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Do It Live

13 Jan

DoItLiveLast night, I had the privilege of performing a reading as part of the venerable Writers with Drinks spoken word/variety show. The event is put on by fellow Gawker-er Charlie Jane Anders (io9), and takes place monthly at the Makeout Room in the Mission. WWD has been going on for more than a decade, and I, because I am a huge loser, have never been. After last night, I’ll probably never miss another one as long as live in San Francisco. It was a BLAST.

The setup is more or less this: Each month, four or five writers go up to the mic and read their stuff for about 10-15 minutes each. It can be a chapter from a book, or a few poems, or some spoken word thing, or a comedy routine, or an essay or article. When Charlie Jane asked me to participate early last week, my first thought was, “Okay!” My second thought was, “What the fuck am I going to read?”

For a while I considered throwing together some new thing, something about teaching, or music, or life in the city… the hidden message behind those ideas being, Christ, anything but video games. Then, my daily schedule being what it is, it became clear that I wasn’t going to have time to write 10 or 15 minutes’ worth of new material by Saturday in addition to writing for work. So, video games it was.

I wound up adapting a couple of older things I’d written: First was an essay about Pac-Man, lines, the Japanese visual art suibokuga, and jazz called “Onward, Pac-Man!” I also did a rendition of “Fisher-Fest 2010″, which is a breakdown of the ridiculous dialogue in Splinter Cell: Conviction. I asked my friend Dan to come up to read the dialogue from Fisher-Fest with me, to shake things up. How would this go? Would we tank? Would anyone care? God only knew.

Okay, so: I get to the Makeout Room and it’s packed. There are like 80 people there, and they’re all Here To Listen To People Read Things. Um. So I’m going to get in front of this huge group of people and read an essay about Pac-Man. Right. Then, it turns out that the person who was supposed to kick us off hasn’t shown up, so I’m going to go FIRST. Good lord.

wwdfallingI’ve actually performed at the Makeout Room before, but every time I’ve done it, it’s been with my band. I’ve had a guitar or a saxophone to hide behind, and a whole band to back me up. There’s something so naked about getting up on stage with a sheaf of papers and just sort of… reading.

So I go up there to read, and about thirty seconds in it becomes clear–praise be–that this crowd totally gets it. They are on board. They want to hear about Pac-Man and jazz. They’re laughing at Fisher-Fest. (Money line from Dan: “You’ll die on your knees, like a SCIENTIST!”) And the whole time I’m on stage, vaguely thinking, “Here I am, reading an essay about Pac-Man and making jokes about Splinter Cell, and this audience is super into it? What the fuck planet am I on?”

Anyway, it was grand. I now fully understand why readings are A Thing. Other readers included Jan Richman doing a chapter from her book Thrill-Bent, Ramez Naam sharing a hilarious sci-fi sexual misadventure from his book Nexus, Wired‘s Erin Biba reading this article about the history and future of prenatal genetic testing, and another writer (who wasn’t on the bill and so whose name I’m tracking down) who filled in for an empty slot with a riveting story of a woman traveling on a bus to an extramarital tryst, only to have one of the passengers go missing.

During all of the readings, particularly that last one, I was struck by how the very vulnerability I was so nervous about going in–No instruments! No band! Just words and a mic!–actually became a strength. Because there wasn’t any loud music playing, people were quiet. Because there was only one thing to pay attention to, the audience was focused. We hung on every word, laughed at every joke. It was remarkable.

I was also surprised at how helpful it was for me to rework my writing into something that’d work for a live audience. It’s always useful to read your work out loud, but I’d never really taken an article or essay of mine and asked of it, “Could I read this out loud to a bar full of people? Would they get it? Would it work?”

The changes I made to both essays helped them flow, and removed assumed knowledge and jargon without in any way changing their gist or substance. The Pac-Man essay still articulates a concept I remain enamored of even a couple of years after I wrote the piece, but my actual writing in it feels clunky and effortful now. It’s overly purple, like I was trying to impress everyone. (Guess what: I was.) I say too little with too many words, and in the lede I assume that readers know both Splinter Cell and Minecraft. In making the article work for last night’s performance, I didn’t just make it more accessible, I also made it better.

So, there’s a cool exercise in there. Next time you’re writing something, ask of it: “Could I read this out loud? To a club full of ordinary people? Would they get it?” Granted, the approach won’t do much for, say, a review of a new graphics card, but if you’re going for broad appeal with whatever you’re writing, it’s a helpful measuring stick.

Anyway. Writers With Drinks was a lot of fun. If you live in SF, you should come out to the next one. I’ll be there!

The Stage Lights Are Beckoning

11 Feb

Last weekend at the Brava Theater I did another episode of “915 Cayuga,” the live radio/theatrical/musical show that I started last year with my creative partner, the fabulous actor/writer Khamara Pettus. Khamara produces, writes, acts, and directs the show while I serve as musical director, sing and play a bunch of instruments, and write some of the skits.

I’m joined onstage by my friends and longtime bandmates Lindsay Garfield, Dan Apczynski and Dan Nervo. A bunch of other wonderful people contribute as well; it’s really becoming quite a production.

Below are some cool pictures from last week; they were taken by Carrina Maree. (You can view the full Flickr set here.) We’ll have a full recording online soon, and I’ll be sure to holler when it’s up.

The next performance will be at the Brava somewhere around the end of March, and you should come.

Oh, Cayuga!

22 Jul

This Sunday, July 24th, I’ll be leading my band in the first-ever performance of the live musical radio show 915 Cayuga! The show is a project that my collaborative partner Khamara Pettus and I have been working on for a while, and it’s gonna be super-fun. It’s basically a radio variety show, featuring musicians (me, Dan, Nervo and Lindsay), actors (Khamara and the cast), and other acts (dancing, call-in advice, storytelling, monologuing), all performed and recorded in front of a live studio audience (you (hopefully)).

Basically, imagine “Prairie Home Companion” moved to the city and minus the midwestern fetish and all the Lutheran jokes, and you’ve got 915 Cayuga. I really hope you can make it out – we’re planning to do the show pretty regularly, and would love to have a great audience for our maiden voyage.

Show info is as follows:

Date: Sunday, July 24th, 7:00 PM
Venue: Main Street Theater, 915 Cayuga, SF (Near Balboa Park BART)
Cover: $10 door
Age: 21+, wine/beer available at the theater’s cash bar
Advance tickets at: http://www.brownpapertickets.com/event/186816
Facebook Event: http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=210891268956699

On a related note, I have finally updated my mailing list using the free mailing-list service MailChimp. I think it looks pretty good – if you’d like to sign up, you can do so here.

Hope to see you all Sunday!

The Spring Concert

13 Apr

Last week was the Urban School’s spring concert at Herbst Theatre. We always have a great time at these shows, but this year’s felt somehow special. My kids played their asses off, as did the other student groups. And there was this certain vibe, a joyfulness to the proceedings that was tough to describe but impossible to miss.

John Hefti, the father of one of my pianists, took some fantastic photos of the show. You can see them all here, but I thought I’d post a few of my favorites as well.

And my personal favorite, of our drummer Xander taking his ripping DS solo at the start of our closing number:

The Exited Door, On Sale

9 Mar

In honor of all the new friends I’ve made over the past six months, I’ve decided to make my first solo record, “The Exited Door,” 50% off at Bandcamp. For the rest of this week, it’s selling for $5 (though you can name your price, should you want to pay more). You can also stream the whole thing for free on the site, or even listen to it right here:

I had no label, no producer, no mixing engineer, no professional studio—only me, my best musician friends, and anyone else I could convince to pitch in. I guess the word “indie” has taken a bit of a beating lately, but I’m not sure it gets more indie than how I made this album.

If you’re curious, I wrote a detailed, seven-part series about the process of making the album which was fun to write and is worth checking out. Even though I hope to work with a producer and a professional engineering team on my next album (and don’t doubt that the album would have been “better” had I had them), it is a point of pride for me that I managed to make it at all, and I’m really glad that I took the time to document the process.

We also do this stuff live, and I’ve made a video montage of a show we did a year and a half ago. I seriously, mega need to do another big show like this one; it was way too much fun.

 

Huge thanks to everyone who’s bought the record so far; I hope you are enjoying it. Your support is hugely valued, so please spread the word to anyone you think might like it!

Shadows and Whispers

14 Jan

When I was in music school, I was in a few saxophone quartets. At the University of Miami there is usually a freshman quartet, with the four freshman jazz saxophone principles assuming the four chairs in the group. It’s a great way to focus on intonation and blend. I’d never played in a “proper” rehearsing quartet before, and it was a challenging and exceedingly valuable experience.

My senior year, a group of upperclassmen actually put together an advanced quartet in order to tackle some really challenging music. The group consisted of me on tenor, Dan Kinzleman on soprano, Chris Shade on alto and Paul Roth on bari. UM Sax Prof Gary Keller directed us.

. We played a bunch of serious modern repertoire, including a Dave Liebman quartet that was as “out” as out can be. Lieb actually came down and listened to us play it, which was awesome and a bit harrowing. And in the spring, composer Jim Mcneely was the guest artist for the Concert Jazz Band, in which I was playing second tenor. Before the concert, our sax quartet took it upon ourselves to learn the final movement from a Mcneely piece called “Shadows and Whispers; Slash and Burn.”

We recorded it live at Gusman hall in early 2003. Every time I come back to the recording I’m struck by just how incredible Mcneely’s writing is, and how advanced the music was. His big band writing is equally cool, but something about the purity of the quartet really brings out what he does so well.

A (fantastic) student of mine named Ben is applying to UM, and Gary really likes his playing. Which is so very cool to hear. I saw Gary last week in New Orleans at the JEN convention, and we talked fondly about the Mcneely quartet. Gary went ahead and forward the recording along to Ben, so I thought I’d share it here, as well.

As you listen to it, bear in mind that there is no improvising in the piece – all of the notes were written. Check out how it goes in and out of focus, going from unison to harmony to rhythmic disjointedness and back. (Update: if you would like to purchase it, it is available via Advance Music.)

“Shadows and Whispers; Slash and Burn” by Jim Mcneely:

Musical Happenings

17 Aug

I’ve been working on a lot of different things, so I thought I’d take a minute to detail them here. Also, as you can see from that image, I’ve come down with a mild case of Scott Pilgrim Fever.

SF Songbird Festival Show @ The Blue Macaw

First up is a show we did a couple of weeks at at the groovy Blue Macaw in the Mission. It used to be called 12 Galaxies, and I actually haven’t been to the club since they changed names. Fortunately, the super cool Mz. Urban Therese (whom I have gotten to know as “Therese”) was putting together a bill for her Songbird Festival and asked if I’d like to participate.

We played alongside Debby Gipsman, Juliet Strong, and Jascha Hoffman, all of whom sounded great and were really cool. Debby opened with a solo acoustic set – girl has a really strong voice, sounds somewhat like Natalie Merchant, but better? And I don’t mean that in a silly way, I like Natalie Merchant’s voice, but Debby actually has a really cool quality that I dug. Juliet brought a really big, eclectic band, with accordion, cello, flute (who killed it and was a total babe to boot), cajón, upright bass and herself on keys and vocals. She sounded great, and has written some neat songs – check her stuff out! Jascha Hoffman played the closing set and gave a really charming performance with a kick-ass band – my bassist Daniel was playing with him, and his guitarist sounded great (his name is Adam Roszkiewicz, he plays with a ton of cats) and his drummer was Jason Slota, a great player from Afrodesia and John Vanderslice. Dang, that dude can freakin’ play the drums.

So yeah, our set. It was probably the most relaxed I’ve ever felt going into a show, which was so nice. All of my go-to color instrument folks (Violin, Trumpet, etc) were out of town or booked, so we went with the six-piece. Me, Dan and Lindsay on vocals, Nervo on guitar, Daniel Fabs on bass and Tim McGregor on drums. A killer group, and all friends, so we had a really laid-back vibe in general.

And we killed!  Seriously. I’ve never felt so good about a show – we could do that every night and it’d never get old. I mean, it’d get old, but it feels like it’d never get old. We went through the usual acoustic stuff – “The Darkened Street,” “No Crow, Scarecrow,” “North Kinser,” “Oh, Brother,” “If You’re Feeling Out Of It.”  Most of which are on my record, which hey, if you don’t have it, you should buy it. You know, forget iTunes even – you can actually buy it. Support independent music, man!

Just for kicks, Dan and I did our duo song “The Can Man,” which we wrote together a while back, and it was a ton of fun. We might have to start performing that one more often. And of course, at the end of the set, we played Shoshana. A hit, as always.

There was a really great crowd out, and we were so happy for everyone’s enthusiastic support. Thanks so much for coming, one and all! Thanks also to Therese and the awesome Frankie Burton, who helped run the show and took the pictures here. My next show will most likely be in September, and I’m planning on whipping out some mondo new material later in the fall, too. More on that soon.

Keyboards This Weekend with Blue Rabbit!

Next thing up is a cool one. I’ll be subbing on keyboards with the groovy chamber-pop vocal band Blue Rabbit! This is a band who, if you’ll recall, I described upon first listen as sounding like “the best episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer ever.” (Don’t worry, I elaborated. Or maybe, worry: I elaborated.)

They are awesome, and we’ve been friends since we shared a bill last year at the Rickshaw Stop. Tim, their keyboardist, wasn’t available this weekend, so they needed someone to fill in. They gave me a ring, and even though my first instinct was “Seriously? Can I learn this much keyboard music in a week?” after thinking about it, I realized “Yeah actually, I can!” So I went for it. We rehearsed last night, and the show is going to be a blast.

We’re playing at the Rock Make Street Festival in the mission, going on at noon. The best part about playing keyboards is that I don’t have to bring an instrument – just myself and my middling chops. So, after the set we’ll hang around at the festival and drink beer and listen to music. Come out! Say hi! Meet these people! They are like the nicest band ever!

Info on the festival is here. Do eet. Do eet.

New Songs, New Projects, DRUMS

Last but not least are the new things I’m working on. Mostly, it’s new music. A bootload of it, actually. I’ve got around eight songs in the hopper, and a few more ideas that are slowly working their way into more fully-formed tunes. It’s really, really fun stuff, and I’ve been having a blast finally adding lyrics and finishing up the form. Pretty soon, I’ll have demos out to the band and we can start actually learning this stuff!

It’s bigger, I’d say, than anything on The Exited Door. Not a huge shift in style or anything, just more fully-realized – the tunes take greater advantage of the three vocal parts, as well as the strengths of Lindsay and Dan, my two vocalists. In addition, they’re geared a bit more towards live performance – as fun as “The Bird Women of Golden Gate Park” and “Down By The Water” are, they’re not really songs that always come off amazingly live.

So, ton of new music there, as well as another cool project (or actually, series of projects) I’m working on with Khamara Pettus, the amazing actor/director/producer/force of nature with whom I’ve been working, scheming, planning over the past couple of months. We’re putting together some things to perform at the Brava Theatre, and I’ll have more on that stuff once it’s a bit more ready for the light of day. Suffice to say: it merges a lot of things about which I am quite passionate. Also, Khamara is a rock goddess.

Last, my odyssey into becoming a real-life drummer is all but complete – I’m confident now that I could hold it down in just about any bitchin’ rock band that’d have me. And I want them to have me. Do you know of a kick-ass, stripped-down, glammy rock punk freakout band, preferably with some female energy in the mix, that is in need of a tall, goofy drummer who makes up for his lack of extreme burning chops with energy and musicality? If so, A) I am surprised you know such a specific band and B) GIVE THEM MY NUMBER.

That’s All, Folks

So, that’s it for musical updates. I’ll post some demos and further thoughts on the new songs once I’ve got them in shape to share, and in the meantime, SFers come on out to the Rock Make Festival this Sunday and say hi!

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