Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving Moonset

A buzzard takes flight about 8AM this morning as the Moon sets in the west.  This view is taken from my front yard. This is known as the Frost Moon.
Just the slightest hint of frost on my front yard in this wider view of a Thanksgiving Day Moonset.  It was wonderful to see it as I enjoyed morning coffee. There was no sound, it was totally quiet.  Jennifer was busy making dressing for the big family dinner later on today.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Neil Young: Bluenote Cafe

Counting studio material, live recordings, compilations, work with other bands, Neil  Young has delivered over 60 albums to date.  That is an amazing number compared with most musicians. But really it is to be expected in this case.  Neil is still churning out vibrant new material as he turns 70.  There have been numerous times when he has released more than one album in a single year. His latest effort is from his Archives project.  It features one of the many different flavors of Neil that came out in the 1980's.

Bluenote Cafe is a two CD live concert set featuring the best performances while on tour with the Bluenotes in 1987-1988. The set contains seven previously unreleased songs which is true music to the ear of any long-time Rustie like myself.  I have heard a few of these new songs before on the numerous bootleg live performances of Neil in my collection.  But to hear them and the rest of these tunes performed for the first time with such passion, accomplishment, and good fidelity is a real treat.

I pre-ordered the album from amazon and paid an extra $5 to have it delivered to my home on the day of its release. That way, even though Jennifer and I live in the middle of nowhere, we were able to listen to some previously unheard Neil at the same time most every other Rustie in the world did. I received it last Friday, the official day of release, just in time for Jennifer and I to spend the weekend enjoying it. 

And enjoy it we did.  I had only modest expectations but was pleasantly surprised. The bulk of the material comes from Neil's This Note's for You album, a bluesy/jazzy version of Neil featuring Old Black and a solid horn section of three saxophones, a trombone, and two trumpets.  This Note's for You has an interesting urban vibe to it but I would not rank it as one of my favorite Neil efforts.  Like much of his repertoire, it is an acquired taste but worthy of listening to because it is so unique - like other Neil albums from the 1980's.  

Earlier in that decade he ventured into techno, rockabilly, and mainstream country music. Shifting into jazz-infused blues completed an experimental decade which saw him being sued by his then-record label for "not producing Neil Young music"; something that still makes me smile today. Neil doesn't follow anyone's expectations - record companies, critics, or even his own fans.  Which is really what the song "This Note's for You" is all about, as a rant against consumerist commercialization. 

But as different as this music sounds, it is nevertheless rooted in basic Neil Young, which is one reason that law suit was ridiculous.  For example, Crazy Horse, his long-time garage band supports the horns on two songs.  Billy Talbot handles the bass with Ralph Molina on drums while Frank "Poncho" Sampedro trades in his electric guitar for keyboards through the album. The majority of the songs feature Rick Rosas on bass and Chad Cromwell on drums, two musicians that worked with Neil on several of his projects. 

The rest of the Bluenotes are these six wonderful horns.  On the studio album the music has a somewhat mechanical feel to it, like the band is imitating the music. There are 3-4 nice tunes but mostly it is interesting mediocrity - which is why my expectations were sort of low for this Performance Series release.  But the truth is, like a lot of Neil's stuff, the same material often sounds amazing live.  This release mostly exceeds the quality of the studio album with the added treat of getting to listen to seven tunes that were not previously available through "official" (ie. quality recording) channels.

The opportunity to listen to this music for the first time along with the rest of the world on the day of its release, delivered to my doorstep in the middle of nowhere, was just a rich experience.  Jennifer and I enjoyed the album several times last weekend and again this weekend.  It is a wonderful addition to my collection and it makes me so appreciative of how fortunate Jennifer and I are in our lives.  A blast from the past enriches my present in the best kind of way.

This Performance Series release contains 21 songs from several different venues recorded in 1987-1988.  The feel is a superb fusion of blues, jazz, and rock.  The This Note's for You material (mixed with the previously unreleased songs) comes out far more solid and energized in this live concert presentation.

This is not to say the two CD set doesn't have its weaker moments.  Generally speaking, however, much of the new material is better than I expected. "Bad News Comes to Town" (a different, bootleg performance from the same tour) is the best of breed here and a real surprise for me. The band absolutely blows this tune away in a blistering performance with plenty of space for Old Black, an amazingly inspiring trombone, and the alto saxophone to be featured in solo. How many great trombone solos do you hear these days? To think no Neil fan has heard this song in a fine recording quality until last Friday makes it all the more special.

Neil mostly plays Old Black on the album. On several songs, however, he is featured with just his harmonica amidst the rest of the band and its big horn sound. The album offers fantastic versions of several songs. "Don't Take Your Love Away from Me", "This Note's for You", "Ten Men Working", and "One Thing" are all the best versions of these songs I have ever heard. Very strong playing with a lot of guitar and horn solos, the backbone coming from the horn section. Solid, noteworthy performances.

"Ordinary People" features Pancho on piano and it is better than the studio version which was not released until 2007's Chrome Dreams II, about 20 years after it was written.  Once again the horns are amazing.  This  song satisfies with another particularly great trombone solo. The Blue collar lyrics are a bit of classic Neil.

Most of the other songs, some previously unreleased, some studio stuff, are not that special but they are good enough to sustain the unique vibe of this tour, alive and listenable.  This is a very distinctive kind of Neil outside his comfort zone and being totally comfortable with that.

Neil most clearly grounds all of this lightning uniqueness into his fundamental body of work with an upbeat big band rendition of "On the Way Home."  While this is by no means the best version of this song from early in Neil's career, it is the most distinctive and jazzy playing you can find. Giving this song this unique treatment is a wonder. This is accompanied by another basic Neil tune that strikes at the very heart of his prolific creativity. The set ends with a massive, highly energized, driving without ceasing 19-minute version of "Tonight's the Night", the title song from a highly-regarded essential aspect of Neil.

That crazy finish to a classic cornerstone of Neil as an artist demonstrates that even though this jazz-blues infused music sounds so distant from the classic Neil, it is nevertheless rooted in the source of all Neil's other multiple personality styles.  I remember being disappointed in the studio album when it came out but hearing this music live and sustained and fresh again and passionately performed is the best kind of unexpected delight. This set makes great party music and reveals a multifaceted genius at work.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Pictures at an Exhibition

Jennifer and I met our 'Dillo friends for dinner last night at the Cafe Sunflower before we all attended an open art exhibit. It was very crowded and there were tons of art, several studio displays, little servers walked around with small trays with treats. There was an open bar.  It was fun and the art I saw was better than you can see in almost any contemporary art museum in America. Here are some quick shots I took in sometimes bad lighting and cramped conditions.

Monday, November 2, 2015

The 2015 World Series: In the Grand Scheme of Things

The Kansas City Royals defeated the New York Mets to become Major League Baseball's (MLB) World Champions in 2015.  In doing so, they won their first Series since 1985, their second Series win in four appearances in baseball's Fall Classic.  So, as a franchise, the Royals have  2-2 World Series record.  The Mets dropped to 2-3 in their Series history.

In most cases, I root for the National League team in the Series but this year I was pulling for the Royals because (1) I tend to dislike teams from New York City, and (2) I have a warm spot in my baseball heart for Ned Yost, the Royals manager, who served as the bullpen coach and third base coach during the 1990's with the Atlanta Braves under Bobby Cox, and (3) the Royals are just a fun team to watch.  I like their talent and their style of play.

A special shout-out goes to Royals shortstop, Alcides Escobar, who made baseball history by hitting safely in 15 consecutive postseason games.  Admittedly, this is easier to do now that we have a three-tier playoff in the MLB than it was prior to, say, 1969 when there were no playoffs at all - just the World Series.  But it is a amazing achievement nonetheless.

One of Escobar's hits was the now-famous first-pitch inside-the-park home run that he hit in Game One of the 2015 Series.  This was the first World Series inside-the-parker since 1929 and the first first-pitch insider since the very first World Series in 1903 when Jimmy Sebring hit one off Cy Young (!).  Escobar is a complete player and is fun to watch both offensively and defensively.

By hitting in 15 consecutive postseason games, Escobar joins an elite group of players.  He ties the great Rickey Henderson of the Oakland Athletics and Marquis Grissom of the Atlanta Braves.  Most of Grissom's hits came in the Braves 1995 World Championship.  Henderson batted a commanding .410 and Grissom .377 during their respective streaks, while Escobar hit a more modest .231 for the 2015 Series. 

Ahead of Escobar on this prestigious list are: Pat Borders with 16 consecutive games, Hank Bauer, Derek Jeter, and Manny Ramirez each with hits in 17 consecutive games.  All of these players achieved this feat over more than one postseason.  Escobar is distinctive in that no other player in baseball history has hit in 15 consecutive games in a single postseason.  Impressive. As icing on the cake, Escobar joins another elite list players with the number of total hits he got in this postseason.

As a fun mental exercise, let's step away from the micro-achievements of an individual player and look at this year's Series in the context of all of baseball's World Series.  The best way to do that is by franchise.  I want to call this the World Series Club.  To be a member of the Club, a franchise has to have won a World Series - appearing in the Series and losing is not good enough.  So, by this reckoning several franchises are not members of the World Series Club.

The Seattle Mariners and the Washington Nationals are the only two franchises to have never appeared in the World Series.  Though they have appeared twice each, both the San Diego Padres and the Texas Rangers are 0-2.  Not good enough for the Club.  Four franchises are 0-1: the Milwaukee Brewers, the Houston Astros, the Colorado Rockies, and the Tampa Bay Rays.  So, eight franchises have yet to make my snobby, elitist definition for membership in the World Series Club.

Once in the Club, I break the members into three tiers.  The lower-tier includes the Los Angeles Angels and the  Arizona Diamondbacks, both with a single Series appearance but with a win (1-0).  One appearance is not really what I would call a "respectable" number, but a win is a win so they get a back table at the fictitious Club's award banquet.  Slightly better but still lower-tier are the Miami Marlins and the Toronto Blue Jays each with a 2-0 record. 

Rounding out the lower-tier with 2 wins and no more than five total Series appearances are: the 2015 losing New York Mets who now have a 2-3 record, the same record as the Cleveland Indians who have not won a Series since 1948. By winning in 2015 the Royals improve to 2-2 so they remain lower-tier members.  The Chicago White Sox are actually the winningest franchise in the lower-tier with a 3-2 record.

The middle-tier consists of franchises who have between six and 11 World Series appearances.  Here we have the Minnesota Twins at 3-3, the Philadelphia Phillies at 2-5, the Baltimore Orioles at 3-4, and the Pittsburgh Pirates have the highest winning percentage among all Club members with a 5-2 record. My favorite franchise, the Braves, are middle-tier members with a mediocre 3-6 record.  The Cincinnati Reds look stronger with their 5-4 record.  The Chicago Cubs enjoy the double-distinction of having the worst winning percentage in the Club (2-8) and also having gone the longest amount of time since their last World Championship (1908). The long-suffering Cubs fans have not enjoyed their team appearing in the Series since 1945.  The Detroit Tigers round out the middle-tier with a 4 wins and 7 loses.

Then we come to what I would consider to be the elite of baseball's elite Club.  The upper-tier requires at least a dozen World Series appearances.  The best Series franchises in baseball history start with the Boston Red Sox at a very respectable 8-4. The Oakland Athletics are a solid member with a 9-5 record.  The Los Angeles Dodgers (dating back to New York) have the same winning percentage in the Club as the Braves but they have appeared twice as often and possess a 6-12 record.  The St. Louis Cardinals represent the "class act" of the National League with 11 championships against 8 loses.  The San Francisco Giants (also dating back to New York) have 20 appearances but a losing record of 8-12.

Whenever you talk about championships and baseball one team far and away stands out among all others.  The New York Yankees (who I refer to as the DamnYankees) have astonishingly appeared in more World Series than the Giants and Cardinals combined.  The Yankees' 27-13 record perhaps puts them in a tier all of their own, but this is my blog and my Club idea so they simply sit comfortably atop the upper-tier.  They have won more Championships than the Giants, Cardinals, and Dodgers combined. Enough about them.

So, that places some context to the 2015 Fall Classic.  Two comparatively recent teams (the Royals franchise began in 1969, the Mets in 1962) faced off.  Even though the Series only lasted 5 games it was a lot of fun to watch with extra-inning games and plenty of heroic moments by both teams.  The Royals dominated but they caught most of the breaks, had some great late-inning hits, and capitalized on Mets mistakes, yet the 2015 Series was much closer than the 4 games to 1 record will indicate.  

By my reckoning, the Mets have one more appearance to make before they qualify for the middle-tier.  The Royals have to come back two more times.  Considering the talent both teams possess that is certainly possible, though the Mets have gone as long as 15 seasons between appearances and the Royals as long as 29 seasons. It can be a long wait between trips and even longer between wins. But that wait is more than worth it. Just ask any of the eight franchises not yet in the Club.