Friday, June 26, 2015

Experiencing the "Innocence"

Pain and loss…and ultimately, hope.

Those seemed to be the themes radiating through night two of U2’s five-night Chicago stand on the “Innocence and Experience” tour, something that probably got lost amidst the most sophisticated live concert production I’ve ever seen.

The pain, if you were looking for it, could easily be seen on Bono’s face as he made his way through the night. The tour’s stage set-up — fairly spare main stage at United Center’s west end and circular satellite stage on the far east end, connected by a thin walkway connecting the two — allowed the general admission crowd on the floor almost unheard-of proximity to the band all night.

Via that close-up look, you could note Bono’s wincing at various parts of the night, likely result of the bronchitis he’s allegedly been battling through as the band started its Windy City residency. He didn’t miss many notes, but he didn’t swing at all of them, either, letting the crowd fill in the gap, which it was happy to do.

The flip side of the thematic coin — the loss — could be noted in the new tunes from the now-legendary (for better or worse) “Songs of Innocence” album. After a four-song kickstart featuring the “Innocence” song with the closest to a classic U2 hook (“The Miracle (Of Joey Ramone)”) combined with three songs with actual classic U2 hooks (“Out of Control,” “Vertigo” and “I Will Follow”), the band slowed it way down with two of the most autobiographical songs (at least for Bono) from the new record, “Iris (Hold Me Close)” and “Cedarwood Road,” the former Bono’s lament for his mother who passed when he was 14, the latter an homage to the family home that spawned his love for what would be both his chosen profession and lifelong obsession, music.

And it’s with those two songs that the production side of the show kicked into high gear. The opening four songs were a reminder that this is still a four-piece band that will rock your face off if you give them the chance.

The back half of the first set featured the genius visual elements the team brought into play via the giant video “wall” that stretched across the length of the venue from main to satellite stage. The wall raised and lowered and displayed amazing treatments depending on who was playing on, near, under or within it.

My all-time favorite live U2 song, “Until The End of The World,” closed that first set, with the tremendous visual of The Edge playing inside the video wall’s confines, with Bono singing on the satellite stage, whilst his image and his antics — reaching out to virtually grasp his guitar genius partner, spitting water at him, essentially underscoring a certain god complex — brought the frontman’s legendary (and self-described) megalomania to projected perfection.

And then when all eyes were focused on the technological spectacle of song, down fluttered torn pages from books, more symbolism for the downfall of the world (the shard I caught was from a copy of Dante’s “Divine Comedy”…have fun with that metaphor), closing out the set in epic Irish and Italian fashion.

A one-song intermission, bringing to virtual life the Johnny Cash-sung “The Wanderer” on the video wall (I might have been the only one on my side of the floor who cheered, but so be it), and the band was back, all of them within the wall for the new album song “Invisible.” The wall’s capabilities literally shone through again, with the video treatment revealing then hiding each band member as the song progressed.

Combine the wall’s importance with the impressive PA rig that ringed the entire arena with barely noticeable, yet sufficiently effective speakers that made it sound like sound was coming from everywhere at once, and it was easily the most well-thought out and executed production I’ve ever seen…and this is the seventh time I’ve seen this band.

Yet, this band never seems to forget the human element, especially in the three-song set that can’t be described as anything other than…sexy. “Even Better Than The Real Thing” into “Mysterious Ways” then a gathering on the satellite stage and bringing up a young woman bearing a Costa Rican flag, who then turned into their Meerkatographer for “Angel of Harlem.” The band had fun, the girl had fun (even though she shot most of the song in “tallscreen” which translated horizontally on the video wall”) and the crowd completely dug it.

After two more “Innocence” songs, the pain theme cycled back around, this time via “Bullet The Blue Sky.” Again, it was another song that found Bono up and down the room, raging against and due to the narrative, wincing visibly both with microphone and star-spangled bullhorn, shouting into the wind about the tragedies of Baltimore and Ferguson and Charleston. And it made me wonder — and ultimately tear up for him and for us — what it must be like to sing that song 28 years in, knowing and loving America as an idea as much as a country, and seeing that we just keep inventing new ways to injure ourselves as both an idea and a country.

It made me hurt, standing there in a crowd of strangers, knowing how much pain there must be in that room, including mine, not to mention ours at a nation. I was in very real danger of being crushed by it, mentally and spiritually…and then three very familiar chiming chords pulled me from the depth. 

“Pride (In The Name of Love),” reminding once again to never underestimate music’s ability to rescue us.

 The crowd was back in Bono and company’s hands for the hit parade that followed, from “Beautiful Day” to “Bad” to “With Or Without You,” and the encore set of “City of Blinding Lights,” “Where The Streets Have No Name” and the Paul McGuinness-dedicated “One,” the vocal duties for which Bono handed over to the crowd, and it delivered in spades.

It was a night I needed: I traveled to Chicago by myself, had several random days meeting new friends in the beer biz as well as just seeing sights as the whims came up. As a music fan, it was great to just let go and be a fan, meet people who like me had traveled from elsewhere and were thrilled to be in the room. We yelled, we sang, we sweated, we listened.

I met another 6’7 gentleman and his family from Cleveland, his wife and three teenage daughters who were just as geeked about seeing U2 as Dad was. We stood side-by-side, probably to the chagrin of several dozen fans around us, and let the music and the experience transport us to our younger days.

The last time I saw that band in that building, it was 10 years ago, and we weren’t nearly as invested in attempting to capture the experience via our flip phones. Concertgoing in 2015 is a very different beast, with 20,000 smartphones trying (and most likely failing) to chronicle the process. Who knows what that’s gonna look like 10 years hence?

But if that band is in that building a decade from now, and a certain 13-year-old will deign to go with me, I’ll be back.

 Thanks, Chicago. And thanks Bono, Edge, Adam and Larry. Be well and travel safe.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Thanks, Dave

To the best of my knowledge, my grandmother Imogene Walker — my mom’s mom — never met a celebrity in her life.

She spent most of her 88 years in a tiny red house on a hill outside Carmi, Illinois, raising three kids, taking care of my farmer grandfather and the workers who’d help out as the seasons came and went, doing her crosswords and reading her magazines.

And she was as plugged-in to the world as any person I knew.

She understood pop culture (even if she didn’t like most of it), she understood politics (even if she didn’t like most of it), she understood the power of mass media, because she was an unabashed consumer living out on the Big Prairie.

If it hadn’t been for our annual family vacations to that tiny red house in the country, I wouldn’t be a writer today. I absolutely believe that.

Growing up, my grandmother and I would have long talks about whatever was interesting me that year: from Star Wars to comic books to sports to you name it.

All those interests were looping around the media landscape that was ever-present in their house, because the TV was on all the time and magazines and newspapers were everywhere. Those one-to-two-week stays outside Carmi were a bit of a refuge, because I knew I could dive into a virtually endless stack of reading materials and the time would pass by.

So there’s an additional layer of sadness this week as David Letterman signs off from his amazing television career, because it was in that living room on the hill outside Carmi that I first discovered Dave, in the late ‘70s as a guest on Carson’s Tonight Show, then his short-lived NBC morning show (which I’m pretty sure I saw the debut of), then him kicking off his version of Late Night following his hero Johnny.

I picked up the Letterman fandom from there, with the meat of his NBC career happening while I was in college, then jumping to CBS and his Late Show not long after I relocated to Nashville for good. I remember the drama of who’d be Carson’s successor, and was always on Team Letterman.

Obviously, television watching patterns ebb and flow as you go through your 20s, 30s and 40s, and over the past decade or so, yes, if I was watching TV at all past 10pm, it was to watch Stewart and Colbert, both of whom will also change their availability this year. But Letterman was always there, always present when something happened in the world that needed a razor or blunt instrument taken to it, and even as he got grumpier and grayer, his take on the world got that much sharper.

So as Dave gets ready to flip the switch of his genius television career to the off position, you have to forgive those of us who’ve been fans. We’re losing access, however fleeting a late-night television program can be considered “access,” to somebody who’s been a constant for us for more than 35 years. It’s a tough pill to swallow.

There’s been the predicted cavalcade of stars and tributes and montages and moments as we hurtle toward Wednesday’s final broadcast, but my favorite moment from the show came not from Dave, but from his longtime sidekick/musical director/fellow genius Paul Shaffer. Starting with the four-piece known as the World’s Most Dangerous Band and wrapping up with the CBS Orchestra, Paul has been such a constant at Letterman’s side, crafting the perfect walk-in moments and backing the Who’s Who of the Who’s Who of the musical world. Say what you will about the viability of the institution itself, but a case can be made for Paul Shaffer as a member of the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame.

Shaffer and the WMDB put together what they refused to call a “music video” for a Late Night prime-time special in 1985, with an original called “Dress Cool.” Does it hold up, sonically or visually, 30 years later? Don’t be silly. But it was intended to be silly, much like most of content that came out of Letterman’s orbit over the past three decades. It didn’t take itself too seriously (or seriously at all), and I think that’s what most of us liked about Letterman. He, and the supremely talented people who worked with him, knew this stuff wasn’t necessarily going to change the world, and if it didn’t, well, there was always tomorrow to try again.

After tomorrow, it’ll be somebody else’s turn to try. Thanks, Dave.



Wednesday, December 31, 2014

It's not you, it's me, 2014...I think we should see other years...

I feel like this was the first year EVER that I actually accomplished a resolution, that of spending more time with the Small Land Mammal. And my life was markedly better for it. I’ll redirect, yet again, the wish for him to be happy and healthy and for our relationship to continue to flourish.

Meanwhile, on other fronts and for so many people I know, 2014 was far less gentle than it could have been. It’s easy to sit here under the rubble of the previous 365 days and say we’re going to arise, dust ourselves off and start the new year with a clean slate. It’s far harder to actually do it.

But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. And that’s what I’m going to try to do.

If you’ve spent any time with me, you likely know that my default position tends to run toward the doom and gloom. My primary goal for the upcoming solar cycle is to yank myself out of that rut. In no way shape or form does that mean I’m going to completely transform from Eeyore into Tigger. 

But I meant it the other day when I wrote that even the slightest shift into positive thinking can dramatically alter situations, starting with the ones in your head. And so that’s where I’m going to start.

Good things are gonna happen. And the good things already in motion are gonna become great. I’m going to keep saying that to myself as often as I need, and my other hope is that it will happen for you as well.

“Be bold and mighty forces will come to your aid.” Goethe said that. Happy new year, ever’body.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

#WMH3

I've not written a lot about my abrupt entry into fatherhood. The reason is fairly simple: the two weeks between when I learned about Will's existence and his arrival into the world was the darkest fortnight of my life, and I don't really gain anything looking back on it.

August 24, 2011 was the scariest, heart- and gut-wrenching, and then supremely joyous day of my life.

Many of you know I am adopted. My wonderful parents, Don and Kathy Hendrickson, never kept that information from me, and so I've never really been driven to find out who my biological parents are. I have a handful of information that I'm able to reflect on, and thank those two people for giving me a chance at life.

But here's one of the upshots of that situation: I had never looked at a person before and known that I shared a biological link to them. I'd never knowingly seen my features on another human being.

One of the side effects was that I really couldn't discern who people (mainly newborns) looked like in comparison to their biological relatives. It was just a muscle that I'd never really used.

But on that late August afternoon, after all the fear and the uncertainty, after the rushing downtown to Baptist Hospital (and I don't give one whit what name's on the door...it will always be Baptist Hospital to me), after a very no-nonsense but supportive nurse helped me scrub in to the NICU for the first of what would be close to 50 times, I walked up to an incubator, gazed upon this tiny, ropy form wearing a diaper no wider than three of my fingers...and I saw my nose.

That's my nose. There's a respirator taped to his face, an umbilical IV, a handful of other monitors strapped onto his minuscule form...but that's my nose.

I knew two things in that moment: that he was going to be OK, and that I was no longer alone in the universe. Here, in this plexiglass womb, with doctors and nurses dedicated to making sure he would leave that environment as quickly as possible, was proof that I existed.

I know this is a lot to put on a kid, especially one who showed up 10 weeks early, but he saved my life that day. He gave me purpose and direction and a reason to put two feet on the floor and one foot in front of the other. I'm not saying I haven't stumbled (a lot) in the past 36 months, but he's the reason I get back up, dust myself off, splash some water on my face and try to move forward again.

So here's to my shaggy-haired, lanky-limbed, smiley-faced, tomato-lovin' super-sweet boy. Being your Daddy is the best thing I will ever do. Happy birthday, Will!

Wednesday, November 07, 2012

The Next Fourscore Years

We've all been asked -- some of us very recently and with a surprising amount of rancor -- if we're better off than we were four years ago.

If you can answer that simply and succinctly, I'd wager you haven't had a very interesting life over the past four years.

Mine got very interesting 14 1/2 months ago. And so today I struggle to express not so much what I want from the next four years, but what I want from the next 80+ years. For my small land mammal.

I want him to grow up in a country of which he can be proud.

I want him to grow up in a country where acquiring a good education isn't viewed (or priced) as a luxury.

I want him to live in a country where he knows he can speak his mind, publish his thoughts, question his leaders, worship as he chooses, and that his birthplace isn't as focused on the "under God" phrase of a 31-word pledge as it is with that pledge's final stanza, "with liberty and justice for all."

I want him to live in a country where he can marry the person he loves without hesitation or restriction.

I want him to live in a country where national debt remains a national issue, not recast as an individual financial issue. You know, in the way a catastrophic illness or accident would be an actual individual financial issue.

I want him to live in a country that has safe streets, roads and bridges, and have fewer means of destruction that deny others in different parts of the world safe streets, roads and bridges.

I want him to live in a world that, yes, recognizes there is evil living in it. But also one that recognizes words are ultimately far more effective in diffusing that evil than guns and bombs.

I want him to live in a world where fear and panic have their place, as a means to spur individuals to action, not as a wedge to keep an entire populace on edge, much less as a way to make money or get a gig.

I want him to live in a world where reason and logic and respect and science and art and music and knowledge and, yes, freedom are treasured, and to have the country of his birth lead that charge.

And I want him to see the original, non-futzed with Star Wars movies in a theater, box of popcorn at the ready.

I don't know how much of this I'm going to get to see happen. I don't care if this makes me naive. But there's one thing the presence of this tiny human has given me, and that's hope. I would be remiss -- strike that, I'd be a bad dad -- if I didn't acknowledge that hope and help try to make it real.

Forward.

Friday, June 29, 2012

BLUE SOUL PATCHED

A remembrance in six parts...

1. Creator of note
The impulse to create grows out of a sense that there’s something missing in the world.

It doesn’t have to be something big. It doesn’t have to intend to right the planet’s wrongs. It just has to emerge from an observation that something needs to be addressed, and only you can do that.

Yvonne Smith, Kate O'Neill and Karsten
Soltauer at the opening of Yazoo Taproom,
March 2010. I'm in the picture inasmuch
as I'm behind the camera.
Karsten Soltauer was a creator.

2. Questioner of people
He would have operated just fine as a journalist, as well. He asked some of the most penetrating questions, even of people he met moments before. And he was dogged in his pursuit of getting you to tell your story.

It was Karsten’s way of tapping the essence of a person, and it was done without guile or agenda. He simply and genuinely wanted a better sense of what made you tick. It helped him fill in the gaps of where you could fit in his creation, all the while you were puzzling over this intensely curious man with the vividly blue soul patch.

3. Hugger of friends
He insisted on giving you a hug. He must have rebuffed a half-dozen of my attempts at a handshake before I got the clue that when you greeted Karsten, you were going to hug him. It was part of his ritual, his connection with you, and it became something you looked forward to when you came into contact with him.

4. Lover of Kate
Theirs was an interesting combination to glimpse from afar and up close. She with the pragmatic, data-loving, multi-lingual intellect infused with a liberal dash of whimsy; he with the visual, spatial, emotion-gathering ability to draw out important concepts and redirect meaning with clarity. They were complimentary of each other, and complementary to each other. They are the human embodiment of the relationship between the colors blue and orange.

5. Respecter of time
His studio was his sanctuary, be it when he was in creation mode or when entertaining guests during his and Kate’s now-legendary parties. You entered said sanctuary at your own risk, because more likely than not, you’d end up revealing something about yourself, be it to Karsten alone or to others gathered downstairs, as part of the price of entrance.

But if you took a few moments to look around at the walls, at the items and images and totems that served to inspire Karsten, you picked up on a few things. One, there was a very definite sense of order, as items were neatly placed on the walls, grouped very carefully. And two, many of the images were from times gone by, not specifically retro or antique, but more from a sense of wanting to learn from the past.

Combine that with the house the studio resides within being one of the oldest in Germantown, and you get the sense of Karsten as a man without a time, neither comfortable nor uncomfortable with the age he lived in, but rather belonging to all time at once. As he does now.

6. Keeper of forever
Creativity itself is an ephemeral process; to tell somebody you can describe it easily is to lie to them. I’ve spent more than 20 years around musically creative people, attempting to translate their process and their output to a general public. Trying to encapsulate creativity of visual art is an even more complex (and perhaps futile) pursuit. But it seems to come down to taking something that means something to you and expressing it in a way that means something to somebody else.

The following is the closing slice of a poem from another visual artist friend of mine:

From “Fingerprint” by Kim Thomas:
If I lay you down on my heart
and cut around the edges
and then give it to you,
I have given you the part of me
that is shaped like you.
Full of breath and spirit,
I am calmed and stilled to have completed today.

It’s emblematic of what Karsten did for so many of us…take a piece of himself and shape it into something we will keep with us forever.

I wrote this Tuesday in a far more public, far less personal space, but I wish to say it again: Yours is a beautiful, curious spirit separated from us far too soon. We will carry it with us always, and will never see the color blue the same.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Fans and their favorites are in harmony at CMA Music Fest

(Original USATODAY.com link)

By Lucas Hendrickson, Special for USA Today

NASHVILLE – One of the most welcome changes at the 41st CMA Music Festival was out of anybody's control: The weekend weather was gorgeous. Country fans descended in droves, and the big stars and up-and-comers turned out — even if they weren't feeling their best.

Lady Antebellum
(Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY)
Ailing Lambert is a trouper: Miranda Lambert says the nausea-delayed start of Thursday's Ran Fan club party had nothing to do with a) overindulging after the CMT Music Awards the night before, or b) pregnancy. ("We've got seven dogs, that's enough.") The Country Music Association's reigning female vocalist soldiered through a handful of songs for followers. "We don't have a job if they don't do what they do all year long — buying our records and coming to see our shows," she says.

It's five o'clock (shadow) somewhere: Rumble-voiced fan favorite Josh Turner is anxiously awaiting Tuesday's release of fifth album Punching Bag, featuring first single Time Is Love, which he played for USA TODAY in an exclusive acoustic performance. The advent of new music isn't the only thing that can make Turner anxious. That honor goes to monitoring his facial stubble. "It actually kind of wears me out to try to keep it this way," he says. "When I'm clean-shaven, my face gets irritated, and when I grow it out too long, it gets itchy and exposes gray hairs. So I have to keep it this same length all the time."

Sunday, June 10, 2012

CMA Music Festival: It's not always rocking

(Original USATODAY.com link)

By Lucas Hendrickson, Special for USA TODAY

NASHVILLE – The spotlight for the nightly CMA Music Festival concerts at LP Field shines on some of the biggest names in the genre, such as Saturday night's re-emergence of superstar Faith Hill alongside performances by nouveau outlaw Eric Church, fresh-faced multi-instrumentalist Hunter Hayes and Bonnaroo-bound country legend Kenny Rogers, among others.

Yes, the big show frequently suffers from the stop-and-go nature of a television taping, but for the most part, it's about the music.

That's not as much the case during the day. To be sure, five stages around the festival's grounds are pumping out live music as quickly as they can turn artists around, but there's also a sense that CMA Fest is simultaneously a four-day "lifestyle marketing" experiment.

Mostly gone are the days of elaborate single-artist booths in the festival's main exhibition hall, replaced by what's left of major label groups rotating their rosters through the days, basic cable networks bringing their reality show stars to highly targeted groups of fans, and even long-established clothing brands hoping to latch on to the next big rising musical act.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

CMA Music Fest showcases top stars, little-known songwriters

(Original USATODAY.com link)

By Lucas Hendrickson, Special for USA TODAY

NASHVILLE - You know something at CMA Music Festival is different when the neon-green t-shirt-clad "fun team" volunteers can't give away artist-emblazoned mini-fans.

Usually, they can't give 'em away fast enough. But with sunny skies and temperatures in the low-80s Friday afternoon, downtown Nashville was downright pleasant for CMA Fest's second full day.

The favorable temps continued to pair well with the subtle changes the Country Music Association made in the footprint of the annual fan gathering, what with additional music stages added in the main exhibit hall of the Nashville Convention Center, Hall of Fame Park across the street from Bridgestone Arena (home of the Nashville Predators and Wednesday's CMT Music Awards), and at the south end of LP Field, where the big-name laden nightly concerts take place.

Merge that with cover tunes blaring out of almost every storefront and honky tonk along Broadway, and the festival exists in a near-constant wash of sound. And the tens of thousands who pack Nashville's downtown streets each June like it that way.

Whole bunch of nothin'
Carrie Underwood
(Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY)
Pretty much from the moment Carrie Underwood stepped onto the American Idol stage in 2005, her life has been in whirlwind mode. The recording, promotion and touring cycle, meshed with near-annual trips to awards shows (not to mention her seemingly now-standing gig alongside Brad Paisley as hosts of the CMA Awards), and a public courtship and marriage to NHL star Mike Fisher gives the Oklahoma native impetus to shut it all down when she gets the chance. "I do nothing," Underwood says when asked what she does to decompress. "I stay home in my pajamas, I get together with friends and hang out, definitely trying to find time to spend with my friends and my husband." That works a lot better now that Fisher is a member of the Predators (thanks to a 2011 trade from the Ottawa Senators), but the cyclone will spin up for both members of the couple sooner than they probably wish, as Carrie heads out on an ambitious tour in support of her new record Blown Away (including her first dates in the United Kingdom) and Fisher returns to the ice.


Friday, June 08, 2012

CMA Music Festival joins fans with country's biggest stars

(original USATODAY.com link)

By Lucas Hendrickson, Special for USA TODAY

NASHVILLE – For all the structural changes to the CMA Music Festival (reconfiguring the festival's footprint, moving stages around, reworking the rules for fans seeking autographs), the most welcome alteration, at least for Thursday's first full day, was something out of everybody's control.

The weather was drop dead gorgeous.

Which was a welcome change from years past, when it seemed the musical deities decided Middle Tennessee didn't deserve two very different gatherings happening the same weekend, and vented their wrath in the form of quadruple-digit humidity and surface-of-the-sun like temperatures.

Country music fans descended on the genre's home base in droves for the 41st time, and the music's biggest stars, up-and-comers and legacy artists came right along with them. Even if they weren't feeling their very best.

"We've got seven dogs. That's enough."
Miranda Lambert
(Robert Deutsch, USA TODAY)
We're going to take Miranda Lambert at her word when she says the nausea-delayed start of her Ran Fan fan club party was due neither to (a) over-indulging after the CMT Music Awards the night before nor (b) pregnancy. The two-time reigning CMA female vocalist of the year soldiered her way through a handful of songs for fans at Fontanel, the former home of country legend Barbara Mandrell, now one of Nashville's newest multi-use entertainment venues.