Music For All Ages, But Mostly Babies

“Music has charms to soothe a savage breast.”

-William Congreve, “The Mourning Bride,” 1697

That quote has, over the years, been paraphrased into something like “music soothes the savage beast.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!) But here, in this space, I always strive for as much accuracy as a two-minute Google search can provide. You’re welcome in advance, and maybe you’ll win Final Jeopardy! one day if you can remember this.

Remember this face, and remember that he's not William Shakespeare.
Remember this face, and remember that he’s not William Shakespeare.

Anyway, it’s no secret among parenting circles that music is a very powerful resource for soothing babies, savage ones or otherwise, and it seems the consensus is that the earlier you get them started, the better. Many of the baby classes Gina and I went to discussed and recommended playing music for our child while he was still in the womb, which is pretty much as early as you can get. There’s no definitive research that this will actually make babies smarter, even though there’s evidence that they can actually hear and react to it, but if playing Chopin or Led Zeppelin or Johnny Cash can do anything at all to increase his odds of becoming our meal ticket to a gold-plated retirement, I say “go for it!”

In truth, this was the easiest item to check off our pre-baby list. Both Gina and I are listening to music of all kinds for several hours every day, and though we usually don’t crank very much up in the evenings, you can’t always rule out an impromptu dance party in our house based on some tune we can’t get out of our heads. But since I play in our church band, I’m usually trying to rehearse the songs at least once or twice a week, and of course there are weekends or evenings when I just feel like grabbing the guitar and playing a bunch of covers. And to top it off, in a painstakingly slow manner, I’m also writing my own original material. You’ve got the radio, YouTube clips, movie scores, singing in the shower, humming along to that song one of us heard in the grocery store… suffice it to say, Noah was – and still is – exposed to a variety of music.

And you know what? It really does make a difference. On the days when I’m watching him alone, if he’s being really fussy, all I have to do is pick up the guitar or mandolin and he calms right down. The only slight problem with this is that once I start, I cannot stop the sound of the instrument for even a split second or the wailing will begin anew. This leads to a lot of half-formed chords and banging noises in between songs, or maybe me just speak-singing to a generally awful-sounding dissonance while I fumble to remember the next tune or cue up a new tab. It sounds like a crappy premise for an action movie, but maybe now I know how Sandra Bullock’s character in Speed 2 felt?

Because Speed 2 was superior to the first movie, which was already a cinematic classic, in every aspect.
Because Speed 2 was superior to the first movie, which was already a cinematic classic, in every aspect.

I discovered this magical coping technique at about the right time, a couple of months ago, and it saved us from many extended bouts of fussy baby. Now I make sure an instrument is handy at all times, which is quicker than even cuing up a song on my phone.

The other new musical aspect of our home is what I’ll call “vocal transitions.” Does Noah need to go take a bath? To make that whole process more fun, let’s sing as we go from the play-yard to the tub! Does Noah need to calm down late at night in the nursery? We’ve got your lullabies covered. Does Noah have a dirty diaper? Let’s sing about it as we change him!

Spend a little time in our house these days and you are 100% more likely to hear a song about poop. A terrible song, yes, but perhaps entertaining for the sheer inanity of it. But really, we’re only playing to our one biggest fan, and so far he’s easy to please. Consider a recent composition by Gina:

“Poopy-oopy-oopy in your pants, pants, pants
Poopy-oopy-oopy in your pants”

I mean, it’s not Dylan, but it’ll do.

This is all well and good, but now we have a new problem: we haven’t yet figured out what to do now when Noah makes ear-piercing noise even when he’s not upset. A typical day in our house now consists of a few seconds of blessed silence that are quickly shredded by high-pitched yells with all the volume his five-year-old lungs can muster. NOAH WANTS TO BE HEARD! Gina calls it “testing out his voice.” I can verify that it works. And yeah yeah yeah, I know, it’s only going to get worse until we can start to teach him about the concept of “volume.” When I had a fever and an accompanying headache recently, that wouldn’t have been welcome advice.

Until that glorious day when Noah discovers his inside voice, picks up an instrument or two, practices a ton, gets famous, and is our meal ticket out of here, I guess we’ll be content with the lot we have… and singing about poop.

Choosing A Mandolin Is Not As Easy As It Seems

Earlier this year, after my birthday, I decided to treat myself to a new instrument using some saved-up Guitar Center gift cards. Any musician can immediately identify with the internal struggle this type of decision ignites. There’s a kind of universal law, I think originally posited in Germany in 1879, that says (loosely translated from the original German) “a man cannot own just one instrument of choice, for upon purchasing an instrument he must soon own one of a different color, style, shape, or rare vintage to hang on a wall and admire knowingly.”

Well, thankfully for my budget, I don’t subscribe to that law. I don’t hang my instruments on walls. Who has time for that?

So anyway, after some soul searching and several wasted afternoons prowling the Guitar Center – which isn’t easy because it’s all the way out in Seven Corners and who has time to drive all the way out there and if I’m going to do it, I might as well spend the whole afternoon there and pick up some strings and picks while I’m at it to not make the trip a total waste, and you know the first one’s always free but I can stop any time I want – I narrowed my choices to a five-string bass, a banjo, or a mandolin.

I consider my primary instrument to be the bass, and yet I still only own the one I’ve had since high school. It’s a four-string Yamaha that has never led me astray. So branching out to a nice five-string held a certain allure, though it felt a little like betrayal. A big fat six-string bass was also an option, but let’s face it, those are overkill, and I can only imagine they give you carpal tunnel. I decided I wanted something brand new.

That left the two folkier instruments. Given my West Virginian upbringing bluegrass, gospel, and folk have never been far from my heart, even when I wouldn’t want to admit it. But now all of those genres are cool, and even if they weren’t, I wouldn’t care. But it does help that many of my latest favorite bands use a healthy dose of both in their songs.

But which to choose?

Looking from the aspect of idols, musicians I admire, didn’t really help. Banjo has Bela Fleck; mandolin has Chris Thile. Both are awesome, and I inherently knew I’d never get anywhere close to their levels of talent. Any other deciding factor, like number of strings or size, seemed immaterial.

I wish I could say I had a moment of clarity where the one came floating down to me in a ray of light, but there was nothing so clear-cut as that. In the end, I chose the mandolin, for no good reason, really. I settled for an entry-level Washburn “Mando-pak” (I’ve since learned that the mandolin players’ community likes to preface lots of words with “Mando” and that the cool kids refer to the instrument that way). You can see my mando below. That sounds dirty.

Just waiting to be played.
Just waiting to be played.

Anyway, my mother-in-law got me a Mandolin for Dummies book to go with it, and I’ve been off to the races ever since, slowly but surely. For some reason, most recently it’s been much, much more slowly – more like a dead stop – but at least it’s something that can challenge me for years to come. In the coming weeks, I’ll reflect on my experiences in learning to play. For now, I can definitively say that the “mando” is a lot of fun. I think this is the beginning of something beautiful and folky.

The Perils of a Music Collection

Back when mp3’s were new, hard disk space was still at a premium, and you were basically limited to listening to music files straight from your computer unless you had an external hard drive (which to me were rare in the early 21st century) or a CD-R drive. When I got my first computer with such a drive back in late 2000, I finally had the capability to make that staple of all music lovers in the early ’00s: the mix CD. My process back then was pretty simple: every time I would buy a bunch of CDs, I would listen to them enough to decide which were my favorite five or six songs on each that would likely make it onto a mix CD at some point, and only rip those to my computer. This practice continued throughout the Napster and post-Napster phases of college (where I still continued to buy CDs while simultaneously discovering whole new worlds of music on Napster and its derivatives). Finally, hard drives got huge enough that space was no longer an issue, so I began ripping whole darn albums.

Fourteen years later (give or take a few months), I’m trying to make sure my entire music collection is ripped to my computer. Now, what seemed like a prudent idea back when I could back up all of “My Documents” on a single CD is causing me a bit of a headache. I may own the full album, but only a few songs of it might actually be on my hard drive. I never even ripped some of my earliest purchases. Not even iTunes Match can help with that, since there’s no record of me buying it through iTunes. What’s more, I ripped songs at a much lower quality back then, and for the obscure stuff, again not even iTunes Match can help upgrade them. Sure, for some of these albums I could buy them again on iTunes and save some hassle, but that would literally cost me hundreds of dollars. I opted for the low-dollar but high-time-consuming route, involving a massive spreadsheet and cross-references with my iTunes library. For those who know me, it isn’t really surprising that I went this way.

As a result, over the last few months, I’ve gradually been taking trips through time with my music collection and filling in the gaps, so to speak. I decided it wasn’t just enough to get the files on my computer. I wanted to listen to each song as I went along, as well.

I’m dusting off long-forgotten albums, and since I usually didn’t listen to the full album much after ripping my top tracks to the computer in those days, I’m basically discovering brand new music that in some cases I’ve owned for nearly twenty years and probably haven’t heard for at least ten. It’s a cool feeling, with some real surprises mixed in. Who remembered that Jamiroquai’s Travelling Without Moving was such a funky album underneath all that electronica? I don’t think I fully appreciated it when I first bought it in high school, but it probably subconsciously affected my bass playing as much as the Red Hot Chili Peppers did. On the flip side, there have been a couple of albums (The New Radicals come to mind) where I began to question my self-worth and entire musical well-being as I struggled to make it through the deep album cuts. They might be candidates for being deleted later on, though I usually try to take the good with the bad.

I guess I’m preparing myself for the eventual complete demise of the CD. I will go down fighting in that war. But in going through this project, I’ve been reminded of two once-common CD features that we will surely lose in the all-digital-music era that awaits us:

  1. The mysterious “hidden track zero,” or a song hidden in the pregap of the CD. Do you remember these? I guess this was more or less a gimmick, but on a few albums, you could rewind “before” the first track and hear something hidden that the band left for the curious fan. I was surprised to see that my CD-ripping program found several of these that I didn’t even know about. Of course Wikipedia has a meticulously compiled list of albums that have them. Most of them appear to be about sex and drugs. There’s no way you can get quite the same sense of discovery and entertainment in iTunes, is there?
  2. Hidden tracks at the end of albums. Most of the time, these end up making the last track of an album twenty minutes long, only to reward those who listen to (or skip through) fifteen minutes of silence to listen to a couple of minutes of random noise with a few instruments. Sometimes, like “#34” on Under The Table And Dreaming, they are placed after several tracks of silence. You can somewhat get away with this in iTunes, but really the jig is up if someone notices the last track is insanely longer than the rest of your album. I think most artists just list these as “bonus tracks” or even “hidden tracks” right up front, which is a nice oxymoron.

Both of these are twists on bands doing the same thing on vinyl albums, rewards for the diligent or for those who forgot the album was over and left their turntables running, only to get scared witless when music started up again out of the blue.

Study it VERY carefully. (Source: ultimateclassicrock.com)

But if I’m not mistaken, if you look close enough at a vinyl record, you can tell where there is music and where there is silence. Not so much with a factory-pressed CD. So, I suppose we’ll have to look back on this as a quirk of a bygone era, until people come up with a way to “attach” a second music file to another music file so that it is invisible but overrides the music player to cause the hidden song to play a specified amount of time after the first song is over.

On second thought, that sounds an awful lot like a virus, but maybe that’s what we need. Get on it, people!

Austin Trip Notes

Several cities in the U.S. have a sort of reputation about them – that “one thing” that even the geographically challenged know about the place. Las Vegas equals gambling, for instance, just like San Francisco equals the Golden Gate and Full House and, um, being just all-around awesome, I guess. Well, for me, Austin, Texas has meant music, ever since I first caught Stevie Ray Vaughan on Austin City Limits back in high school. Back in the fall, I joined Gina on a work trip there as a sort of mini-vacation and scouting trip. What I found is that Austin does equal live music, but it’s also much more.

Our first night there, a Saturday, we heeded the collective consciousness and walked from our hotel down to Austin’s (in)famous Sixth Street. Based on a bunch of Yelp reviews, I was prepared for a den of salaciousness and hedonism, with bars at every turn, naked people freely walking the streets, dogs and cats living together – basically a Texas-sized version of Bourbon Street. What we got instead was a possibly more varied version of a college-town Saturday night, mostly due to the University of Texas’s main campus being blocks away (which was another surprise to me).

Sure, there were bars everywhere, each blasting live music of every conceivable genre, so that if you wanted to hear, say, some punk folk on any given night, you could probably find it somewhere on Sixth Street. There were ingenious pizza windows operated out of the side of restaurants in order to feed the drunken masses into the wee hours, as well as representatives of the omnipresent Austin food trucks on several corners. The population we saw was a mix of good-ol’-boys still dressed for the football game that afternoon, sorority girls, frat boys, hipsters, hippies, punks, Goths – nothing too shocking. Maybe we were just there on an off-night. But all in all, it was a cool vibe, and some of the most famous and historic clubs in the South are all within a few blocks of where we walked. As it turned out, due to the timing of our trip there was basically no band playing that I wanted to go out of my way to see, so despite my visit to the Live Music Capital of The World, I did not hear much live music in its entirety. That’s something I’ll have to fix on a return visit.

While my live music habit was ultimately neglected, my recorded music needs were met quite nicely by a trip to iconic Waterloo Records. Upon entering Waterloo, I knew I was at home. Though I’ve always dabbled in virtually every genre, if I had to plot my current musical tastes on a map, they would fall directly on Austin. The eclectic mixture of blues, jazz, country, folk, Americana, and rock that comes out of so many Austin artists is something that my friend Stuart and I were unwittingly emulating all throughout our teens and twenties as we carved our musical tastes out of small-town West Virginia. I’ve lamented in this space before about the demise of the American record store, and I’m sure this won’t be the last time I write about it, but it makes me happy that places like Waterloo and Bull Moose up in Maine still exist and seem to be thriving. I’m hopeful there’s enough of a niche market of music geeks that will still want to own albums and treasure their music for a lifetime, instead of just streaming the latest Beyonce album on Spotify and forgetting about it a few weeks later, that will keep this part of the industry alive. Anyway, I’ll get off my soapbox to say that I dropped some money on some great albums at Waterloo, which had some great deals and tons of stuff from local artists that is tough to find anywhere else, even on Amazon and iTunes.

When Gina and I felt that we’d experienced the musical side of Austin well enough for a weekend, we explored the foodie side of the city. Across the street from Waterloo stands the flagship Whole Foods store, which was founded in 1980 and is still headquartered in Austin. We don’t do a lot of shopping at Whole Foods here at home, mainly due to convenience and price, but if all of them were like this flagship location we could completely sustain ourselves without ever leaving the store. It easily surpassed Wegman’s in terms of experience, though if you start by imagining an all-organic-food Wegman’s and go from there, you kind of get the idea. There were areas for creating your own custom-made soup mixes, trail mixes, and/or nut butters. The produce section extended beyond the horizon line, featuring every vegetable. I mean, I had no idea there were a dozen different varieties of sweet potato, but they all were represented there. Fresh pork BBQ was being slow roasted in the middle of the store, filling the aisles with that unmistakably American aroma. A full-service coffee bar, smoothie and juice counter, and hot entrees were all available. It was impossible to leave there without buying something to eat.

That's a nice potato.
That’s a healthy potato.

Fulfilling a Texas requirement, we also dined at one of the local BBQ fixtures later in the weekend: Ruby’s. While not the top-ranked BBQ in Austin, an honor that seems to drive locals into a very lively conversation as to which establishment is worthy of the title, Ruby’s was very good. I could have had my own miniature Meatfest there. Between that, a classy dinner at the historic Driskill Hotel, some tasty Mai Thai before we left town, and lunch on our first day at the Yelp-recommended Taqueria Don Mario out near Lake Austin, we sampled a pretty nice variety of Texas cuisine. We also got dessert at local favorite Amy’s Ice Creams, though in the end we weren’t that impressed with it.

Given my passion for food trucks here in DC, I ventured out on my own one afternoon to get some lunch from some kind, any kind, of truck. The only hard part was choosing, since a guy can basically trip on one food truck in Austin and fall on another. I settled for Turf & Surf, a place that wasn’t so much a truck as a walk-up window attached to a restaurant, but the fish tacos and hush puppies I had were tremendous.

Aside from the food and the music, we also did a fair bit of traditional sightseeing around Austin in the short time we had. What struck me about the scenery was how green and hilly the Austin area is, completely different from the stereotypical Texas tumbleweeds-and-flatland further north. The Colorado River helps with that, as several scenic lakes dot the area. Gina and I toured Zilker Park and the famous Barton Springs. The Springs were closed due to both the off-season and recent flooding, but it was neat to see the literal town swimming hole. We rode the Zilker Zephyr, a miniature railroad snaking through part of the park, just to have something to do. It was a nice diversion for a few minutes. The park itself is huge and dotted with all sorts of sports fields and green spaces. If it had been a bit warmer that day, we could have spent a lot more time there. And again, if the timing of our trip had been different and Gina hadn’t been creeped out by the idea, we would have certainly stopped to see the daily flight of the Congress Avenue Bridge bats. Maybe next time.

While Gina was working, I also spent a few hours at the LBJ Presidential Library on the UT campus. This was my first presidential library visit, so I didn’t know what to expect, nor did I have any basis for comparison. I can say that I had a good and educational time. My favorite exhibit was a touchscreen / phone interface where you could listen to many of LBJ’s then-private phone calls to various Congressmen and journalists. In each, you could hear his signature style of politicking to sway the listener to his point of view on the issue of the day, all in that Texas drawl. The mid-60’s mock-up of the Oval Office was also a treat. As I hope all presidential libraries do, I believe the curators did a fine job of presenting all aspects of his presidency, warts and all. I look forward to reading more about him one of these days.

So there you have it. Before we knew it, our time in Austin was over, but not before impressing me like few other cities have. Great food, a hefty touch of weirdness, strong individuality, culture, history, and great music? Austin and I are going to be good friends.

Check out the slideshow below for some photos from the weekend.

Carbon Leaf at the Hamilton: Concert Review

I promise this blog isn’t going to turn into a concert review site (though that would be cool). It’s just that July turned into the best month in recent years for concerts. I caught most of my top 10 favorite bands in July, and I don’t think that’s ever happened before. Anyway, onto the review, which is as much about the venue as it is the band.

Gerritt, Melanie, and I recently caught the Virginia band Carbon Leaf at the still-shiny-new venue in downtown DC called The Hamilton Live, or just “The Hamilton” to those in the know, although apparently the latter refers simultaneously to both the whole space and, more specifically, to the full-service sit-down restaurant on street level. There’s also a loft upstairs featuring a bar and a small stage for local acts. The main stage that’s hosted such  musically awesome and diverse live acts as Mavis Staples, Shovels & Rope, Chubby Checker, and Sam Bush is downstairs.

The Hamilton is owned and operated by Clyde’s Restaurant Group, which should immediately give you a frame of reference for what to expect. Located in the space once occupied by the cavernous downtown Borders, Clyde’s has filled in and renovated the property to be completely unrecognizable. As The Hamilton, you feel like you’re entering a swanky 19th century hotel, with dining room after dining room and ornate stairwells everywhere. We joked that you could probably make a whole evening out of simply wandering the twists and turns of the hallways.

The closest local analogies I can think of when it comes to the The Hamilton Live’s downstairs music venue are The Birchmere and Arlington Cinema ‘N’ Drafthouse, in that all three offer general admission seating with restaurant-style tables that provide full-service food and drink during the course of the show. The difference with The Hamilton is that the menu is a simplified version of what you might find in any Clyde’s, so while it’s slightly more expensive than grabbing a burger from The Birchmere, it’s also higher quality and a bit more diverse (and, one would hope, consistently better quality top to bottom, though I’ll have to wait until I go there more often to vote on that). I had the spicy crab pizza and scarfed down the whole thing.

Being new, The Hamilton does still has some kinks to work out. The ordering system relies on the waiters’ handheld tablets, and a couple of times through the evening we were offered food that wasn’t ours. One of our drinks were lost along the way, forcing us to re-order them. This happens at any restaurant occasionally, so the tablets don’t seem to really improve anything other than to look cool. But the staff is very attentive and apologetic.

The room itself is beautiful, and the acoustics for the show were great with a couple of exceptions. It seemed like the sound guy had trouble finding the right levels once the room was packed, though that got better after the first few songs, and the noise traveling from the bar was distracting during the show’s quieter moments.

Carbon Leaf itself was top-notch as usual, playing a mostly acoustic set during a short tour while they finish up their new album in September. I was introduced to Carbon Leaf in college, and they have definitely shown some staying power as the years have gone on. They’re what I would call a quintessential Virginia band, taking some of the best influences of Virginia music and infusing them with tight instrumentation and introspective, poetic lyrics. Throughout their career, they’ve delved in the Celtic rock arena for a couple of songs here and there, but they’ve most recently released a full album in that genre, Ghost Dragon Attacks Castle, which I highly recommend if you want to instantly be transported to Ireland or need a few new 6/8 time drinking songs. But really, any Carbon Leaf show can do the same thing while musically embodying all that Virginia has to offer, so go see them live when you can.

The band closed their set with an unplugged performance steps away from where we were sitting, so I was able to do my first shaky iPhone video of one of my favorite bands up-close and post it to YouTube. I’ll close with that very video for your enjoyment: