Thursday Trifles

My wooden back scratcher — one of earliest inventions of mankind, for sure, and still one of the best — still has its label attached. I just noticed that. A product of Daiso Japan, it was acquired in Japan early this year and brought to me as o-miyagi.

The label is in Japanese and English. The English WARNING says:

Please understand that there is a risk of having mold and bugs since this is made of natural material.
Please do not use this for any other purpose than what it should be.
Please follow the garbage segregation rules imposed by local municipality.

Here’s a picture from Lou Mitchell’s last month. “A Millennial Couple at Breakfast.”


The flag between them is a Cubs W flag. They were all over when the Cubs were in the World Series, and you still see them sometimes. Ann asked me what it stood for. I said, Win. She said, couldn’t that be for any team anywhere? I assured her that that kind of reasoning has no place in sports fandom.

Here’s an article about Carvana. That’s a company that develops automobile vending machines. Or rather, mechanical towers that dispense cars previously acquired online. I’d never heard of it before. They’re in Dallas, San Antonio and Austin, among other places, so maybe I ought to take a look at one.

A few weeks ago, there was a thing going around Facebook: List 10 musical acts, nine of which you’ve seen, one you haven’t. Others are invited to guess which is the one you haven’t seen. Pointless but harmless. I refuse to do it on Facebook, but I will here. Alphabetically.

The Bobs
Chubby Checker
Irwin Hepplewhite & the Terrifying Papoose Jockeys
Gustav Leonhardt
Bob Marley
Natalie Merchant
Bill Monroe
Taj Mahal
They Might Be Giants
Francis Xavier & the Holy Roman Empire

Ravinia Circular ’17

We received the 2017 Ravinia Festival circular in the mail recently. Like last year, I decided to check to see whose tickets command the biggest bucks at the storied north suburban outdoor venue. Last year was something of a mystery, but never mind. This year, less so, at least in my opinion, but in any case at a price I’m unwilling to pay.

Who are the top draws? Performers commanding more than $100 for reserved pavilion seats include Willie Nelson, Aretha Franklin, Sammy Hager, Common, Diana Krall, Moody Blues, Sheryl Crow, Joshua Bell, Lang Lang, Tony Bennett, Darius Rucker, Santana, Alanis Morissette, John Mellencamp, Frankie Valli, and Stevie Nicks.

My reaction to the entertainers on the list is hm, interesting; or, they’re still around (alive)?; or who? All first-water performers, no doubt, but no one should charge that much, at least according to the Elvis Test, which I’m sure I’ve mentioned before.

Note the prices on these 1957 Elvis posters. Prices vary, but $3 is toward the upper end. Accounting for inflation over the last 60 years, $3 then = $26.31 in our time. Add another $5 or so because sound systems are so much better now, and another $5 because Ravinia is such a nice place, and needs to be maintained. I’ll even throw in a few more dollars just to round things up. So no ticket for a singer should cost more than $40, because no one is better than Elvis in his prime. A ridiculous idea, maybe, but I like it.

Who gets less than $40 at Ravinia? This year, the CSO for some of its concerts, and a scattering of classical performers. But I will say this for Ravinia: some of the lawn seats for its concerts, which is the place to be anyway unless it’s raining, are reasonable at $10 (though they’re jacked up during A-list concerts).

The top draw this year, according to the accountants, is Stevie Nicks at $200. She’s pushing 70 pretty hard these days, and I hope she’s as mellifluous as she was when I saw Fleetwood Mac on August 17, 1980, at the HemisFair Arena. No doubt her 2017 show would push all the right nostalgia buttons. But I can find ways to do that for a lot less.

Al Stewart at City Winery

Considering his longstanding love of wine, it seemed fitting that Al Stewart appeared at City Winery in Chicago last Thursday. I don’t share his oenophilia — I like the idea of wine more than wine itself — but I can appreciate an enthusiasm like that. Still, it didn’t matter to me exactly where he was playing. Some time ago, I decided to catch his shows whenever they were convenient to where I happened to be, and anywhere in the Chicago area is close enough.

City Winery is a relatively new place, taking its current form on the near West Side of Chicago only in 2012, and as such, it was a pioneering venue in that part of the city. Just before the music started, an announcer said, “City Winery’s not just a kitschy name. We actually make wine here. All those barrels in the back are filled with our wine, aging for your consumption.”

Carefully stowed barrels dominate the back of City Winery’s music room. The place also has a number of other rooms, including a large restaurant space forming the front of the building. All together, it’s a handsome interior space, characterized by brick walls and barrels and bottles, and the acoustics are good.

I’ve seen Stewart with a band, with sidemen, and by himself. This time, he had a band backing him, the young but talented Empty Pockets. They did a set before Stewart came out, including a fine version of “Fever.” The band’s relative youth caused Stewart to marvel at one point that he was being backed by musicians who weren’t born when the music they were playing came out, but who had the jam down pat anyway. That wouldn’t be quite so remarkable in a classical or jazz context, but I suppose it still is in popular music.

Though not a member of Empty Pockets, sax man (and flautist) Marc Macisso joined Stewart and the band for the concert too. He blew his sax like a man possessed, and did a fine job on the flute as well. On a number of Al Stewart songs, the sax is a defining sound, so it was good Macisso was on hand. He reminded me of the saxophonist who killed it with Stewart during his 1989 Park West concert, who might have been Phil Kenzie (who played on the record Stewart was promoting at the time), though I’m not sure.

The set list for the City Winery concert was different than any other of his that I’ve seen. After a handful of songs — “Sirens of Titan,” “Antarctica,” “Time Passages” — Stewart and the band played all of the songs from the album Year of the Cat in order.

The bonus was Stewart’s usual entertaining patter between the songs. “This brings me to Year of the Cat,” he said by way of introducing the songs. “It was a shock for me. I was an English folk singer playing in coffee bars, and all of the sudden people bought this thing, and I wasn’t sure why. I did begin on a very commercial note by writing a song about an English seafarer from 1591, Richard Grenville. This is a subject that most disco artists at the time were embracing.”

Stewart was being coy. If ever he did a polished commercial record, it was Year of the Cat (except maybe Last Days of the Century, which wasn’t as good). Alan Parsons produced Year, after all. The first song, “Lord Grenville,” does indeed mention Richard Grenville. He of “Out-gunned, out-fought, and out-numbered fifty-three to one.” I believe listening to the song in 1976 was the first time I’d ever heard of him.

About the next song — “On the Border,” a favorite of mine since I acquired the record 40 years ago — he said, “I thought we’d continue with mass popular appeal by doing a song about the Basque separatist movement, the crisis in Rhodesia and the fall of the British Empire, and amazingly this one actually made the top 40. I have no idea how that was possible. I can only assume the disk jockeys didn’t listen to the lyrics.”

For a long time I thought the song was about the Spanish Civil War, but I’ll defer to the songwriter. But it doesn’t really have to be about anything so specific.

Regarding “If It Doesn’t Come Naturally, Leave It” — my least favorite cut on the record — he said, “It has far too many words. If I’d known when I was 30 that I’d be singing it when I was 70, I’d have written half as many words.”

Stewart said that his favorite song on the album is “Flying Sorcery,” which was not top 40, but a fine tune all the same. “It concerns two lovers. I turned them into airplanes. They take off from the same airport but they get caught up in a fog bank and land at separate airports. Obviously that means they’re breaking up.”

I never quite took that from the song, but no matter. It has some wonderful lyrics, including, “You were taking off in Tiger Moths/Your wings against the brush-strokes of the day.” The brush-strokes of the day. What a way to describe the sky. It occurs to me that he’s done other songs with aeronautic images (not on Year), such as “The Immelman Turn” and “Fields of France.” (“When Lindy Comes to Town” talks about flight, too, but it’s a particular historic event.)

He mentioned some alternate lyrics to the song “Year of the Cat,” though not in as much detail as recorded on this Songfacts page, based on a 2015 performance. I think everyone was pretty glad that the final lyrics came out the way they did, including Stewart.

On the whole, Al Stewart was in fine fettle on Thursday. His voice is still clear and his guitar playing is impressively energetic for a man of 71. He also seems to enjoy himself thoroughly on stage, which must be why he still tours. Hope he’s got more years yet.


Snow last night, first time it’s stuck in quite a while. But only a few inches, not like the East Coast.

This year the Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Co., a nonprofit based in Hyde Park that does performances one weekend of the year at the University of Chicago’s handsome Mandell Hall, produced Iolanthe. I have fond memories of the company’s Yeomen of the Guard, which Lilly and I saw two years ago, so we all went on Friday (except Lilly, whose spring break hasn’t started yet).

img462Like last time, we ate at Salonica’s first. The face on the telephone pole is still down the street, on the way to the theater.

The show was just as much fun as Yeomen. More, since I knew some of the songs better, including everyone’s favorite lord-marching-trumpets-braying number, which saw a mellifluous chorus of lords spill out from the stage and into the aisles and back, and the renowned patter song about insomnia and the weird dreams of shallow and disturbed sleep.

According to The Complete Annotated Gilbert and Sullivan by Ian C. Bradley, parts of which are online, “[Gilbert] had, in fact, experimented with the metre later used for the nightmare song in a poem entitled ‘Sixty-Three and Sixty-Four,’ which appeared in Fun in 1864 and which began:

Oh, you who complain that the drawing’s insane, or too much for your noodles have found it.
But listen a minute, I’ll tell you what’s in it — completely explain and expound it.

An earlier poem by Gilbert, ‘The Return from My Berth,’ which appeared in Punch in October 1864, gives a more lurid account of a Channel crossing:

The big Channel steamer is rolling,
Frenchmen around me are bilious and fat
And prone on the floor are behaving unheedingly,
It’s a ‘sick transit,’ but never mind that!

Matthan Ring Black was in fine form with the patter, and the rest of his Lord Chancellor part. Everyone else did very well, but I was especially taken with Claire DiVizio, who did the Fairy Queen, and David Govertsen, who not only amused everyone with Private Willis’ single song, but stood perfectly still in the lobby in his bright red guard uniform as the audience filed in. Perhaps that’s a G&S tradition I don’t know about, but in any case he was there.

Private Willis also got the biggest laugh of the evening:

That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!

Of course, there’s Victorian context to that, but a modern one as well.

Yuriko liked it, and Ann, who’s developing a taste for musical theater, said she enjoyed the show a lot. I never had such a taste as a teenager, though I did (mostly) enjoy the successive senior plays put on at my high school toward the end of each school year, all of which happened to be musicals: Bye Bye Birdie, The Mikado, Fiddler on the Roof, and West Side Story.

One more thing, which if I knew, I’d forgotten: Iolanthe apparently inspired Chief Justice William Rehnquist to add gold stripes to his robe in 1995. Guess he decided that a powdered wig as well would be a bit much.

Ravinia Circular ’16

The annual circular advertising this summer’s shows at Ravinia Festival arrived in the mail recently. Wonder how long printed circulars of this kind will be mailed at all, but for now they are.

It’s been a while since I’ve been to the venue, but I’ve enjoyed all of my visits, such as the long-ago August night in 1989 when a lunar eclipse was visible high over the concert. Or our attendance of a children’s concert in July 2002.

Ravinia 2002Ravinia, in Highland Park, Ill., on the North Shore, is the Midwest’s Wolf Trap. Or rather, since Ravinia’s a lot older than Wolf Trap, with outdoor music performances held there for more than 100 years — Wolf Trap is the Ravinia of the East Coast, open only since 1970.

In any case, Ravinia gets some A-list acts, and charges accordingly. Prices are for seats in the pavilion or for lawn seating, and they’re printed on the circular. Some of the concerts, especially lawn seating for some classical musicians, charge a reasonable $10, and I’d seriously consider paying $25 to hear the CSO play the entirety of The Planets while I relax on the lawn. (And ponder whether that should be “The Planets” or The Planets.)

On the other hand, I was curious to see who commands the highest pavilion seating ticket prices. Is it Bob Dylan? No. Paul Simon? No. Don Henley? Dolly Parton? Diana Ross? Nope. Those are all close, but Duran Duran tops the list at $160 a pavilion seat, and a steep $55 for a lawn ticket. Moreover, they’re playing two nights in a row, which is fairly rare at Ravinia.

Am I missing something? I remember Duran Duran as a tolerable early ’80s band that had a handful of hits. Must be their fan base is larger than I realize. Even so, here’s something I’m sure I’m missing: Duran Duran at Ravinia for $160 a pop.

Arlo Guthrie ’86

Here’s one thing about Arlo Guthrie, at least as he was 30 years ago: his distinctive, sometimes squeaky voice was exactly the same in person as on his recordings, as you might hear on “Alice’s Restaurant.” Other than that, I don’t remember a lot about the concert, not even whether he sang-spoke that particular song. He probably did. It’s also likely he did “City of New Orleans” and some of his father’s songs.

Guthrie86He also went on a short tirade about the metric system after telling a possibly true story about encountering a Canadian who didn’t understand the line in “The Garden Song” that goes, “Inch by inch, row by row, I’m going to make this garden grow.” Remarkably, there’s an ’80s clip of him in Austin singing that song, and sure enough, he tells the story about the Canadian (a border guard). In the show I saw, I remember him proclaiming, “There’s no poetry to the metric system!”

I’ll go along with that, but he needn’t have worried too much; the customary system still abides in the U.S. some 30 years later. Americans aren’t sophisticated about some things, but we are sophisticated enough to use and understand two systems of measurement at the same time.

Portland Ramble

I didn’t care how good Voodoo Doughnut in Portland was supposed to be, I wasn’t going to wait in this kind of line to buy any.

Voodoo DoughnutsDowntown Portland on a summer Saturday teems with people, more than most mid-sized U.S. cities I’ve encountered. The obvious tourists were a minority. So were the obviously homeless, though they seemed more numerous than in most cities this size (and statistically, it’s a sad fact). Mostly, I think conventionally housed Portlanders were downtown because it’s an interesting place to be on the weekend. Good for Portland.

One reason is because of the food trucks, which cluster in various places. I had a falafel at one. Not the best falafel I’ve ever had, but good enough for a walkabout in a new city.

food trucks, PortlandOne place I was determined not to miss was Powell’s Books. Otherwise known as Powell’s City of Books, an apt nickname.
Powell's Books, Aug 22, 2015The place is enormous: a full city block with 68,000 square feet of floor space on four floors, divided thematically into color-coded rooms (the Blue Room, the Green Room, and so on). The store says it has more than a million new and used books, and I believe it. I went in without a plan, and I stuck to it, just wandering from room to room and floor to floor, looking at titles and opening books and enjoying myself. I was there about an hour, and could have spent longer. (This article captures the joy well; the writer might have even been there at the same time as me.)

I couldn’t leave without buying something — that would be wrong, since it’s important to support an independent bookstore against the Amazon tide, besides being good to have another book. So I bought Why Orwell Matters (2002) by Christopher Hitchens, which I read almost all of on the return plane ride. I also bought a clutch of postcards. As you’d expect, Powell’s had more than the usual Portland-themed tourist cards.

I’ve never seen more tattooed people in one place than in Portland, including Brooklyn (admittedly, it was October) or Camden Town in London (admittedly, it was 20+ years ago) or any warm-weather mass event I’ve been to recently, such as the Wisconsin State Fair. Summertime clothing was no doubt a factor, but I also think being in Portland was too. Mostly the ink was visible on arms and legs and backs, as you’d except, but not always.
TattoosBefore going, I’d read about the Portland Saturday Market, which has been a local event since the early ’70s. By the time I was walking around in the city, I’d forgotten about it. I happened across it anyway. Besides a wealth of vendors, there were some excellent musicians.

Saturday Market, PortlandAccompanied by a dancer.
Dance!At Pioneer Square, the fellow in the yellow was doing a bit of street preaching. Screaming, that is.
Screaming for JesusHis theology sounded like pure Jack Chick, though he might not agree with him in all the particulars. The fellow in black facing him (not the one with the Turn or Burn in Hell shirt) was not amused by the man’s preaching, and was screaming back. Before long, the cops showed up.
Portland copsI didn’t hear the discussion, but I suspect all parties concerned were being told not to take things to the next level, i.e., a fistfight. I passed by the same intersection about 30 minutes later, and the preacher was still there (with a different set of detractors), so I guess no physical violence broke out. Seemed like a near thing, though.

Pacific Northwest ’15

I left for the Pacific Northwest on August 21 and returned home late yesterday. Imagine an axis that connects Portland, Seattle, Bellingham and Vancouver, which are all linked by I-5 (British Columbia 99 north of the border). That axis was the focus of the trip. I went to all of those cities and some points in between, some for a matter of hours, others for a few days. I spent time away from those cities as well, in hilly territory lorded over by towering pines and enchantingly quiet at night.

I drove a lot but also managed to spend a solid chunk of time walking and riding buses and light rail. The visit involved attending a conference, touring an exceptional building and seeing other fine ones, experiencing two large public markets, wandering through one of the largest book stores anywhere and a few other excellent ones, and seeing two museums and a Chinese garden very much like some of the wonderful ones in Suzhou. I ate food both awful and extraordinary, including things I’d never heard of before.

Going to another part of the country means doing new things, too. Or it should. Not necessarily life-changing experiences, but the sort of petite novelties that add up over time to make the fabric of one’s life better. Even before I got there, this was the first time I’d ever booked a rental car through Costco or a room through Airbnb. I attribute a less expensive trip, and a better one, to both. I visited a new city (Portland) in a new state (Oregon) and visited new parts of places I’d been (Vancouver in British Columbia, the Fremont neighborhood in Seattle). I witnessed a major forest fire from the air and smelled the result on the ground as the wind wafted west. Unexpectedly, according to the residents. I stood inside a building designed by Frank Gehry, rather than looking at its curious outside.

I saw a number of odd and interesting things, such as the street musician who’d modified a bagpipe and played it on stilts (Vancouver, just outside the Pacific Central Station). What to call it? Steampunk bagpiping?
Vancouver, August 25, 2015Or the Gum Wall (Seattle, next to the Pike Place Market). Each of the those bits of color is ABC gum, often used to attach cards and small posters to an alley wall. Why? As near as I can tell, just because.

Gum Wall, Seattle, AugOr the echo of a celebrity event I’d missed when it happened, the Bill Murray Party Crashing Tour of 2012 (this sign was in Portland).

Portland, August 22, 2015I can think of a lot worse people to show up at one’s party uninvited; maybe he’s still doing it occasionally.

Most importantly, I reconnected with two dear old friends, one of whom I hadn’t seen in 18 years, another I hadn’t seen in 30 years, since my last visit to Seattle. Our friendships have been maintained over the years mostly through paper correspondence, with a more recent electronic component. But there’s no substitute for being there.

Dire Straits 1985

Thirty years ago Dire Straits played at TPAC in Nashville, and I was there. By a lucky chance. I went to a record store on Elliston Place in Nashville (gone now, certainly) that was selling their tickets, later than I probably should have, and when I got to the desk they had exactly one left. I think a few people ahead of me had declined to buy it, because they were looking for two. So I got it.

I’m pretty sure “Sultans of Swing” introduced me to the band in early 1979, as it did many North Americans. Though overplayed, I still can listen to the song and imagine a dark, rainy South London of 40-odd years ago. Not many popular songs evoke place as well as it does. Dire Straits was one of the few records I paid money for in high school. There’s no filler on that album, and by the time you get to “Wild West End” and “Lions,” talk about evoking a place and (in retrospect) time.

DireStraits85Later, I grew especially fond of the long, melancholic tracks on Love Over Gold. Maybe it helps to be not particularly melancholic to appreciate such things.

“I want my — I want my MTV…” the 1985 concert started, with a single spotlight flitting around the stage, not pointing at anyone, I think, as the intro to that song crescendoed. With the loud guitar solo, the stage lit up, revealing the band, who took it from there. I’m glad I got to see them.

Philip Glass 1985

Thirty years ago this evening, I went with some friends to see Philip Glass conduct some of his music in Nashville. At least I think that’s what he did. I have an image in my head of him standing in front of musicians, waving his hands, and them playing. But maybe he sat down at a keyboard. It’s a been a long time.

Glass85I can’t remember why I went, but I’m sure it was worth $2. At some point, I owned Glassworks on CD, which is considered his most popular recording, but I don’t remember when I got it. Since I didn’t own a CD player until ca. 1988, I didn’t have it when I saw the concert. One of my housemates during my senior year in college might have had it on vinyl, or possibly even reel-to-reel. A lot of odd things were floating around that house.

Also, I saw Koyaanisqatsi sometime in the mid-80s. That might have been before this concert. Or after. Things get jumbled over the decades.

Oddly enough, I heard a little of a Philip Glass interview last week on the radio. He must be making the rounds to talk up his memoirs, which have just come out. The NYT reviewer of the book asserts that “enough time has passed for him to sell his own distinct musical language, developed through a blending of Western and Indian traditions, in which repeated musical cells form patterns to hypnotic effect. To many listeners it remains perplexing and even infuriating, but the influence of Mr. Glass’s music, called Minimalist despite his protests, is pervasive in all genres of music.”

Sure. If you say so. I like the idea of his music better than the music itself, though I haven’t spent much time with the likes of “Satyagraha” or “Einstein on the Beach” in the last 30 years. Philip Glass composes the kind of music that you start playing, listen to for a few minutes, and then realize 30 minutes later that it’s been in the background for nearly 30 minutes.

I didn’t fall asleep during the concert — like I dozed off at a Pat Metheny concert once — but I vaguely remember being tired. After the concert, it being a Friday night, we repaired to a nearby Italian restaurant. Who then showed up for dinner, a few tables away? Philip Glass and a small entourage. We noticed his presence, but didn’t approach him. Just as well not to pester publicly known people in public — can’t say he was exactly famous in this case, but still.