Lessons Learned at The Lone Bellow

When you are going to write a concert review, take notes and write it the day of the concert, first draft done before you hit the sack that night. I did not do that, despite seeing a fantastic show by The Lone Bellow (and opener Anderson East). Therefore, this is not a concert review. Let’s call it a best of montage.

Lesson One – Have a great opener. Anderson East killed it in his opening set. It was the right blend of throwback soul and swagger to get the crowd into it. His smoky voice had the right rasp, his band had the right blend of funky, mustache sporting characters and his horn section provided the right blend of unique. My toe was tapping and knees bouncing from song one but let’s face it, when you are performing at a nice theater, the challenge is to get people on their feet.

East opened up by giving people the invitation to get up and dance and gently mocking the fact that everyone was sitting down in “fancy theater”. What I have immense respect for is that even though people didn’t stand up, he didn’t give up. He kept cajoling the crowd, sitting down on the front of the stage three songs in “to see what it felt like” and then launching into a wicked version of “Knock on Wood” alla Otis Redding that got everyone on their feet. I loved that he said, before that song started, “I can see that you are still sitting down which just tells me that we are not working hard enough.” I have immense respect for a musician who sees it as his responsibility to get you up and dancing.

Lesson Two – You need to have a frontman. The Lone Bellow is technically a trio, have killer harmonies, and they succeed in large part because everyone can sing. The songs that Brian Elmquist sang lead were fiery (“Heaven Don’t Call Me Home”) and achingly beautiful (“Watch Over Us”). Kanene Pipkin’s voice was showcased on multiple songs and showed why she deserves more time in the spotlight. “Call to War” was spot on perfect for capturing the mood of melancholy and hope in the same song. But Zach Williams is unquestionably the frontman. Part goofball, part raconteur, part Southern Baptist preacher with hands waving in the air, he was the glue that held it all together.

Here is the thing. I have been to many concerts of favorite artists of mine that were fantastic musically but missed something. With the Lone Bellow, I discovered that the something that those concerts were missing was the sense of fun, the anecdotes in between songs that offered connection, the willingness to sacrifice dignity for the sake of a good show. Too often, serious musicians in the realm of singer-songwriter or folk are too stoic in between songs. Williams made me wish I could spend the evening swapping stories with him over beers while his music continued to play in the background.

Lesson Three – Harmony is difficult to replicate but when you are good, you are good. For a couple songs in the middle of the set and one of the encore, the trio huddled around a single mic and ditched the bass and drums. It was in these moments that the full beauty of their harmonies were evident. Their voices rose and fell, intertwined with the grace of teamwork that can only come from a divine gift polished with practice. The accompaniment of resonator guitar, acoustic guitar and mandolin served not to lead the song but to compliment the voices. It is a cliche but they were truly better live than on record. How can you capture the fading in and out of voices that come from walking away from the mic as you continue to sing on a record?

Lesson Four – There are multiple variables that have nothing to do with the music that can affect a concert. The venue, the company, the crowd; it can all make or break a show. Thank God Anderson East got the crowd prepped and on their feet. Thank God for good friends to see a show with and a hot date. Thank God for the funky weird 70’s vibe, Egyptian motif of the Lincoln Theater and the good people of CAPA who  bring fantastic acts there. Columbus is a town that has some of the best touring acts coming through and for that, I am thankful. Now I just need to make more money so I can go to more shows.

Lesson Five – Variety is the spice of life and the fuel for a great show. Ever seen High Fidelity? John Cusack’s rules for a mixtape apply for a concert; “You gotta kick off with a killer, to grab attention. Then you got to take it up a notch..then cool it off.” The Lone Bellow doesn’t really have a bad song on their set list, which helps things and they ended with a bang. In a decidedly joyful cover of a closer, The Lone Bellow and friends belted out Prince’s “Purple Rain.” While I am somewhat ashamed as a music aficionado to say that I am not familiar with the song,  it was both too sincere to be ironic and too fun to be taken seriously.  But it was their mixture of rollicking Gospel style, take-me-to-church (if your church is a charismatic, wave-your-hands-in-the-air type of church) and heartfelt, gather-around-a-single-mic-and-pull-my-heartstrings, that was the perfect blend of…beauty. I think that is what musical alchemy essentially is; distill this life’s pain, joy, sorrow, and laughter down to the essentials and package it in beauty.


The Art of the Coffee Shop

DSCF0985There have been two coffee shops that I have called home in my life. They could not be more different, both in layout, personnel, location and style and they are both near and dear to my heart. In fact, at least once a week, I drink out of a cup emblazoned with the name of one or the other. Consider this my ode to Kofenya and Bar Agostini and the art of the coffeeshop/bar.

The woman I affectionately still call boss was still in college when she started Kofenya in Oxford, Ohio. I guess she and her friend and partner were young and naive enough to think that they could start a coffee shop, so they did and I am forever grateful. I hated coffee when I started going to Kofenya. I was dragged there at 7 a.m. (the crack of dawn by college student standards, sleeping in by current standards) by a friend 4 times a week to read, talk and pray. It became a drug I couldn’t refuse… not the coffee, the place.

Walk in the door of Kofenya and you will likely be greeted by a friendly face, perhaps even a stereotypical barista. Those early days, you would almost always be greeted by the boss, because she lived there (practically) but there was the odd cast of characters. An opera singer, a bearded jokester before beards were hip, tattoos and piercings were common, and everyone in between. Even me, a straight laced kid from Columbus, somehow weaseled my way into the Kofenya family. And it was family. Heck, if you were a regular, you were adopted into the family. Original art hung on the walls, pictures plastered columns behind the counter, chalk menu’s were creatively scrawled and music, oh the music. Boss and her partner and the team were savants at choosing the right music. Mellow morning mixes, pick me punk, and even the midnight dance party (goals for graduation? dance on the counter. Check).

Kofenya was and is a lot of stereotypical college coffee shop. And that is what made it beautiful. Because it became the place to go to study, hang out, have deep conversation or just belly laugh. The originality was that it wasn’t copying anything. No, it simply because the things that the boss loved and if you walk in the doors, you felt that love too. And damn, they made a good cappuccino.

My second love affair could not have been more different. Agostini dal 1968 (alternately called Bar Agostini, Panificio Agostini, Forno Gastronomia Agostini) was located a literal stones throw from my apartment in Roma, Italia. One walk around my block was all it took to discover, hey, there is this place that has delicious cornetto (Italian breakfast pastry) and cappuccino that takes 2 minutes to walk to in the morning. Even when I moved the second year, I would walk the five minutes to Bar Agostini, ignoring the three bar’s I passed along the way. The vibrant colors, wonderful smells, and organized chaos was a place I could call home.

You have to understand that in Italy, a bar (coffeeshop) with seating is a rarity. Most often, you walk into a little shop, order your drink at the register, hand the receipt to the barista as you call out your drink, stand at the marble countertop and drink your your drink and then leave. It’s a beautiful thing. Just not a sit down, stay a while thing. So when I discover Bar Agostini and it’s seating (because it is a bakery, tavola calda and bar), I am sure they thought I was one strange American who didn’t speak much Italian, sat down and read and wrote in my journal while drinking my cappuccino and eating my pastries.  But they didn’t tell me to leave.

Instead, they asked me questions and welcomed me each morning with a smile. No one spoke much English, so it was slow going at first. My Italian was pretty bad but they excused it. Signore Lorenzo, the original owner was a perfect Italian gentlemen, fitting the stereotype you see on TV. His seemingly dour face would crinkle into a smile as he welcomed me each morning, seated on his throne of a stool behind the register. His daughter Maria Antonietta, who took his place when his health went downhill, always beamed with a smile, asking me how my day was.

The barista’s were the image of Italian barista perfection. Caught up in their frenetic dance of serving the crowds that would ebb and flow like waves, they still managed a smile, a laugh, a private joke in the midst of the crowd. Andrea (guy, Andrew in English), Roberto, Anna Maria… they became the friends I knew I would see every day. If it slowed down enough, they would ask about my day, my work, ask to learn a new word in english. My favorite? “Cornetto con frutti di bosco” became a beautifully pronounced “Cornetto with frrrruits of the forrrrrest” by Andrea. Maurizio, Maria Antonietta brother, would always emerge from the ovens in the back, covered in flour, to laugh, tell a joke, and tease me about my Italian.

Everything about Bar Agostini brings me back to the way things should be. That the food was delicious was an understatement. The fresh bread, the amazing cornetti, the gelato or fresh fruit juice; there is a reason that I literally spent every morning there. I called it my private chapel; the things I needed were provided and it was where I could get away, put in headphones if I wanted to drown out the clamor and be still in the midst of Roman chaos. And they welcomed me like family. I had a tab if I needed it. Didn’t have money on me? They would give it to me anyway and tell me to pay them later. When I went back two years after leaving Italy, I was welcomed with hugs and kisses and Maurizio joking that when I went back to America, I needed to tell them about “my bar”.

Two places, two completely different atmospheres. One American, low key, sit and stay awhile in peace; the other Italian, chaotic, constant motion. Yet they both have perfected the art of the coffee shop. And I am proud to have called them both home, at one time or another.

Art and Morality

Kendrick Lamar released the album “To Pimp A Butterfly” to much acclaim in March of this year. I will be honest, I am not much of a hip-hop afficionado but reviews by Relevant Magazine and by a good friend made me want to check it out. From the reviews, from interviews with Kendrick, from the media reaction, it was “a masterpiece of fiery outrage, deep jazz and ruthless self-critique” (Rolling Stone) and as Relevant Magazine put it; “It confirms our suspicions about Kendrick: He is one of the most important musicians of his generation.” And honestly, I had a really hard time listening to it because of all the profanity.

Now, I want to be able to say I am an appreciator of good art, regardless. I want to say that art needs to be truthful, that art that sugar coats things and dresses everything in Bob Ross happy trees is pleasant yes, but not powerful. Redemption isn’t real without a fall, grace isn’t powerful without failure and need for grace, and art that ignores this is like a taco without salsa; palatable but not preferred. But I seem to continually butt up against this invisible line that screams to me that art needs a moral center and that art that flaunts that, especially in the area of seemingly unneccesary vulgarity loses whatever power it may have had.

With Kendrick Lamar’s album, I realize that I am way outside of my cultural comfort zone. When I read the reviews that dive into the depth of his lyrics, I am encouraged and challenged. But when I listen to them, I get distracted by the profanity and racial epithets thrown around, seemingly without regard. He says “The next time I talk about money, h***, clothes, God and history all in the same sentence, just know I meant it, and you felt it cause you too are searching for answers. I’m not the next pop star, I’m not the next socially aware rapper, I am a human ****ing being.” I wonder if I am more willing to give grace to the guy on the street that says that to me than I am to the public figure who clearly had the time to edit his comments. Is being real overrated, if not put through a filter and refined?

Which makes me wonder about art and ethics in general. When does the masterpiece become indecent? When does the painting cross the boundaries with the depiction of nudity? What makes it cross that boundary? What is a societal norm and what is truly indecent? There were days when it was indecent to have a woman have her shoulders uncovered. Have you seen the old school swimsuits? The ones that were basically like swimming in your clothes? Compare those with even the most modest swimsuit today and you get an idea of cultural norms. Or think of Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn; “called vulgar in the 19th century and racist in the 20th.”

I don’t have a great answer for these questions. I am a Christian and that informs and defines what I see as appropriate and not appropriate. Other people will define it different ways and honestly, things like this are pretty subjective and my definitions may change too. I do think that art should come from some sort of ethical or moral framework. Without this, I think it loses it’s power. From my perspective, art should be:

1. Purposeful. Offending for the sake of offending is about as useful as manure on a driveway. It just stinks.

2. True. Or have truth woven into it. No, I don’t mean that fiction is wrong, simply that sometimes fiction can ring true to the way we are made.

3. Made with integrity and excellence. Throwing crap up on a canvas because you know it will sell is a sell out. If you are going to make something, pour yourself into it. If it is less than, you do a disservice to yourself and to your creator.

What do you think about art? I realize I posed more questions than answers and I would love more answers.

Stealing Back My Joy

Sounds Like a Movement is a “a production company that believes every person is a movement in the making.” If you distill what they do on their podcast down to terms that most people can understand, they interview really interesting people Sleeping at Last and the guy who wrote the Lego Movie and post those inspirational interviews. And they do it better and more consistent than I do. Relevant Magazine is a magazine whose tagline is “faith, culture and intentional living.”  They produce and write a lot of great content, relevant to life and challenging to think about, in addition to podcasts and video with really great musical artists.  And they do it better and more consistently than I can.

There are a lot of really great companies, artists, stores, websites etc. out there that produce content/products way more professional, polished, raw, or eloquent than I can or a lot of artists can and yet we still write/paint/create. What is it that drives us to do this? Why is it that some people read Victor Hugo, or heck, even JK Rowling and say “I could never do that” and never try and others read it and are inspired. Why do some listen to “insert your favorite artist here” and give up and others listen and are inspired?

I have been there on both sides of the coin. Not exactly on the musical side, but on the writing side at least. In Les Miserables (book, not the play), there is a chapter “The Heroes” (Chapter 18(21) in Book 15) that is one of the most brilliant descriptions of battle I have ever read. After reading it, it made me wonder why every movie scene or book I have ever read about war never managed to capture the pain, the brutality, the beauty, the glory, the chaos of battle the way two pages in that book did. And it made me think “I could never do that. Why do I keep writing?” It is the same thing when reading Harry Potter or The Wingfeather Saga. Though they are kids books, sometimes I sit back in awe at writers who can capture a feeling, a story, real characters and keep it all in line to pull you into a full blown adventure. And I think, “I could never do that.” Other times I go into a business or a coffee shop and I love the atmosphere and think, “I could definitely pull this off,” or “Why didn’t I think of this?”

My Mom has a sign up in her kitchen that says “Comparison is the thief of joy,” and I had a hearty debate with a good friend of whether that was true or not. He pointed out that comparison can cause us to run harder towards our goal and I took the position that if we are always comparing, we will never be satisfied where we are at. Comparison is often the thief of my joy but it is also the little spark that sometimes lights the fire to show me what makes me truly alive. I think that may be the secret in why we do what we do, even when there are hundreds of others that do it and probably do it better. We find what makes us come alive and we chase after that, even if we know we won’t be the absolute best. I need to forget about comparing and think about striving after doing what I was created for, striving for excellence in that. If I don’t, I become so focused on putting one foot in front of the other that I forget to dream. And don’t get me wrong, there is a time and place for putting one foot in front of the other, but there is also a time to lift up your head to see the destination.

The Dream Job and a Well Lived Life

I was reading an article last week about The Lone Bellow, one of my favorite bands of the last year or so, that gave a little bit of history on the band. It talked about the years before they hit it big, when they were all just living in Brooklyn working multiple jobs at diners and restaurants. It got me thinking about what we consider success and how long it takes to hit it. Zach Williams, the lead singer, was 31 when their first album came out, an ancient by college standards and pretty darn close to my age.

I started to look up other “stars” who got a late start in life. Julia Child didn’t learn to cook until she was over 40. Andrea Bocelli didn’t sing opera until 34. Colonel Sanders started KFC at 65. Laura Ingalls Wilder (of Little House on the Prarie fame) didn’t start writing until she was 40 and her Little House books weren’t written until her 60’s. Alan Rickman (Professor Snape in Harry Potter) got his first movie role at 46. And speaking of Harry Potter, JK Rowling was 32 when the first book was published. Vincent Van Gogh has his first exhibition at age 32. Mark Twain wrote Huckleberry Finn at age 49.

This isn’t a “chase your dreams no matter how long it takes” rant. It isn’t a “follow your heart, even if you initially get rejected” article. I can only speak from personal experience, but my time in college gave me some sort of idealistic “change the world” attitude that implied if I hadn’t really done something meaningful with my life by the time I graduated, then I was wasting it. I mean, I grew up in a Facebook world where Mark Zuckerberg was an overnight billionaire as essentially a college kid. Follow your dreams, chase your passion, make a difference and for the love of God, don’t settle for a corporate job at a bank or something like that.

Enter 4.5 years at US Bank, a mere two years after graduation. Currently, I work for another financial firm, a great company, but a job none the less that I never imagined I would have. And no (sorry employers), it is not my dream job.

My generation grew up being told to follow our dreams, to chase the dream job. There is a great quote by Howard Thurman that says “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” I grew up wanting to be a professional football player and well, I didn’t exactly chase that dream. I have friends who are artists and designers and entrepreneurs and I know their job makes them feel alive and if I look at it romantically, I think, “Man, they have arrived! What am I doing with my life?” I am 29 and still wondering what I want to be when I grow up. My dream of owning a coffee shop concert venue may never be a reality. Does that mean I am a failure, because I didn’t follow my dream?

I don’t think so, but my self-doubt and insecurities sure bubble up and say yes. I know it’s never too late, that I could still be the next Colonel Sanders, Mark Twain or JK Rowling. But for every success story like those, there are a lot of failures or those who never actually tried and despite what I feel pressured to say by some invisible inspiring force, I don’t think that not trying equates to failure. Maybe I am trying to justify myself, but I don’t think so. Perhaps there is honor in working the job that you don’t like because it is where God placed you. Perhaps there is honor in working a job just to pay your bills and support a family instead of risking it all for the dream. Perhaps there is deeper meaning in living life with a purpose that is more than entrepreneurial.

Dreams change and rightly so. What was a dream as a kid may be my life passion… or it may not. I was listening to a This American Life episode a while ago and Nancy Updike said, “Not every death is the end of a well-lived life.” I think there lie the seeds to chasing your dreams and success and failure. It is about a well-lived life and what makes up a well lived life. And that isn’t defined by the dream job.


Don’t Drift Away

“Your mother used to say that I was afraid, but apathy is not the same as escape, and I was never running. It’s just that I was never fighting. Indifference sneaks in subtly, and subtleties can kill a man.” Ch 8 White Wales Like Black Plagues – Levi The Poet: Correspondence

This album was released in November but I first heard it at the beginning of January and I haven’t been able to shake it. I don’t think I want to shake it. It is, as a friend of mine said, “not a passive listening experience,” but one where if given the opportunity, it sinks in slowly. Thankfully, I have had a few hours of data entry at work that I have been able to just sit an absorb the album again and again. I have literally listened to it straight through six times in the past week. It is a story of “A whaler’s daughter, out at sea. An orphaned son, building a treehouse for her return. The letters they write back and forth to one another, carried by the waves via the ship-captain’s liquor bottles.” But it is more than a story.

I think the reason I love story is because of the deeper truth that can come across. It is those moments in a movie where you get choked up because you identify. It is the times when you jump out of your seat at a movie because the good guy wins and something in your heart says, “Yes, that is the way the world is supposed to be, before our brokenness ripped it to the pieces that it is now.” We LONG for a story where the wrong will fail, the right prevail, the showdown at high noon where John Wayne walks away the victor. And yet in those moments where failure happens, often, we identify with that as well.

So when Levi drops the line, spoken from the perspective of the girls alcoholic ship-captain father when he says, “I was never running. It’s just that I was never fighting. Indifference sneaks in subtly, and subtleties can kill a man.” Well, in those moments, I identify. Indifference sneaks in subtly, never running just never fighting? That is a sad reality that is often true of my life. It is the moments that you wake up and wonder how you got lost off the path that you were intended to be on.

I remember hearing someone say, of someone who committed adultery, “No one wakes up one day and decides, ‘Today I am going to ruin my life and the life of my children.'” No, those decisions are the slippery slope of compromise, the decision to not fight, the decision to be apathetic, the move towards ease. It isn’t just the game changers like adultery. It is the moments that we lose sight of True North. It can be the moment that compromise is made at work. I remember a time when I lied at my previous job. It was a lie in the interest of my client, a white lie, something that wasn’t cheating the bank out of money, just trying to help my customer. That decision was a decision, a moment, a time when I chose to put my integrity aside in such a way that I could justify it. It scared me, ate at me, and I confessed to my boss the next day, terrified I would be fired, as he very well could have. Thankfully he talked to me about how nothing is worth trading for integrity, made me change the incorrect information and let me off the hook. It was a moment that could have been a turning point in my life, where I began to choose compromise over honesty, justifications over integrity. I thank God it wasn’t.

I hope you haven’t been in that place. But have you been in the place where you took the job for money? I am not talking about taking a job because you have to feed yourself or your family. There is honor in doing a crappy job to provide for those we love. I am talking about taking the job where you traded your family for status. Heck, it is probably even justifiable under the umbrella that “I am making all these sacrifices so that my kids can have what I never had, the best of everything, a college education without having to pay for it.” But I am going to argue that presence is worth more than money, than the things you can provide. In the same song, “I know that drifting is a deeper threat than betrayal. No one has to convince you to abandon anything, you just inevitably end up downstream, maintain your pride and wonder why the world keeps on shifting, convinced you’re still standing in the same place. You never mean to drift away.”

You see, there are some things in this world that are worth fighting for but you have to at least know who you are in order to choose those fights. Otherwise you will end up throwing punches in the dark, eventually giving up because you lose sight of the prize, of the reason you started swinging in the first place. It is the professional athlete that becomes focused on the money, not the game he grew up loving. It is the lawyer who focuses on the paycheck, not the justice that drew them to the profession. It is the artist that focuses on the critics review, not the joy of creation, of making something out of nothing. It is the husband who slips into apathy instead of romancing the woman he fell in love with. Don’t be that. Don’t slowly drift away.

Lose the Excuse

When I began writing for this blog, I had two goals. The first was to publish an interview that I did of a friend or aquantince who is an artist every Friday. I have already dropped the ball on that one, resorting to an older article I published with another magazine. The second was to post something every Monday, calling it Monday’s Musing, that was thoughts on music or art or purpose or something of the like. And yesterday, I dropped the ball on that one too.

Now, I have great excuses for this apathy towards dropping the ball. Yesterday, for example, I had started two different blog posts (one on the Super Bowl and one called “If No One Was Watching”) but I didn’t like the direction they were taking, the way they were turning out. I didn’t want to write some crap and lose whatever equity I have with the few people who read this. I don’t write during the day because I am at work or I want to spend time with my wife and son. As for the interview, it takes time to get good interviews and I don’t want to publish just interviews of my family (more of those to come, though, they are an artistic bunch). So like I said, I have lots of excuses.

But that is crap. I need to lose the excuse. Read reason for not posting like my goal? Lack of planning and execution. Laziness in the morning and getting caught up in reading articles about the best Bourbon Ale or shopping for a hotel for a NYC trip. Lack of follow through on calling friends who are artists and arranging interviews. And lastly, just probably plain old apathy and thinking, “No one will really care if I follow through on this goal or not.” If you are anything like me, you are probably just as skilled at justification and excusing actions that really boil down to laziness and characted flaws. But I don’t want to admit that.

Yesterday night, I was playing basketball with some guys and the guy I was guarding was playing a little rough, to say the least. To top it off, whenever I wouldn’t back down and let him bowl me over, he would call a foul.  I was pretty tired of it by the end and in the second to last game, we got a little tied up and there was a little bit of shoving that happened. Now, what I wanted to do was take a swing, or at least hit him with the same elbow he kept drilling me with. And talking to everyone else after they game, they all concurred that he was playing a little dirty and that he was calling crap fouls. You see, I managed to justify my loss of temper and then get other people at the game to justify it as well. I am good at coming up with excuses.

I need to lose the excuse. Chances are, so do you. You haven’t pursued the passion that you once had because work got in the way? Lose the excuse, get up earlier, sacrafice TV time to make it happen.


A Place for Childlike Wonder

Yesterday, as the night wound down, I was sitting in the bathroom giving my son his bath. My son is only a little older than 8 months and has recently discovered new tricks that he loves to bust out. He can clap on demand, never failing to bring a one-tooth-coming-in smile to his chubby cheeks; I think he understands “high-five” and “kiss” (though he always goes for the scandalous open mouth kiss) and perhaps my favorite, when my wife says “Can Luca dance?”, he begins to flap his arms and rock his body with a big grin. One of the tricks we didn’t have to teach him was the ability to splash. Man, the boy would win most water fights, only he is typically having a water fight with himself and the bathtub. Usually half of the water ends spilling out. But he takes such joy in the splashing, that I think he is the definite winner.

As I was sitting there last night, watching his pure glee as he splashed water all over, I was struck by the thought; “When do we stop taking joy in the splashing?” I don’t know about you, but I don’t spend too much time splashing these days. But I did as a kid. I remember pool fights, where, when you think rationally, they made no sense at all. Think about it. You are all in the pool, already wet head to toe, by somehow it is a thing to see who can get more wet by splashing? I remember water balloon fights where all you needed was some water balloons, buckets full of water and a garden hose. No super soakers, no water cannons, no giant water-balloon sling shots (though those are crazy fun). Have we lost something in the growing up that we should fight to hang onto?

Perhaps it is that everything is new for a child. When my son stares at his hands, rolling his wrists and and bending each finger, I wish I knew what was going on in his little head. I wish I could distill the magic that is happening and take a drink myself. I think it is this everyday magic that we too easily ignore or dismiss. I read a brilliant essay by Rebecca Reynolds called Miracle on Demand that challenged me to think on this. She states that “I think that’s because the same God who bends physics created it in the first place, and he could just have easily made water so that it always turned to wine, or bread so that it multiplies every time upon being broken. Natural laws are simply the way the miracle of creation is sustained over time.” Did you ever see the YouTube video of the lady who had surgery so that she could hear for the first time? Heck, search YouTube for “hearing for the first time” and you will see video after video of people who are experiencing sound for the first time. Tell me that is not an everyday miracle.

Now I know that calling everything a miracle or everyday magic might diminish to some the “big miracles.” But for a little kid, that sense of wonder is there in everything because everything is new and interesting. Reynolds states “Nothing exists that didn’t begin with a miracle. Was the first bird created in Eden by the voice of God a miracle? Was the one billionth bird created by the voice of God creating a bird that could create other birds a miracle? I say yes on both counts.” How do we recapture that wonder? I don’t know if we can. I don’t know if I can go back to taking pure joy in clapping my hands, hearing music, dancing to the music. Levi the Poet, in the song “Orphan Theism” from his album Correspondence (a fiction) says, “Where does the beauty inside of a tree reside, made up of atoms, identical and colorless, where the light of the sun merely vibrates in waves toward our eyes, striking tissues and moving along nerves like a telephone wire, to their endings, like telephones? I do not know. There is no actual color in the atoms of which the tree is composed, or in those vibrations. Shape, size, color, touch and the like are simply the names we call our sensations, and no amount of study can ever bring the notion of beauty to the tree… When I don’t know how, help me embrace the mystery.”

I think that might be the trick, to embrace the mystery. In this day and age, we read the paper to become cynics, google any answer, have science to answer everything and we lost sight that mystery, that wonder, hides in plain sight. We seek uniformity and perfection and lose sight of the beauty of imperfection, of uniqueness. When we live in an auto-tuned, lip-synced world, we miss the beauty of a live performance and life is giving us a live performance, day by day, minute by minute. Don’t miss it. Don’t wait for the big things, the birth of your first child, the epic concert, the romantic date to see the wonder in the way your brain communicates to the rest of your body to move, the way your radio takes music out of mid-air and makes it something your ears can hear, or the wonder of creation around you. We can’t explain it all and that’s good. It makes us better artists, better people to live with a little bit of wonder in our lives.

G.K. Chesterton wrote in his classic Orthodoxy, “It is possible that God says every morning, ‘Do it again’ to the sun; and every evening, ‘Do it again’ to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.”

So grow younger as you keep splashing.

Art is Thievery – MLK Jr. Day

“I think we are all thieves a little bit, in a healthy way.” Craig Caruso of Playback Performance

I have been chewing on that quote since Craig told me that a couple weeks ago and in honor of Martin Luther King Jr Day today, I wanted to touch on how I see this lived out in the words of Dr. King. Dr. King’s last speech, the one he gave the night before he was murdered, was the famous, prophetic even, “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” speech. In his own words, “Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

I dare you to watch that speech and not be inspired. But it’s not original. I don’t say that to critique it, but Dr. King, being a reverend, had a deep theological background that frequently borrowed Biblical imagery. The inspiring ending of his speech was using the imagery of the Israelite’s finally being freed from captivity and slavery in Egypt and reaching the Promised Land. Moses, their leader, did not get to enter the Promised Land but God allowed him to go to the top of Mount Nebo and look out over the land He had promised to the Israelites (you can read the account here). Dr. King led a movement that fought to bring African-American’s out of the slavery of inequality and because of the brokenness of man, he did not live to see the fulfillment of his dream. But he got a glimpse.

So Dr. King borrowed from biblical imagery. He took his idea to turn the other cheek from the Sermon on the Mount. He was strengthened in his fight for non-violent resistance by the example of Mahatma Ghandi.  Ever been to a southern baptist church? Even his passionate delivery echoes sermon style of those who had gone before him. His art and rhetoric was influenced by imitation, theft in a small way, honoring that which was before him. And that’s not a bad thing. The greatest artists all had people who influenced them and even if they claim originality, I would contend they are all taking inspiration and imitating to some degree the only Original Artist. We, in whatever art we pursue, are thieves, in a healthy way, stealing inspiration without paying (even if you cite your source, you still didn’t pay), needing to acknowledge our lack of originality in our artistic output even as we strive to be unique. I would contend that with this humble posture, we will have the freedom to actually create, because it will free us from the pressure of originality and simply be the joy in the journey to something new…new-ish at least.

So take what you have seen, draw inspiration from that, and in freedom, create.

It’s Better When You Know the Maker

In any industry, technology has had an enormous effect on lowering the barrier to entry. The internet has allowed any joker (like me) with an opinion the opportunity to start a blog like this and add to the noise. GarageBand and MySpace (are those both completely out of date?) allowed any musician to record and put out music. YouTube has turned the internet into a stage. You have musicians who have never played a live show completely blow up. E-books and online publishing has flooded the market with some gems and a lot of bad writing.

There is so much noise out there right now that it is hard to sift, prospect and find gold in our media selections. Heck, listen to the radio, which is a filter in itself, and there is still a boatload of crap that you have to tune-out to find the artists that are actually worth your time. You can read the New York Times bestseller list and get a mixed bag of worthwhile reads and worthless time-wastes. Magazines, websites, news organizations all seek to be tastemakers, to be the ones to discover the next big thing. So how do you sift through and decide who to trust?

When I was in high school, I joined the StreetTeam of a band that I liked. Honestly, I didn’t do much, but I did bring about a dozen friends to their show when they were in town. Afterward, I got to meet the band (they knew my name!) and got a autographed poster. Such was the beginnings of my habit of geeking out over musicians I listened to. Artists like Andrew Osenga, Micah Dalton, Over the Rhine (Karen ordered a drink next to me and my brother when we went to their show), Eric Peters, Matthew Perryman Jones, Christon Gray, PW Gopal… the list could go on of people that I have had the chance to have something close to a personal interaction. Their music is great, but it became so much better when I had the chance to talk to them, to enter their world somehow.

I would love to say that I have grown out of geeking out over musicians. But that last two concerts I went to, I stayed after to talk to the musicians, to thank them. The point I am trying to make here is that it is always better when you know the maker of the music. It turns a spectator concert into a personal event, one where I can humbly brag and insert into conversation “When I was talking to the drummer after the show, he told me…” But it isn’t about the bragging rights, it is about the idea that I now have a connection with this person.  It’s not just music. Every gone to an art show where you got to talk to the artist? So much better to hear their heart, to feel their passion. For me, I look at the art in a whole new way.

There seems to be a gravitation back towards craft beer and small batch bourbon, local farmers and locally sourced restaurants, Etsy shops and Kickstarter campaigns. People want that connection to what they own. If the consumer can know that a artist/craftsman/Maker put effort into making sure that the product is not a mass produced, soulless thing to be consumed, they are more likely to want to be a part of that. Think of indie music, the rights to say “I knew that band before they were huge.” It is about having a connection. I guess my point is that it is always better when you know the maker. There are lots of makers worth your time and its my hope that I can introduce you to some of them.