Cadre Of Awesomeness

August 31st, 2009

cadreofawesome.jpgAfter ushering in my thirty-seventh year alone on a strange Angelino couch, I wasn’t about to let it happen again with thirty-eight.

Accordingly, Abbi and I kicked off my Birthday Week (what the heck, right?) last night with drinks, dinner, and a dozen dear family and friends. The criteria was simple: no one from work (sorry guys), and no one with whom I would feel stuck in conversation.

It was a cadre of awesomeness populated by friends who’ve known me since college, pals who picked me up on the Interwebs, and an adorable newborn with whose assistance I learned the following valuable lessons:

1. Do not begin a night — any night — with Guinness and end it with Petron Silver. Just don’t.

2. Do order the random midnight pizza.

3. Six bags of ice is still not enough.

4. There’s just not enough time to spend with everyone you love.

5. Sucking the helium out of the balloons and singing contemporary pop hits remains a hilarious end-of-party ritual, even at 37.999-years-old.

Oh, and this one bonus lesson (one I learn over and over and over): My wife rocks.

Despite all of those valuable lessons, though, I was left with one serious question: What does it mean when four different friends give you a bottle of Petron Silver for your birthday?

Nantucket, Massachusetts (Summer 2009)

August 29th, 2009

The Delicate Art Of Doing Nothing At All

August 25th, 2009

Nantucket, MAI’m sure there are many things to do on Nantucket Island.

There are galleries, shops and restaurants on the wharf.

There’s a Nantucket Whaling Museum, Lifesaving Museum, Atheneum, Observatory and Aquarium.

The place is rife with historical destinations: Brant Point Lighthouse, Henry Coffin House, and the First Congregational Church (to name just a few).

To say nothing of the dozens of difficult-to-pronounce beaches: Cisco, Siasconset, Quidnet, Polpis, Wauwinet, Squam.

Left to my own devices, though, I tend to do very little here.

I take lots of photos, usually of the same things: dunes, grass, waves, sun. I run a lot. Today I ran twelve miles of mostly sand roads from Madaket to Cisco and back. I read some. Right now I’m about one-hundred pages into an oral history of The Rolling Stones. I play guitar. I brought my new Gibson, and am trying to find new ways around the same old chords (with middling success). And I eat: great, whole-grain breads; huge, fresh tomatoes; salt and vinegar chips and delicious, locally-brewed beer.

What I like best about Nantucket (Madaket, really), though, is that — even as this busy Video Music Award season forces me to keep tabs on the office, and even as I remotely obsess about each “Mister Rogers & Me” Fundraiser donation — the best way to spend time is just letting it while away.

There are breathtaking views out every window. The Atlantic Ocean is twenty feet from the front door, relentlessly chipping away at the fragile dunes. Hither Creek pools just below the back porch, ringed by deep-green eel grass. Madaket Harbor splays beyond, peppered by sharp-white fishing boats.

As I slow down a little bit, I notice all kinds of things. Like the way the ocean changes color over the course of an afternoon, the slow rise and fall of the tide, the fog blowing across the sun, and the low rumble of bike tires across Madaket Bridge. It’s a delicate art, one best partnered with the careful counting of blessings.

Nantucket, MA

Nantucket, MA

Nantucket, MA

On Two Eternities

August 23rd, 2009

sm.jpgTime is a funny thing.

This afternoon, Abbi and pointed the rental car east on Madaket Road towards town for all our favorite Nantucket things (Cape Cod Salt & Vinegar Chips, Whale’s Tale Pale Ale, Bartlett Farm’s Blueberry Pie). Nearing our turn near the old cemetery on on Milk Road, I said to her, “I know in my head that a year has passed, but I feel like I never left.”

The scenery is unchanged. There are no traffic lights, no strip malls or fast food joints. My muscle memory guides me here. I am on autopilot, gliding over the thistle and sage.

At the same time, everything is temporal. Hurricane Bill blew through last night. The ocean looked like it was boiling, the western shoreline of the island stacked four-deep with white-capped waves. The dunes held no sway against the relentless rush of water. Entire swaths of beach grass and pine were swept away before my eyes. Soon, there will nothing here but blue sea.

In “Cat’s Eye,” Margaret Atwood writes, “Time is not a line but a dimension, like the dimensions of space … if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backward in time and exist in two places at once.”

“But I began then to think of time as having a shape, something you could see,” she continues. “Like a series of liquid transparencies, one laid on top of another.”

I have been visiting my mother (and, twice upon-a-time Mister Rogers) here in Nantucket for ten years. It is a welcome respite from the relentless march forward of Manhattan.

Out here on the edge of the continent, perhaps I can finally begin to, as Henry David Thoreau wrote, “improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line.”

Out here on the edge of the continent, I am twentyfive-years-old, seeing it all for the first time. Still, the waves weather the dunes, the sun follows the moon, and the night is an inky, hushed black; if you watch closely enough, you can see it pass.

I’m not sure how I’m doing with this thing called the present, or whether it even travels well. But I am trying.

Nantucket, MA

Nantucket, MA

Nantucket, MA

“Mister Rogers & Me” Needs Your Help

August 20th, 2009

film.jpgI often wonder whether Chris and I should have had a business plan or, heck, any plan before diving into the making of our independent documentary, “Mister Rogers & Me,” back in June 2006. Especially now, day one of a month-long fundraising campaign to finish the film.

We’ve been making slow but steady progress for a few months now, enlisting the advice and editing expertise of “American Hardcore” director, Slamdance Film Festival co-founder and pal Paul Rachman who cut our 2:30:00 run time to 1:15:00. It’s far more compelling and succinct, but still retains its soul.

But it was the news that PBS was diminishing airings of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” from daily to weekly a few years ago really gave me a kick in the pants.

And so, last night just after midnight, I launched a “Mister Rogers & Me” fundraising campaign at Kick Starter. Our goal is to raise at least $10,000 in one month so we can spent at least two weeks straight putting the final puzzle pieces in place: b-roll, photos, voice over and music. We even plan to shot a few additional interviews.

We’re nearly 20% funded after less than 24 hours, and I’ll I’ve really done is Tweeted and posted to my Making “Mister Rogers & Me” blog. The response thus far has been gratifying, but not terribly surprising; this project has had a halo around it since its inception. Sure, there have been logistical challenges, and a few notables passed. But in general, everyone we’ve spoken to has shared our enthusiasm for Mister Rogers, and his deep and simple message. People have donated their time, research skills, memories, photos and footage.

Truth is that, for better or worse, I’ve approached this project as a Odyssey journey — a vision or hero’s quest — from the start. I wanted to roam and ramble, following clues and signs from one person to another, bumping into obstacles and being forced to problem solve. I never wanted to know how it’s going to end (and still don’t), I just never figured it would take so long. Like Bono says (which we quote at the beginning of the film)

The true life of a believer is one of a longer, more hazardous or uphill pilgrimage, and where you uncover slowly the sort of illumination for your next step.

If you’re so inclined, then, we could really use your help completing this journey over at “Mister Rogers & Me” fundraising page on Kick Starter to finishing our documentary. Pledges are matched with tiered incentives, like “Thank You” (or “Special Thanks,” natch) in the film’s credits, signed DVDs, and limited-edition Nantucket photography. Most of all, though, your pledge will be matched by the gratifying feeling that you’re helping spread a timely and valuable message.

“I feel so strongly that deep and simple is far more essential than complex,” Mister Rogers told me the day we met. “Spread the message, Benjamin.”

A State Fair Romance

August 17th, 2009

Iowa State FairBy my count, I performed six sets in 24 hours of Iowa State Fair this weekend, each more rock ‘n roll than the one prior. That said, I’ve never been one for arithmetic. And anyway, my abilities may not be the best; I am operating on one hour of sleep. And yes, a few beers are still finding their way out of my blood stream. Still.

Abbi and I arrived Des Moines late Friday, spotting the Technicolor ferris wheel as we descended through the sticky Iowa night. In the morning, we drove east across the great, flat midlands of Iowa to Waterloo, where both of my parents grew up. We visited my grandparent’s grave and sat a while looking out at the rolling cornfields as the wind rustled leaves overhead, then drove past their old house, and onward to a Wagner Family Reunion. After an afternoon of hamburgers, hot dogs and catching up, my cousin, Chicago-based singer/songwriter Andy Wagner and I performed an impromptu set (rehearsal for Sunday big Iowa State Fair performance, really) for our typically short-on-words grandparents. Screen doors slammed, toddlers screamed and somersaulted in front of us, but our grandparents sat quietly by, listening intently (if uncomfortably) and even pitching in for our “Leaving on a Jet Plane” sing-a-long encore.

Abbi and I pulled onto Highway 20 and pointed ourselves straight into the setting sun just before seven o’clock, hell bent on making The Nadas nine o’clock set — their last of six State Fair shows. I studied (crammed, really) lyrics to “Listen Through The Static” for one-hundred, wide-open, pedal-down, stormy-skied miles. We pulled into the fairground a few minutes before nine, strode hand-in-hand through the midway, and stepped up to the stage just as the boys began their set. Mike mouthed to Jason over the music, “B. Wags is here!” Moments later — some four years from the day The Nadas first yanked me onto their State Fair stage — I was pitching in a verse and harmonies for thousands of screaming fans. The set ended as the nightly fireworks lit up the fairgrounds.

We spilled out onto the midway, Jason acting as late-night culinary tour guide. (The Fair, we would come to learn, is all about eating. In all, Abbi and I sampled corn dogs, eggs on-a-stick, pork chops on-a-stick, pulled-pork sandwiches, pickle dogs, homemade ice cream, and beer — lots and lots of beer. We skipped the deep-fried cheese curds and chocolate-covered bacon, however.) We moved on a tented, Mexican-themed beer garden (where the bartender, Rhonda, a) told me I didn’t look like a Corona guy b) randomly and without solicitation offered that she’d hooked up with Tommy Lee the weekend prior and c) gave me a free round),

Sunday morning came quickly (and with the aid of my morning cocktail: coffee, Advil, Excedrin, and a multivitamin). Andy and I were scheduled to take the Anderson Erickson Stage at noon sharp to kick off Authentic Records Artists Day and the release of the label’s Nadas tribute album, “Crystalline” (which you should order at Authentic Records Online now!). The Nadas are nonplussed by deadlines, though. Little wonder, then, that Mike, Jason, Hello Dave front man Mike Himebaugh and I casually pulled onto the fairground at 11:37.

Andrew and I played a dozen songs to a scattered amphitheater crowd of friends, family and fairgoers. The scene was slightly reminiscent of the part in “This Is Spinal Tap” in which the band performs “second-billing to a puppet show” at a third-rate amusement park (though, fortunately, there was no one flipping us the bird from the third row). The amplification was good, the space was big, the sun was struggling through the clouds, and my spirits were high, though. I let my voice soar, grinned through my lyrics, and even vamped a little bit for Iowa Public Television’s multi-camera shoot.

Bonne Finken lent “Killing The Blues” some soul, then cellist Patrick Riley joined us midway through the set to tackle “How To Be Alone” from “The Invention Of Everything Else” for the first time ever, then stuck with us through the bitter end, valiantly navigating his way through unrehearsed and — in a few cases — unplanned songs. The sun finally broke through the haze as we performed “I Can See Clearly Now.” By the time Jason and Mike piled onstage to help me finish big with “Dear Elizabeth,” it was officially a bright, sunshiny day. (That Mike told me afterwords that our collective performance of “Elizabeth” gave him goosebumps made it only more so.)

My adrenaline buzz settled as Abbi and I wandered the fairground. We saw a life-size butter sculpture of a cow, oggled prize-winning fruits and vegetables, visited the state’s largest boar (a four and a half year-old 1,117 pound pig from Ames named Buddy), and walked rows upon rows of cattle, horse, pig and chicken stalls crowded with young, freckle-faced 4H kids with t-shirts that read “Rockin’ & Livestockin’.” Many were crashed out on cots, or ankle-deep in manure tapping at their iPhones. Abbi relished all of it, smiling and laughing and pulling me from the llama and elk to the blackberry jam and lemonade stand. She was my state fair romance.

Meanwhile, Authentic Artists were in full swing back at the AE Stage. Mike Himebaugh delivered a rockin’, semi-acoustic set before stage manager Skylar pulled me aside and said, “We need you to ‘tweener.”


“Yunno, as in ‘in between.’ We need you to play a few songs while we set up the next band, She Swings, She Sways.”

There I was, then, seven minutes later, back onstage for a quick run through “California,” “St. Anne” and “Radio.” Two hours (and many Miller High Lifes) later, I was tapped to perform another mini-set after in between Chicago singer/songwriter Dick Prall (who delivered an amazing full-band set) and my old pals in The Josh Davis Band.

At this point, I scarcely had time for jitters. I rocked through “Harder To Believe” (again), “St. Anne” (again, this time ad-libbing a Samples lyrics for a third verse), and the most over-the-top, solo-acoustic version “Dear Elizabeth” ever — all with reckless abandon.

Or what seemed like reckless abandon. Reckless abandon, apparently, was reserved for the Authentic Records afterparty at AK O’Connors. The place was packed and loud as we streamed in off the bus. The entire Authentic Records Family was on hand: Mike and Jason, Mike Himebaugh, Dick Prall, Tyler, Lindsey, Tony and Ben. And everyone was rowdy. Andy was on stage when I walked in. I took the mic next, somehow pulling a fairly awesome solo-acoustic version of “Rio” out of my ass, before slamming through “Wonderwall” with Mike. My favorite moment came at Andrew’s suggestion: “Play some Replacements!”

Fourteen hours, twenty-some songs, many beers and a few shots of tequila later, I was strutting, stammering, swinging and boxing my way through a version of “I Will Dare” just rowdy, raucous and ridiculous enough to make Paul Westerberg himself chuckle.

“How dumb are you!!! How dumb are you!!! How old… how old am I!?!”

When I finally yielded the mic, Mike Himebaugh took the communal guitar, strapped it over his shoulder, and asked, beaming, “Now how the f**k am I supposed to follow that?”

The last thing I remember, AK’s had kicked us out, the party had migrated to The Walsmiths, Glenn Campbell was on the record player, and the clock read 2:37 a.m. I slipped away from the crowd, and then set the alarm for eighty-three minutes of deep, dreamless, beautiful sleep with my own Iowa State Fair Queen.

Iowa State Fair
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Iowa State Fair (Summer 2009)

August 17th, 2009

AK O’Connors (Beaverdale, IA)

August 16th, 2009 - 10:00 pm

I Will Dare
Here Comes Your Man
Boys of Summer
There She Goes
Intent On St. Paul
Leaving On A Jet Plane

Iowa State Fair (Des Moines, Iowa)

August 16th, 2009 - 12:00 pm

Harder To Believe
Milk & Honey
Live In A Dream
How To Be Alone
The Last Time
Killing The Blues
Leaving On A Jet Plane
I Can See Clearly
Dear Elizabeth

+ California
+ St. Anne Of The Silence
+ Radio

When I Was Young And Full OF Grace

August 15th, 2009

sq1.jpgChris and I are jammed into a stifling-hot yellow cab locked in gridlock somewhere on Nineth Avenue.

Worse, I’m locked in gridlock with my usual pre-show jitters.

“I’ve never felt less prepared,” I told him. “There’s too much going on, too many variables. We barely rehearsed, for God’s sake.”

“You always say that,” he says. “It’s gonna to be fine.”

My mind races, anxious from woeful overcommittment: a brand-new song for tonight’s Rockwood set; three more new songs for The State Fair (plus a handful of rehearsal-free collaborations); four thousand miles of travel in ten days; a documentary fundraiser; marathon training runs; two blogs to update; a sixty-hour day job; a social life; and a new marriage filled with new adventures.

I’m neither sure my brain can hold it all, nor certain my heart can take the pace. I flash back to an elevator conversation the day prior.

“Gig tonight?” a colleague asks.

“Rehearsal tonight, show tomorrow,” I reply.

“I dunno how you do it,” this brand-new father of twins says through glazed eyes.

“I’m not either,” I say. “I’m getting awfully old for this shit.”

Rockwood Music Hall is half-empty. We line check in an instant. I place my beer on my set list, and it overflows. My stage tuner is buzzing. The canned music stops. The house lights go down.

“Oh, I guess we’re on,” I say sheepishly into the mic.” Tony counts us into “California.” We come in together, and I’m shocked; we’re in time, lock-stepped. I open my mouth to sing (“I won’t take it back, to my surprise / The summer air, the burning skies”) and a strange and beautiful sound comes out. And then the chorus: three part harmony richer and deeper and more-cohesive than I remember.

We sound like a rock band.

“St. Anne (Of The Silence)” is patient, smooth and open like some great Western highway. My confidence builds. I slip an REM lyric into the outro for my brother (“When I was you and full of grace / I spirited a rattlesnake”), and get goosebumps as he smiles back and sings along, a duet whose subtext only we understand.

I begin “I Can See Clearly,” quietly at first, then building through the bridge.

“It’s gonna be a bright, bright sun shiny day.”

A young couple up front sit attentive. The bartender bobs her head. A stranger at the bar sings along.

I introduce Emily Zuzik.

“I first met Emily fifteen or so years ago when my band, Smokey Junglefrog, was playing one of those great beer-soaked, smoke-filled college house parties. I don’t remember it too well (there was a fair dose of Boone’s Farm Strawberry involved), but I was reminded by her when we met again last week that she jumped up onstage, seized a mic and a tamborine, then pitched in backing vocals on Duran Duran’s “Rio.’ We’re gonna’ do something a little bit quieter tonight, but please welcome her nonetheless.”

Emily and I sing “Killing The Blues” for the first time together, and well. She waves and begins to step off stage as the applause wanes.

“You may wanna stick around a sec, Em,” I say. “We could use your help on this one.”

And then it begins: Ryan’s polyrhythms, Tony’s bass beat, Chris’ staccato lead line, and me.

“Move another floor now babe, you’re a bird of paradise…”

And just like that, a song that we’d decided to wing just forty-eight hours early was hurtling forward like a freight train.

And for all of my anxious, overwhelmed, overcommitted, under-rehearsed, uncertain moments, there is this: the sound of something altogether different, timeless, and beautiful, something built one foundation of experience, muscle memory, and pure faith. It’s the sound of grace. And it’s a heartwarming, foot-stomping, inspiring din.

Rockwood Music Hall (New York, New York)

Rockwood Music Hall (New York, New York)

Rockwood Music Hall (New York, New York)

Rockwood Music Hall (New York, New York)

Rockwood Music Hall (New York, New York)