among wolves, found and "civilized", and returned to the wold. Lovely, beautiful music, although kind of thin theme.

Get a Horse! / Lauren MacMullan and Dorothy McKim
A Disney feature based on an old Mickey Mouse B/W short, with Mickey's nemesis Peg Leg Pete, wherein the B/W characters breakout into the color, wide screen world, and do battle with those still in the B/W small screen film. Quite cute and clever, although the Disney animation stuff always feels a little too corporate and save for my taste. I saw this before Frozen, in 3D....

Mr. Hublot / Laurent Witz and Alexandre Espigares
A fascinating dystopia / steam and cyberpunk feel to this charming movie. Very creative story-telling, characters (Mr. Hublot seems a little OCD in a charming kind of way), and a highly imagined world. This one is my pick for the Oscar. 

Possessions / Shuhei Morita
Remember when I asked for a Miyazaki-ish snowman in Disney's Frozen?  Well, here it is. A tinkerer / traveler stumbles upon a haunted hut in the woods. Imaginative, colorful, sweet and dark as the same time. I loved it for a lot of reasons, just felt Mr. Hublot was a little more inventive.

Room on the Broom / Max Lang and Jan Lachauer
Highly charming in the vein of (and by the creators of) 2009's The Gruffalo and based on the book of the same name.  It was very sweet, and funny, done in a claymation-ish style. I liked this a lot (the music was a big plus also) but again it seemed (to me) a little too well designed and implemented.

February 03, 2014

Battery Recycling

I tend to use, accumulate, and collect a lot of batteries.

Part of that is vocation and hobbies:
  • I own a case full of mostly battery powered test equipment for my engineering business. 
  • I play music semi-professionally, with the need to replace batteries in guitars, foot-pedals, portable recorders. 
  • I crew for (and occasionally ride in) hot air balloons, so often burn through a set of AA batteries as I take 30-40 digital photos during a morning flight
  • I spend a week each year at a folk festival, and another at a summer camp
  • I tend to collect and horde the batteries used a the yoga center (wireless headsets) because I know they are not getting recycled there. 
In addition, I have the usual assortment of consumer battery needs - remote controls, smoke detectors, portable radios, flashlights. I try not to overuse batteries, but they do add up.

And I do *not* want to simply toss them away. In the past I have taken them to Whole Foods, but I get to that store so infrequently (I joke that I almost never go north of New Britain Avenue in West Hartford) and I do not want to bring in 10 pounds of expired batteries.

So looking around the web,  I found this company - Battery Solutions. For a not insignificant price, you can purchase an iRecycle Kit - fill the box (or tub) with batteries, ship it off (pre-paid) and they are out of your hair and presumably not going to a landfill.

I love the business model, although I'd love to see some form of government support or grant money used to fund this (pretty sure most consumers would not choose to internalize the costs of disposing of batteries the way I will, and just throw them out)

One of my pet "make the world a better place" back burner projects is to set up a battery recycling service - placing recycling bins or tubs at likely locations and collecting the batteries periodically, either for free (if there is money to be made from the recycling) or at a nominal cost.

But in the meantime, I'll spread the word about these folks...

Falcon Ridge Merch Trailer Awards

We came up with these categories last year, (mostly) tongue in cheek. File this under "we laugh because otherwise we'd be pulling our hair out" as we spend our vacation time toiling away in the service of folk music.

Most Organized: Some artist just have the merch thing down - packed well, nice display, tee shirts rolled up and sorted by size and type. Even if there's a lot of merch, it's not hard to count in and count out. Tracy Grammer wins this award, most years - she's a pro! The Grand Slambovians (with merch person extraordinaire Cindy) are also in the running.

Optimist Award (Emerging Artist): Every year somebody brings a full case (300+) or CDs when we suggest perhaps 50-100 max. It's not really a fair award (sometimes artists finish up a CD specifically with the fest in mind and have it drop shipped) but it just seems so hopeful. Although every year, some emerging artist brings 10-20 pieces, sells those out in a flash, and could have sold much more.

B.O.T. (Bin o' Tees) Award: Every year, somebody shows up with 5 or 6 plastic tubs filled with tee shirts: unfolded, uncounted, unsorted, random. We end up counting in (by hand) 200-300 shirts, and counting them out after the fest - a huge commitment of time and energy for a small crew. We are (of course) filled with resentment. Last year, if I recall correctly, I spent an afternoon mid-fest rolling and rubber-banding one artist's tees as a form of festival Metta (loving kindness) because I realized I was sending out all sorts of crappy vibes to this particular artist solely on the basis of their merch, and wanted to even out my karma.

Artists we love figure out a way to control tee-shirts. We've seen them rolled and banded with rubber bands or hair ties. We've seen them folded and placed in zip-lock bags. Just something so that we can count them quickly and accurately, and aren't stuck straightening up the mess from your last gig.

Dan Navarro Suitcase Award: We love Dan to pieces, but one year he showed up with a huge soft sided suitcase filled with CDs. It looked as if someone had opened the suitcase at the end of the merch table at his last gig, just swept all the CDs into the suitcase, and closed it up. Everything mixed and  jumbled, he was amused and bemused by it as we were. We tease Dan about it when he brings his smiling face back to merch land (and for the record, it only happened once). Every year somebody shows up with a merch collection that looks like it got packed from across the room with a slingshot, and we flash back to that moment we opened Dan's suitcase and thought "What the what?"

Creative (non-musical) Merch Award: Folks put a logo on just about anything, and we like to recognize that. Spuyten Duyvil is pretty good with this (can cozies, flasks, bottle openers, etc.) - but we've had also had water misters, lighters, frisbees, matches, coasters, you name it.

I'm Special Award: Most often it's someone not appearing or performing at the fest who wheedles their way into the merch tent (I'm pretty watchful, but stuff gets past me, or people go over my head). No, you do not get to sell your CDs in the tent just because you were an emerging artist in 2003 or have been a volunteer since 1995. We have to track, count, carry back and forth to the trailers, and assume liability for stolen merch, and we're only going to do that for performers actually playing the fest. And if you do sneak or wheedle your way into the tent, know that checking you out having sold nothing during the fest kind of makes me all warm and fuzzy inside. Karma, bitch!

Dregs Award: Sometimes artists show up with a merch selection that looks like they cleaned out their trunk - one of this, two of that, a handful of another. Kind of get the feeling that bringing merch to sell was kind of an after-thought. And often we're telling people "sorry, that's all she brought to sell" throughout the weekend. You are missing sales!

Display Over-Achiever Award: Some artists really put a lot of thought and effort into their merch displays, with lights, suitcases, racks, posters, etc. Every year we are duly impressed, and note other artists looking on with envy and perhaps planning their own future merchandising.   

Granola Award: Eco friendly packaging or merch. It will be a long time before someone beats Poor Old Shine with their CD cases made from recycled / reused cereal boxes, gleaned from the U-Conn cafeteria. Folks were frantically pawing through the stack of CDs to find a cereal box (inside) that they liked.

Late Arrival Award: Invariably, someone shows up five minutes before their set, throws the merch at us, and runs to the stage. Often patrons have been asking for their stuff all weekend. After their set, the artists run back to the merch tent, intent in checking-out (having sold almost nothing, because their fans were all listening to them play). Artists - we're more than happy to have you ship stuff ahead of time so it's out and available for sale from the festival start, and if you leave early, we're happy to keep a small pile of your stuff all weekend and ship it back after. No need to lose sales....

Merch? What Merch? Award: It's hard to believe but some artists show up without merch. Sometimes it's a national act who just can't be bothered. Sometimes people just forget or do not realize that there are 1000's of music fans here with vacation money waiting to be spent. Their spot in the merch tent (carefully laid out pre-fest) is sadly empty all weekend.

Down to Earth Award: You might be a major celebrity or minor musical god(dess) but you treat the folks in the cheap seats well. Amazing how accessible, real, and human most of the folk performers are, but some really do stand out.There are a couple of well known, national audience folkies who never fail to greet me and give me a hug when I see them at other fests or gigs, that's very sweet.

My People Handle That Award: Conversely, there are some artists / performers you will never see in or near the merch area.  It's just off their radar, they have managers or merch coordinators to do that.

Festival Virgin Award: Every year somebody (emerging artists, but sometimes mains stage or dance stage acts) show up with a wide-eyed "we're not in Kansas, anymore" look at the size and scope of our little fest. We try to make them feel at home and help them find their way around. 

Tootsie Roll Enthusiast Award: Merch trailer all-around good guy Lance brings a big jar of Tootsie Rolls every year (which we try hard to keep the ants out of) and invariably some performer makes a stop in every few hours for a fix. It's quite charming. 

We're in the Band Award: We're generally happy to put out merch for side musicians, solo efforts, but some groups end up with 15-20 titles for side musicians, compilations, side projects, etc. You could stock a small music store....

P.I.T.A. Award: We don't really like giving this one out (and often it's bestowed affectionately). But if an artist returns to the merch area 4-5 times to add or remove merch, changes the prices 3 times, set's up convoluted sales special (buy two CDs and get a tee-shirt free) takes stuff out of the tent without telling anyone, grabs merch to give away while signing, moves their stuff to a better location (we put things out alphabetically), etc. they are in the running.

Putting in Time Award: We once watched an artist (OK, it was Susan Werner) spend 2.5 hours in the signing area, taking time to talk to every fan, putting folks on the guest list for upcoming concerts, handing out free CDs, and not leaving until everybody got seen. Kind of unbelievable and inspiring to watch.  

Falcon Ridge - Most Wanted Artists 2014

Falcon Ridge recently announced the winners of the 2013 Emerging Artist Showcase "Most Wanted" (based on audience survey and appeal), to be featured in the 2014 festival. 
1 - THE BOXCAR LILIES and DARLINGSIDE tied for FIRST place, with over 28% of the votes cast.

2 - ROOSEVELT DIME - garnering exactly 24% of the votes

3 - CONNOR GARVEY - with over 23% and nearly a tie for second place

A tie is less than 1/2 of one percent apart, or 1-3 votes out of several hundred. This year nearly 2000 audience members filled out surveys, 905 of them voted in the showcase portion.
Three of the selected Most Wanted artists are "groups", just one is a solo artist. The festival chooses three Most Wanted artists, but more often than not of late (2007, 2008, 2010, 2011 and 2013) goes with four if things are close. Can't say I argue much with the choices - although I rarely vote in the audience poll, I voted with my debit card last summer and picked up CDs from Boxcar Lilies, Roosevelt Dime, and Darlingside.

This caused me to ponder whether "groups" (duos, trios, etc.) might have a bit of an advantage in the audience survey (my guess was that they do). And since I am the mistress of the festival merchandise (which gives me no special knowledge or pull, but it does mean I have complete records going back a few years), I decided to do a little audit. Please note that my evaluation of an artist as a solo as compared to a group are based on artist name and memory; some of the "solo artists" may have appeared on stage with side musicians giving them more of a group feel but if they are billed as an individual, that's how they went. 

Here's the record for the past few years:

2007 Most Wanted: Anthony da Costa, Joe Crookston, Lindsay Mac, and Randall Williams
0 of 5 groups made it into the most wanted, 4 of 19 solo artists

2008 Most Wanted: Abi Tapia, Amy Speace, Blue Moose and the Unbuttoned Zippers, Lucy Wainwright Roche
1 of 3 groups made it into the most wanted, 3 of 21 solo artists

2009 Most Wanted: chuck e costa, Swing Caravan, The Brilliant Invention
2 of 8 groups made it into the most wanted, 1 of 16 solo artists

2010 Most Wanted: Barnaby Bright, Chris O'Brien, Folkadelics, Spuyten Duyvil
3 of 6 groups made it into the most wanted, 1 of 18 solo artists

2011 Most Wanted: Blair Bodine, ilyAIMY, Louise Mosrie, Pesky J Nixon
2 of 8 groups made it into the most wanted, 2 of 16 solo artists

2012 Most Wanted: Gathering Time, Poor Old Shine, The Yayas
3 of 8 groups made it into the most wanted, 0 of 16 solo artists

2013 Most Wanted: The Boxcar Lilies, Darlingside, Roosevelt Dime, Conor Garvey
3 of 11 groups made it into the most wanted, 1 of 13 solo artists

I think I got everyone, if I missed any "four most wanted" years, let me know. (Thanks, Ellen, I did miss Louise Mosrie in 2011, and thanks Jake, for reminding me about The Folkadelics in 2010)  Now, how does that look graphically? At the risk of being called the Nate Silver of folk festivals....

24 Emerging Artists per year, with a trend towards a higher percentage of "groups" as compared to the traditional singer-songwriter / solo artist. A low of 3 groups (2008) and a high of 11 groups (2013)
The Most Wanted Artists show a clear trend towards groups, with 2007 being the last year with no groups, averaging one solo artist since 2009. (two in 2011, none in 2012). Also of interest, 5 of the past 7 years there have been 4 "Most Wanted" artists, rather than the 3 expected. 

So you want to be a Most Wanted returning artist? Get yourself a band, because since 2009, the odds of coming back as a solo artist have been mostly under 10%, while the odds of returning as part of a group are 25% or higher.

I'm not trying to stir things up (well, maybe a little) - just trying to point out that the "most wanted" survey mechanism (audience surveys) tends to favor the louder, brighter groups, with harmonies, multi-instrumentals, etc. that might lead to a higher appeal from the hillside, as compared to the solo performer. I personally consider it an "apples and oranges" kind of thing, there's a different audience, level of appeal, etc. And yes, I've a little skin in the game - the "Most Wanted" stage slots I've really enjoyed over the years consisted of 3-4 solo performers swapping tunes (and perhaps working together instrumentally and through harmony) - they often tour together pre-fest and kind of grow together a bit. Groups tend to be a little more self-contained as a unit (vocally, instrumentally) and as great as it is to see them play the main stage, I'd rather they did a solo set rather than a song swap format.

I (personally, and I wield no particular power here other than the power to count 100s of tee shirts tossed into bins) think it would be a good thing to split the competition into group and solo categories, and perhaps choose two from each. Because looking over the past many years, I see a ton of really good singer-songwriters who did not make the "audience cut" and perhaps should get some recognition.

Although, as has been pointed out on Facebook, a lot of the "solo artists" do bring along side musicians so the line between group and solo artist gets pretty blurry. Perhaps if you bring your own side musicians, you might need to compete in the group category. Not a great deal, IMHO, since an ensemble that has been playing and singing together for a while can be pretty tough to top.

As with anything, your opinion, and mileage, may vary....