Oakland Athletics, 2017

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There is a standard admonishment stated at the beginning of every Major League Baseball game broadcast that all accounts, descriptions, etc., without the express written consent of Major League Baseball are strictly prohibited. Which means I can’t write about a particular game I attended, lacking, as I do, the requisite express written consent. Instead, I’m going to write about this year’s Oakland Athletics experience in general, having attended two games so far in this still young season.

Both games I attended were Wednesday games with a 12:30 p.m. start time. Most weekday games are played at night so that people who work during the day can attend in the evening. The Wednesday games precede team travel days prior to a road trip. My work schedule having now changed, I am able to attend day games during the week and I promised myself I would go to as many of these Wednesday games as possible. There is nothing quite so indulgent as whiling away a few hours in the middle of the day, in the middle of the week, when so many others toil. It feels sinful, but I am going to get used to it anyway.

The big news for the Athletics this year is not so much the team itself as the changes made to improve the fan experience. You might ask what could improve the fan experience when the Athletics home field occupies the Oakland Coliseum, known by fans throughout baseball as one of the less desirable stadiums. There are some reasons to think that. The Coliseum was completed in 1966. It is also a duel use stadium. In addition to the Athletics, the Oakland Raiders also play home games there, for the time being (more about that later). Also, despite the age of the stadium it does not have the sort of legacy, or shall we say “vintage” appeal of places like Fenway Park in Boston, or Wrigley Field in Chicago. So, it’s old, but not old enough or quirky enough to have any cachet.

Well, it turns out, the Athletics organization has done an admirable job making the most out of what they had to work with. This is due to the efforts of the new team president, a guy named Dave Kaval. The previous public face of the Athletics organization was a guy named Lew Wolff, who decided to sell his stake in the team and leave the organization. Mr. Wolff was know by most fans of the Athletics as the guy who tried to move the team out of Oakland. So, one big change to improve the fan experience is not having to think about him, or worry about the team leaving town. In fact, for me personally, that’s probably the most important change, and the Athletics organization seems to think so, too. They have branded the Coliseum with signs and banners with the declaration “Rooted in Oakland,” with a background of iconic symbols of the city, like shipping cranes (you have to be local to “get” that one) and the stylized symbol of the oak tree that serves as the city’s official logo.

And they’ve tried to lend some vintage cred to the place by naming the baseball field after one of the greatest Athletics, Ricky Henderson, so now it’s Ricky Henderson Field. They’ve also added a mechanized sign in center field in the shape of the words “Holy Toledo!,” which was the tag line of the great sportscaster Bill King. When they play the Star Spangled Banner, the words are washed over with a waving Stars and Stripes. And, in a stroke of genius, they have expanded the “interior” of the Coliseum to include an area outside of the physical stadium in the space between the Coliseum and Oracle Arena. They’ve named this area Championship Plaza, spruced it up with some artificial turf, picnic tables and, best of all, food trucks. Now, instead of being limited to the food and beverage concessions inside the stadium, you can get your food from one of the trucks and take it back to your seat. The difference in the quality of the food cannot be overstated.  The prices are much more reasonable, as well.

The concept of bringing the outside inside extends to what used to be called the West Side Club; now renamed “Shibe Park,” which harkens back to the days when the Athletics were in Philadelphia. There is an elevated patio area that adjoins Shibe Park and overlooks Championship Plaza; kind of like someone got the idea, “Hey, why don’t we open these doors and let a little fresh air in!” Shibe Park has also been upgraded from the old West Side Club configuration; it’s got a billiard table and a ping pong table. There is also a kid-friendly area on the patio with amusements such as a pitching cage, face painting, etc.

Someone told me that Kaval is not the one who came up with all these ideas; that he got these ideas by listening to the fans. If that’s true, it’s consistent with the feel of the Athletics organization these days. For the longest time fans of the Athletics have been saying, “Don’t leave! We’ll support you! We love you! You can stay in Oakland!” It really feels like someone listened, and perhaps that’s the biggest upgrade of all. You see, Oakland is about to lose the Warriors to San Francisco. And the aforementioned Raiders have a deal for a new stadium in Las Vegas. Both teams will leave Oakland in a few years. It feels good to know that at least the Athletics are committed to staying.

Now, as for the team itself, the season is still young and the Athletics have a way of outperforming and surprising people. A few years ago they beat the Texas Rangers (a far better team on paper) on the last day of the season to win the division. Then there was the “Moneyball” team with that crazy 22 game winning streak. They had a terrible record at this point in that season and they went to the playoffs. So, who knows what will happen. They’re a few games under .500 right now. All I know for sure is that the Athletics won both games I attended so far. Those Wednesday games; gotta love ’em.

Let’s go Oakland!

 

 

New York City, Part 3: Hello, Dolly!

On the second night of our trip to New York City we saw “Hello, Dolly!” at the Shubert Theater on West 44th Street. This was the first time I’d seen a play in the Broadway theater district. It struck me that most of the theaters are not actually on Broadway, but instead are located on the cross streets near Times Square.

Around six o’clock in the evening the area is teeming with people trying to get to the theater on time. The show we attended had a sign saying late arrivals will not be seated until intermission, so there is a sense of anxious urgency, especially when you’ve paid a lot of money for your tickets. Some people don’t like cities because they don’t like crowds. If that’s you, avoid Times Square. Myself being someone who likes cities and crowds, getting to the theater was chaotic and invigorating, being among all those thousands of people sharing a similar experience. To me, the place had a warm, joyous energy.

There were two long lines of people waiting to get into the theater and, being new, we didn’t know if which line we were in made any difference. We asked people standing next to us and they said they were wondering the same thing. It turned out there was no difference and once the lines started moving, they moved quickly.

Once inside there is a bit of a jumble in the lobby, which felt cramped. This was ameliorated to a large degree by the excellent staff at the theater, who were very helpful and pleasant. Real pros. I went to coat check and they charge a dollar to hold your stuff. I forgot to bring cash with me and the staff person said I could pay him at the end of the performance. When I went back I still didn’t have any cash and he gave me my stuff anyway, and was nice and understanding. I felt bad because I tip most everyone; I think that’s an important part of the economy.

So now we get to the part of this post where I “review” the play. Reader beware: I consider myself a novice observer of live dramatic arts. I’ve seen about twenty live dramatic performances, including six musicals, so understand this is my subjective opinion as someone who witnessed this particular performance on Saturday, April 1, 2017. I don’t present myself as someone you should take seriously as an expert on Broadway musicals. But maybe you have about the same level of experience. With that in mind…

I’d never seen “Hello, Dolly!” before, except for the film adaptation starring Barbara Streisand, which I own on Blu-Ray. Those who’ve never seen the film or dramatic version of “Hello, Dolly!” might have a meta-level introduction to it, if they’ve seen the Pixar film, “WALL-E,” which cameos scenes from “Hello, Dolly!” via an old video tape that the robot in “WALL-E” plays over and over. In the weeks between when I bought the tickets and when I saw the show, I was wondering how the play would compare to the film I know so well. For the uninitiated, “Hello, Dolly” is a romantic comedy set in early 20th century New York City. The main character, Dolly Levi, is a widowed matchmaker who wants to marry a semi-wealthy bachelor, Horace Vendergelder, owner of a grain and feed store. The comedy revolves around Dolly’s efforts to fix up Horace’s store clerk’s, Cornelius and Barnaby, with two women that work in a hat shop, including one to whom Horace intends to propose marriage.

There was an added level of charm conveyed by the setting of the musical. What could be better than seeing a musical in New York City when the setting is…New York City!

One question in my mind about this performance involves the casting of Bette Midler in the lead role of Dolly Levi. She did a great job, in my opinion. She may not be the best singer, or the best actress, but she is a great entertainer, with loads of star power. Indeed, it was the star power that had me questioning whether the quality of the overall performance relied too much on Midler’s cult of personality. For example, some of the best songs in “Hello, Dolly!” are performed by secondary cast members. I noted that those songs didn’t get the same level of reaction from the audience. In particular, the great love song “It Only Takes A Moment” received what I thought was tepid applause, as did the song “Elegance.” On the other hand, Midler got a standing ovation when she first appeared on the stage, before she sang a note. It would be interesting to see the musical again with the role of Dolly Levi played by the understudy, a woman named Donna Murphy, who will take over the lead role in a limited capacity starting in June.

Aside from Midler, my favorite performance was by David Hyde Pierce in the lead male role of Horace Vandergelder. He managed to wring out every ounce of humor from his lines, with incredible comic timing and physicality. His performance was subtle and I was impressed by his artistry. In fact, the whole cast was great. I also enjoyed the comic interplay of the two bachelors, Cornelius and Barnaby, played by Gavin Creel and Taylor Trensch. The Barnaby character did this funny thing where he would imply slyly that he has a man-crush on Cornelius. Like, what are those guys doing down there in the basement of the grain and feed store? And why is Cornelius 30 years old and vows to not go back to Yonkers from New York City “until we kiss a girl?”

Another stand out was Beanie Feldstein in the role of Minnie Faye, the secondary character from the hat shop. Beanie has, shall we say, an atypical “look” for an actress. Short, a bit on the heavy side, etc. Nonetheless, her acting, dancing, and singing were delicate and polished. She stole every seen she was in.

For me, the two highlights were the songs “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and “Before the Parade Passes By.” The title song, “Hello, Dolly!” was great, as well, but Midler really cut lose on “Parade.” The tone of her vocals on that number exuded a melancholy world weariness at the beginning, then, as though her character was not going to give in to life that easily, built to a rousing finish.

But for me, the best of all was “Put on Your Sunday Clothes,” Starting with that famous line sung by Cornelius:

Out there, there’s a world outside of Yonkers
Way out there beyond this hick town, Barnaby
There’s a slick town, Barnaby!

A had a huge grin plastered on my face through that whole number. The only thing is that I love the show stopping dance sequence from the film. The stage at the Shubert was a bit too small to attempt to replicate that.

Then, of course, the theme song, preceded by the centerpiece dance routine performed by the waiters at the fictional restaurant, Harmonia Gardens. It was over the top, and by the end the dancers were breathing heavily from their exertions.

I recommend seeing “Hello, Dolly!” if you’re in New York. It’s the first Broadway revival of this particular musical since the original run, according to Broadway.com. The tickets are expensive if you’re not able to avoid after-market ticketing services, but it’s a throughly entertaining, extremely charming Broadway experience.

 

 

 

New York City, Part II, 9/11 Memorial

My daughter was born a couple of weeks after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She’s 15 now, and this was her first trip to New York City. In the back of my mind I was thinking it would be good to hold off visiting the city with her until the site at ground zero had been repaired and the new tower completed.

On the first full day of our trip we took the subway to lower Manhattan and walked to ground zero. One thing that seemed odd to me is that even though the new tower is the tallest structure in Manhattan, you can’t see it as you approach. I was looking for it as a visual clue on how to get there, but the view of it is blocked by other tall buildings, so I had to use the map application on my phone for navigation.

Finally, you round a corner and there it is. Another odd thing is that it doesn’t look that tall when you’re right up near it. I think there must be an optical illusion at play related to the tower’s wide footprint and narrowing shape as it rises skyward. When you see the tower from a distance (e.g., from the Brooklyn Bridge), it is very impressive and there is a direct correlation between how far away you are and how tall the tower appears in relation to the rest of the skyline.

I remember visiting New York as a child and seeing the twin towers. By comparison, the new tower struck me as kind of an only child; somewhat lonely. The choice to build one tower instead of two probably had to do with the building site. The tower competes for space with the footprints of the twin towers, which incorporate the memorial and the museum, so my guess is building two towers was never a possibility. That said, they did a nice job of the fitting the new tower into the site without creating a shoe-horned feel; it looks like it belongs there.

If you plan to visit the 9/11 memorial, I recommend that you visit the museum first, before contemplating the fountain memorials inscribed with the names of those lost. The effect of the fountains will be much more profound that way.

Kudos to the people involved in creating the memorial and museum. I can’t imagine the difficulty of conveying the experience New Yorkers went through that day, while respecting the sanctity of the site itself, which is, in effect, the final resting place of those whose remains were vaporized in the collapse of the towers and could never be recovered. So, here is my subjective perspective on the memorial and museum.

To me, the most important aspect is that the footprints of the twin towers are incorporated into the museum experience. By that I mean there is an above ground structure that you enter, and after passing through security you go through an introductory exhibit that leads down into the ground to an overlook. When you get to the overlook you instantly realize that you are looking at the actual excavated area below where the towers stood; you recognize it from the innumerable television broadcasts that showed the workers digging out the debris. When I walked to the edge and looked down, my breath caught in my throat and my eyes moistened.

Care has been taken to retain features of the footprints; there are still pieces of metal supports sticking out the sides of the walls. The space hasn’t been prettied up at all, except for removal of the debris. A sloped walkway leads you down, down, into the ground, past a sign that says here is the epicenter of where the truck bomb exploded in the first terrorist attack on the towers back in the 90’s. You continue going down the sloped walkway until you are at the bottom, which is decorated sparsely with a few items: a crushed fire truck; a huge steel beam bent back on itself like a pretzel; a display case of personal items recovered from the debris field. There is also the so called “last column,” a rectangular monolith of steel and concrete that is covered with the names of various fire companies and other memories of the first responders. It’s devastating. There is nothing they could have created in that space more impactful than the simple space that was left when the debris was removed; it is unique, haunting, a bit claustrophobic, and evocative of the experience of those who died there, and of those who toiled there in the aftermath.

But nothing can prepare one for the museum within the museum; a structure that you enter through glass doors, and which contains a comprehensive multi-media recitation of everything that happened on 9/11. Through the use of video, news reports, photographs, sound recordings, recovered personal items, and projections, the museum re-creates the events of that day. I can’t imagine that someone can walk through it without reacting emotionally. For me, there were moments when I felt like I was going to lose it completely and I had a strong urge a couple of times to run and get outside. I imagine different people will react to certain things more strongly than others. For example, they have sound recordings of goodbye messages from the doomed left on voicemail and answering machines – the final calls to loved ones from the airplanes and the buildings. They also have children’s pajamas, toys, and blankets from the airplanes that somehow escaped destruction.

All of the people I met on the trip who live in New York, when I told them I had visited the memorial, said that they couldn’t go. They lived through it once already. I think the point of the place is for people who were not there on that day. While people who were not there have their own memories, visiting the memorial connects them more closely to the terrible events; something approaching but never matching the experience of those who were there.

Visiting the memorial is not a “fun” experience, but, I think, essential for anyone who wants more than a superficial understanding of what happened. People will react to it in their own way. For some, it will be cathartic; for others, painful; for others, life affirming; and, I think, for most everyone, a reminder of the best and worst of humankind.

 

 

New York City Part One: LaGuardia

We flew into LaGuardia because the airline I use doesn’t fly into JFK, which is a bummer. You know how a certain candidate for president kept saying during the campaign that some of our airports are like what you’d find in a third world country? He surely must have been thinking of LaGuardia. The place is, to put it mildly, an anachronistic dump. I took a trip to Costa Rica a couple of years ago and the flight was not direct; it had a stop in El Salvador. The airport there is much nicer than LaGuardia.

I live in northern California and most of the time I fly out of the airport in Oakland, which is an OK facility. I mean, we’re not talking Inchon in Seoul, by any means, but it’s fine. It’s shocking to report that the airport in Oakland is like Inchon as compared to LaGuardia.

We got off the plane at the B gates, which has like 28 some odd separate gates for departures and arrivals. 28 gates, and one restroom, with a sad sign posted letting you know that it is the only restroom for the B gates. Go inside the men’s restroom and there are three stalls and four urinals. The handicapped stall was “temporarily unavailable” so the one restroom was not even ADA compliant. Another stall had overflowed and there was some poor sap with a mop and bucket trying to clean it up. You have to go outside the security cordon to get to another restroom, so if you’re waiting for your flight to depart out of the B gates, or you just arrived at the B gates, you’ll be waiting in line should nature call.

You know how most gates have a “this side” and a “that side?” At LaGuardia B gates, there is no this side and that side. Instead, the concourse is so narrow, there is only “here we all are in the middle,” with no bump outs for the modest concessions. For arrivals, there is a sign directing you to the baggage claim, and when you get there you’ll see the lone carousel, so you don’t have to guess which one. When it starts up there is a high, thin, screeching sound like the guy playing the one string Chinese orchestra instrument at the farmers’ market in Old Oakland.

After we collected our luggage (my daughter’s bag was somehow ripped badly in transit), we went outside to a scene of absolute chaos. We tried to get a Lyft cab. Our driver was calling us and texting with apologies that the airport security forced him to drive right by us so as not to block traffic. The security people were out in the middle of the road screaming at the top of their lungs. I don’t really blame them, because the traffic was so bad and it was raining. To top it off, the cover over the waiting area leaked, so we were getting soaked while waiting for the cab to cycle around again.

There is no direct subway connection to LaGuardia; you have to take a bus from the airport to the nearest subway station.

The good news is that my trip to New York City was great, despite the awful, horrible experience at LaGuardia. If you can possibly avoid this airport you’re doing yourself a real favor, at least until they complete the $4 billion renovation.

Change

After many years doing HR work I am shifting my career focus to writing as my primary vocation. I’ve read many articles about this type of change and it takes awhile to make a complete transition. Most say three to five years.

I suspect that complete “transition” will mean different things for different people, depending on where they are in life and their expectations relative to income and whether they want the transition to entail full time work. For me, it means I am going freelance to control the amount of time I spend writing. At this point in my life, barring something unforeseen, I am not interested in working full time.

I guess the “unforeseen” may entail changes to my financial situation, but so far as things stand now, I’m not expecting that sort of thing to derail my plans.

Step one on my path to freelance writing is to re-start this blog, which I’ve neglected terribly for some time now due to other commitments. People ask me how I intend to monetize a blog, but from my perspective that’s not really the point. The primary purpose initially is to build a platform where people can read my work in order to figure out if they want me to do some freelance work for them.

So, you can expect regular posts going forward. I’ve connected this blog to some social media so you won’t have to go searching for it if you’re already connected to me via Facebook, Linkedin, or Twitter. If we haven’t connected yet, but you’ve somehow stumbled across this blog and want to receive regular posts, the easiest way is to follow me on Twitter @Mikekrich.

Thanks for reading!

Kindness Amidst Chaos

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There were two news stories yesterday about air travel. One was about the terrorist attack at the airport in Istanbul, Turkey. The other was about a man who had a heart attack during a flight he was taking with his wife and her friend. Which one would you guess had the most emotional impact on me?

It was the one about the man who had the heart attack.

The reason is that the man’s fellow passengers on the plane tried to help him. In particular, the former football player, now sports broadcaster, Tim Tebow, left his seat in business class and came to the man’s aid. He led prayers for the man along with other passengers around him while the man’s wife and her friend cried on his shoulders, picked up the family’s luggage when the plane landed and went with them to the hospital, staying until the family was told that the man had passed away.

You might think that it’s insensitive to not have a more emotional reaction to the terrorist attack. In fact, I thought that to myself after reading both stories. I think the reason the Tebow story impacted me more is because the terrorist attacks have become routine and have numbed my senses. Also, because there are so few positive stories that make the news. Indeed, I wonder if this story would have made the news were it not for the fact that a celebrity was involved. I suspect that there are many such occurrences every day that go unreported because the people engaging in such acts of kindness are regular, ordinary people, doing the right thing in obscurity.

That’s a shame, because I think that reading about acts of kindness promotes that type of behavior, just as the terrorists think that media coverage of their doings recruits some people to that type of behavior.

I wish the media would run a story about an act of kindness every day, not just when it involves a famous person. Maybe doing that would balance out the negative stuff and encourage the type of behavior the world desperately needs right now.

My thoughts, prayers, and condolences to all affected by the attack in Turkey.

Pride

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A reader of my blog asked why I haven’t been posting lately. He said that he missed my posts and encouraged me to start posting again.

The reason I haven’t been posting is because I had decided to avoid posting about negative stuff, under the theory that there is enough negative stuff out there and who needs the clutter? The problem is that there isn’t enough positive stuff to keep a steady stream of posts going. A case in point is the horrible terrorist attack in Orlando today that killed 50 people, making it the worst mass shooting in our country’s history.

So, the reason I’m posting about this, even though it is obviously negative stuff, is because I think there may be a positive aspect to it. I’m going to share three thoughts about this incident, ending with the observation that may be seen as a silver lining amidst unfathomable tragedy.

My first observation is that my daughter is now 14 years old, and she has never experienced a day of her life when our country has not been at war with the forces of terrorism. Having no basis for comparison, she is mostly unaware of the daily indignities we’ve come to accept as “normal,” whether it’s the security checkpoints, the invasive governmental apparatus intended to keep us safe, or the sense that privacy has become a thing of the past. I don’t know whether this sorry state of affairs will ever reverse itself, but today’s events certainly portend a continuation of current trends in the foreseeable future.

Next, there has been interesting phraseology used by the media to “headline” the story, namely: The Worst Mass Shooting in American History. While that is a factual statement, to me, it misses the real story, which is that today we experienced the worst terrorist attack on American soil since 9/11 (in fairness, that was also mentioned by most media outlets). My suspicion is that this choice reflects a desire by some to have the narrative be about a shooting, along the lines of Sandy Hook or the Aurora theater massacre, and at the same time avoid a narrative that the war on terror is not going well. Sure enough, within three hours of the story breaking on CNN there were a couple of politicians who were interviewed and used the opportunity to talk about gun control. In my opinion, talking about gun control at that particular moment was unseemly, regardless of one’s views on the topic. To me, it smacked of political opportunism.

So, how can there possibly be a positive aspect to all this?

To the extent that vestiges of antagonism remain between the LGBT community in our country and some straight Americans, I believe this event erased that antagonism to a large degree, if not completely. The reason is that Americans view the victims of the attack as their fellow Americans, and the fact that they were enjoying themselves in a gay bar at the time of the attack shrinks to insignificance.

It’s Pride Month, so let’s take the opportunity to expand what Pride Month means, to include pride in the survivors who helped others in the direct aftermath, to the police community and first responders in Florida who saved a lot of lives today (thank goodness for a positive story about them; about time), and to Americans everywhere who looked at their fellow Americans suffering, and only saw that.

My thoughts and prayers go out to all those affected. To those who didn’t survive, rest in peace.

 

 

Concert Review: Dead & Company with John Mayer, 12/28/15

 

Dead and Company 2

I went to see this concert with an old friend and fellow veteran of Grateful Dead shows. You know, the ones that occurred when Jerry Garcia was still alive. I had seen several of the post-Jerry lineups over the years and it always seemed more like a party featuring Grateful Dead music than an actual Grateful Dead show. So my expectations for this concert were tame, perhaps in part because it seemed a bit odd to pair John Mayer with the Grateful Dead.

These things can get very subjective, like when you think you’ve just seen an excellent Grateful Dead show and your friend standing right next to you the whole time deems it mediocre. But for me, personally, this was the best post-Jerry show I’ve seen.

John Mayer is a revelation. As a guy who’s best known for radio friendly pop rock, it was weird to see him immersed in Grateful Dead music. And when I say immersed I mean he hasn’t just drunk the Dead cool aid, he’s soaking in the damn vat. Welcome to the club, buddy. John Mayer is a total deadhead. Who knew? Visually, it was like the high school quarterback joined the hippies smoking in the parking lot. Here’s your hot new Grateful Dead guitar hero, but with better hair and pretty boy looks. The thing is, Mayer is so into it, he so “gets” the whole Grateful Dead thing, that it works. He injected a youthful energy that you could sense was picked up on by the rest of the band, especially Bob Weir.

As lead guitarist, Mayer had to perform the trick of filling in for Garcia when old school Grateful Dead fans might feel a bit protective of their Garcia memories and view any attempt to “out do” Garcia as sacrilege. How to give it your all in that role while respecting the original guy? The answer, for me, was the most surprising thing of all. It seemed, at times, like the band was tapping into the cosmic flow that you sometimes got at the best Grateful Dead shows. There were moments where the music seemed to take control away from the individual band members, like they’d all done the Vulcan mind meld and were playing as a single entity and channeling the music in from some transcendental parallel universe. Right out of the gate they played one of my favorite songs, The Music Never Stopped, and went into an extended deep space jam during the rhythm breakdown, then snapped back into the groove so quick you didn’t hear it coming.

Mayer also did a good job on vocals, especially sharing with Bob Weir on fan favorite Franklin’s Tower. John didn’t try to mimic Jerry on his vocal parts, and that is a good thing not only to avoid the sacrilege problem, but also because Mayer is a vocal stylist in his own right and actually added some nice fresh phrasing that honored the music while adding his own signature to it. Also, there was this interesting thing he started to do toward the end where he was scat singing a la Ella Fitzgerald. It complimented the music really well.

There was also quite a bit of humor in the second set on the outro to The Wheel, with Mayer leading the band into a gently mocking melodic parody of the song itself, until it morphed into something like the soundtrack to a gaggle of clowns hamming it up at a circus. And there was also quite a bit of what I call metamigorbickle improvisation, with the soundscapes becoming so abstract that they differentiate the Grateful Dead from all the other so-called jam bands; pure improvisation without any melodic or rhythmic underpinnings to fall back on.

The other guest musicians were bassist Oteil Burbridge and keyboardist Jeff Chimenti, who also recently performed with the Grateful Dead at their supposed farewell shows. I’d seen Chimenti a few times in other configurations and he was in fine form, but I’d never seen Burbridge. He’s an incredible bass player and filled the void left by original Dead bassist Phil Lesh very well.

The show was so good that it made me wonder what will happen when the rest of the original members retire or pass away. Will this thing actually keep going? With Mayer in the drivers seat I think it’s a real possibility. The question would be whether people would still see the shows, but one interesting thing to consider is that many of the people I spoke with at the show or overheard had never seen the Grateful Dead while Garcia was alive. Think about that a moment. The show was sold out and many of the fans had never even seen Garcia live. The music is still there, coursing through the ether, waiting for someone like Mayer to tap in.

 

 

 

 

Film Review: Star Wars, The Force Awakens

Kylo Ren

This is a spoiler-free review.

I asked my 14 year old daughter if she wanted to see the new Star Wars movie and she said that she didn’t because she hadn’t seen any of the previous ones in the series. I don’t know if that’s a sign of bad parenting on my part or a measure of the cultural schism created by age, but it shocked me to think she’s been blissfully unaware of something that was a part of my growing up. Anyway, I went to see the new film by myself. And she was right in the sense that you really need to have seen at least the first three films in the series to have a fair chance of fully enjoying this most recent entry. That’s in part because the film makers assumed that everyone who will see The Force Awakens is already aware of certain plot points, like Darth Vader’s familial relationship with the series’  original hero, Luke Skywalker. So, there’s quite a bit of exposition left out, or mentioned only in passing.

That having been said, The Force Awakens is sure to satisfy Star Wars fans, though I suspect that the extent to which they love this film will depend in part on their expectations going in. In my opinion it is the third best entry out of the lot, exceeded only by The Empire Strikes Back and the original Star Wars, which was subsequently titled A New Hope. My opinion may change after repeat viewings. One thing for sure is that it is orders of magnitude better than all the prequels, and that is due in large part to the casting. There are two new heroes, a disenchanted Stormtrooper named Finn, played by  John Boyega, and a scrappy scavenger named Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. There are also old friends brought back from the original series, with a stand out performance by Harrison Ford reprising the role of space scoundrel Han Solo. But the best thing about this film, in my opinion, is the performance by Adam Driver as the villain Kylo Ren. Ironically, his performance is the emotional heart of the film and packs the most punch. There is also a new droid character named BB-8 that is a fine addition to the series.

The plot echoes the original film, which seems like a conscious compromise intended to ground it in Star Wars lore so the stage is set for subsequent installments. It will be interesting to see whether the next film can break out and offer something fresh.

Viewers may be struck by the same feeling I had of consuming the film as comfort food, rather than a fine but perhaps more palette-challenging gourmet meal. There is a lot to like in the visuals, with fantastic vistas and complex battle scenes that seem more real than other installments due to less reliance of computer generated images. There’s also the pitch perfect score by John Williams, which complements the action and keeps things moving along. It also struck me that this film gives itself permission to have fun and pierce the seriousness that over-saturated the prequels.

Another thought I had watching the film is the seeming difficulty the film has creating a sense of dread and menace when it comes to the bad guys, who in this installment are called The First Order. They are presented in a Nazi motif reminiscent of a Nuremberg rally, but in the context of recent events they seem quaint by comparison. Not to say that the Nazis weren’t menacing, but there is a certain lack of explanation as to what is driving their actions, other than a will to power. The film plays more on the eternal balance between good and evil and those forces being functions of each other; one not being able to exist without the other. My guess is that the next film will explore that theme more deeply, but what do I know.

If you like action adventures this should be on your list for holiday viewing. Have fun and may the force be with you.

 

 

 

 

 

Road Trip, Part 4

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I’m getting close to a wrap on this series of posts about my trip to Canada last summer. This photo is of a monumental cowboy sculpture at the Calgary Stampede, which is probably the best known rodeo, or what is otherwise billed by the promoters as “The Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth.” It’s sort of a combination of a rodeo show, a massive county fair and a Canada-centric display of regional pride.

The rodeo itself is a daily competition with the usual events, such as roping and riding, but with one addition that sets it apart from many other such events. The Calgary Stampede includes wagon races, which harken back to the wild west. The wagon races begin with the team, which includes two on the wagon and outriders on horseback, putting away a kettle in the back of the wagon to represent cowboys breaking camp. The wagons then weave around barrels before racing around the perimeter of the rodeo grounds. It’s a charming evocation of rural western culture.

For most people the highlight is the bull riding, which is brutal, impressive and dangerous. I’m quite sure that we saw one young rider suffer a serious shoulder separation getting thrown from a bull. An interesting cultural twist is that some of the best bull riders are from South America, which has a cowboy culture all it’s own.

In the evening there is a stage show with music, dancing and singing. I don’t know if the theme changes each year, but the show we saw was focused entirely on all things Canadian. I actually learned some things about Canada that I didn’t know. For example, which of the four major professional sports was invented by a Canadian? Nope, not hockey. It’s basketball. Ironically, there is only one NBA team in Canada, which is the Toronto Raptors. On the other hand, Canadians represent the second most non-American NBA players in the league. A highlight of the show was the inclusion of aboriginal tribal leaders dressed in traditional costumes. So, cowboys and “indians” all around.

Aside from the rodeo itself, the grounds include lots of other activities you might find at a county fair, and a lot of barbecue. There are several stages with musical acts to keep things lively. It’s definitely worth seeing if you plan on visiting Alberta. A lot of good, clean fun, and a noticeable lack of over-celebration when it comes to alcohol. Oh, and while you’re in Alberta, be sure to go to one of the steak houses. The Alberta beef is fantastic, if you enjoy a good steak.