James Barrett and The Price of Comfort

October 14, 2019 Leave a comment

Most of my friends are friends through music.

Guys and girls who sing and play and write and support each other. The kind of people you can count on when the chips are down. You meet one….and through them meet another….and on and on it goes until the entire community is intertwined and cheering each other on. Maybe it’s not like this in other places. But here it is. And for that I’ll always be grateful.

jamesMy friend James Barrett just released a stunning record called “The Price of Comfort“. It’s his first full length record after putting out a series of EPs.

I’ve known James since he was a teen. I know his wonderful family. He’s always been mature beyond his years (he’s all of 22 now), and uncommonly driven. He’s got a sound in his head, and he refuses to compromise until he can find it. His earlier releases came close, but there was always something missing….life experiences maybe. Or maybe just more wood-shedding sessions in the basement. It’s this record that he’s been searching for all these years. There’s nothing half-assed here. Nothing that sounds casually tossed-off. You can tell that even though we call these things labors of love…..it’s easy to forget that the labor comes first. The love you gotta work for.

This isn’t a record review. Music is in the ear of the beholder…..and just because I think a song like “The First Days of July” is a stunning piece of work doesn’t mean you’re gonna think so too. But maybe it’ll intrigue you enough to check it out….which is all I’d hope for. Because I was writing songs when I was 22, and I can assure you they didn’t sound like these songs…..and that I wasn’t writing and singing world-weary lyrics like this…

I think you’re scared and coming of age 
petrified of debts we’ll pay
the cost of living accelerates 
but believe in me I’m not afraid 

I’m not sure this kid is ever gonna stop. I know the type….from looking in the mirror. This is his stake in the ground. It’s not the end of the journey, but merely the beginning. It’s the type of record he’ll look back on when he’s my age and say, “yea….I’m not sure I can still do that….”

It’s a neat feeling being there from the beginning. Or so it seems. Watching this kid searching……being influenced by this or that band for sure, but knowing deep down that while he could borrow, he wasn’t gonna steal. It was all gonna get tossed into that pot of stew, and once the stirring was done, what was left was gonna be original. It was gonna be, unmistakably, his own vision. His own sound. And that’s thrilling sure, but also dangerous. Like being told you have to drive without be allowed to use the brakes.

If he can put together a band that can duplicate this sound, (James plays everything here but the drums) I may be seeing less and less of him around NEPA.

This is an intensely personal record that sounds universal…..a record that doesn’t divulge itself after one or two listens. It’s music you can run with.

I’ve watched this kid grow up….and I really didn’t have to. All I needed to do was listen….from then until now.

Nice work kid. Now what’s next?

In a bit..

–tf

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Warm blankets…

October 4, 2019 Leave a comment

fall_leavesI’ve always loved this time of year. The explosion of colors. The fresh snap in the air. Football on the weekends. Playoff baseball. Stegmaier Oktoberfest and pumpkin ice cream, preferably together as a meal. The heat gone back to hell where it belongs. The days are shorter and the nights spread out like a warm blanket. You can open windows. Turn off air. Sweatshirts. Hoodies. No more sticking to car seats. A little bit for everybody. Frosty mornings. Slowly warming days. And the evening just enough to invigorate bones worn down by the heat-induced torpor of July and August. Yea winter is coming, but it can wait. We’re gonna watch the trees catch fire first. And as an added bonus I can take my out of shape dog for a walk without him stopping from heat exhaustion after 50 yards.

Summer is too busy. There’s no time for reflection. Everybody’s afraid of missing out on something….so they’re off and running…..mostly doing nothing but bumping into one another. The days are impossibly long. You want to feel like a sloth? Wake up to bright sunshine, and hear your bed calling out to you 15 hours later…..when it’s still light enough to read a book on your front porch. Summer shames you into doing what you don’t want to do. That is…remain conscious. Plus, I wear glasses. When I summer-sweat they slip down the bridge of my nose at the same rate Eric Clapton was losing his specs during his “Unplgged” show on MTV (look it up…..it was so distracting I was hoping somebody would tape them to his forehead). How am I supposed to embrace days that treat me in such ways?

But, alas. Winter. There’s no escaping it.

I’m always been here….so I’ve never not known the 4 seasons. My brother moved to Houston and became demented…. bragging about cutting his grass while wearing a cowboy hat and shorts….on Christmas Day. My NEPA brain isn’t wired to even comprehend such things. So roughly anytime between Halloween and the Saint Patrick’s Day parade, we live with the threat of being carpet bombed by ridiculous snow storms….with the monotony broken by deep dives into below zero wind chills followed by out-of-the-blue spring-like thaws that engorge our rivers and streams. I don’t know about you but I find this all perfectly acceptable. Imagine living in Southern California and having nothing to look forward to except warm, sunny days and hoping a rogue earthquake doesn’t swallow you whole? How boring is that?

(I don’t even want to mention spring….because as nice as it can be it just reminds me that summer is around the bend, and thus pisses me off. Football and college basketball are over, and as I don’t get interested in baseball until October….I have absolutely nothing to look forward to sports-wise except the Masters, which lost some of its luster when I learned that they spray-paint the brown patches of grass an emerald green, put blue food dye in the water, and pipe in fake bird noises for TV. A place unlike any other indeed.)

I’d be remiss in my reflections on fall to not mention one of life’s greatest pleasures.

A warm fire.

If you’re lucky enough to have a fire-place, it was made for these nights. To nap in front of one and wake without your bearings…..for a few seconds not knowing if it’s AM or PM…and then realizing that it doesn’t matter….because it’s the weekend. Living doesn’t get much better than that.

We’re bombarded with so much stupidity and hatred and dishonestly these days it’s easy to forget the simple beauty that surrounds us. We live through gritted-teeth….with the highlight of some days the snapping shut of the garage door behind us…leaving the rest of the nonsense behind….at least for a few hours. The soul needs the changing colors. The soul needs that fresh air snap. The soul needs for you to see your own breath again. The soul needs that old sweatshirt…..and that old walking path you are your dog trod with the leaves covering you like a canvas. The soul needs to be reminded that the ugly and the beautiful go to war every day, but sometimes the latter wins.

In a bit..

–tf

 

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Letter to my youngest daughter

October 1, 2019 Leave a comment

(last week my daughter went on a class retreat, and parents were asked to write their child a letter. On the last day, the letters were read aloud to the unsuspecting kids. This is mine…and I’m saving it here just because I want to remember it…)

Dear Kiera,

You think you know what love is. What it means. How it feels. And then you have a child. And you realize, “this feels different”.

It’s an instant, unbreakable bond, staggering in its intensity.

Me and your Mother felt that while peering into your older sister’s blue eyes. I never thought I would, or could, ever feel that way again.

I was wrong.

Because almost 4 years later, you arrived.

You were beautiful and feisty and with your first breath had me wrapped around your little finger, which is where I happily remain.

The world needs kind souls. There are days when it seems filled with the other type. It’s frighteningly easy to become discouraged. But when I look to you, I see all the goodness the world holds, and I’m instantly lifted up. I can think of all the mistakes I’ve made in my life and forgive myself, because of you.

I could sense it immediately. The extraordinary empathy you possess. When another was hurting, you hurt too. When somebody was down, yours was the first hand offered to help them up. And your ability to forgive has always been a wonder to behold. When I think to myself, “I don’t know if I could do that”, it’s not because I doubt your judgement, but simply because I’m not as good a person. I’m trying though kid. You set a high bar.

As much as you’ve learned from me, I’ve learned from you. There needs to be a better word than “proud”. Because it’s just not big enough.

A final memory. Your grandfather adored you. He called you “little one”. And when he got sick, he drifted slowly away from us, never really feeling engaged any longer. Except when he saw you. His eyes would re-light, and he’d bounce you on his knee. When he couldn’t remember anything else, he knew you. I treasure those moments.

And I treasure you.

Love,

Dad

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Strange times….

September 30, 2019 Leave a comment

I went for a long walk the other day and noticed an ever increasing number of Confederate flags in my (very northern) neck of the woods….hanging from porches and from (mostly) large pick-up trucks, usually flying in close proximity to the US flag. And I thought……”we live in strange times, Bubba”.

Postcard_Conferate_FLag_2550xI can’t think of another nation that proudly flies the flag of the foe they vanquished long ago in a war that killed 620,000 people and injured over a million more. People fly the flag in an apparent attempted middle finger to…well…something. Liberals? Black people? Folks who don’t like guns? People who dislike “Free Bird”? The more you think on it the more completely bizarre it is.

Why not fly the Japanese flag? We beat them too, remember? The good ‘ol rising sun never caught on as a way to troll the libtards. I wonder why?

What bothers me most about stupidity is the hatred that invariably crawls out from its rock, and what bothers me most about hatred is how it’s seemingly always borne from stupidity.

But make no mistake. Stupidity is dangerous. The idiot is frighteningly easy to manipulate. The President threatens civil war. Will it happen? Of course not. But will some pea-brained little-dicked cultists kill because of his rhetoric? Hmmmm

I try to distract myself from it. I try to keep my head down and tell myself that the nation will collectively soon be taken over by the better angels of our nature, and invariably my repose is shattered by some Yee-Haw in a Ram 1500, who most likely has a great great-grandfather who fought on the Union side in the war, blasting the latest Hat-Act and jerking off unknowingly to the ideals of Nathan-Bedford Forrest. It’s beyond distressing is what it is.

When what triggers you is triggering others, you’re probably an asshole.

Racism is alive and well. It’s been emboldened, from the top down. It used to be that its most blatant devotees were forced behind closed doors…..or at least the kind of doors that most folks would never walk through. The hollow-eyed kid in high school with the copy of Mein Kampf under his bed and the swastika tattoo under his shirt. That sort of thing. But now….it’s gone mainstream. No need to hide in your basement anymore. You’re welcomed. Encouraged. There are “very fine people” on both sides…..and if you are smart enough to cloak your racism in new-age dog-whistles, there’s no telling how far you can go. I recently played a gig where a Cheap Trick song was met by a guy yelling out “White Power!”. I still can’t figure out the connection, but the fact that people just laughed and ignored it is telling. I was shocked for about 3 seconds and then, not so much. I probably laughed too, as it seemed more appropriate at the time than crying. Not to mention safer.

I don’t know where we go from here. We seem to be in a race to debase ourselves as a nation, with the rest of the world watching. (And keeping phone transcripts. So watch what you say and all that…)

Eventually, like a tinder-dry forest, the entire shithouse is gonna burn, and we’re gonna be left with the decision of what to re-build, and what to leave in the dust-bin.

And our kids are gonna grow up, and there’s going to be some sort of reckoning. And they’re gonna want to know…..how did this happen?

(Unless of course they turn out to be the same type of shitheads as the adults. But I’ve got to think they’ve been taking notes…..)

Maybe they’ll discover that it was not because of the boorish idiocy of a chosen few, but rather due to the silence of the many.

Sitting this one out is not an option, Bubba.

Silence is complicity.

And if we remain silent, we’re doomed.

In a bit..

–tf

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The radio…

September 17, 2019 Leave a comment

radioI wish the radio meant as much now as it did then.

Now it’s just background noise….a top 40 station when my wife or kids are driving, and the closest “classic rock” station for me….enough to get to from point A to point B without hearing the always strange noises a silent car makes, and inevitably thinking something is perpetually wrong. The only time the radio plays inside our house is when we leave the dog home alone.

Growing up the radio would preach to me…..cajole me…..inspire me….infuriate me. It was a constant companion. Now it’s just…another set of buttons to press. Like fixing food in the microwave. You forget the oven and the stove are even there. I could haul some CDs out….or search for that ever elusive Ipod aux-jack….but just accepting what comes at you when you turn the key is easier. And hell….7 out of 10 mornings it’s “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC….which isn’t the worst way to start the day, right?

But then again….

I always remember hearing that song for the first time. Hanging on every note, feeling dizzy……not wanting it to end but needing to be there when it did so you could hear its name and who it was from. When the DJ didn’t announce it, well then you’d get on the phone and ask him or her. And then…..you’d call back in time and request what you heard earlier. If you didn’t know the name…or the band….you’d try to describe it. Maybe hum the chorus. Or verbalize the guitar riff. Anything to get your point across. “Play is again man! You know the one I’m talking about! “I have a feeling being a DJ back then was a little crazier, and maybe a bit more fun as well.

And then maybe sitting home, with the tape recorder at the ready……waiting. Like a hunter sitting in that tree all day. Then…..there it is. You’d scramble to hit that ‘record’ button, muck it up some, and invariably end up with the song minus the first 15 seconds. But that was ok. It was yours now. And when you were done listening and re-listening, always setting the tape so that it was ready for the next song. No time to be re-winding or fast-forwarding to make sure you don’t obliterate a previous treasure. We had to work some back then, but it was so worth it. These weren’t even mix-tapes. They didn’t come until later. These were way more important somehow.

Top 40 radio then (talking late 70s here….)….it was different. There was bits of everything. Rock and soul and and disco bits of reggae and the punk they could get away with and gooey-pop and introspective folkie stuff and incredible shmaltz, all co-existing in one big pot of stew. Some of it was shite, and some of it was glorious. But none of it was boring. Boredom was a mortal sin.

Today, all the songs sound like they were written by the same 5 writers, and sung by the same 3 singers. Auto-tuned to death. No matter how hard I listen I can’t hear a fucking guitar anywhere….and as soon as the song is over I can’t remember a single thing about it. Top 40 playlists last about as long as a bar of soap.

I can still remember the night. In my teens. With my girl. Carrying a radio as we walked home from sharing an illegal 6-pack…..and that song came on. And without saying anything we burst into a sort of run/dance…..down the twisting street, singing as loud as we dared. Hand in hand. In an instant. The song. It changed everything. Pure, unadulterated joy. I’ll never forget that feeling. That’s the best of it right there. That’s what you chase when music gets in you.

I don’t know if that sort of thing happens anymore. Does it?

I know there’s great new music being made out there. But I’m just not hearing it on the radio. I have to go search for it myself….which is rewarding for sure, but sometimes I wish this stuff was laid on my doorstep the way it used to be.

In a bit..

–tf

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Neal Casal – “I wish the world was as gentle as he was..”

August 27, 2019 Leave a comment

My doubts had doubts. I didn’t know what I was doing. All I know is that there was, finally, something about this batch of songs that kept me awake at night, thinking that things were possible. It was 1998.

I was working with George Graham at WVIA. George had a suggestion.

“I think we should ask Neal….I hear him on these..”

Neal Casal.

George has worked with Neal on a previous session. He thought our styles would mesh.

I didn’t know what to say….I think I stammered something like….”um…er….well….I mean….do you think he would do it, because I doubt he’ll…you know….?”

I had Neal’s records. We played a show together when he passed through the area. I was a huge fan. Just listening to “Fade Away Diamond Time” and “Rain Wind and Speed” made me a better songwriter…because I discreetly stole from both of them. He was so understated, so quietly inventive. He did everything well. Gorgeous singer, writer of great melodies (“Bird in Hand” still makes me cry), wonderful lyricist. As a guitarist he served the song better than anybody I’d ever heard. He had a pitch-perfect ear. And he was as gentle as the sunrise.

George said “let’s ask him”, and he did and Neal not only said yes, he suggested bringing his friend John Ginty with him. John had played keys on all of Neal’s records up to that point. And so there it was. It wasn’t just that I was intimidated, It was that I nearly shit myself. That’s the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

casal16

Neal during the “Song About a Train” sessions

I had no idea how to make a record. None. It was suggested that Neal and John were so good that we’d only need a day to rehearse the songs….they’d come up on a Friday night, and we could record on Saturday and Sunday. My girls weren’t born yet, so Neal got Kiera’s future room….and John got Alyssa’s. We played for a few hours and I spent the entire time grinning like an idiot. If anybody needed to rehearse it was me. By the end of the night Neal and John knew the songs better than I did.

They were fully engaged. We tweaked and cut and added and worked on arrangements. What struck me was how into this Neal was. He wasn’t just connecting the dots I had laid out. He was saying “let’s try this…..let’s try that…what do you think about this?…” He was softly pre-producing the record, ultimately…something I didn’t realize at the time because I had no idea what a producer was or what one did. And he was forcing me to believe in myself, because it was clear he believed in the songs. If they were good enough for him….well that was good enough for me.

So I didn’t shit myself, although I never got over feeling just a wee bit intimidated. This was the kind of talent I was unfamiliar with. Right out of the box, you get to work with Neal Casal? I didn’t know what normal was, but I knew this wasn’t it. But I savored every last drop.

Neal woke up the next morning, and being the perfect gentleman, thanked my wife for her hospitality. He remarked how he slept hard to the sound of the river that rolled along across the street, and off to the studio we went to make “Song About a Train“. In two sessions it was done. I played his Martin acoustic on just about every track. He was right there the entire time….adding harmony, gorgeous fills on the guitar, impeccable slide playing…..and taking some co-lead vocals. And always, without fail, encouraging me. Pushing me forward. When the energy flagged, he brought it back. When I started to see frogs on the wall trying to cut the final track, it was Neal who brought me outside for some air and talked me off the ledge. It’s his record as much as it’s mine.

I think I’ve made better records since, but I never made one that meant more. It convinced me that I could do this. And I can honestly say that if I hadn’t made this one….with Neal and John, things would have turned out a lot differently for me. And not better.

I woke up this morning to the news that Neal is gone. And the world suddenly seemed a little meaner. Neal was like the cool breeze you felt on a warm day. A man in constant motion, brimming with ideas. The music oozed from him the way mortals sweat out booze the morning after. He had become the consummate sideman (most notably with Ryan Adams and Chris Robinson), but had front-man talent and charisma. But as always, Neal followed the music. Wherever it took him. Stage right or standing on the center X. He deserved everything that he got. And he deserved so much more. I’m not sure he ever realized that last bit.

We stayed in touch the way most folks do these days. Email first….then social media. I grabbed every record he made as soon as he made it, and never stopped being a fan first, completely inspired by his gifts. I probably last heard from him a year ago. As always, he seemed to be in a good place, open to anyone and everything that might cross his path.  Forever the restless wanderer.

He always treated me like an equal, even though I wasn’t.

I just wish he was still here.

I wish the world was as gentle as he was.

In a bit..

–tf

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Confessions of a Tragically Hip virgin…

August 21, 2019 3 comments

Comedian Martin Mull once said that “writing about music is like dancing about architecture”.

It’s pretty arrogant of me to lecture you on what makes my brain dance, trying to convince you that it should make your brain dance too. We all have our tastes, our blind-spots, our secret crushes, and that one band that we drag around to anybody who’ll listen and say “you gotta hear these guys…”

We like what we like, hate what we hate, and can’t live without what we can’t live without. And if we’re serious about music, our ears are always open. But still….

But still, time spent reading about music takes away from the time you should be listening to it….so I won’t blather on too long here. But a few things have been building up. And I’m feeling a bit word hungry today.

ltr-th-1024x576I’ve just recently discovered The Tragically Hip. As a dumb American, this doesn’t make me unique. How a nation that championed bands during the 80s/90s/2000s that were not worthy to shine Gord Downie’s black stage boots could largely overlook a group this exciting is beyond me. But it happened. I was there. I should know.

The Hip tore up Saturday Night Live one night, and the next night played to 40 drunks in a Saint Louis bar. That’s on us red white and blue-ers.. We missed the train……and longtime Hip fans must be tired of morons like me jumping on the bandwagon after the balloon has landed.

It was the Netflix doc that introduced me. I read a post about it from a Facebook friend…saying that it moved him to tears. So I pulled it up…..grabbed a lager…and everything changed.

I’d never heard these songs before. Ever. And I kept inching the volume up….until my sleeping kids started yelling downstairs for me to turn it down. Apparently “Courage” turned up to 11 was bothering them at 1am. Who knew? This would need to be addressed….but later….

The brotherhood of the band. The tragedy of Gord’s diagnosis. The friendship. The love. The pre-show kisses. The way all of this affected an entire nation. When I get excited watching something, I stand and pace. I’ve only done this during sporting events, and Long Time Running.

But still…..the fucking songs. It was relentless….snippets mostly from the doc….it wasn’t until later that I heard the original versions (and saw the final Kingston show in its entirety). I was a Hip virgin….and it was like lying under Niagara Falls with my legs spread.

Bobcaygeon. Blow at High Dough. Wheat Kings. Fifty-Mission Cap. Poets. Grace, Too. Fireworks. Little Bones. Ahead By a Century.

(To long-time Hip fans, the above list is so blatantly obvious it doesn’t conjure up words at all, just a sound. “Duh”. But be cautioned. It’s easy to forget that there was a time when you too heard these songs for the first time. They weren’t always there. It just seems that way. I’d felt this feeling only once before. The first time I heard The Who.)

I’d never heard songs this good, coming at me so fast. I was dizzy. As soon as it was over, I watched it again. Cue the kids yelling all over again. More understandable this time, as it was inching past 3am now. But still….

I got more the second time. The lines started to jump out…

“Could have been the Willie Nelson / could have been the wine”

“You said you didn’t give a fuck about hockey / and I never saw someone say that before”

“No dress rehearsal / this is our life”

Who was this dying madman?

I was jealous of Canadians. We don’t have a band like this. A band that meant this much to so many. A band that seemingly lifted a nation. Fucking Justin Trudeau was singing along from the balcony in his Hip t-shirt, flexing his pecs. Can you imagine something like this happening in America? You cannot. Something like a third of the nation was singing along to “Ahead By a Century”. What could we offer to compare?

I shudder to think of what we’d come up with in 2019.

It wasn’t annoying nationalism either. The flag waving might make the uninitiated think otherwise, with the potential to be as misconstrued in Canada as “Born in the USA” was here, but Downie was giving a voice to folks long ignored. And as his remarks  to Trudeau at the end of the Kingston show proved, he wasn’t afraid to hold feet to the fire.

He had balls, in other words.

Downie was a national treasure. A combination of Dylan and Springsteen and Willie Nelson and Stevie Wonder and Michael Stipe and the ghost of Elvis, all rolled up into various lamé suits. Imagine all of the living dying on the same day…..along with Presley’s grave being defaced by vandals during the funerals…and you might be somewhere in the neighborhood of what I was seeing. The intensity of it all was almost frightening. No hockey arena in Canada could satisfy demand. With eloquence an American hasn’t heard from a politician since pre-2016, Trudeau spoke of the need for a “cathartic cry”. I didn’t get it then. I get it now.

But that band.

Fay and Sinclair always locked in, as if sharing the same watch. Langlois always there….sometimes laying back, sometimes stepping forward…..but always paving the way for Baker to take flight. And in front of it all was Downie, one for the ages. A gyrating dynamo with the soul of a street poet, waving the white handkerchief as if constantly surrendering, his dance moves reminding me of a man filled with tequila trying to shoo away bugs, trying to make eye contact with every single person in the arena….and probably coming damn close. He’d fill the songs out with mumbling raps….hilarious, mind-bending, nonsensical, brilliant. His was a brain that had no off switch, even cancer could not change that. He gave us his all. Every. Single. Time.

And I missed it all while it was happening. And that makes me feel like an idiot.

But it’s a late day for regrets. So I take what I can get.

For months I’ve listened to little else but this band. “Road Apples” is a particular favorite. I consider “Bobcaygeon” one of the the greatest song of the 90s. I once sat on my front porch and drank a 6 pack of PBRs listening to nothing but “Wheat Kings” on repeat. I do not dabble in anything. When I go, I go hard.

I’m so grateful to have found this band. To all my friends I have relentlessly badgered about needing to find them too, I apologize and promise not to do it again.

Until the next time I see you and say “you gotta hear these guys….”

To all those who have known all along…..I wish I was with you for the ride.

In a bit..

–tf

 

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