Friday, September 28, 2007
Wednesday, September 26, 2007
The Great Machipongo Clam Shack is in an old McDonald’s restaurant on the southbound side of the road about twenty-six miles north of the Bay Bridge Tunnel. A sister restaurant sits on the northbound side. It’s a former Texaco gas station. Opened during the summer of 1998 by Roger Mariner (no kidding!) and his wife Jean, the Clam Shack offers fresh and frozen fish to eat in or take out. A plain and simple place, clean as can be, the Clam Shack is an ideal stop off for a sea food lunch or early dinner. Crabmeat is an eastern shore specialty which is served up in a variety of ways here. We shared a crab melt on an English muffin and a Cobb Island Seafood Cake consisting of chopped shrimp, scallops, and crabmeat in a hamburger roll. Both were served with cole slaw and cocktail sauce and were delicious. The top of the menu offers a pound of steamed spiced shrimp with cocktail sauce and lemon for $12.99 or a ½ pound fresh local lump crabmeat plate with cocktail sauce and crackers for $14.99. The Great Machapongo crabcake sandwich costs $7.99 and the day we were there a choice of two soups was offered. There are also daily specials.
While the food is good here, The Great Machapongo Clam Shack began life as a fish market and that’s where the majority of its business still lies. Starting by offering local clams, oysters, crab, and fish for sale fresh, Mariner has branched out to offer a range of fish and other seafood products from around the world. Tilapia, Wild Salmon, Mahi-Mahi, Red Snapper, Yellow Fin Tuna and more are sold flash frozen either as prepared entrees or filets. Fresh octopus, New Zealand Green Tip Mussels, and French escargot are all available. If you ask for it, Roger may be able to get it for you. You can purchase these products packed in coolers with dry ice or order them on-line to be shipped to you. They ship Fed Ex overnight to be sure the fish arrives still frozen solid. Visit the Calm Shack’s web site at www.greatclams.com.
The Great Machipongo Clam Shack is open 10:00 AM to 5:00 PM and extended an hour each way during the summer. An added advantage of traveling down the Delmarva is that you can avoid the traffic on I-95 as well as Baltimore and Washington as you travel up and down the east coast. Give it a try.
Sunday, September 23, 2007
If you were trying to film a James Lee Burke novel, the violence portrayed would be so vivid, so filled with gore and pain that it would turn the stomach of most people in the audience. Perhaps that’s why his books, which have a narrative drive that should turn easily into film, haven’t been made or aren’t successful. Although hope springs eternal and “In the Electric Mist” is in post-production now with what appears to be an excellent cast. Tommy Lee Jones plays detective Dave Robicheaux. Perhaps because of his potential for violence, Cletus Purcell is missing from the cast. But in print, Burke’s violence takes on a transcendent beauty. He makes the violence so beautiful through his language that I momentarily lose my sense of exactly how gruesome many of his images are. The scenes go past in slow motion as Dave Robicheaux gives in once again to the unchained beast within him who emerges when he faces evil so deep he must react immediately rather than allow his finer self to control him. Or perhaps the violent self is the better self after all.
I’ve written about James Lee Burke and his Dave Robicheaux mysteries here before. I’ve read most of the novels and find them fresh and involving even when, on very close scrutiny, they fit neatly into the Burke formula class and race consciousness, the nature of living and thriving in the south generally and in Louisiana in particular, alcoholism, and, in the end, guilt and redemption. All this is presented in a language so rich and full bodied that it’s like eating a full meal. Burke uses color, its taste, feel, smell, and texture to create moods that ring with authenticity. Anyone who’s spent time in the area around New Iberia has seen the cultural contrasts seen from house to house along the bayou. Race and its pervasive effect on southern life is constantly before a Burke reader as Dave negotiates and criss-crosses the lines separating people. Another frequent Burke theme is found in the hypocrisy of evangelists who must align themselves with the sin they preach against in order support their ministries. He thus suggests an inevitable corruption in the televangelist’s efforts.
Pegasus Descending, first published in 2006 and now available in trade and mass market paperback formats, as well as audio tape, treats all the topics above in a convoluted plot filled with the grotesque and morally ambivalent characters Burke portrays so well. Robicheaux himself has such a clear moral vision that he sets impossible standards for himself and others, forgives those he loves for falling short and tortures himself almost to oblivion for his own shortcomings. This time around a beautiful young girl apparently kills herself after being raped and then gang-banged by a bunch of fraternity boys. Her death leads Robicheaux into the murky world of wealthy upstarts, sociopathic killers, maimed and damaged friends and foes who are the stuff of a Burke novel. His new wife Molly, a former nun, proves an able supporter, perhaps the only person who understands Dave sufficiently to allow him to forgive himself and find short moments of piece. While he is nearing sixty, Dave still has enough libido to make any of us more than a little jealous. Sheriff Helen Soileau, Robicheaux’s boss and, often, protector, grows significantly in this book. She is one of Burke’s best drawn female characters, perhaps because of her sexuality.
All in all, Pegasus Descending maintains the high standard of this wonderful series, perhaps raising the bar a little bit. If you haven’t entered into the dark world James Lee Burke creates in Louisiana, you might want to give it a try.
Saturday, September 22, 2007
We first met Gregory McGrath at Pete Wernick's Jam Camp before Merlefest 2007 in Wilkesboro, NC. Greg had traveled with a friend to come to camp, the festival, and then attend several other bluegrass events here in the states. We saw him several times during the festival and have corresponded with him intermittently since then. He is active on the JamCampers e-mail list on Yahoo.com. Back in Australia, he has been trying, and succeeding, in bringing the spirit and techniques of Pete's Jam Camp to jams near his home. Bluegrass is not huge in Australia, but it is growing and Greg is helping it. Here's a link to his blog where he talks about the bluegrass scene down under. As bluegrass becomes an increasingly international form of music, such efforts can only enrich the music and spread it ever more widely.
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
This is Your Brain on Music by Daniel J. Levitin
What is music? How do we perceive it? In what ways does it influence us? How has it figured in our development? Why do we love the music we love? What does it take to become an expert musician? How are human evolution and music related? In this fascinating and informative book, Daniel Levitin takes on these huge topics and makes them understandable to informed lay readers. Levitin’s background certainly gives him the chops to write such a book. Levitin runs the Laboratory for Musical Perception, Cognition, and Expertise at McGill University, where he holds the James McGill Chair and the Bell Chair in the Psychology of Electronic Communication. (Don’t Stop Reading Here) “Omigod,” you exclaim, “this has got to be one of those scholarly tomes that only a specialist can get through.” But you’re wrong. Before becoming a world esteemed scholar in his specialty, Levitin had, and has, a life in music. He played guitar in a California garage rock band, went on to producing records, attended Stanford University, Berklee College of Music, and earned his PhD at the University of Oregon. His book is filled with delightful stories from each part of his life, which illustrate many of the points he makes about music.
Along the way, Levitin explains a lot about how the brain takes music in and how the mind makes sense of it. He examines the components of music: pitch, rhythm, tempo, loudness, timbre, contour, and reverberation. He explores how vibrations in the air become music in our minds. He looks at the way in which music has been a part of human communication since we emerged, and how we have become divided into music producers and music consumers. Each of his concepts is explained by examples from the world of brain research and illustrated with specific examples from almost every genre of music. For those of us not as widely familiar with the entire wide world of music as he is, Levitin provides audio examples of every musical piece mentioned in the book at his website in the section on interactive examples.
Perhaps the two most interesting chapters are Chapter 7, which deals with what factors combine to make an expert musician, and Chapter 8, which examines why we like what we like in music. In the chapter on becoming an expert he treats such topics as talent, practice, and creativity. The latter chapter was widely discussed during Levitin’s book tour. In it he examines the way in which our musical preferences are formed, much as many of our other values develop, during adolescence. He also links our musical preferences to matters of sexual choices having to do with atavistic mating displays designed to show power and virility. It’s all thought provoking, whether you agree or not. Levitin doesn’t make such claims lightly, but provides a thorough background in the scientific literature.
While I expect to write another piece about this book with particular references to its importance for bluegrass music, one issue is worth noting. Levitin describes how, throughout most of human history, it was impossible to separate the musical performer from the musical consumer. Most people were dancers, singers, players, and listeners simultaneously. With the rise of what is now called “classical” music, performance began to move to the concert hall. One of the great appeals of bluegrass music is that it has had a tendency to break down this barrier, particularly in festivals. Because bluegrass grew from a variety of musical sources, it has quite broad appeal. Many of the people who listen to bluegrass play one or more bluegrass instruments. People who come to love the music often learn to play an instrument if they didn’t play one before. When you attend a bluegrass festival, many people are there who don’t seem to spend much time in their seats listening to the music. Instead, they’re back in a campsite somewhere on the grounds making bluegrass music in jam sessions. This is encouraged by the promoters and the professional musicians themselves. In fact, many professional bluegrassers can be found around the grounds of a typical festival jamming when they’re not performing.
Suffice it to say, at this point, that for bluegrass music adherents this book has much food for thought. Levitin examines music from a perspective that few consider as they pick, sing, play, practice, listen, appreciate, and enjoy it. His thoughtful analysis of the components of music and how they create experience for each of us within our brains is stimulating. This is a “don’t miss’ book for people who are interested in thinking about the role music plays in their lives. It has recently been published in trade paperback by Penguin Books and can be purchased at any bookstore. Its price is $15.00 in the U.S.
Sunday, September 16, 2007
The lineup for the White Oak Shores Bluegrass Festival combines a strong set of local and regional North Carolina bands with two excellent touring national bands. Carolina Junction is a traditional bluegrass band playing a busy schedule, mostly in North and South Carolina. The cuts on their web site suggest they’ll be worth listening to. Al Batten & the Bluegrass Reunion have been around a long time and give a competent and enjoyable performance. We saw them in Florida two seasons ago, and they perform at a variety of good regional events. Ted Jones and the Tarheel Boys will close Friday’s show. Jones, a young mandolin player, is backed by his father and a full bluegrass band. They are another North Carolina group featuring traditional bluegrass and gospel music. Their cuts on their MySpace site suggest that they will provide a solid performance. All in all, Friday at White Oak Shores promises a pleasant day of bluegrass with perhaps some surprises for folks who aren’t familiar with these bands.
Because I haven’t been to this festival before and can only assess bands in terms of their web presence, some bands in the lineup are totally unknown to me. This doesn’t mean, however, that they won’t be worth listening to. Wherever we go we are surprised by the quality of bands that seem to pop up from the local soil. North Carolina provides more than its share of excellent local and regional bands so groups like The Grassy Creek Band, Mac and Tammy McRoy, and The Jeff Huffman Band can offer a great deal to someone who loves bluegrass and isn’t necessarily limited to seeing and hearing headliners. I have made no effort to provide even minimal profiles as I can’t find an Internet presence for these bands to inform my opinion.
Sweet Potato Pie , which opens Saturday’s event, is an all girl band (Now I know about being PC and actually considered calling this a female band or an all women band or something else but chose to stick with the convention.) They play regional and local events in North Carolina, calling their music “Sweetgrass.” The Boys from Carolina Bluegrass Band is another experienced band whose performance will no doubt be satisfying. Another North Carolina is Roby Huffman & the Bluegrass Cutups. Marshall Stephenson is a local radio personality who has been promoting bluegrass in eastern North Carolina for many years. The band’s name, The Bluegrass Train takes the name of Stephenson’s radio show. According to an article in the News & Observer, where Stephenson was named Tarheel of the Week, the show is reminiscent of bluegrass shows harkening back to the early days of bluegrass festivals in the 1960’s.
All this stands as a prelude to the two national headline bands which appear at White Oak Shores on Saturday. Despite too frequent turnovers in its membership, The Lonesone River Band is simply one of the best touring bands to be heard. Lead by Sammy Shelor, one of the premier banjo players in the country, LRB appears from California to New England and is one of the hardest working bands on tour. The return of Brandon Rickman and the addition of Matt Leadbetter as well as Andy Ball on mandolin and Mike Anglin on bass may become the best LRB band ever. Shelor brings his amazing banjo versatility and personal magnetism along with a mature sensibility which adds depth and thoughtfulness to their music. This is a band calling fans to travel to wherever they appear.
Lorraine Jordan and Carolina Road continue to improve with each new change in their personnel. (Disclosure – a number of my photographs appear on their web site, and Irene and I have developed something of a personal relationship with this band.) The addition of singer/guitarist Jerry Butler almost a year ago has warmed this band up, added humor, and helped Lorraine to focus her skill and leadership of the band. In their recent CD and band appearances, Lorraine has sung tenor to Jerry’s lead most effectively. Youngsters Josh Goforth, a first rate fiddler, and Josh Meade on bass bring youthful enthusiasm and a progressive strain to this essentially traditional band, while Benny Greene brings experience and seasoning. This band has entered a mature phase and is establishing its national profile through extensive travel.
The White Oak Shores Bluegrass Festival promises to offer interesting music in a lovely setting. More information about tickets and camping can be found here.
Monday, September 10, 2007
Early in the book, Levitin points out that throughout most of human history musical performance and consumption have been inseparable. People played instruments, they sang, and they danced. It is only in recent times that professional performers have produced music for people to listen to without direct involvement in making the music themselves. He also asserts that from earliest times people have moved to music in some form of dance. Movement may be an inseparable part of how many people experience music. We tap our toes, nod our heads, move our shoulders, and rise to our feet to move in rhythmic response to music. How much we respond depends very much on the context in which we experience the music. Imagine an audience at a symphony orchestra concert rising to its feet and writhing to the music. Imagine the congregation of a black church in the south standing rigidly, just singing along with the congregation and the organ. Put these imaginings in the context of a bluegrass concert.
My understanding has been that bluegrass music originated as show music performed by professional musicians for seated audiences. The hard driving nature of the music was not generally seen as being “dance music.” Nevertheless, many people who attend bluegrass festivals feel drawn to movement, expressed as dance, as a way to appreciate the music and participate in it. I buy this idea. There’s a problem, however. People who attend bluegrass festivals fall into several different categories, broadly expressed. They come to listen, to watch and listen, have the music as background while they read or complete puzzles, or listen, watch and dance together. How can promoters respond to the desires of different parts of an audience to express their appreciation and enjoy the music? How can people attending festivals show their consideration for others and still have the richest experience available to them?
Recently, at the Otis Mountain Music Festival, promoter Jeff Allot tried to respond to this issue by moving dancers to the side and roping off an area in front of the stage as a sort of no-man’s land. This worked quite well during the day, but as the music heated up in the evening with the Infamous Stringdusters followed by Sam Bush, the audience became increasingly restive and, with the encouragement of Bush, finally invaded the area. Alott wisely took down the ropes and the crowd pushed toward the stage. Actually, dancing was reduced, but the close proximity of audience to performers increased the excitement of the performance which culminated in a twenty minute jam including the two bands together on the stage. It turned into a great festival moment. There was a fly in the ointment, however, when an elderly couple seated right at the rope line, objected bitterly to their site line being obscured by all the people crowding to the front. They eventually folded their chairs and left.
Usually Irene and I seat ourselves as close to the front of an audience as we can. She likes to watch the mandolin and Dobro players as closely as possible, often using binoculars even from the front row. I take pictures for this blog as well as for bands and promoters, often leaving my seat to get better angles or different kinds of pictures. On this evening at Otis Mtn. we found standing room that suited each of us, but at one point I moved thirty yards to the rear and found the view and sound to be excellent, so long as I didn’t want to take pictures. I realized that the good natured pushing of the crowd to the front was a natural response to the power of the music. On the other hand, at Springfest this year, the crowd insinuated themselves to the front and blocked everyone’s view while continuing to smoke, a direct violation of festival rules. A minority of fans ruined the experience for a large number of viewers.
Many festivals we attend encourage dancers to use an area to the side, close enough for them to feel the music while not obstructing the views and enjoyment of those who wish to be more passive in their enjoyment. Merlefest, because it has a huge reserved seat area, provides only a narrow grassy area to one side for dancers and restricts the more unrestrained response to the far rear. Other venues there have more openness for dancing. Both Merlefest and Grey Fox provide a separate dance tent where bands whose music particularly evokes a dance response play late into the night. Strawberry Park has a large platform to the right of the stage where dancers have great sight and listening access and plenty of room. In the end, it probably boils down to planning on the part of promoters and consideration on the part of attendees. Bluegrass music draws a wide variety of responses from its adherents and all music fans should find themselves equally comfortable while they seek to enjoy and respond to the music.
Thursday, September 6, 2007
Two years later, I bought a Sullivan Festival (#167) again at Merlefest, and for a very attractive price. It was a vast improvement over the Goodtime, and I started to learn faster and to take lessons with Bruce Stockwell from Putney, VT. Bruce has saintly patience and I began to make even more progress. In 2006 I attended Pete Wernick’s Jam Camp and realized that I had much to learn and really want to get better.
This spring, we bought Irene a new mandolin, a Gibson Alan Bibey signature model, which he presented to her from the state at an event at Down Home in Johnson City Tennessee. You can read about that here. After getting her dream instrument, she began agitating me to get a better banjo. When her mando needed a slight repair, we had a chance to go to banjo.com where I played a bunch of Deerings, and after a good deal of agonizing, settled on a Deering Thirtieth Anniversary Tennbrooks, number 20 of 30. I never believed an instrument could make such a difference! The instrument sounds like a dream, with a great sustain and lots of volume. Now that I’ve changed from light to medium strings, it stays in tune. I’ve never played a banjo that allows my right hand to move around the neck as easily as this one does nor one which is as easy to play pull-offs or hammer-ons. The bronze Jens Kruger tone ring, made in a 400 year old bell factory in Switzerland gives this masterful instrument a tone like no other banjo. Despite Irene’s deepest wishes, however, I still don’t sound like Jens.
Here are some pictures of my new Deering, which as of this writing, still doesn’t have a name, but she deserves one. Maybe you’ll help.
Since I bought her in April, a lot of fine musicians have played her. Little Roy Lewis, Tom Boyd, Chris Pandolfi, Dan Russell, and Doug Knight have all played and remarked on her tone and playability. I'm very happy and think I have a lifetime instrument
Tuesday, September 4, 2007
The world Ron Suskind pictures in The One Percent Doctrine is one in which the readers of John le Carre´ would be more comfortable than the viewers of Fox, CNN, or MSNBC or even the readers of The New Yorker. It is a shadowy world inhabited by agents of the world’s major intelligence agencies rushing desperately to assemble a case designed to give George W. Bush, Richard Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld the ammunition they need to undertake the campaign they already know they want to pursue. It is a world filled with ghosts of information, digital blips of knowledge overseen by people panicked by the destruction and death of 9/11 and the escape of Osama bin Laden from Tora Bora. Traditionally, the FBI has been oriented toward assembling evidence in order to undertake prosecution of crimes. The CIA has developed evidence to assist the President in making policy decisions. At least one arm of the CIA also engaged in covert operations in countries around the world in support of policy decisions. The CIA was prohibited from engaging in activities within the United States and the FBI was almost entirely a domestic agency. Neither regularly communicated with the other. The events of 9/11 and the Bush administration’s drive for “Action” required both agencies to operate in ways that are opposed to their cultures. This fascinating book details why that effort has, more often than not, failed to yield the desired results. It also shows that, while the threat is real and immediate, the remedies that work well to counter the threat have been ignored by the adminstration.
During the years since the first Gulf War, despite the fact there were a number of terrorist attacks resulting in American deaths, the policy of the Clinton administration, largely followed U.S. policy enunciated by George Kennan in the 1940’s with reference to the Soviet Union, was a successful one of containment. Saddam Hussein had been contained and his wealth and power diminished during the period since 1991. A major change undertaken by the Bush administration has been to move from a policy of containment and retaliation to one of preemption or even preventive attacks without “actionable intelligence” to supply the necessary evidence to create a rationale for such preemptive action. The policy became one of prevention based on the suspicion of risk. The 1% Doctrine means that normal caution in taking action is put aside if even a 1% chance exists that suspects might act to harm the U.S. Without sufficient evidence and given a president who is oriented toward taking action and impatient with policy issues and careful analysis, vast FBI, CIA, and other agency resources became devoted to following his whims and “instincts.” Probable cause was no longer necessary.
Much of this discussion was held under a “need to know” practice which effectively insulated various government agencies from sharing information that, had it been put together, might have yielded conclusions quite different from those the administration reached. One example can be found in the concern over the reported acquisition of yellowcake uranium and aluminum tubes by Iraq that resulted in an NIE estimate the administration used selectively to argue the risk of Weapon of Mass Destruction. Bush’s learning style and his reliance on Cheney’s experience with the Nixon and Reagan administrations, where he felt presidential prerogative had been substantially diminished has led to a series of poor decisions. These forces led to the administration pushing an idea too far and to the invasion of Iraq.
Another example of the mis-use of evidence is less well known, but deeply illustrative. Interception of e-mail correspondence among certain Americans of middle eastern origin indicated they were seeking to large spaces in Kansas. Certain key words suggested some sort of bombing plot, people were arrested and large resources used. In the end, it turned out that the men were entrepreneurs seeking storage space for merchandise to stock flea market booths. This kind of over-reaction and preemption has the effect of providing political support for the administration through its willingness to promulgate fear without evidence. Rice’s comments about a mushroom cloud and the idea to fight them there rather than here are examples. The color code warning system is another. On the other hand, the thought that we have not been attacked again because alQaeda has chosen to separate our friends from us through bombings in Indonesia, Great Britain, and, most horrible of all, Spain has never been voiced by anyone in the administration, which chooses to see the absence of attacks as competence in our management of the “war on terror.”
The One Percent Doctrine sheds much light on George W. Bush’s personal style and the danger it represents for our military posture as well as the costs to us as a nation founded on freedom and justice. The country could probably have withstood the costs of Bush, Cheney, or Rumsfeld pretty well, but the three together represent a perfect storm of possible disaster. This book is well worth reading and thinking about. This book is currently being offered here coupled with Fiasco, reviewed earlier here at a substantial discount. Read together, these two books represent an indictment of the Bush administration that is almost impossible to rebut.