Strange ramblings and inquisitive whimsy

Category: Articles

Bliss Derived from Deprivation

Performing in a touring band – making a living by the simple act of playing music – is doubtless among the loftiest dreams of any true-at-heart musician.  The Road beckons a call that, though steeped in illusion and glorified hardship, seldom allows the passage of mere hours before returning to tug at the adventurous sleeves of any musical artists.  The separation from friends and family and the resulting isolation; the brotherhood between band-mates born of repeatedly enduring seemingly insurmountable hardship and solitude; the long hours and myriad miles traveled for reasons of exposure – these things represent the intoxicating challenges to which countless musicians have subjected themselves – whether willingly or otherwise.

In the late summer of this year I found myself manning the helm of a 15-passenger van pulling a gear-filled trailer in the wee hours of the morning.  We – the band and I – had elected to drive through the night in order to return from Mississippi to our home of Nashville as soon as possible.  Cheerfully roused from my bunk by Jason, our unusually sleep-deprived bass player in order to adopt my shift as driver, I stumbled into the 24-hour gas station to pour myself 32 ounces of sludge-black coffee.

Catching a glimpse of the crookedly-hung digital clock on the wall as the attendant rung me up, I shuttered as I read the time:  4:02 am.  Two hours and twenty-one minutes until sunrise.  Though we’d been graced with relatively subdued weather on this leg (not uncommon on our tour dates were hurricane-force winds, impossibly thick rain and imminent tornadoes) I questioned my exhausted mental capacity and its ability to cope with the tribulations involved in safely operating our sorry excuse for a tour bus.

Shoving my insecurities aside I pulled myself up into the driver’s seat and hollered the customary, “Everybody in?”  Upon muffled and groggy “mhmm”‘s I turned the key and pulled out of the parking lot.  After months on the road with this particular band I’d grown accustomed to our compulsorily-shared driving shifts – more importantly I’d discovered the listening material most conducive to driving in the pitch-black night through hundreds of miles of cornfields: This American Life.

Ira Glass’ nasally, monotonic voice notwithstanding, the humor and lunacy unfailingly present in the program’s makeup drastically decreased the gravitational pull on my eyelids and kept my mind sharp and alert.  Any other musical choice seemed, without fail, to eventually precipitate the demise of my efforts to stay awake.

Offering a welcomed change in scenery, our route from Mississippi to Nashville was lined with dense forests, winding roads and beautiful flora that evoked from the band a generally light-hearted mood.  Of course, being that it was 4 am, everyone was asleep so that enthusiasm – or rather lack of dread – wasn’t so enjoyed as my own gratitude at having something other than cornstalks and luminous green highway signs with which to entertain my eyes.

As our Great White Van lumbered through the hills of the south, a dense fog found us somewhere near the Mississippi-Tennessee border.  Growing thicker with each passing minute,  we came upon several cars that had pulled off the shoulder for lack of visibility.  I was well-aware of our unyielding policy stipulating we not pull off to the shoulder unless absolutely necessary, so I slowed to a pace so unbearably slow it seemed at times that we’d actually started moving backwards.  I reluctantly accepted the symptoms of my disorientation.

Any person who’s spent even a modicum of time in the outdoors – especially on or in some sort of vehicle – knows the inescapable and utterly helpless feeling of vertigo.  As your mind loses any semblance of reference, forward becomes backward becomes upside down, and your ability to function comes to a grinding halt.  More so out of necessity than out of preference, I pulled to the shoulder and brought our pale beast to a soft but definite arrest.

|    |   ~I~   |    |

Following a seemingly inordinate expanse of time during which each member of the band awoke briefly, only to fall back asleep, we finally began to regain visibility.  Lifting my foot off the brake, I began willing the gas pedal to depress just enough to begin our crawl towards clearer, less humidified air.

With our adventure through the abyss behind us we pushed forward into the burgeoning light of the Mississippi morning.  We climbed and climbed, rising through the stagnant remnants of darkness desperately clawing at the last moments of the night.  Then, cresting the ridge, I caught sight of something unexpected.  The sun had, in one foul swoop illuminated the air, the trees and the fields of golden grain sprawling for miles on either side of the highway.

One of my favorite things about backpacking lends itself to similar experience.  Hiking in to the campsite after dark, you’re granted visual access only to the minute radius of your headlamp beam.  But then the sun rises, bringing with it a new, often overwhelming wave of ecstasy.  This bliss, the result of your realization that there’s been something just outside your reach – something beautiful and breathtaking – is one of the more grandiose emotions a man is capable of experiencing.

Made all the more fantastical by the fog that had minutes earlier altogether prevented our progress, the scene I now witnessed shook me to a core rarely touched by the shallow gravity of daily experiences.  Things otherwise mundane seemed to adopt a mystical air while colors became at once rich, drab and vibrant.  Save the occasional bird or gust of impossibly faint breeze, the atmosphere  appeared devoid of motion.  But there I was, gliding through the whole marvelous event as all four of my companions slept like infants in their bunks.

Bliss derived from deprivation – a glorious happening, the product of a newly-gained perspective – has adding to its intensity the element of surprise and the weight of contrast.  But more so, it boldly stands to illustrate the benefits of resisting stagnation.  If one could successfully ward off the darkness of night forever, there would be no sunrise.  There would be no moment of realization when it becomes apparent that the evening’s tenebrosity was nothing more than a curtain behind which the universe was preparing an earth-shaking exhibition intended only for those patient enough to bare witness.

Welcome change, and the metamorphosis will be your reward.


Dare to Be Ridiculous

When I first met Marcy, I was at a point in my life where I was fairly open to trying new things.  Having recently escaped the clutches of adolescent reluctance to do anything that might contribute to being deemed ‘uncool’ by my friends, I found myself in more than a few situations which would later yield entertaining, if not slightly self-deprecating dinner-table stories.  It was out of this willingness to try most anything – along with the childish desire to impress my new ladyfriend – that I stumbled into a more-intimate-than-I-expected Paneurhythmy dance circle.

For those out of ‘the know’ – which I’m assuming is most people – paneurhythmy (pronounced pan-eur-ith-mee) is “a science of the harmonious, conscious movements, based upon the laws of the Living Nature.” (thanks for that one, Wikipedia)  Basically, one or more people dressed in white dresses (yep, guys too) dance around in a circle to bulgarian violin music by employing a series of movements that have been practiced in that specific order for some respect-garnering number of years.  Needless to say it must have been quite the sight to see; watching me, in all my foolishness and bumbling good intention attempt to 1, remember the steps, 2, correctly perform said steps and 3, successfully remain upright while walking around in circles for hours on end – something which clearly proved to be quite a dizzying accomplishment.

The way I came to not only experience but participate in this rather preposterous display of song and dance was less by way of Marcy and more by way of her fun-loving and free-spirited mother, Sandra.  We’ve all been in that situation where you realize that a really great way to win a lady’s admiration is to also win the admiration of her mother – assuming they still like each other.  So in my attempt to appeal to Sandra’s new-age sensibilities, I happily – and maybe a bit too hastily –  consented when asked if I would be interested in joining her for some crack-of-dawn dance shenanigans.  She may have put it more eloquently…  then again, maybe not – she was a bit loony.

When I arrived home that night, eager to somehow come by several hours of sleep before heading back at first light for what I would later come to recognize as one of the more ridiculous things I’ve ever done, I had the fantastic idea to look up some information on the dance.  In hindsight, I shouldn’t have done that.  As I scrolled through webpages of pictures, videos and information about the dance and the people who do it, I came to realize that I had agreed to something far beyond silly, bordering on absurd.

The visual stimuli flashing before my eyes on my 13″ laptop screen seemed to physically widen my eyeballs and increase the pull of gravity thereby drawing my jaw closer and closer to the ground.  As I watched and read about the people dressed in all white, dancing in some ridiculous formation on the top of a mountain, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d willingly agreed to join some perpetually-twirling cult of Jesus-loving smilers.  Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course.  Stunned and strangely a bit nerve-wracked I crawled in to bed and semi-successfully attempted to to pacify my anxiety and fall into restful slumber.

At 5:45 am my alarm clock went off in it’s typical rage-inducing tone and I shuffled out of bed into the shower.  By 6:02 I was out the door, dressed in all white (unfortunately no dress for me) and headed over to what I was certain would be the end of my non-cult-affiliated life.  At this point in Marcy and my relationship – if you could even call it that – I still had only known her mother for a month or two, and though she didn’t seem particularly culty, I was beginning to question her sanity – not to mention mine for agreeing to this.

As I stepped out of the car, Marcy came bouncing down the driveway to greet me, smiling from ear to ear.  She was a morning person – or could be when she wanted to – and seemed perpetually happy, almost unbelievably so.  Together we strolled to the house where her mother was waiting, just as goofy and excited as ever.  Still relative acquaintances, Sandra and I made small talk for a moment or two before she uttered the ever-common, “Alright, are you guys ready to do this?”  And though I answered with a confident and grinning, “Sure!  As ready as I’ll ever be!” my brain was shaking in nervous anticipation.

As we perambulated to the back of the house, I half expected to see a dozen people in white and red robes ready to dunk me in a bucket and dub me “One of Them.”  Though that would have made a great story, I was relieved to find that no such sights were to be had that morning; only a non-threatening, foot-worn, circular dirt path.  As Sandra broke out a glorious 90’s Sears boom box, I grabbed a sip of water in preparation for my impending dance-off with spirituality.

For the next hour and a half or so, we twisted, turned and twirled our way through the hundreds of steps required to properly honor and come into communion with the spirits and natural powers-that-be and, much to my surprise, I actually had a lot of fun!  Augmented, I’m sure, by the fact that Marcy joined in for moral support, I found I honestly enjoyed myself!

Throughout the rest of my time spent with Marcy I engaged in a handful of other silly experiences – laughter yoga included – all of which proved more entertaining and enjoyable than I first expected.  And that first objective – to win the admiration of her mother – didn’t fare too poorly either: Sandra loved me by the end of all this.  But in addition to falling into good favor with her maternal figure, I also learned something else – or rather secured a notion I had previously disregarded with hesitant, ego-induced ignorance:  Life is so much more exciting when you do things in which you know you’ll look like a fool.  Letting go of what’s socially common, normal, you-name-it, can be such an exhilarating rush!  To fail to do something absurd on at least a daily basis may be the reason for your misery and discontentedness with life.

Things between Marcy and I ended poorly about a year later in an unfortunate turn of events involving careless manipulation and disregard for anything remotely relating to human emotions, and to my genuine disappointment, the things said between us have since left a bitter taste in my mouth.  But the lessons her mother taught me by way of example – laugh, smile, experiment and explore – have stuck with me ever since.  If you don’t believe me, find your local paneurhythmy dealer and get your dance on.  You won’t regret it.

Nature Is Your Teacher If You Want It

I spent the week at 8,600 feet in Lake City, Colorado – for those unfamiliar, it’s a sleepy little mountain town nestled in the heart of the San Juan’s – and being far removed from what most would call ‘civilization’ I found it easy to get sucked into a simpler way of life dictated more by the hours of daylight and less by the hours of the bar. So in staying with the theme of getting out of my normal city routine, I decided to wake before sunrise and head out on Lake San Cristobal by kayak to watch that big rock of fire peek its head up over the mountains.

Somehow – and I’m not sure how I pulled this off – I managed to peel my brother out of bed to come along with me. We were out the door by 5:20 a.m. hoping to unload the boats and be on the water for the supposed 5:47 sunrise. Being in such a hurry, our minds admittedly clouded by the haze of waking earlier than usual, we underestimated the chill in the air and by the time we made it out on the water wearing little more than jackets, jeans and sandals we were both cursing each other for not having learned after 20 years of living in the Colorado Rockies that the weather is almost always colder than it looks.

Colorado is a land where snow can come over the hills in the middle of July on a day with a forecast of clear skies and a high of 80 degrees. Wind can creep up and drop the temperature from 75 to 32 in a matter of minutes and regardless of what the weatherman says, it can – and usually will – get cold. That’s not to say that it’s not my favorite place in the world – I love Colorado – but you’d think that after years of learning these lessons the hard way we’d at least be able to figure out that in the wee hours of the morning the air outside might be a bit chilly.

So with nearly numb digits we somehow managed to paddle out, our extremities more closely resembling sausages attached to stumps than actual hands and feet. It would be another hour or so before the sun made it up past the 11,000-foot peaks surrounding the lake, so in the interest of maintaining activity and some semblance of body heat we started paddling around. The quiet was spectacular, severe even, and despite being more than 100 feet from each other, only whispers were needed to communicate; the sounds bounced off the water, off the trees, off the mountains surrounding and eventually found their way to our ears as crystal clear as when they had left our mouths.

All around us we could see the sun caress the tips of the higher peaks in the distance and slowly meander down the groves of aspens and pines towards the lake. From the water we waited for what felt like an eternity for a taste of that warm light slowly and cautiously drawing closer, inch-by-inch. With no wind the lake was clearer than any mirror I’ve ever seen; it bent the light in a way that exaggerated the colors of the sky against the mountains and the mountains against the sky and made them seem more like a vivid dream than real life.

It had been nearly an hour since we first paddled out and realizing it would probably be another 30 minutes before the sun found us, we started searching for the point on the lake where the sun would first make contact. Heading from our end down to the other we paddled quickly enough to warm our bodies and chill our naked hands, now lifelessly gripping the paddles. After a few minutes of investigative toil we realized there was probably no better place than where we had come from, so back we went, each stroke pulling us closer towards the reflection of the mountains in the water.

I made a personal goal to paddle just long enough to reach the reflection of the mountains rather than the reflection of the sky. Of course, if you’ve ever been in a kayak you know that’s impossible; the reflection of the sky will always meet the reflection of the mountains just in front of your vessel. Realizing this shortly thereafter I settled for ‘close enough.’ Looking a few feet across the water at my brother I saw that he had found a spot into the mountains’ reflection in the water and in that moment I realized I was being taught one of Mother Nature’s precious and silent life lessons.

Life is more like that water than we think. Everyone seems to be headed towards some goal that they can see, either clearly or with mild distortions. We see others who have achieved what we hoped to accomplish and wonder how they got there; wonder what we’re doing wrong when in actuality it’s all just a reflection in the water. We’ve already come further than we realize, at least in others’ eyes, but we don’t see it because we’re not looking from the right angle.

Believing that lesson was over I took the moment to breathe in the cool summer air, feeling proud of myself for being open enough at 6:30 in the morning to listen to Her advice.

The sun had finally grown close enough to illuminate the treetops cresting the ridge of the mountains to the east. With each passing second it grew brighter and brighter, evolving towards inexplicable splendor and within a matter of minutes it was hitting us with directly in the face, bringing with it some much-needed warmth to our fingers and toes. Both blinded by the reflection of the giant star in the water my brother and I took a few minutes to soak in the glory before heading back to shore. My brother looked across the water and laughingly told me I had it easy. When a puzzled expression provided my reply, he elaborated, saying the reflection of the sun was hitting him square in the face; I guess he didn’t realize it was hitting me the same way. I realized Nature wasn’t finished speaking.

Everyone in the world has pretty much the same problems manifested in slightly different forms. Some worry about money, some about health, some about life and some about death. Whatever our individual obstacles, they can seem to blind us from time to time; it’s certainly no secret that worries can make it difficult to see where we’re going. And though everyone has things they’re trying to overcome, we all seem to think that our situation is unique to us alone – that no one else will understand. In reality, those problems are hitting everyone else just as hard and in exactly the same way they’re hitting us; and in exactly the same way that sun was hitting my brother and I. And just like that star in the water, each obstacle has its share of benefits; we couldn’t see a darned thing but we were quite a bit warmer.

I guess it just depends how you chose to view things; sometimes the world looks starkly different depending on which perspective you adopt and other times it looks exactly the same. We shouldn’t be afraid to let a few ripples distort our image of success because those ripples indicate life; they illuminate the ever-changing dance of existence. I don’t believe we should ever believe another is better off nor should we believe ourselves more fortunate than they, whether it appears that way or not. Water may be deceptive in many ways, but then again, it never claimed to be truth. It’s our human consciousness – our human reasoning – that interprets those reflections as truth when really, the only place we can reasonably expect to find honesty is in the mountains, the sky and the trees that make those reflections on the water. Just because a person has an ugly reflection doesn’t mean they’re ugly and just because a person’s image is beautiful doesn’t mean their soul reciprocates. What we see on the surface is most likely a distortion of the truth, whether that distortion is born out of omission, manipulation or a simple case of perceptive inaccuracy. Next time you’re about judge someone, look up from the reflection in the water and try to see what he or she actually is – see who he or she actually is. I think you’ll be surprised what you find.

White Denim – D – Extended Album Review

Creating a proper psychedelic jam record is an arduous task to say the least.  I’ve witnessed countless cases of frustration as so-called ‘jam sections’ extend well in to the 3 or 4-minute mark while band members find themselves immersed in a musical world that isn’t nearly as accessible or interesting as they seem to think. Another school of thought might suggest that the band has chosen to give a decisive middle finger to the mainstream and release a record they find interesting regardless of whether or not you enjoy it. Either way, there’s something to be said for fulfilling musical expression that remains accessible to the listener, and that’s exactly what White Denim have accomplished with their fourth formal full-length.

This four-piece out of Austin, TX have been defined as many things since their inception in 2006 and yet D, the group’s most recent release seems to provide palpable evidence that theirs is a sound far too peculiar to allow straightforward categorization. Pulling notable influence from musically adept bands such as Rush and Phish, the melodies and rhythms are intricately complex.  Luckily this is a band that can pull it off; the obviously polished talent that each member exudes results in an unyieldingly tight and truly enjoyable wall of sound.

A perfect example lies in, “Anvil Everything,” a song vaguely evocative of CSNY’s “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” and in “Burnished,” the album’s second track, odd rhythms and complicated bass lines prove this band is more than capable of pulling off a few tricks. In addition to admirable synergy, this band seems to find enjoyment in relentlessly strange song structures.  Proof lies in “Bess St.” which features meter shifts from a straightforward 4/4 to a widely avoided 5/8 that might be just enough to make your head spin.  Don’t think that this album is all oddballs and out-of-the-box concepts, though.  “River To Consider” is a simpler, 70’s-esque track featuring Jethro Tull-style flute and a dancable Latin rhythm that would sound right at home on the soundtrack for Three’s Company.

Something else this band has (that most bands of their sort lack) is a strong lead singer.  Admittedly, since the band’s first EP in 2007, James Petralli’s vocals have come a long way, but on this release they provide a previously unmatched element that I would consider one of the key factors in making this record accessible to listeners of all varieties.  The music, while incredible, is far from straightforward and without actively searching for all the little details, it would be easy to let attention wander.  Petralli’s voice, however, is smooth and simple in comparison to the musical backdrop in which it dwells.

Somewhere between Graham Nash, James Russell Mercer (The Shins) and Romeo Stodart (The Magic Numbers), Petralli’s voice seems to give the recreational listener (as opposed to the music fanatic) something to latch on to – something to focus on.  Surely those benefits aren’t extended to purely instrumental tracks such as “At The Farm” but that’s not the majority of the songs on this release.

Whether you’re an adamant proponent of jam bands or consider yourself of the “IT’S JUST NOISE!” persuasion, I think you’ll find something to appreciate on this album.  Some songs require more attention – more focus – from the listener, sure, but there are certainly a few tracks perfectly suited for placement on a relaxing mix tape.  I think more than anything this LP will provide a bit of much-needed variety to an otherwise static musical landscape.

Album Review: The Double Cross – Sloan

More than anything, The Double Cross, the most recent release from 20-year veteran rockers, Sloan, is a frustrating disappointment.  This is their 10th full-length release, and as you’d expect, it’s full of power-pop tracks straight out of the 60s, 70s and 80s, however the album as a whole – as an artistic venture – is a tragic letdown.  I’ll be the first to tell you I’m thrilled that bands like Sloan still exist if for no other reason than to put out great, classic rock in this relative wasteland of musical filth. Time after time, Sloan have managed to uphold the lost art of releasing albums that work together as a whole to the endless benefit of each individual song, but this record is a sorry excuse for a cohesive result…

Read the full review at