Monday, July 27, 2015

Feed-A-Smile (07.25.15) & Homes For Our Troops (07.26.15)

Music is primarily thought of as an art (for the practitioner) and a means of entertainment (for the listener). And it's fine to leave it as simple as that; even if music had no other purpose, that would be plenty good enough. After all, both for musicians and music lovers, it is often described as an essential aspect of fulfilling and enriching people's lives. Some people regard music as important to them as the food they eat or the air they breathe (though I tend to think of this as hyperbole; you can go ten minutes without listening to a song much more easily than without taking a breath). Regardless, in terms of quality of life, music can stand alone for many people as being crucial to their happiness.

Why, then, should we bother making music something even more important than its already key role? Sometimes, music can be a rallying point for action that's above and beyond the music itself. Think back to the cultural change that was affected by start of rock music in the 1950s, or by the musically-oriented hippie culture of the late '60s. Think back to the mid 1980s, when musical projects such as Band-Aid, USA for Africa, and Live Aid helped raise awareness and money for critical world events. There are plenty of other art forms out there... painting, sculpture, dance, and many more. Music, though, has a common-man, mass appeal that can penetrate through every level of ethnicity, socio-economic background, and more. It tends to unite rather than divide, and also tends to be inclusive rather than exclusive. In other words, it's effective for these causes, because everyone can relate to a good tune.

I can now tell you a little bit about two live shows I did on Saturday and Sunday for the Feed-A-Smile charity and Homes For Our Troops... two very different and yet very worthy causes to whom I've had the pleasure of contributing via my music on several occasions.

Saturday July 25: Feed-A-Smile
So, before you start nominating me for sainthood, my first thought when I got up on Saturday was, "Oh great. I'll be spending the whole weekend playing music and getting nothing out of it." Yeah... nice, huh? In my defense, I was tired and coming off of a busy work week. Regardless of your level of goodness and maturity, everyone has a childish aspect of their persona that rears its head occasionally, and I believe this is true no matter if you're some random musician or an industry leader or a major political figure. Sometimes you go into selfish mode; we all do.

After awhile of waking up and coffee consumption, I remembered what I got out of performing at The Lavender Field for Brique Zeiner's Feed-A-Smile events. I got a lot. First and foremost, there's the knowledge that with Brique's personal, hands-on direction of the Live and Learn in Kenya non-profit organization, I could be assured that my efforts would directly benefit the intended recipients, with no middlemen or big corporations siphoning off the funds we help raise. Second, I am also aware that the lives of kids in Kenya who benefit from these musical fundraising efforts are literally changed by them, via the provision of school facilities and (most importantly) food.

All photos by Kat.

I've played for Feed-A-Smile a good number of times and have written about it often here. No need, then, for many details. I'd like to mention that this show was particularly cool since three of Maali Beck's team of artists -- Sassy Nitely, myself, and Lyndon Heart, in order of our performances that day -- all played, and played well. We had a reasonably good sized crowd throughout the event, and people gave generously. As has been the case at previous Feed-A-Smile shows, it was an honor to take part in the event.

Feed-A-Smile Lavender Field set list...
Hunger Strike (Temple of the Dog)
Bag of Nothing (They Stole My Crayon)
Long Time Gone (Crosby, Stills & Nash)
Carey (Joni Mitchell)
*Pretty Pimpin (Kurt Vile)
I Am A Child (Neil Young)
Things Under Trees (They Stole My Crayon)
Here I Land (Nicholas Stevenson)
Waking Light (Beck)
Got Guilt (They Stole My Crayon)
Pink Moon (Nick Drake)
Peace Love and Understanding (Elvis Costello)
*Improvised Outro (Zak Claxton)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Huge thanks to my friends, fans, and various Second Life residents who contributed so generously!

Sunday July 26: Homes For Our Troops
Every charitable cause needs a champion... a person who makes it their biggest personal priority, and spends time and effort making it a success. Like Brique does for Feed-A-Smile, in the Second Life community, a fellow musician named Frets Nirvana holds that role for Homes For Our Troops at the U.S. Veterans Center in SL. I was aware of Frets via the SL music scene for quite awhile, but it was at the Nashville Jam in May 2014 that I met and got to know him better. Since then, I've done a few of his charitable events, which occur on the last Sunday of every month. He was formerly focused on the Wounded Warrior Project, but then shifted to Homes For Our Troops, which as the name implies is a non-profit organization that builds homes for severely disabled veterans. Here's their official description:

Homes for Our Troops (HFOT) is a privately funded 501(c) (3) nonprofit organization building specially adapted, mortgage-free homes nationwide for the most severely injured Veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan. Most of these Veterans have sustained injuries including multiple limb amputations, partial or full paralysis, and/or severe traumatic brain injury (TBI). These homes restore some of the freedom and independence our Veterans sacrificed while defending our country, and enable them to focus on their family, recovery, and rebuilding their lives. Since its inception in 2004, nearly 90 cents of every dollar donated to Homes for Our Troops has gone to directly to our program services for Veterans. HFOT builds these homes where the Veteran chooses to live, and continues its relationship with the Veterans after home delivery to assist them with rebuilding their lives.

So, it's obviously a worthwhile cause, and a topic that's important to me. As a person with a strongly anti-war outlook, it's my belief that the least we can do for military personnel who are put in harms way and severely injured is to make sure that their quality of life afterwards is as good as possible. Sadly, as we all know, that's not been the case. Ultimately, my vision of a world that's devoid of war seems futile at times. Since I can't personally effect the global changes needed for such a dream, the least I can do is help out those who are impacted by their contributions in defending their country.

Another side note: I am not a religious person. I am an atheist. I don't believe in any God of any sort, though I'm always respectful to those who do. Some people wonder why I do things like help charitable causes, since it's not like I'm going to get some special treatment in an afterlife for having done so, heh heh. Simply put, I do it because it feels good to help others where I can, and music is one thing at which I'm good enough to help put it to use for those causes.

All photos by Kat.

Anyway, I was rather unconfident about the possibility of a successful show for Homes For Our Troops on Sunday. I'd just done a charity show the previous day, and honestly doubted that I'd be able to draw a crowd, or have any expectations that they'd be able to give to this cause. You can only hit people up so many times in any time span. Imagine my utter shock when, toward the end of my show, Frets announced that during my hour-long set, we'd raised L$78,000... well over $300 USD. As I said through the mic at the time, it's just insane! The way that was accomplished, as far as I can tell, was through a few very generous people and the matching funds of a few more very generous people. I was astounded.

Homes For Our Troops set list...
Low Key (Tweedy)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
Big Empty (Stone Temple Pilots)
*Gimme Shelter (Rolling Stones)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Pretty Pimpin (Kurt Vile)
Falling Down (Zak Claxton)
Love Hurts (Everly Brothers)
On The Way Home (Buffalo Springfield)
Just Like Starting Over (John Lennon)
Jane (Barenaked Ladies)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Again, thank you so much to everyone who attended for their wonderful generosity!

Monday, July 20, 2015

Hesperia of Templemore (07.18.15)

I've had a lot of Hesperia on my mind lately. Last weekend, my band They Stole My Crayon were in the city of Hesperia, CA, recording vocals for our album with engineer Phil O'Keefe. Then, on Friday, there was a horrifying brush fire that leapt the 15 freeway near the city, destroying a number of cars (but thankfully no lives) in the process. And then on Saturday, I performed a live show in Second Life at Hesperia of Templemore. While the show itself was terrific, it's unfortunately going to likely be my last there; Templemore's Luis Lockjaw put out the news that the collection of venues there will no longer be able to host live music shows.

Any time that a successful SL venue is forced to close is a shame; Templemore's decision to cease live music is closer to a tragedy. Without being overly dramatic about it, while there remain many great places to experience live music in SL, few venues had the ability to create a vibe like Templemore. The artistry of the many stages that have been created there for various events, right down to the smallest detail, was truly unsurpassed. I will certainly miss playing there, though it should be noted that the sim itself is currently planned to remain open for people who want to wander around and admire the handiwork of the people who created it. However, they will do it without a live performer playing along.

Enough of the sad stuff. I am positive that Luis and the rest of the folks who ran Templemore have valid reasons for not continuing as a live venue, and I respect that. Let's instead talk about my show there, which was great. We had a pretty large crowd, big enough that it wasn't very easy to move around the room very easily. I was okay with that, as you'd imagine... I had plenty of room up on the stage, ha ha. Knowing that it would in all likelihood be my final show there, I was determined to make it special, so I pulled out three songs I'd never played before, including a version of Jose Feliciano's TV theme from "Chico and the Man" that was customized for my friend Luis.

All photos by Kat.

Templemore set list...
*Friday I'm In Love (The Cure)
Blew The Dust Away (They Stole My Crayon)
Northern Sky (Nick Drake)
This Afternoon (Zak Claxton)
*Luis and the Man (Jose Feliciano)
The Man Who Sold the World (David Bowie)
Sour Girl (Stone Temple Pilots)
Tea In the Sahara (The Police)
*Saved by Zero (The Fixx)
Sleeper in the Valley (Laura Viers)
It's Choade My Dear (Connan Mockasin)
Shame Chamber (Kurt Vile)
Bag of Nothing (They Stole My Crayon)
You're Like a Cloud (Zak Claxton)

*Indicates the first time I've performed this song in SL.

Huge thanks to everyone who came out to my last show at Templemore, and equal huge thanks to everyone over the years who made it one of the best live music experiences ever in Second Life!
Sassy Nitely, Geena Carminucci, Ajana Tammas, CHRlSTIANGREY Resident, Aurelie Chenaux, Darcy Kingmaker, Caasi Ansar, my great manager Maali Beck, lovely hostess Bee Blackrain, and Templemore's creative genius and my good friend Luis Lockjaw.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Vocal Recording for They Stole My Crayon at Sound Sanctuary

It's Monday, and it was hard not to hate my alarm clock that rang at 6AM today. Still, there's a smile on my face left over from the weekend, along with some great memories and some undeniably great music. But I'm getting ahead of myself; let me tell you about our recording session for vocals on the They Stole My Crayon album. First, here's a little video recap of the whole thing.

Why go to a recording studio?
You may be wondering how it is that we've recorded the grand majority of the upcoming album in our homes, and yet still had to book time in a good studio for this part of the process. The answer is simple: we needed to do the final vocals for the album, and recording voices is one area where you want to make sure everything is right. That means you don't have to compromise with your mediocre microphone and front-end audio processing gear. You don't want noise coming in from outside so that the perfect take isn't ruined by a siren wailing or motorcycle engines revving. That's why we got ahold of our good friend recording engineer Phil O'Keefe, and scheduled some time in his studio, Sound Sanctuary.

Is this the same place you did the Zak Claxton album?
Yes, and no. The recording gear is basically the same, and the most important aspect of the studio, Phil himself, is still as talented as ever. But Phil and his wife Sandy had to move from their old place in Riverside awhile ago, and this was the first time we've been to his new place in Hesperia. It was great in a number of ways. First, we got to hang out with Phil and Sandy, and even if we were recording, they are old and dear friends of ours. Second, the new place is in an area called the High Desert, and especially for Christina, who always dreamed of making music in the desert due to her love of many "desert rock" bands, I found the vibe there to be terrific.

Saturday July 11
Phil's place is about 100 miles away from both where Christina and I live in Redondo Beach, as well as where Bunny lives in the Valley. We left at 10AM and it took a couple of hours to get there, which wasn't a big deal. We arrived just after noon. Since this was purely a vocal session, we didn't have to worry about transporting and setting up a bunch of instruments, which is always a time suck for any session. Instead, we arrived and almost immediately began recording. We started with an easy one to get rolling: the very short section of backing vocals from "Again". I should say that it was easy for me; Christina had never, ever recorded in a studio as serious as Sound Sanctuary before, and she did a great job on her first time in front of the mic.

Once that was done, we went straight into a much more difficult tune: "Got Guilt". It was difficult because other than some acoustic guitar and some light percussion, it's all vocals. I mean all vocals; there are tons of different parts to sing, and it took awhile to get them down. But the end result was completely excellent.

After "Got Guilt" was in the can, we were hungry, so we munched on the giant sandwich Bunny had brought, along with some chips and fresh-made guacamole that Sandy whipped up. Then we went right back in and kept it rolling. Next up was "Disarmed". This one, as we knew going in, was going to be a little more involved. We wanted to re-record Bunny's entire lead vocal on it, as well as get the backing vocals from Christina and I. I have to say, Bunny's new performance is miles ahead of his last one, which had been recorded before we wrapped up the drums (and hence had some timing issues). Now those issues are long gone, and it sounds fantastic. We were just amazed at how smooth the session was running.

Next up was "Underwater Underground" which had a series of drone-like background vocals from Christina and I. I went pretty smoothly, though the combination of the high altitude and long phrases on that song left me a little light-headed for awhile. I recovered quickly. In any case, by then, we were pretty much starving, and fortunately Sandy O'Keefe had cooked us an absolutely delicious meal of barbecued chicken, homemade potato salad, and a great salad as well. We all devoured that like extreme gluttons. I went back for seconds. Okay, thirds too.

It was getting late, but we still had the energy to knock out one more tune before we called it a night. Next up was "River Shallows", which was another pretty quick one, considering that I had my own lead vocal to do on this tune. You have to understand, we went into the studio extremely prepared, and already knew our parts inside and out, having recorded all of them for the demo versions. I would highly advise anyone going into a studio to be as ready as possible. We also recorded Bunny and Christina on this. After that, we had the banana cream pie that Sandy had procured for dessert. At about 1AM, it had been a really long day, so we departed from Phil's and headed over to the cheap but acceptably decent hotel where we were staying for some much-needed rest. We'd done five songs in one day! That was way more than we'd expected.

Sunday July 12
We got up a little before 9AM, and rousted Bunny from his room next door so we could partake in the free breakfast at the hotel. It was... edible, I suppose. But our goal wasn't to have breakfast in Hesperia; it was to record music. Shortly before 11AM, we were at Phil's door, ready to keep going. We could have probably done another 3-4 tunes had we stuck to the easy stuff, but we knew we had a big one ahead of us, and decided to knock it out. "Bag Of Nothing" was another that required a completely new lead vocal line for Bunny, so we focused on his parts early in the day. After a short while, Christina and I left Bunny and Phil to keep doing what they do, and picked up some lunch and some caffeination.

We also had a bunch of backing vocal parts to do on this tune, and we commenced with those after lunch, giving Bunny a chance to rest his overtaxed vocal cords. We could have moved over to another song, but the decision was made to get this fully wrapped up. Besides, we already knew that we'd be scheduling another session with Phil next month, so we thought that we might as well complete everything we could while we were there. So, all of Sunday was dedicated to this one involved song. It was well worth the effort.

After Christina and I did our parts, Bunny got back into the tracking room to add more vocals to this involved song. Since we'd set 6PM as a good time to start heading toward home, it worked out perfectly. Phil camped out in the control room after we were done, organizing and then transferring all of the audio files we'd done in the two days. Sure enough, right when we'd planned, we were pulling out of his driveway with portable hard drives in our respective hands.

The drive back to the South Bay was super smooth; I couldn't have asked for an easier return trip. In fact, I couldn't have asked for a better anything throughout the session. We got great work done, in the company of very talented friends, and it came out better than anything we could have possibly accomplished on our own. Win!