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Spontaneity + the arts = a magical combination

The spontaneous creation of the arts is one of my favorite things in the world. From an improv comedy show to a musical jam session to street artists, the idea of creating and collaborating in the moment is an amazing thing. That’s why I was so impressed when it happened right in front of me at the Sterling Cidery on St. Patrick’s Day.

My kid and I were visiting Fair Haven, my adopted hometown away from home, and popped into the cidery, under new owners and with a permit for the day. People clearly miss the place and can’t wait for it to fully reopen, as it was packed before 2 p.m. A nice combo led by Larry Kyle played in the room just off of the main serving area. We sashayed into a back room (or “lounge,” as I like to call it) where Arius passed the time playing with Scrabble cards and inventing rules of a game involving plastic mice that none of us could figure out what the real rules might be.

Then things got interesting. A lone guitarist came into the back room to tune up. Then Bob, father/father-in-law of the cidery’s founding owners, came back with his guitar and the two started jamming. Then a third musician joined them, and soon enough you had singalongs and more and more people filling up chairs for this completely unplanned performance.

It was really cool although perhaps a bit less enjoyable if you’re a 6-year-old who was looking for some quiet while he made up rules for a game with plastic mice. So we bid our adieu, making more room for the increasing audience.

Three musicians play as other sit around

An spontaneous performance in an unplanned venue lasted several hours with a rotating cast of musicians.

I went back to the cidery that evening by myself and, to my surprise, musicians were still playing in the back room. And musicians were still performing in the original performance space. The new owners and I found it really cool that each room with its acoustic musicians and spontaneous set lists were distinct and not audible to each other, yet also very organic creating the scenes in front of their own audiences.

And that’s the magnificent thing about the arts: Performances and presentations aren’t set. Even the most seemingly structured are not: You can follow a band for 10 concerts in 10 different cities and you’ll see something different every time. Now take this formula with a revolving cast of musicians with no set list and very little forethought in what they’re playing. And then add a second unexpected performance space, where musicians rotate between their ad hoc bandmates, and what do you have?

Pure magic. You don’t need leprechauns or even St. Patrick’s day for that to happen, and it may well be better than any pot of gold.

Four musicians play

Larry (O’)Kyle performing in the main musical space of the Sterling Cidery with friends, before he went to play some more in the new backroom performance area.


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The Frank Turner experience: part concert, part therapy


Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls rocking in concert

Seeing Frank Turner live is as much of a group therapy session as it is a(n excellent) concert.

Frank’s catalogue includes beautiful, poignant song about broken people trying to mend themselves. His words have found many of us at the right time in the right place with the right message. For me, songs like “Recovery,” “The Next Storm” and “Get Better” all lifted my spirits and my thoughts when I really needed it. And looking around the crowd that enjoyed Frank Turner and the Sleeping Souls’ show last night at the State Theater in Ithaca, I was far from alone. Many people were shouting his lyrics back cathartically, while others wore their emotion on their faces, these songs washing over them and making them feel cleansed.

He’s been through a lot himself, known as a man who got where he is by a rather ridiculous work ethic couple with being a charismatic everyman. It comes across in his songs, his shows and, if you want a nice read, his autobiography “The Road Beneath My Feet.” Frank is a rock star, to be sure, but this nervous, angular, foul-mouthed Englishman really feels like one of us.

Frank tells audiences his shows have two rules: “Don’t be an asshole” and “If you know the words, sing.” If you don’t know the words, he says, you can dance. But he also urged the crowd to dance during various songs, so much of the crowd was singing and dancing.

He started with a slow song, the title track off his new album “Be More Kind,” which thematically set the theme for the night. Frank and the band picked things up with “1933,” one of a few tracks on the new record castigating fascists and racists (as any good punk rocker would) and by the time the crowd was sing “we can get better/because we’re not dead yet” from “Get Better,” the show was in full gear.

A smattering of people had their smartphones out taking a lot of pictures and recording, although it seemed like less than an average show. Frank and the Sleeping Souls provide a very immersive concert experience, best not viewed through a tiny lense. Take a few photos to remember the experience, sure — I usually do mine during the first few songs, then put my phone away — but realize this a live and dynamic thing you should enjoy in the moment. In “Don’t Worry,” the first track on his new album, Frank even has a few lines that seem to address the need to spend less time with technology and be more human:

Don’t let your heart get hardened into stone
Or lose yourself in looking at your phone
So many so-called friends
And still you feel alone
You should spend more time with the do’s than with the don’ts

This was an evening about doing and feeling and singing and dancing. Frank inserted a three-song solo acoustic set, which included “Smiling at Strangers on Trains,” a reworking of an old song from his previous band, Million Dead. Then he asked the crowd up front to make a circle and a mosh pit broke out (I was more concerned about my glasses than my body, but we all made it through).

The band closed the set with “Photosynthesis” (the show-closer for some previous tours). During the break before the last chorus, Frank said we had a chance to take this feeling, this positivity forward, that on Monday morning we could go to work or school and choose not to be assholes, to make compassion in fashion again and to simply be more kind. It sounds cheesy to say, but it was actually quite inspirational.

His four-song encore included one last fast dancing song, “Four Simple Words,” before he closed with “Polaroid Picture,” a song about making memories last. He asked the crowd to put their arms on each other’s shoulders, and soon strangers on both sides of me stretched out their arms and smiled. So we were one big, sweaty, happy wave of people swaying side to side together, one more indelible memory during a song about just such a feeling.

The best art is about transformative experiences. For many of us fans, that’s what Frank Turner’s songs mean to our life. Last night felt that way too, where even a solo like me was dancing with hundreds of strangers turned friends. How many of us got up this morning and went to work or school and decide to be more kind as a result? We’ll never know for sure. But what if we did?


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RIP Chris Cornell. Say hello to heaven.


Pained yet poised. Cracked yet composed. Forceful yet never forced. For many people of my age, we can remember the first time we heard the voice of Chris Cornell, coming from our radios sounding like nothing else. Ultimately: Stunning.

But even that was not as stunning as the news this morning that the former Soundgarden lead singer, a man who helped change the face and tone of music, is dead at a young 52.

David Bowie and Prince were huge losses to the musical, and mainstream, world. But the death of Chris Cornell feels like losing a friend who helped you through some low times.

Often I would crank up Soundgarden’s Down on the Upside (my personal fave) and let their modern rock that channeled classic blues drown out whatever inadequacies I felt at the time. The lyrics from “Burden in My Hand” — “fear is strong and love’s for everyone who isn’t me” — was a signature lament during about a decade of young adulthood as I struggled with self-loathing and anxiety. In Chris, I had a channel for the thoughts I could not formulate, a partner to help me collect myself to overcome.

David Bowie and Prince were superstars, celebrities on another plane. Chris was somebody who could walk into your corner bar and throw back a few drinks as unobtrusively as his quick background “Singles” cameo.

After Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” became a smash hit, Soundgarden could have just recorded a love ballad or two, or a safe pop record, and cruised into retirement with enough money to spend freely … and to also buy the Sonics and bring them back to Seattle. They had hit albums, singles that sold well enough (without selling out their sound) and millions of fans. And inspired dozens, perhaps hundreds, of other bands.

And then they broke up 20 years ago, the creative tensions that helped forge such heavy and edgy music too much to stay together. My brother used to live in Seattle and said it was huge news there at the time, even as so much of the world had moved on to whatever new sound was the flavor of the month.

The man voted Guitar World’s “Greatest Rock Singer” kept on creating, singing and playing — first solo, then bringing together Audioslave for a good run, then eventually reconciling with Soundgarden, even if their 2012 album King Animal seems more like a footnote compared to the sweep of their work two decades earlier.

But his work from the brief 1991 collective Temple of the Dog, honoring former roommate and Mother Love Bone singer Andrew Wood, is what stays with me as a fitting epitaph:

I never wanted
To write these words down for you
With the pages of phrases
Of things we’ll never do
So I blow out the candle, and
I put you to bed
Since you can’t say to me
Now how the dogs broke your bone
There’s just one thing left to be said
Say hello to heaven

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top 15 albums for 2015

This was a pretty good year for music, but what’s most intriguing is how discovery of new music evolves. The superabundance of music dissemination makes it both easier and harder to get into new music than the days we relied on terrestrial radio. Easier because you don’t have to look far to find new music; harder because, as Hicks’ Law posits, the more options you encounter the harder it is to make a decision (trying a new artist on Spotify, for example, is an investment in time that may or may not lead to an investment in money). This year’s top records came to my attention via a mix of avenues that included crowdfunding sites PledgeMusic and Kickstarter (I backed three songs on the list), free music/promotional site Noisetrade, NPR, co-workers and my friends in the Higher Ed Music Critics (read our aggregate reviews on the blog).

But now, on with the countdown …

15. Tom Cochrane, Take It Home. Yes, the Canadian singer-songwriter has continued recording long after “Life is a Highway” became a huge hit. And his records are consistently good.

14. Humming House, Revelries. With a range of influences spanning classic folk and bluegrass to Django Reinhardt, Humming House creates wildly danceable music that defies easy categorization.

13. Jason Isbell, Something More Than Free. The former lead singer of Drive-By Truckers continues to make a name for himself with smart songwriting and vibrant vocals.

12. Brandon Flowers, The Desired Effect. If the lead singer of The Killers released an album reading the phone book, I’d buy it. This is much better than that, but it wasn’t even the best solo record by a member of his main band.

11. Seth Avett + Jessica Lea Mayfield Sing Elliott Smith. A very good but also polarizing album, as some Smith superfans took affront to somebody recording the late legend’s songs. If you can get past the reworkings, this is a fine record.

10. Tia Brazda, Bandshell. A Canadian singer playing throwback music with a pin-up aesthetic — what’s not to love about that sentence? Some solid brassy jazzy work here, although it feels a bit more restrained than it could be for this rising star.

9. The Damnwells, The Damnwells. One of the pioneers of crowd-funding music, Alex Dezen and his merry band continue to ride the wave of fan support via PledgeMusic to create catchy pop-rock gems.

8. Everclear, Black is the New Black. Yes, that band. After a healthy hiatus, Alex Alexakis and mates went into the studio for this Kickstarter-backed project. Everclear doesn’t skate by on nostalgia entirely, creating a record that fits into its catalog but also pushes it forward.

7. Big Talk, Straight In, No Kissin’. Who’da thunk that Killers drummer Ronnie Vannucci Jr. would have arguably the most impressive solo career among its talented members? Another PledgeMusic crowd-funded record, this shines in its own way in sounding not so much like The Killers as it does the best years of The Cars.

6. Ryan Adams, 1989. It sure sounded like a joke when Adams said he planned to record a new version of Taylor Swift’s mega-bestseller. But this record takes the overproduced source material and pulls out a whole new feel, Swift’s layers and effects replaced by Adams channeling vocals recalling ’80s U2 and Springsteen with heartfelt delivery.

5. Butch Walker, Afraid of Ghosts. Walker recording an album produced by Ryan Adams sounds like fantasy booking, but it’s real and moving. Drawing from the grief of losing his father, Walker records an exceedingly poignant disc with some of his most impressive songwriting and singing to date.

4. Matthew Good, Chaotic Neutral. Good continues his run of crafting political and metaphorical melodies that alternately constrict and soar (while winning award for most D&D-fan-friendly title of the year). It’s his customary serving of intense and catchy music, but the relative predictability of his last few records is what keeps them in the very good category but short of the greatness last seen in his stunning Hospital Music.

3. Pokey LaFarge, Something in the Water. It’s refreshing to see so many artists like The Wiyos, Old Crow Medicine Show, the aforementioned Brazda and Humming House plus LaFarge taking an interest in throwback sounds of almost a century ago. LaFarge is especially successful because his music is so fresh and fun with far-ranging appeal; the band would be equally at home on A Prairie Home Companion and Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.

2. American Aquarium, Wolves. This Southern rock and blues and soul band came about a finger of whiskey away from disbanding after their previous album, but fan support made BJ Barham and friends decide it was worth continuing. The resulting album shows clever songcraft depicting growing up and settling down in “The Losing Side of 25,” “The Man I’m Supposed To Be” and “Rambling Ways.” Album closer “Who Needs A Song?” is one of the best lyrically of 2015: “Who needs a road if I’ve got you, babe?/How long can you be a rolling stone?/Who needs a road if I’ve got you babe?/The only thing I need right now is home.”

1. Frank Turner, Positive Songs for Negative People. The British punker turned punk-rocker turned punk-pop rocker turned pop-rock troubadour continues his evolution as a gent who just plain crafts masterful, memorable tunes. He delivers uplifting anthemic energy in the back-to-back punch of “Get Better” (“We could get better/Because we’re not dead yet”) and “The Next Storm” (“Rejoice/Rebuild/The storm will pass”) but the highlight could be the sad extended metaphor of “Mittens”: “I once wrote you love songs/You never fell in love/We used to fit like mittens/But never like gloves.” Fortunately, everything fits together spectacularly to make this the best album of 2015.

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you can’t outsource authenticity.

Recently I made a comment on Twitter about a talented singer-songwriter and, a few days later, received an @ reply from someone suggesting I get said artist’s latest single. Curious, I checked the account to see it bragging about its “digital marketing clients” including a pretty decent roster of performers.

Too bad the whole thing is all kinds of wrong.

A couple years ago, I mentioned singer/songwriter Pete Yorn in a tweet. You know who responded and started following me?

Pete Yorn.

Pete Freaking Yorn.

Pete The Freaking Man Himself Yorn.

Not someone repping “digital marketing clients.” The artist himself, who tweets as he tours the country, promotes himself well but also shows his human side. And while I had sort of drifted from watching his career, I’ve bought all three records he’s released since.

Why? Because, strange as it seems, I feel a connection with him. Not with the team that handles him as a “digital marketing client,” but Pete Freaking Yorn.

Because I don’t go to Twitter to get marketed to. I go there for conversations.

If you’re an artist — or a company or an organization — who is a “digital marketing client,” you’re missing the boat. Sure, you can have people help you learn about social media, assist with a drawing up a digital strategy, but only you can be you. Heck, I bought two albums from the band Vancougar after discovering their tweet about attending a roller derby bout. Authenticity is the currency of social media, and you can’t outsource authenticity.

Look, I’m nobody special, yet I’ve had all kinds of performers follow me (or follow me back) and engage me in conversation. That makes me want to stay connected. To their music. To their brand, to use the marketing term.

I think most agencies struggle in the world of social media because they can’t do authenticity as well as their clients. They can’t converse when they focus on pushing messages. They can find suckers to pay them to tweet … then they spew marketing taglines and no one responds.

Because we don’t talk to taglines.

We don’t talk to entities repping their “digital marketing clients.”

We talk to people. It’s personal. It’s conversational. It’s authentic.

It’s what every performer who wants a presence on social media should be doing … themselves! Personally. Conversationally. And authentically.


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our new economy: social, integrated, authentic.

An example of how the new social economy works:

Given my new interest in roller derby, and learning more about it, I keep a #rollerderby tag feed in Tweetdeck, which I check for interesting advice and folks to follow. Saw a tweet there by @vancougarband, an intriguing sounding outfit hailing from one of my favorite cities.

Followed their link on Twitter to the Vancougar MySpace page. Liked their catchy retro-rock/pop girl-band sound. Went to Amazon. Downloaded their MP3 album “Canadian Tuxedo.”

And realized how many things they did right along the way to make the sale.

1) Good use of Twitter. If you think making money via Twitter is about spamming people by keyword or shouting about what you’re selling, you’re 100% wrong. Vancougar’s tweet was authentic: They mentioned supporting a friend of theirs who is a rollergirl and included the #rollerderby hashtag. So immediately they and I share an interest. And their name was catchy, so I wanted to learn more.

2) Having quality content readily available. OK, I make fun of MySpace, but that I could go there and listen to their music streaming goes so against the old record industry tactic of creating scarcity by limiting demand. Vancougar freely offered quality content — i.e. their songs were catchy. And they could next funnel me to where to buy online.

3) Tying it all together. I could go from discovering the band’s existence to buying the album in five clicks (Twitter page > MySpace Main Page > Music > Albums > Buy Album). FIVE CLICKS! That’s fairly astonishing, and with a better MySpace layout it could have been four clicks. But the lesson here is that everything along the way was integrated, interconnected, relevant, accessible and user-friendly.

… and they even found time to thank their newest fan! The new social economy is a wonderful community!


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a top 20 for 2010.

As part of our collaborative year-end countdown for the Higher Ed Critics music blog, I’ve assembled my take on top discs I’ve heard from 2010.

20. Good Old War, Good Old War: Any release by this band brings bouquets of clever lyrics, soaring harmonies and genial hookiness. Just a shame the overall material in this effort seems a bit weak. Maybe next time.

19. Broken Social Scene, Forgiveness Rock Record: Honestly, quite disappointed with this long-awaited record. While the Canadian collective hits a groove on songs like “Texaco Bitches” or “Meet Me in the Basement,” too much feels like unfinished ideas thrown on record.

18. Spoon, Transference: With apologies to the many friends who love the band, this would be higher if I was into Spoon … but too much of their stuff just comes off as too smugly self-satisfied, imho. Can’t argue with their overall skills, though.

17. Sade, Soldier of Love: Sade has remained relevant since 1984 (!) with soulful songs and sex appeal, and the latest disc works that formula well. The occasional new trick or two is OK, but it’s rich texture of Sade’s voice that always brings us back.

16. The Scarlet Ending, Ghosts: This Syracuse-based sextet featuring twin singer/songwriters Kayleigh and Kaleena Goldsworthy continues to evolve with image-rich songs buoyed by smart lyrics, eclectic instrumentation and engaging vocals.

15. Stars, The Five Ghosts: Like most Stars efforts, this album combines brilliant flashes like the male-female storytelling of “Dead Hearts” with some pedestrian filler, but provides enough haunting moments to make it worth remembering.

14. Butch Walker, I Liked It Better When You Had No Heart: The singer, songwriter, producer and former Marvelous 3 frontman showcases his many talents here. While he seems to enjoy silky soulful songs, the rocking social satire of “Trash Day” is this effort’s standout track.

13. Pete Yorn, Pete Yorn: With Pete’s warm and craggly voice and knack for melody, the main issue is that he’s never created another album as terrific as “musicforthemorningafter.” With instantly catchy fare like “Precious Stone” and “Paradise Cove I,” this album works more often than not.

12. Brad Yoder, Excellent Trouble: This very under-the-radar singer/songwriter deserves some play. Combine intelligent commentary — “Keep It to Yourself,” on teens staying in the closet, or “How It Ends,” on big-box stores killing downtowns — with earnest singing and graceful instrumentation, and you have a hidden gem.

11. Sarah McLachlan, Laws of Illusion: Where Sarah’s best album, “Fumbling Toward Ecstasy,” chronicled young love, “Laws of Illusion” looks at life after the love departs (mirroring the breakup of her long relationship with drummer Ash Sood). As always, her voice is the engine driving this train, and it’s in fine form.

10. The National, High Violet: I like The National, but find it maddening that a band that can produce such effortlessly catchy fare as “Bloodbuzz, Ohio,” “Lemonworld” and “Conversation 16” can have so many tracks on this (or any) album that fall flat. But the high points are, as always, remarkable.

9. Gin Blossoms, No Chocolate Cake: Not a typo. Not only is the reformed band still recording, but they’re making good music. Not terribly cerebral, but just listen to “Don’t Change for Me,” “I Don’t Want to Lose You Now” and “Dead or Alive on the 405” and let the ’90s nostalgia wash over you.

8. Drive-By Truckers, The Big To-Do: At least two reasons I love this album: “Drag the Lake Charlie” is one of the funnier/darker songs ever made, and “Birthday Boy” has the killer lyrics “Pretty girls from the smallest towns/Get remembered like storms and droughts/That old men talk about for years to come.” Marvelous moments of mayhem and mortification suffuse their latest Southern Gothic rock effort.

7. KT Tunstall, Tiger Suit: The latest album by the Scottish songstress is her most complex, least commercial and also her best. Whether it’s world-beat influences on “Uummannaq Song,” electronica touches on “Difficulty” or the simple wistful warbling and whistling on “(Still A) Weirdo,” KT offers a broader range but, as always, plenty to adore.

6. Brandon Flowers, Flamingo: The rest of The Killers wanted to take time off, but their talented frontman decided to put out a solo album that offered a frank look at his hometown, including the masterfully written “Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas.” While not quite as good as the full band’s output, Flowers’ vocals + sharp lyrics = jackpot.

5. Arcade Fire, The Suburbs: I keep thinking this album seems overrated, until I listen again and realize just how great it is. While perhaps only “Rococo” and “Sprawl II (Mountains Beyond Mountains)” sit among the band’s greatest tracks, the consistently compelling material in a story arc critiquing our modern suburban life stands up to the hype.

4. Tracey Thorn, Love and Its Opposite: “Who’s next?” the voice of Everything But the Girl sings in opener “Oh, the Divorces”: “It’s always the ones that you least expect.” And who would expect Thorn to reappear with a masterpiece of an album about growing older? But with tracks such as “Long White Dress,” “Hormones” and “Singles Bar,” she imbues wisdom and memorable songs galore.

3. Rocky Votolato, True Devotion: Not quite as phenomenal as his previous effort, “Makers,” but still full of beautifully painted tales of lost love, lovable losers and lovingly lost causes. The well-turned depth he pours into simple refrains like “The less likely you survive” (from “Fragments”) or “Sparklers only burn for so long” (from “Sparklers”) is simply stunning.

2. Dust Poets, World At Large: There’s nothing flashy about this unassuming Canadian foursome: They merely created the best album this year almost no one’s heard. They often tackle issues such as greed (“Deceived by Gasoline”), homelessness (“Big World”), online privacy (“Skeletons in Your Inbox”) and xenophobia (“Border Town”) but always with folksy charm, wit and skill.

1. Girl Talk, All Day: Sometimes you just have to ask: “Was there an album I simply couldn’t stop listening to for weeks?” That would be this record, which drops hook after hook, beat after beat in sensational succession. While I could ponder how Gregg Gillis pushes the envelope of this (controversial) genre or the brilliance of “Jump on Stage” samples running from Portishead to Radiohead, it’s much easier to just dance — anytime, anywhere — to the excessively catchy music.

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