Friday, December 19, 2014

Final thoughts on the Serial podcast

**Spoiler Alert**  You probably don't want to read this if you haven't finished the show yet.  

The final episode of Serial just posted, and the ending was what most of us, deep down, have been expecting for a while now--inconclusive. I'm sure that many in the blog and twitterspheres will bemoan that the huge buildup did not satisfy our internal OCD nature to put everything neatly in its place; yes, there is a point to be made there, but there's much more to it.

For several weeks, I've been thinking about why this story, this particular podcast, has exploded through the country and even the world (as I wrote about here). Complicated murder mysteries are as old as western fiction, so there's nothing new there, and the idea of listening to podcasts barely existed out of the technocrat/NPR world. So what was it about this show that culminated in a national experience of waiting for new shows to be posted on Thursday mornings and then discussed, dissected, and theorized?

Let's go back in time for a second: do you remember the movie Adaptation? You know, it was the one where Nicholas Cage was actually really, really good! One of the plot twists was that a struggling screenwriter was unable to make his story work until he wrote himself into it. That has been on my mind lately as I listen to Koenig and her partners move this murder case along. The appeal of this story is not so much the possibility of discovering a truth, but instead, it is Koenig's and ultimately our own connection to the case.

The underlying force and fascination with this story is the confusion, frustration, flip-flopping, and passion of the storyteller. If Koenig did not write herself into this story, Adaptation style, then it would have only been an interesting and currently unsolvable case, and we have thousands of those to choose from. Hell, we have dozens of TV shows about real, unsolvable cases to choose from.

This story has caught fire throughout the world for reasons that any up-to-date low level marketing executive can explain: in the millennial-led world of digital mediums, we expect to be active participants in whatever our attention turns to. And while we are not actively moving this particular story, we are active by proxy. That connection is made possible through the emotional honesty that Koenig delivers throughout the series. From moments of doubt to the very human moments of distraction, such as "There's a shrimp sale at the Crab Crib."

If there were any doubts about Koenig’s ability to masterfully craft a story, and there weren't, this final episode should erase them. The fact that she was not able to uncover the facts to solve the case does not, and should not, ultimately matter. We all jumped onto this story knowing good and well that was a possibility, since we followed their investigation in real time. No one will accuse the crew of not exhausting every lead and possibility. What should be important is how she took a very difficult situation with no definite ending and was able to wrap up this series in the same compelling way in which it started. I tried to imagine how I would put together the final episode with the information at hand, and I wouldn't even know where to start. In my hands, it would have been on par with the disappointment of opening Al Capone's vault.

Thoughts on the final episode and overall case

The other half of the emotional connection that has driven the popularity of this show is everyone's desire for Adnan to be innocent. The further we traveled down the road, the more we believed there would be an "ah-ha" moment of clarity. Koenig mostly tried to remain undecided and objective, but you could still hear the desire for Adnan’s innocence in her voice. She liked him and was cheering for him. So were we, right? Yet the back and forth does not let up, even at the very end, when she admits the possibility of him doing it is just as realistic as any other crazy possibility out there.

The final episode could have been titled “Everyone is lying.”

What was left unsaid that I believe we are all thinking is that Jay’s story is much more fabricated than the small lies he’s caught in. A possible key to this case is who Jay thought was in the van the night he was working at the video store. Jay was obviously scared of whoever killed Hae. He was so scared that there's a real possibility that he would rather lie to convict Adnan than turn over the real killers. I have a hunch that the 3rd party theory ran strong with Koenig and her crew, but they did not have enough facts to back it up and therefore express it on the show.

The other part that was left unsaid and will be a popular criticism is that we probably just spent 3 months listening to a story that didn't even happen. Just like on live TV (which hardly exists anymore) this was the chance we all agreed to take. There's a real possibility that both Jay and Adnan are lying and that most of the story Koenig learned never actually happened.

So instead of concluding the show by successfully identifying who is telling the truth, we ended with an examination of the nature of truth. In the beginning, we all expected to just dig in and find out which of the two stories makes sense and who is lying--a classic Law and Order style wrap-up. But as This American Life has continually shown us through the years, life is messier than that. The truth is not always found in hours of interrogation, by using our gut instinct, or by just applying what we know to be true. Sometimes half-truths are murkier than outright lies. Sometimes ultimate truth will never be found, no matter how hard you look.

But I believe one truth was found in this journey--the power of a great journalist and storyteller to tell a radio-style story is still alive and well in this multimedia world, and this journey was well worth the time.

--Brian Paul Swenk

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Year of the Podcast: Why Serial is the Elvis of Podcasts.

2014 could be "The Year of the Podcast."

It does seem that the term has been around for a very long time (actually it's just 10 years old), but this year was the first time we've seen a "podcast" grow out of the niche techie world into the mass media zeitgeist.  The moment that the bugle call announcer of all things popular, Rolling Stone, gave the freshman podcast Serial a full, color page in its magazine, I knew these little intellectual nuggets would no longer exist solely within their underground aural strata.

For the last decade, podcasts have existed for their own niche markets, each catering to a specific, and often specialized crowd. Cooking, religion, fitness, sports--you could make a podcast on anything, do it inexpensively, and if you produced good content you could gather several thousand faithful listeners.

While some shows grew to over a million listeners, such as the always compelling NPR based "This American Life," there was no single podcast that connected huge swaths of the country together in a shared experience until Serial. Serial is the Elvis Presley of podcasting.

Serial reopens the case of the murder of a 17 year old girl in Baltimore Co in 1999, for which her ex-boyfriend is serving a life sentence for and has always maintained his innocence. The podcast is released weekly.

Whereas most shows are produced for specific target markets, this one connects everyone with a real story, told in real-time discovery, by an impassioned Sarah Koenig. But most impressively, it has developed an audience of listeners who have never listened to a podcast before. This American Life took 4 years to reach a million listeners; Serial did it in 6 episodes. High school teachers across the country are adjusting lesson plans to include Serial, in one case even replacing Shakespeare's "Hamlet." (English snobs may be revolted by this idea, but imagine the teacher's happiness with just finding something teenagers will actually engage with. It's hard to blame them.)

According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, Serial is the fastest podcast to reach 5 million downloads in iTunes history, and is the top podcast in the U.S., Canada, the U.K., and Australia, and in the top 10 in Germany, South Africa, and India.

Sara Koenig surrounded by Serial producers
Serial is serious, addictive, sobering, revelatory, and keeps you guessing throughout. It's a classic whodunit crime drama that unfolds with every answer leading to another question, which Koenig and her crew exhaustively and honestly chase down. But most importantly, it's a true story, and I think that's where a lot of the magic of podcasts lies. There is something both refreshing and captivating about combining the idea of the turn of the century old time radio shows with true, American stories, that can and do happen in our hometowns. There's a power in just hearing a voice tell a great story and comparisons to the golden age of radio are justified.

The reason I love particular podcasts so much is they are both a bastion of independent journalism and an efficient communication tool for smart, passionate people. Sending your voice to millions of listeners has never been this easy and cheap, so there is an inherent freedom for journalists to dig deep into stories without the over-the-top commercial pressures of other mediums. These people are driven by their passion and insatiable curiosity, which is more than worth the once a year fundraising or minute long sponsor recognition at the end of the shows. Cheap does not mean free.

If Serial opens the door to millions of people harkening the golden age of radio, then here are a few "must listen" podcasts.  (If you're confused on how podcasts work, here's a how-to link.)

While many of the most popular podcasts are NPR shows that serve both mediums, there is one pure podcast that also has an impressive buzz around it: Dan Carlin's Hardcore History

Carlin's fresh take on history and masterful storytelling rise above almost everything in the podcast world. The stories are anywhere between 2 and 15 hours long, which seems daunting at first, but once you're into them it feels more like binge-watching your favorite TV show than a history lesson. Again, it's the passion that drives the success of the show, which was recently recognized as the best classic podcast on iTunes. Load one on your device before leaving on a long drive and the hours will fly by as he explains how the red scares of the U.S. in 1920 and the 1950's are descendent of the French Revolution, or using the ideas of Planet of the Apes and biker gangs to describe the beginning of the so-called "Dark Ages." I've only listened to 2 shows, but I'm hooked.

My two other favorites are the aforementioned This American Life and Radio Lab. Similarly using the format of taking an idea and digging deep to see where it takes them, both are also driven by the unique and sincere personalities of the hosts. Each episode is about an hour long and each show is a compact nugget of intellectual curiosity that can range from funny, intriguing, amazing, and compelling. You never know what you'll get, and be warned, especially in This American Life, the show that doesn't sound interesting in the description can be unexpectedly heart-wrenching.

We have the ability to surround ourselves with music on a near-constant basis, which is both nice and exhausting. Personally, I've started making long drives with these great stories, and the hours fly by for me. If you've never tried a podcast, just go into iTunes and explore the options. Let me know if you find one that you love.

--Brian Paul Swenk

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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Why do good people vote for bad ideas? Emotion

There is still one piece of the recent election results that puzzles me, but first let me say this isn't so much a political piece, but a psychological piece. I'm fascinated by what makes people tick, what motivates them, what they believe and why, and, more specifically, why people who are presented with overwhelming evidence act against their interests. Even more specifically, why do good, smart people vote for bad candidates with horrible ideas?

As a society who wants to move forward we need to figure this shit out.

We all have friends who are somewhat or very conservative, and just like any other personality trait, it just makes them who they are. They aren't blinded by religion, hate, racism, or a "nation of idiots" as the comedian Andy Borowitz joked after the election this month, even though a small vocal minority can make it seem that way. (I really do believe the bile posted on social media is the exception and not the majority; maybe I'm naive or underestimating the Fox News brainwashing power, but I know many conservatives who are great people.)

People who have the conservative personality trait are usually hard-working, honest, smart, and driven. (Think of your friends, neighbors, and co-workers here, not FB trolls.) So my question is how can they allow such a ridiculous set of people (Palin, Cruz, McConnell, Limbaugh, Coulter, etc.) with really bad ideas (trickle down economics, climate change denial, overt racism and bigotry, etc.) lead the party?

In other words, how has the GOP turned into a party where knowledge and thought are a weakness and blindly consuming Fox News falsehoods and narratives is virtuous?

The day after the election I read something by The Rude Pundit that stuck with me:

"Here's everything you need to know about the 2014 midterms in a single anecdote: Last week, as he's mentioned, the Rude Pundit convinced the Rude Brother to vote for the Democrat, Mary Landrieu, in the Louisiana Senate race. The Rude Brother has long been Republican, but he is also for raising taxes on the wealthy, doesn't care about gay marriage, thinks abortion should be safe and legal, and agrees that humans contribute to climate change, among other beliefs. By just about any measure of politics, the Rude Brother is moderate-left, a Democrat. When the conversation ended, RB had said he would vote for Landrieu.

"Cut to Election Day morning. The Rude Pundit received a text from RB: "And, in the end, the kid couldn't pull the trigger for Mary." A little later, he got another message: "It felt dirty voting for Landrieu." RB went with Bill Cassidy, the Republican, who believes the opposite of everything RB believes in. In fact, Bill Cassidy will try to take health insurance away from our Rude Sister and her family. RB had said he has no problems with Obamacare. Well, he does now.

"There you have election 2014. A voter goes into the booth believing the world should be a certain way and then pushes the buttons for the candidates who will do everything they can to stop the world from being that way." --The Rude Pundit 11/5/2010

So, we have a country who voted progressive on almost all the ballot initiatives presented--gun control, personhood amendments, gay marriage, marijuana tolerance, minimum wage hikes--yet voted in the very Republicans who vow to act against them. One of the bigger "What the fuck?" political moments of our time, right?

The great question is "Why?!"

If we're going to move forward and not be held hostage by insane tea-party candidates with backwards ideas, we really have to figure this out.

We know from the great Jonathan Haidt why people vote either left or right. His book "The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion" was groundbreaking in the field of moral psychology by explaining how our brains are hard-wired to influence our world perceptions and therefore dictate how we operate politically. (If you're interested in moral psychology then this book is a must read.) Here's a Ted Talk with him presenting his research if you're interested.

But it still doesn't explain the Rude Pundit's brother, who agrees with progressive principles but "feels dirty" voting for progressives.

It doesn't explain how a country of smart, hard-working people can look to a party where Sarah Palin is seen as a rockstar or where a lady who literally ran a campaign based upon hog castration is able to win. Nor does it explain how a state such as Kansas, whose economy has been so decimated by conservative trickle-down economics that leading state GOP voices crossed lines and openly endorsed the democratic candidate, and yet the people of the state could not bring themselves to make that change.

For that, I have a few ideas.

Democrats are the party of the mind, and GOP is the party of the heart. The pervading wave of anti-intellectualism has created perfect conditions for nationalism to take hold without a "pull back the curtain" moment to discover the underlying racism and bigotry that hides beneath it. (And at its worst the nationalism is actually driven by the racism and bigotry, and the degree to which you see these motivating forces is based upon your overall confidence and optimism in your fellow Americans.)

When fears are presented and promoted as what should be the top political issues, people will go with heart. Images of bald eagles, soldiers, guns, and American flags resonate deeper than charts, graphs, and endless opportunity cost discussions. They give a sense of safety and security.

If I can create a sense of fear and then present the following solutions, then I have you. Turn your brain off, you have no use for that anymore. I will tell you what to fear, but I will also tell you the solutions. Don't let those bleeding heart liberals, who care about everyone and everything, sway you from protecting yourself and your family. God, Guns, and Power are all you need. You are chosen, you are special, and you must fight to keep it! 

It is so simple and so effective that I don't think the progressives will ever be able to match it.

A few weeks ago we voted in candidates who brought no new ideas to the table, and, worse yet, came with ideas and world-views that have been overwhelmingly discredited by anyone who gives a serious look to the issues. But we voted in people who give us simple, forceful solutions to what we've been told to fear.

We were motivated by conviction over practicality, by ideology over reality, and by emotion over reason.

Somehow we have to figure out how to combat emotion with the complex nuance of real solutions, and that's a tough thing to do. There are no easy answers, other than just have the confidence that we can trust each other to understand complex solutions for complex problems. We are not a nation of idiots--we've solved some very tough problems throughout our history. The historical precedent is there, but we just can't let ourselves be sidetracked with emotional dead-ends.

--Brian Paul Swenk

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Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Politics of fear and cowardice in the mid-term election.

While many of us are quite surprised at the outcome of yesterday's election, you have to remember that our government was founded on the "balance of power" and that balance is supposed to teeter-totter back and forth. That's one of the things that has always kept this country at the forefront of world dynamics and is true of all successful governments throughout history. It's a natural democratic phenomenon and will hopefully continue, albeit in a healthier fashion.

Conservative vs liberal is very much like having both extroverted and introverted friends. They are a balance and both bring important things to the table. Too much introversion can be crippling and too much extroversion can be exhausting. This dynamic dichotomy was the birth of democracy, and anywhere that democracy has been successful you will find a healthy exchange.

The problem is not that the balance of power has shifted to the GOP, the problem is how we are allowing it to happen. We have allowed a party to sweep an election not by bringing great ideas to the table, but by using the well-honed conservative trump card of fear. Obama, Isis, ebola, gay marriage, minimum wage, unions, terrorism, abortion, Putin -- these are the things to be feared for our very existence. The GOP, much like many religious institutions, understand that fear is one of the largest motivating factors in our psychological underpinnings and they use it masterfully.

There was hardly any mention of education funding, green tech revolution, the deficit being slashed, much lower unemployment, massive corporate profits, consistent job growth, and on and on, because there is no deep-seated motivating factors in those issues. You can't convince someone that those issues will destroy your family in the way gay marriage is bound to do.

Should the Koch Brothers dark lord money masters be ashamed of monopolizing people's fears so they vote against their interests? Well, yes, if they had any sense of morality. Even Darth Vader showed empathy in his last moments of life.

But that's not where the shame should be placed today. No, it should be placed squarely at the liberal party's feet. The shame of fear-mongering is only trumped by the shame of cowardice, and that is what the Democratic Party should be facing head-on at this very moment, if there is any sense of responsibility.

Almost every single economic indicator has been turned around in the last 6 years, and any bi-partisan assessment of Obamacare has shown it to be an overall positive boost to both the economy and the deficit, yet Dems chose to consistently place themselves as far away from Obama as possible. How do you plan to win an election with the message, "Our party has turned the economy around, but I don't agree with it?"  That is pure idiotic cowardice.  Alison Grimes' main platform was how different she was from the President and didn't even have the guts to say she voted for him -- that's cowardice.

Political bravery would have been to say:
"We've slashed the deficit, but we should do MORE by investing in massive infrastructure upgrades while interest rates are rock bottom."
"We've patched a massive hole in the health-care system by allowing so many middle and working class people to purchase affordable insurance, but we should do MORE by figuring out how to extend that to the people of the conservative states who are being held political hostage."
"We've seen Wall Street profits soar to an all-time high, but we should do MORE by closing tax-loopholes and directing that money to education and hi-tech manufacturing retraining programs."
"I will work tirelessly for a constitutional amendment to end the Citizens United ruling, not because it will further my career, but because it will make the country better for our kids and grandkids"

But no, Dems marched lock-step onto the battlefield of fear and thought they could stand mano a mano with the dark lord self-serving billionaires and come out on top.

In the moment it was all very confusing, but in hindsight it was a myopic self-crippling strategy that didn't deserve to win. But it was also a strategy that we, the electorate, sat back and allowed to happen on our watch. We have just as much shame and blame as the Dems out there fighting--maybe even more.

The pendulum swings, panic and fear rules, yet somehow the human race continues to move itself forward in progressive tides that are forever strengthened by education, knowledge and a deep-seated humanistic empathy. If you want true change then never stop learning, never stop challenging yourself to new ideas and concepts, find common ground, and don't settle for fear-based narratives; but most importantly, demand that the people who represent you do the same.  Politicians only suck because we've stopped caring and have allowed them to.

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Brian Paul Swenk

Friday, October 17, 2014

Why you should vote in the midterm election.

The midterm elections are coming up in a couple of weeks, and if you're like me, you've never even considered voting in them. They don't have the sex appeal of the Presidential elections where we can strut our civic participatory asses around feeling like we did our part for our "team," whichever side that is.

But extremist politics call for extreme efforts, like voting in the midterm elections.

Let's flip it around and look at why people won't/don't vote:

"Voting doesn't change anything."
If this were true the conservative movement wouldn't be making Herculean efforts behind the scenes to stop people from voting. The amount of gerrymandering, deception, and voter ID laws that happen behind the scenes is a true testament to the one act that can stop, or at least slow, the huge siphoning of wealth from the middle class to the top 1%.  If voting didn't matter, the Koch brothers would not dump hundreds of millions into purchasing elected officials. Trust me, it really does matter, they know it, and they're trying to disenfranchise or deceive as many people as possible.

"All politicians are crooked and paid off."
Here you have to differentiate between "all" and "a lot." One of the great misconceptions about politics is it only attracts crooks and liars, right? That is completely false. Most--and I do mean MOST--people get into politics for all the right reasons, the first and foremost being to just help the people around them. It is the system that takes good people and turns them bad. Congress is advised to spend half their time calling/begging/asking for money every single year to fund future campaigns. Of course the sheer pressure of this leads to short cuts and corruption. But not always! Follow Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for outstanding proof of good, solid, honest people in the US Congress. Remember, a congressional vote happened this year to stop the horrible Citizens United ruling by the supreme court that allows corporations to donate unlimited amounts of cash to politicians. It split party lines as Dems voted to overturn the ruling while Repubs voted to keep it. Are they working for the middle class or are they working for the billion dollar companies?

"Government is inherently evil and should be stopped at all costs"
In 2008 I supported Ron Paul and the beginnings of the Tea Party Movement and I fell into this line of thinking. It's like the great scene in the Steve Martin movie "The Jerk."  "I don't need any of this stuff! I don't need anything! Except the fire department! That's it! ....and police! But that's all! Okay...schools...and maybe the CDC and hospitals...and food safety...and roads...but that's all! Well maybe bridges...and workers rights...and social security for Gramma..."

North Carolina, which has always been one of the most admired and progressive states in the south has fallen into the hands of conservative extremists. We quickly plummeted to the bottom of country for education spending, and it became so bad that teachers across the state started driving to Raleigh every week for the "Moral Monday" protests. Do we really want to live in a state where teachers have to protest for the simple morality of education? Do we want leaders that have piledriven us so hard into the ground that national publications started printing articles with headlines like "The Decline of North Carolina?"

So go vote and show everyone in DC that the "scorched-earth" politics that started with Newt Gingrich and continue to this day with Mitch McConnell are not a winning strategy. McConnell has said, "As long as Republicans refused to follow Obama's lead, Americans would see partisan food fights and conclude that Obama failed to produce change." They're willing to damage thousands of lives and families to make the president look bad.

But all that aside, all we need to do is look at the last 100 years of American economic history. There are 30 years where we grew the middle class to such a degree that American really was "the greatest country in the world." This happened with the federal government heavily investing in the poor and middle class, which started a brilliant cycle of growth. Jobs were created because the middle class was large and had buying power, not because billionaires received massive tax breaks. Education, public works projects, and a middle class moving upwards--these are symptoms of a healthy vibrant economy.

If you think voting doesn't matter--if you think politics is an evil barren wasteland--just go back and look at what happened from 1945-1975. We might not ever be able to achieve that type of growth again, but we're too rich of a country to have 20% of our kids on food stamps when their parents are working as much as possible. That is unacceptable.

So vote, and just importantly, understand what works for the middle class. Here's a hint: it's not tax breaks for billionaires.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The Good and the Bad of the Lockn2014 Experience.

The "Lockn2014" Experience

Lockn' is a great festival, and it might be the future of music festivals, but I certainly hope not.

Lockn' is an experiment in the ever-changing music industry to find success in a world where the actual art of recorded albums is being devalued every day but the group experience of the art, such as massive festival packages, is slowly swelling into an over-saturated economic bubble

This experiment is one of division.
1. Divide the audience into "general admission," "VIP," and "Super-VIP."
2. Divide the bands into only the headliners.
3. Divide the experience into only the main experience.

You could not be at the festival and avoid the realization that everyone was divided into the haves and have-nots. General admission was relegated to the far sides of each stage, while VIP had the middle of the field, and Super VIP was so regulated in the front of the stages that they were not even letting the artists inside. Seriously, you just performed for 20K people, but security says that you can't go to the front of the stage to see anyone else play. (To be fair, I'm sure a headliner could get a production manager to escort them through, but if you walked up with an "artist pass" you were denied.)

Lockn2014 Experience
General Admission
And it's very easy to look at this and say, "What does it matter? If they want to pay more for a different experience, it is in their right, and it doesn't affect anything." But in a macro-sense the segregation of people through categories only diminishes the sought after group-experience that make festivals so attractive. Let's go back in time and hyper-divide Woodstock into socio-economic, age and even racial groups and suddenly it loses everything it is known for. Live music is meant to be a social, group experience, which is why festivals are so popular, but this trend of division only erodes the very essence of that spirit. Rolling Stone discussed this trend a few months ago.

Next step: divide the bands into major headliners that most of the people are there to see, and with a few small exceptions, only hire those bands to play. It seems as though the owners of the festival, two very experienced and seasoned music-industry guys, worked with the 80/20 rule of business. (80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes) 80% of the people will come for 20% of the bands, so just hire those 20% and save massive amounts of money on production, hospitality, and talent costs. From a business sense this is turning out to be a smart move as the festival doubled in attendance from a last year. (My observation, not actual stats.)

Third step: divide the entire experience into only the main experience, trim the fat, and hope no one cares. There was never more than one band playing at any given time during the festival. If you want to see music you have one choice. The success comes from the fact that the "one choice" is always a great choice.

I had a really great time there over the weekend and feel lucky to have experienced it, but the whole time I had a nagging feeling of "something is missing."  

What was missing? The random-discovery was missing. The walking-by-a-small-stage-and-hearing-something-new-and-fun-and-deciding-to-check-it-out was missing. The up-and-coming-band-who-just-blows-people-away-and-suddenly-has-a-new-following was missing. The discovering-a-new-band-who-you'll-get-to-see-for-$5-three-months-later-and-hang-with-them-after-the-show was missing. The essence of discovery, one of the main reasons people attend festivals, was missing. 

The festival was banking on the fact that most will not care about this, but I kept thinking, "I do." 

On the other hand, I heard many people say that Lockn' is their favorite festival and there's good reason for that. The collection of national talent, and cross band jamming, rivals the initial years of Bonnaroo, and takes place in the gorgeous Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains. Seeing your favorite artists play inspired, collaborative music in such a beautiful setting should be, and probably will be, a winning combination for years to come.

Overall we had a great experience. We camped in the car camping area and split half our time in general admission and half the time backstage watching the massive production efforts it takes to put on an event.  
WSMFP for their Sunday dusk set
Here's a rundown of my highlights:

Thursday September 4
The Wood Brothers:  My first time seeing them after spending countless hours listening to their albums, and they lived up to it all!  These guys are the real deal and they can hang with larger productions of national acts.
Oliver Wood  (Photo by G Milo Farineau)
I want to thank G. Milo Farineau for the use of his amazing photos!  You can find him here.

Lettuce:  They are led by the jazz-based guitarist Eric Krasno and are easily one of the hottest instrumental bands out there.  Their jazz/funk combination is driven by drummer Adam Deitch who can make a drum machine look sloppy.  One of those bands that just make everyone move.  

Umphrey's McGee: This band exists both in and out of the jam-band world. Their audience comes from the jam-band scene, but their music is tight and very coherent.  Their rendition of Floyd's "Shine On You Crazy Diamond" was sonic perfection and played with that special Gilmore-touch that few guitarists can ever achieve.

String Cheese: Possibly the MVP of Lockn. These guys seemed to really enjoy being on-stage all 4 sets and were focused and energetic the entire time.

Friday September 5
People's Blues of Richmond: The local boys who won the fan vote to play the festival.  They put on a great set and had no problem getting the early crowd engaged with them and filling up the massive stage with their raucous 3-piece sound.

Tauk: One of the few bands that will benefit the most from new people seeing them.  They, like Lettuce, are completely instrumental, and also like Lettuce, are not hindered by that fact.

Bill Kreutzmann's Locknstep All-Stars:  Unfortunately this set lived up to my expectations. Perfunctory renditions of Dead's originals and cover songs. Appearances by Keller Williams on "They Love Each Other" and "Bird Song," and Taj Mahal on "Stagger Lee" helped, but were not enough to kick the set into new or exciting territory.  Papa Mali singing "Wharf Rat" should just be stricken from the record.

String Cheese: Again, the highlight of the day as they played around with solid, earth-shattering funk grooves and let Kang soar over top.  Sam Bush sat in with his fiddle on "Colorado Bluebird Sky."

Phil and Friends: I've spoken to enough seasoned dead-heads to confirm that it wasn't just me, this set was one of the biggest disappointments in the whole festival.  No energy, everyone just going through the motions. Last year the Further set was one of the absolute highlights, but this year's Phil and Friends just wasn't working.

Saturday September 6
I had to drive to Charlotte for a BDL gig so I missed all of this, but I got credible reports that the Steve Winwood/Panic set was one of the best sets of the entire festival.
I heard mixed reports about Tom Petty. Some saying it was a great show, and others saying that it wasn't very energetic or engaging.

Sunday September 7
Grace Potter: She's the true rock-star of the whole festival. She put on an amazing show and had a very moving tribute to Brian Farmer, who passed away this week and was Warren Hayne's right hand man for many years. She spoke about being a brand new band touring with Gov't Mule and how amazing Farmer was back then, and how the crews of these festivals are the true all-stars.  Her solo rendition of "I Shall Be Released" was heart-wrenching. Here is a youtube clip of the tail end of the tribute and their renditions of "Released" and "I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends"

Willie Nelson: Putting Willie after Grace Potter was probably a mistake in hind-site as Willie's shows can be a little anti-climatic to begin with. But Willie is a living legend, a musical genius, and a bucket-list show for many people.

Allman Brothers: Many of us were here for this very moment. The Brothers are wrapping up their last tour of their 45 year career as the two guitarists, Warren and Derek, have announced their desire to bow out gracefully. Greg's health issues are also starting to overtake his ability to work.  As of now this was the last outdoor show they will ever play together. The first thing we noticed as all seven of them walked out were wearing matching t-shirts with Brian Farmer's face and both hands giving the famous one finger salute. Further testament to how much Brian Farmer meant to all these famous, successful musicians.

The Bros started out by playing the legendary album "At Fillmore East" in its entirety:

1. Statesboro Blues
2. Done Somebody Wrong
3. Stormy Monday
4. You Don't Love Me
5. Hot 'Lanta
6. In Memory of Elizabeth Reed
7. Whipping Post.

Then followed up with:
Midnight Rider
Mountain Jam > Blue Sky > Little Martha > Mountain Jam

Overall it was a great show, with only a few moments of the elder Brothers, Greg and the drummers, losing their place in the songs.  But the energy, soul, and drive of the early band were still very present with Derek and Warren channeling the essence of Duane Allman's passion for soul, R&B, and gritty southern rock and roll.

You can't be a part of the southern music scene without standing at the foot of the Allman Brothers' altar. For a band to exist 45 years and have so many figurative deaths and rebirths is unheard of. They're one of the most popular rock and roll bands to have ever lived, but yet, in my opinion, they are still underrated. So much of this festival exists because of Garcia and The Grateful Dead, but yet in the end we all turned to the greatest southern rock band of all time and watched them show us how it is truly done, all while wearing t-shirts in memorial to a man who was rarely ever seen onstage. It was a great moment, and for any critiques I've made above it will be moments like these that keep the festival magic alive.

Here's to all the hardworking crew members that make these great experiences happen.  RIP Brian Farmer.
Farmer ready to solve any issue that comes up.

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Friday, January 31, 2014

Why "Wagon Wheel" deserves the Grammy

A few days ago the song "Wagon Wheel" won a Grammy.  I'm here to say that no other song has deserved a Grammy more in the past several decades, at least.   It's not because it is the best song that has been written in the last 30 years, even though it is and always has been a great song.  But there is no other song that has traveled such an amazing path throughout its lifetime as this one.  It is the Indiana Jones of songs, traveling though the past and present, through all walks of societal and economic sub-strata of American life.  From the top musical pantheon to a lowly street musician; from Mexico to London to the dirt roads of Watauga County, NC and the bedazzled belt buckles of Music City, USA; from the in-the-know Americana underground to the trodden low-hanging-fruit of paparazzi proportions in the American zeitgeist--"Wagon Wheel" has touched them all.

Forget for a moment the reality of the Grammy Awards, which mostly recognizes people who turn music into industrial algorithms for mass consumption and mass profits.  Instead, imagine the ideological nugget that wants to recognize something great, something special, and something beautiful. The partial-life, death, and rebirth of "Wagon Wheel" is the antithesis of such deserved recognition.

The song began this journey as an out-take of the soundtrack to the 1973 movie, "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid."   It only survived because some bootleggers realized it was a hidden gem from Dylan that had never been recorded or performed.  The chorus was fully realized, but the lyrics are unintelligible.  Here it is:

After decades in the bootleggers' underground, one of the guys from Old Crow Medicine Show found a copy while visiting London and brought it back to Ketch Secor, fiddler and singer of Old Crow, who then wrote the verses. 

I first met the guys from Old Crow Medicine Show in Boone, NC when they were the house band for Tweetsie Railroad, a minor tourist attraction in the mountains of NC.  They were all living together, with their pet pig, in a house in rural Watauga County and were on the verge of being fired for the rank smell of unwashed clothes.  It was around the same time they got an offer to come to Nashville and appear on the Grand Ole Opry, where their career took off.   (A friend of mine says that they were not able to take their pig, so they killed it and ate it.  This may or may not be true.)

The track "Wagon Wheel" was the last song on their debut album, and was quickly picked up as a highlight.  A lot of people probably heard it for the first time from Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (Rawlings was producer of their album) when they would encore with it.   As the album spread through the old-time/bluegrass/Americana music scene, people started playing it more often.   For many years it was nothing more than a really great song.

Here's Old Crow's version, with its 22 million views on YouTube.  

Then there was a shift, and we all noticed it.  If you had a fiddle or banjo onstage people who appeared to have no interest in old-time fiddle music started coming up and asking for the "Rock Me Mama" song.  To this day I still have no idea how it made that leap from underground Americana to popular culture, but it did. 

The song that started as a bootleggers out-take from 1973 went to London, came back to the NC mountains, consumed the old-time/bluegrass scene, and then became a #1 country hit and #15 Billboard Hot 100 hit in 2013 deserves a Grammy.  It deserves a life-time achievement award of the highest magnitude.

The frustration you see from musicians being asked to play the song is never about it being a bad song.  The frustration comes from two sources, one of which is that the song is just way overplayed.  The other, less noticeable, issue is that old-time and bluegrass deserve better than to be boiled down to one song.  Those genres of music are lush with history and virtuosic beauty which can take a lifetime to master. They deserve more effort by the listener than to just be aware of a single song. 

All that aside, "Wagon Wheel" is a beautiful song with an amazing history.  I will steal a line from one of my most influential music teachers, Dr. Unsworth, when he spoke of special songs: "It's a great song.  Don't you wish you had written it?"