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Monday, April 30, 2007

Lurrie Bell at Bill's Blues Bar - 4/28/07

It is always exciting to hear the great guitarist, Lurrie Bell, fronting a band. His pedigree is formidable (son of the great blues harp master, Carey Bell), his life story is about fighting through tremendous difficulties and adversity (addiction, death of his twin children and his wife). He has lived the blues, and his heart is large, large.

But at Bill's Blues last Saturday, the band wasn't "Lurrie and a supporting cast." The band included Carlos Johnson on guitar, Nick Charles on bass and Kenny Smith on drums. These guys are in the top echelon of blues players nationwide. Kenny is the son of Willie "Big Eyes" Smith, Muddy Waters' last drummer. Nick Charles has backed up all the major blues stars, from Howlin' Wolf to Billy Branch. And Carlos Johnson - he plays the old-fashion way, using his thumb and fingers - no picks, man. Here is a snapshot of the Awesome Carlos:

Well, with this line up, the music was intense. Lurrie and Carlos traded off leads. Lurrie was muscular and focused on the blues scale; Carlos was more subtle and had jazz flavors to some of his licks. Carlos is also a very skillful rhythm guitarist - his back-up work amazed me. These four artists turned traditional electric Chicago blues into an intensely beautiful and varied musical form. Oh, it was a peak experience for a blues junkie like me.

And Matthew Skoller showed up, too. Matt is a fine harmonica player who has worked with Lurrie and his sidemen on many occasions - Matt's band is one of the top working blues bands in Chicago (and the world). Matt is also the producer on Lurrie's newest CD, which Lurrie just finished recording last week. I admire Matt - he is fighting the good fight, making a living as a blues harmonica player (which takes a lot of determination and courage). So Matt sat in with Lurrie and the band. Unfortunately, that didn't work out so well. The soundman kept trying to adjust the volume on the house mic Matt was using (he was blowing through the PA system). This annoyed Matt and he finally made a string of angry comments and stomped off the bandstand. I understood his frustration (as a harp player, I have been murdered many times by overly-helpful soundmen). But I think the display of irritation on Matt's part detracted from the joy of the gig. I had to leave while Matt was going through his mini-rant to keep the bad vibes from overwhelming the glorious music that Lurrie and company had laid down. Anger on the bandstand is a real downer for the audience - even if that anger is wholly justified.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Back to Big D

I was back in Dallas earlier this week, chasing deals. Spring in the Dallas - Fort Worth area is tornado season, and there were many funnel cloud sightings, heavy rains and scads of thunder and lightning during my visit. It is a bit off-putting to hear the tornado warning on the radio as you are driving through heavy rains... "Tornado warning for the Fort Worth area until 4 pm. Take cover immediately. If you cannot find a tornado shelter, find a ditch and lay flat in it until the all clear signal." Hmmm....if I am lying flat in a ditch, is it likely that I will have access to a radio to hear that all-clear signal? I think not.

Tuesday was a busy day, but I brought my harmonicas with me and wanted to play Tuesday night. I found a jam at the Mardi Gras Cafe'. This place is on the ground floor of an office tower right along Interstate 35E. I drove out in the pouring rain to find the joint; finally located it after passing it up three or four times. I dashed through the parking lot in a downpour, pulled open the door to find - an empty club. There were a handful of musicians (mostly African American guys), and one bartender there. The jam band was into classic soul tunes - old Stevie Wonder, the Temps, and so on. The keyboard player switched to drums; another keyboard player stepped up, a very young college kid played bass and the main singer played passable guitar. So I sat in for a few tunes, had a few laughs, and headed back to the hotel. As I reflect on the jam, I think it was pretty cool - no one there except musicians (and damn few of them), lots of space to play, and no competition or silliness on the bandstand. Plus, the players had some skill and grit.

I will be back at the Mardi Gras when I return to Dallas.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

More on Guns

I made my case yesterday for gun control as a way to deny the means of mass murder to people like Cho Seung-Hui. The outlook for serious gun control laws in the United States is really poor. There are over 200 million guns in private hands in our country. Political reality will probably stop any gun control crusade. So how to prevent the next massacre?

Today's Op-Ed page of the Wall Street Journal has some suggestions:

"Restore cultural taboos that once served as constraints on anti-social behavior." What a great idea! Just how do we do that? How do we get the evil spirits back into Pandora's Box? Be real, man!

"Allowing the government,on the say-so of a panel of psychiatrists,to lock up indefinitely someone judged to be suffering from a dangerous, severe personality disorder." Ummmmm.....pretty tough to implement this without trampling on civil liberties - how can we jail people based on the opinions of some shrinks? It isn't like psychiatry is an exact science, that insane violent outbursts can be forecast for indiviual mentally ill people. I wouldn't want the government and the medical community to have this power.

"Eliminate 'gun-free zones;' train and arm responsible adults (like teachers or retail store managers) so shooters would face immediate retaliation when they attack." Hmmmm. While this idea makes me queasy, it is the best concept presented on the WSJ's Op-Ed page. David Kopel pointed out in his piece that an off-duty police officer in Ogden, Utah stopped a mass murderer (the 18-year old Bosnian Muslim, Sulejman Talovic) in February of this year at the Trolley Square mall (a "gun-free zone"), thus limiting the shooter's body count to 5 dead shoppers. Now, Koppel is a controversial figure and notoriously pro-gun/anti-regulation, but he does have a point. Armed, trained people in the form of air marshalls are deployed to stop hijackings of aircraft. So maybe part of the answer to "too many guns in the hands of insane people" could be be "more guns in the hands of sane people." Extensive training, psychological testing and careful controls could allow this concept to co-exist with tighter controls on general gun sales.

One thing is clear - there are more Cho Seung-Hui's among us. They will strike again.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007


The insane acts of Cho Sueng-Hui at Virginia Tech would have been hard to prevent. There is a rush to blame the police, or the university officials, but the only guilty party is the shooter. If an individual has the motivation and the means, it is pretty easy to kill a bunch of people in our open society. Cho Sueng-Hui had slipped through the cracks - he was aparently very quiet, his sickness didn't show, he had no criminal record. He was a terrorist with a cause rooted in mental illness.

It was impossible to detect the shooter's motivation; no one can feel guilty about missing this guy's sick mind. But the ease with which he obtained the means of mass murder is something that should make us feel guilty. We have too many dysfunctional people around. We shouldn't be selling guns to anyone who walks into a store and passes a background check. Why do we need all these guns? The mayhem that passes for daily life in this great country is fueled by gunplay. And gun violence is glorified in the popular culture. We get back what we pump out.

If Cho Sueng-Hui had been unable to buy the 9mm Glock and the 22mm Walther, he may still have killed. But the firepower allowed him to kill more efficiently and impulsively. We have to eliminate guns as a legitimate consumer product, place extreme restriction on the sale and posession of these weapons. Eliminating guns won't reduce the number of folks with motivation, but it will make it tougher for those folks to obtain the means.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Thanks, Ray

So Kurt Vonnegut has passed. He is one of those rare people who identified the central dilemma - how to fight the battle to be happy and sane when so many sad, insane events are against you.

The answer for me is always music. And to me, the finest music is Ray Charles singing a great song. I went looking for Ray to find some comfort. Here is what I found.

Thanks, Ray. We miss you, Brother.

Good Bye, Mr. Vonnegut

"Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies -- 'God damn it, you've got to be kind.' "

-- From "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater," Kurt Vonnegut, 1922-2007

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Santa Fe

Loretto Chapel, Santa Fe New Mexico

The Evanston IL branch of the G clan headed west to visit the eldest offspring and only son of Mr. G. Ben has settled in Santa Fe, New Mexico with his girlfriend, Bianca. She is a native Santa Fean, and her parents live in the city.

Santa Fe is one of the most unusual places in America. It is not a large city - around 70,000 residents - yet it attracts between 1 and 2 million visitors each year. Oceans of wealth have flooded the city, generated by the tourist tsunami. Whenever this happens to a smaller city, the outcome is mixed. Santa Fe's median home price is over 50% higher than the US average; the median family income is a tad lower than the US average. Property taxes are marching upward. Long-time homeowners of modest means are struggling to pay the taxman. Wealthier homeowners are pressuring for more amenities and neighborhoods are changing for the better in many ways (better schools, parks, etc.), and for the worse in other ways (poorer residents forced out, more fences and gated communities, etc.). There are scads of art galleries, high-end shopping destinations, luxury accomodations and other trappings to encourage well-heeled visitors to part with their cash. The official unemployment rate is low; apocryphal evidence suggests that many folks are under-employed and struggling to cover the costs of living in such a popular town. The population has grown at a slower pace than the number of housing units; many of the new homes are owned by non-residents that visit for relatively brief periods.

Santa Fe is one of the oldest cities in the United States and has a long history. The town is a mix of Native American, Spanish, Mexican, and European-American influences.

In spite of its cachet as a spot for movie stars and the rich & famous, Santa Fe retains an undercurrent of edginess. My son, Ben, has found interesting things to do in the town. From African drumming/dance classes to winter snowshoeing expeditions in the mountains, Santa Fe accommodates Ben's broad range of interests. Ben and Bianca are thrifty, hard-working and resourceful, so they are doing well in spite of the high cost of living in Santa Fe. During our visit to the city, we hung out at Ten Thousand Waves, a terrific Japanese spa in the mountains above Santa Fe. My womenfolk loved it. Ben and I went on an excellent hike in the mountains among the aspen groves and rushing streams swollen with snowmelt.

There is a blues joint in Santa Fe - Willies Blues Bar - but I missed the Monday night blues jam. Santa Fe is famous for the Santa Fe Opera and there is a solid symphony orchestra. Lots of country music and tejano music, but not much blues or jazz. The town has excellent public radio stations that cover a broad range of musical genres.

We will be back to Santa Fe.