Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Road Tripping with a Dragon

I'm just coming down from a wonderful invigorating weekend in Champaign, where I took my little dragon buddy Sammy to a TaeKwonDo tournament on the campus of my alma mater. Champaign-Urbana will always have a special place in my heart; it's where the political fire in my belly got lit and the musical fire (that was lit when I was six watching my big brother's garage band) was stoked to a flaming burn that still rages to this day, and it's where I spent four years trying to figure out what kind of writer I was going to be (a question I still haven't answered...) It helps that I had terrific hosts, Cynthia and Ernie, who understand about remembering and celebrating your past but also live in the present. They have a pair of kids too and Sammy got along swimmingly with them.

We started the weekend arriving at the local martial arts dojo just in time for Sammy to do a workshop with Chief Master Minton, apparently a legend in the TKD world and the legend is justified. Minton is a 73-year-old rockstar of a guy -- eyes popping out of his head, quick with both the moves and the sense of humor. There wasn't a person in the house (kids, adults and spectators) who wasn't enchanted with him. Sammy was in the front row and didn't need to be told to keep his "eyes on the instructor." Who could take their eyes off this guy? Amazing fun stuff, and I love a good workshop whether it's physical or mental. It helped tucker out a rather nervous Sammy so he could rest up for the next morning's tourney.

Let me say this now: I'm so proud of Sammy! He was kind of nervous about his first major tournament, especially since it was built up by the previous night's four hour drive. As soon as we checked in, he headed to the side gym and practiced his forms. He ended up in a group where he was the lowest ranking belt (he is a Camo, the rest of the kids were green and purple) and I think he was the only kid in his group for whom this was a first tourney. He did well on his forms, but for sparring he was paired in the first round with a purple belt who had been to some 15 other tournaments and was thus much more used to the pressure. Nevertheless, Sammy came out swinging and landed the first blow -- a two point kick to his opponent's head. The kid was taken by surprise, and Sammy never let up. They spar until five points, and Sammy was leading this kid 4-2, and then the other kid made his comeback. Sammy was clearly disappointed, but after a couple of minutes he looked around to see what he was up against and he genuinely believed me when I told him, "You have nothing to feel bad about. You went the distance with a kid who's two belts above you and has lots more competitive experience and you had him scared." I think that's what I'm most proud of -- that he still felt good about the experience and learned something. We told his instructor what happened (he was judging another ring) and his instructor was also smiling and very proud of him.

We did dinner at The Esquire Lounge, a place that in my day was an great after downtown-hours watering hole and the site of many an engaging political argument. It's now three times its former size, has a full-service kitchen, and not a bad place to bring in the kids for, as Cynthia and Ernie's kids term, "Fries and Peanuts." It's one of those joints you toss your peanut shells on the floor; and the fries are indeed excellent. Problem was, it wasn't until we parked downtown that it occurred to us, "Oh, it's St Pat's day. It's Amateur Night. Great." Still, I had an excellent bar cheeseburger, Sammy enjoyed an excellent bar pizza, and we both got a kick out of dumping our peanut shells on the floor whilst Wisconsin dumped Vanderbilt to the ground as well. The whole weekend, centered around the TKD tourney, was relaxing in that I had nothing, I mean, nothing else to do except wander around the campus of my alma mater, and sit inside and outside Cynthia/Ernie's wonderful house enjoying this weirdly wonderful summer weather, drinking coffee, wine, listening to birds chirp and kids play and catch up with good friends.

Weird thing is that, as Cynthia pointed out, we weren't all that tight when we were undergrads, (we barely knew each other!) but over the years via our mutual blogs (and I also have to credit FB) we've become quite tight: we both have discovered a lot of friendships in our lives are like this. (Heck, some of my best friends are iVillage women I've never met in person, but have known since Stella was a baby and I was looking for diaper rash advice...). Over Ernie's homemade Sunday morning biscuits I wandered around their garden taking pictures of the outdoor bric-a-brac they purposefully littered all over.

With Discovery World membership in hand, one our way through Chicago we popped into the Field Museum because Sammy is one of those kids who adores dinosaurs, so it was in and out. The whole dinosaur exhibit is part of an "evolving world" thing, that starts out with primordial ooze and take us through five mass extinctions through to the modern day. We both pulled a bronx cheer as we walked into the Soldier Field parking lot just south of the museum and headed home. I'm still recovering from a oxymoron of a weekend -- busy yet relaxing. And there's a lot to be said for just going on a road trip with just one of your kids, a mom and my boy kind of weekend where we could jam out in the car, eat boy food, and just run around. I'm wonderfully spent.

Catching up with a different kind of dragon

smartass Drugs Dragons guitarist by V'ron
smartass Drugs Dragons guitarist, a photo by V'ron on Flickr.

The week before last Saturday night was another "Well, I don't know what to go see so I'll pop into the Circle A and see what Warwick's brought in" kind of night, and it did not disappoint. Paul Setser at the door extracted a couple of bucks from my wallet (it was already 9:30 and we both knew I'd only see the last half hour of the set) and it was a packed room for Drugs Dragons, a band I hadn't seen since I caught then three years ago at a garage festival headlined by the Mistreaters, which should give you an idea of what they were about. What I learned later was that they broke up for awhile and last Saturday was one of the first times they played out probably since that Mistreaters gig. Good pick. Snotty little guitarist with a constant ironic smirk on his face, a Mistreater on the other guitar,intense rhythm section all fronted by a guy who seemed to have failed a Die Monster Die audition and said, "Well, then I'll start my OWN band, dammit." Great vocal range -- from gravelly to outright pissed off hollering. As the Circle A was packed, they had no room to move around, (neither did anybody) so I pointed my 50mm lens at his face that was less than 2 feet away from me and got plenty of grainy, dark, gravelly shots that fit him despite the fact they are photographically worthless.

That turned out to be 30 minutes of tight, intense, garage rock that had elements of the aforementioned Die Monster Die, some heavy sludgy grindcore, but high energy and catchy tunesmithing enough to land on any good locally-produced tribute to the spirit of garage rock. No one influence overpowered. I sidled over to where I spotted Keith and Janet Brammer afterwards who agreed with me: "That was the best $2 I've spent in a long time!" (Brammer answered, "I've paid $20 to see much worse!") They were great. One of the band member's girlfriend overheard me and was pleased that I liked the band -- obviously I was somebody that band didn't know and it was good to hear positive feedback from a stranger, and not just one of the obvious friends of the band that squeezed into the room. And I was glad to see a band girlfriend who was actually into the music of the band. Ahhhh, young ones carrying the torch.

That's a torch that's being relit by Brammer and Tom Tiedjens, who were telling me that they they were just discussing " this pretty much high school reunion we're getting ready for," in the form of the Lest We Forget show that's coming up. Both their bands will be there (Brammer of course with Die Kreuzen, Tiedjens with the remains of Those X-Cleavers.) The lineup is packed and each band will be 20 minutes ("Gee, is this Trash Fest?"). I was just arriving in Milwaukee when most of this lineup was in its heyday, so I'll be meeting people I've only heard tell of, and listening to stories and I'll document it the best I can. It's what I do.

Friday, March 02, 2012

Blown Away on a Birthday

Frank gives Ted a birthday gift by V'ron
Frank gives Ted a birthday gift, a photo by V'ron on Flickr.
OK, just as I get done ranting about how nobody really wants to play on their birthday, Ted Jorin decides he not only wants to play, but play in two bands. So last Saturday night, a last minute addition to an already garage-y, psychedelic, surfing, and repeat, garage lineup resulted in one of my favorite new finds of the season. The original lineup was Dr Chow (if you're tired of reading about them, understand that I have a vested interest in their success) and the Dick Satan Trio, who have evolved into a really dangerously great surf quartet. Even House of Hamburg proprietor Timmy O'Keefe was blown away.

But let's back up a bit. The night started with a blistering high energy garage set from The Northside Creeps, which were basically the Dick Satan rhythm section (Ted and "Kip Satan") and Ted's brothers. Great, punchy guitar-driven blues pop songs that would have made it onto any Pebbles/Nuggets compilation, delivered by guys who look like the Beau Brummels and sound like the Chocolate Watch Band. I could not tear myself away from a set that included rants, ballads, and really solid sweaty songwriting. Ted later explained to me how this relatively new band sounded so tight: the songs are some 10 years old. And one of the brothers is living in Kentucky; he's just in for the weekend so they slammed together a rehearsal and came up with the freshest thing I've heard in a long time. Problem is, given the distance here, a local show from these guys is going to be a rare thing indeed, and that's a bummer. We could use some snappy new garage in this town to blow us away.

Then the younger brothers Jorin put down their axes and the older "Brothers Satan" plug in and jump into some strange, sinful garage before Ted, in his birthday exuberance, blows out his bass amp. How the hell do you blow up a bass amp? And of course, Dr Chow's Joe Polizzi, was nowhere to be found. Figures. The one night he doesn't show up early and we need to borrow his bass amp. And I say "we" because I needed to hear what was promising to be the best Dick Satan set yet. Those devils were amped up. Fortunately he arrived, giant ass bass amp literally in tow, and was really cool about it. And Dick Satan delivered on their promise -- best set I've seen yet. Very tight, messing with stops and breaks, like an unexpected wave crashing into the breakwaters and pilings before washing up on shore. Rick Satan keeps the precision going, Dick, the effective rhythm, and Artie Christ (Ted's nom d'demon) has really learned how to play the garage/surf bass.

Not to fear, Dr Chow's had to follow Voot Warnings, and they can follow this. Sometimes I don't know how Frank does it. How does he not only work up all the energy, but keep it so fresh each time? I've heard these songs a hundred times, and every time, Frank manages to make 40 year old tunes sound like they were just written. And Ted was in glee, sitting up in front, drinking it all in and getting blown away. See Ted? You don't wanna play on your birthday. You wanna just take it in. (But I'm glad you did.)

Allright, who's throwing a band birthday party for themself next?