Sunday, December 30, 2018

The new day: music & media as self-care (& the best of 2018)

2018 felt like a big year. Commemorating fifty years since the world lost Martin Luther King Jr. and Thomas Merton were important milestones (for me and many others, to say the least), since their transformative peace and justice work, began decades ago, remains so pertinent and painfully unfinished.

Joining the 50-somethings in the middle of middle-age has been all about abiding mindfulness and choosing self-care. In that, I have often joked to myself that Netflix binges and consumer therapy are not self-care per se, that the real deal can be found in long walks, prayer, yoga practice, 12-step meetings, appointments with my spiritual director, and the like.

But if I am past joking and approaching honesty: nurturing my multi-media habits forms a huge part of my self-maintenance, from books to movies, and of course, all aspects of music fandom. For me music madness includes vinyl collecting and the underlying joys of around-the-clock listening, with my headphones almost always plugged into my Spotify account. And then of course and especially, there’s countless concerts--with U2, Jason Isbell, and Dead & Company being some of the prominent acts that I saw more than once this year, adding to a list that also included Dawes, Decemberists, Dr. Dog, and so much more. My Morning Jacket took the year off touring, but we were grateful to see Jim James in Nashville.

As usual, passionate music fandom always allows us opportunities to travel, but the big bonus this year was the U2 Pop conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland, where I got to present a paper, meet Andy Rowen about whom the song “Bad” was written, see many friends in the U2 family, and discover the band December, a group from Scotland who was like the conference house band.

My Monday night radio show on WTTU, which has aired on-again and off-again for more than 11 years, is just an extension of this overall life commitment to music and media communion (and consumption). This blog is a part of that bigger picture, too. Truth is, music and books do compliment the more “pure” forms of self-care, like exercise, prayer, and contemplation.  

The big payoff for this post is a massive 51-song (one song for every year I have been on the planet), 3.5 hour playlist of music released in 2018, songs that capture my spirit and sustain my soul.

This playlisst started out as a best 25 tracks, and then, kept growing. When I realized how carried away I was, how it had all gotten out-of-hand, I added live albums, special remixes, soundtracks, and even a dabble of CCM. After much culling and sampling, stopping at 51 songs was only a matter of time, in hopes that I could share this before the clock strikes midnight on the dawn of 2019. One genre not included in this set is the experimental EDM sub-genre of “psybient,” which is one of my favorite hiking and workout standbys.  

My dear friend and collaborator Rick contributed six of the 51 songs from his favorite albums of the year. His modest choice of six songs versus my 45 may say something about the contrast of our personalities, but we are both ENFPs, perhaps me in much more extreme form, as corroborated by my Enneagram 7.  

Movies have been profoundly important to me this year. We went to the Belcourt to see a premiere of director Ethan Hawke’s underground music biopic Blaze, met Ethan Hawke afterward, and ran home to rewatch Dead Poets Society, then stream actor Ethan Hawke in First Reformed.

The prophetic uprising in black cinema brought us the stunning likes of Black Panther, Sorry To Bother You, and BlacKKKlansmen. I have always loved music movies, and this fall had us being blown away by A Star Is Born, Bohemian Rhapsody, and the Green Book. Additionally, the profound and cleansing importance of the Mr. Rogers biopic cannot be understated.  

As a preacher and performance-poet, I have always had an abiding admiration for (and felt an artistic proximity to) stand-up comics, and late this year, I have been digging recent sets by Pete Holmes, Russell Brand, and Ellen Degeneres. (Worth noting: the recent Rob Bell and Peter Rollins speaking tour which we caught in Nashville is actually a new-old genre of ‘stand-up preaching.’)

As a person always obsessed with poetry and nonfiction, let’s count 2018 as the year when I rediscovered the joys of novels, of fiction. I listened The Overstory by Richard Powers on Audible, all 23 hours of it; the audio narrator’s style occasionally got on my nerves, which I can only say solidified how much I loved the content, as I stuck with the text until the end. I also added it to my Kindle collection and have already found myself going back to study snippets again and again.

The topic of The Overstory is (more or less) simply trees and their human friends and defenders. Learning how trees actually talk to each other was one of many life-shifting revelations I encountered this past year. I am currently reading three older novels simultaneously, where trees are a big part of the story; I expect deeper explorations into eco-fiction to continue. This year, I also stepped up my hiking game, discovering or rediscovering trails all over Tennessee, and I hope that this preoccupation with walking up mountains, down valleys, and among trees will continue in 2019.

More books: I am really grateful that Anne Lamott keeps cranking them out. She is always inspiring, disarming, funny, and prophetic. A former student of mine released her first collection of poetry, and a dear friend from the U2 fan-scholar community had his book about U2 updated and released in paperback.

That aforementioned buddy Rick and I started an old-school print yes paper fanzine and have already released two issues of Ordinary Space this year. Only after the hard copies are circulated, will we slowly release things online at -- Please hit us up if you want to see a copy.  

If you have made it this far in this blog, thank you and happy new year. Here is to wishing you hope, peace, joy, and love in 2019, living each day bravely, boldly, and with gratitude, with bookshelves, record collections, and video queues brimming with beauty and truth. The playlist: (to listen go here: best of 2018)
Artist - Song (album, release date)

Arthur Buck - I Am The Moment (Arthur Buck, 6/15/18)
Dawes - Living In The Future (Passwords, 6/22/18)
The Decemberists - Sucker’s Prayer (I’ll Be Your Girl, 3/16/18)
A Perfect Circle - So Long, And Thanks For All The Fish (Eat The Elephant, 4/20/18)
Greta Van Fleet - The New Day (Anthem Of The Peaceful Army, 10/19/18)
Jack White - Connected By Love (Boarding House Reach, 3/23/18)
Rainbow Kitten Surprise - Hide (How to: Friend, Love, Freefall, 4/6/18)
Snow Patrol - Don’t Give In (Wildness, 5/25/18)
Moon Taxi - Two High (Let The Record Play 1/19/18)
Nathaniel Rateliff & the Night Sweats - Hey Mama (Tearing At The Seams, 3/9/18)
Dr. Dog - Buzzing in the Light (Critical Equation, 4/27/18)
Lord Huron - Ancient Names, part I (Vide Noir, 4/20/18)
Dead Can Dance - Act II: The Forest (Dionysus, 11/23/18)
Amen Dunes - Believe (Freedom, 3/30/18)
Hiss Golden Messenger - Rock Holy (Virgo Fool, 11/2/18)
Beta Radio - All at Once I Saw It All (Ancient Transition, 9/14/18)
The Collection - Bandages of Time (Entropy, 10/5/18)
Mount Eerie - Real Death (After (Live), 9/28/18)
Camp Cope - The Opener (How To Socialise & Make Friends, 3/2/18)
Casey Neill & the Norway Rats - Siphoners (Subterrene, 3/23/18)
Frank Turner - Make America Great Again (Be More Kind, 5/4/18)
Shemekia Copeland - Americans (America’s Child, 8/3/18)
Liz Vice - Brick by Brick (Save Me, 6/1/18)
The War and Treaty - Are You Ready To Love Me (Healing Tide, 8/3/18)
Erin Rae - Wild Blue Wind (Putting On Airs, 6/8/18)
Brandi Carlile - Every Time I Hear That Song (By the Way, I Forgive You, 2/16/18)
Amanda Shires - White Feather (To The Sunset, 8/3/18)  
Amy Ray - Fine With The Dark (Holler, 9/28/18)
Kacey Musgraves - Oh, What A World (3/30/18)
Mountain Man - AGT (Magic Ship, 9/21/18)
Father John Misty - The Songwriter (God’s Favorite Customer, 6/1/18)
Israel Nash - Rolling On (Lifted, 7/28/18)
Phosphorescent - C’est La Vie No. 2 (C’est La Vie, 10/5/18)
Ray LaMontagne - Paper Man (Part Of The Light, 5/18/18)
Cat Power - Stay (Wanderer, 10/5/18)
The Lone Bellow - Pink Rabbits (The Restless, 10/19/18)
Amos Lee - What’s Going On (My New Moon (Deluxe), 8/31/18)
Hozier & Mavis Staples - Nina Cried Power (Nina Cried Power EP, 9/6/18)
Jim James & Resistance Revival Chorus - Over and Over (originally released on Uniform Distortion, 6/29/18)
Mumford & Sons - Beloved (Delta, 11/16/18)
John Prine - Boundless Love (The Tree of Forgiveness, 4/13/18)
Bradley Cooper - Maybe It’s Time by Jason Isbell (A Star Is Born Soundtrack, 10/5/18)
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit - Last of My Kind (live) (Live from the Ryman, 10/19/18)
John Mellencamp - Stones In My Passway (Other People’s Stuff, 12/7/18)
Lauren Daigle - Still Rolling Stones (Look Up Child, 9/7/18)
Snoop Dogg & Sly Pyper - Sunrise (Snoop Dogg Presents Bible Of Love, 3/16/18)
Ensemble of Jesus Christ Superstar Live In Concert - Simon Zealotes/Poor Jerusalem (Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert - Original Soundtrack of the NBC Television Event, 4/6/18)
December - Elijah on a Hill (Sisters and Brothers, 4/21/18)
U2 with HP Hoeger & Rusty Egan - Love Is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way (7/20/18)
R.E.M. - It’s The End Of The World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine) (live) (R.E.M. at the BBC, 10/19/18)
Queen - We Are The Champions (live) (Bohemian Rhapsody: The Original Soundtrack, 10/19/18)

Monday, December 3, 2018

Come Christmas (TOTR 347)

Street Lights - Homeward Bound
Salvador Buttersworth - Christmas Comes Four Days After Winter Solstice
Alec Duffy - Every Day Is Christmas
The Cave Singers - Evergreens
Ryan Adams & the Cardinals - Evergreen
Linda Ronstadt & Stone Poneys - Evergreen Part One
Mipso - A Couple Acres Greener
Calexico - Green Grows The Holly
Peter Mayer - Green
Jim James - Oh My Christmas Tree
Darren Vincent et. al. - O Christmas Tree
Rodney Crowell - Come Christmas
Wilder Adkins - Come Thou Long Expected Jesus
Muse - Dig Down
Phosphorescent - Christmas Down Under
Sufjan Stevens - X-mas Spirit Catcher
Michael McDonald & Twinkie Clark - Children Go Where I Send Thee
The McCrary Sisters - Go Tell It On The Mountain
Wendell Kimbrough - Christmas Eve
Kevin Briody - ‘tis Christmas
Eric Clapton - Silent Night
The Avett Brothers - I Thank God
Beta Radio - Coventry Carol / King Without A Mountain
Winterbloom - Of The Magi
The Roches - Hallelujah Chorus
MaMuse - Hallelujah
Melissa Etheridge - Glorious
[You can listen to the low-fi audio archive of this show here:]
[Mixed from my Lenovo Flex laptop to the WTTU board through an aux cord, ripped in Mono with Audacity on the studio Dell, exported as Mp3]

Monday, November 26, 2018

Holding Together (TOTR 346)

Planet Earth Rock And Roll Orchestra
All Songs by Paul Kantner and Grace Slick, et al

Blows Against The Empire (released November 1970)
The Baby Tree
Let’s Go Together
A Child Is Coming
Have You Seen The Stars Tonite

Sunfighter (released November 1971)
Diana - part 1
Look At The Wood
When I Was A Boy I Watched the Wolves
Earth Mother
Diana - part 2
Holding Together

Baron von Tollbooth & the Chrome Nun (released May 1973)
Ballad Of The Chrome Nun
Flowers Of The Night
Your Mind Has Left Your Body
Harp Tree Lament
Sketches Of China

Mickey Hart - Deep, Wide and Frequent
David Crosby - Tamalpais High (At About 3)

Readings from Got A Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane by Jeff Tamarkin [You can listen to the low-fi audio archive of this show here:]
[Mixed from my Lenovo Flex laptop to the WTTU board through an aux cord, ripped in Mono with Audacity on the studio Dell, exported as Mp3]

Monday, November 19, 2018

Sing To The Mountain (TOTR 345)

Mercury Rev & Margo Price - Sermon
Billy Brag & Wilco - California Stars
Woody Guthrie - This Land Is Your Land
Arlo Guthrie - I’m Going Home
Strange Creek Singers - Will The Circle Be Unbroken
Old & In The Way - Working On A Building
Jerry Garcia Band - Deep Elem Blues
Blue Sky Boys - Turn Your Radio On
The Skillet-Lickers - Molly Put The Kettle On
The Foothills - Nothing Lasts Forever
Dead Testaments - Washed Up
Hiss Golden Messenger - Back To The River Again
Sam Bush - Same Ol’ River
Railroad Earth - Mighty River
Iron & Wine - Autumn Town Leaves
Tall Heights - Back To Autumn
Greensky Bluegrass - Living Over
Elephant Revival - Sing To The Mountain
Trout Steak Revival - Brighter Every Day
Jim James - All In Your Head
Jim James - All Things Must Pass
The Avett Brothers - Roses And Sacrifice
Mumford & Sons - Beloved
Rayland Baxter - Let It All Go, Man
AHI - Just Pray [You can listen to the low-fi audio archive of this show here:]
[Mixed from my Lenovo Flex laptop to the WTTU board through an aux cord, ripped in Mono with Audacity on the studio Dell, exported as Mp3]

Wednesday, November 14, 2018

The Beautiful Mystery of R.E.M.

The American beauty and the southern mystery of R.E.M. music and fandom are like this: the tangle of kudzu on the cover of Murmur, meeting the jangle of Peter Buck’s guitar, getting merged with the mumble of Michael Stipe’s surreal vocals, being held high by Mike Mills’ harmonies and bass, and finally grounding out in the rhythms of drummer Bill Berry.

In the early 1980s Athens from which R.E.M. emerged, there was innocence and irreverence in the air, a sweet edge of sloppiness, an adamant amateur hope, an unconventional unprofessionalism. Somehow, a 60s folk-rock garage-band feeling emerged from it all, but they were not trying to be the next-big-thing, not a “thing” even. While Michael Stipe has some social and artistic kinship with Bono, the Georgia artist does not share the same over-the-top gregarious audacity with the Irishman. The sense that R.E.M. were a kind of pop culture cosmic accident, this notion is inescapable and remains today. Yet too many forces converged and collided all at once to make this mysterious beauty  real.

This beautiful mystery, yes, has been with me for more than 30 years, and it’s been maybe 32 years, give a day or two, since I have sat down to write about this band’s sweet sonic canon. Several days ago, the band released a box set of live music from the BBC in the United Kingdom, more than 100 songs clocking in at more than seven hours, and this occasion has prompted me to cook up a new R.E.M. mixtape and to finally scribble these words.

One of my first R.E.M. memories was the MTV program “The Cutting Edge,” produced by the band’s record label IRS. Around the time of the group’s second record Reckoning, they recorded an acoustic set and interview for this show. It lasted just a few minutes, but I taped it with the VCR, and I would listen to and watch it over and over again. These guys spun college radio wisdom and a fierce spirit from their thrift-store threads, includings Stipe’s defiant stance: “We don’t strive to be a critics’ band. We don’t strive to be a band, really.”

Early R.E.M. intoxicated me. To relisten to the first three albums, over and over again and again on repeat these last few weeks, this experience has been to transport myself to the booth at the high school radio station, to a thrift store from where I imitated the hippy punk fashion aesthetics of my underground heros, to a turntable in the basement of our house on Timberline Road.

It’s hard to say now just how huge it was that I got to be a DJ on high school radio in the mid-1980s. The “radio shows” I had been inventing on a cassette recorder in my parents’ basement were now suddenly real weekly radio, with large unwieldy crates of albums packed into the trunk of the car and carted over to the high school, recorded live in a booth with two turntables, with legit studio equipment, and beamed all over the metro Detroit area airwaves on 88.3 FM.

I had two close friends in high school radio, and they were both one class ahead of me; so when I was a junior in fall 1984, they were seniors. They mentored me and encouraged me on the newspaper staff and into the radio booth. I think my show began in spring 1985 and was first called “Music For Thinking People”; senior year I changed the show to “United Underground.” Both boys were part of my suburb’s Jewish community, and we bonded in our incurable obsession for popular music, for rock and roll.

Although we all inhaled new music like oxygen around that time, we each had that one artist that mattered more than all the rest. For S. it was New Jersey’s Springsteen. For me it was Ireland’s U2. For J. it was Georgia’s R.E.M.—and while I respect the Boss, it was R.E.M. that captivated me on a par with the quartet from Dublin.

In early December 1985, Joe drove us to Ohio. I don’t remember what I told my parents or my school, but I am sure of the essential detail: I just skipped out on two days of 12th grade to go on R.E.M. tour. We made it to Columbus for the first night and then Indianapolios the next day. I also don’t remember getting a hotel room, but with it being December, it’s hard to imagine sleeping in our car either. If we’d spent an all-nighter on Waffle House coffee, I think I would have recalled that detail. We had arranged in advance to have comp seats as the DIY journalists we were. This came complete with photo passes and backstage passes.

The Minutemen were the opening act for these two shows; sadly, singer D. Boon would die a few weeks later. It’s amazing to me in retrospect that an avant-garde left-wing California punk band would be the opening act for rising stars like R.E.M., and I will always treasure getting to meet and visit with D. Boon after these shows. Thirty-three years on, I am still grateful for friends like S. and J. and for parents who allowed these adventures and most grateful for the adventures themselves.

To this day, I am still following U2 like a fanatic—attending countless shows, writing numerable reviews, networking with fans at shows and all over the interwebs, and even presenting on the band at the international “U2 studies” gatherings. Since R.E.M.’s retirement in 2011, I have regretted that my pure form of concentrated R.E.M. fandom faded after the 1980s.

Back in those early years, I think I already assumed that I would follow R.E.M. and U2 most closely for all my life, but that did not quite work out. For personal and professional and mostly financial reasons, serious rock fandom for me basically skipped the 1990s. When I reunited most intently and intensely with U2 in 2001, the same never happened for R.E.M. and me, although I did continue to listen to and follow their music.

While 90s R.E.M. is a blur to me, mainly because I was in another world, from the having-a-baby days to the hobo-traveling days to the founding-a-commune days to the grad-school days. While I did not follow closely because for the simple fact that I was not buying CDs then, I did listen. To get new R.E.M. was to wait until I was visiting my brother’s house, to show up with some cheap, dime- store, blank cassettes shoved in my backpack and to hang out in his music room, taping whole albums and also doing my favorite, mixing mixtapes.       

Listening again and writing about them again, these gestures are helping me complete that perfect circle. I dream every day of an R.E.M. reunion, but if the adamant statements of the former bandmates are true, that is never going to happen. For that and many other reasons, revisiting the R.E.M. we do have, such as the epic new release, is important to the lifelong R.E.M. fan and to any new fans they might gain in their retirement through the long legacy of the back catalog.