Reverend Horton Heat/Fishbone 09/30/17—The Cotillion Ballroom, Wichita, KS

You could make a lot of assumptions about the city of Wichita, KS. You could assume it’s a flyover state hellhole devoid of any culture or art, but you’d be (mostly) wrong. You could assume it’s a city full of hayseeds and rednecks who don’t take kindly to outsiders, but you’d be (mostly) wrong. You could assume there aren’t a lot of options for live music outside of country concerts…and you’d be almost right on the button.

There are others, however, who perform in our fair city time and time again—the dogged road warriors who tour relentlessly and build their following the old fashioned way, before YouTube hits made someone a celebrity without leaving their bedroom. When I think of who has played Wichita (country acts notwithstanding) more than anyone else, two names come to mind: rapper Tech N9ne from Kansas City (which practically makes him a local), and Dallas rockabilly legend Reverend Horton Heat.

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L-R: RJ Contreras, Jim Heath, Jimbo Wallace

RHH has played Wichita maybe six or eight times over the past decade. That may not sound like much, but as someone who’s spent the last ten years in the sunflower state pining for the old days when I could drive to LA or Las Vegas to see any concert under the sun, six or eight times in ten years is a lot. As for me, I’ve personally seen RHH at least eight times now in three different states, with three different drummers, but that hardly matters. No matter the circumstances, The Rev always puts on a fantastic show, and Saturday night at The Cotillion was no exception.

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Jimbo Wallace

One of the things I’ve always liked about Reverend Horton Heat is that, as with a lot of bands who tour exhaustively, they end up playing with just about everyone, which makes for some especially eclectic shows. Over the years, RHH has played with everyone from traditional rockabilly and country acts to White Zombie and Motörhead. Which is to say it should’ve come as no surprise when RHH hit the road with ska/funk/punk heroes Fishbone.

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Angelo Moore

Some may remember Fishbone from their early 90’s commercial peak with the release of The Reality of My Surroundings, featuring their only two singles to make the charts, Everyday Sunshine and Sunless Saturday. Some may also wonder what happened to them since then. It turns out Fishbone is doing just fine, thank you very much.

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L-R: Paul Hampton, Angelo Moore, Walter Kibby

Fronted by original vocalist/saxophonist Angelo Moore (one of three original members still playing with the band), Fishbone took a somewhat lukewarm crowd and had them eating out of the palms of their hands by the end of their almost hour-long set. Opening with the aforementioned Sunless Saturday, Moore and company set the bar high for the energy level they had to sustain for the rest of the set—a bar they had no problem clearing, and then some. Moore is as entertaining and energetic a frontman as you’re likely to find. His exaggerated facial expressions and grandiose, frenetic body language was fun to watch and a blast to photograph.

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Angelo Moore

With occasional help from a trusty roadie, Angelo switched from vocals to one of a myriad of different saxes with ease, even placing and re-placing the mic stand for his horn on cue every time. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say the band sounded incredible. I spent the majority of the set planted in front of bassist and fellow original member Norwood Fisher, who laid down incredible grooves on an array of beautiful basses. By the end of closer Party at Ground Zero, the crowd was hyped and ready to testify.

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L-R: Walter Kibby, Norwood Fisher

 

Reverend Horton Heat, aka Jim Heath, has been cranking out his brand of rockabilly/punkabilly/psychobilly/whatever you want to put in front of “billy” since 1985, and has hardly let up since. Heath and his loyal sidekick/bass player Jim “Jimbo” Wallace were in the midst of recording a new album when previous drummer Scott Churilla decided to go his own way, leaving the band in a tight spot. Luckily, fate intervened in the form of fellow Texan Arjuna “RJ” Contreras, formerly of the terrific-yet-vastly-under-appreciated polka band (yes, that’s right) Brave Combo. He stepped in to record his parts for the album and was on the road touring before he knew what hit him. So would the new drummer change Reverend Horton Heat’s sound? Yes and no.

That’s because many of the songs in RHH’s set were classics and fan favorites. It would take some truly radical drumming to change the sound of set-opening instrumental Big Sky, or the dynamic push and pull of The Devil’s Chasin’ Me, but Contreras definitely has his own style, tinkering with certain drum parts and making them his own. Personally, I think RJ is a great fit for the band and I hope he has a permanent gig with the guys.

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RJ Contreras

The Cotillion Ballroom is probably my favorite venue in Wichita, and possibly the Reverend’s too, as he proudly declared how happy he was to be “in Wichita, Kansas at The Cotillion on Friday night!” despite it being Saturday. He may have been joking (he repeatedly said it was Friday, possibly just to mess with the inebriated), but if he was really confused, it’s easy to forgive—this was their 23rd show in 29 days. I’m impressed he even knew what city he was in, but then, when you’re the hardest working man in rockabilly, I assume touring with nary a day off becomes old hat.

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Jim Heath, RJ Contreras

As it turned out, the show at The Cotillion marked the end of their month-long tour with Fishbone and Los Kung Fu Monkeys (the tour’s other support act, Strung Out, bowed out the night before in Peoria, Illinois), and they commemorated the end of the tour by having a huge jam session on stage with members of all three bands. At one point during Fishbone’s set, I even caught the Reverend himself standing three feet from me, taking pictures of the band on his cell phone. It was a great show, and the best part is that with a band that works as hard as they do, I can count on them coming back to town soon.

Side note: if you don’t believe the “hardest working man in rockabilly” claim, check out RHH’s Facebook page—they already have tour dates up for the entire month of October, featuring some shows with country swing and doo wop master Big Sandy, and the entire month of December, those shows being an amazing triple bill featuring roots rock legends The Blasters and country guitar virtuoso Junior Brown. If they’re coming to your town, I highly recommend checking them out. If not, don’t worry—there’s a good chance eventually the Rev will come to you.

 

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The Black Dahlia Murder 08/20/17—The Crown Uptown, Wichita, KS

I’ve been a Wichita resident for eleven years, and a metal fan for considerably longer. Until recently, those two things—being a metal fan and residing in Wichita—rarely intermingled, as live bands playing anything but country or classic rock were few and far between (Steve Miller Band, anyone?). There  was the occasional metal show here and there, but not much in the way of a scene that people could support.

That may be starting to change.

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Brandon Ellis, The Black Dahlia Murder—sadly, the only zippered leather vest spotted all night.

In 2017, Wichita has seen shows by Mushroomhead, Cattle Decapitation, Superjoint, Amon Amarth, Hellyeah, Born of Osiris, and now, The Black Dahlia Murder. Combine that with the steady stream of shows full of local bands at smaller venues, and you’ve got yourself the makings of an actual scene.

The Crown Uptown is a gorgeous place. Although originally a movie theater when it was built in the 20’s (and dinner theater for years after), it seems almost custom made for concerts. As for TBDM show, turnout seemed a bit thin (blame the bad luck of having to book the show on a Sunday), although the fans who did show up were enthusiastic and appeared grateful to have another metal show in their town.

Kicking off the night was hometown act Parallax, playing a short but energetic set. Vocalist Trevor Rickett gave his all to try and pump up the crowd, with help from some vocal Parallax fans in attendance. The band was also shooting a video for a brand new song, so keep an eye out on social media for that one to drop.

Side note: Parallax is playing at The Elbow Room next month opening for Hed PE 09/22, so do yourself a favor and go see these guys while they’re still playing local shows—it may be only a matter of time before they’re touring nonstop and hardly ever home.

Betraying the Martyrs was up next, from Paris, France as a last minute replacement for Russian act Slaughter to Prevail. Their ultra heavy beats and growling vocals warmed everyone up, but the crowd was perhaps not ready for the occasional clean vocals and prominent keyboard parts that permeated the set.

At one point vocalist Aaron Matts urged the crowd to get moving and jump with the music, which the crowd did eagerly until the heavy riff they were jumping to gave way to keyboards and clean vocals, and the crowd lost their momentum. They’re a good band and they gave a tight performance, though by the end it I was thinking of them as “The THX band” due to the number of times their songs had beats drop like the THX surround sound intro that plays before a movie.

New Jersey’s Lorna Shore was up next, playing a short, tight set that was the first of the night to succeed in sustaining a circle pit for more than twenty seconds and consisting of more than two people. Closing with the title track off their newest LP Flesh Coffin, the band succeeded in loosening the crowd up for the remaining chaos yet to come.

Side note: Lorna Shore is returning to Wichita next month, opening for Miss May I at Rock Island Live 09/21. Don’t miss another chance to see this excellent band.

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Adam De Micco, Lorna Shore—guy liked to shred with his leg propped on his monitor.

The final opening slot (in the disappointing absence of Dying Fetus from this stop of the Summer Slaughter tour) belonged to the crushing Oceano. Led by one of metal’s most guttural vocalists in Adam Warren, Oceano brought an intensity the previous bands lacked. In fact, Warren even issued a warning to a member of the crowd to properly channel his enthusiasm, after he sprayed Warren with water during the opening number. After a reminder from Warren that people at the front of the stage were vulnerable to face-level kicks from Warren if he were splashed any more, the crowd put an end to the shenanigans and put their energy into proper displays of enthusiasm like a frenetic circle pit and the evening’s first instances of crowd surfing. Oceano was the band I was most excited to see and they did not disappoint. They were brutally heavy, buzzing with electric energy, and had the crowd worked into a frenzy for the night’s headliners.

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Adam Warren, Oceano—breaking it down while a fan headbangs.

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Chris Wagner, Oceano—you can tell he’s pounding that bass, look at his top string.

The Black Dahlia Murder capitalized on the crowd’s energy level and never let it drop throughout their hour-plus set. Running like a precision machine, TBDM cranked through song after song without sounding like they were rushing to get through their time on stage. Vocalist Trevor Strnad had a good rapport with fans, simultaneously joking around and keeping them buzzing between songs by encouraging them to keep the crowd surfing and stage diving going throughout the set, particularly among the females in attendance, who were up to the challenge.

TBDM closed with a brand new song, the title track from their upcoming LP Nightbringers, which was reminiscent of some of their most popular material. If that song is any indication, fans won’t be disappointed when the album drops in October.

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Trevor Strnad, The Black Dahlia Murder—pointing to a superfan.

Side note: Brian Eschbach had an absolutely insane guitar tone that made this guitarist and former member of metal and hardcore bands incredibly jealous.

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Brian Eschbach, The Black Dahlia Murder—he knows his tone is sick, look at him.

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The Black Dahlia Murder—orchestrating chaos.

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Brian Eschbach, The Black Dahlia Murder—sponsored by PBR.

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Max Lavelle, The Black Dahlia Murder—mid-headbang

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Alan Cassidy, The Black Dahlia Murder—they had him tucked away and not even on a drum riser, like he was some second-class citizen. Drummers are people, too! (Barely)

It was a satisfying night of deathcore and extreme metal, with every band delivering in a big way. One can only hope that attendance was good enough to keep bringing metal acts to town and for a scene to develop. Time (and perhaps turnout at the upcoming D.R.I., Miss May I, and DevilDriver shows) will tell, but when crowds are as enthusiastic as this it’s only a matter of time before word spreads among fans and before you know it you have a thriving scene. May Wichita be so fortunate.

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Soles of shoes in a crowd shot = good concert.

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Ecstatic crowd surfer.

How Exactly Does One Become a Buff?

It’s weird. People who are into music are called audiophiles, people call themselves a geek or a nerd about whatever subject they’re into, but it seems like I only ever hear two types of people call themselves ‘buffs’: film buffs and history buffs.

I’ve been a self-proclaimed film buff for years—I know there are tons of people who know way more about movies than I ever will, but to the average Joe I’m pretty knowledgeable. History, on the other hand, well…in school, history was up there with math as classes I’d sooner get a root canal than attend. Part of it might be because my teachers always seemed to make it so dry and uninteresting (what was up with that, Mr. Curi?). It wasn’t until college that I took a history class that was somewhat interesting, and it only covered up to the revolutionary war, but it did stoke my curiosity a little. So this past weekend when I was checking TripAdvisor for things to do for a trip to Kansas City with my significant other, I was interested when the first thing that popped up was the National World War I Museum and Memorial.

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What I knew about WWI could fit on the inside of a matchbook, so everything I saw in the museum fascinated me. Everyone has at least a cursory knowledge of WWII, but The Great War seems to be somewhat overlooked in school.

The first thing I noticed upon entering the museum was the abundance of poppies—pictures of poppies on the walls, poppies on plates and keychains, on mugs in the gift shop, and this sight under your feet as you make your way from the lobby to the museum itself:

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It looked odd, seeing all the flowers with no grass or anything green around them, and although it’s hard to tell in the picture, there are a couple of wooden planks in the middle of it all. What did it all mean? We wouldn’t find out until the end of our visit.

We were guided to a cozy auditorium showing a short film that tried to explain as quickly and clearly as it could what led up to the war, namely the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. In the virtual blink of an eye following the assassination, multiple countries had declared war on each other and all hell broke loose.

The museum had more content than you could shake a stick at: Uniforms of the soldiers and nurses; gas masks, firearms and artillery; life-sized recreations of the trenches on the battlefields and the enormous craters left by the rounds fired from a tank; and my personal favorite, propaganda posters.

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There were dozens upon dozens of posters on display, and a really cool interactive feature that let you create your own mashup poster from the ones provided. There were also some newspapers from the time and various quotes from historic figures regarding the war.

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And the poppies?

Unhappy with the lack of any real explanation, we wandered to the information desk where an elderly volunteer was more than happy to explain it to us. As it turns out, under the right conditions poppies can grow wild (being as much like a weed as they are a flower), and the atrocities of war gave them near perfect conditions to flourish: the heavy foot traffic and vehicle wear aerated the soil, the decomposing bodies fertilized it, and a chemical from the artillery shells killed off any pests that would eat or damage the flowers.

The result was that the battlefields that had been stripped barren of any sign of life (and instead were full of death and decay) soon were brimming with poppies. Soon after the war it became a symbol of remembrance not only for the Americans but for all the soldiers who died in the war worldwide. As for the scene under our feet when we entered? Each poppy below us represented 1,000 military lives lost in the war, 9 million in total.

We spent about two and a half hours at the museum, but could’ve easily spent twice that long. Your ticket is actually good for two days (although we had just one day to spend), which makes it that much more of a value. Being there over Veteran’s Day weekend meant that a) tickets were half price, and b) it was exceptionally crowded. I look forward to going back to the museum at a more relaxed pace to try and take it all in. If you’re ever in Kansas City, I highly recommend it.

I almost forgot to mention how cool the gift shop was! They had all sorts of things, from t-shirts to mugs to dishes to collectible replica helmets. I was absolutely tickled to find stoneware coasters with some of my favorite propaganda posters on them, and this mug which delighted my girlfriend to no end:

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Considering I was already gaining an interest in war and general history, I may soon be adding history buff to my self-proclaimed film buff status, which is cool because I know damn well those are the only kinds of buff I’ll ever be. 

Chaos with a Smile: Andrew W.K.’s The Power of Partying Tour

In  the pantheon of great motivational speakers, certain people come to mind:images-2

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One of these things is not like the other.

Saturday night, thanks to an overwhelming sense of curiosity and a girlfriend who’s always up for something new, saw me at a venue normally associated with rock performances, hosting a rock singer. This, however, was different. It was a spoken word appearance by self-proclaimed King of Partying Andrew W.K., as part of his 50 state The Power of Partying tour.

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What I knew going in: I knew of Andrew W.K., as I suppose a lot of people might, from the 2001 hit single “Party Hard” (which, along with some other singles, has popped up in various video games) and from the now-iconic album cover featuring W.K. with one doozy of a bloody nose. Beyond that, all I knew was that Andrew had parlayed the party lifestyle he’d become famous for into serious motivational speaking gigs framed by his own rock ‘n’ roll viewpoint. He had some material prepared, but a large chunk of the evening would be open to Q & A from the audience.

Side note regarding the venue: I can’t believe it took me over a decade to finally go to Barleycorn’s. The place was cleaner, nicer, and smaller than I expected. Over the course of the night I must’ve remarked at least three different times “I really like this place.” I can’t wait to go back and see some bands, as with a capacity of only around 250 people there is literally not a bad seat in the house.

What I found upon arrival: Free pizza? Are you kidding me? Okay, the guy knows how to start a party—music, pizza, and alcohol. We got settled into one of the few remaining seats with our party accoutrements, and not a moment too soon—the show uncharacteristically (for a typical rock show, anyway) started right on time.

Andrew began the show by getting what I would’ve called in my prime pro wresting watching days “a cheap pop”—pandering to the home crowd for some easy applause. And yet, right off the bat I felt a vibe coming off W.K., in all his white jeans/plain white t-shirt wearing glory: the dude was completely genuine. There was no pandering, he was actually happy and excited to be there in Wichita, KS.

He spoke about the rigors of a 50 state tour, and how if he’d taken any time to think about it before committing he may have reconsidered. Before long, he got to the topic at hand—what it means to party in Andrew W.K.’s world.

So, what does “party” mean to man who’s practically made a career out of the word? A lot of things, actually. Positivity—being upbeat, finding the silver lining, etc. He spoke of having feelings of melancholy since he was a little boy, and how music helped him (then and now) weather the storm of negativity and gloom that would seemingly invade his thoughts.

One thing that really resonated with me was this (paraphrasing slightly): “Some of the biggest sparks of inspiration can come from the lowest of places. If you know how to acknowledge that bad feeling and roll with it, you can create something incredible.” I know exactly what he meant, as I’ve had a lot of bad things to draw inspiration from in the last year or so.

Although he didn’t use the term, a lot of what he touched on related to the concept of mindfulness. I’m nowhere near knowledgeable to go into detail about it, but if I had to try and sum it up in a sentence, it involves learning to acknowledge feelings and sensations as they happen without judgement (plus an awful lot more—again, I’m no expert). A major part of mindfulness is meditation, and while certain aspects appear to be easier to grasp than others, it seems incredibly beneficial to your mental and physical well-being if you can get a handle on it. You can learn more about mindfulness (highly recommended) by clicking here.

Upon opening the floor to questions, I was surprised how many people wanted to ask Andrew about coping with depression. I expected more rock ‘n’ roll stories from the road, or meeting celebrities, that sort of thing. (One guy asked about his high-energy live shows and W.K. described it as “chaos with a smile”, with raging mosh pits that would stop everything to help someone look for their glasses.)

My favorite exchange of the night was when a young woman asked him how she could help a friend who suffered from chronic depression and sometimes had suicidal thoughts. Without a moment’s hesitation he said, “Love them.” He went on to elaborate on that, but I (along with everyone else in the venue) was struck by the touching simplicity of his answer.

After the Q & A session, W.K. invited anyone who still wanted to talk or take pictures to come see him in the back of the bar by his merch table. Almost everyone in the room got in line to talk to him, or so it seemed. I was positioned to be able to see him with just a slight turn of my head, and I admit I enjoyed watching him interact with his fans, for a couple reasons.

First, just the act of hanging out like that to meet people and talk to them is a cool thing to do. He didn’t have to do that. It took upwards of 90 minutes for him to talk to everyone, shake every hand, take every picture. Second, he wasn’t just going through the motions. He was there, in the moment, with everyone who came before him. Eyes locked on theirs, listening intently to whatever it was they had to say to him. That really spoke volumes about the kind of guy he is, and I have to say it left me pretty impressed. That’s not to say he didn’t make a bee line out of there once the line was gone, but still. Just an awesome guy.

What I learned:  I learned that even guys who seemingly never have a bad day still struggle with their own demons. In the case of Andrew W.K., those don’t seem to be the typical rock ‘n’ roll demons of drugs and alcohol (I don’t think he even had a drink after the show, even though I’m sure people would’ve lined up to buy him one), but much more common ones: depression, self-worth, seizing the day, etc. It was nice reinforcement to know a fellow death metal loving oddball goes through it too.

W.K. mentioned he was about 1/3 through his 50 state tour, if he comes to your town I highly recommend catching him. He’s a good guy with a good message, and given the year I (and the nation) have had, you really can’t have enough people like that. Here’s a link to his remaining tour dates, check him out.

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I almost forgot, he also created a political party, The Party Party (naturally). I don’t know about any of you, but I’d sure vote for the guy.

So It Goes; Russian Circles

So, August turned out to be a pretty shit month for me and a lot of people I know. I try not to be one to complain, but…just wow.

Talking about it here, in a (relatively) public forum, may seem to some people like I’m oversharing or not keeping something private that others may not want made public more than it already has been. Not talking about it could imply a rather nonchalant reaction to a terrible situation, which is absolutely not the case.

Ultimately, I’ve decided not to go into it, at least not yet. Maybe someday, I don’t know. Either you know what I’m talking about or you don’t—if we’re friends (virtually, real-life, or otherwise) and you have no idea what I’m talking about, I apologize for being so vague, but feel free to message me on Facebook Messenger or send me an email through the website and I can fill you in. Otherwise, you’ll just have to wait.

In the meantime, I’m going to attempt a return to normalcy the only way I know how. The following post was nearly completed a few weeks ago, before everything went to hell on me. I added a little to it and voila. Enjoy.

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I had a post about 80% done that dealt with my disdain for nostalgia. In fact, it was titled “Death to Sentimentality,” and I railed against all the band reunions that have been happening, and all the reboots/remakes/re-imaginings dominating the airwaves—and that was before I saw the abhorrent mess that is Greatest Hits on ABC.

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When I think of Arsenio’s Dog Pound now, “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan plays in my head.

But I couldn’t finish it.

For one thing, it was a little hypocritical. While I’m not a huge fan of nostalgia, I have to admit that a lot of the music I listen to (in the car especially) is music from my youth—and no, I’m not so old as to predate recorded music, you assholes. Plus, the most anticipated show for me personally to get around to watching is Stranger Things, which capitalizes precisely on that nostalgia to capture some of its magic (seriously, I’ve heard not a single bad thing about it and cannot wait to see it).

Second, the whole notion of complaining about something like that just seemed so…grouchy. So old. So Clint Eastwood from Grand Torino. 

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Or just Clint Eastwood in general.

I don’t want this to be a place where I just bitch and moan—this should be a happy place. My  happy place, and if I’m any good at this, a happy place for you, too. Unless you only come here to read my posts and talk shit about them. Then again, doing that would still make you happy, albeit in a really sick, messed up way…I guess either way, if you read it, we both win.

My point is, rather than piss and moan about what I don’t like, I’m going to talk about new things I find that excite me. Not necessarily brand new per se, but at least new to me, like a 2004 Honda Civic with low mileage, previously owned by a little old lady who only drove it to church on Sundays.

First up: instrumental rock band Russian Circles.

I’ve never been too keen on instrumental rock music, and I’ve come to realize it was because I held a pretty big misconception about it. By that I mean that for the most part I was largely ignorant to what kind of instrumental bands were out there.

The phrase “instrumental rock” brought to mind 60’s acts like Booker T. & The MGs, surf rock like Dick Dale and The Ventures, and the modern-day heirs to the instrumental surf rock throne, Los Straighjackets and The Ghastly Ones. I’m only vaguely familiar with Texas’ Explosions in the Sky, and at the height of my Kids in the Hall fever I even bought a CD by the Canadian instrumentalists Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. But in the last six weeks or so my eyes have been opened, and I have seen the light.

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Before this, I would’ve guessed Russian Circles was some kind of sex act on UrbanDictionary.com

Russian Circles are a trio from Chicago, currently promoting their just-released sixth album, Guidance. Their brand of music is what is often described as ‘post-rock’ or ‘post-metal’. All that really means to me is that it’s got clear rock and metal influences but isn’t afraid to dip into other genres, or play with dynamics in ways traditional rock bands might not.

Some bands have one or two of what I would consider to be the magical elements: Stellar musicianship, excellent songwriting, killer production. Sometimes just having one of those ingredients is enough to create something really special. Russian Circles has all three. They are clearly near virtuoso-level masters of their respective instruments, they write songs (sans lyrics, no less) that keep from getting pretentious or boring, and their sound is absolutely incredible. The mix is just about perfect—nothing is muddled; each instrument can be heard clearly and easily, and when you’re listening to musicians this talented, you want to be able to hear every note.

A somewhat related tangent (bear with me here): I am really into food and cooking shows (mental note: why have I never blogged about food?). I don’t watch them as much as I used to, but I love Top Chef, MasterChef, Chopped, etc. Watching those shows as much as I have has ingrained in me the following: If you’re going to do something simple, the execution has to be flawless. Doing something simple perfectly takes as much skill as doing something complex, if not more. Russian Circles gets this (see, I told you it was related).

Case in point: the song Vorel, technically the second song off the new album, although the first song is really just an extended intro. Vorel is a lesson in the building and release of tension, and all that tension builds up to a classic metal riff so simple it’s almost hard to believe. But the execution is absolutely perfect, so it actually sounds fresh and new, even though it’s a variation of a fairly standard riff almost as old as metal itself.

Despite being a trio, Russian Circles’ sound is massive, due in part to a few things: the excellent production value, the fact that the guitarist multi-tracks on some songs (which he impressively pulls off live by sampling his guitar parts), and the occasional use of the distorted THUNDER SLUDGE bass tone (the term THUNDER SLUDGE © 2016, used with permission from BooksOfJobe Enterprises, LLC). The bass sounds terrific throughout, but once the distortion is added it takes the entire sound of the band to another level.

I’ve been listening to Guidance practically daily since discovering these guys on KEXP out of Seattle (which, if you’re in the mood for something different, give them a listen—any station that can fit Dead Kennedys and De La Soul in the same set of music gets my respect), but I’ve yet to give much of their first five albums a listen. I have a feeling I won’t be disappointed.

Well, there you have it. I eschewed negativity in favor of raving about something new I’ve found (and I almost forgot the equally impressive and heavy instrumental band Pelican), and I’ve provided you with ten—count ’em, ten!—different links to songs by every band I mentioned, plus the link to the KEXP website, where you can stream the station. So do yourself a favor and click a link or two. Check out something you haven’t heard before, or listen to a band you already know. Just listen to some music. It’s good for the soul, and dammit, you’re worth it.

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Scene From a Waiting Room

Two of my favorite hobbies have always been people watching and eavesdropping, long before I declared myself a writer and could claim such behavior as “research.” In fact, if I watch people long enough I’ll usually give them names, and sometimes even backstories.

For instance: I have a neighbor I named Jim, who I decided works for the water department and recently went through a nasty divorce, after he caught his ex-wife cheating on him with a 19 year old from the Geek Squad. Of course, I have no way of knowing if any of that is true (although it certainly could be), but that’s what I came up with one day, when I saw him standing outside his apartment angrily smoking a cigarette.

So, it is with great delight that I share one of the best conversations I’ve ever had the pleasure of listening in on. This was Friday morning.

A crowded waiting room, full of mostly miserable people. The morning is stormy on and off; many in the cramped sitting area still have rain drying on their clothes. Across from me sit two people appearing not to have much in common: One a young black man, mid-twenties. He’s clean shaven, short hair, wearing beige cargo-style pants and a gray hoodie. He’s holding a hardcover book with a library barcode across the cover. Specifically, it’s The Widow by Fiona Barton. I decide he looks like a Kevin.

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A book that, I find out later, is a New York Times bestseller and came out just five months ago, which leaves me feeling a little embarrassed that I hadn’t heard of it.

The other, a fifty-ish white guy who looks like he’s seen better days. His hair is greasy and slicked back. He has a bushy mustache, his cheeks look like salt-and-pepper colored coarse grit sandpaper. Grease stains and paint spot his jeans up and down the legs. He’s quite tan, with pronounced crow’s feet and deep wrinkles in his forehead. Despite being  rather small, I decide he worked construction when he was young and verile, and wonder if he works now. Possibly a house painter, I think, judging from the paint. I name him Larry.

Kevin initiates the conversation, which for some reason surprises me. It starts, as most conversations between strangers seem to, with the weather. Larry replies amicably, and they exchange observations about the rain that had fallen and what that means in regard to the heat and humidity once the sun eventually comes out (spoiler alert: miserable). Before long, however, it becomes clear that Kevin has a bit of a one track mind.

“I’m reading this book, The Widow, have you heard of it?”

Larry says he hasn’t.

“It’s pretty good so far, I like it. What do you like to read, fiction or non-fiction?”

Larry mumbles something I can’t make out, then says non-fiction. I wonder if his answer is an attempt to politely indicate to Kevin that this is not a subject to which he can easily contribute.

“Oh yeah, non-fiction?” Kevin says. “I don’t like non-fiction too much. I love fiction, though. What’s your favorite book?”

Larry again mumbles something incomprehensible, perhaps as a stalling tactic. I wonder if he has a favorite book. He finally comes up with an answer, which I don’t hear, that apparently is about space travel. Kevin shows interest and asks him a follow up question about science fiction, and Larry remarks how incredible it is that things that seemed futuristic in books when he was a kid are becoming reality.

Kevin nods, then moves on to describing the plot of The Widow, which he likens to Gone Girl, but without all the big plot twists. It’s clear from the look on his face that Larry is not familiar with Gillian Flynn’s bestselling book or David Fincher’s film adaptation.

Larry seems clearly uncomfortable with the topic at hand and manages to turn the conversation back to the weather, saying he rode his bike in the rain to get there. Kevin says he used to ride his bike a lot but turned to running instead. I wonder for a moment if Kevin realizes that for him biking was recreational exercise while for Larry it’s apparently his primary mode of transportation.

There’s a slight look of relief in Larry’s eyes, though, perhaps because he thinks there might be a chance of turning the conversation back to a subject (bikes or weather) he can more easily speak to. There’s a beat of silence, then Kevin asks another question. The relief leaves Larry’s eyes as quickly as it had arrived.

“So, which do you like better, ebooks or printed books?”

At this point I smile, stifling a laugh.

Larry replies with something about “real books.”

Kevin agrees, stating that in his opinion, while ebooks provide a convenience that is unmatched, there is nothing quite like the feel of a printed book in your hands (an opinion I happen to share). He then gushes about the smell of books, and how, above all else, it is that smell which makes printed books superior.

Not long after this (perhaps due to Larry’s increasing lack of response) Kevin finally relents some. He steers the conversation away from books and reading, telling Larry a little about himself. He says that he works full time in the evening and goes to school full time during the day. He’s just gotten his Bachelor’s Degree and is now pursuing his Master’s, with hopes of going on to get a PhD. (I desperately wish I could’ve heard what he does for a living and his field of study at school–for once these are two items I’d rather not make up.) He says he goes to school, goes to work, then with what little free time he has–I’m assuming somewhere around 1 or 2am–he enjoys some form of entertainment, typically a movie or (big surprise) reading. The conversation dwindles, then Kevin’s number is called. He bids Larry good day and walks off. I feel a little tinge of sadness as he goes.

It wasn’t a long encounter, definitely less than ten minutes even with awkward pauses sprinkled in, but it had a pretty big effect on me. I can’t remember the last time I saw an adult–male or female, black or white–show that much enthusiasm for books and reading. It almost thawed the cold, black stone in my chest that passes for a heart (almost). It wasn’t just that he had such passion, it was that he unabashedly shared that passion with a perfect stranger, in the form of Larry. That’s awesome. I wondered if after Larry left his appointment he might think about his conversation with Kevin and ride his bike over to the library to look for a book to check out. I wonder if he’d like The Martian.

Surely there’s something to take away from this encounter, right? There must be.

I guess it’s this: Don’t be afraid to share your passion with people, whatever it is. Don’t worry about what other people are going to think about the stuff you like. Don’t stop yourself in the middle of what you’re saying and apologize, or say “I know, it’s dumb.” It’s not dumb. Who knows, you might make an impact on the person you’re talking to, or the introverted weirdo who appears to be staring with serial killer intensity at his phone but is actually listening to everything you say. Either way, don’t be shy about it. Let your freak flag fly–spread that passion around, and liberally. Be a Kevin.

 

Stull Cemetery: Of Course Kansas Has a Portal to Hell

I’m a sucker for urban legends. Ghost stories, haunted houses, monsters, you name it. So when the chance came along to visit a somewhat famous “haunted” cemetery touted as a portal to Hell frequented by THE DEVIL HIMSELF, I jumped at it.

Stull Cemetery is located in the postage stamp-sized town of Stull, Kansas–approximately 10 minutes from Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas, and a half hour from Kansas City, though it could be pretty much anywhere; acres and acres of farmland, scenic as it may be, tends to be interchangeable after a while, lending a sense of desolation as you wind your way along Highway 40.

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Stories of Stull Cemetery abound on the internet, most sticking to the same handful of “facts”: Tales are documented going back to at least the ’70s, when a professor at KU regaled his students with tales of a speck of haunted land outside town where witchcraft was practiced in abundance going back as far as the 1850s, the witches were hung from trees in the churchyard, and, to top it off, Satan himself made a personal appearance every Halloween at midnight (or Spring equinox, depending on the version you find) to dance with all who had succumbed to violent deaths in the previous year. There was also a hidden staircase if you looked close enough around the foundation of the decaying, vacant church that led straight to Hell—a staircase which, upon descending, there was no return.

Over the years, more incidences were added to the legend—the crumbling brick church was mysteriously leveled, supposedly to stop trespassers from trampling graves and vandalizing the cemetery, though no one in town would admit to knowing who did it; a tree that grew up through a tombstone, splitting it in two, (and was allegedly one of those used to hang witches) was cut down in the (possibly futile?) hopes of eliminating some of the stigma surrounding the property; rain allegedly never falling inside the walls of the church before it was razed (after its roof had fallen in); and perhaps most famously, Pope John Paul II reportedly once refusing to fly over Kansas, citing his desire to fly around the oft-called flyover state due to not wanting to pass over the “unholy ground” of Stull Cemetery. Playing a major role in Season 5 finale of the show Supernatural only added to the Stull legend.

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So it was with great anticipation that I pulled off the highway and onto the supposedly unholy final resting place of perhaps a few dozen dearly departed, judging by a rough look at the markers. I was struck by something right away, before even getting out of the car. Something I couldn’t shake. Something that immediately unnerved me to my very core: it was so…pretty. Portals to Hell should be dilapidated, grungy, dark, gray, decaying places, wouldn’t you think? Instead of finding rotting headstones and being flooded with a sense of overwhelming dread, I was greeted by rows upon rows of green grass and well-maintained tombstones adorned with flowers and wreaths. It probably didn’t help that it was also Memorial Day, so the small lot was actually full of visitors paying their respects. Lush, green grass, flowers everywhere—it barely seemed unholy at all. A travesty, if you ask me.

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Disgusting.

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Gross.

And such began my dilemma, which I debated right up to the moment I started typing this: do I tell the truth—that it is, by all appearances, just a plain old (very old) run-of-the-mill cemetery—or feed you all a few little white lies to keep the legend of Stull Cemetery alive and kicking? I considered writing a mostly fictional recap of my visit, but decided against it.

Instead, I’m planning on a return trip later in the year. October, maybe. When the grass has gone dormant, the leaves have mostly fallen from the trees, there are no visitors, and everything seems a little less…alive. Maybe on that visit I’ll be overcome by the creepiness, the unease—maybe something supernatural will actually happen!—the grounds possess, and when I tell you about it I won’t have to make anything up. So as of right now, I’m considering this unfinished business.

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