The Deck And I (A Sunset Story)

When my wife Sandy and I were house-hunting 11 years ago, looking to make the daunting leap from a Philadelphia row house to a slightly bigger spread in the burbs, our real estate agent took us to towns all over the place. Sandy and I examined a lot of homes. We wanted something middle-aged and attractive. And being a lazy guy who wasn’t up to taking on anything remotely resembling a major project, whatever dwelling I ended up in also needed to meet the definitions of renovated, clean and comfortable.

img_1056After a few months of searching we came upon the house we now call our own. And one of the big reasons we said “yes” to it was a feature I’d hardly ever in my life thought about, let alone thought I’d want. But when I took my first look at the house’s deck that sat eight feet above and overlooked the backyard I said to myself: “Holy sh*t, this is da bomb! I want it!” And since then I’ve had it.

But, dumbass that I am, I haven’t put the deck to extensive use. I’ve spent plenty of hours upon it, for sure, but erratically. This year hardly at all. When I want to laze I tend to do that indoors on the living room sofa where I practice spilling beer and dropping Cheez-It crumbs by the hundreds all over the cushions. I’ve gotten real good at those sports. I’ll note, though, that Sandy loves the deck. She’s thinking of moving onto it permanently, leaving her spouse to his own devices.

About 7 PM one evening last month, however, the deck called to me. I was on my way into the kitchen from the dining room. And, through the dining room’s glass door that leads to the deck, noticed the sky. It was fabulous, streaked with pinks, oranges and yellows. Our friend the Sun had dropped below the horizon minutes earlier. A grand sunset was on!

Chatham, Cape Cod. October 2015.
Chatham, Cape Cod. October 2015.

Me, I’m a sunset guy, though you wouldn’t know it when I’m occupying space in my manically overdeveloped suburban region. Here, it’s kind of hard appreciating sunsets displayed above a landscape crammed with strip malls and gas stations and office buildings. So, here I’m not in the habit of seeking out sunsets. But I get into them in a major way when in beautiful open areas. Sandy and I are fans of Cape Cod, for instance. At many Cape locales the vistas are something else: endless waters, sands and, sometimes, marshes. When I’m surrounded with ooh la la scenery like that I get jazzed watching the Sun drop and the sky drip with colors. And it’s not just me. Lots of people are into sunset-gazing on Cape Cod. No matter which beach area Sandy and I have stood on to take in the event, a bunch of other folk usually are there too with the same thing in mind. Sunset-gazing on Cape Cod, and no doubt in many spots all over the world, is almost a tribal ceremony, a quiet one that comes together seemingly spontaneously out of primal needs.

Cape Cod aside, I should but almost never remember to look at sunsets from my deck, the perspectives from which aren’t disturbed by strip malls et al. Sure, that perch isn’t the perfect one to take in the sky, what with the trees out back obscuring views profoundly. But, hell, it’s still awfully nice. What’s more, things seem pretty peaceful on the deck, since there are no cars going by. Peaceful, that is, till one of the multitude of nearby canines starts barking its fu*king head off. But I digress.

img_1052img_1044Yes, the sky was fabulous. I grabbed my iPhone, turned on its camera and went out onto the deck. To the south only half of the sky was visible, due to several big boy trees. Within the tree branches, though, bits and pieces of sunset hues played a cloak and dagger game, which I thought was awfully cool. And above the trees? Man, the painting was great, with swaths of pastel tones floating in darkening blue.

img_1047-2img_1049-2To the west was a somewhat different type of story. A few trees condensed the just-above-the-horizon view to a fairly narrow opening, but the gap was enough. Gorgeous colors drenched that section, the yellows falling lower and glowing brighter by the second. What can I say? I got drawn in. I dug it all, to the west and to the south. And I snapped pictures, as if the 500 billion sunset photos already taken by humankind since the invention of photography weren’t enough. Yup, there’s something about sunset pix. I’m not embarrassed to toss a few more into cyberspace.

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Mall Me

img_1036“You need to buy some new jeans,” my wife Sandy had mentioned to me, a reluctant shopper, a few times recently. She wasn’t wrong. Day after day after day I wear jeans, having abandoned other forms of pants when I bid adieu to my decades-long white collar cum chinos career seven years ago. Most of my current crop of jeans is three or more years old. And looks it. Deeply creased and worn areas in the fabrics abound. As do leg bottoms whose threads are unraveling faster than light beams travel. I pondered the situation and eventually submitted. “Want to go to the mall with me?” I asked Sandy not long ago. “I’ll try on jeans. You can tell me how they look.” It was one of those days that, like death, is inevitable.

A big, bright indoor shopping mall, anchored by several department stores (including Macy’s), dwells on once-forested land half a mile from our house. Sandy and I figured that, at the mall, Macy’s would offer the best selection of denim. To Macy’s we went. Sadly, the shopping excursion was not ring-a ding-ding. In the men’s department dressing room I tried on 21 pair of jeans. Some of them squashed my balls demonically. Others, with a modest tug, slid over my waist as if they were greased. What’s  a guy got to do to find a pair of jeans that fits right? Hire Levi Strauss’ ghost to custom tailor them? I stormed out of the dressing room, contemplating throwing myself over one of the mall’s inner railings to the ground level courtyard. Good thing Sandy was there to prevent that from happening. Otherwise the masterpiece that you at this moment are reading wouldn’t be floating around in cyberspace.

But all was not lost, for on the way to Macy’s Sandy and I had passed through another department store. Bloomingdale’s. And I, constantly idea-starved when it comes to blog stories, was amazed by how incredibly good the stuff for sale in Bloomingdale’s looked, not to mention the snazzy displays right and left on which the goods balanced and the aura of pizzazz that pervaded the store. “Man, this place is beautiful. It’s like a modern art museum,” I said to myself. And thus a story idea emerged. Let us proceed.

img_0934img_0935A few days after the day in which I came up jeans-less I was back in Bloomingdale’s. I entered through the portal that led directly to an artistic wonderland, the cosmetics department. Talk about kaleidoscopic vistas, layouts that Andy Warhol would have been proud to design and colors that rocked. I had never paid much attention to cosmetics departments before, but that day I was smitten. Almost sorry that I wasn’t female, I was tempted to sit down on one of the stools ringing some counters and let one of the beauty experts behind the counters have a go at me. Hell, my face could use a lot of help.

img_0941img_0943Next time I will. But I needed to move on, to check out the museum-worthiness of the rest of Bloomingdale’s first level and the two above that. Not far from cosmetics were women’s dresses. By the way, I saw dresses in other parts of the store too, later, and had no idea what the differences were between the various dress sections. Needless to say, I’m a fashion idiot. Anyway, four of the mannequins-in-dresses on the first floor were hot chicks clad in cinnamon, grey, and black. I could imagine those sculpted figures displayed within a gallery of The Big Apple’s Museum Of Modern Art, where they would be meant to represent, let’s say, a commentary on our society’s beautiful people. Lined up nonchalantly one behind the other, they wowed me. And, permit me to add, they were way beyond my league: now, then and always. Wait, I forgot . . . those girls weren’t real. And I also forgot that I’m married. If it weren’t for those two circumstances though, I might have had the courage to ask the pensive blonde to join me for some pizza slices and frozen yogurt at the mall’s food court. But probably not.

And so I wandered for 40 more minutes. After which I decided that my original impression was correct. And I expanded upon it: Bloomingdale’s is like a modern art museum that has outstanding holdings in color field art and pop art. And I’ll throw in some Matisse too. It’s a haven for color arrangements that sometimes smile and sometimes exuberantly clash. And for sculptures (mannequins) that might get you thinking about what they are thinking.

As usual I’ve entered territories that my analytical and intellectual abilities aren’t equipped to explore much further. And I’m also getting hungry. It’s 12:39 PM as I now prepare to remove my fingers from my computer’s keyboard. Almost time to feed the face that needs a lot of help. I’ll leave you with some additional photographic examples of how artsy-cool Bloomingdale’s is. And I’ll remind you not to be shy about adding your comments or about sharing this article with others. And that if you click on any photo in this story, a larger image will open in a new window.

Peace out.











The Poster Boy For Healthy Eating Habits: C’est Moi!

From out of the blue the United States Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion called me recently with a flattering offer. “Hello, Neil? This is Dudley Eatright. I’m Chief Down-The-Gullet Officer at the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. You’ve come to our attention through channels that I’m not authorized to divulge, but I assure you that they are nutritious and delicious.”

“Neil, we here at CFNPAP have learned about your mega-healthy lifestyle. Why, when we found out about your long-time devotion to Mr. Spock’s Vulcan vegan diet, and about the triathlons that you compete in weekly at your, shall I say, quite mature age, we were more than impressed. We were floored. You’re pushing 70 yet have the vitality of a supremely fit 25 year old. How do you do it? — I’m very pressed for time, so please don’t answer that.”

Soon it will be me behind that lectern.
Soon it will be me behind that lectern.

“Neil, here’s why I’m calling: You are a model of remarkably sensible, possibly extreme living. And the citizens of our great land should know about you. They should hear from you. That’s why we here at CFNPAP want to make you the poster boy for the benefits derived from consuming lots and lots of fruits and vegetables and grains. Despite our best efforts, Americans continue to chow down heavily on Slim Jims, Tostidos and Philadelphia cheesesteak sandwiches. Neil, we feel that you’re the guy to enlighten them about what foods they should be shoving into their maws. Michelle Obama has tried, but her success rate hasn’t been so terrific, now has it? And since she’ll be exiting the national spotlight in a matter of months we want a new face to promote healthy eating habits. Neil, please say you’ll help us out. The USA needs you, pal!”

fd10d260abdbbad0fb130a3f838151eaWow! I was stunned. For years I had made every effort to keep my dietary regimen and athletic pursuits little-known. Only my family and friends, I thought, were aware of my Vulcan veganism. And as for the triathlons that I am addicted to, I always enter under a pseudonym and always wear a Lone Ranger-type mask to further obscure my identity. Whenever a race official has questioned my donning of a face mask, my retort has been short and precise: “Yo, kemosabe! Back the fu*k off!” That never fails to work.

And yet CFNPAP found me out and tracked me down. And to tell you the truth I didn’t mind. It will be great to guide my fellow citizens along pathways leading to outstanding health. And to boost national consumption of plant life.

“I’m aboard!” I said a tad too loudly to Dudley Eatright. “I’m your man.”

“I knew I could count on you, Neil. Thank you so very much.”

Domestic blueberry pickings were slim.
Domestic blueberry pickings were slim.
Only the frontmost boxes held peaches.
Only the frontmost boxes held peaches.

“There’s only one thing, Dudley,” I said. “And maybe you can work this out for me. You see, fresh blueberries and peaches are my fave fruits. I eat ungodly amounts of them. But in the USA their harvests are over for the year and the supplies are dwindling fast. Why, the other day at my local supermarket’s produce department I couldn’t believe how near to barren the domestic blueberry and peach shelves were. It brought tears to my eyes. I even took some photos so I’d have something to remember my friends by. And yeah, I know that blueberry crops from South America will arrive in our stores any day now, with peaches soon to follow. But their prices always are outrageous. Dudley, the federal government stockpiles oil and gold and nuclear warheads. Am I wrong in assuming that it also stashes away sizeable amounts of USA-grown blueberries and peaches? Level with me, Dudley. I want the truth!”

There was a long pause. Then Dudley spoke. “Yes, Neil. Your analysis is accurate. I can’t begin to describe the quantities of blueberries and peaches that are being kept fresh and delectable in temperature-controlled, hermetically-sealed secret underground chambers. President Obama and his cabinet members, Senators, Congresswomen, Congressmen, top military brass . . . they all demand fresh peaches and blueberries year-round for their bowls of corn flakes and shredded wheat. And, patriots that they are, they’ll eat only those grown on American shores. Needless to say, the Department of Agriculture is proud to give them what they want. Neil, what’s your angle?”

“You can guess, Dudley. Starting tomorrow I expect daily deliveries to my door of blueberries and peaches from the government’s cache. Then, all will be well.”

“This can be arranged, Neil, no problem. Is there anything else?”

“That’s it, Dudley. I’m easy to please. And might I add that it has been a pleasure speaking with you. I am flattered and honored to be tapped to serve my country. Let the fruits and vegetables and grains campaign begin!”

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Guys With The Same Initials: Terell Stafford, Thomas Shields And Thomas Sully

The Philadelphia Museum Of Art is loaded, duh, with works by famous folks. Van Gogh, Picasso, Monet, Manet, Cassatt, O’Keefe, etc., etc. The other day at the museum I walked past creations by all of them with barely a second glance, not to mention a first glance. Instead, on a goofy mission I spent a bit of time looking at objects produced by the hands and minds of Thomas Shields and Thomas Sully, names that ring a bell with just about nobody. That’s all I wanted to see before settling down with my wife Sandy in the museum’s Great Hall for an evening jazz concert led by the very a-ok trumpeter Terell Stafford.

Here’s why I did what I did: “Does the museum have anything on display by people with the same initials as tonight’s bandleader?” I wondered at home a few hours before Sandy and I headed museumward. “If it does, that’s what I’ll look at before the show.” Had any PMA visitor ever had the same sort of game plan as this? Yeah, right. Why did I come up with this idea? Uh, our orb is awash with cockeyed people.

PMA has a searchable online database. I scoured it. There were 33 artists whose first names and surnames began, respectively, with T and S. Of them, only three had works on display in the galleries (in other words, not in storage), according to the database. But one of those works, by a guy named Thomas Stretch, was the inner mechanism of an old grandfather clock. Stretch hadn’t designed the parts of the clock that anyone cared about. Namely, its cabinet or face. I’d have to disassemble the clock to see the gears et al that Stretch had fashioned, and I had a feeling that the museum’s guards, let alone its CEO, wouldn’t approve. Ergo, I scratched Stretch’s name off my list and, at the museum, went to check out what Shields and Sully were all about.

img_1013img_1031A silver sugar bowl. From the 1770s. Made in Philadelphia. That’s the Shields piece I looked at and admired. It’s beautiful. Shields was a well-known Philadelphia silversmith in his time and obviously damn good. If he were alive today I’d buy one just like it from him. It would look a whole lot better sitting next to Sandy’s and my Mr. Coffee machine than the bowl we’re currently scooping out of.

img_1016-2And Sully? Long ago he was a successful Philadelphia portrait painter. A few of his oils were on display at PMA. Mostly I looked at the one he did in 1833 of Thomas Cadwalader, a lawyer, landholder and military general. Man, Thomas looks great in this picture. Can you believe it, though? He was in his early 50s when Sully put him on canvas yet looks to be . . . what? . . . 35 at most? His skin glows with dewy freshness. His sun-lightened locks are enviably tousled. Bummer: TC might appear to hold the key to eternal youthfulness, but he lasted only eight more years before saying goodbye to Planet Earth.

Okay, show time was approaching. Back I went to a cocktail table in the Great Hall where Sandy sat. We have been to many dozens of jazz concerts at this venue since discovering the museum’s Friday night music series in 2002, one year after it launched. But we don’t go anywhere near as often as we used to, because you have to arrive at least an hour early to nab a decent seat. Which is a pain that we got tired of enduring. The show’s first set began right on time (5:45 PM), a miracle in the music world, and ended exactly one hour later. Being kind of anal, I admired those examples of precision and efficiency. And I also admired the limited amount of between-song patter that Terell Stafford engaged in. Out of the 60 minutes that he and his mates were on stage, sounds came out of their instruments for about 55 of them.

img_1028But what I admired above all was the quality of the music that the Stafford quintet produced. They played with a whole lot of heart and soul. They were into it. You could tell by watching Terell arching his back, his knees pushing forward — all in the name of generating thrust — when he ripped hard and fleet notes from his horn during certain solos. And by watching pianist Bruce Barth’s noggin bopping side to side, front to back, when he reached the heady parts of his improvisations. And by watching Stafford and tenor saxophonist Tim Warfield smiling big smiles and nodding their heads in lockstep as they watched drummer Billy Williams unload a wham-bam solo near the end of the set’s first song (Hocus Pocus).

img_1567Hocus Pocus, composed by the late, fantastic and Philadelphia-born trumpet player, Lee Morgan, began with Stafford and Warfield pouring out the tune’s careening, irresistible melody with panache. After which Terell took the tune’s first solo, Barth pounding out heavy chords behind him. Cutting loose, TS spent mucho time in his instrument’s high register. Next to grab the solo spotlight was Warfield. He began studiously, exploring and probing, and when he found the door he was looking for the hot notes began to fly. A few minutes later Barth’s turn arrived. His left hand struck broad, loud chords while his right danced exuberantly. Throughout the tune the band was tight and relentless. Hard to believe that the upright bass player, Drew Gaunce, was a last minute fill-in for the gig. He, to my amateur ears, was rock solid all night.

Speaking of Lee Morgan, I realized after the fact that he composed four of the set’s five numbers. And that the remaining tune (Candy) was a song that he covered on his 1958 album of the same name. And I also was late to learn that the songs that TS and company played comprise the first five tracks on Brotherlee Love, the fine Morgan-honoring album that Stafford released last year. Of the four Stafford compadres appearing with TS at the museum, two of them (Barth and Warfield) played on that album. If you click right here you’ll hear Hocus Pocus as it appears on Brotherlee Love. And if you click here you’ll catch the Brotherlee Love version of Candy. On the album, Candy is performed by a trio, sax and drums sitting it out. At the museum the Candy personnel shrank even further. And the performance was lovely, a languid and captivating two-person discussion between Stafford and Barth.

I’d be remiss not to mention that Terell Stafford is known to jazz musicians and jazz fans in many places on the globe. Ditto for Barth and Warfield and Williams. And that TS, BB and TW also have long histories as jazz educators (all three teach at Philadelphia’s Temple University, for example). As for Gaunce, well, he’s in the wee stages of his career, so we’ll find out where the winds and his talents take him. After the first set ended, those winds carried me and Sandy out of the museum to a nearby tavern. There, we chowed down on good pub grub and drank good beer (me) and wine (her) before motoring home to the burbs.

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Darkened Skies, Beautiful Philadelphia

img_0891 At about 8:30 PM on the first Friday of the current month, my wife Sandy and I exited Capofitto, an Italian bistro cum gelato/sorbetto (ice cream/sorbet) store that we like. We’d downed a pizza-centric meal there, capped off with scoops of cappuccino gelato and peach sorbetto. Pretty damn good for sure. Capofitto is in the heart of Philadelphia’s Old City section, whose roots go back powerfully to Colonial days. No doubt the block on which Capifitto resides, a length of Chestnut Street, was trod upon countless times by any Founding Father you can name, not to mention his romantic partner(s), as was just about every Old City block. I find it très neat to think about that. Old City is a cool part of town.

“What next?” we asked ourselves. Should we go back to our home in the burbs? Nah, the night was young. And quite dark, as the Sun had set an hour earlier and neither moonlight nor starlight was apparent to me. Essentially, Old City was being illuminated by electric lights, and in a muted manner. Which I enjoyed. Everything seemed dreamy and atmospheric — the semi-ancient brick buildings, the stone-paved streets. I felt as though I was on a movie set. I asked Sandy if she’d like to go for a walk. She said yes, and off we went down Chestnut Street toward nearby Penn’s Landing, a large swath of Philadelphia’s Delaware River waterfront. The night not only was young, it also was calling. 

img_0894Like the Founding Fathers, Sandy and I have moseyed along Old City’s arteries many times. That’s an activity that doesn’t get old. We keep coming back for more. And this being a night whose effects I actually was paying attention to, which isn’t always the case, I felt myself getting into the scene more than usual. “Holy brotherly love,” I murmured to myself when, half a block from Capofitto, I turned around and saw the huge and perfectly-sculpted United States Custom House, which went up in the 1930s, glowing warmly in its white lights. “That’s gorgeous.” Indeed it was. I snapped its picture, the first of many that Sandy and I would snap as we investigated Philadelphia under darkened skies.

img_1546In a flash we were at Penn’s Landing, a once unassuming and still developing stretch of territory that city officials have been master-planning and trying to force into glorious bloom for over 50 years. To put it another way, the keys to unlocking Penn’s Landing’s full potential as a tourist and city resident draw have yet to be discovered. But it’s getting there, as we shall see. First thing you notice at night when you enter Penn’s Landing near its northern end, as Sandy and I did, is the Ben Franklin Bridge, which connects our nations’ first capitol with Camden, New Jersey. The bridge is massive and grand and, when skies are black, a visual wow. Why? Because years ago someone had the sterling idea to string colorful, Christmassy lights along it. Sandy and I looked at the bridge long and hard and, as on many nights before, we liked what we saw.

The park's LED lights (center right) seen from a distance.
The park’s LED lights (at right) seen from a distance.

I must have realized this on past visits too, but that night I was taken by the low-wattage illumination in most parts of Penn’s Landing. Just like in Old City. Philadelphia — and I’m all for this — ain’t aiming for a Times Square type of lighting blitz. A feeling of intimacy, I think, is the result throughout most of the city. And that casual, relaxed spirit was true even in the section of Penn’s Landing that the masses have discovered and turned into a destination. I speak of Spruce Street Harbor Park, which drew closer as Sandy and I headed south along Penn’s Landing’s walkways. At night we couldn’t and wouldn’t have wanted to miss it, because the possibly thousands of color-shifting LED lights hanging from its trees were superb and put us under a spell. And we didn’t need to don shades . . . yes, the lights dazzled, but subtly.

img_1552Spruce Street Harbor Park, loaded with things to do, overlooks Penn’s Landing’s marina, which I never used to think much of because I’d rarely if ever notice anything interesting going on within it. And the grounds of what is now the park, which opened for business in 2014, once were as bland and barren as an unbuttered slice of white bread, except for a grove of trees and a monument to Christopher Columbus. That, at least, is the way I remember the area. But all that has changed. Lo and behold, SSHP has become, I’d guess, the most popular place to hang out in all of Philadelphia. The governmental folks who orchestrated the park’s development birthed a phenomenon, a winner that has far exceeded in popularity anyone’s expectations.

img_0926img_0911Designed to have a summery sort of ambience, the attractions at Spruce Street Harbor Park have a limited run each year, though I wouldn’t be surprised if the powers that be are brainstorming ideas that would keep the park open most or all months. Yeah, more is better, guys! This year, SSHP’s season began in early May and will end on September 25. At the very least, why not open the gates in mid-April and close them in mid-October? Sounds like a plan to me. Anyway, the place was mobbed the night Sandy and I visited. With good reason. It has a low-key, breezy combination of things going for it, besides the groovy LED shafts whose color blips rise and fall regimentally.


img_0920img_1557There are hammocks dangling between trees; tables and chairs of different sizes and shapes scattered all around; a boardwalk lined with food shacks; craft beer stands; an indoor arcade; restaurants floating in the marina; a bocce court . . .  you get the picture. Among other pursuits, folks lounged, strolled, stuffed their faces and watched others lounge, stroll and stuff. And played their parts peacefully and politely. The nitwit factor at Spruce Street Harbor Park and the rest of Penn’s Landing and, come to think of it, in Old City, was nil that night. Do hypnotic lights amid semi-darkness induce commendable behavior? I don’t really know, but there might be something to that.


Alas, all good things that first Friday evening, for Sandy and me anyway, came to an end. To a train station in central Philadelphia we eventually proceeded. And, not long after that, at our abode’s doorstep, a mere handful of miles from one of the city’s borders, we arrived.

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(All photos, except that of the United States Custom House, by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on any photo, a larger image will open)

Mann Oh Mann: Richard Thompson And Bonnie Raitt In Concert

Philadelphia’s Mann Center For The Performing Arts is a great outdoor concert venue that can be a bitch getting to and leaving from, depending on where you live and what mode of transport you opt to use. The Mann, built into a hilly section of enormous public parklands, is decently accessible for those who reside not too far from it and who visit using foot power or public transit. Not so for just about everyone else. That’s because just about everyone else drives. For them, the traffic jams they usually run into and the post-concert nightmare of trying to exit the parking areas at the same time as thousands of their fellow citizens . . . oy frigging vey, to say the least. In the early 1990s, an incredibly awful Mann traffic experience sent my now-wife Sandy’s and my blood pressures to Guinness World Records levels. And, amid the type of shouting matches in the car that would have made us stars on The Jerry Springer Show, nearly caused us to divorce one another, even though we weren’t even married yet! Shell-shocked, we stayed away from The Mann for eons after that memorable night. Until a week and a half ago, that is, when we learned about a pleasant method of Manning-it, and took in a terrific show.

In Philly, we boarded the bus at 12th and Market Streets.
In Philly, we boarded the bus at 12th and Market Streets.

The concert-in-question’s headliner was Bonnie Raitt. The opening act was Richard Thompson. Double bills as strong as this one are not everyday events. Sandy and I were there with our great pals Cindy and Gene. The two couples ended up sitting in different sections of The Mann, but arrived at the scene in the same vehicle. Turns out that SEPTA, the Philadelphia region’s transit authority, runs a dedicated bus on Mann concert nights. Sandy and I never knew about this till Cindy clued us in. And thus we took a train from our home in the burbs to central Philadelphia and hopped on the special bus soon after arriving in the city. Several stops later, Cindy and Gene, Philadelphia residents, hopped aboard too. Mannward we headed. Calmly.

Raitt and Thompson are pushing 70 and, judging from the crowd at The Mann, don’t exactly have a huge fan base among Generations X and Y. Despite this, they can sell plenty of tickets. Between them they stimulated about 6,000 bodies to lay down dough for seats the other night. As opening acts are prone to do, Richard played first. I’ll come back to him soon, but have decided to say a few things now about Bonnie Raitt.

IMG_1540For two hours Bonnie was on stage with her backing band of four (drummer, electric bassist, keyboardist and electric guitarist/mandolin player), a well-oiled and flexible machine. She was wonderful. Bonnie’s music goes down easy and brings together currents of the blues, singer-songwriter, rock, gospel and folk music streams. She is famed for her electric slide guitar work, but to me, to tell you the truth, she seemed not a guitar slinger. And she didn’t emphasize her songwriting efforts. Though she has written or co-written a decent number of songs during  her 48-or-so-year career, she hauled out only two of them (What You’re Doin’ To Me and The Comin’ Round Is Going Through, both from her new album Dig In Deep ) for her 20-song set. What she had going for her, more than anything, was her voice. Warm and natural, Bonnie’s pipes drew the crowd into each song’s lyrics. And, without strain, she belted out whatever needed to be belted out whenever the occasion arose. I held on tight when I knew that high and powerful notes were a-comin’, expecting to be swept up into the clouds. And that’s what happened. Her voice may have burnished oh so slightly since her younger days, but basically Bonnie sings as well as she ever has. Which is saying something.

Take John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery, for instance. This song about a beat-down elderly woman began with only Bonnie and her acoustic guitar. She sang majestically, probing Prine’s chilling narrative. Halfway through the tune the rest of the group entered. Ricky Fataar’s cymbal and high-hat work was simple and quiet and appropriate. George Marinelli’s mandolin solo was sweet. Goosebumps, I think, swelled throughout The Mann, whose audience jumped into a standing O, the evening’s second, at Angel’s end. You will find a recent live version of the song by clicking here.

I have a feeling that most people have heard of Bonnie Raitt, and that far, far fewer know about Richard Thompson, though his abilities are extraordinary and his career long (he was a founder of the British folk-rock band Fairport Convention in 1967). Me, I believe that RT is one of the greatest musical talents among us. What a singer. What a songwriter. What a guitar player. In a fair and just world he’d be a megastar. Poor guy, he has to settle for truckloads of praise instead of ocean liner loads, and for making a really nice living instead of raking in countless millions. Life’s tough.

This is probably the worst photo ever of Richard Thompson, who is on the left.
This is probably the worst photo ever of Richard Thompson, who is on the left. Mea culpa.

Well, if I ran The Mann, BR would have opened for RT, not the other way around. Forty-five minutes of him and his band (Taras Prodaniuk on electric bass, Michael Jerome on drums) weren’t enough. Sandy and I have seen Richard in performance a number of times, and he hasn’t lost a beat. His steely, deep voice cut like a knife at The Mann. His electric guitar playing snarled, jabbed and tunneled into realms so dense he left me in disbelief. During some RT solos, Sandy said she thought I was going to give myself whiplash, what with my head pivoting and swiveling so much. Such as on his piercing song If Love Whispers Your Name, during which he went atomic on his guitar (click here for a version of this tune from three years ago, and note that RT’s long, amazing guitar solo begins at about the 3:20 mark).

Back to Bonnie. She is more than a Richard Thompson supporter. She said to the audience that he is one of her heroes, and brought him onstage in the middle of her set for two songs. In case you were wondering, the guy has a delicate side that adroitly examines life’s heartbreaks and mysteries in some of his quieter compositions, such as 1952 Vincent Black Lightning and Dimming Of The Day. To be sure, Dimming Of The Day is a remarkable creation. When in the correct hands it will stun you. Which is what occurred when Bonnie and Richard, each working an acoustic guitar, intertwined their voices in a heavenly manner and, totally deservedly, received the evening’s first standing O when Dimming’s final notes slipped into the air. A beautiful version, from some years ago, of Bonnie and Richard performing Dimming Of The Day exists on YouTube. By clicking here you will see what I mean.

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The Short And The Long Of It: Scattered Thoughts About Music

Tomaz oYou know, when earlier this summer I showered cyberspace with a three-part recap of my wife Sandy’s and my recent European frolics, I thought I was done with that subject. Next thing I knew, though, I was typing out a story that had its genesis during that same trip, in Amsterdam. In said story (which is viewable by clicking here) I wrote about the owner of a bistro we had dinner in. The restaurant’s name is Tomaz, and possibly the owner’s name is that too. But seeing that I don’t know for sure, I referred to him in the piece as Maybe It’s Tomaz. Man, I can’t believe it, but I’m about to talk about MIT again. Obviously it’s a good thing I met the guy, because he has become fodder for your frequently-devoid-of-story-ideas narrator. MIT, if by some fine miracle you ever read this post or the previous one in which you star, please know that I’m in your debt. Figuratively, not financially. Anyway, I’m certain you’d feel fully compensated by basking in the limelight that my epic tales place you within. Well, maybe limelight is too strong a word, considering that this blog is among the least-read publications on Planet Earth. Nevertheless, write I must. Or must I? I’ll have to think about that.

MIT became part of this article’s thought process the other day while I was listening to WXPN, a sharp radio station based in Philadelphia. They play so much music from so many genres, and know so much about music, it’s amazing. And the station always is trying to come up with cool ways of packaging its product. For example, during the other day that I mentioned, they hit upon a great idea. For hours on end they played only short songs. Short meaning under three minutes.

Now, I’m no music historian or researcher. My brain capacity, not to mention my patience, isn’t sufficient to take on either of those roles. However, I’m pretty sure that, before the hippie era bloomed in 1967, the bulk of recorded songs were under five minutes, and oodles of those — the truly short ones — topped out beneath three. This partly was due to the limited storage capacity of vinyl singles and albums. And there also were commercial considerations. Namely, if songs were short, then pop/Top 40 radio stations would be able to play a sizeable number of them per hour and still have plenty of time left over for ads. Things loosened up in many ways in and after the late 1960s, including the length of songs. To this day though, some still don’t surpass the three-minute mark.

3MinuteLogo riattrezzare-macchina-in-3-minutiOK, as with much of life, all of that is neither here nor there. Or is it? I’ll have to think about that one too. Getting back to WXPN, I listened on and off the other day for a total of an hour or so and was pleasantly blown away by all the great tunes that they spun. I’ll name a few (if you click on each title you’ll hear the songs). The Lovin’ Spoonful’s Do You Believe In Magic?. Paul McCartney’s Man We Was Lonely. The Box Tops’ The Letter. Patsy Cline’s I Fall To Pieces. Remember (Walking In The Sand) by The Shangri-Las. Each song has a wonderful melody, an alluring arrangement and is packed with feeling. And each satisfied my soul completely and then . . . bam! . . . was over just like that. They are perfect.

Would MIT have loved the XPN playlist as much as I? Let’s see. As Sandy and I ate in his restaurant, MIT and I gabbed away about music. Like me, MIT is a music nut. MIT piped sweet stuff through the restaurant’s speakers by Harry Manx, Jonathan Wilson and Israel Nash, artists I wasn’t familiar with (examples of their work are embedded in the aforementioned article in which MIT appears). The songs were on the long side (six minutes and up I think), transporting and satisfyingly spacey. And were, said MIT, typical of what he mostly listens to nowadays. He made a point to say that a song’s length, not just its style, was part of his selection method — he was into music that took its time telling a story. I liked the Manx, Wilson and Nash numbers. A lot. If I hadn’t been involved with swigging beers and downing a steak dinner, I might have laid my head on the table and gone on a magic carpet ride. Yes, I imagine that MIT would have said “yeah, terrific” about WXPN’s focus on the short the other day, but would have turned off the station after a bit and gone to Spotify or wherever to get his massive daily requirements of the long.

What’s my point, then? Good question. I’m likely to nab the trophy awarded to “The Person Who In 2016 Made The Most Obvious And Lame Observation” for the upcoming sentence, but here goes anyway: Music, as everyone knows, can be a joy and an inspiration and a release. (Oy. Let’s continue). The need for music is somehow built into the human genome. And my guess is that the need’s long form is the dominant gene. Really, not much is better than closing your eyes during a worthy, lengthy number, letting the sounds wash over you and take you on a journey. That’s true whether you’re listening to recorded music at home or on the go or grooving at a concert. On the other hand, there’s no denying the rush that just might overtake you from good songs that are oh so brief and tight. Me, I’ll keep listening to both the short and the long. And to whatever’s in between too.


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Not Your Average Family: A Review Of Captain Fantastic

IMG_0844A few weeks ago my wife Sandy and I ventured out to see Captain Fantastic. It’s an oddly named movie and quite a good one. Captain Fantastic is a tale about a family, the Cashes, that for many years has been living in semi-seclusion deep in Washington State mountain wilderness. Why? Because Ben and Leslie Cash, early in their adult lives, walked out mainstream American society’s exit door. They were turned off by, and wanted no part of, the USA’s big business and big government, and the wasteful and extravagant lifestyles of many of their fellow citizens. Self-sufficient and resourceful in their wooded paradise, they have grown their own food, hunted animals and fruitfully made their way. And, via unorthodox and vigorous home schooling, they have passed on their beliefs, skills and knowledge to their progeny, all six of them, the oldest of whom, a son, is about 17. Part hippies, part isolationists, part radical thinkers, Ben and Leslie have helmed what ain’t your average family, to say the least. Average, no. Smart, book-loving and full of spunk, yes. In other words, very likeable.

Give Me The Simple Life is on this album.
Give Me The Simple Life is on this album.

I wanted to write a story about Captain Fantastic shortly after seeing it. The story definitely was inside me, pawing to get out, but it just wouldn’t congeal. Still, I kept thinking about Captain Fantastic a little bit now and then while hoping for the arrival of a special something that would set a zippy analysis of CF in motion. Such occurred recently when I heard a song on the radio, vocalist Annie Ross’ 1959 version of Give Me The Simple Life, an All-American standard recorded by many over the years (click here to listen). Harry Ruby and Rube Bloom wrote this number around 1945, meaning it to be a paean to modesty in one’s approach to living, to being happy with a small abode, basic possessions and the ones you love. As such, it would make a fairly decent though incomplete theme song for the Cashes. But Annie Ross took big liberties with the Ruby-Bloom creation. Someone, maybe she, penned some additional lyrics that turned the original song on its head. Turns out that Annie had been playing with us. “Here’s what I really want,” she in effect sang in the tune’s closing verses. “Plenty of dough, a Cadillac, caviar and really nice clothes.”

Ben and Leslie Cash, had they ever heard Annie Ross’ take on Give Me The Simple Life, would have shaken their heads knowingly. “That’s the American way.” they’d have said. “F*ck that. This mountain is where we belong.”

Ah, if only things were that clear. If they were, life would be a breeze (and there’d be little for moviemakers to make movies about). But, duh, circumstances change and situations develop. And people, if they are wise and with it, choose to or are forced to adapt. Or at least contemplate the possibility of adapting.

At the start of Captain Fantastc, we see seven of the eight Cashes in action. All but Leslie, who has been away from the household for several months, a hospitalized victim of mental and emotional disturbances. In her absence Ben is fully in charge, leading his troops through the same rigorous activities as when Leslie was present: killing deer, climbing rock walls, reading and discussing books, to name a few. The Cashes, if anything, are, with exceptions, very well-rounded. One day, though, bad news reaches Ben. Leslie, his soul mate, took her life. Apparently troubled for a long time, she had soldiered on till the pain grew too intense.

Leslie, in her will, left specific instructions as to how her death is to be observed and how her body is to be disposed. The Cashes’ quest to honor her wishes takes them off-mountain, where they ram hard into modern American life. For the Cash offspring, supermarkets and video games and big houses, all of which they encounter, are disorienting. And for Ben, the temporary immersion in society makes him look at his kids anew. He and they love their mountain home, but is it ultimately a prison for the children? To truly blossom might they need to live among their countrymen, at least in some modified manner?

Plot-wise, I’ll say no more. Now it’s gripe time, which I’ll keep very short by mentioning only one of several quibbles: Maybe I missed something, which is likely, but I didn’t come away with a good understanding of when or why Leslie’s mental problems developed and grew. I thought that the presentation of this subject was more than a little confused and hard to follow. Like me.

Which awkwardly leads me to note that for eons I’ve been amazed by how many good movies are written and/or directed by persons whom I’ve never heard of before. That’s a reflection of the amount of talent out there, and also shows that I’ve got miles to travel if I ever hope to get back in the loop. All of which is a delayed way of saying that Matt Ross wrote and directed the good Captain. As for actors who do a great job, well, everyone shines in Captain Fantastic. Viggo Mortensen, whom I do know about, gets far more screen time than anyone else. He has no trouble revealing the many moods and facets of Ben Cash. And George McKay too is wonderful. Previously an unknown to me, he plays Ben and Leslie’s sweet and low-in-certain-life-experiences oldest child.

Movie fans, that’s a wrap.

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I Won An Award! (Sort Of)

Folks, this is a post I never anticipated writing. It has nothing to do with what my blog’s about, whatever that might be. And at first I wasn’t going to write these words at all, but then I took a look at the smiling face of blogger April Greene and was charmed into proceeding.

liebsterYou see, a number of years ago someone out there in the blogging community came up with the idea that bloggers would do well to recognize and encourage and promote their peers. Can’t argue with that. And that same someone decided that a good way for this to happen would be for newish bloggers to bestow an award upon other newish bloggers. And that same someone, as far as I know, also named the award. The Liebster Award, that’s what it’s called. Why Liebster?  Who knows? The award’s origins are about as clear as the waters of the Ganges River. In other words, not. Whatever, Liebster Awards have been granted to oodles of bloggers over the years. And April Greene, an excellent writer whose blog and smiling face may be viewed by clicking right here, has nominated me for (meaning, she has awarded me) a Liebster. Thanks, April, for thinking of me.

Wouldn’t you know it, though? This whole Liebster thing is a form of a chain letter, so it’s kind of a pain. More than kind of, actually. Yet, at this point I’m pretty happily playing along because, as April Greene mentioned on her website, Liebster Awards are all about spreading the love. OK, I’m ready! Let’s go!

As part of the chain I am expected to nominate other bloggers for the Liebster. I shall do so, but I totally understand if my nominees decide to bag it and break the chain, which is what my initial reaction was. In any case, let me mention that I look periodically at many relatively new blogs, of which loads are worthy of recognition. I wrote the names of those worthies on pieces of paper, placed the pieces in a big bowl and randomly pulled out three. They are my nominees. There are plenty of real good articles to read in those three blogs, as you will discover by clicking on the following links:

Runaway American Dream          Speaking Of Life         Bookmark

Naturally, the Liebster Awards come with various rules that seem to have evolved over the years without firm consensus as to what are the rules. For the sake of making things somewhat easier and less time-consuming, I’m going to modify the rules once again by reducing the number of hoops a Liebster nominee need jump through.

Most versions of Liebster’s regulations ask nominees to answer 11 questions posed to them by their nominators, and to nominate 11 bloggers for the Liebster. To that I say: “Huh? Who’s got all day to do this stuff?” And thusly if any or all of my nominees decide to accept the Liebster from me, and by so doing decide to keep the ol’ chain in motion, they need answer only three questions. And I suggest that they propel the Liebster mechanism by nominating no more than three bloggers.

And now for a Q & A session. Complying with her duties as a Liebster nominator, April Greene asked 11 questions of me, per the instructions she received from her nominator. Here are her Qs with my As attached:

  1. What’s the coolest award you’ve ever gotten? (You can say the Liebster Award if you want.) —  Hey, I’ve been awardless till now, so Liebster it is.
  2. When did you last ride a public bus? — I only take limos.
  3. Have you ever slipped when getting out of the shower and felt older than you actually are? — No comment.
  4. Which of your childhood friends are you saddest to have lost touch with, and what do you think they’re doing now? — My teddy bear. He’s exploring Antarctica these days.
  5. Honestly: Do you really consider it the three-second rule? Have you ever extended it to more seconds? If so, how many? — Thousands upon thousands.
  6. Why do you think all those houseplants have died under your care? — How did you know?
  7. Please describe the time you sung most humiliatingly in public. — It would take too long.
  8. Best popcorn topping. Go. — I like the classics (ketchup and mustard).
  9. Would you rather dream of a spider infestation or a snake infestation? Why? — Yuck!
  10. What is your least favorite color? Explain. — Only my psychiatrist is privy to this.
  11. Should 7-Eleven have discontinued their Sour Patch Watermelon Slurpee flavor? Why or why not? — No. The masses will revolt.

Moving right along, I now am obliged to ask questions of my nominees. I’m not feeling smart-alecky anymore, so the questions will be legit.

  1. What television series, if any, are you currently watching?
  2. What are your favorite fruits?
  3. What are your hobbies?

Finally, as guidelines for my nominees I’m supposed to list the Liebster Award’s general rules and regs. Here goes:

Once you accept a nomination, you are asked to complete the following steps:
– Create a post in your blog displaying the Liebster Award logo
– In that post, thank and link to the blogger who nominated you
– In that post, answer the questions assigned by the blogger who nominated you
– In that post, nominate new favorite bloggers for the Liebster Award
– In that post, come up with a list of questions for your nominees
– In that post, provide rules/instructions for your nominees in re accepting the award
– Notify the nominees
– Post your Liebster blog post link in the comments of your nominator’s Liebster post

If anyone out there has read all of this, my condolences.

Normal programming will resume with my next article.

I Was Destined To See Israel Nash In Concert, Wasn’t I?

IMG_0842Everything was going smoothly. The train I’d boarded in the suburbs deposited me in downtown Philadelphia at 8:30 PM. Four minutes later the blazing neon sign of one of rock and roll’s heavenly venues, MilkBoy Philly, stared me in the face. I snapped its picture. Then I entered MilkBoy and climbed the stairs to the second floor music hall. A band was playing, undoubtedly the opening act. They were loud, man, loud. I stopped two stairs shy of the top and took in the scene, the little of it that I could make out. The place was so dark my eyes would’ve performed no worse in the dead of night in Amazonian jungles. One light, the only light anywhere near me, turned towards me. It was attached to the forehead of the keeper of the gate, the guy who used the light to check IDs and sell tickets at the top of the stairs, and maybe to do some mining in his spare moments. I couldn’t make out his face or body. “How’s it going? Didya find any promising coal seams tonight?” I almost started to say, but decided against it. In half an hour or so, no doubt, I’d be watching Israel Nash in concert. Destiny, which had begun spinning its threads five weeks earlier, was playing out. That’s a swell word, isn’t it? Destiny. How sweetly it rolls off the tongue.

Here’s where this little saga began: On the final night of our stay in Amsterdam in June, my wife Sandy and I had dinner in a great, intimate place named Tomaz. A gastropub is what we’d call it in the States, but I don’t know if that term is used in The City Of Canals And Marijuana. Hardly matters. Sandy drank wine, I downed a couple of beers, and we each had a steak dinner and, for dessert, a chocolately, moussey concoction. A delicious meal. Our waiter was the bistro’s owner. I didn’t ask his name, but maybe it’s Tomaz.

Anyway, Maybe It’s Tomaz is a music lover. Has been for decades, like me. As soon as Sandy and I sat down I was taken with the song playing in the restaurant. I commented on this to MIT. “That’s Israel Nash,” he said. The tune was the type that will carry you away on a long, spacey ride. MIT purposely had programmed it, via Spotify, because, as MIT told me, the music he liked best these days are the dreamy, atmospheric sorts that emerge from various just-so combinations of country, folk, rock, blues and sometimes other styles. And he mentioned two more practitioners of the amorphous genre whom, as with Nash, I’d heard of but knew next to nothing about: Harry Manx and Jonathan Wilson. MIT played multiple tracks by all of them for my listening pleasure. Between bites and between conversation with Sandy and MIT, I half-listened to the songs. And eventually Sandy and I bid our music-drenched host our adieus.

Back home in the States I did some barebones research into Messieurs Nash, Manx and Wilson and checked out a handful of their tunes on YouTube. What I heard sounded very good (click here and here and here for the smallest of samples). Perhaps I’d get to see one or more of them on stage some day. That would be nice, I thought. And then my short attention span kicked in and I moved on to other important topics, such as pondering how many new varieties of Cheez-Its I might give a whirl, and whether my shampooing regimen needed an update.

I should have seen it coming. A few weeks ago, checking out a local music website, the name Israel Nash jumped out at me. Good gawdalmighty, he would be at MilkBoy in three days, it indicated. And when, in the blink of an eye, the third day arrived I looked at MilkBoy’s website to see when the show would begin. The site said 7 PM. What? The last time a show began that early at a rock club was . . . well, never. Must be a misprint. I called MilkBoy for clarification. No answer. Called again and again and again. No one picked up. It figured.

But I had a good feeling all along. It wasn’t by chance that five weeks earlier I had heard, for the first time ever, a song by Israel Nash. And in a foreign land, no less. Some elusive guiding force had befriended me that night in MIT’s restaurant and was leading me to the proper culmination of the storyline. I was meant to see Israel Nash in concert. At MilkBoy.

“Who’s this? The opening act?” I inquired of the gatekeeper. The light attached to his forehead was tremendously focused. Only a few strands of illumination were able to make their ways sidewards. But those faint rays revealed to me that MilkBoy was incredibly packed with human bodies. That night, the phrase Standing Room Only didn’t apply. Standing Room Nearly Impossible did. Not only that, the air was thicker than thick with perspiration and other inspired body odors. Any high school gym’s boys’ locker room smelled a lot better.

“No, this is Israel Nash,” said the man with the light. “He has only half an hour left in his set. Do you have a ticket?”

“Uh,” I mumbled, and turned around. Down the stairs I went.

So, what’s the thrust of this story? Is there a moral? Something to be learned? Well, those questions usually are pretty much out of my league. I’m not all that bright. However, I have a half-decent answer in this case: When destiny appears to be knocking on your door, do what the man with the light would do — check its ID.

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