Monday, December 6, 2010

if time machines are invented...

My most recent Facebook-status-music-question was "What's the best live show you've ever seen?", and it's received a whopping forty-four responses so far. This leads me to believe that my cyber-friends are interested in live music. In case I've inferred correctly, consider the following.

If time machines are invented within my lifetime and made safe and affordable for recreational use, I plan to attend the following shows (immediately after assassinating Hitler):

Ray Charles - Shrine Civic Auditorium - Los Angeles, CA - 1964

This is my favorite live recording of anything, ever. The final refrain just sews it up, wherein he can't even bring himself to say "Makin' Whoopee", because it's just so damned obvious to everyone what's been going with Ray, ever since he played his first gorgeous, evil sounding, sick-with-lust chord progression, sending every woman from miles around zombie-stumbling to his doorstep like so many rats after the pied piper. This peformance is just maddeningly, sickeningly, devilishly sexy.

Ella Fitzgerald - Deutschlandhalle - Berlin - 1960

This may be the most well-known flub-recovery of all time. After the first verse, Ella forgets almost all remaining words to "Mack the Knife", which is doubly cute because at the time it was a monstrously huge hit. Instead of getting all flushed and panicky, she keeps her cool, riffs on the humor of it, cracks up a few times, does some scatting in the style of Louis Armstrong, lampoons herself in a very endearing way, and keeps the crowd laughing and clapping and shouting through the end of the song.

Donny Hathaway - The Troubador - Hollywood, CA - 1972

Mindbogglingly groovy. Honestly, I never loved this song until I heard this version. What strikes me first is the incredible simpatico of this band. The pocket is, as my dear friend Alex Day might say, deeper than the pocket in a big man's overalls. Then there's Donny Hathaway's outstanding intonation and the gorgeousness of his whole vocal range. His low notes are smooth and sad and delicious, his high notes are all open and sweet like Sam Cooke, not a bit edgy.

It's worth noting for all of the above: the albums these tracks came from are all incredible in their own right, and give you a fuller experience of the performance. There is shouting and clapping and solos. I heartily recommend them.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

seven songs to be thankful for

Songwriting genius Milton and I once passed an entire day discussing the fact that, when we get right down to it, we can only name a handful of songwriters who we could happily agree to call "masters". They have written a slightly larger handful of "perfect" songs, songs which are musically rich, lyrically airtight, and emotionally true. I wouldn't presume to name every song or writer on this list, but here are a few.

Leonard Cohen - Suzanne

Cohen, of course, has more perfect songs than your average songwriting legend. Hallelujah, Famous Blue Raincoat, Bird on a Wire, or No Way to Say Goodbye could just as easily have made it on this list. Suzanne, though, is my personal favorite. It tells a story of such depth, detail and honesty (at least in the emotional sense), that I think of Suzanne as an estranged, eclectic, tragic aunt, who my family has tried and failed to keep secret.

Paul Simon - Still Crazy After All These Years

This song deliciously and succinctly captures nostalgia, which is not a simple feeling to capture. There is sweetness, elation, longing, and a healthy dose of regret, all seamlessly set to one of the prettiest and most memorable melodies I know. I've told this story before and I'll tell it again: Paul Simon is quoted in "Songwriters on Songwriting" (Zollo) describing the writing of this song. He says he was stepping into the shower when the refrain came to him, and "... I wasn't very happy about it, either. I didn't say 'Oh, that's a good one, that's clever, I can use that.' It was an assessment of where I was at the time, and I wasn't very happy that that was my assessment." I think Paul's feeling of vulnerability and reluctant honesty comes straight through those speakers, and that's part of the magic of this song.

Joni Mitchell - A Case of You

Joni has lots of perfect songs also, Chelsea Morning and Both Sides Now being close contenders for this list. This song, though, is quickly becoming a standard, and for good reason. Among other things, I love the ambiguity; it's ambiguous without being at all confusing. We hear the love and devotion, along with the conflict in the relationship, and what's worse: the conflict of a flighty artist's heart. It's a true and perfect story.

George & Ira Gershwin - Our Love is Here to Stay

Singer/songwriter Peter Mulvey once told me a beautiful story about this song. The Gershwins were not a married couple but brothers, George wrote the music and Ira wrote the lyrics (to dozens of gorgeous jazz songs and musicals, including 'They Can't Take That Away From Me', 'Someone to Watch Over Me', 'Porgy and Bess', and many more). George, Ira's baby brother, died at the age of 40, leaving a final composition behind. That composition was this song, to which Ira penned the lyrics, "It's very clear... our love is here to stay. Not for a year, forever and a day".

Bob Dylan - You're Gonna Make Me Lonesome

What strikes me first about this song, every time, is its sweetness. Who knew Bob could be such a sweetheart? What strikes me next is the simplicity: lines like "when something is not right, it's wrong". Then, the chorus hits, and my heart lifts, too. And again with the simplicity, and the doggone truthiness of it: "I could stay with you forever, and never realize the time".

Patty Griffin - Peter Pan

Patty is one of my personal favorites. The emotional intimacy in her voice, and in her lyrics, is so complete, and so effortless, I feel like I know her feelings better than my own. This song is a gem among gems - how perfectly, and touchingly, she describes the sad inevitability of growing up.

Steve Earle - Tom Ames' Prayer

This is a perfect story song. "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts" can eat the shorts of this song. Rocky Raccoon wishes he were half as cool as Tom Ames. "He cocked both his pistols, and he spit in the dirt, and he walked out into the street." DAMN!

Friday, November 5, 2010

travel tips

There are plenty of travel guides in the world, and I'm sure many of them are handy. That said, road-tripping in the northeastern US is it's own breed of travel, and I have become something of an expert at it (IIDSSM). Here are a few things you ought to know about before you embark.

1) Wawa. Wawa is a convenience store which I'm pretty sure only exists in PA, NJ and DE (correct me if I'm wrong). If you ever have the good fortune to come across one in the course of a long drive, take full advantage. There is fresh fruit, hot sandwiches, cheap gas, and even milkshakes. Joe is pictured here anticipating his made-to-order sandwich from this high-tech touch screen.

2) Cracker Barrel. The Wood Bros taught me the magic of Cracker Barrel. It's a ubiquitous restaurant chain where you can sit down, order some vegetables, and have a non-fried meal by a roaring hearth. You can even rent audiobooks on CD, and return them to any other Cracker Barrel location.

3) Parkways are better than interstates. Especially in New York, and especially in the autumn. They even have pretty names like Palisades, Merrit, and Hutchinson.

4) Music. Driving music should be aggressively happy, or feel-good in a keeps-you-awake way. I recommend Elvis Costello, Aretha Franklin, The Beatles, or early Ella Fitzgerald. I DO NOT recommend Iron & Wine, Miles Davis, or Radiohead. You will love them right to sleep.

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


As you may know (hopefully not, because your life is so full of engaging real-world-type activities), I've been using my Facebook status to quiz people on their musical tastes. My most recent question was "What singer makes your heart most melty?" I got a lot of great responses... and still, I can't help but take this opportunity to spread the gospel of my own heart's reigning meltmasters.

Ultimate Queen of Meltiness: Billie Holiday

Of all the wondrously melty things about Billie's voice, my favorite is her phrasing. It's like nobody ever told her you're supposed to sing those specific notes in this very melody, as written, at the recommended time.

King of Meltiness: Ray Charles

Whereas Billie is melty in a roast-my-heart-on-a-skewer-like-a-marshmallow way, Ray is melty in a can-I-take-off-my-pants-now? way.

High Priestess of Meltiness: Nina Simone

A lot of people in this world don't love Nina Simone's voice. These must be the same people who think "Benjamin Button" was a brilliant film, and that Steven Colbert is actually a right-wing Republican. To these people I say: go back to your own planet.

Chief Ass-Kicker of Meltiness: Aretha Franklin

Aretha is like Michael Phelps. She is a freak of nature, born to excel at one craft, beyond the range of human capacity as it was previously understood. These people come from another planet also, but they can stay.

Meltiest Singer You Never Heard Of: Josh White

Josh White was popular from the 1930s through the early '50s, when he was blacklisted by the MacCarthyites for being a communist (which he wasn't, by the way. He was a civil rights activist. Oops!), which irreversibly damaged his career. His voice is, obviously, like warm honey being dripped into a clawfoot tub full of hot chocolate, velvet and kittens (we're talking supernatural kittens whose adorable fluffiness is not harmed by hot chocolate or honey).

Josh White

**Runners up, for those with too much time and an emusic account on their hands: Sam Cooke ("Peace in the Valley" with the Soul Stirrers), Snooks Eaglin ("Who's Loving You Tonight"), Pops Staples ("Down in Mississippi", from his 1990s album (produced by Bonnie Raitt and Jackson Browne... what?!)), Oliver Wood ("Chocolate on my Tongue"), Victoria Spivey ("Dope Head Blues"), Amos Lee ("Skipping Stones").

Thursday, September 23, 2010

carman's country kitchen

When I lived in Eugene, my girlfriends and I used to frequent an establishment called Ruthie B's Tea House. Ruthie B's was not reasonably priced, but what it lacked in economy it made up for in magicalness. Upon arrival, every customer was shown to a room full of hats and feather boas, to don while brunching. The water had slices of various citrus fruits in it, and before you ordered, the waitresses would sprinkle your table with dried lavender, sing songs, and blow bubbles over you.

Ruthie B's is one of the only things I miss about Eugene that is not a person. Luckily, I found it's sister-restaurant right here in south Philadelphia.

Carman's Country Kitchen exclusively serves brunch, which means they are only open Friday-Monday from 10am-2pm. There are just four things on the menu, and the four things change every week. The decor is a quirky combination of whimsical and raunchy (mardi gras beads and kitschy cherub-statuettes hang out with teacups that have penises for handles). They brew pots of tea as well as coffee, warm the honey bear before they hand it to you, and set every table with hot sauce, heavy cream, and little pots of exotic jams. Carman, owner and sole chef, is a phenomenon, and her sense for flavor combinations (similarly quirky) is the final touch of magic.

That was peach and blueberry french toast, shrimp and grits, and the best thing I've ever had at Carman's: challah french toast with black-fig-and-chevre topping, fresh blackberries, figs, and candied pecans. Side of country sausage.

And no, I am not being paid (in food or money) for this post. I just can't help but share the glory of Carman's. It's on 11th and Wharton, and there is no sign on the place - just a red pickup truck parked outside, with a picture of Betty Boop and their slogan: "Carman's Country Kitchen: She put the cunt back into country".

Sunday, September 19, 2010

things that make nine hour drives almost seem okay

Fields looking golden, and even a few changing leaves.

'This American Life' iPhone app. Pay $2.99, and then you have every episode of TAL ever aired, for free (thanks, Chris O'Brien, for this priceless tip). I HIGHLY recommend 'Act V'.

Stopping in adorable towns along the way for yard sales and Flea Markets (note: this only works on weekend drives). Dig this $.50 find.

Brown sugar cinnamon Pop Tarts.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

the art of tilke elkins

Yesterday I received a birthday gift from my dear friend Tilke Elkins.

Tilke is an extremely talented visual artist with whom I used to live, in Eugene, Oregon. Among many other accomplishments, she spent seven years creating a hand-painted, ad-free children's magazine called All Round, and designed both of my recent album covers ('Buoy' and the 'Beau' EP).

She also made all the art in my house, including this birthday gift.

And this painting of Jakes and Dustin, the main characters from 'All Round', playing hide & seek in a hayloft.

This is a print Tilke made in college, rediscovered at her parents house in Vermont, and gave me on a visit there earlier this summer.

This is Tilke's "color portrait" of me. It's supposed to be the colors of my essence, and I'm pretty sure she hit the nail on the head, there.

Here are a few issues of All Round magazine, which makes SUCH a great gift for kids and their parents, and of which you can order back issues here (click on "All Round" at the top right).

Tilke and her husband, Nick, also happen to design websites, including Tilke's website, which is definitely the most beautiful thing I've seen on the internet.

PS. Yes, I use old windows as picture frames.

Friday, September 3, 2010

best scrabble play of all time

That's right: triple J, double word. For a total of 121 points. It was beautiful. I get all misty-eyed just thinking about it.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

gratitude and clarity

First of all, thank you. I got an overwhelming, beautiful and heartening response to my previous post. I couldn't ask for sweeter or more eloquent fans. I am moved right back atcha.

Secondly, I want to clarify that I am not thinking of quitting music or the music business. I decided to let you in on the worry and ambivalence that happens in the dark nights of my soul, in the interest of feeling less isolated in there. Thankfully, my mind is still functioning fairly reliably, is dimly but steadily lit, and always gets me to my gigs on time.

This is the greatest job I can imagine. I will probably never learn not to question everything I do, even the things that are clearly right and good. Luckily, this method breeds good songs, if not much comfort.

Monday, August 30, 2010

attack of the WTFs

I think it's time to admit something to you, friends and listeners-of-my-music. While it's true that I have a generally sunny disposition, I, too, am occasionally laid low by a sudden attack of the WTFs. They creep in at night, usually when I'm "hangry" (that familiar hybrid of 'hungry' and 'angry', articulated to me by the formidable Regan Kelly), and ask me, snarlingly, WTF I'm doing with my life.

I believe that everyone has a purpose. It's the thing you do best, and that best expresses who you are. It's not always what you feel like doing, or what most needs doing, it's what you feel compelled, or "called" to do, from somewhere deep inside.

Though I am guilty of a superficial ambition for fame and fortune, my actual purpose in is something deeper and lovelier. When I moved to Philadelphia in 2006 to make music full-time, after a soul-clarifying summer in San Francisco, I brought with me the following statement, written on a little green note card:

My purpose as a musician is to write and perform bravely, passionately, playfully, and honestly. By doing so, I intend to move people and open hearts.

In other words, I want to help people experience what Joseph Campbell calls "the rapture of being alive". This is my purpose in life, not just in music, but making music is an excellent way to get the job done (partly because music has always been the most reliable way for ME to experience said rapture). After four years and about 400 shows, that's still what I mean to do, every time I get on stage.

When I get an attack of the WTFs, they usually start with a superficial question. For instance: "Why didn't you play better, just now?" or, "Why aren't YOU headlining at that venue?" The question behind the question is this: "Are you really serving your purpose?" And the answer is, I don't know. My purpose is not something measurable, or even visible. It's about small changes that happen in people's hearts. I can't possibly know, unless you tell me.

So, I'm writing this post, with great reluctance and biting of nails, to ask for your help. If my music has moved you, I would like to hear about it. Your responses will not be published anywhere, and I don't need the details, unless you want to share them. Just send me an email, and tell me that you're there, you hear me, and it's working.

Monday, August 16, 2010

figgeldy piggeldy

We moved into this adorable South Philly house last November, with its handsome wood floors and its cute little fig tree in the back yard. Suddenly, this week, the cute little fig tree has exploded with fruit. This is about the third daily haul of this size.

Now taking suggestions. What to do with all these figs?

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

some things that are amazing

It's amazing to be alive, when we are cruising around in such ridiculously fragile machinery. Being born is a little like putting a raw egg in a Radio Flyer and giving it a good shove down a steep and rocky incline.

People I sort-of-know, but am not close to, have been coming down with a lot of illness and death recently. It brings to mind the fact that death is the rule, not the exception. Statistically, the probability that I should be sitting here breathing, rather than ashes and dust, is not quite zero, but a dot followed by too many zeroes to fit on this continent, and then a single 1, somewhere near Australia.

With that thought in mind, it's amazing we don't wake up every day and shout, "BOY HOWDY! I'M ALIVE AGAIN! WHAT ARE THE CHANCES?"

Thursday, August 5, 2010

how to be a human

I am a bona fide technology addict. That said, no matter how deep my love for my iPhone, I am still human enough to notice that technology has a dark side. Whether it's an interest in Facebook that borders on obsessive-compulsive, or the ghost-town isolation of being the only one on a busy street not talking into a cell phone, I'm betting you've noticed it, too. I don't deny that technology creates connections between people, and is the breeding ground for some wicked-cool art and craft. But on the other side of that shiny coin is a crazy-making, attention-span-hacking, mind-numbing, soul-sucking hellion.

So, in case you forgot (like I do, most of the time).

In four easy steps.

1) Turn off your phone, and your laptop.
2) Sit. For at least five minutes. Without. Doing. Anything.
3) Experience something sensual. Pet your dog, listen to the sounds outside. Eat a mango, watch the light move across your room. I mean really experience this thing. Notice that you are an animal, in the world, right now, living inside a squishy, warm animal body.
4) Seriously, turn them off. Just try it.

Tea, blueberry smoothie, Settlers of Catan.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

geek joy

True geekhood is a wonderful thing. All geeks know this. The ridicule we may have endured in middle school is a small price to pay for the joy of being a geek. We make ourselves deeply familiar with a particular area of study, because it is only then that the smallest, most seemingly irrelevant discoveries bring on that special geek joy; a bliss that is visceral, magical, ecstatic.

For instance. The drum sound in this song, to me, is like taking a bath when your toes have frozen white. Or like stepping off the plane on your way to baggage claim to meet someone you loved madly, after years apart. It's like iced tea, in August, after running a mile. But you haven't drunk it yet. You're just reaching for the glass.

Stormy Blues-Billie Holiday

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

a charm of finches

Hello, new and old friends! This blog has just migrated from myspace , where it was a receptacle for all things related to music and my music career. I've decided to expand my bloggership to include my other interests, which are vast and varied. Most of them are related to music, the English language, the tragic hilarity of the human condition, and pretty stuff.


My mama bought me this wallpaper for my birthday. It's from fancy German wallpaper company One thing you should know about hanging wallpaper on the ceiling: it is not a one-person job. Bring a friend; preferably one who doesn't mind being partially covered in wallpaper paste.