Sunday, December 20, 2015

In Defense of Kooky Small Towns: The New Media and the Rush to Judgement

A short time ago, the story circulated of a small North Carolina town, Woodland, and its zany residents.  They refused to allow a solar power farm in their sleepy hamlet between the coast and the piedmont.  Among other complaints expressed by the townies were that the solar panels would cause cancer and would “suck up all the sun’s energy.” 

I admit that I too had a laugh at statements which revealed such a stunning lack of scientific knowledge.  Scientific ignorance, and the increasing denial of science (often in the face of mountains of evidence), are issues close to my heart.  The stakes may be no less than a return to a kind of Dark Ages.  By the way, this ignorance and denialism cuts clear across the political spectrum… and even the more educated among us are not immune. 

But despite the laughable clickbait, even then, I assumed there was more to this story than the opinions of what were, basically, just two people.  Two kooky residents with backwards ideas on science.  Two residents who were, at least, politically engaged (when was the last time most people reading this spoke at a town council meeting?).

This was a story of loss:  loss of the rural south, loss of a way of life.  Because I can’t put it in any better words than that, I’ll quote from one of several follow-up articles, this one written by David Roberts on Vox:
"It's easy to mock goofy and irrational of fears about solar farms, but they are only an expression of deeper anxieties. The land that Woodland is being asked to rezone is currently zoned residential and agricultural. Rezoning it to allow solar panels amounts to admitting that it's currently going to waste. People aren't going to be living or farming there. The town is not going to grow — not now, not any time soon."

But besides the complex issues specific to this story, this tale also speaks to the wider issue of today’s media and how we ingest, and digest, it.  In today’s instantaneous society, we should all be careful when we get our news from social media, and the web in general. 
Briefly, this is how media works these days: 
  1. Someone posts an article (sometimes barely more than a meme) crafted to be as clickbait-y as possible.  "Can you believe what these people said/did?!?" "Look at this shocking video (with no context provided)!!!"
  2. The original story/meme spreads like wildfire. 
  3. People react with outrage and/or derision.
  4. More memes are made; previous opinions are verified; echo-chambers are filled; nothing is done.

In what can sometimes even be worse than inaction, mini-movements crop up, protests are begun -- action is DEMANDED! -- based on little more than one or two cleverly constructed memes.

This is not to dismiss the value of the internet and social media in calling to light truly important issues and injustices.  Unjustified killings of unarmed (mostly minority) citizens by law enforcement has been an all-too-common occurrence.  But it probably wouldn’t be an issue discussed much outside of inner city community organizations were it not for the prevalence of cell-phone videos and repeated postings of them online.  However, this is a case where time and further investigation revealed a troubling pattern.

And there’s the rub.  Time.  In the speed-of-light world we now live in, anyone can post anything, anyone can say anything, and it’s instantly available to everyone.  That’s great in many ways.  It allows for many voices to enter the discourse.  It equals the playing field.  But there’s no filter save what we each choose to put in place ourselves; and that filter is all-too-often colored by our preconceptions.

When a news story crops up, an informed populace has always had a responsibility to read objectively, to verify, to seek out other sources, to get the bigger picture.  We have seldom ever taken enough time to do so.  But even less so now, so overwhelming is the tsunami of information that scrolls across our screens with every refresh.

Occasionally, as in this case, the new media does its (vague, undefined) job.  Follow-up stories and opinions -- not all the same -- crop up over the interminable time-course of (gasp!) days.  If you’re patient, you start to get a more complete picture than what the original story/meme presented.  It’s piecemeal journalism, sure, but don’t blame the messengers.  The egalitarian information buffet will give us a lot of choices.  But the job isn’t over.  We have to take it further.

As it has always been (even when there were just three corporate-controlled networks), our job as to gather all the pieces and form a coherent opinion.  Our job isn’t to simply ingest the first bite and move onto the next course.  That’s not a job. That’s simply consuming.

No, North Carolina is not some backwoods derelict inhabited by technophobes.  North Carolina actually ranks fourth in the nation for solar energy (there are three solar farms already in Woodland).  No, 10,000 terrorist immigrants didn’t just come ashore in New Orleans.  Fourteen have, over the entire year.  Families with children, being aided by Christian charities.   

Despite the speed at which information comes our way these days, we all need to slow down, wait a few of what passes for news cycles these days, and form opinions with more reason and information.  Just because information now moves at lightning speed doesn’t means our judgement has to as well. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Mac McCaughan + The Non-Believers w/ Blackball (Nightlight, Chapel Hill, NC, 12/11/15)

Mac McCaughan's new album, Non-Believers, to me sounds closer to his Portastatic catalogue than his Superchunk one.  It's (usually) somewhat mellower, even atmospheric at moments.  Fine by me, as I've been a fan of Portastatic almost as much as 'Chunk over the years.

But knowing his backing band are the members of primordial garage rockers Flesh Wounds, I was curious how they would manage to, well, frankly... rein themselves in.  Flesh Wounds as a band simply explodes on stage.  That kind of energy could simply swamp McCaughan's finely crafted pop tunes.

Short answer:  they do just fine.  And so does Mac.  Restraint by good players really goes a long way, and can be as important as balls-to-the-wall punk. They played 2 sets, the first of which was mostly stuff from the new album, and a few Portastatic tunes.  I LOVED the amped up version of Angels of Sleep.  The second set was, I think, mostly covers (Iggy Pop, Tall Dwarves, Superchunk... would that count as a cover?).  It gave them all a chance to cut loose a little more, and Mac was clearly having fun with the covers. Dan McGee from Spider Bags got up to sing along on one tune.

Speaking of balls-to-the-wall, openers Blackball (from Raleigh, NC & Richmond, VA) brought the primal energy.  Their singer Ericka screams vocals as if her lungs were twice their size... she is pure id.  Intense hardcore from a very tight band.

Some photos, and a couple of videos of Mac's band, follow (yeah yeah another version of Slack Motherfucker).  As you can see, fog machine was stuck in overdrive.

  Mac McCaughan + The Non-Believers...

Monday, November 23, 2015

Diali Cissokho and Kaira Ba – MotorCo, Durham, NC (11/14/15)

I’ve always loved listening to music from other parts of the world; especially Indian, Middle-Eastern, and West and South African.  But I’m far from an expert on these regions’ musical genres and traditions… except perhaps possessing a decent outsider’s knowledge of Indian music, mostly via Bollywood.  I’m just a musically restless soul, always seeking variety. 

However, I seldom take the opportunity to see such music live.  I did make sure to see Kavita Krishnamurti, the famous Bollywood playback singer, perform at Cary’s Diwali celebration a few weeks ago, and that was amazing.  I’ve seen a few local bands that blend in musical elements from other parts of the world.  Despite our scene’s diversity of styles and talent, there aren’t too many opportunities to see truly authentic traditional music, or even pop music, from other countries.  And given the choice, I usually lean towards the indie/pop/garage/whatever (just rock’n’roll) when looking for some live music to check out.  But really, that’s a poor excuse. 

So although they’ve been a part of the local scene for quite a while now, I’m ashamed to say I’d never seen Diali Cissokho and Kaira Ba yet.   Better late than never, I suppose.  I am SO glad I finally went to see them a week ago at Motorco in Durham!  Their recorded music is wonderful, possessing all the things I love about this type of music:   complex percussion, emotive and intense vocals, heavy use of the kora (Cissokho’s signature instrument).  It’s a joy to listen to.  But it’s a completely different experience from their live show. 

Kaira Ba’s live show is, simply, a celebration of music and life, full of energy.  This is in no small part to the many dancers who are part of the show.  Most appear to be friends of the band, co-performers as it were.  They’re clearly familiar with traditional West African styles of dance -- at times graceful and flowing, at times showy and braggadocious, but always joyful.  Eventually, novice dancers get pulled up from the crowd and onto the stage as well, and throughout the show, Diali’s band has the audience pulsing and moving on the floor. 

Seeing Kaira Ba is like attending a party with a few hundred new friends.  Cissokho is returning to his native Senegal for a few weeks.  But he’ll be back, and I believe their next show is scheduled for some time in February.  Do yourself a favor, pencil that in, and don’t wait as long as I did to see them.

Many photos follow; I tried to capture the ebullience of the dancers in addition to the band…

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Dexter Romweber and Crash LaResh at the Kraken (Chapel Hill, NC, 10/3/15)

Driving west from Chapel Hill, halfway to Saxapahaw, if you haven't been there yet, is the wonderful little institution that is The Kraken.  Last Friday night, the punk show I went up to Chapel Hill to see ended early, so I was able to be two places at once.  I head down Highway 54 to check out the other show I had wanted to -- but didn't think I'd be able to -- check out.  And that night, the Kraken and it's small crowd was lucky enough to host the great Dexter Romweber, playing with original Dex Romweber Duo drummer Crash LaResh.

Not from around here, I'd seen Dex play live only once or twice, and only in recent years.  I listened plenty back in the early days of Flat Duo Jets, but was somewhat embarrassed when he told me they had put out something like 17 albums since the first.  Upon moving to the region, I'd heard he was still active locally with the Dex Romweber Duo, but I had no idea!  So on his recommendation, I promptly logged on and got one of his "Duo" albums, "Ruins of Berlin", which I'm listening to as we speak.

The guy's a genius on guitar, burning it up most of the time, or turning it to a slow simmer when needed.  And he still makes a great team with LaResh.  Crash had come down from Norfolk just for the show, and it was the first time they'd played together in a while.  Two guys just bangin' out the rock, and a few standards, with equal aplomb.  Exene Cervenka (X) once said Dexter's music was "hardcore Americana".  Yeah, this show was in its own way as hardcore as the punk/hardcore show (No Love, Mannequin Pussy) I had just come from.

If you're lookin' for an evening of great music in an intimate surrounding, head on down to the Kraken.  Without fail, every show I've seen there has been a down-home good old time.  Photos and a couple of videos below...

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Hopscotch Music Festival Day Three - Saturday Night (Raleigh, NC, 9/12/15)

Closing night of Hopscotch 2015 spanned from old to new, and from one end of the Earth to the other.  It started with legendary L.A. punk band, X.  I'd seen them once before, some 20 years ago.  While the band, and the crowd, have aged significantly since then, the bands ability to kick out the jams has not.  My old punks can rock as good as your young ones!  Exene Cervenka's and John Doe's vocals still have that inexplicable link that is both harmonious and punk as hell.  See below for a video of X performing Motel Room In My Bed, from the classic album, Under the Big Black Sun.

Popped back out of my milieu and into Kings on the way to Deep South (a recurring route at Hopscotch), to see thefacesblur, local musician and multimedia artist Adam Graetz' project.  The visuals Graetz creates go hand-in-hand with the deep, slightly dark sounds he puts out.   It makes for a stimulating and relaxing show, if those are at all simultaneously possible.  Jump to the bottom to see a video from thefacesblur's performance at Kings

One of the non-locals I'd heard about that I made a point of seeing was Warehouse.  This Atlanta band reminds me another Georgia band from quite some time ago, Pylon, both in their jarring, jazzy angular instrumentation and Elaine Edenfield's growled vocals.

After a very tight and tense (in a good way) show, it was time to cut loose.  The closing three-band bill at the Pour House promised to be free-wheeling and high-flying:  Birds of Avalon, Zack Mexico, and King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.  The line was long , even for VIP wristbands.  Seemed a lot of others had the same idea I had.

Luckily, I managed to get in in time to catch about half of Birds of Avalon's set, but they really lit the fuse for the night.  I've recently come to appreciate this band for the power and energy (and talent) they bring to the stage.  Their crunchy guitars and keys, Velvety-drones, and big-rock sound had the packed house hopping.

Birds of Avalon...
A few days before Hopscotch, I gave my "shows to see" recommendations, and they were:
- Zack Mexico.

Yeah, that was it.  And man-oh-man, did they live up to it.  I'm biased:  they're probably my favorite NC band.  But if this night was any indication, that club just gained a lot of new members.  Frontman John Saturley had been across the country for months, and the band had only recently re-united for a few rehearsals in the days before Hopscotch.  But you'd never have known it.

The crowd was INTO it, and Saturley was egging them on.  From the opener to the always excellent closer, Meric Clanson, people -- including bandmembers -- crowdsurfed, jumped on and off stage, passed instruments around... it was truly a communal vibe.  Everyone was part of the show.  Towards the end, the band donned safety gear as Saturley smashed a guitar, then passed the broken instrument through the crowd.  Cymbals and guitars "crowdsurfed" earlier, the crowd "playing" them along with the band. It was a madhouse of controlled fun and fury... without a doubt (and my biased ass isn't the only one to have said this) THE best set of Hopscotch 2015.

See below for a video of their last song, which despite the horrible sound quality from my camera (plug into a decent speaker set and it's slightly better), still captures the fun and intensity of this set.

The crowd at the Pour House waiting for Zack Mexico...
Zack Mexico...
Watering the band (note streaks of water)...
Much crowdsurfing was done this night, by both people and musical instruments, each in various stages of disarray...
Derek Torres (T0W3RS) takling in Zack Mex...
Guitar, mid-smash, levitating onstage...
I myself was rather spent after the sensory overload of Zack Mexico's set.  But King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, all the way from Australia, made a perfect coda for the night, and the festival.  A 70's-influenced garage band from Melbourne, I'm not sure if they expected this kind of reception in sleepy Raleigh, NC.  But the crowd were riding high.  The crowdsurfing continued unabated -- even moreso -- and their great visuals gave the ongoing party a decidedly more psychedelic edge.  By the end, no one wanted it to stop.

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard...
Nice tripod, dude! (I wanna see those photos)...
Craig Reed (Younger Brother Productions) rides the wave...
I think I see Jesus in here...
Those are feet in the air (to the left), btw...
Now THIS was the party I was looking for to end Hopscotch, and it definitely left me anticipating next year.  Hopscotch 2015 full of pleasant surprises and only a few mild disappointments.  But above all it was, as always, diverse as all get-out.  It's the shining light of this festival, and they just keep knocking it out of the park every year. Congrats to Greg Lowenhagen, Nathan Price, and the rest of the gang for another great one.