Thursday, March 27, 2008

How Everyone I Know Feels

Monday night I put my head beneath the sheets to batten down all hatches for the sickness to come. And come it did, with all the perks thereof. Now, a few days later, I have finally summoned the wherewithal to check my messages. I perused a few pages of folks I know, and was reminded of what a blessing it is to work beside my co-laborers, and of that for which I must strive.

I am a coffee-monger and bard-in-training among the talents of both Rob Laliberte and Britta Adams. These two wonderful people are songwriters around whom I feel that I "grew up" as a writer, of songs and otherwise. Britta is one of the best female vocalists I know of - reaching for a par with her heroines like Patty Griffin and EmmyLou Harris. Her ability to hold a pure note without vibrato until it makes your heart ache is something I strive for (even with a strained, somewhat sand-like male voice). Rob's ceaseless creativity ebbs from an endless spring. He loves rhythm and mismatched chords laid down in layers of Pollock paint.

Both of these guys like to dabble, as well. And they seem to find success wherever they do so. Britta recently got into woodworking with a gorgeous box she made for a wine bottle, seemingly on a whim. Rob takes amazing photos and paints abstract pieces and does graphic design work. His latest project that I've seen finished is Greg Adkins' new album, Chase the Western Sky. They're both multi-instrumentalists and they both make a better cappuccino than I do (which isn't hard, but I'm still impressed).

I feel like I've spent a lot of time churning out an astonishing anthology of bad material and discovering a few cloudy gems in the coal seams. After bothering Britta and Rob for a while, saying I need to hear what they've been up to lately (about which they're always rather irritatingly vague), and finally deciding to visit MySpace pages to discover for myself, I see a geode's worth contained in a few songs upon which they've spent countless hours. It humbles me when people like this tell me that my music is worth a listen. I wish I could say that it always spurs me onward to new heights and horizons, but often I am not quiet enough to hear the grace which whispers possibilities to me.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Big Take

Kat and I just caught a few minutes of Oprah's new show on ABC, The Big Give. And I'm a little unsettled.

To be quite honest, I'm not certain why. To all appearances, the premise of the show seems very selfless. It is surely a level above simple philanthropy, as the show claims that the contestants do not know that Oprah will give the winner - the last person left after all others are sent home - $1 million. I don't particularly think that people who realize that they are contestants, would be so naive as to believe that they weren't competing in a contest. And anyone who has seen or heard of Oprah's talk show (specifically when she decides to give away a car to every audience member) knows that something exciting (though, perhaps, somewhat materialistic) is scrawled noisily into the epilogue. But, let us leave that aside for the moment. We shall give them the benefit of the doubt, and assume that the contestants were blissfully caught unawares by this minutest of details.

Perhaps what leaves me nonplussed is the brassy, dented trumpet-bell ring of the television tubes and speakers, parading the story of this giving into every home and hovel. It does not seem to walk the line of "not [letting] your left hand know what your right hand is doing." I have walked along with and been humble by the company of too many people that would fall under the Western-hued label "unsung heroes" to be wowed by giving that clanks loudly, a roll of quarters in the temple treasury. I am no longer inspired very much by the publication of thinly-spread selflessness. But let us leave this too aside.

What is starkly absent from the show is the wrestling. No, not the spandex-clad, testosterone-vomiting annals of WWE, but the wrestling of Good Samaritans. I am in awe of a giver who is deeply baptized in the muddy waters of a needy mans troubles. I am amazed at Jodi's husband, who married her even though she acquired AIDS at the hands of a rapist, and has been her caregiver as those around her have watched her earthly frame crumble (see Andrew Peterson's song Queen of Iowa for lyrical exposition). My world quakes when Tammy learns to speak to Fiona, who is blind and deaf, and Fiona's world of shimmering faith is opened to those of us who cannot grope past her muted English. "Love thy neighbor as thyself" becomes ineffably real in the playing out of these tales. But when a person races from gift to gift, a veritable bar-fly giver, the clink of cheap glass lets me know that this is not necessarily Waterford Crystal.

Oprah's show is undoubtedly one of the most popular things on television right now. Prime Time has brought us a great American story that goes down like a vitamin shrouded in cheesy mashed potatoes. But I don't know how well I can swallow the rape of every virtue, from sex to selflessness, by the One Enemy. I leave you with a lyric.

      "...but I knew you
only as I had dressed you up
in garments of philanthropy
and moralism,

but in the moonlight, I saw clearly..."

-Arthur Alligood, Letter to Grace

Monday, March 17, 2008

Book Review: Andrew Peterson

Andrew Peterson reminds me of carpet. In squares. When I was in elementary school, storytime always began with the teacher telling us to go grab a carpet square from the stack in the corner. As I read On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness, Andy’s first novel in the Wingfeather Saga, I could see him standing in front of me in Ms. Smally’s class at Emmett Field, spinning a yarn with gusto from the heart of an old sea dog. The setting draws you into a world that is not unlike the world of my favorite Final Fantasy game (except Andrew’s is much less prone to geekiness). You can smell the cheesy chowder mumbling into a rollicking glorious glop and hear the mournful and joyous melodies of the sea dragons. And as you walk into Books & Crannies with the Igiby children, you can feel that slightly disquieting bookstore air that lulls you into a wakefulness beyond sleep in the mysterious zig-zagging shelves, surrounding you with the whispering voices of writers long dead or disappeared.

After following Andrew’s music for several years and watching him grow as a writer and a musician, I waited on pins and needles for this book, biting my nails and pacing a rut in the floor. So when the chance came to review the novel, I vaulted from my rut (several feet deep by this time) and put my nose about as far into its pages as I could get it. And so, dear reader, here we are…
One of my favorite aspects of On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness is that there is no shortage of possible references to Andrew’s family in the Igiby clan, whom we follow on their sometimes alarming but adventurous adventures in the little town of Glipwood. You can sense his understanding of the precarious, hazardous, and extremely rewarding nature of raising kids and loving one’s spouse. I, for one, am challenged to identify with finding adventure in the everyday and meaning in the mundane. Perhaps I am challenged to see, as Chesterton said, that “having a nose is more comic even than having a Norman nose.” The fierce integrity of the Igibys and their tenacious love for each other and for the protection of the mysterious Jewels of Anniera is as challenging as it is riveting. I am inspired to remember the pearls of great price in my own life. Andy’s sense of humor does not fail to make a grandiose appearance either, as drawings of toothy cows and side-splitting footnotes about “Snot Wax” and “Ships and Sharks” smatter the pages. I also giggled scandalously at words like “meep,” “thwap,” and “flabbit,” which reminded me why my favorite poem is Jabberwocky, by Lewis Carroll.

I really did not come to this book expecting a tale that was geared toward children of all ages, but it has further muddied the categorical waters of what defines a “children’s tale,” along with works by Tolkien, Chesterton, Lewis, and L’Engle. I also wasn’t aware that these stories were first spun as he told bedtime stories to his kids, but I’m pleasantly not surprised. The narrative is also rife with the idea that the world is more than we see with our eyes, which is something that pervades much of his songwriting, from songs like 'Carolina' on his first album Walk to his later releases Love and Thunder and The Far Country. Complete with illustrations by Justin Gerard of Portland Studios fame, this introductory novel kept me turning pages with a hunger, and I can’t wait to find out what happens in the next one. I’m cheering for the Igibys.

The book comes out tomorrow. And you should buy two copies and give one away.

-Andrew Peterson
-On the Edge of the Dark Sea of Darkness
-The Rabbit Room

Orthodoxy. Chesterton, G. K., Ignatius Press, San Francisco. 1995.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Adventures in a Labyrinth of Books

Book stores rank highly among my favorite places. And not just any book stores. I'm drawn with moth-like interest (some would say unhealthy interest) to book stores that are vast compendiums of adventure and knowledge squished together and crammed unceremoniously into a rather small space, then sorted with diligence during the night by book gnomes (which, thankfully, eat bookworms, else we would lose all our copies of Mortimer Watsonwrickle's Exhaustive List of Nasal Allergies, which is a riveting read). Those people you see behind the counter, wearing sandals and thick framed glasses and riding bikes and taking public transportation, they're only for show! The gnomes do all the hardest work - but they'd never tell you that. It's not for us mere humans to know, so keep it between you and me.

After spending a great deal of my valuable time today sitting and thinking of what book shops are my favorites, I have narrowed the list to two: The Book Eddy and Red House. Red House Books squats unassumingly in the shade of a few deciduous trees in Dothan, Alabama. It is, as you might suppose, a red house. But when you walk in, you are greeted with the sight of shelves of tomes reaching from floor to ceiling, directly in front of you. How can someone actually accomplish the sorting of all this?! you wonder to yourself. The answer is, they didn't. It's the book gnomes.

Then, you turn a corner and begin to wander through what used to be someone's living room. If you happen to meet someone else in the aisle, one of you is going to have to turn back. And if you're a stupendously wide person, you dare not come at all, for fear that you'll never leave. You will make it past the classics and through a doorway into the children's section, where the shelves do not go all the way to the ceiling, but the walls still do. Ahh, you think. This is tamer. I can feel in control here. But be not deceived, my unsuspecting fellow bibliophile. As you turn left, you will find yourself assaulted on all sides by a vast array of history, poetry, nonsense, adventure, theology, some more nonsense, romance, romantic adventure, more classics, classical poetry, poetic theology, and some more surreptitiously placed nonsense. If you look hard, you'll also find self-help books, but most good book stores do not stock these. Heavens! At this rate, you'll be lucky to find your way out of Red House without slaying a dragon or sailing a ship or walking amongst strange outlandish creatures the likes of which you've never seen.

Then there's The Book Eddy. True to its name, it is where the swirls of literary motion collect behind a stone as Knoxville's collective library tumbles from its hands. Typewriters perch in the window and stare curiously at you from under their paper-roller brows. A black cat wanders the aisles and purrs about your feet. You feel that you have walked into someone's subconscious. Perhaps that of an eccentric history professor. To your right, shelves of books extend as far as the eye can detect. I still haven't been to either end of that store. To the left, past the desk, you walk through a small doorway that seems to have been made for a hobbit. Through it, you find more books, but the tone of the setting has now taken a strange turn. Sure enough, you reach a little alcove, filled to the brim with boxes upon crates upon stacks and stacks of LPs. Dating back to when LPs began to be important, they stand there waiting to be purchased for a few bucks and a history lesson.

And then, there's Books & Crannies, but that's an invention not my own, and you'll have to wait a little while to find out about that one. Specifically, until St. Patrick's Day. Meanwhile, what's your favorite bookstore?

Monday, March 03, 2008

Two Miracle Lion-Tamers

Two uncertain and foolhardy young warriors stood before the Grand Army of Doubt. Of course, this being merely a skirmish, it had not been necessary to muster the entire battalion. Nevertheless, the task seemed a daunting one for our outmatched heroes. But they remembered the magic that the music had wrought upon their own minds, building them to heights and singing a valiant sword-song that was older even than the oldest rivers. They looked at one another in silent understanding, and they began to play...

The bleak rain lashed at our windshield as we crested the topsails of the Cumberland Plateau near Jellico. February was going to have its final say. We plowed through the haunting soundtrack to Into the Wild composed by Eddie Vedder, the tongue-in-cheek honesty of Has Been by William Shatner and Ben Folds, and the fitting rainy synth-driven lullabies of Hats by The Blue Nile. The musical fuel for our journey drove us like Ethan's road-weary Isuzu Rodeo that was our noble steed for the day. Better that than driving Ichabod, who spends much of his time and senility in the driveway.

Ethan and I were glad to walk through the back door and into the smell of a privately-owned local coffeeshop, completely immersed in being a vessel of its own community. Randy and Leann's operation came into full fruition when Brandy fixed us a couple of drinks and we sat down to plan the evening. I would have been a little discouraged at the size of the crowd at 8 o'clock (Ethan and I agreed to actually starting on time - a noble endeavor in this line of work), but they were attentive and appreciative and most gracious to enter into the experience of art with us. After the show though, about fifteen people suddenly showed up and asked us to play a couple songs since they had missed the show. So we got up and played a couple, and then a couple more, and some more after that. All told, we ended up playing two entire shows from 8 until 11 with only about twenty minutes between. I was pleased to find that I wasn't too tired afterward. The second crowd was spearheaded by some college students, a few of whom were from Russia. They asked us if we had any foreign songs, and hilarity ensued, but I'll give you the list, and you can figure it out for yourself.

Some highlights from the show(s):

-Covering "Sullivan Street" by the Counting Crows
-"Dusty and Lefty" jokes
-Playing a second show
-Ethan singing Bob Marley songs with a Russian accent
-Irish Creme macchiato
-All the sound systems working right
-My voice working right
-Finishing with "Pilgrims" as the going-home song

Thanks to everyone who came out to the show at Ground Effects, especially the flabbergastingly enthusiastic party of Russian students. I was struck the other day about how much of a miracle it is when two different people play something together and music happens. Something more than harmony and the tension-and-release of chord resolution is present when music comes together. Something outlandish comes into play. When you get that instrument in your hands or you take a breath to sing, especially with someone else, you are that circus-man in the cage with the tigers. You say they are your friends, and indeed you're right, but you'll always be caught up in love and inches from death.

We'll see you at the April 4th show. To hear 30 seconds of a miracle which I just found online and remembered that I did, you can go here to Greg Adkins' website and click on the big "Listen to Thirty-Three" button down at the bottom. You'll have to skip ahead to hear yours truly, but the whole album is worth a listen (I haven't tired yet of the Monster Burger Blues song), and a purchase.