Monday, March 28, 2011

Aradhna in Columbus

The last time the

a) Indian
b) Nepalese
c) American
d) Canadian
e) Christian
f) Fusion
g) Folk
h) Post-Rock

(pick any three above, or invent your own label) band Aradhna played Columbus the room was filled with Ohio State doctors and professors from New Delhi and a few bemused music majors. Last week the band played to rooms full of blissed-out American yoga devotees in Canton and Toledo (who knew? But apparently they exist). And yesterday, in front of 400 people at Columbus’s Xenos Christian Fellowship, the band played to a mixed audience of curious white suburbanites and Nepalese and Bhutanese refugees.

All of them would have seen a strange sight: three white men from the U.S. and Canada who grew up in Asia, equally at home and strangers wherever they travel. It was fitting that yesterday’s concert took place at Xenos, a church named after a Greek word meaning “stranger” or “alien.” I suspect that Chris, Pete, and Travis – the members of Aradhna – understand the concept all too well. Welcome to their fractured world, guaranteed to puzzle and delight every observer. If the sight of Zondervan Jesuses in long robes doesn’t throw you, wait until you hear those sitar runs and wailing vocals that inevitably manage to find the cracks between what Western ears like to think of as “notes.” There is cognitive dissonance everywhere you turn.

There is also great beauty that manifests itself in all kinds of musical and non-musical ways. Chris Hale, who plays that sitar, and who is primarily responsible for the microtonal wailing, is one of the most gifted and humble people I’ve ever met. I won’t pretend to be an expert on the classical music of India and Nepal. But I know a shredder when I see one (a concept, no doubt, that is foreign to one brought up in the mountains of Nepal), and Chris can hold his own with any blindingly fast guitar slinger you’d care to name. He’s also a fabulous singer who can inject a miles-deep soulfulness into every song.

No matter. What he’s primarily interested in is befriending and serving a bunch of disenfranchised people who have recently arrived in the U.S. The worship service that Kate and I attended yesterday morning – the guys from Aradhna and about a hundred dirt-poor Nepalese and Bhutanese refugees – was remarkable in every way, a little foretaste of heaven. The concert was musically satisfying and uplifting and joyous. Believe me, I’ll take that. But the worship service was pure gift, something that was a privilege to witness. I’ve seen a lot of good concerts, and I’m not complaining about yesterday’s. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like the sight of three white men in long robes surrounded by a sea of people singing and dancing.

There was much more. There was a wonderful, hours-long dinner and conversation Saturday night with Aradhna and a group of friends. There was an extended time with Pete and Travis, who stayed at our house and entertained us until the wee hours of the morning. There was the concert itself, which started off with small expectations (50 people if we’re lucky, Travis told me) and ended with friends calling friends, and a laughing, swirling, singing mass of people that filled a large room. And there was friendship – good people Kate and I have known a long time, and new and deeper connections with the band we both love, and new connections with poor but not desperate people who amazed us with their joy and their sense of inclusion and hospitality.

It was a damn good weekend. I’ll have another, please.

Josh T. Pearson -- Last of the Country Gentlemen

My essay on Last of the Country Gentlemen, the lovely and disturbing new album from Texas troubadour Josh T. Pearson, is now up at the Image Journal blog.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Ruins of Detroit

It's rare that I find myself growing emotional about a place. People, sure, all the time. But I actually found myself tearing up as Kate and I drove through Detroit a couple weeks ago. We traveled through downtown with our friends Phil and Lauren, then out E. Jefferson to some obscure (to me) pottery place that Kate wanted to visit. And in the space of five miles or so I saw both incredible beauty and architectural wonder and some of the most depressing ruins I've ever seen. One neighborhood -- Indian Village, maybe? -- was full of beautifully retored, massive mansions, while a block away I encountered what looked to be bombed-out buildings. There were ruins like the one pictured here everywhere I looked. That's not a melodramatic photo, nor is it uncommon to see grass and weeds poking up through the asphalt. It was eerie. And it was profoundly sad. I felt like the lone survivor after the nuclear holocaust.

My memories of Detroit all center around my aunt and uncle and cousins. They lived in Livonia. My cousins were a few years older than me, and they were the ones who had the Bob Dylan double-sided single of "Like a Rolling Stone" that blew my mind, and those great Mitch Ryder and Bob Seger singles, etc. To a great extent they informed my musical education. I can recall my aunt and uncle laughing in a good natured way when I told them, as a little kid, that I wanted to go to college. Why would anyone want to do that when you could start work at the Ford or GM plant right out of high school and earn a better living than any sissy college graduate?

I don't have to tell you the ending to that story, I'm sure. It cannot have ended well, and it didn't. But that's all bound up in my memories of Detroit. I love that city. I mourn for that city. It was good and heartbreaking to visit it again.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Aradhna in Columbus - 3-27-11

Columbus folk, please come out to see Aradhna next Sunday.

I have written about Aradhna before. In a more just universe, they would be Slumdog Billionairies after winning Nepalese Idol and landing the big Bollywood deal. But that's not what they're about. What they are about is lovely, contemplative, soaring worship music. There is sweetness and great beauty here, western and eastern musical modalities meeting in a blessed confluence, and musicianship that will make your jaw drop. And because they are not Slumdog Billionaires, they would appreciate your presence and your financial support, whatever you can provide. Come and be astounded.

More details here.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Buddy System

Here's my recent interview with Americana artist Buddy Miller at Paste Magazine. And yes, that's Buddy with Led Zeppelin's Robert Plant.

Friday, March 11, 2011

Dream Diary - You Are the Beat

As an unabashed longtime fan of Teenage Fanclub, and a newly minted Twee fan, Philadelphia's Dream Diary ought to be right in my wheelhouse. The guitars jangle and chime, the melodies are sticky sweet and cloying, and the background singers go "oooh" and "aaaah" in all the right places. But the Fannies can get muscular when they need to, and the best Twee bands stamp their own idiosyncratic identities on the music. Maybe it's the wafer-thin production. Maybe it's the lead singer's slight lisp that turns one of the more memorable choruses into "thweet thweet bird." Maybe it's that creepy Bride of Chucky cover. Or maybe it's the fact that the ten songs on this debut album are virtually interchangeable. This is the musical equivalent of cotton candy. It tastes good going down, but ten minutes after it ends you wonder why you're hungry for something more substantial.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

Bruce Cockburn - Small Source of Comfort

And here's a link to my review of the new Bruce Cockburn album Small Source of Comfort in Christianity Today Magazine.

Bruce Cockburn Interview

My recent interview with guitar god/mystic poet Bruce Cockburn is up at the Paste website.

The Holy Spirit and Assholes

My article on the Holy Spirit and Assholes, at the Image Journal blog.

Friday, March 04, 2011

The Baseball Project - Vol. 2: High and Inside

My review of the new Baseball Project album Vol. 2: High and Inside is now up on the Paste website.

Bill Mallonee

That album -- Killing Floor, by Vigilantes of Love -- was and is a revelation to me. When I first heard it (1993, as I recall), there were precisely two Christian songwriters I respected. Mark Heard operated uneasily from within the CCM world, spinning out his poetic tales on the intersection of faith and doubt. And Bruce Cockburn operated entirely outsides the confines of CCM, another restless poet, mystic, and relentless musical innovator.

Bill Mallonee, the lead singer and songwriter for Vigilantes of Love, was number three. He remains one of my favorite songwriters. He's the best of the three at conveying the Christian As Asshole theme, one that I can both affirm personally and attest to on a wider basis. He understood grace in profound and wondrously literate ways, and he could convey the same basic thought -- I'm a screwup, but a screwup loved by God -- in a thousand different metaphorical contexts. That thought remains central to my theology, such as it is. He was and is a superb songwriter, and it didn't hurt that he employed a musical approach that was influenced by Bob Dylan and Neil Young.

He's coming to Columbus next Friday, March 11th, for a concert at Grace Central Church (237 W. 2nd Ave.) The show starts at 8:00, and there's a $5.00 cover. You should go see him if you get the chance. Like Dylan, he's on a Neverending Tour. And like Dylan, I hope and pray he finds his way home. You can catch him on the road, midway to the destination, next Friday.

we were thrown into a snowbank
into this screaming night
i heard the splintering of bones
i heard the cries of pain and fright
we had laughed and shared a kiss
mingled there our lives honey
doing ninety miles an hour
when our train hit the ice

now i can't remember
what was i so excited about
i can't remember
why all the fuss and shout
i can't remember
ah watch the ember going out

we were joking about the club car's
noticeable bad taste
the food was barely edible
and the opulence and waste were simply astounding
the passengers spent hours dismissing
rumors of their demise
and it's true a little make-up
can make a corpse look fine

but i can't remember
i've been this way since birth
i can't remember
who gives a rat's ass who is first
i can't remember
ah what is any of it worth

i caught sight of a body
in a coat that looked like yours
and i called out your name darling
but i guess you never heard me
instinctively i reached out
and i pulled you near to me
sometimes God's grace won't let you look upon
what you can't bear to see

but i can't remember
all the idols on parade
i can't remember
buy low sell high trade away
i can't remember
ah watch the embers die away

i saw Jesus in the air
now there's a face that you can't miss
i saw Him brush away the snowflakes
and bestow on you a kiss
He gathered you up in His arms
God you looked so fine
that white dress you were wearing darling
like a billion stars did shine

-- Bill Mallonee, "I Can't Remember"

Thursday, March 03, 2011

Too Good To Be True?

Apparently not.

That's Richard Thompson and Buddy Miller performing together, singing Richard's song "Keep Your Distance."

Baseball nerds play the "What If" game and imagine what it would have been like if, say, Babe Ruth had teamed up with Willie Mays and Albert Pujols. Music nerds play the "What If" game and imagine, oh, Robert Plant performing with Buddy Miller, or Buddy Miller and Richard Thompson teaming up on a duet.

Wait ... that really happened?

Yes, it did. But you had to be on the Cayamo Cruise to see it, a sort of Music Nerd Goes Tropical vacation getaway that gives hardworking Americana-type folks a nice boondoggle, and music fans with money to burn (i.e., music insiders or corporate CEOs who remember their misspent youth) the opportunity to see their heroes up close and personal.

I wish I could have been there. I would have paid good money to be there. But probably not enough to make it on the Cayamo Cruise.

Photo by Jim McKelvey. Sorry for stealing it. But it's a nice photo. Jim is apparently one lucky fellow, hopefully a music insider.