Saturday, October 22, 2011

Be Loud, Let the Others Know...First a Whisper, Then It Grows

I've never heard my dad sing.

I'm not exactly sure why.  I've never met anyone with as much knowledge about music in my life than my dad, and I've rarely met anyone that loves music quite as much as he does.  It's quite amazing actually.  A few years ago, VH1 used to have a show called Rock n' Roll Jeopardy and I remember sitting in awe as my dad would answer almost every single question correctly, often without hesitation.  My sister and I often tried to convince him to try out for the show, because we were convinced he'd be able to win.  But, he's not exactly the type to show off his talents.  He just liked to test himself.

I get my love of music from him.  I remember as a kid riding in the truck with him, he'd have 99.1 WCBL on virtually all the time, and like clockwork would offer tidbits of information.

"Their drummer left the band after their second album and went on to start (insert band name here).  They never had any big hits though.  This is probably what he's best known for, but the later stuff was way better," he'd say.  Or something like that.  It's that knowledge that blows me away.  He doesn't just know song titles or band names (God knows he knows plenty of those).  But he can tell you life stories of band members from musical groups that have long been forgotten.  It's remarkable.

"Wow.  I didn't know that," I'd say in all sincerity.  I remember wishing he'd change the station and let me listen to some "new" music, but as I look back on it today, I cherish those memories.

I've come home many times to find dad sitting in his recliner with all the lights off, and a Stevie Ray Vaughan live album or some other old vinyl spinning on his turntable blaring through the speakers.

"Sit down and listen to this.  This drum solo is unreal," he'd say, motioning me to sit down.  "Man, he was tough."  He always used the adjective "tough" to describe a musician's playing skills.

He still protects his old vinyl collection like it's solid gold bars.  Technology has allowed him to convert every album he has into MP3 format and put them on CD's.  Mom bought him a vinyl converter a few years ago for Christmas, and he has spent countless hours backing up his collection on their home computer.

And, yet, despite my dad's love for music, I've never once heard him sing.  He claims he doesn't really care about lyrics in songs; he prefers listening to the "music."  My mom used to always ask him why he didn't sing at church, and he'd always say he sang along in his head.  Maybe he did the same thing when he was listening to music at home or in his truck.

Although my dad definitely passed on a love for music to my sister and I, I find enjoyment in music for different reasons and in different ways.  I do appreciate musicians for their abilities to play instruments, but it takes more than that for me to like a particular band or song.  For example, I've never been a fan of Dave Matthews.  Despite his insane popularity, I've never found his music to be enjoyable, with the exception of a handful of tunes.  That being said, I recognize that he and his band are some of the best individual musicians in the world, and can appreciate their music for that reason.  But, I'm not going to go out of my way to listen.

For me, I find more enjoyment in listening to the lyrics of songs; using those lyrics to search for the meaning the artist intended, or, in most cases, creating my own meaning that is personal to me.  In some cases, if I find out what an artist was intending to say in a particular song, it will never have that impact on me.  Obviously, some of the music I listen to is for entertainment's sake only, because not every song that I like has an in depth meaning.  I mean, come on...I like AC/DC.  But, with a lot of my favorite music, it's the lyrics that pull me in.

A week from today, Adrienne, her sister Liza, and I will be going to Nashville to see the Avett Brothers perform live.  We saw them last year (ironically on Halloween weekend also) at the Ryman Auditorium, and although this time around it will be in the much less intimate Bridgestone Arena, I'm still extremely excited.  I can't wait, actually.

But, this time last year, I was preparing to go see them live and had never even heard of them.  And the little exposure I had leading up to the concert (listening to the music in Adrienne's car), had left me with a lot to desire.  I didn't think they were very good, to be honest.  But, as is often the case, after seeing them live, that changed.  I instantly became a huge fan.

If you've never heard of the Avett Brothers, I wouldn't be totally surprised.  They're not a huge national act, although their popularity has increased in the last year or so.  But, you need to do yourself a favor and give them a listen, because in today's watered-down world of music, they are truly a breath of fresh air.

Upon first glance, you'll immediately notice how different they are from anything else out there today.  The two most difficult things to do in the music industry today are to be very good or to be unique.  And it's even more difficult and rare to find an artist that achieves both simultaneously.  But the Avett Brothers do.  They're unique, and very, very good.

Trying to describe their style is a bit difficult.  They're like country, rock, folk, blues, bluegrass, and gospel all rolled into one.  One unique aspect is that Scott Avett, the older of the two brothers, plays banjo but instead of picking it, he mostly strums it.  It provides a totally different, gritty, biting sound that you don't normally hear, especially in popular music.

While I'm typically a guy that enjoys up-tempo, fun music, the Avetts don't have a ton of it.  Their music is not filled with catchy hooks or face-melting solos (although there are some sprinkled in from time to time), but you will find yourself humming the melodies in your mind for hours after listening.  Compared to the rest of my musical collection, they are outcasts when it comes to style.  But there's something that draws you to it, hypnotizes you.

As for what it is...I'm not exactly sure.  As singers, they're not exactly Luciano Pavarotti, but the unique harmony that can only be achieved by family members is apparent from the very first listen.  The music itself can sometimes feel as though scales and logic are being totally ignored, and yet the mood that it creates (whether it's an uptempo romp, or soft, slow melody) is always calming.  It's difficult to explain.

But, for me, what made me a fan is their impeccable skill as lyricists.  Every line is delivered with a sincerity that is rare in music.  Every song is straightforward, so the meaning is visible, yet vague at the same time so the listener can develop their own meaning.  The topics of their songs are nothing unique...They talk about life, love, fun for fun's sake...The same topics that virtually every artist writes about.  Yet, they do it in the most unique and clever way.  They are able to express things in a way that leaves you thinking, "Damn, that makes SO much sense...But I'd have never thought to put it that way."

A couple of my favorite lyrical excerpts:

"I wanna have pride like my mother has, but not like the kind in the Bible that turns you bad" -From "The Perfect Space."

"If I live the life I'm given, I won't be afraid to die." -From "New Year's Eve Song."

"There is nothing worth sharing like the love that let's us share our name," -From "Murder in the City."

These don't even begin to scratch the surface.  There's at least one lyrical gem in every single one of the their songs...I can't pick a favorite.  These just happened to come to mind.  They have an uncanny ability to affect your emotions in so many different ways.  One minute you may be on the verge of tears, the next you may be losing your mind laughing.  You'll then find yourself sitting in total silence, trying to wrap your head around the message, and suddenly finding yourself singing at the top of your lungs for no other reason than it's just so damn fun.  That's the ride that is the Avett Brothers.

If you haven't taken the time to listen to them, you are doing yourself a disservice.  Go to Youtube and look them up.  Go see them live.  Preview a couple of songs on iTunes.  Just give them a shot.  If you're not a fan after that...I'm not sure what else to say.

I'll leave you with a little video.  This was recorded last year at the show we saw at the Ryman.  Enjoy...And yes, they're dressed as mummies.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

So there…There was two of us in the wolf pack. I was alone first in the pack and Doug joined in later.

In the United States, the bachelor party (or stag night, stag do, stag party, depending what continent you are on...The concept is the same) has long been a tradition for men about to cross into the world of matrimony.  Many would consider bachelor parties a rite of passage in some ways, but I think most just look at it as a good excuse to party one last time with the boys.  The term "bachelor party" didn't even appear until 1922, but the concept of a final night of debauchery for the groom before marriage dates back as early as the 5th century BC...Ancient Spartans held feasts in honor of their friends about to marry and would toast them accordingly.

Now, the stereotypical bachelor party usually brings to mind images from The Hangover...The groom's party flocking to Vegas or some other notorious hot spot, engaging in heavy drinking, hotel room destruction, possible recreational drug use, and likely a trip to a strip club or two.  It would make for a better movie if I could tell you that's what happened at DJ's bachelor party, but his more resembled a marathon tailgate than a bachelor party.  And that was just fine for those of us in attendance.

We rented a cabin on the lake at Moor's Resort and spent all day Friday and Saturday playing cornhole, grilling out, playing beer pong, listening to music, swarpin', watching football, hollerin', hitting golf balls into the lake, and of course, drinking beer.  We got so wild, Saturday afternoon 5 of us walked a couple hundred yards to the Moor Fun Putt-Putt course and got in a round of golf.  We were so crazy, we took our own putters and golf balls and played without a score card.  We didn't even pay the $2 at the resort office.  What can I say?  We walk on the wild side.

The highlights of the weekend were our epic beer pong tournaments.  Stan and I were the most powerful duo, but we fell short of the title both nights...Falling in the finals after clawing our way out of the loser's bracket of the double elimination tournament.

We blasted hits from MC Hammer, Boyz 2 Men, Led Zeppelin, Garth Brooks, and anything else Pandora decided to play.  We went through enough tailgate food (burgers, chicken, dogs, chips, salsa, sandwiches) to last a week (we were there two days), and we made an immaculate resort cabin look like a tornado came through.  It was a blast.

Standing on the threshold of DJ's wedding (it comes in just a little over 4 weeks) and spending the weekend partying with some of my best friends makes it nearly impossible not to reminisce on things.  Late Saturday night, as we all sat around the table playing Circle of Death, an old staple of a drinking game, we stood up and toasted the groom to be.  It got me to thinking about all the things DJ and I have been through together.

Growing up a man in this country can be tough.  There are very high expectations placed on males in our largely patriarchal society, and without a brother or close friend that can understand what you're going through, it can be difficult.  Don't get me wrong, I never had it bad.  My parents always supported me in everything I did, they were great at keeping things in perspective, and they gave me the freedom to make my own mistakes.  My dad has always been the epitome of a role model for what a man should be.  But, despite that, there are things you experience in your critical teen years that hardly anyone (especially your parents that have been there before) can understand.  DJ was the brother I never had, and he helped me get through some very (seemingly) difficult times in my life.  Just as I know I likewise helped him.

We met in January of 1993.  It had started snowing on a Friday afternoon, and we got out of school early.  By Saturday morning, there was already close to 8 inches of snow on the ground with the snow showing no signs of stopping.  My sister Lensey, our neighbor Katie, and I were out playing.  We knew a kid our age had just moved into the neighborhood, so we decided to go see if he wanted to come out.

Decked out in our puffy winter coats, boots, gloves, and ski masks, we probably looked like we were going to try to rob the place, rather than extend an invite to come play.  I knocked on the door and this lanky, nerdy kid dressed in corduroys and a Bill Cosby sweater answered the door.

"Hey.  Do you want to come outside and play in the snow with us?" I asked him.  We didn't even think to introduce ourselves.
"No, thanks.  I think I'll just stay in," he replied.  He was noticeably shy.
"Well, ok.  If you change your mind we'll be back in the woods across the road."

We left and went on our way.  About 30 minutes later, he came bumbling down the hill toward us.  We finally made our introductions.

"I'm Zach."
"I'm DJ." 

We still talk of that first meeting from time to time, and DJ says his mom basically guilted him into going outside to make some friends.  What a loser.

I won't say DJ and I became instant friends, because that wouldn't be totally accurate.  To be honest, we didn't have much in common at first.  I was really into sports, DJ was into dinosaurs.  In fact, he told me in the first few days we knew one another that he wanted to be an archaeologist when he grew up.  I can't say I totally blame him...This was right around the time Jurassic Park was coming out, and I'm sure a lot of kids were intrigued by the field of archaeology.  I just wasn't one of them.  We basically started hanging out because we were the only two boys in the whole neighborhood that were around the same age.  But, we did become very close friends very quickly, despite our differences.

DJ and I were great at two things: laughing and getting into trouble.  We laughed all the time and were total goofballs, something that remains to this day.  And we never did anything that bad...It was more the way we tried to cover things up than what we actually did that got us into trouble.

One time when we were around 10 years old, DJ got a model car to build.  The same week, he had received a brand new dresser and chest of drawers from his grandfather.  DJ and I glued pieces together and painted the body of the car blue.  DJ placed the little jar of paint in the box at the end of the day, and put it on his dresser until we could continue working on it the following day.

I went to his house the next day, and what we found was absolutely horrible.  When DJ went to lift the box, it stuck, as if it were glued to the dresser.  He finally got it free and we were horrified when we saw the silver dollar size blue spot that was right in the middle of his brand new dresser.  We frantically began searching for a remedy.  In our pre-pubescent wisdom, we decided we could scrape the paint off the surface with a pocket knife.  All we did was scratch out a small crater.  Becoming increasingly scared, we grabbed a brown crayon that appeared to match the dresser and began coloring in the crater.  It did nothing but leave crayon residue on top of an atrocious hole in the middle of the perfectly constructed dresser.

Lucky for us, DJ had also recently gotten a new stereo, which was setting on the far right side of the dresser.  DJ moved the stereo to the center of the dresser, towards the front...A totally inconspicuous location for a small boombox to set.  We just knew it would work.  Amazingly, it did...DJ's parents didn't see the spot until years later.

A few years later, when DJ and I were around 15, far old enough to know better, we were tossing a foam football across the living room.  DJ's house had a high valted ceiling with a fan hanging down from the center.  The power cord was about 5 feet long, and dangled directly in the center of the living room.  We threw the ball dangerously close to the cord, with the fan running, several times.  Finally, our luck ran out.  I'm fairly certain I was the one that threw the ball.  The cord was struck, swung upward, and wrapped around the base of the fan.  It came to a screeching stop.  We immediately turned the fan off and just stared at each other.  We unraveled the cord to see about two feet of it fall to the floor.  We were able to mend it, and as I often did, I left to go home before DJ's parents arrived and left him to deal with the aftermath.  I'm a good friend.

Another time, DJ and I were kicking a small soccer ball around the living room.  This time, we were even older...Probably 16 or 17.  DJ lined up a penalty kick aimed directly at the front door, seemingly a safe bet.  But, in a weird twist of fate, the ball hit dead center of the door knob and shot straight up towards one of the two chandeliers that hung in the foyer of the house.  One of the plastic crystal pieces fell to the floor and the small hole at the top that hung on a hook broke off.  We were in familiar territory. 

We assumed this would be an easy fix.  We used clear scotch tape to repair the hole, hung the piece back up on the chandelier, and stepped back to examine our work.

"You know, you won't notice it unless you look directly at it.  And who looks directly at that thing?"
"I know.  I think we'll be fine."

Less than an hour later, DJ's step-father Andy came home.  Inexplicably, he walked directly to the chandelier and stared up at it.  THIS HAD NEVER HAPPENED BEFORE.  Why, on that one day, did he choose to do so?  We may never know.  But, we were caught.  Fortunately, it wasn't that big of a deal and we were off the hook, minus a small butt-chewing.  But the chances...Just hysterical.

I could write a novel about all of the funny things that happened between us.  But it wasn't all funny.  We had our arguments, we both went through rough times occasionally.  But we always had our trampoline talks in DJ's back yard, and we always had one another's back.  By this point, we're not friends anymore...We're family.  And even though I knew I would be the best man at his wedding about 10 years ago, it is still an honor and privilege to be able to stand up there as he marries the woman of his dreams.

DJ's bachelor party was a great time for all of us to hang out, but for me it was a time to look back.  Friends like that don't come around too often, and I'm extremely lucky to have one.