29 November, 2009

fresh tracks

isn't this new music world overwhelming? there is so much to listen to! as a rule, i don't read music magazines or look at taste-maker blogs. for me, they're a recipe for a disasterous bout of jealousy. since i work in the music industry, i prefer to hear about new music from non-industry types.

ahem erin, you say, you've painted yourself into a metaphorical corner.

ok, ok, so i don't really know how i find out about music, but like everyone else, at any given time there are a few records that are spinning heavily in my subconscious. for the final episode in this week's series, i'll share with you what i like these days.

"gospel legends" / "goodbye babylon" box set:
a month or so ago, i had an afternoon alone in a hotel room. as i was switching channels, i became mesmerized by an info-mercial for a compilation called "gospel legends". recorded live, it is a document of the convergence of 30+ contemporary gospel artists backed by a full-on choir and house-band. i ordered it on the spot, and i've been loving it alot lately. which also reminds me of another favorite gospel collection of mine: goodbye babylon. this 6 disc set collects obscure performances by both white and black gospel artists from the 20s and 30s. it's scratchy but more punk rock than any music being made today.

"erik deutsch's hush money":
full disclosure, erik deutsch is a close friend and one of my favorite musicians. he's made a name for himself with charlie hunter, norah jones, and a whole fistful of other talented people. his playing is bright and shiny without ever being cloying or cheesy. his usual band includes piano, bass, drums, guitar, oboe and saxophone. his newest, "hush money" adds a little grit, grime, and groove to his clear sound. my favorite song is called "dirty osso bucco". enough said. http://www.hammerandstring.com

"ocote soul sounds / coconut rock":
ocote is one of the many irons in the fire of musician martin perna. he's best known as one of the founders of antibalas, the seminal brooklyn afrobeat band, but his talent can't be contained in just one group. this record has all my favorite things: warmth, groove, and space sounds. check out "the revolt of the cockroach people".

"heartless bastards / the mountain":
a few years ago, i was setting up for soundcheck at one of my favorite venues, the tractor tavern in seattle. the soundguy had a record on that caught my ear. it was the heartless bastards first release, "stairs and elevators". i've been a big fan ever since. the first time i saw them live, i was worried that they couldn't match the energy and heft of their albums, but match it they did. the fact that they didn't excede their recorded sound is more a tribute to the brilliance of their records than a slam on their live show prow-ess. their newest, "the mountain", continues to scale the rock everest.

"regina spektor / far":
i don't have a lot to say about regina except that she is brilliant, and i love her. and the more i listen to "laughing with", the more i hear. did i already say, brilliant!

so, philadelphia, i'll see you tomorrow night at world cafe live. my friend jill sobule and i are gonna make you a show, and we've got a band to back us up. thanks for reading this week, and see you soon!

the lady of the house


i am a reader, always have been. i can and do read anywhere: the car, on airplanes, at gigs, outside, inside, morning, noon, or especially at night. my idea of perfection is to climb into bed and read until the early hours of the morning.

i read some fiction, some poetry, but i am mostly a non-fiction junkie, especially biographies. some of my very favorites include my multiple judy garland tomes plus books on tab hunter, anita o'day, bette davis, rudolph valentino, and mary pickford. you see where my taste leans, no, perhaps topples.

recently, a friend gave me "mary todd lincoln: a biography" by jean h baker. yes, that's right, mary todd lincoln the wife of the asassinated president. i must confess, i love it. i haven't been able to put it down all week. in fact, when i have crawled into bed after long days of driving and shows, instead of falling gratefully to sleep, i am trying to prop my eyelids open so i can read more about the complicated, ornery, and desperate mary T.

it's unfortunate that MTL (as i like to call my new BFF) has been reduced by history to a grieved widow. dig just under the surface, and she becomes a nationally despised grieved widow. dig a little deeper, and you find a despised grieved widow who felt she was a role model and shopped for the part. and dig deeper than that long sentence, and you find a woman trapped in the limited space allowed for women in her time.

MTL was a highly educated, clever and charismatic chiid of kentucky royalty. her upbringing of privilege led her to the uncomfortable intersection of having learned to speak her mind and the burdensome assumption of marriage and child-rearing. in an era where women were beginning to be seen and heard, MTL outran the expectations of her sex. known for her vicious and accurate imitations, her strong political opinions often got her into private hot-water. known for her ostentatious dress, her unpaid shopping bills often led to back-room political patronage to settle them. had MTL lived even a generation later, she'd have had wider latitude for her bright and sharp personality.

books like this remind me i am lucky to be living in the 21st century. for all the crazy people who would like to limit or judge my lifestyle, i have plenty of space to ignore them and explore my self, unfettered. i think that's part of my wonder and fascination with MTL. i try to imagine myself in her time, and i just fail to see how i'd manage. for all her notoriety, mary todd lincoln was bound by her corsets, both metaphorical and physical.

by the way, thought i might finish with a list of a few of my favorite independent bookshops around the country. by no means definitive:

malaprops, asheville NC
elliot bay, seattle WA
powell's, portland OR
a room of one's own, chicago IL
kramer books and afterwords, washington DC



25 November, 2009

po-political adventures in the nation's cap-capital

this is an edited excerpt from a much longer piece i am working on...

i think there is a mistaken air of rarification and mystery that surrounds capital hill and our senators and congress-people. it is a common misperception that somehow there are giant hurdles put in place to stop us from communicating directly with the people who are supposed to be representing us. we see them on TV, read about them online and in the papers, and perhaps in that way they seem as inaccessible as brad pitt or paris hilton. but twice now, i have gone on lobby days to the hill, met with senators, representatives, and representatives of the representatives and senators, and found the opposite to be true. all it takes is knowledge and time.

this year, i have begun working with organization called the Future of Music Coalition . FMC was started a few years ago by a group of artists, independent label owners, and lobbyists who wanted to create a pathway for artists to be involved in the political process. beyong the usual activities of playing benefits and tabling at shows, FMC bridges the gap between the concert hall and the congress.

our lobby day this october fell directly on the heels of the annual FMC policy conference. this year, i spent three days on panels and in workshops with other musicians, thinkers, internet people, and activists tossing around ideas and trying to make sense of the intersections of the current technology and music climates. i can't resist adding that during his keynote address, the FCC chairman Julius Genachowski name-checked me as someone who was "harnessing the power" of the internets with my Cabin Fever series . the chairman is a political appointee and as such is bound to be as boring and non-confrontational as possible, so i felt a little sheepish about being held up as an example, but as i am learning, "a foot in the door is a foot in the door". i'll take it.

on this most recent trip, we visited the offices of Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-NY), Rep. Mike Doyle (D-PA), and Sen. Al Franken (D-MN). we were there to thank them for their support on a few key issues: increasing low power FM, protecting net neutrality, and the digital performance right. (for more info about these issues, see the FMC site). we also got to sit down in conference with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI). Senator Feingold is an avid music fan, and he name-dropped a ton of obscure indie rock bands i had never heard of. who knew? in Representative Doyle's office, i was suprised to find his chief of staff is a big fan of mine, who was genuinely thrilled to meet me. who knew?

if you want to advance an issue and effect change on it, you need to find a champion- a representative or senator who will make your cause part of their portfolio of issues. for example, rep.Doyle has been a great champion of low-power FM radio. the tricky part is that every congress person has to balance a ton of interests and pressures. they may be your champion on one issue and your enemy on another. i've observed first hand that it's a complicated job, and things move slowly. for every victory there may be a setback, but over time with persistent energy, consistent ideology, and creative tactics, any everyday citizen has an opportunity to make change.

in political lobby-ing and activism, i have found the perfect marriage of my age-old dilemma between chafing at rules and wanting to be liked. in speechifying and rabblerousing on complicated technology and policy issues, i have found a way to own my cultural place as an artist without making activism the sole content of my art. it's a fine line and a delicate balance, but my most recent trip to capital hill confirmed my suspicions that it's the path i need to be on.

east coast / west coast feud

i'm always a little sad when the van turns east and starts to head home. today, at 530am, we left los angeles to bang out a drive to denver in one day.

i grew up in virginia and have spent the last 10 years between rhode island and massachusetts, so i'm pretty firmly east coast. i've been touring since i was 17 (i'm 24 now)(just kidding, i'm 32), and i've traveled around the US in pretty much every direction and combination of geographies you can imagine. but, for economics and practicality, i always start my driving tours from home. thus, the east is the beginning, the freshest point in the tour, where the cities are clustered, and my days are busier.

as i head west, everything expands. the drives are longer, the landscape flattens, and with it, so does my mind. i slow down, life gets simpler, friends and obligations drift away in the rearview mirror. by the time i get to the west coast i'm like a zen master living in a cave, unaware of the hours of the day or even the people i am traveling with. i am concerned only with that night's show and not getting swine flu.


i've been on the road 42 days without going home. most of my shows have been with my friend jill sobule, and all of the days have been with my trusty friend and tour manager desdemona "bunty" burgin. every tour manager needs a nickname in quotes. bunty's dates from childhood, not from some unspeakable road happening that's remembered in an obscure nickname. wait! i should probably lie and say we call her "bunty" because of "that night in san francisco".

playing with jill has been a blast. i didn't know her before the tour; our managers thought we'd fit, and they were right. she's funny nearly all hours of the day, a great songwriter, and a fantastic musician. she's just got bucketfuls of style, whether it's her songs or her clothes or her palatial LA estate that she bought with money from her fans who thought they funded her record. just kidding about that last part.


in the east, i am a do-er. i never stop moving, processing, agitating either myself or those around me. i get quiet in the west and serious. the landscape is like a meditation to me, the soporific drives leave me feeling so relaxed and blank sometimes it's hard to rally to ordinary conversation. and sometimes in the west, i am just battling mere exhaustion, the result of the 4-5 weeks of touring to get out there.


for me, the east is plugged and west is unplugged. i hesitate to say which is better, but i can say after this long that the west is possibility and the east is the known comfort and electricity of home. so the moment where we turn back and start the trek home is always a bittersweet one for me. i'll be glad to get home, but i'll miss the simplicity of driving through unbroken horizon.
as we head east to philadelphia, i'll try to fill in the blanks and share some of what's been happening for me the last couple months. here's some road pictures to start.

bbq in memphis TN



book in my dressing room, portland OR


sprinter the day we left goshen MA



pittsburgh PA. dont know why i think this is so funny.



lorraine motel in memphis, where MLK was shot



church on the interstate near cincinati OH


sign in the ladies room, louisville KY




graffiti in the ark dressing room, ann arbor MI, from 2002



our van got graffitied in santa barbara CA. dont be jealous because we have universal healthcare and gay marriage


bedspread in a hotel, charlotte NC