Album Review: Trigger Hippy, “Trigger Hippy” (2014)

(In the manner of The Black Crowes Album Project we’ll be featuring two reviews of the new Trigger Hippy album today. The first is by me and the second by our old friend Don Lane.)

Mitch’s review:

One of my favorite topics, when discussing music with other music obsessives, is the role of the album in modern music. Growing up in the 70s & 80s the album was the standard. Bands put out a new record every year or two. It was your only connection with them, unless you were lucky enough to catch a live show. Some albums were overt concept albums, but most were just a snapshot of a moment in time. The album was an artistic statement – the best 10 songs the artist had to offer at that moment. We’d pore over everything: the songs, the cover art, the liner notes, the labels and the inserts, all in an attempt to experience everything we could about the artist. It was all we had.

In the CD era “albums” became bloated, with most clocking in at 70 minutes and filler becoming all too common. Every album was a double. Do you realize that the Rolling Stones’ “A Bigger Bang” is the same length as “Exile on Main Street”? Guess what? I listened to “Exile on Main Street”. I loved “Exile on Main Street”.  “A Bigger Bang” is no “Exile on Main Street”.

So when digital downloads displaced CDs the culture moved from albums to singles, content to buy the song they wanted unbundled from the filler. Or more accurately, the culture returned to buying singles, which is where it all started, with 45s.

And so the album, the perfectly designed and curated expression of an artist, became a relic. But perhaps what made the album so wonderful wasn’t the vinyl itself (prone to scratches and warping) but the length? Perhaps 2x 20 minute sides is the exact right length for a musical journey? Perhaps there was some magic in the creativity required to pick and sequence the exact songs for your release?

*

The reason I ponder the role of the album in a singles era is because our old friends in Trigger Hippy have just released a full-length debut as a follow-up to their 2013 debut EP. Both are eponymously titled, so I guess we’ll have to go by the old Peter Gabriel rules and call the first one “rainy windshield” and this one “melty face” (or was “scratchy screen” #2? I forget.)

When I first heard that Trigger Hippy was going to release a full-length I thought it was unnecessary. Why not just release EPs on a quarterly basis, promote singles via streaming and radio, and tour, tour, tour?

But after listening to the album, really listening to the album 50+ times, I realized that my thinking was backwards. I was approaching it from a business standpoint, worrying about trends in sales and consumption. I wasn’t thinking about it from a creative perspective, from an artistic perspective. I saw it as a “release” instead of a “statement”. I fell into the dangerous trap of thinking of music as a commodity to be bought and sold, rather than the expression of 5 individuals’ souls.

The reason that Trigger Hippy made this album, and the reason you need to hear this album, is because it’s a wonderfully complete artistic statement. These 11 songs build upon the 4 we heard last year (all 4 songs from the EP are included on the LP). They add extra dimension and texture to our understanding of what this band is all about. They allow the band to paint a full picture of who they are, both as individuals and as a band, and I’m really grateful for that. There’s no filler here and there’s no song that I would cut from the album.

**

There’s nothing I like more than being proven wrong, and I’m glad to be proven wrong about the vitality of full-length albums in the digital era. There’s clearly a need for albums that are made for the right artistic reasons. There’s always room for art, even if there isn’t always room for product.

The other beautiful thing about a well-crafted album is that there’s an oft-forgotten space between singles and filler. There are always those wonderful songs, those B-sides that may not appeal to everyone, but will most likely be someone’s favorite song. As Trigger Hippy sings in ‘Heartache on the Line’: “it ain’t every thing we asked for but it’s everything we need.” In other words, sometimes we don’t always know what we need, sometimes it’s better to have a little faith and take what is given and be open to the unexpected. And maybe what we’ve lost in the modern singles era is an appreciation for the great songs that will never be singles.

I’ve written before about Trigger Hippy so I don’t need to spend much space talking about their virtuosity as musicians. Individually they’re all amazing players. Steve Gorman is the kind of drummer you want to build a band around, playing exactly what the song requires. Nick Govrik is a killer bass player, propelling the songs, plus he sings damn well (which has to be intimidating in this band). Tom Bukovac is my kind of guitar player, who know how to attack without overplaying. Joan Osborne has a seductive voice of strength and beauty. Jackie Greene is a prodigy on guitar, keys and harp, plus he’s got a great, soulful voice.

But what matters most is how they play together and how they balance their individual strengths. They’re clearly a band that respects and loves each other. They’re having a musical conversation that we’re lucky enough to be privy to.

The album consists entirely of originals and the songs are universally solid musically and lyrically. And while we’ve known for years that Jackie Greene can write a great tune, the real revelation on this album is Nick Govrik. When listening to the Nick songs I think of none other than Gene Clark. Like Gene, Nick writes songs that are deceptively simple but contain layers and multitudes. Some writers possess an innate skill to comment on the human condition, to turn phrases that ring true, that demonstrate a depth and wisdom that belie their accessibility.

Thematically, the song cycle speaks of love and loss, but from a mature perspective. These are songs written from the perspective of experience, of relationships of substance and time spent together. While there’s still plenty of passion there’s also a sense of satisfaction in understanding the importance of fidelity and living life together, of raising a family and weathering the challenges of life. This is rock and roll, but it’s not teenage lust or young adult angst. This is rock and rock with depth.

***

“Rise Up Singing” is a perfect opening number for the album. It’s like they dropped the soul gauntlet, announcing what you’ll hear – sweet organ, nice guitar (that little strum throughout is just perfect), supportive rhythm, and two intertwined voices. It’s the kind of song that feels fresh and timeless and is a beautiful invitation to the record.

“Turpentine” funks it up, with those twin guitars and that delicious Byrds-y chime in the chorus. (Please note that everyone loves chiming Byrds-y guitars. REM made a career copping that sound).

“Heartache on the Line” is a phenomenal mid-tempo ballad. I’ve loved this song from the first time I heard it and still can’t get enough of it. It’s tasteful, it’s subdued and it’s gorgeous. The lyrics are wonderful. And the fade out is aces.

“Cave Hill Cemetery” is a country blues tune with a gritty, dirty, fantastic lead vocal by Joan. The organ and guitar are sweet throughout but this song is all about Joan.

“Tennessee Mud” is a nice rocker but what really makes it is one little touch – Jackie’s little bridge at 1:50 – that just takes the song to the next level. Trigger Hippy is full of those little touches and moments that really help a tune reach lift-off and Jackie really brings it this time.

“Pretty Mess” is exhibit A in why I compare Nick Govrik to Gene Clark. How can something so simple be so beguiling? How can something so sweet be so affecting? Jackie and Joan both deliver perfect lead vocals. This is a truly special song.

“Pocahantas” is another rocker, this one with a funky “Trampled Underfoot” vibe. It’s a fun tune, featuring another strong Joan vocal, and some nice solos.

“Dry County” is the tour de force. It’s got the build up & release structure of a “classic” grunge tune but with a pure Americana vibe. The band shows incredible restraint on this tune, taking it slow and resisting the urge to explode until the right time. And when Jackie’s harp finally comes in at 4:30, he drops a perfect riff and the pay-off is intense. This is the most epic tune on the album.

“Nothing New” features…cowbell…and a robust workout for the guitars. It’s a rocker with twin lead vocals by Jackie & Joan. It’s amazing how well their voices mesh together, whether alternating leads, doubling leads or singing harmony.

“Ain’t Persuaded Yet” is another countrified blues, with a spooky vibe and a nice tale told by Joan. Nick lays down some really sweet basslines throughout, and this song has a nice sense of atmosphere. Tom’s guitar solo is a great example of how to use a solo to say something rather than just blasting out notes.

“Adelaide” is the perfect closing number for the album because it makes you want to start the whole thing again. Another Nick tune, he delivers an emotional vocal backed by Joan and some real nice banjo picking. This is another powerful ballad that burrows inside your skull, connecting with you, demanding your attention.

****

“Trigger Hippy” is a perfect example of what a great album can do. It can take you on a journey, alternating affecting ballads with energizing rockers and soulful blues. It can show you all of the dimensions of a band, highlighting the various talents of some of the best players and singers in the world. It can reveal heretofore-unknown talents, like Nick Govrik’s absolutely stellar songwriting. It can give you songs that will stay with you forever – songs that will attach themselves to future memories and become an indelible part of your life. Most surprisingly, it can restore your faith in the “music” part of the music business.

I love these players and I love this album. Listen to it for yourself and if you like it, buy it. The future of the music business is in our hands. It’s up to us to support the art that we want.

“Trigger Hippy” is definitely art that I want.

Final Grade: A

###

Don’s Review:

Trigger Hippy,” the self-titled debut from the modern day supergroup founded by Black Crowes drummer Steve Gorman, is the feel good album of the year.

Over the past three years, Gorman has recruited an all-star cast including fellow Crowe Jackie Greene, smoky-voiced Joan Osborne, Nashville guitar hero Tom Bukovac and bassist Nick Govrik. These are serious musicians who are clearly having fun with a strong set of road-tested, well-crafted songs finally properly released.

The uplifting “Rise Up Singing” gets things off to a great start. Gorman swings and the band gets out of the way of Greene and Osborne, whose harmonies go down easy. It’s a throwback sing-a-long that surely would have been a massive radio hit back when people, you know, listened to the radio.

“Turpentine” follows with the band in full throat. It’s the album’s best rocker, featuring Bukovak and Greene’s twin lead guitars supported by a driving, powerful rhythm section.

“Heartache On The Line” continues the strong start, one of several stunning ballads that surprisingly represent the heart of the record.

“Tennessee Mud” offers a hint of the band’s live prowess, stretching out to include a 70s vocal break you have to hear to fully appreciate. Every band member gets a chance to shine by the end of the tune. You just don’t want it to end.

Minor missteps like the white-funk of “Cave Hill Cemetery” and cheesy lyrics to “Dry County” seem – to this listener – to be beneath a band of this ability, but are redeemed by stellar musicianship and unapologetic performances.

Side B isn’t as consistently great as the first half, but it’s bookended by the stunning ballads “Pretty Mess” and “Adelaide.” Govrik takes lead vocals on the closer. It’s so good I had to double-check it wasn’t a Band cover.

In fact, Govrik just might be Trigger Hippy’s secret weapon. His songwriting is a revelation. But he is often mentioned as an afterthought in the quintet’s press clippings. This isn’t surprising, considering Gorman’s legendary career, Bukovak’s guitar brilliance, Osborne’s stature as one of the era’s great female rock vocalists and the irrepressible Jackie Greene, who should be a superstar given his frontmanship and multi-instrumental chops.

Trigger Hippy sounds like a group that has been around forever. Hopefully they will be.

Final Grade: A-minus

###

A Modern Guide to Elevator Etiquette

Lately I’ve been noticing that people seem to be struggling with basic elevator etiquette. Now I understand that in today’s post-recession world with folks working long hours that parents might not have the time to spend teaching their kids basic elevator etiquette, but it’s an important skill that I want to preserve, so once again, I’ll take it upon myself to help the youth of America.

#1: Don’t push a pushed button

I know that you’re important. I appreciate that you have places to be. But if you get to the elevator lobby and I’m waiting for the elevator you really don’t need to push the button again. Sadly, artificial elevator intelligence hasn’t progressed to the point where the elevator responds to multiple pushes. When you insist on pushing a pushed button you are basically telling me that I am an idiot that doesn’t know how to push a button. And that hurts my feelings.

#2: Wait for the next car

Once the doors have closed more than 50% you have to wait for the next car. Sticking you arm in to stop the doors from closing is a dangerous and rude game. Look, I waited for the elevator. I held the door open for the hot chick that was walking across the parking lot. I pushed all the required buttons. Don’t fuck me and my elevator buddies over by abruptly halting the process and forcing the doors open so you can stuff your fat ass in the car. Do you know why the elevator makes a loud and annoying alarm sound after you force the doors open? Because the elevator is sad and mad at you.

#3: No cock blocking the buttons

An elevator should be filled like a dishwasher: sides first, then the back, and finally, reluctantly, the front. The absolute last place anyone should stand is in front of the control panel. The control panel is communal space. We all deserve equal access. What if I want to pick up the emergency phone? Why should I have to fight with your crotch to pick my floor? It’s not 1953. You’re not an elevator operator. I don’t need your help pushing my button. But I do need your help not putting your dick in front of the panel.

#4: Never talk to strangers

Listen. We’re sharing an elevator for 45 seconds, we’re not hostages in a bank robbery conspiring to make a move on the smallest guy. Talk to your friends. Play with your phone. Discreetly smell the hair of the hot chick you held the door for. But don’t talk to me. I don’t want to make new elevator friends.

(The only exception to this rule is if I want to make a witty elevator-themed joke. Like for instance saying that my day is having it’s ups and downs. I can do that. I am an adorable and hilarious fellow. You probably are not.)

#5: Make the one floor apology

Elevators are for people traveling two or more floors. Stairs are for people traveling one floor. If you get on and push the button for the next floor, you are morally obligated to apologize to the rest of the elevator community. Valid excuses include: “I am pregnant”, “the stairs are locked”, “my gall bladder hurts”, “scary teenagers are smoking on the stairs”, etc. Please note that if you do not apologize I am well within my rights to audibly sigh in frustration at you.

#6: Readjust as people leave

This is a big one. As the troll-like people that inhabit the lower floors leave the elevator you need to readjust your position to maximize personal space. There’s nothing worse than starting in a full elevator and having the trip end with just you and the creepy IT guy standing shoulder to shoulder in an empty car. This is not a “meet cute” story in a romantic comedy. Your elevator position is not fixed. Unless you are going to make a move on me, you best move away from me.

Thus ends our helpful guide to modern elevator etiquette. I hope that this essay inspires you to spread the gospel and train others how to ride in an elevator without annoying me. Thank you.

###

Album Review: Ryan Adams, “Ryan Adams” (9/9/14)

I have a friend. He has a theory. His theory is that Ryan Adams is the ultimate cipher. He thinks that Ryan is great at creating new music that sounds exactly like his influence du jour. As a result he likes Ryan, but he doesn’t consider him to be an important artist.

I have a problem with this theory. First, I’m not sure if it’s true. Secondly, I’m not sure it matters even if it is true. This theory is predicated on the idea that originality is the most important quality in determining whether an artist is important.

I think originality is great, especially when considering someone’s legacy. But to me, the most important quality in a songwriter is how many great songs they write. The most important quality in a performer is how affecting their performances are. That’s enough for me.

And while his performances may have been (used to be) erratic, over the last 20 years Ryan Adams has written more great songs than anyone on the planet.

Yes, I really believe that.

A great song burrows into your mind and into your soul, demanding to be heard over and over again until it leaves an indelible impression on your consciousness. You can’t get enough of a great song. A great song makes you jealous that you can’t write like that and grateful that someone can.

So the question for us in 2014, after an astounding number of records, both released and shelved, solo and with various bands, is: does Ryan Adams have any more great songs left in him?

Sometimes it takes a year or so for great songs to fully reveal themselves, but after a half dozen or so spins I’d say that “Ryan Adams” contains two great additions to the canon: “My Wrecking Ball” is a nice sad bastard folk tune and “Shadows” is an atmospheric jam. The rest of the tunes are consistently good but not necessarily memorable.

Ryan is in great voice throughout and his guitar has a clear, medium-thickness sound that is quite enjoyable.

Stylistically, the new album hews pretty close to the mature sound of “Ashes & Fire” and late-period Cardinals with an occasional dose of “Rock & Roll”. For reference, this is my third-favorite Ryan sound:

1) Sad bastard country
2) Jammy americana
3) Adult rock
4) Alternative rock
5) Metal
6) Punk

Bottom line: “Ryan Adams” is a consistently good, but infrequently great, adult rock album that will largely appeal to Ryan’s mature audience.

###

It’s Time To Start A “Binge Listening” Movement

Much has been made over the last few year about the phenomenon of “binge watching” television shows through online streaming services. Personally, I never would have appreciated the brilliance of “The Shield” or “Damages” without my daily commute and easy access to the source material. Binge watching has been widely embraced throughout our culture, and aside from lack of sleep or temporary obsessions with Omar Little, there’s really no downside to binge watching.

It also appears that binge watching may have a positive effect on the viewership of current programs. “Breaking Bad” grew exponentially over the years precisely because people could catch-up between seasons after hearing the positive buzz.

Why can’t we do the same thing with music?

One of the challenges of the current music scene is that we’ve become a society of shallow listeners who consume singles instead of albums; music is everywhere so we take it for granted. Sales and charts don’t matter anymore, so only a few songs breakthrough the clutter and enter the collective consciousness. Record companies don’t support acts so they have no time to develop as artists. All in all, the cultural relevancy and importance of music has greatly receded in the digital age.

As an obsessive music fan it saddens me to see that music – outside of niche fan communities – doesn’t really seem to matter anymore. It’s a commodity, a disposable product to be consumed and forgotten.

But I think the answer is right on our beloved screens.

Even since signing up for the premium Spotify service I’ve found myself delving deep in the catalog of certain artists. Now, this started because I’m a little OCD and I like to do things in the proper order. But it turns out that binge listening has been eye (ear) opening experience.

Sure, I own all of the early Genesis LPs, but my collection is spread across CDs, cassettes and vinyl. What a revelation it is to listen through their whole discography, in order, and to hear the development of the band (well, “Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” is missing for some reason.) To really listen to what Steve Hackett added or to appreciate how Phil Collins stepped up, or to realize how much more logical and gradual their transition from prog-rock to pop-rock was in the grand scheme of things.

Same thing happened to me with the mid-period Pink Floyd albums. As a kid I kind of started with “Meddle” and went from there. I never bothered with the post-Syd, pre-classic era for some reason. But there’s some great stuff there!

Obviously this idea could work with more than progressive rock. In fact, I think the idea applies to every genre, for both classic and current artists. Think of how fun it would be to listen to Taylor Swift evolve from an acoustic country singer-songwriter to a full-on pop star.

Music lovers, let’s make this happen. Let’s make “binge listening” a real thing in our culture. Let’s write articles that critique an artist’s entire career. Let’s pick an artist and binge-listen to their whole discography together over the course of a week and vote for our favorite albums and get into fights on message boards. Let’s make podcasts that discuss the entire scope of someone’s artistry.

Look, crazier fads have taken place in society. Let’s make a concerted effort to get people to think differently about music. Let’s inspire them to engage deeper. Let’s get artists a few more pennies through the streaming services. And maybe, just maybe, we can restore music’s importance in our lives.

Are you with me?

###

Day 4: The Smoker You Drink, The Player You Get

Taking a two-hour train ride anywhere in the United States has a minimal impact on one’s existence. Perhaps you’ll cross from Red Sox country into the Yankee’s Evil Empire. Maybe a sub will be called a grinder. But by and large things are pretty much the same. The people, language and culture in America changes so gradually that you’ve really got to travel a long distance to feel like an alien.

A two hour ride on the Eurostar, however, transports you to another world entirely. Disembarking at Gard du Nord is like traveling back in time, from the thoroughly modernized City of London to the wonderfully stubborn ancien regime of Paris.

One’s first impression of Paris is of the amazing consistency of the Parisian streets: five-floor buildings wrapped in wrought iron, cafés on every corner and spectacular classical buildings rising up the skyline and down every street. It’s truly a breathtaking sight, and even the slightly grungy neighborhood around the train station can’t take away from how Paris is truly different, beautiful and amazing.

This old thing? I don't even remember what it was. (Really!)

This old thing? I don’t even remember what it was. (Really!)

(Actually, one’s first impression of Paris is of the filthy pay toilet in the subterranean basement of the dingy train station. They really set the bar low when you first arrive.)

Spoiler warning: I loved Paris. No disrespect to London, which is a fun, world-class city that I’d happily visit at any time. But Paris is on another level entirely. Paris is so magical that it’s almost unreal. I can’t wait to go back to Paris.

Fighting through traffic our taxi took us to our hotel in the Sixth district. We stayed at the Hotel Le Six which was great in every way. The staff was super-friendly and accommodating, the room was comfortable, the A/C was necessary given the heat wave, and the location was convenient – right off Montparnasse and a short walk to St. Germain, which kind of became our home base for our visit.

Well, it wasn’t a short walk when we first left the hotel and tried to find the Eiffel Tower. A bad map, a foreign language and absolutely no knowledge of the city found us walking in a circle for the first 40 minutes or so, doing that thing where you’re like “did we pass that cafe already?” But finally we found Invalides and stopped for our first taste of the cafe life, getting some wine, cheese and smoked salmon to reward our efforts.

Our first cafe

Our first cafe

Side note: yes, me, noted drink of shitty American beers drank wine while in France. I tried to find the most Manischewitz-y wine that I could find which pretty much meant sweet white and rose wines. I guess I’m sophisticated now!

Le Beast Mode

Le Beast Mode

As far as we could tell a day in the life of a Parisian consists of exercising, smoking, drinking wine, smoking, eating bread, smoking, sitting in the park, smoking, eating dinner, smoking and walking. It’s amazing how different the culture is when it comes to smoking. I mean the Brits smoke a lot but everyone smokes in France. Kids smoke in France. Dogs smoke in France. We learned that the key to a good cafe experience is to try to claim a spot among Americans and people with e-cigs, otherwise the secondhand smoke will be out of control – and that’s coming from someone who is generally fine with people smoking.

From there we hit the Eiffel Tower which was really impressive. It’s a nice looking structure and much bigger than you expect. I mean after seeing “Big” Ben we were a little worried that the tower wouldn’t be that big, but it was the perfect size. We didn’t have any tour tickets and weren’t going to wait 45 minutes to walk up it, so we gawked for a while and headed for the Seine.

It's an eye-full

It’s an eye-full

Quick question about the guys selling the mini Eiffel Towers everywhere: they’re pickpockets, right? There’s no way that many guys throughout the city could make any money selling the exact same chintzy thing, right?

Walking along the River Seine is as lovely as everyone says. There are beautiful bridges everywhere and as you walk through the city you see more and more cool stuff. There are so many incredible buildings that after a while you almost become numb to them. Buildings that would be landmarks in other cities are on every corner in Paris. It’s a city that definitely requires many visits to appreciate everything.

Our last stop for the evening was dinner on St. Germain at a place called Le Deux Magots, which we assumed stood for the delicious-sounding “The Two Maggots”. I had the veal and Lyn had the steak, both of which were very good. We couldn’t help but laugh when some lady sat next to us and smoked a cigar throughout her meal. She inhaled it too! That lady was definitely the smoking champ of Paris, and there’s a lot of contenders for that crown.

All in all we managed to squeeze a nice full day out of a travel day and we were pretty beat from walking many miles in the hot sun, powered only by prodigious amounts of wine and butter.

###

Day 3: Here Comes The Sun King

[note: Internet service is on strike in Paris so I'll have to add the photos later when I have a stronger signal]

Once again the day commenced with a trip to Lower Marsh for a cup of whatever they call the coffee over here – flat white? I went to a different cafe, The Four Corners, drank my coffee and wrote yesterday’s blog. When you consider the time difference that means that you’re actually reading a blog about the past that I wrote in the future. Pretty cool, huh?

Fancy foam

Fancy foam

From there I tubed up to St. John’s Wood to start the holy pilgrimage. St. John’s Wood is a weird area. It’s the home of the national cricket grounds and Regent’s Park is nearby. It’s also a center for Jewish and Islamic communities. Obviously a questionable move by the British putting those 2 groups together given their bad neighbor history.

My first stop was at Panzer’s Deli to pick up a picnic lunch. I was warned that the help could be surly, but British surly is different that Boston surly, so I found them to be fairly nice.

From there I walked over to Regent’s Park. It’s a large city park. In English “regent’s” apparently means goose shit, but it was still a nice spot for brunch. I ate my bagel and lox, orange juice and cucumber salad near the boating pond.

After a brief respite I went to Queen Victoria’s Garden. Or maybe it was Queen Elizabeth’s Garden? The garden was really nice but it must be a little late in the season because the flowers were coming off the bloom. It was still quite pleasant.

Here’s the fountain in the middle of the garden.

There’s also an open air theatre, but it was gated and I forgot my grappling hook so I couldn’t sneak in for a photo.

Look at these cute kids playing footie in the park (don’t worry, it’s still really boring to watch even on this side of the pond):

From there I walked back to St. John’s Woods High Street. Along the way I noticed quite a few Porsches and Beamers and figured it must be a swanky area. It was. The High Street reminded me of downtown Wellesley: clean and boutiquey. Luckily, they still had a pub and I could stop for a quick pint after walking a few miles in the 30 degree heat, which I think translates into 112 degrees fahrenheit.

Finally it was time to head to the main attraction: Abbey Road. It had been a Beatles day throughout, and I was able to listen to Rubber Soul, Revolver and the White Album during my walk. I timed the playing of Abbey Road to coincide with my trip to the crosswalk and the studio.

Side note: in a very Boston-like move there’s a tube station called Abbey Road that has nothing to do with the famous Abbey Road that everybody wants to see. If you want to see Abbey Road you need to go to St. John’s Wood. By the by, St. John’s actual wood was a cricket bat, which is why the cricket grounds are located in that neighborhood. I would have liked to catch a test, but those things last weeks and we only have a few days in London.

It’s easy to figure out which crosswalk is the famous one due to the crowd of people standing around. The weird thing is that Abbey Road is a busy road, with cars and trucks fighting tourists who try to recreate the photo of The Beatles crossing the street. Most people draw lots to see who gets stuck being Ringo.

The actual Abbey Road studio is on the left side of the street. It’s still an active recording studio so people aren’t allowed to enter the gates. As you can see, many people leave a quick message to commemorate their visit:

It was very cool to be at Abbey Road. While the crosswalk itself only has slight magical powers it is amazing to think of all of the people who have been touched enough by The Beatles’ music, even 50 years later, to make the trip. Are there any current musicians who are iconic enough to warrant such devotion? Will Kid Rock’s favorite Waffle House become a tourist destination? (Actually, I sincerely hope it does.)

It’s weird that there’s not more Beatles-related stuff in the area. Obviously it’s a key tourist spot and a Beatles museum would be perfect. I’m sure there’s a Beatles museum in Liverpool, but we’re not in Liverpool now, are we love? This coffee shop is literally the only place that exploits the Beatles connection:

I headed back to the hotel to pick-up Lyn and we went to Harrod’s via Piccadilly Circus. And when I say “via Piccadilly Circus” I mean that I took us to the wrong tube station, but that’s part of the fun of traveling with someone who just walks around and takes the tube without having an entirely clear idea of where they’re going.

Piccadilly Circus is very Times Squaresy in the way that Times Square is both cool and annoying. We hung for a few minutes and grabbed a taxi to Harrod’s.

My first black taxi and OMIGODWHYDON’TWEHAVETHESE??? Wow, they’re spacious and clean and efficient and fantastic. Seriously, why don’t we have these in America? Not that I have anything against old Crown Vics and smelly Prius’s, but we need these stat.

Harrod’s is a pretty crazy store and we couldn’t help but spend $45,000 on a Warhol and a Dali. I’ve never seen a department store that sells fine art but sure enough there was a gallery hidden in the Qatar section. The Egyptian escalator is outrageous and I like how they keep prams and fat guys off the escalator with these poles:

The weirdest part of Harrod’s was the statute and memorial dedicated to Lady Di and Dodi al Fayed. For the record, I think it’s terrible that the two of them were murdered and it seems like Princess Di was a nice lady. That said, I’m generally anti-Diana. When you accept the job of Princess of England it’s a lifetime contract and you take the bad with the good. Keep your dalliances discreet and do the job you’re being paid for. Charles was obviously a loser when she married him, but that was the deal. Don’t enjoy the riches and fame and then push for a divorce and discredit the magnificent institution of fake royalty of a former empire. That’s just wrong.

After Harrod’s we went to the Gloucester pub for a traditional meal. We split a scotch egg (interesting), Lyn got the fish & chips and I got the bangers & mash. (Have you ever noticed that all British food features an ampersand?) The Gloucester wasn’t as good as the Water Poet but it was decent. I do like the pub style of ordering at the bar – no waiting for servers or checks. I think I’ve had my fill of British food for the moment and look forward to getting down with the French.

Tomorrow we’re booked on the Eurostar for a quick trip to Paris. London has been great but I’m really excited to visit France. There’s a strike or protest going on, but Say La Vee, Mon Amee.

###

Day 2: High Streets & Low Culture

“I’m going nowhere with nowhere to go”

- Al Stewart, Soho (Needless to Say)

Today was a work day for Lyn so my plan was to grab my map and my Walkman and check-out London. Unlike many travelers I don’t really have an agenda or an itinerary. I don’t really care if I see the famous stuff. I just like to walk around and immerse myself in the local culture. But first, coffee.

Coffee culture is weird in England because they don’t have regular brewed/drip coffee. Everything is espresso-based, which kind of sucks. So you have to choose between cappuccino (too foamy), latte (too milky) or Americano (too watery). Sure, I could just go to Starbucks and get a coffee, but that violates my two travel rules: buy local & never go to the same place twice.

Not too far from the hotel I found the Scooter Caffe on Lower Marsh Street:

No real coffee here

No real coffee here

From there I meandered over to the Waterloo tube stop (where I saw a British dude in a Larry Bird jersey!) to buy an Oyster card and make my way to Shoreditch in the East End. For musical accompaniment I chose Al Stewart’s Just Yesterday box set. It was perfect, listening to British folk while heading out of the city center.

The East End is purported to be the hipster part of town which promised a fun day of slightly seedy adventures – my kind of place. Getting off the train I saw this weird pop-up park where people were sunbathing and watching boring Euro sports (bicycling?):

They sure are pasty here

They sure are pasty here

Apparently it was part of a whole pop-up outdoor mall where each store was the size of a closet. It was pretty cool. I did not actually shop.

Real deals on name brands

Real deals on name brands

This graffiti mural captured the vibe of Shoreditch:

I like the graffiti but not the graffiti on it

I like the graffiti but not the graffiti on it

I then spent a while walking up and down Shoreditch High Street. In America we call them “Main Street”. There was a nice mix of seedy lots and upscale stores. I’m happy to report that a vinyl record store named “Sister Ray” was under construction. It looks like Lou Reed finally made it big in England.

Here’s the view down Shoreditch High Street:

Sure, I'll ditch work and hit the pub with you

Sure, I’ll ditch work and hit the pub with you

From there I needed to have breakfast (you people call it lunch – it was 3:00) and knew that a proper English pub would be the place. I used my beer divining skills to find The Water Poet:

Bury me here

Bury me here

I availed myself to some Camden Hells Lager (quite good) and a fish & chips. The key to surviving in London is just to pretend that the prices are normal American. So $16 sounds reasonable for a pint and a plate – much better than the $32 it really cost.

Cod? I've haddock.

Cod? I’ve haddock.

I limited myself to two pints (day drinking) and observed the locals. First, smoking is still very popular. But as a child reared by Bruce Willis I say “smoke ‘em if you got ‘em”. Secondly, they say “fuck” like every other word. Thirdly, they’re quite friendly but I can’t understand a goddamned word (besides fuck) they say, between the mumbling, the accents, the odd word choice and the general inebriation. Finally, what happened to British music? Somehow they made the best rock in the 60s and 70s but the current music is awful.

Reluctantly leaving The Water Poet I headed back towards the city and Liverpool Street. This is a view of the “famous” lipstick building (I never heard of it before so it can’t be that famous):

Find the bus!

Find the bus!

I made my way over to Spitalfields Market area which was quite lovely:

St. Swiggins?

St. Swiggins?

The actual Spitalfields Market is like a flea market surrounded by chain restaurants. As usual, I did not buy anything:

Where are the bootleg DVDs and ninja stars?

Where are the bootleg DVDs and ninja stars?

My last stop before heading back to Westminster was White Chapel High Street and the White Chapel Gallery. It was some crap modern art exhibit, but I’d much rather see some bad art than military monuments and stuff. Fight the power, mannnnnn!

After meeting up with Lyn we crossed over the Thames to the Embankment Gardens, which were lovely. The crazy thing is that the park was full of people just hanging out and boozing – the kind of thing you could never imagine happening in the Common or the Public Garden.

They should have taps built into the gate.

They should have taps built into the gate.

Fully embracing the spirit of pub culture I took Lyn to a real pub for some G&Ts. There’s not much A/C here so the locals escape the heat but getting their drinks in plastic cups and just hanging out in the street in front of the pub. It’s like al fresco dining without the food or tables:

I like this place!

I like this place!

Next, we walked through Charing Cross on the way to dinner. I don’t recall why Charing Cross is famous but I vaguely remember reading a book called 84 Charing Cross Road so I figured I should take a picture of it:

This might be famous

This might be famous

We went to a fun Mexican street food place called Wahaca for dinner, even though they serve small plates. The problem with small plates is that you pay twice as much for half the food and never have enough of the stuff you like and are stuck with too much stuff you don’t like. That’s how they get you!

After dinner we walked through the West End, Strand and the theatre district and Trafalgar Square. I don’t know who Trafalgar was, but that’s a huge ass statue on a tall column.

You can't see Trafalgar here, it was too dark

You can’t see Trafalgar here, it was too dark

Finally we looped back around to Westminster and passed this guy again. Tourists are legally required to take a picture of Big Ben every time you walk by him. It’s hard to capture in pictures or describe in words just how ornate Parliament and the Tower are. It’s really beautiful and impressive:

Hey kids...

Hey kids…

Last and least is the Eye of London. It looks cool all lit up at night but there’s no way I’m going on a boring Ferris wheel that takes an hour to go around. I’ve got maybe 15 minutes of Ferris wheel in me, tops.

Are there bathrooms on the cars?

Are there bathrooms on the cars?

Thus concludes day 2. Tomorrow…the Beatles!

###

Day 1: Arrival in London

Morning in America

I’ll never understand morning people. They act so superior just because they wake up early. They boast about how productive they are and how peaceful everything is before the day begins. Then they eat lunch at 11:00 and fall asleep on the couch at 9:00. Guess what, morning people, you’re not superior. You’re not more productive. You’re a farmer without a farm. Do you know what’s on TV at 5:00? The farm report. Do you know why? Because only farmers need to be awake that early. Now either get some cows or get some sleep already.

Needless to say, I was cranky due to my 5:30 pickup. Do you know what else is peaceful and deserted at 5:00 in the morning? The airport. So I had plenty of time to change my money and peruse the pornography at Hudson News.

Side note: what’s the deal with the airport porn anyway? Who’s buying so much porn at the airport that every airport newsstand has a robust porn section? Where are they reading all of this airplane porn?

Side side note: last time we went on vacation I ended up in the separate fourth seat and sat next to a European guy who proceeded to watch “Blue is the Warmest Color” on the flight. After the first graphic lesbian love scene he kept his finger on the fast forward button (no joke – his other hand was below the tray) but that first scene was a doozy. The old lady in our row seemed quite surprised. Come to think of it, he’s probably the target market for the airport porn.

NOT appropriate for the airplane, even for Euros

NOT appropriate for the airplane, even for Euros

Strange Currencies

When traveling internationally I always like to change $9,500 – not because I need that much money but because that’s the most you can change without getting the Feds involved. I seldom like to get the Feds involved in my affairs.

The thing about British money is that you have to worry about the exchange rate and the confusing denominations. A pound sterling is like one of our normal dollars but it costs almost 2 dollars to buy. The pound can be broken into pence, and just like our coins, it’s 100 pence to a pound. A farthing is half a pence and you get 16 farthings to a button.

What most Americans (aside from me, noted Anglophile) don’t understand is that the whole British currency system is based on the button standard. Obviously this dates back hundreds of years when all barter was based on buttons. I was surprised when I first learned this but it kind of make sense when you think about it. There are even remnants of the button standard in modern language: a “button man” is a paid assassin. “On the button” means to pay an exact amount.

That's NOT Dowager Grantham

That’s NOT Dowager Grantham

British Airways

Jealously coursed through my veins as I walked through the business class (or, as I like to call it, Lyn class) section of the plane. Their beautiful individual cabins, lie flat seats and porn privacy curtains looked dreamy. I was located in the sub-par middle section. Well I thought it was subpar until I visited the loo in the coach section and had to see what those poor chumps were dealing with: 5 seats across, no leather and nary a banger nor mash in sight. So that’s the first life lesson I’ve gained on this trip: bringer your own bangers if you’re traveling in coach. Oh, and be grateful for what you have because it could always be worse.

Upper Middle Class

Upper Middle Class

Finally in London

My reputation as poor driver is well deserved, but my reputation as an expert map reader is sadly under reported. After clearing customs (barely, I had a lot of foreign soil, produce and animals hidden in my bag) I made my way to the Heathrow Express (aka train) and then the Underground (aka subway). Now, I’ve always been a supporter of the MBTA but the tube was a very different experience. None of the passengers were loudly arguing with themselves or dancing to their cell phone speaker and there were three Bobbies (aka cops) on one long subway car. There’d have to be a mass murder for three cops to show up on the blue line back home. The first Bobbie I saw was an adorable woman with a cute checkered bowler hat. So, on the one hand, there’s a heavy police presence to deter crime. On the other hand, the cops can be described as adorable, lessening the impact of their presence.

Walking out of the underground I rain to this old fellow:

 

Not that Big, Ben

Not that Big, Ben

And from there I made my way to the Park Plaza Westminster, obviously hours too late for the Marc Ford show I was hoping to catch. Nonetheless I was happy to be in London after a full day of watching “Damages” season 3 on the plane. I availed myself to a traditional British supper of canned gin, weird beer and really cheesy Wotsits:

Brilliant!

Brilliant!

Side side side note: my phone doesn’t work at all so I’m fully dependent on free wifi for email and messaging. This really is the old country!

Tomorrow the real adventure begins…trying to figure out how to order coffee.

###

 

 

 

 

Day 0: Leaving Marblehead

“I love it when a plan comes together.”
- Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith (as portrayed by George Peppard)

Somehow it all came together. The boys were already booked for two weeks of sleep-away camp in New Hampshire when Lyn got the call for a business trip to London. For the cost of one additional steerage ticket we could turn this business trip into our first kid-free vacation since 1996. The plan is to spend two days in Paris and the rest of the week in London.

I figured that I’d try to document our trip through photos and words, assuming that they have the internet in Europe. As you’ll learn over the coming week, I know a LOT about the UK & France, having been to London for one day in 1987.

Today is my last day in Marblehead. On the agenda: a nice walk to the ocean, one final lobster roll, a little packing, and a quick 9 holes at Olde Salem Greens.

A Beautiful Day in Marblehead

This is what it looks like when you’re out on Marblehead Neck.

A view from Chandler Hovey Park

A view from Chandler Hovey Park

This is what it looks like when you’re a wharf rat. You’ll note that it’s much darker on this side of the harbor. That’s because I took this picture last night, Sherlock. (Sherlock Holmes was a famous British fictional detective who was most definitely not a wharf rat.)

A view from Crocker Park

A view from Crocker Park

Lobster Roll at the Muffin Shop

This is the Muffin Shop on Washington Street. People say their muffins are excellent. I’ve never had any because the early bird gets the muffin and I like to sleep late.

The Muffin Shop

The Muffin Shop

I figured that I’d get a lobster roll because they don’t have lobster rolls in London. You see, when Christopher Columbus first landed in America 16 of his crew were killed by wild lobsters (they hadn’t invented claw rubber bands yet) and now all of Europe is deathly afraid of lobsters. Also, you’ll see that I got some free “chips” with my roll. Now, in London, if you order “chips” you get “fries”. If you order “fries” you probably get old shoe leather or something. I don’t really know, but I do know that British people are terrible at cooking. These are the type of interesting historical and cultural facts that I hope to share throughout our journey.

Lobster Roll

Lobster Roll

Packing List

It’s important to park smartly before heading to Europe because if you forget anything you have to buy it over there and things are expensive and they have weird money and stuff. Plus, they’re always on vacation or strike or something in France. Here’s what I’m bringing:

  • 8 speedos
  • dress & casual crocs
  • fanny pack(s)
  • pants with removable legs
  • Spinal Tap, Season 4 of “Lovejoy”
  • football kit with kicks and scarves (London)
  • striped shirt, beret, baguette, bicycle, mime (Paris)
  • tie-dye tank top

Golf at Olde Salem Greens

It was a beautiful day for a little golf and today’s round did not disappoint. I played with <name redacted> and the match came down to the last putt. Sure, I lost by one stroke, but it was a perfect day nonetheless. When I was a kid I used to ask my Popper “who won?” when he’d come back from golf. He’d always respond, “oh, we don’t keep score.” Now, years later, I understand what he meant. The score is incidental when it comes to golf with friends. Here’s the ninth tee at Olde Salem Greens:

Ninth tee at Olde Salem Greens

Ninth tee at Olde Salem Greens

Tomorrow I have an early flight to London. I’m hoping to land in time to catch Marc Ford (former Black Crowes guitarist) at the Borderline in London. I already bought a ticket to the show but I may have miscalculated what time I’m arriving due to their stupid metric system. How was I supposed to know what time 19:35 is in England? Isn’t that Greenwich Mean Time anyway? Stupid Brits.

See you on the other side.

###

 

8 Great Country-Rock Steel Guitar Players

Part of the reason that I am obsessed with country-rock is because I can’t get enough of the sound of  the steel guitar, either of the pedal or lap variety. I will confess that for many years I had no idea what a steel guitar was: I honestly thought it was a guitar literally made out of steel (which in retrospect seems really heavy). Since then I’ve learned that the “steel” is actually the slide and the guitar has it’s origins in Hawaii, along with pineapples, spam and fat guys in garish shirts.

Now it’s impossible to list all of the great pedal steel players in music history and it’s often hard to draw a line between country-rock and country. For example, Dwight Yoakam is considered a country artist, but the Bakersfield sound he favors is closely aligned with California country-rock. The great Tom Brumley played with Dwight, and he’s one of Buck Owens’ Buckaroos which makes him country (of course, Buck Owens is considered one of the fathers of the Bakersfield sound and now my head is spinning). So I’m just going to attempt to list some of my favorites, in order of my exposure to them.

Jerry Garcia

Jerry briefly got obsessed with the pedal steel in 1970 and played one of the most famous pedal steel parts in rock history on Crosby, Stills & Nash’s “Teach Your Children”. Old Jer might not have been the best pedal steel player, but he did some mighty fine work for CSNY, the Dead and on the first New Riders of the Purple Sage album.

Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young – Teach Your Children

Ben Keith

Ben played with Neil Young for almost 40 years and was an original Stray Gator, starting with Neil’s breakthrough album “Harvest”. Ben helped to define Neil’s iconic country-rock sound that he’s returned to over the years. But rather than play something off of Harvest, let’s be a true rockist and bust out “For the Turnstiles” from “On the Beach”.

Neil Young – For The Turnstiles – Remastered

Buddy Cage

Buddy replaced Garcia as the steel player in New Riders of the Purple Sage after establishing his country-rock bona fides in Ian & Sylvia’s Great Speckled Bird. He also played on one of the greatest albums ever made – Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks”. Speaking of that, Buddy lays down a killer outro solo on “Meet Me in the Morning”.

Bob Dylan – Meet Me in the Morning

“Sneaky” Pete Kleinow

Of all of the great players on this list, Sneaky Pete is probably my favorite. First, he has a cool nickname that is spelled both “Sneeky” and “Sneaky”. Secondly, he was an animator on “Gumby” and “David & Goliath”. Finally, he ran his guitar through a fuzzbox which gave it a really unique sound. He’s most famous for playing with The Flying Burrito Brothers, but he did session work for everyone. “Christine’s Tune” isn’t my favorite FBB song but it’s a showcase for Pete and it was featured on the soundtrack for my favorite sexy vampire show.

The Flying Burrito Brothers – Christine’s Tune (Devil In Disguise)

Al Perkins

Al replaced Sneaky Pete in the FBB but is best known for playing with Stephen Stills’ Manassas and a million other great projects, including a little something called “Exile on Main Street” and both of Gram Parsons’ solo albums. There’s so much great stuff to choose from, but here’s “So Many Times” from the second Manassas LP “Down the Road”.

Stephen Stills – So Many Times

Rusty Young

Rusty Young is best known for playing in Poco, a band that got famous for their later soft-rock material but was the tightest, hottest country-rock band in the world for a while. Rusty ran his pedal steel through Leslie speakers which gave it a very organ-like tone. He also played a lot of dobro in Poco, sometimes going back and forth between the two instruments in a single song. What a great player. The first Poco-esque song is actually a beautiful Richie Furay song from Buffalo Springfield’s “Last Time Around” called “Kind Woman”.

Buffalo Springfield – Kind Woman

“Farmer” Dave Scher

Farmer Dave plays pedal steel and lap steel and keys in the criminally under-appreciated band Beachwood Sparks. His playing helps to create the dreamy texture that defines the fresh yet classic cosmic American sound of the band. “Desert Skies” is a great example of their skills.

Beachwood Sparks – Desert Skies

Jon Graboff

He of the bad jokes and the sweet steel, Jon is most famous for his stint with Ryan Adams & the Cardinals, but like many steel players he’s played on a lot of cool stuff over the years. Jon is obviously a lot younger than many of the players listed above, so it’s great to see a new generation of players on the scene. Here’s the beautiful “Dear John” from Ryan Adams & the Cardinals’ “Jacksonville City Nights” (featuring Norah Jones on vocals).

Ryan Adams & The Cardinals – Dear John

Bonus: Clarence White

While technically not a steel player, no list would be complete without Clarence White – one of the greatest guitar players that ever walked the planet. Clarence, along with Byrds band mate Gene Parsons, invented the stringbender, a special guitar doohicky that allows the B string to be “bent” into a C# by pulling the neck, creating a tone that sounds like a pedal steel. Clarence used this to great effect in The Byrds, especially on their “Live at the Fillmore” album. While the whole album showcases Clarence’s incredible skills, listen to their version of “Buckaroo” the iconic Buck Owens instrumental.

The Byrds – Buckaroo – Live

I hope this brief overview inspires you to listen to these pedal steel players and explore their respective discographies. The pedal steel, to my ear, is one of the most beautiful instruments in music and is a definitive aspect of the country-rock sound.

Here’s a spotify playlist with all of the songs mentioned above.

###