Thursday, August 31, 2006

Richard Pryor Addresses a Tearful Nation

The second best songwriter in the world, right behind an old curmudgeon from Hibbing, Minnesota, is a guy named Joe Henry. He's married to Madonna's sister, but I won't hold that against him. He needs a less nondescript name, because his songs are anything but nondescript. He's been making albums for twenty years now, and almost nobody buys them. If you like Tom Waits, you might like him. His songs are jazz and folk and blues, all rolled into one, and given an off-kilter spin to make you think that maybe he's the piano player for the house band at some roadside dive on Pluto. Jazzbos like Ornette Coleman and Brad Mehldau and Don Byron like to record with him. So do alt-country bands like The Jayhawks. So does guitarist Marc Ribot, but he plays with everybody. So does Victoria Williams, whose vocals are even stranger than Joe's. He has an opera singer on his song "Flower Girl." Good luck trying to find a label for that kind of music. I'm content to just call it great. His lyrics are also jaw-droppingly wonderful, and work more often as standalone poetry than The Poet of a Generation's do.

At any rate, I'm writing an article about him for Paste Magazine, and I'm marveling at his music all over again.

Here is his song about Richard Pryor, which manages in four short verses to perfectly encapsulate the man, and make me really, really sad, and still marvel at the beauty of the language. Ornette Coleman plays some wild blues on his saxophone on this song, and it's one of the strangest, most harrowing things you'll ever hear:

Sometimes I think I've almost fooled myself
Sometimes I think I've almost fooled myself
Spreading out my wings
Above us like a tree,
Laughing now, out loud
Almost like I was free

I look at you as the thing I wanted most
You look at me and it's like you've seen a ghost
I wear the face
Of all this has cost:
Everything you tried to keep away from me,
Everything I took from you and lost

Lights shine above me, they're like your eyes above the street
Lights shine below me, they're like stars beneath my feet
I stood on your shoulders
And I walked on my hands,
You watched me while I tried to fall
You can't bear to watch me land

Take me away, carry me like a dove
Take me away, carry me like a dove
Love me like you're lying
Let me feel you near,
Remember me for trying
And excuse me while I disappear
-- Joe Henry, "Richard Pryor Address a Tearful Nation" (from Scar, 2000)

Paste, New Orleans, and Modern Times

Paste Magazine's latest issue (#24 -- September '06) is out, with Elvis Costello and Allen Toussaint on the cover. As the cover would suggest, it's heavily oriented toward the music and culture of New Orleans. Peter Guralnick writes a great article about Costello and Toussaint, and their recent unlikely musical collaboration. There's a wonderful feature on the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. New Orleans music critic John Swenson writes an incredible article called "The Storm Still Rages: A Ground-Zero Report on the Struggles and Triumphs of New Orleans Musicians One Year After Katrina." Even if you're not particularly a music fan, you should read it. It's riveting, and very, very sad. The accompanying CD features great tracks from, among others, Costello and Toussaint, Irma Thomas, Dr. John, and Buckwheat Zydeco. God bless the Big Easy, where it ain't so easy these days.

I have an article on Birdmonster, my back-page feature on Columbus' own Ronald Koal and the Trillionaires, and three or four short album reviews.

Peter Guralnick, whose words appear in Paste for the first time, is surely a member of the pantheon of music critic gods. He's an amazing, insightful writer, and he's written the definitive biographies of Elvis Presley, Robert Johnson, and Sam Cooke. I'm thrilled that my words appear within a few dozen pages of his.

I've also been listening to Bob Dylan's latest album, Modern Times. I shake my head in wonder. It's not a great album by Dylan standards. It's not going to appear on anybody's Top 10 Albums of All Time list. But Bob Dylan is 65 years old. He has absolutely nothing to prove, and could easily coast through the rest of his life. And the fact that he has now dropped three near masterpieces in a row, at an advanced age, is nearly miraculous. This album is a compendium of all the great American musical traditions. There's folk, blues, rockabilly, country, a little jazz, a little R&B. Dylan borrows wholesale from Muddy Waters, Merle Haggard, Memphis Minnie. He steals guitar riffs, fragments of lyrics, and then jumbles them all together and put them through that patented Dylan lyrical filter to emerge with something utterly fresh. The music is earthy and salty, focused on sex, focused on heaven, focused on living fully in the present, focused on eternal judgment. He's amazing, and he's done it again.

Modern times suck. We have Presidents who ignore the law and disregard 200 years of history. So, as Peter Guralnick points out in his album review, Dylan returns to the past, not as an escape, but as a way of saying "This is where we come from. Before you throw it all away, be aware of your heritage." It's a staggeringly great heritage, and Bob Dylan makes it new all over again.

Monday, August 28, 2006

Thoughts on the Emergent/Emerging Church

What's in a name? One of the current buzzwords in Christian circles is the "emerging" or "emergent" church. Wikipedia offers this as a definition:

The emerging church is a diverse, controversial movement within Christianity that arose in the late 20th century as a reaction to the perceived influence of modernism in Western Christianity. Proponents of the emerging church embrace postmodernism and call the movement a "conversation" to emphasize its decentralized nature with contributions from people of a variety of beliefs. The emerging church seeks to deconstruct and reconstruct Christianity, as its mainly Western members live in a postmodern culture.

While practices and even core doctrine vary, many emergers can be recognized by the following values:

Missional living

All believers are missionaries who are sent to be a blessing to the culture around them through a lifestyle that brings God's kingdom here on earth through verbal evangelism, social activism and however God has gifted the individual.

Narrative theology

Narrative presentations of faith and the Bible are emphasized over propositional presentations such as systematic theology which are viewed as reductionism.

Generous Orthodoxy

An ecumenical understanding of doctrine which attempts to move beyond the conservative versus liberal impasse in Christianity while honoring the beliefs and traditions of premodern, modern and postmodern Christian denominations. This generosity also extends to dialogue with non-Christian religions and non-religious people for some like Brian McLaren but not others, like Mark Driscoll.


A commitment to emulating Jesus' way of living, in particular his loving of God, neighbors and those normally considered enemies. An understanding of the gospel as one centered on Christ that is a message about the Kingdom of God and reconciliation between God, man and creation.

Biblical Interpretation

An openness to consider a plurality of interpretations as well as the impact of the reader's cultural context on the act of interpretation in contrast to the primacy of the author's intent and cultural context. The influence of postmodern thinkers such as Jacques Derrida and Stanley Fish can be seen in the “emerging church” approach to interpreting Scripture.


Favoring the sharing of experiences and interactions that are personal and sincere such as testimonies over scripted interactions such as propositional, formulaic evangelistic tracts and teaching.


Creating a safe environment for those with different opinions to talk and listen with an attitude of grace when there are disagreements as opposed to the dogmatic proclamation found in historic Christianity.

Emerging Church groups also typically emphasize the following elements:
  • A flexible approach to and continual reexamination of theology which causes them to see faith as a journey rather than a destination, and to accept differences in beliefs and morals.
  • A belief in creating communities built out of the creativity of those who are a part of each local body.
  • A holistic view of the role of the church in society. This can mean anything from a higher degree of emphasis on social action, building relationships with the surrounding community, or Christian outreach.
  • Creative approaches to worship and spiritual reflection. This can involve everything from the use of contemporary music and films to liturgy, as well as more ancient customs, with a goal of making the church more appealing to postmodern people.
  • Use of the internet is a dominant medium of communication through various blogs, websites and online videos.

My church fits many of the characteristics of an "emergent" church, although nobody I know uses that term. I think most folks would simply prefer "Church," and would emphasize the continuity with what Christians have believed for the past 2,000 years. But when I read that list, I plead "guilty" or "innocent" or whatever the proper plea is to all of the above. Sounds good to me.

I'll note that I have a seminary education, and value theological rigor to a degree. But the degree stops when it gets in the way of loving Jesus and loving others. It's not that one necessarily precludes the other, and when held in the proper balance theological rigor can certainly inform and enrich love of God and love of neighbor. But how much theological rigor is needed to understand the concepts of dying to self and living for God? The concept isn't hard to grasp. It's just hard to live. And I want and need to be surrounded by people who want to live it.

I am also something of a fish out of water in that I come from perhaps the last generation of modernists, and I currently find myself quite comfortably in the postmodern camp. It's not that I doubt propositional truth. But, to quote and slightly mangle the philosopher Pogo, I have met the enemy, and the enemy is me. Knowing propositional truth didn't do squat for me in terms of following God or avoiding the same addictive traps that have snared untold generations in my family. I come from a long and undistinguished line of addicts, and I'd like to break that chain in my generation. But knowing how to dot all my theological i's and cross all my theological t's only led to despair. From what I could tell, I was a good Calvinist who was predestined to go to hell because of my inability to love Jesus more than myself, and my proclivity toward sin. Praise God.

I think there is a common misperception of emergent churches that 1) they either don't care about theology, or 2) they are content to make up the theology as they go. That has not been my experience. What has been my experience is that the theology isn't debated that much. I believe that orthodoxy (with a small "o") is important, but I also believe that it's more important to be known by how I live and what my priorities are and how I spend my time and money. That's what the world sees. And what I want them to see is that I am a part of a church culture that is welcoming. I want non-Christians to show up for church. I want homeless people, drug addicts, homosexuals, porn addicts, prostitutes, and Democrats to show up for church, as well as the regular broken uptight Republican evangelicals. I want all kinds of broken, dysfunctional people to find a home, and a place where Humpty Dumpty can be put back together again. And they do. And I'd rather live with the messiness and the theological fuzziness than to exclude anybody because of their theological understanding, or lack thereof. The theology will sort itself out if people stick around.

I am old enough to have lived through and survived the Jesus movement of the early '70s. It's when and how I became a Christian, and thank God there were people then, too, who thought there were alternatives to stained glass and pipe organs and hardwood pews. But this, whatever this is -- Emergent Church, Third Wave, whatever you want to call it -- is different. I don't see an attempt to reinvent the Church. I don't see the hubris that automatically accompanies any attempt to be "an authentic New Testament Church." I see great respect for Church history and tradition. I see wholesale borrowing from that history and tradition, in fact, often in some strange and challenging mix 'n match ways. But I see it all being subsumed under the greater goal of loving people, including those who are most unlovable. And, in my opinion, that should always trump theology. It's what the evangelical church, as a whole, has done very poorly. We can judge like the experts we are. But we just can't seem to get that part about love down very well. For what it's worth, I'd like to change that in my own life, and I'd like to be a part of a church that wants to play a part in changing that in the culture at large.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Ray Bradbury on Mars

Acclaimed science fiction writer Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles, Fahrenheit 451) turned 86 on Tuesday, and made some pronouncements about our brave new world, according to a story on CNN:

Author Ray Bradbury turned 86 on Tuesday and still has his eye on the stars -- both celestial and earthbound.

The author of such science fiction and fantasy classics as "The Martian Chronicles" and "Something Wicked This Way Comes" said he believes that humans will return to the moon, then go to Mars and eventually to other worlds.

"Our future is wonderful," he told Patt Morrison in an interview on KPCC, a Pasadena-based public radio station.

Admittedly, I am not the world's most optimistic person. On temperament/personality tests I consistently score as a Melancholy personality. I see the world through black-colored lenses. Even so, I can't help quoting a few pertinent statistics related to genocide in the last one hundred years:

Armenians in Turkey: 1915-1918 - 1,500,000 Deaths
Stalin's Forced Famine: 1932-1933 - 7,000,000 Deaths
Rape of Nanking: 1937-1938 - 300,000 Deaths
Nazi Holocaust: 1938-1945 - 6,000,000 Deaths
Pol Pot in Cambodia: 1975-1979 - 2,000,000 Deaths
Rwanda: 1994 - 800,000 Deaths
Bosnia-Herzegovina: 1992-1995 - 200,000 Deaths

Darfur, Sudan? Who knows? It's still going on. But conservative estimates put the number of deaths at over 150,000.

Earlier this week CCN shared the story of a Muslim cleric, a spiritual adviser to Osama bin Laden, who wants to cap the number of deaths in the current jihad at 10 million. No sense in overdoing it in a little nuclear squabble. Ten million deaths.

So I am always a little taken aback when people like Ray Bradbury, wearing his decidedly rose-tinted lenses, proclaims that our future is wonderful. Maybe on Mars. But from everything I can see, it looks to me like Earth, not Mars, is the real red planet, and that blood will flow in rivers.

When I read the Bible, especially that odd, cryptic book at the end, it seems fairly clear to me that life on earth will not get better. Now, I need to clarify that. Honestly, when people go off on end-times tangents my natural tendency is to back away very slowly. There, there, put down that Book of Revelation and no one gets hurt. It is debatable to me which is worse: a rabid dog or a rabid pre-millenialist. I honestly don't care to speculate about when the end of the world will take place, or who the anti-Christ is, or whether he or she is living now. I look forward to 666 as the number of home runs Ken Griffey Jr. will have hit in a couple more years. And that's about it. I am content to know that there will be trials and tribulations like the world has never seen, and that Jesus wins in the end. I tend to look for the big themes and avoid the endless wrangling about the details.

But surely one of those big themes is that before it gets better the world will have gone to hell in a Longaberger hand basket. And you'll have to pardon me, but capping the number of nuclear deaths at ten million seems to fit right in with the theme.

There is a passage in the Book of Revelation, before the shit even really hits the fan, where human beings, faced with unimagined catastrophes, desire to flee to caves and hide behind rocks. They want to find a hole in the ground and crawl in and die. "Who can stand?," they ask. It is too much. It is overwhelming. I always identify with those folks. Ten million deaths, Ray. Can you wrap your fertile little mind around that, you who can conjure brave new worlds among the stars?

It's enough to get a guy down, especially one who wrote end-of-the-world nuclear holocaust short stories at the tender age of 9.

In the meantime, I get up and go to work, spend time with my family, try to become a little more like Jesus and a little less like the jerk who inhabits my skin. It all seems so futile. Ray Bradbury's solution seems like a form of insanity to me, a willful denial of reality, but I surely don't like the alternative. Because the alternative says that the future is not wonderful; that it is bleak, and full of suffering and pain. And what can I do? I am powerless to change any of it.

I don't have any good answers. About all I know is that I'm supposed to stay out of that hole in the ground, which is where I'd like to go. I'm supposed to walk around on the planet and care about it and the people who live on it instead of hiding from the holocaust and impending doom. And maybe that's the best I can do; flash the big middle finger of love in the midst of despair, fly hope as an act of defiance, quietly insist, through the way I live my life, that meaninglessness and death and destruction are not the final word.

Honestly, it would be easier to crawl into the hole -- a literal cave, or the metaphorical hole that numbs and softens the shrieking awareness that we live in one hell of a big, scary place. But today -- at least for today -- I can choose to stay out of the hole. It is a simple act of faith, but it's all I can do. And that's how I pray these days. Help me to get up, God. Help me to walk across the blasted, fear-shrouded planet, and through little acts of kindness and selflessness help me to demonstrate the ultimate reality -- You win. And then help me tomorrow to get up and do it all over again.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Lambchop -- Damaged

I love this album.

I am deluged with new albums and their accompanying breathless press kits every week. That means that I am constantly confronted with the claims that Artist X or Band Y has reinvented music, found new and heretofore unexplored ways to combine the same twelve notes, plumbed the depths of insightful songwriting, blah, blah, blah.

And the thing that strikes me is that Kurt Wagner and his motley crew of cellists and pedal steel players have come a lot closer than most to living up to those claims. I can count on one hand the number of musicians/bands who have truly come up with a new sound in the past ten or fifteen years -- Sigur Ros, Sufjan Stevens, Radiohead, Beck. And Lambchop. And although there's nothing wrong with variations on a theme, when you've been following the themes for more than four decades, as I have, it really is fairly remarkable to stumble across something new.

Lambchop sound like no one but themselves. They've certainly evolved over the years, and Damaged sounds little like the heavily reverbed countrypolitan music they made early in their career. Now they're making quiet, pensive orchestral music that is drenched with melancholy. Except when they're funny, and they're frequently very, very funny. Or when they toss in the pedal steel, as they also do with some regularity. It's schmaltzy country and western lounge music about cancer, mortality and penises, delivered by a guy who whispers more than sings. It's hopelessly uncommercial. It's hauntingly beautiful. And it's weird, but it's not so weird that you can't see it being massively successful in a world populated by sentimental, balding, middle-aged hypochondriacs. But hey, that's my world. Kurt Wagner is #1 on WHIT, the station that plays for an audience of one. Well, okay, maybe not #1. But Top 5 of the decade. And Damaged is one more reason to celebrate, and marvel, and check for pre-cancerous moles.

Monday, August 21, 2006

Westerberg, Elanors, and The Now People

New in the CD player this weekend ...

Paul Westerberg - Soundtrack to Open Season

There is something darkly humorous about Paul Westerberg, former leader of the besotted, ramshackle Replacements, creating a soundtrack to an animated film. But that's what he's done. Maybe the cute little onscreen kitties will stumble around in an alcoholic stupor and cuss a lot and end up in exclusive feline rehab facilities. I'd pay to see that. In any case, the animated kitties have provided the catalyst for Westerberg to reunite with the 'Mats intrepid bass player Tommy Stinson (at least for a few tracks), and together they have made their loudest, loosest, most balls-to-the-wall music in more than a decade. No, it's not quite a Replacements reunion, but there's plenty of good, juvenile fun going on in these songs, and if they won't win any awards for introspective insight, they boogie along in a proto-Stones/Faces kind of way just fine.

Elanors - Movements

Two people -- a man named Noah and a woman named Adriel -- get married, start singing, and call themselves Elanors. Ours is not to question why. One of the Elanors, Noah, actually sounds a lot like Rufus. Not the old Chaka Khan group, the son of Loudon Wainwright. He plays melancholic, romantic piano that owes more to Chopin than Coldplay, and sings in a lovely falsetto about materialism, fear, and gunfire. Hmm, paranoid philosophy major you sniff, and you'd be absolutely right. Adriel plays synths and sings too. Together they make insular, pretty music that is heavy on the Radiohead claustrophobic dread and light on the memorable melodies. It's lovely. I just wish I could remember a single song.

The Now People - The Last Great 20th Century Love Affair

The Now People, a Los Angeles-based pop quartet, have painstakingly reconstructed the sound of The Association, circa 1966's "Cherish is The Word" and "Along Comes Mary." Why?

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Rock Chicks

Let's hear it for the girls.

The Detroit Cobras - Baby

Sometimes the best music slips through the cracks. That's the case with the Detroit Cobras' Baby, which I've now owned for a couple years. I think I listened to it when it was released, sort of, was mildly impressed, and quickly shelved it. But I pulled it out again a few days ago, and I'm having a hard time listening to anything else.

Think Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders paired with the early Kinks, doing obscure Motown covers in a garage. Lead singer Rachel Nagy is a dead ringer for Hynde. The twenty songs here (all but one of them covers) are '50s and '60s R&B workouts with titles like "Cha Cha Twist" and "My Baby Loves the Secret Agent." Know those songs? Me either, but they have all the Space Age Bachelor Pad kitsch that the titles would suggest. Overall, this isn't at all far removed from the booty-shakin' Rawk that the The Animals, The Kinks, and the early Stones were doing in 1964. Sure, it's derivative. But it's great fun, and Nagy is a wonderful revelation as a singer. The White Stripes are far from the only occupants of that Motor City garage, and The Detroit Cobras prove to be excellent raw, stripped-down company.

The BellRays - Have a Little Faith

Wow. I've been reading about this band for a few years, and the descriptions always boggled belief -- Led Zeppelin fronted by Aretha Franklin. Yeah, sure. Well, believe it. Yes, they steal most of the classic Zep riffs (the one from "Whole Lotta Love" being a particular favorite). But they also do wah-wah pedal workouts that recall Curtis Mayfied during the Superfly era. And they do classic Stax/Volt mid-'60s soul, too. Lead singer Lisa Kekaula, who has one of the World's Greatest Afros, sure enough sometimes sounds like The Queen of Soul, and sometimes "merely" like Tina Turner or Gladys Knight. I think I've died and gone to Juke Joint Heaven. What a set of pipes. And if the lyrics aren't anything special, who cares?

Have a Little Faith has immediately shot into my Top 10 list for this year. It's fabulous. I can't wait to discover the back catalogue.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Albums That Get No Love (Except Maybe From You)

Here are a few of mine, courtesy of the Wayback machine. Some of these albums got a fair amount of attention back in the day, but don't go looking for them on your favorite Oldies station. They're long forgotten now. And they shouldn't be.

The Brooooooce Wing

Broooooooce casts a long shadow, and his influence on the rock 'n roll of the late seventies and eighties is incalculable. There would probably be no Tom Petty without Bruce. There would almost certainly be no John Cougar Mellencamp. Here are some folks who stood in that shadow, and who stepped out to make some memorable music of their own.

Gary "U.S." Bonds -- Dedication, On the Line

Bonds had several R&B hits in the early '60s, and Bruce covered his "Quarter to Three" in almost every one of his concerts during the first few years of his superstardom. He repaid the favor in the early '80s by resurrecting Bonds' long-dormant career, producing and playing on most of the tracks (along with the rest of the E Street band), and contributing several new songs that wouldn't officially appear in the Bruce canon until the Tracks box set many years later. Bonds' versions of "Rendezvous" and "Love's on the Line" are better than Bruce's.

Iron City Houserockers -- Iron City Houserockers, Have a Good Time But Get Out Alive

Led by the incomparably named Joe Grushecky, this blue-collar Pittsburgh bar band made tough, literate rock 'n roll. It wasn't better than Bruce's early '80s work. But it was better than anything the Melonhead did, at least up until Scarecrow.

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes -- I Don't Want to Go Home, This Time It's For Real, Hearts of Stone

Pity poor John Lyon. Cursed to be from the same hometown as a rock 'n roll icon, his music was constantly compared to his better-known friend. Which is too bad, because Bruce wasn't really doing variations on classic R&B, and that's what Johnny did best. The albums started going south in the mid-'80s, but those first three albums are absolutely great. Hearts of Stone, in particular, is as good as anything Springsteen ever did. Five stars.

The Byrds Wing

Contrary to popular belief, REM did not invent jangly guitars. The Byrds did, with some admitted assistance from George Harrison on "Ticket to Ride." And these bands carried on in that grand tradition, often long after it was cool to do so.

Starry Eyed and Laughing -- Starry Eyed and Laughing, Thought Talk

The Byrds were has-beens when these albums were released in the mid-'70s. So these guys played Rickenbacker 12-strings and harmonized beautifully, and nobody cared. Disco and punk were on the horizon. But gorgeous songs with chiming guitar runs will never go out of style. These songs still sound as fresh to me as they did thirty years ago.

Guadalcanal Diary -- Walking in the Shadow of the Big Man, Jamboree, 2X4, Flip Flop

There was another hot band from Athens, Georgia out at the time these albums were recorded (the early '80s), so they mostly went unnoticed. They're great, and tremendously relevant examples of how to incorporate spiritual themes and Christian imagery into contemporary songwriting in a non-cheesy way. Plus, in one of their non-Byrdslike moments, they recorded an absolutely sublime punk cover of "Kumbaya." No kidding.

The Bangles -- All Over the Place

Yeah, I know. But I'm telling you, that first album, long before they hit their commercial peak, is absolutely great. There are jangly guitar songs galore, and the best "We Can Work It Out" knockoff (here called "Tell Me") not recorded by The Beatles.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Clues for the Clueless

Last week was a hellish week at work. I’m working with a small team of consultants on a multimedia training project for a large state agency that has spent a lot of money for us to do things that none of us have ever done before. And we have to do it in a ridiculously short period of time. I have a state sponsor who basically wants us to produce animated videos that look like Shrek and Finding Nemo. And I have a hard time telling when my dining room walls have changed from beige to maroon. I may not be the ideal candidate to develop a visually-oriented training course.

So people are tense. I am tense. And when I am tense, and when I have some clues about some of the ways we should go, I tend to force feed those clues to the clueless. Here, have a clue, and eat it quickly because we don’t have time to waste. And it then inevitably follows, as night follows day, that I am reprimanded for not playing well with others. Back off. You’re too aggressive. Check your ego at the door. These are messages I’ve heard most of my adult life. They’re nothing new. They are, in fact, very, very old.

Of course, there is truth in those messages. And when I hear them, I usually react with a mixture of baffled befuddlement, contrition, sorrow, guilt, and an overwhelming feeling of being misunderstood. Look, I don’t want to steamroll you. I want to be your friend. But you’re clueless, and we don’t have time to be clueless. This is honestly how my mind works.

So I’ve been praying about this. My weekend was spent in prayer and frantic writing activity, alternating between being extremely productive and moping around the house and feeling like an asshole. I don’t know how to gently and politely tell people that they’re wrong and I’m right. I don’t even know if it’s possible to do that. But I do know that my communication style frequently doesn’t work. For some reason people tend to get upset if you tell them they’re clueless, even if you couch it in terms of you’re a swell human being, and a child of God, dearly beloved and of infinite value, everybody get together try and love one another right now, and those are cute photos of your kids, but you’re still wrong in this case, Bucko. I just wish I knew how to communicate that in less inflammatory ways. And I wish I knew why my every attempt to douse the flames still seems to result in a 5-alarm conflagration.

I really do. And so I prayed about it this weekend, a lot. Other people prayed for me about it. I’m sick of this. It creates resentment in other people, and it makes me feel like a pariah and a jerk. So if you are so moved, pray that God will change me. I don’t know how to change myself. I tend to get in trouble when I think I have a clue, even when I really do. And for better or worse, here is an area where I don’t have a clue. If you can do anything with that, God, go for it.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Music Overload

And I thought I was experiencing music overload. I talked to my friend Jason last night, who is the Music Editor for Paste Magazine. He passed along the fun fact that he has to sort through approximately 200 new CDs per week. Of the approximately 800 CDs that arrive in between issues, about 70 - 75 actually end up being reviewed in the magazine. But that's up dramatically from the 1,600 that used to arrive between issues, one of the fringe benefits of going from bi-monthly to monthly.

This means that your nephew's four-track demo that he recorded in his bedroom has a slightly higher chance of being reviewed than it did before, perhaps even doubling from .0001% to .0002%. Keep hope alive.

Me? I have to listen to two 4-CD box sets and write two reviews before the end of the weekend. Work and family keep getting in the way of these quality listening experiences. I don't have time to listen to 4 CDs per day, let alone listen to them and attempt to form coherent thoughts about them. Anybody wanna give me a crash course on Bruce Hornsby and John Lee Hooker?

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Reviews on

Hey, my reviews have started showing up on

If you'd like, you can read about new albums from The Sails, Chris Smither, Ronnie Baker Brooks, and Anne McCue.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Erin Go Brat

For three hundred sixty-two days per year, Dublin, Ohio is like any other prosperous Midwestern suburb. BMWs and SUVs sit snarled in the rush hour traffic on the outerbelt, their immaculately coiffed occupants on their way to their cushy office complexes that house software development companies and insurance agencies and telecom behemoths. But, because this is Dublin, Ohio, for three days per year the town is transformed into a reasonable facsimile of the Auld Country, and 100,000 Celtophiles or just plain Buckeyes descend on a metro park to partake in the annual Irish Festival, which consists of watered down beer from County Coors, the spicy bratwursts known as Bahama Mamas, face painting (blue being the preferred color of Freeeeeedom!), sand art, corn dogs, and “Kiss Me, I’m Irish” t-shirts in every color of the rainbow, but mostly Shamrock Green. And music. Lots of music.

I will let you in on a secret. I am not Irish. My ancestors, imperialistic bastards that they were, hail from England, but I try not to advertise that fact, particularly during the three days when yuppified Dublin is transformed into an IRA outpost. There’s no sense in being pummeled to death by beer bottles. But I come for the music, because I dearly love it, and for three days in August, Dublin, Ohio has some of the best music on the planet, blasting out from every corner and converging in a glorious cacophony from seven stages that feature more or less continuous jigs and reels from noon ‘til midnight.

As I wandered the festival grounds, I realized that the cacophony is, as always, something of a mixed blessing. Over at the Traditional Stage two dubiously authentic gents, The Celtic Tenors, were engaged in a semi-operatic version of the Auld Country favorite “Lost in Love,” made famous by Air Supply, an Australian soft rock duo. Over at the Celtic Thunder Stage, a gaggle of Singing Nuns, who billed themselves accurately enough as The Singing Nuns, were trilling to traditional fare such as “Edelweis” and “The Sound of Music.” Austria, Ireland, what the hell. Close enough. At the neighboring Ceili Stage, two Celtic folkies were leading the crowd in a rousing chant devoted to the homeland. “O-H,” chanted the troubadours. “I-O,” the crowd chanted back, caught up in the parochial pride of the moment. Apparently you make some concessions to the home team, and those concessions sometimes extend beyond the bratwurst and the corn dogs.

Fat guys in pleated kilts thwacked each other with wooden swords, which was really great, and which held my attention for several minutes. But I really had come for the music, so I spent most of a day and a half hanging out with my brother-in-law Bill (William McCune of County Tyrone; at least one of us could pass muster), sitting and standing and bobbing front and center at the Killian Celtic Rock tent, where various native sons tarted up the traditional songs with electric guitars and a heavy backbeat. Here is who we saw:

-- Hothouse Flowers
-- The Prodigals
-- Seanchai and the Unity Squad
-- Bad Haggis
-- Gaelic Storm
-- The Saw Doctors

Hothouse Flowers could number a certain Bono as one of their early fans and supporters. Reviews in Rolling Stone and videos on MTV were commonplace in the early ‘90s. But on Friday night Liam O’Maonlai and Fiachna O’Broainain, the two mainstays of the band from those heady early years, probably felt a long way from the streets of Dublin. Not only were they playing to a mostly indifferent crowd, but sound problems plagued their hour and a half set almost from its first notes.

Hothouse Flowers are Irish by way of Memphis, and O’Maonlai’s vocals were clearly influenced by American gospel and Stax/Volt southern soul. But there’s nothing wrong with that combination, and if Van Morrison can pull it off, then it’s clearly worth imitating. Sure, O’Maonlai is no Van Morrison, but he is a gritty, passionate singer, and if the audience had actually paid attention, they would have heard some first rate blue-eyed soul. I loved the set, and particularly loved the segues from the band’s original material to the traditional Gaelic songs. Soul is soul, no matter which side of the pond on which it is found.

New York City’s The Prodigals’ groove-heavy approach and accordion-driven songs recall The Pogues, the granddaddy’s of this music, and if lead singer/songwriter Gregory Grene isn’t the writer that Shane MacGowan was (who is?) his songs at least have the punk instincts and rabble-rousing qualities that best befit the genre. These were rowdy drinking songs, best appreciated while sloshing a pint of Guinness (or, in this case, Coors) on one’s pogoing neighbor, and the audience obliged. The Prodigals delivered a fun, albeit somewhat derivative and repetitious set. But we’re talking Celtic punk; who’s complaining? The band provided a stirring end to a fun Friday night.

Brooklyn’s Seanchai and the Unity Squad drew the dreaded 2:30 time slot on Saturday afternoon, the Bermuda Triangle portion of all music festivals in which bands simply fail to register. Most of the small audience appeared to be distracted or still recovering from the previous night. Give them credit for trying, though. Led by Black 47 co-founder Chris Byrne, Seanchai (loosely translated as “storyteller”) played politically charged Celtic anthems to hip-hop and reggae accompaniment. If some of the material seemed dubiously inspired (sorry, but I’ve never viewed revolutionary/murderer Che Guevara as a particularly sympathetic figure), other songs were surprisingly moving, in particular “The Gates of Hell,” a tribute to NYC firefighters at the World Trade Center that was all the more powerful for its lack of sentimentality.

Bad Haggis is surely one of the more redundant band names ever concocted, but that is the only bad thing about this L.A. band of virtuosos. Leader Eric Rigler simply plays the uilleann pipes and bagpipes on virtually every Hollywood movie or TV show that has ever featured those instruments. You’ve probably heard him in Braveheart, Titanic, and Cinderella Man. And if you thought, judging from those movies, that Rigler does the haunting fog-on-the-moors thing well, you’d be right. But that is only a small part of the story. Employing a band that features a guitarist who has played with Miles Davis and Tony Williams, a funk bassist, and dual South American percussionists, Rigler unleashed a sound that encompassed the whole world, and when the roar of his bagpipes careened against those polyrhythms on, yes, a Stevie Wonder song, I shook my head in disbelief. What was even more dumbfounding is that it all held together brilliantly. Santana with bagpipes? Celtic jazz? Brazilian Scottish Funk? Call it whatever seemingly inconceivable label you like. All I know is that my mouth was hanging open in awe. Bad Haggis played music too big and creative for labels. That’s the best kind. They were worth the price of the weekend pass all by themselves.

Gaelic Storm? Perhaps the less said the better. They were young. They were cute. They were cuddly. They were the New Kids on the Block of the Dublin Irish Festival. They pushed all the buttons, even when they weren’t playing their concertinas. Thousands of teenaged girls loved them and squealed at their every move. The music? I don’t think anyone cared. I didn’t, and left after half an hour.

The Saw Doctors, the most successful Irish rock band since U2, wrapped up the proceedings Saturday night in front of about 30,000 beer-swilling people. For a modest pub rock outfit from Galway, it must have been a frightening and awe-inspiring sight. Lead singer/songwriter Leo Moran confessed as much when he gazed out over the crowd and exclaimed, “There’s more people here than in all of Galway!”

And the Galway boys had what was, I suspect, the time of their lives. Playing their Beatles- and Byrds-inspired version of Irish sentimental rock before a crowd that knew every word of every song, and sang along lustily, the band fairly beamed with pleasure. The ballads, which comprised about a third of the two-hour set, were full of the kind of hand-over-the-heart emoting and schmaltz that give Celtic music a bad name. But the rockers were sturdy and hook-filled. The audience sang, danced, sloshed their pints, er, twelve ounces of Coors on one another’s heads, and generally had a great time. I did too, minus the Coors, and managed to emerge from the melee near the front of the stage with my hair still dry.

It was a great weekend. I can’t wait until Dublin transforms itself again. Today, I’m back in my cushy office chair in my cushy office complex. And I have a hankering for a lot of new Celtic music and a wooden sword.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Dublin Irish Festival

Dublin, Ohio used to be mostly cornfields, and the site of the Dublin Irish Festival was undoubtedly one in days of yore. But hey, the city is called Dublin, so they have to act like they're a natural extension of the Auld Country.

Which is fine, because they put on one hell of a great Irish festival anyway -- three days of dart throwing, boulder tossing, corned beef sandwiches, the stoutest of stouts, and more great music than you can shake a shalalee at, on seven stages that run more or less continuously from noon to midnight. You should go. I am. See you Monday. Go crack some damned English heads.

I was born on a Dublin street where the Royal drums do beat
And the loving English feet they tramped all over us,
And each and every night when me father'd come home tight
He'd invite the neighbors outside with this chorus:

Oh, come out you black and tans,
Come out and fight me like a man
Show your wife how you won medals fown in Flanders
Tell them how the IRA
Made you run like hell away,
From the green and lovely lanes in Killashandra.

Come let me hear you tell
How you slammed the great Pernell,
When you fought them well and truly persecuted,
Where are the smears and jeers
That you bravely let us hear
When our heroes of sixteen were executed.

Oh, come out you black and tans,
Come out and fight me like a man
Show your wife how you won medals fown in Flanders
Tell them how the IRA
Made you run like hell away,
From the green and lovely lanes in Killashandra.

Come tell us how you slew
Those brave Arabs two by two
Like the Zulus they had spears and bows and arrows,
How you bravely slew each one
With your sixteen pounder gun
And you frightened them poor natives to their marrow.

Oh, come out you black and tans,
Come out and fight me like a man
Show your wife how you won medals fown in Flanders
Tell them how the IRA
Made you run like hell away,
From the green and lovely lanes in Killashandra.

The day is coming fast
And the time is here at last,
When each yeoman will be cast aside before us,
And if there be a need
Sure my kids wil sing, "Godspeed!"
With a verse or two of Steven Beehan's chorus.

Oh, come out you black and tans,
Come out and fight me like a man
Show your wife how you won medals fown in Flanders
Tell them how the IRA
Made you run like hell away,
From the green and lovely lanes in Killashandra.

Notes: Written by Dominic Behan, brother of the famous Irish playwright Brendan Behan. This song is reputedly an account of their father taunting loyalist neighbors after a night of drinking during the Irish war of independence (1919-21).

Mindy Smith -- Long Island Shores

I will confess that, as a general rule, I prefer men's voices to women's in the roots/folk/alt-country world. It's not a sexist thing (at least I hope not). It's just that there's a largely interchangeable passel of women making this music -- Kasey Chambers, Tift Merritt, Julie Miller, Kim Richey, Anne McCue, Dar Williams, Allison Moorer, Kathleen Edwards, etc. They're not bad, but they don't make me sit up and pay close attention, either. They're pleasant. And Lucinda Williams, Neko Case and Iris Dement stand out for me in this world for the precise reason that they are not pleasant; Lucinda because she is raw and gritty, and Neko and Iris because they have those knockout truckstop jukebox voices that can cut through a room full of rowdy bar patrons.

So I've been listening to Mindy Smith's new album Long Island Shores (due out October 11th), and it's a pleasant surprise -- pleasant because she has the kind of sweetly aching soprano that fits in well with the interchangeable sisters, and a surprise because she writes some really, really great songs. Mindy is a Paste Magazine favorite, so I tried to like One Moment More, her debut album from a couple years back, and which featured the semi-hit "Come to Jesus." That song received a lot of airplay on CMT and garnered her a couple CMA nominations. But it sounded like it belonged on a Twila Paris CCM album; it didn't do a thing for me. I think it's swell that Mindy loves Jesus. I just wish she had written a less lobotomized song about it.

So I wasn't fully prepared for Long Island Shores. Mindy still loves Jesus. That's good. But her new songs are full of tension and conflict. They sound a lot less like poster slogans and a lot more like a Christian wrestling with real, three-dimensional life. The musical accompaniment (acoustic guitar, pedal steel, dobro) is less polite and more raw. And Mindy still has a sweetly aching soprano that reminds me of Emmylou before she lost that vocal purity because of age and cigarettes.

It's a really fine album, and it's worth the wait.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

An Apology for John Lennon

Michael just picked up John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album, one of my favorite albums from anyone, anytime. Good move. So let me tell you a story about how that album got me in trouble.
I owned that album and listened to it all the time when I moved in to a Christian community in the late '70s. I played "Working Class Hero," loudly, over the ol' stereo system, and countless brothers and sisters heard "You're all fuckin' peasants as far as I can see." Uh oh. The red flags went up. Not only did John Lennon cuss, but he was a well-known, certified Pinko Commie, a Peacenik, someone who thought he was Bigger than Jesus, and a drug user. None of these things recommended him to the ecclesiastical powers of the day.

So a dear sister (truly, although she could drive me crazy) came over to set me straight.

"You know, don't you," she began, "that John Lennon is not a Christian?"

Yep, I knew that.

"And that he uses drugs?"

Uh huh.

"And that he's made some very antagonistic statements about Christianity?"


"So why do you listen to him?"

My response was long-winded, but it was basically my standard spiel that I've given at conferences at Christian Colleges a few times now, the Why You Should Not Listen to Christian Music But Should Instead Listen to Music as a Christian speech. And it went (and it still goes) something like this:

We live in the world. We have not retreated to caves and monasteries. And since I don't look that great in a monk's robe, I plan to keep in that way. And since we live in the world, that means that countless times every day we are confronted with occasions for sin. I turn on the TV and I'm inundated with images of beautiful, scantily clad women selling everything from laundry detergent to automobiles. And I'm ready to buy what they're selling. Sex works for me. I'm driving to work, somebody cuts me off on the freeway, and I find my middle finger ready to extend magically, unbidden, from the steering wheel, prepared to flash half a peace sign. I'm sitting in my office, working away, when the guy the next office over decides to share a, shall we say, less than edifying joke with me and my co-workers. In each situation, an occasion for sin has arisen, tapped me on the shoulder, and said "What are you going to do about this, Buckwheat?" I didn't actively seek out any of these situations. They're simply part of what I encounter every day.

What's the answer? As best I can tell, it's hold on to the good, reject the bad, love God, love the people you encounter, ask for forgiveness when you blow it, and be sensitive to the work of the Holy Spirit in your life. That applies to music you encounter while cruising in your car or that you put in the the CD player, just as it applies to all of life. Obviously there are songs and albums that have no redeeming value, that are so blatantly offensive that they should have no part in our lives. But my guess is that most of us don't struggle with this stuff anyway, because we tend to not spend a lot of time and attention on things we genuinely dislike. But most of the music we encounter (and most of the films, and most of the books, and most of the human beings, for that matter) occupies some middle ground that is neither wholly offensive nor wholly praiseworthy. I believe that there is much that is valuable here. And there is, of course, much that is also potentially dangerous.

Take the case of, oh, John Lennon. I love The Beatles, and I particularly love John Lennon. I grew up with this music, and it had a tremendous impact on my life. And it's not that uncommon for me to think about John Lennon, about what he has meant to me. Yes, it's absolutely true that John Lennon was not a Christian. At times he was antagonistic toward Christianity. Certainly he espoused ideas and advocated a lifestyle that is at best questionable and at worst antithetical to the Christian message. And he influenced me greatly, sometimes in not very good ways. Overall, I love John Lennon's music. I still listen to it. But I don't love everything about it. When he sings "Imagine there's no heaven/It's easy if you try" I think, "Nope, sorry John, but you got that one wrong." When he sings "God is a concept/By which we measure our pain" I disagree with him, but I also understand, at least to some extent, the pain that may have led him to that statement, and I sympathize with the tortured existence he was leading when he wrote those words. When he sings "Follow her down to a bridge by a fountain/Where rocking horse people eat marshmallow pies/Everyone smiles as you drift past the flowers/That grow so incredibly high" I think about part of my past, and I tell myself to just let that go, that there are some places that are not worth revisiting. And when he sings "All you need is love," I think, "You poor, noble, naive, admirable idealist; unfortunately, sometimes you need a bullet-proof vest, too."

In short, I view him as a marvellously talented singer and songwriter who was fallen, fallible, lovable, irritating, vulnerable, right, wrong, and a fully realized human being. I guess I sort of love him as a friend. I don't know how to escape that process when listening to music. It's not easy. There aren't any magic formulas. But if I didn't engage in it, I would have never discovered John Lennon as a friend.

I don't view this as a "new approach to music." As far as I'm concerned, it's the only approach to music. It's the interior dialogue that has to occur whenever a Christian encounters art of any kind, including that released by the CCM industry. There's never a place where you can uncritically accept what you're hearing. So do it. And pick up John Lennon's Plastic Ono Band album while you're at it.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

The Church as a Sanctified Place -- More Context

More of the same discussion. I am again responding to the person in italics.

The whole world is a sanctified place? Perhaps, in the same way that all the world's a stage. But front row tickets to the Globe Theater are a bit more expensive than the seat by the kitchen door at the Ashtabula Community Dinner Theater and Comedy Club precisely because one stage has been set aside to be specifically dedicated for a particular task and is generally occupied by people who are more systematically and intentionally pursuing that task than those who are jumping in and out of costume between curtain breaks so they can come out and serve you your pecan pie.

Whether it be taking your shoes off before you go in a mosque, keeping passover or sabbath, having a room without a television that one writes in because the distractions are less, or keeping ice cream in the storage freezer rather than pantry, it is not just Christians who have suggestsed or noted that dedicating a space to a particular function can facilitate the execution of that function. I honestly don't see how the whole world is "set apart" for a particular use. If everything is set apart, isn't that just the same as saying nothing is?

You know, I honestly don't care where I worship God. I care about what I and others believe, and how I and others live our lives, but I don't care about the building we meet in, or the lack thereof. Trees and open air work just fine. I don't care what people call that. They can call it the sanctuary, the nave, the metro park, or any other term. It doesn't matter. I don't care that much about the so-called aesthetics that are intended to lead me into a deeper worship experience, either. Because for me, and for many people, these factors are impediments to, not aids in, worshipping God. They become points of contention and pride, and at that point I just want to check out. I'm not saying that I don't have my own issues with contention and pride, because I certainly do. But I simply don't care about defining that particular "dedicated space" or the "proper aesthetics" all that rigidly. Life is too short, and I've already spent too much of my life harranguing and being harrangued over just those kinds of issues. And in the process I've frequently lost sight of what I think this is supposed to be all about -- loving and serving Jesus.

I will go wherever I can to find people who understand that loving and serving God and their fellow human beings is the highest priority of their lives. And at the risk of melodrama, I might literally die if that is not the focus of my life, and if others can't help me live that out in community, because I will simply return to the addictions that ruled my life for long stretches, and that may kill me next time. At the very least I will lose my family. So I have something at stake in this. But I am so heartily sick of people making smug statements about liturgical vs. contemporary worship, and when to stand up and when to sit down (on both sides of the liturgical/non-liturgical divide, by the way), and how big the cross over the pulpit should be, and whether it's a theological statement that the tallest pipe on the pipe organ is taller than the cross, that I just want to throw up my hands (in the non-worshipping sense) and bolt out the door. Better to have no doors at all. I cannot believe the amount of time and energy I and others have wasted over just those kinds of discussions and debates, and part of me is already regretting that I've been sucked in again.

I see so much of this as centering on pride. And I am a prideful man, and I don't know how to state that without coming across as an arrogant person myself. But I honestly don't mean it that way. But I really believe, deep down, that it's not nearly as complicated as we want to make it out to be. Love Jesus. Love other people. That's not hard to understand. It's easy to grasp, in fact. It's just hard to do. And so I find that, at least for me, these peripheral issues (at least as I perceive them) become a convenient excuse to avoid the much easier to grasp, much more difficult tasks of dying to self and living for Christ. And I get frustrated by that. That's all. Those statements are not directed to you, or to anyone in particular. I'm just noting the kinds of reactions that this kind of discussion elicits in me. I spent years in a church where people wanted to disfellowship one another because one side preferred choir robes and the other preferred electric guitars. See how these Christians harrangue one another. And it was a colossal waste of time, and distasteful for all the Christians involved, let alone for any non-Christians who may have been watching in astonishment and disgust from the sidelines. And who could blame them for their reaction? I'm not going to go through that again.