January 29, 2015

Jay Mankita and Jean Rohe at Unity House Concerts

I trekked north to Springfield a few weeks back for a concert at a new (to me) venue - Unity House Concerts at the Unitarian Universalist Society of Greater Springfield. Long time favorite Jay Mankita shared the bill with FRFF Emerging Artist Jean Rohe, who brought along sideman Liam Robinson.

The concert series is both old and new - a longtime uNi Coffeehouse Series run at the church by Ed Brown ceased operation in June after a 29 year (!) run, and Joshua Farber, a longtime fixture / friend from Falcon Ridge Folk Fest, blogger at Cover Lay Down, and house concert promoter has taken up the reins. This was the second Unity House Concert promoted show at the UUS of Greater Springfield.  

The venue is lovely and seems healthy - long time volunteers in attendance, a big crowd that skewed somewhat older, a high-ceiling'd rectangular space with lots of modernish stained glass, and a good selection of beverages and home-made baked goods. Talking with Josh before the show, he indicated that the uNi Coffee House, albeit successful with a local crowd, had not embraced the younger singer-songwriter and folk artists and audiences, and had not really marketed much outside of the local area (I'm good evidence of that, 20+ years as a regular and somewhat adventurous folk fan, and I've never been to the series nor even been aware of it). Josh is seeking to maintain connection to the veterans (performers and audiences) while introducing new artists. This double-bill was a good example of that. 

First Jay Mankita. I was introduced to Jay and his music close to 20 years ago at Falcon Ridge Folk Festival. If I recall correctly, he and Nancy Tucker were a one-two punch of humor that year, I adored his whimsy, his conscientious songs. He was a bit of an overgrown kid with baseball cap askew and a guitar slung over his shoulder. I particularly loved "From a Dog's Stance", a parody of Julie Gold's "From a Distance"

Jay has aged a bit since then (haven't we all) - but retains his boyish energy and charm. He had some technical issues (a buzz in the PA system and/or his guitar, and a sprained thumb later in the set) but got some laughs out of the resulting mic stand gyrations, played a good set of funny and more serious music, and was well received.

Jean Rohe (with side player Liam Robinson) was more of an unknown to me - she was a Falcon Ridge emerging artist last year (and I recently learned she'll be returning as a Most Wanted artist) but she slipped under my radar last year. Silly me - she was pretty much amazing in this small, two person set.

I've been pondering why she slipped past me last July. I have made it a habit over the past few years to purchase (via eMusic.com) the most recent works of as many of the emerging artists as I can find and listen pre and post fest (in 2014, I got 20 of 24), but looking back, she must not have had anything there because I did not get her music. And, playing as part of an ensemble (the "End of the World Show") she may have gotten a bit lost in the mix for me; I've got a bit on an internal bias against emerging artist groups because they tend to be over-represented in terms of "most wanted" by dint of (I think) their energy and volume. I'd rather see the showcase be more solo artist / small groups, but that's another issue.

In any case, Jean Rohe, by herself and with a single side player, blew me away. She's got a beautiful voice, wonderful song-writing, and a great stage presence. I picked up two of her CDs, 2013's Jean Rohe and the End of the World Show (which has to win some folk award for most interesting / entertaining packaging and design) and what appears to be a home-published re-release of 2008's Lead Me Home. 

Listening to her albums, she's got a lot of different energies and sounds - from spanish language songs that sound latin / salsa (5 of 9 songs on her first CD are in spanish), to more quieter folk songs. Her "National Anthem: Arise, Arise" linked above, is pretty amazing, as are many of her other quieter songs. I confess to being brought to tears at least once during the evening.

All in all, a real win of an evening. I do not get to see Josh enough, so good excuse to travel north. The venue is just over the MA border, about the same travel time as New Haven from me - so wonderful to have yet another space to go hear live music. And as wonderful as it was to see Jay Mankita again, "discovering" Jean Rohe (for the second time, albeit) was wonderful; and gets me excited for the 2015 "most wanted" song swap at Falcon Ridge!

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.