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Saturday, August 14, 2010

It's Just Me and You Tonight

Florence Nightingale - Nurse and Renewer of Society (1910)

I've grown more musically in the past two years than in the previous ten (at least) for a number of reasons.

Part of it was due to Henry's influence: upon joining the band I was exposed to and expected to learn a lot of classic rock that I had been peripherally aware of, but never really studied or tried to play.  Also, Henry didn't read music, so we learned by listening and doing, which is a very different process than starting with sheet music and reading notes and rests as if they are a fractions equation.  A lot of songs were an ongoing experiment: When we play live, I still my binder full of printouts from chordie.com with crossed-out chords and handwritten notes, many in his distinctive scrawl.  Even when I know the song by heart, I play better having it there.

The other factor in my ongoing education has been some of the new web-based tools that are designed to help expand your musical horizons.  The first of these was pandora.com, whose motto is the "the music genome project".  On this site, if you put in the name of a band or song, it won't play that band or song, but others that are like it based on a number of characteristics.  You can "thumb up" or "thumb down" the choices, and -- over time -- it will hone a "radio station" based on your choices.  You can save these channels so that this doesn't have to occur all in one session.  If you ignore it, Pandora will just continue to provide background  to whatever else you're doing.  The biggest limitation is that -- due to their licensing -- you can't just think of a song and play that song.  Your "station" may eventually play it, but not necessarily.  Also, it seems that it plays the songs you have not nixed, in the same order, each time you rejoin a channel.

The second site, which my friend Mark turned me onto, is called last.fm.  When I first joined, you could play any song in their catalog three times for free, but also features "radio stations" based on a particular artist, with the ability to say yea or nay to each track.  More of a social networking site than Pandora, last.fm allows you to "friend" people and view your musical compatibility with them, and share songs, artists and playlists.

For the statistics minded, last.fm also has a "scrobbling" feature that keeps track of how many times you listen to each song or artist, and allows you to see the same data for your friends and listen to .  If you want it to, it will calculate this data not only for songs you play on last.fm but also Windows Media, iTunes, Winamp and your MP3 player.  Why anybody needs to know this, I can't say for certain, but it's kind of interesting to watch the trends.  It can also be alarming: when one friend's feed repeated the same Slipknot song for two full hours, I got concerned and reached out to make sure he was not in some kind of crisis.  He just laughed at me.

The free-preview feature on last.fm went away this spring, and they suggested a new site called mog.com.  For a flat fee of just $5.99 a month, you can listen to whatever you want, whenever you want, which I consider a phenomenal deal.  Recently they added the ability to do so on a smartphone, which increases the fee to $9.99, still less than the cost of one CD.  Theoretically, if you have an unlimited data plan on your phone, you could do away with satellite radio (if you have it) and never buy a CD again.  Or almost never; while their catalog is huge, they don't have everything, and I still buy CDs from the unsigned and indie bands I like because I know they get paid more that way.

The net of all this is that I have become far more adventurous with what I listen to.  It is easy to get into a rut with the same artists you grew up with or what-have-you, but something about these sites saying with some authority "based on this, you might like this" has gotten me exploring more options, and I've had a great time with it.

Probably the best example of this is Honor by August, a DC-based band which both last.fm and mog.com gave a ringing endorsement.  That reminds me: another feature of last.fm is an alert when an artist you like is in your area.  As I gave them a preliminary spin, the site advised me this band would be in my area for two shows that same week!  Something told me to go check them out.  

The first attempt was a bust: I arrived at the Saint in Asbury Park way too early (although the guys were actually milling around their bus outside) and was told by the doorman to come back at 10pm.  I had dinner with friends and got back just in time to hear them end their set!  Apparently the door assumed I was there to see the headliner, Red Wanting Blue.

Next night at New York's Mercury Lounge, was more successful.   Ten minutes in, I was hooked!  I don't know how to explain their sound:  to me describing music is like describing wine... it's really easy to sound ridiculous.  But it is straight-up honest rock, a lot of power without being overwhelming or sloppy, and you just want to hear more.  Subject matter runs the gamut from the requisite lost love ("Johnny") to war ("Say It's Over") but even the "heavy" topics are delivered with an enthusiasm that's hard to resist.

Clearly someone has been paying attention: by winning contests, they have opened for Hanson and Bon Jovi at arena shows, and are regulars at a number of New York and DC's  better-known club venues.

Meeting the guys on the sidewalk afterwards, I hope I did not sound like too much of the breathless fangirl; but their live show just floods you with positive energy.  Had I been with my sister or the right friends instead of running solo, I would have been dancing for sure.

A few weeks ago, word came out via their Facebook page that the band was throwing themselves a benefit: the aforementioned bus needs some attention, and they're working on a new video.  The venue seemed unlikely to me: a well known Jersey "wedding factory" known as the Brownstone House (recently introduced to the wider world courtesy of the Real Housewives).  I knew two of the guys are originally garden-staters, but I wondered if three weeks was enough time to get enough people to fork over $50 (admission also included a beefsteak and all-you-can beer and wine) to make this a cash-positive venture.

Well once again, I need not have been concerned.  I showed up a bit late and walked into a full ballroom being entertained by Jersey's own Sunda Croonquist, and ducked into a seat next the merch guy I met in New York before she could tease me for interrupting her show.  I was quickly made to feel at home among fans from NY and DC.

The band took the stage shortly thereafter and once again ruled the night.  Here, lead guitarist Evan Field showed off his wireless skilz by touring the room as he cranked out his intricate solo to "Good Enough":

Honor by August perform "Good Enough" at the Brownstone in Paterson NJ  8/12/2010 - Thanks to The Riz Experience

As you can hear, the fans keep up with charismatic frontman Michael Pearsall because they know every word.  Bassist Chris Rafetto is kinda the low-key one, but there are no slouches in this band. Even drummer Brian Shanley gave a long and elaborate solo early in the night.

(From left) Brian Shanley, Michael Pearsall, (Michael's aunt),
(Sunda Croonquist's daughter), Chris Rafetto, Evan Field

Talking to the guys, it's quickly apparent why people were willing to drive five hours each way on a weeknight and stick around to help until the last guitar was back on the bus before starting their long trek home.  You really do feel like that not only do they love what they do, but they very much appreciate the people who come to see them.  For starters, I met them once on the street for two minutes but Pearsall immediately came over and greeted me by name when he saw me.  Field smilingly endured one of my long-winded stories, and everyone is insisting I haul my cookies down to DC the weekend of Sept. 11th for a special show at one of their favorite venues.

I think I'm gonna do just that!  And if the guys are taking the stuff out of the bus when I get there, Instead of heading for the bar I'll grab an amp or a crate and muscle it inside for 'em.  But that says more about who they are than who I am.

My pictures from the show on flickr.  Check out more Honor by August at honorbyaugust.com, YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Last.fm

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