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Saturday, November 30, 2013

Thankful that I was allowed to know these places and people

Thanksgiving is over and I am thinking about the places and people I have been fortunate to know.  I can't possibly list them all, but I am especially blessed to have known certain places and people  because they are gone now.  Here are four that make me feel grateful.

Bill's Blues Bar:  It was open from August 2003 through November 2009 - a decent run for a juke joint off the beaten track in a college town.  The location was not ideal, the room was undersized and the ambitions were huge relative to the economic opportunity.  Evanston loved the place but didn't always support it.  I had many interesting evenings there, both on-stage and in the crowd.  James Cotton, Son Seals, Eddy Clearwater, Big Time Sarah and dozens of other stellar performers  played this joint.  I had a friend that liked to say "They can take away all your money and all your stuff, but no one can take away the good times you have had."  Bill's Blues gave me lots of good times, and I am grateful.

The UBAA Tap:  This was the bar closest to my first home in Evanston.  When I arrived, there were very few places in town that would serve adult beverages, and none whatsoever near the Northwestern football stadium where I had a room as a grad student.  The UBAA was a good hangout, with a U-shaped bar and a long history of serving thirsty Evanstonians (it was just over the border in Skokie). The cheeseburgers were tasty and the bartenders were friendly. Every now and then, a fight would break out in the parking lot. The place closed, the building was sold and I drove by the location yesterday - the UBAA has been torn down, and the vacant lot will soon be filled by a Walgreens or some other abomination.  I am grateful for all the beers and burgers I consumed at the UBAA.

George Kubin:  George was my third boss at Bank of America's Chicago office.  I was a 26-year old punk with more ambition than sense.  He was a former teen-aged freedom fighter that sabotaged Nazi military bases in Czechoslovakia during WWII.  George made it to the U.S., became a citizen, got through college and created a career as an international banker.  He retained his Eastern European accent and Continental flair, and his heart was enormous. George died in 2003, I think.   He was world's kindest banker, and I am grateful that I was under his wing for a little while.

Frank Pulaski:  I met Frank in the trombone section at John Muir Junior High School.  We were high school buddies.  Frank was quiet, but a bit devilish.  He is the one that procured whiskey and dirty movies for his friends.  Frank was also an accomplished guitarist, and we put together a duo for a while - Frank on his 12-string acoustic and me on harmonica and vocals.  I am sure we stunk, but it was a lot of fun. He was a real friend, a stand-up guy with a big smile and calm approach to life. Frank died of cancer a few years back; I am grateful that he was part of my teenage years.

These two places and two people were not world-famous, but they were still huge.  Thanks to all of them for making me a slightly better person.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

A Working Band - R. Gang

Last Saturday night, I wanted to hear some good live music but I was seized with laziness.  I also was feeling cheap - paying the ticket prices at my favorite venues seemed like an extravagance.  When this combination of issues arise, I head to Pete Miller's Steakhouse in Evanston.  Pete Miller's has live music every night and no cover charge.  I like to order one drink to nurse while I sit at the bar and enjoy some tunes. 

Pete Miller's booking preference is jazz.  I have heard Bobby Broom lay down a smoking guitar set and Chris Forman pumping out awesome soul-jazz B-3 organ from the little stage near the front of the house.  This past Saturday, Pete Miller's booked R Gang.  I didn't know the group, but figured out their story within 30 seconds of my arrival at the joint.  This a Working Band!!  Have a look at the shot from the Downer's Grove Rotary Fest at the top of this post.  See what I mean?

What are the characteristics of a Working Band?

(1)  They exist to entertain.  They try hard to figure out what the audience wants, and they strive to fulfill those wants.  They want the people to dance!!
(2)  They play lots of covers.  R Gang specializes in vintage R&B.  They were playing Marvin Gaye, Michael Jackson, the Temptations, The Four Tops, Smokey Robinson, etc. etc.  Folks in the crowd were singing along.
(3) They have more than one singer, and they can handle harmony.  R Gang has two male singers - a tenor/falsetto specialist (Rick Owens) and a baritone (Robert Davis).  Rick and Robert had the chops and the moves to handle a long list of classic R&B tunes. The keyboard guy (Mike DalValle) sang, too.  The voices blended well - these guys have been singing together for quite a while.
(4) The musicianship is stellar.  R Gang's guitarist, Will Crosby, is a monster - he played the hell out of every tune.  Crosby has a glossy resume, including a stint in the band that backed Mavis Staples on her world tour. The rhythm section was super tight, and nobody played too loud.  Pete Miller's is a small room; volume control is critically important.

You might run into R Gang at a suburban roadhouse, a wedding reception or a summer neighborhood festival.  It ain't easy to produce this type of music - it takes energy, skill and dedication.  I also suspect that the Working Band is an endangered species.  DJ's are displacing them.  A single DJ is a lot cheaper than a 6-piece band.

So hats off to R Gang and all the other Working Bands out there!  Entertainment is an art, too.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Fathers and Sons

I don't know why, but I love this rather creepy "Photoshopped" image.  The poet said "The child is father to the man," but I don't think this is what he had in mind.
My belief is that a son can't begin to understand his father until he becomes a father, too.  The emotions and reactions to the life-changes that accompany the arrival of a child are hard to comprehend  from the outside looking in.  Many men finally start getting serious when they have a kid. 
As I begin my sixtieth year on this planet and wind up my 33rd year as a parent of kids under 18, I find myself thinking about my own father quite a lot.  My dad was a gentle person in many ways, but he struggled.  He was diagnosed as "manic - depressive" in the 1960's (I always preferred this term to the less precise "bipolar disorder.")  I didn't understand the guy at all, and viewed him as a "negative role model."  Everything he did and everything he was bothered me, so I strived to be the opposite.  He did not have much career success and finally went on disability in his 50's due to his brain disorder - my mother went to work when I was young to relieve the financial strain on the family.  He smoked like a chimney and he was a major league couch potato - my mom is the parent who played catch with me when I was a kid.  He was silent for long stretches and would break out with flashes of white-hot rage at random moments.  He was raised in the Southern United States and was a casual bigot.
He also had a great sense of humor and could be a very charming guy.  He cared about his community and volunteered many hours to improve it.  He was active in local politics and helped several folks with their campaigns.  He served as the parks commissioner in our home town (an unpaid position).  To generate a little extra money, he distributed World's Finest Chocolate bars to schools for their fundraising efforts.  He brought cases of dented, unsalable canned goods home from his job at the warehouse to supplement our sometimes meager food supply. He worked the Dad's Club grill at the school carnival.  He was authentic and engaged at times, and people remembered him.   His funeral was a packed house of people he had touched along his path.
In other words, he fought against his condition and did what he could.
Before I became a father, I had no compassion for my dad.  After three decades of fatherhood, and significant experience with the mental illness of family members, I understand him.  I still don't want to emulate him, but now I finally admire him.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Weird Bicycling Hazard

I am a recreational bicyclist.  It is great exercise, and the bicyclist is fully exposed to  the environment, enjoying speed, wind, and the scenery.  Riding a bicycle is also risky in our car-centric culture.  Automobile drivers sometimes kill bicyclists and don't even get a ticket!  Here is an article on this reality.  When I get on my bike, I avoid automobiles - I try to stick to bike paths so I won't become a speed bump for an SUV.

On a recent gorgeous autumn Saturday afternoon, I hit the bike path that runs through Evanston's Lake Michigan parks and beaches. It is safe - no cars allowed!  The path continues when it hits Northwestern University, and there is a particularly satisfying stretch along the peninsula that juts out into the lake.  I crossed the bridge to that stretch of path and saw a woman with her back to me; I was biking into the sun.  She was in the middle of the path, so I veered to the right to avoid her.  She suddenly started screaming  at me, and I belatedly realized that she was walking a dog.  The dog was on a retractable leash, and she had allowed the little pooch to wander 30 feet away.  The very thin, impossible to see, retractable leash was stretched across the bike path, and I slammed on my brakes.  I was a bit late, and the leash clotheslined me.  I am glad to report that I was not decapitated or seriously injured - I ended up with a painful thin rope burn where the crazed woman yanked the leash across my neck.  And the little dog was fine.  But the dog's owner was quite interested in loudly displaying her mastery of every profanity in the English language.  Being a competitive sort, I responded in kind.  Since I was bleeding a bit and quite furious, the woman turned and bolted.  I felt like an idiot for cussing at her; that certainly didn't solve anything.  This woman was creating a danger to her dog, herself and others with that damned retractable leash and she should have been educated about it, not yelled at.  I had experienced a weird bicycling hazard I had never thought about before.

I am a long-time dog owner, and I refuse to use the nefarious retractable leash.  They are evil.  They have led to amputations, major cuts, even death for pets and humans.  Here is a link to the  Consumer Reports article on retractable leashes. If you are using a retractable leash, you are not being a responsible pet owner.  It is the lazy person's solution - "I can walk my way, the dog can walk his way and I don't have to wait for him to finish sniffing the tree or try to get him to obey me."  If you don't want to keep your dog under control, and safe, get a goldfish. 

I am now sporting a hairline scar across my throat - it looks like I had thyroid cancer surgery in my past.  I am sure it will fade, but my hatred of the evil retractable leash will not.