Thursday, May 29, 2014

You Saved Me

Over the Memorial Day weekend, I went to three shows, two of which I reviewed for the Observer. You can read my thoughts on Eagulls' first time playing Dallas here and read my review of the Journey show here.

But the show that really impressed me was the show I didn't review: the Winery Dogs at the Granada Theater. I had the pleasure of interviewing their drummer, Mike Portnoy, for DC9 as a show preview. He was friendly and open with me, making the interview flow very well. I didn't want to ask any direct questions about Dream Theater, but did share about his past while focusing on the present with the Winery Dogs.

Coming into the show on Saturday night, I had a feeling I would enjoy the show. The tunes on the band's self-titled debut are enjoyable, bluesy pop rock songs. But I did not expect to see a crowd so charged by the band's set. People were going crazy at the sight of the band, with everyone raising arms and fists, yelling loudly, before they even played a note. 

Immediately with the first tune, "Elevate," I saw how joyous Mike, Billy Sheehan and Richie Kotzen were together. Smiles, constant eye contact, jamming -- all of those sights. The band ended up playing almost two hours of material, which is impressive as the band has only one album. There was a bass solo and a solo acoustic tune by Richie, but no drum solo by Portnoy. Which, even though I'm a huge fan of Portnoy's, I was fine with. The guy played his ass off the entire time that I didn't need to see a solo.

The most important thing I came away with was seeing firsthand how Portnoy has successfully moved on from Dream Theater, the band he will probably always be remembered for. His departure from the band a few years ago was shocking, on the level of, "What if Lars Ulrich left Metallica?" And as happy as I am to see Dream Theater carry on with a world-class drummer named Mike Mangini, I get agitated by people who leave comments on Portnoy's social media platforms about how he should rejoin Dream Theater. No, Dream Theater isn't the same without Portnoy, but he and the band parted ways, and they do not wish to reunite.

I accept the fact that there are many who will never truly accept Mike's departure from Dream Theater. The Internet is a great place to vent those thoughts, but I try to not spend too much time reading them. I'm much happier to see Portnoy play with guys he is genuinely excited to play with, playing music that is in his wheelhouse, and still being an active, fan-friendly personality. (Yes, I got a picture with him after the show.)

Fans often think their words will truly make business decisions reverse and longstanding feelings subside, and the band they want to see will return in its purist form. The thing is, bands are made of humans, and not all humans get along. Add in business dealings and it gets really divisive, especially if someone cannot legally rejoin a band, even if he co-founded it.  

I like to use the adage of, if people want all of the original members of their favorite band to reunite, they probably want divorced parents to remarry as well. Nevermind how the divorcees have found new partners they can tolerate and be happy with, when it comes to bands that are crystallized in fans' minds with studio albums and documented live performances, fans want to relive that magic again and again. There is no such thing as a final encore in their eyes. 

I am fine with the Winery Dogs as well as the two Dream Theater records they've done without Portnoy. If DT never reunites with Portnoy, I'm happy to have all of their albums and DVDs to enjoy what's come before. What I want to see in the present and the future, though, is what makes the artist happy to carry on, whether it's with a new band or a band that's been around for almost 30 years.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Drinkin' That Ice Cold Beer

What happens when a trend in music reeks of terrible offenses to the audio and visual senses, yet is somehow still infectiously catchy? A trend in particular that's been on my mind lately is the one dubbed, "bro country."

This trend has been perfectly mocked on YouTube and the best talk radio station in the DFW area. Essentially, these days, if you're a male artist and want to have a massive hit on the country charts, the song lyrics must include references to the following:

1. A truck
2. A girl
3. Alcohol
4. Driving on dirt roads
5. Farm equipment
6. Tight jeans on said girl 
7. A small body of water
8. Sunset and/or moonlight
9. Summer
10. Guns
11. Fishing
12. Boots
13. God

The more references the artist has in the first 60 seconds of the song, the better chances of it becoming a hit. Don't believe me? Just watch the clock as a song gets going. 

Musically, bro country is more like hard rock with flashes of hip-hop beats and flows, rounded out by acoustic guitars and banjos. Think more "We Will Rock You" and "Make 'Em Say Uhh" than "The Grand Tour." 

Loaded into these cliches are melodies that can easily get stuck in your head. I freely admit they get stuck in my head like parasites. Songs like "This is How We Roll" by Florida Georgia Line and "Crash My Party" by Luke Bryan. When I first heard them, I wondered how they got by my usual tastes. Like I was a goalie with a pretty good save record wondering why there were pucks finding holes in my defense. 

As someone who detested country music in my youth, I don't think I've fully embraced all the colors of country music. During periodic exposures to country music in my teens and twenties, I found the music to be irritating melodically. There was very little room for endearing melodies to my ears, which were more geared towards an extreme between the Carpenters to Metallica. With the country music I heard, I thought you could only dance around a small amount of vocal melodies while repeatedly strumming an open-G chord on a guitar. Not helping matters was the constant, slightly off-key, twang that made country music cun-tray.  

What artists like Garth Brooks and Tim McGraw sang about didn't register with me in my teens or my early twenties. I didn't have friends in low places, didn't get the meaning of unanswered prayers, or going to some stupid dance. 

I'd like to say my horizons broadened a little in my late twenties by not immediately scoffing at music I didn't regularly listen to. With country music, that enlightenment came from reporting traffic for a small market, "classic country" format and having a housemate who loved country from the 70s and 80s. Every now and then, I'd find a tune that was actually quite enjoyable. My drawbridge was occasionally coming down, thanks to these good people that I'm still close to. 

During the past twelve months, I spent a lot of time around bro country songs. I worked in a few Walmarts as a merchandising rep for a marketing company, and I did traffic reports to various formats, including modern country. Talk about being near epicenters of bro country. You could not escape the exposure to bro country. For example, when Luke Bryan's Crash My Party came out, there was a short commercial for it, featuring the title track, running on a loop in every Walmart. Spending a few hours at a time per store, always working near the wall of TVs, I'd repeatedly hear, "If you wanna call me/call me/call me/You don't have to worry about it baby." By the end of the marketing campaign, I believe I heard that hook 500 times, easy. 

All those times hearing said chorus hook, I didn't find the tune melodically odorous. The same would happen when I pre-recorded a traffic report for a country radio station. While the lyrics of "This is How We Roll" reflect nothing from my life, I couldn't but help sing along in a joking way. Eventually, I thought, "Hey, this isn't bad if you look past the lyrics."

Consider this eventual submission by the marketing/researching powers-that-be. 

Bro country is like what hair metal was to hard rock music in the 80s. There's a look and sound designed for a mass, paying audience. There is no denying who the target demographic is for Florida Georgia Line or Luke Bryan: good ol' boys who were raised a certain way and act a certain way as adults. There's always church on Sunday, alcohol for the good times (and bad), a truck for work and play, and a girl to light up his life. The more specific the song plays into the stereotype, the better. 

Is this scope narrow? Absolutely. It's pandering to an extreme. But it sells, and the music industry thrives on what sells. What our inner Statler and Waldorf criticism says about this scope doesn't really matter to the industry as long as it keeps selling. Nashville songwriters aren't going to stop writing songs like this because of satirical YouTube montages, think pieces, or radio bits. If there's money to be made in the music industry, you milk that cow until the cow's dead. 

While I will defend certain tunes on Crash My Party like the title track, "Roller Coaster," "Have A Beer" and "Goodbye Girl" on their melodic merits -- which are more pop rock tunes more than anything else -- I am not a 100 percent supporter of Bryan and his bro country bros. There are a lot of awful songs with repugnant melodies and moronic lyrics. "That's My Kind of Night" is far more like Master P than George Jones. "Amarillo Sky" by Jason Aldean makes me wonder where the Nyquil is. Granger Smith's "Country Boy Love" makes me wonder where I can find some duct tape for my ears. 

This is music for people who relate to the stereotypes. I am clearly not in the songwriters' minds as a member of the target audience. I didn't grow up around rural areas, riding around in a pickup truck blasting classic rock and traditional country. And I didn't eventually start bopping my head to hip-hop with a country hat on. That's the kind of guy I wouldn't believe I could have a deep conversation with. I don't go to church, I've never driven a truck, I've never wooed a girl to come to a creek in the moonlight, I don't drink a lot of beer, I haven't gone fishing in a few years, and I've never shot a gun other than a BB gun. Our family does have a farm, though. 

You can't stop bro country and it doesn't look like it's going away soon. The music doesn't offend the men and women who buy the music, the concert tickets, and the T-shirts. All I can do as a listener is be OK if a melody is enjoyable no matter what the format. If I find the the music catchy but the lyrics to be the work of cynical, cash-hungry songwriters, well, that's the way it rolls.  

Sunday, May 18, 2014

A Real Good Time Together

I'm a little behind in posting these links, but I've been pretty busy with articles for the Observer. In the last few weeks, I wrote about an Indiegogo countdown party, the Hold Steady returning to the Granada in fine fashion, had a fun little interview with Dylan from Tiny Moving Parts, and a did a brief interview with Eric Nadel, the great Texas Rangers broadcaster.

After not doing much for the paper in the last few months of 2013, things keep popping up now, and it's still a lot of fun. I'm going on five years with this place, and I have some really cool interviews coming up in the next few weeks. Interviews with people I never thought I'd interview that I've long admired.

Monday, May 05, 2014

It's Never Too Late to Work Nine to Five

For years, I was not sure I was cut out for working a regular, nine-to-five job. Was I going to be happier working from a home office, away from the kind of nuances that Office Space and The Office perfectly lampooned? Would I ever have weekends and holidays completely free of the fear a last-minute emergency would happen and I would have to work? Was I giving into The Man by wanting things like health insurance, a livable wage, and an opportunity to grow my professional skills?

After years of working part-time jobs and full-time jobs in one industry, I have to say transitioning into a different industry has been an extremely positive change. Yes, I work in an environment that might, from an outsider's perspective, give way to Initech and Dunder Mifflin references, but there is nothing I find wrong with this environment. The office environment I had previously worked in (cubicles, offices, water coolers, copy machines) was not different from what I'm now. 

A week into working my new job, I have zero complaints. The people I work with are serious about their jobs, but are super-friendly and helpful. The atmosphere is extremely easy to work in. I get my work done, get good feedback, and get along with the people I work with. And while my salary and benefits are nice, those are more proverbial icing on the cake. 

The fear I had for the longest time was being stuck in a soul-sucking job. It took me many years to realize that a soul-sucking job isn't necessarily in an office building with cubicles. Soul-sucking jobs come in all shapes and sizes, with all sorts of different schedules. I feel very lucky that my new job is not a vampire of my present and future.

Recently, Mike Rowe gave some great career advice, and I completely concur with the following statement: 

Happiness does not come from a job. It comes from knowing what you truly value, and behaving in a way that’s consistent with those beliefs.

If you're happy with your life and you work as a garbage collector, fine. If you're unhappy with your life and you're the CEO of a company that's worth millions of dollars, no amount of money will make you happy. I am happy with my life and try to exert positive energy every single day. And that energy stays with me when I leave for the office every morning. And it stays with me when I leave the office in the afternoon. 

Paul Stanley might urge you to stay away from the apparent shackles of 9-to-5 in hopes of promoting the apparent freedom of rock and roll, but I see it like this: I get to listen to music while I work, I'm still motivated to practice the drums when I get home, I'm still motivated to keep myself in shape, and I'm still motivated to write. 

The peace of mind I get from working this job, I get to pursue my passions while still working a full-time schedule. And there aren't any vampires hanging around me.