Branch-ing out with Michelle

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Michelle Branch does a countrified version of “Leave The Pieces” at the Hawthorne Theater in Southeast Portland.

Remember Michelle Branch?

The dark-haired, big-voiced singer who burst onto the pop-rock scene as a teenager, won a Grammy nomination as Best New Artist, and knocked out a bunch of best-selling albums and singles?

Seems it wasn’t that long ago that she and Carlos Santana were collecting a 2002 Grammy for “The Game of Love.”

But that was 15 years ago and, though she continued performing as a solo artist and collaborator, Michelle has laid low in recent years. I’ve always liked her voice, though, so I grabbed a chance to see her live in Portland.

Now 34, she’s touring the U.S. in support of a new album released earlier this year. Her Wednesday night at the Hawthorne Theatre drew an all-ages crowd for an hour-long set. It’s an intimate space, with room for about 500 people, the kind I like in order to get up-close to an artist rather than viewing a big screen image in a huge arena.

After a thoroughly forgettable warm-up band, Michelle came out to a raucous welcome and promised a mix of the new and old.

Can’t say I was blown away. Biggest factor was a sound system that made everything sound muffled. Secondarily, gotta say I wasn’t feelin’ the new material. Either way, it’s hard to get into the music when it isn’t as clear as it should be.

Branch had a nice rapport with the crowd and seemed genuinely happy to be performing in a small venue. The audience came alive and sang along on a couple of her biggest hits — “Breathe” and “All You Wanted.”

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Small venues allow you to get as close as you like to the artist — in this case, about 30 feet from Michelle Branch.

She brought a trio of women onto the stage, including a fiddle player, to play a stripped-down version of “Leave The Pieces,” a hit from the 2006 album “Stand Still, Look Pretty.” On that CD, she collaborated with Jessica Harp on a great set of songs that drew on their respective pop and country roots and earned Michelle one of her four Grammy nominations.

As for “The Game of Love”? Wish I could say Santana snuck onto the stage and blew everyone away. This version featured an old-school saxophone player doing the guitar solo part. Interesting, but nowhere near as good.

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Michelle Branch performs the monster hit “The Game of Love” with a sax player who is definitely not Carlos Santana.

This was my first time at the Hawthorne. Probably won’t be my last, but it’s not nearly as inviting a space as others around the city — Aladdin Theater, Crystal Ballroom, Wonder Ballroom, Mississippi Studios.

As for Michelle Branch, I wish her well on the tour. She’s a talented lady, working hard to resurrect a career that once seemed boundless.

Guy time with ZZ

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Bob and George enjoy a pre-concert beer on the roof of the former Washington High School in Southeast Portland.

This week brought the opportunity to hang out with with a longtime friend over a couple of beers and then enjoy a ZZ Ward concert at Portland’s Revolution Hall. My buddy Bob Ehlers and I were among a sold-out crowd of 850 who enjoyed a 90-minute set by Ward, described on her website as a “Fedora-rocking, guitar-shredding, harmonica-wielding blues siren.”

Yeah, a little overstated, but there’s definitely some talent there. ZZ plays guitar and keyboards and a damn-good harmonica. She also sings (duh) and writes her own lyrics.

If you don’t know her, ZZ is Zsuzsanna Ward, a Pennsylvania native who grew up in Roseburg, an Oregon timber town, and is now based in Los Angeles. Thursday’s show was part of a national tour to support her just-released second full-length CD called “The Storm.” Already, the CD has risen to No. 1 on the Billboard Blues Albums chart.

ZZ played more than 20 songs, delivering a high-energy performance that had dozens of young people in front of the stage dancing and jumping up like human pogo sticks. She attracted an all-ages crowd, so Bob and I fit in just fine.

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Roseburg’s own ZZ Ward rockin’ the house at Revolution Hall.

ZZ is billed primarily as a blues artist, but her music incorporates hip-hop and, in my mind, makes it really hard to slot her into a single genre.

I’d heard a few songs of hers on Pandora and was intrigued enough to check her out in a live show. ZZ is nowhere near the level of Susan Tedeschi, an accomplished blues guitarist and vocalist, but she’s got potential and I definitely felt I got my money’s worth.

Check her out and see if you agree:

Before the show, Bob and I spent a couple hours at a rooftop bar, enjoying the great view on a perfect summer evening. The concert venue is actually a refurbished high school auditorium housed in the former Washington High School in Southeast Portland’s Buckman neighborhood.

There’s a ground-level brewpub, plus another bar on the second floor, the auditorium on the second and third floors, commercial offices and community meeting rooms scattered throughout the four-story building, and lots of room on the roof to have a drink.

Just as the McMenamin Brothers have turned other schools and absolute buildings into thriving restaurants and brewpubs, so too did a private developer convert this tired old building into something imaginative and vibrant.

The grounds also feature an old athletic field that now serves as a dog park. In fact, this is where my little dog and I were attacked by a couple of unleashed big dogs during a visit here late last year.

On Thursday, a couple of dogs were there with their owners. Seeing them romping around on the grass made me feel a little sad, wishing I could bring Charlotte back for a visit.

On the other hand, I left feeling good about introducing my friend to a new venue and a new artist. Good food, good beer, good conversation, good music. Hard to beat.

Photograph of ZZ Ward by Bob Ehlers.

Tuxedo

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Mayer Hawthorne on vocals and Jake One on keyboards epitomize “cool” during a show at the Wonder Ballroom in Northeast Portland.

It’s hard to say exactly when I became aware of Mayer Hawthorne. But I loved his sound — a Motown-influenced R&B — when I first heard it a few years ago. Since then, I’ve enjoyed his evolution as a singer, songwriter, musician and producer.

I got to see Mayer (born Andrew Mayer Cohen) and his band in concert in February 2014 in the company of my oldest son, Nathan. He was terrific, playing to a sold-out crowd at the Wonder Ballroom.

Read the “Man Date” blog post here

Last night, I got to see Mayer again at the same venue. This time he had a new band, Tuxedo, a collaboration with Jake One, a hop-hop record producer and keyboardist from Seattle.

Together they put out some great, high-energy music that’s been called neo-soul and funk. Think Fitz and the Tantrums, just a little more amped up and a lot better dressed.

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Mayer Hawthorne and his backup singer synchronize a move.

Mayer and Jake came out in black tuxedos, white shirts and big black bow-ties. They had a guitarist and another keyboardist in white shirts, white pants and the same black bow-ties. There was a backup singer, too, someone with an enormous Afro that made me think of Angela Davis, except this woman was shimmying and shaking in a snug, glittery dress.

Tuxedo played for an hour to an all-ages crowd that drew the under-21 kids to one side of the room and a range of adults on the other. It was refreshing to see black, brown and white people all grooving together, some in their 20s and 30s, others in their 40s and 50s.

Oh, and then there was me.  Lori doesn’t do weekday concerts because she rises so early for her personal training job. Nathan couldn’t go either because he was working last night, but he did predict I’d like Tuxedo. A recommendation from him, a professional DJ, carries a lot of weight.

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Mayer Hawthorne changed into a shiny tux for the two-song encore.

Lori would have loved the concert. Very danceable music. Or, in my case, head-bobbing music.

I had a good view from the middle of the room and enjoyed all Tuxedo had to offer. Constant motion, a few choreographed moves, infectious beats, and a sense that the band members were truly enjoying themselves.

It’s pretty remarkable that a Jewish kid from the Detroit suburbs would become such a polished performer. But Mayer Hawthorne shows that where there’s a passion for certain genres of music, there’s no limit to what a dude can do.

Check him out:

Mamalogues

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Simone reads a Mother’s Day tribute to Lori.

Mother’s Day began with a 90-minute wait for a table at Portland’s premier dim sum restaurant. It ended with a 90-minute concert by women of all ages that was both moving and meaningful.

First, the food.

In the morning, Lori and I arrived early at HK Cafe, thinking we’d get a little ahead of the crowd while waiting for our two older kids and their partners to join us. Think again.

With an overflow crowd on the sidewalk and the entrance to the restaurant stuffed like sardines (sorry, obvious food reference), I squeezed in after 30 minutes to check on the waiting time for our table, clutching the paper slip with our No. 90 on it.

“Number 27?” the hostess called out.

Yikes.

Yep, it was a long wait but worth it. We’ve been there before and always enjoy the variety of plates brought to us the moment we sit down. Never again, though, on Mother’s Day.

Second, the music.

I’ve written previously about Lori and Simone participating in the Portland Intergenerational Women’s Choir. They sing together in the midst of a group whose members range from about 8 to 80. The choir is comprised of mothers, daughters and grandmothers, many if not most of them with no musical training and a few who’ve served time in prison.

mamalogues posterIn fact, Sunday’s performance was a fundraiser for the group’s sister choir at Coffee Creek Correctional Facility in Wilsonville. Credit the choir director, Crystal Akins, for creating and leading both groups. Credit the women in each choir for setting status and judgments aside to perform alongside each other for the joy of singing as one.

And so it was that Simone’s wife, Kyndall, and I joined a supportive crowd at the Mission Theater in Northwest Portland. What used to be an old movie theater has been transformed into an intimate performing space under the entrepreneurial hands of the McMenamin Brothers.

Arriving just before the show, we grabbed pizza slices and a drink and found ourselves at a front-row table just behind the choir director. And what an inspiring show it was.

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Lori and Simone sing side-by-side in the Portland Intergenerational Women’s Choir.

This was the third annual Mamalogues — a program that mixed nine songs with a dozen readings from choir members honoring their mothers. The stories ranged as much as those telling them, touching on themes of loss and love and the special bond between mothers and daughters.

  • A teenager, taken from her drug-addled birthparents as an infant and placed with a loving adoptive family.
  • A middle-aged mother, recalling the scorn from classmates at her high school graduation, her pregnant belly making her a social outcast decades ago but her mom’s support making her feel “legitimate” nevertheless.
  • A woman laughing at the silly songs and inside jokes they shared on long weekend drives, now tearing up at her mother’s recent death.
  • A self-described member of the “sandwich generation,” recalling the difficulty of caring for her young child while also caring for her aging, ailing mother. She told a tender story of giving her mother a shower, feeling her skin as soft as a baby’s.
  • A formerly incarcerated woman boldly asserting that anyone judging her by her past mistakes was missing out on who she is now — a confident, imperfect but rehabilitated individual, with much to offer the world. So powerful.

And then there were two pairs of mothers and daughters, one of them the Redes.

Lori and Simone read their “Side by Side” compositions, each thanking the other for her love and support through the years, and then joining the choir in singing Ben E. King’s classic “Stand By Me.”

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Simone and Lori with Stephanie, another choir member.

I enjoyed every one of the songs, some of them originally performed by Sinead O’Connor, India Arie, Michael Jackson and Pharrell Williams. (No surprise that the women would sing “Happy.”)

Mamalogues was a wonderful way to spend a Mother’s Day afternoon. As much as I love my wife and daughter, it’s even more heart-warming to see how the two ladies in my life cherish each other so. How sweet that they’ve found this choir to share some creative energy together.

2016: What a year

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Dawn on Orcas Island brings a magnificent view of Mount Baker.

Three weeks from today, the nation will inaugurate a new president — not the one I wanted, not the one everyone expected, but the bloviating mess known as Donald J. Trump.

I shudder to think what the next four years will be like under this man who continues to defy every social and political convention while trampling on the bounds of common decency. Especially so after the model of dignity, grace and intelligence that we’ve seen exhibited by Barack Obama and his equally impressive wife, Michelle, a power in her own right.

It’s still beyond belief that a man so ignorant (and proud of it), so misogynistic (and proud of it), so narcissistic (and proud of it) has been elected to the nation’s highest office. Yet there’s no disputing that Trump’s election was the story of the year in 2016.

But I’m not going to dwell on him. I’ve got my own agenda today — and that’s taking a look back at the year that was. For all the sadness we felt seeing so many entertainers and other public figures pass from the scene — David Bowie, Prince, Maurice White, Elie Wiesel, Garry Shandling, George Michael, Carrie Fisher, et al — there was a lot of other stuff going on in the Rede household.

After all, this is the year I traveled a new path, away from the newsroom where I had worked for the past 30 years. This was the year I caught a glimpse of what retirement might be like, only to settle into a new work routine in the fall.

Here’s a quick take:

***

First grandchild: We welcomed a charming little girl into our lives in late July. Little Emalyn May Rede, the daughter of our youngest son, Jordan, and his wife, Jamie, has been nothing but a source of pride and joy.

Lori and I were privileged to be the first ones to see and hold Emalyn, other than her parents, when she was just hours old. In the months since, she’s already transformed from helpless infant to smiling, healthy baby, seemingly delighted to be part of the action.

A new job (actually, two): Just as my severance from The Oregonian/OregonLive was running out in mid-September, along came two opportunities to return to the workforce.

Portland State University hired me to teach in the Department of Communications. I got started with a Media Ethics class that set me on a course I’ve always wanted to explore — that of a classroom teacher.

At the same time, I landed a part-time job as communications coordinator with the nonprofit Portland Workforce Alliance, an organization that partners with local employers and schools to expand career and technical education opportunities for metro-area high school students.

In January, I will add a third leg to this stool as an adjunct instructor at Washington State University Vancouver. I loved being a journalist, but I also feel fortunate to have these new employment opportunities.

The big noventa: My dad turned 90 years old in March, so all three of us kids and our extended families gathered in a San Diego suburb to celebrate nine decades of good living.

My dad and stepmom drove in from New Mexico. Lori and I flew in from Portland. My younger sister Cathy flew down from Alaska. My older sister Rosemary, with help from her daughter and son-in-law, hosted the party near Oceanside.

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Thanks to a selfie stick, four generations of Redes gather around Dad (in black hat) in honor of his 90th birthday.

Catarino Allala Rede is the only sibling left from a family of seven brothers and two sisters. It was great to see my dad basking in the love and admiration of his children, grandchildren and great-children. For a man who did manual labor all his life and whose formal education stopped at the eighth grade before he went back later in life to get a G.E.D., he’s done pretty damn well.

A baseball road trip: In May, I made a whirlwind trip that allowed me to see four Major League Baseball games in three cities in five days. I flew into Pittsburgh, then drove to Cleveland and on to Cincinnati.

In all, I covered about 400 miles from western Pennsylvania to Ohio, traveling the length of the Buckeye State through gently rolling landscapes. With Lori’s blessing, I stayed in three airbnb rentals and took the opportunity to see new sights, experience unfamiliar places, and visit with new and old friends in Pittsburgh and Cincinnati.

Cool concerts: There were only three this year involving pop artists, but each was satisfying in its own right.

Got to see Jackson Browne at Edgefield in August and he was outstanding. A month earlier, I saw the Dixie Chicks at a Clark County amphitheater just north of Portland and they were exceptional. Their July concert came at a time when I was feeling down, given a spasm of fatal shootings of both civilians and cops in three states.

In November, I saw Liz Longley, a favorite singer-songwriter, for the second time in 18 months, this time in the intimate space of the Alberta Rose Theater.

Excellent books: All that free time I had in the first few months of the year enabled me to dive into the world of literature. Although I slowed down considerably after going back to work, I still managed to plow through 15 books.

They ran the gamut — everything from a young reader books about a transgender youth (“George” by Alex Gino) and a deaf baseball player (“The William Hoy Story” by Nancy Churnin) to a gritty collection of stories about the Motor City (“Detroit” by Charlie LeDuff) to a rape survivor’s memoir (“Lucky” by Alice Sebold) to a sweeping novel about race, culture and class in Nigeria and the United States (“Americanah” by Chimananda Ngozi Adichie.

There was lots more by the likes of John Updike, Steig Larsson, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Lauren Groff, Celeste Ng, Anne Hillerman and Robert Goodlick. You’ll find a synopsis of each one here: Books & Literature.

PIFF: Early in the year, I joined the ranks of volunteers at the 39th annual Portland International Film Festival. In exchange for helping to greet patrons, take tickets, etc., I got to see six movies for free at three theaters during the month of February.

It was a lot of fun and I’d like to do it again, but not this year. Too much going on with my three part-time jobs to even consider it.

Urban hikes: Another luxury during the first half of the year was exploring my own city with the help of a great guidebook, “Portland Hill Walks” by Laura O. Foster.

I made a routine of selecting a route that took me into mostly unfamiliar neighborhoods, where I learned a lot about the city’s history, geography and demographics. Hard to say which were my favorites, but I do recall the pleasant surprise of discovering Marshall Park in Southwest Portland and getting thoroughly soaked when I hiked through the jewel that is Washington Park.

Island getaways: We made it up to our cabin on Orcas Island three times. Each time is like opening a valve and releasing the stress that comes with living in a city of 632,000 people and an urban area of 2.4 million. Compare that to maybe 2,000 folks total on Orcas.

We’re blessed to have a place where we can hike and kayak, read, play board games, feed the birds and watch old movies — all in a beautiful place that offers Solitude with a capital S.

This year, we enjoyed a parade and community potluck on the Fourth of July weekend and hosted our longtime friends, Bob and Deborah Ehlers. We did our best to make their three-night stay a memorable one, with excursions to Doe Bay, Eagle Lake and Mount Constitution.

Pets: We lost our beloved Otto in July, shortly after our final trip to the island and just a week before Emalyn was born. He was a Jack Russell Terrier, 11 years old, blessed with a sweet disposition, and loved by all who knew him. Otto was especially close to Lori and had earned the status of “The Fourth Child.” Fittingly, he died of an an enlarged heart.

Before Otto died, he schooled little Charlotte, our Terrier-Pug-Chihuahua mix, in the ways of the world. She misses him, for sure, but she has blossomed as the sole focus of our canine attention. Charlotte and I survived a run-in with two pit bulls at a dog park, but she’s healed completely and is becoming more social with other dogs and humans.

Mabel, now the senior pet, continues to rule the roost in her own bedroom, a sweet brown tabby who refuses to come downstairs and interact with Charlotte.

Voices of August: No recap would be complete without mention of my annual guest blog project and post-publication meetup. For six years now, I’ve opened up the blog to a different writer each day during the month of August. It’s a wonderful thing to see — a diverse group of friends, relatives and co-workers from all over the country (and even abroad) each taking a turn writing about an issue or an experience that never fails to entertain, inform or resonate with an online audience.

This year’s VOA gathering was held at a Northeast Portland brewpub not far from our home and drew folks from three states, including my compadre, Al Rodriguez, and his lovely wife (and first-time VOA contributor), Elizabeth Lee.

***

hillary-buttonLike the other 65 million-plus Americans who voted for Hillary Clinton, I wish we were inaugurating the nation’s first female president. Instead, I’m left to hope that in 2017 we can endure the worst of what a Trump presidency can bring and begin building a coalition that returns the White House to someone we can put our trust in.

Happy New Year, everyone.

The talented Liz Longley

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Liz Longley: Five CDs and still in her 20s.

I’d circled Nov. 29 on my calendar several weeks ago, waiting patiently for the return of singer-songwriter Liz Longley to perform live in Portland.

The date finally arrived and I was delighted to be part of a small but appreciative crowd that showed up at the Alberta Rose Theater for a Tuesday night concert. (Lori doesn’t attend midweek concerts owing to her early-bird hours as a personal trainer.)

Liz is most likely under the radar for most people. But no matter. I think she’s equally talented as a lyricist and a performer, toggling back and forth between acoustic guitar and piano and singing with delicacy or verve, depending on the song.

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Liz Longley performs Nov. 29, 2016, at the Alberta Rose Theater in Portland, Oregon.

My longtime friend, Mike Granberry, is the one who first told me about Liz. He’s a music critic for The Dallas Morning News and sees plenty of acts come through that city.

I checked her out at a May 2015 show at Mississippi Studios and was suitably impressed. She was touring then in support of her self-titled CD, her first since relocating from Philadelphia to Nashville.

This is the first track from that album:

Last night Liz played several songs from her newest album, “Weightless” and made sure to perform a few older favorites, including “Camaro” and “Bad Habit” — both songs about ex-boyfriends — and “Unraveling,” a ballad about her grandmother’s battle with dementia.

She was joined on stage by Brian Dunne, a classmate from the renowned Berklee College of Music in Boston, who performed a solo set and then came back for a few songs with Liz.

***

Tuesday was my first time at the Alberta Rose Theater, a renovated movie theater in Northeast Portland known for presenting live music, comedy and vaudeville. It’s an intimate space with general admission seating and a bar serving beer, wine and snacks.

I was four rows from the stage, maybe 30 to 40 feet away, so I had a great view. After the hour-long concert, Liz came out to the foyer to meet with fans, pose for photos, and sell her merchandise. She’s released five CDs and she’s still in her 20s.

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A selfie after the show with Liz.

As I approached after a short wait, Liz stopped me in my tracks and said, “Wait, I know you.”

“You have a great memory” I said. “I’m Granberry’s friend. I saw you at Mississippi Studios.”

“Oh, yeahhh!” she said with a smile. “I remember that show.”

***

Liz performed in Dallas in October and, according to my friend Mike, put on a great show. You can read his review right here.

An excerpt: “Bad Habit” chronicles her failed relationship with a chain smoker: “The night we first kissed/on the balcony alone/Well, he tasted like trouble/But he felt like my own bad habit.”

Tuesday night was the first date on Liz’s West Coast leg of her national “Weightless” tour, which began in mid-September. She performs tonight in Seattle and finishes up in southern California on Dec. 10.

I’ll be keeping an eye out for her next visit to Portland.With any luck, it’ll be a weekend show and Lori can join me. And maybe by then, Liz Longley will be a better known name.

America: Still ‘the beautiful’?

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Iconic greats James Taylor, at 68, and Jackson Browne, 67, still bring it. Big time.

By Michael Granberry

CHICAGO — On a cloudless night in late June, my wife and I began our vacation at Wrigley Field. Sitting in the outfield just a few rows back from the stage, we listened to James Taylor sing “America the Beautiful.”

Thus began my long period of introspection. Is it really “America the Beautiful?” Is it still? Despite Taylor’s velvet baritone insisting it was, I couldn’t help thinking of our national rage, of mass shootings, deep, ugly racial divisions and hopeless politics.

We had begun our 12-day vacation on the banks of Lake Michigan because I wanted to see my favorite singer-songwriter, Jackson Browne, team up with a fellow member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Browne and Taylor are iconic greats from the early 1970s, when I was in college, bursting with innocence and idealism.

Jackson and James did not disappoint.

Michael Granberry

Michael Granberry

With the sun still shining on the 102-year-old ballpark where Babe Ruth allegedly called his shot by pointing to where he would (and did) hit a homer in the 1932 World Series, Browne opened with “Rock Me on the Water.”

Oh, people, look around you, the signs are everywhere.

He played “Fountain of Sorrow,” from his landmark 1974 album, Late for the Sky; “Somebody’s Baby” from the soundtrack of Sean Penn’s 1982 breakout film, Fast Times at Ridgemont High; and “These Days,” which Browne wrote when he was only 16.

“These Days” ends with one of my favorite declarations:

Don’t confront me with my failures
I had not forgotten them

He played “The Pretender” and “Running on Empty” before inviting Taylor to the stage for a pair of duets: “Take It Easy,” which Browne co-wrote with the late Glenn Frey, who used the song as the Eagles’ signature anthem, and “For a Rocker.”

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A 12-day, multistate vacation began in Chicago with a concert at venerable Wrigley Field.

Then it was Taylor’s turn, and though I was there mainly to hear Browne, Taylor emerged as an AARP revelation. Browne is 67, Taylor 68. The tall, balding singer sang 21 songs, launching his two-hour set with “Something in the Way She Moves.”

He covered Carole King’s “Up on the Roof” and “You’ve Got a Friend” — which he said King wrote for him, back when Taylor, Browne and King were all performing at the legendary Troubadour in West Hollywood in the halcyon era of the early 1970s.

Taylor sang “Carolina in My Mind,” saying he wrote it in London, where he had gone at the invitation of a group called the Beatles to record his debut album on the Fab Four’s Apple Records. Despite the euphoria of reaching such a pivotal moment, what he mainly felt, he said, was homesick.

And so a classic song was born. He sang “Angels of Fenway,” drawing a smattering of friendly boos when he told the Chicago crowd how deeply he felt their pain. He’s a Red Sox fan who had to wait until 2004 to see the Curse of the Bambino — inspired by the Red Sox inexplicably trading the Babe to the dreaded New York Yankees – die a slow, painful death. After decades of futility and failure, the Bosox had emerged as champs. At the moment, Chicago is cautiously optimistic that 2016 will be the first time since 1908 that the Cubs might actually win the Series. (Footnote: Browne and Taylor played their second of two concerts on Aug. 3 at Fenway Park in Boston.)

At Wrigley, Taylor sang  “Fire and Rain,” one of the most magnificent songs ever written, about his friend Suzanne, whose suicide inspired this wondrous elegy, in the context of his own grueling battle with heroin addiction.

He sang “Sweet Baby James,” “Shower the People,” “Steamroller” and “Mexico” before giving me something to think about with “America the Beautiful.” He invited Browne to the stage for an encore; the two sang Browne’s “Doctor My Eyes.”

Taylor closed the show with his own fittingly sweet goodnight ode “You Can Close Your Eyes.” The 41,000-plus of us who populated sold-out Wrigley Field pounded toward the exits, most of us boarding the subway, where my mind continued to fixate on “America the Beautiful.”

***

Amid the clatter of the train as we returned to the downtown Hampton Inn, I chatted with a young woman who told me how much she loved Chicago, where, she said, she feels safe. “You have to know where you’re going,” she said.

It’s her kind of town, Chicago is.

She was warm, engaging and non-judgmentally curious about my hometown — Dallas — where I live with my wife and four sons. Everyone we met in Chicago was as friendly as that young woman.

And then we drove all the way to Cleveland, where I longed to see the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

I should tell you at this point that my wife and I were combining our several-states car trip with an informal book tour. Nancy Churnin, to whom I am married, is the author of a recently published children’s book, which is doing fantastically well. (Nancy even got a rave from The New York Times and from the great George Rede.)

[Editor’s note: Who am I to argue with the author’s adjective?]

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Outside of Cleveland, Mike and Nancy (the one without the bonnet!) helped a Pennsylvania-bound driver who was transporting a busload of Amish children by driving him to a restaurant where he could tell the kids and their parents that he was headed their way.

After checking out of our Cleveland-area hotel, we spotted a broken-down bus in the parking lot. Its poor driver was beside himself. He was transporting a busload of Amish children and their families back to their home in Pennsylvania.

Finally, the driver, who had driven all the way from Nashville, got his tire fixed. We helped him out by driving to a Red Lobster to tell the Amish kids and their parents that he was headed their way. That gave Nancy a chance to tell them about her book, which she never tires of doing.

“The William Hoy Story: How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game” chronicles the life of William “Dummy” Hoy, who played in the 1800s and early 1900s and who may have been responsible for the hand signals that everyone now takes for granted.

The Amish kids seemed fascinated, enthralled, as kids everywhere tend to be about Nancy’s book. They were so cute! Not to mention incredibly friendly. Maybe Taylor is right, maybe it still is America the beautiful.

From the young woman on the subway to the Amish kids, I was being shown that it is, despite my raging cynicism.

At the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, a spectacular building on the banks of Lake Erie, I met more friendly people, who love music as much as I do. There on the walls, I saw all my favorite musicians: Browne, Taylor, Simon and Garfunkel, Linda Ronstadt, Bonnie Raitt, the Eagles, Elvis Presley, The Beatles and The Rolling Stones.

So many musical greats came from Texas! Those in the hall include Stevie Ray Vaughan, who like me is a native of Dallas; Eagles’ great Don Henley, who lives in Dallas; and native son Steve Miller, a 2016 inductee who graduated from Dallas’ Woodrow Wilson High School.

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Niagara Falls: “nothing less than amazing.”

From Cleveland, we drove to Buffalo, N.Y., and then in the improvisational chutzpah that only car vacations can produce, we drove all the way to Canada, where we stayed overnight and saw Niagara Falls, which is nothing less than amazing.

From there, we drove to the Catskills, where my wife and her Jewish family spent their treasured summer vacations, but not before stopping in Amherst, N.Y., where Nancy checked in at a Barnes & Noble bookstore. A sweet, young B&N saleswoman named Kaylee Willis took to the book instantly.

Again, America with its kindness was telling me it was beautiful.

Nancy, my brown-eyed girl, wept softly as she walked Thompsonville Road near Monticello, N.Y., remembering idyllic summers spent with her mom and dad, her grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins in the family’s Mountain View cottages. The Catskills are not what they used to be, but Nancy and I loved meeting a young Hasidic couple, who leave Brooklyn each year to spend their summers in the Catskills, just as her family did. Nancy saw a deer standing majestically on the same parcel of land where her grandparents had built their cottages and where their grandchildren played for years. The deer made Nancy feel better. These days, the land belongs to him.

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July 4 brought the opportunity to visit the grassy hillside where the Woodstock music festival unfurled over four days in 1969.

We celebrated July 4 by driving through the splendor of the Catskills to Bethel, N.Y., where the seminal Woodstock music festival was held in 1969, in August, the month I entered my senior year of high school. We strolled the grassy hillside where more than 400,000 people spent four historic days, awash in rain and mud, listening to the cacophony of Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills and Nash and so many more.

But the best thing about stopping at the Woodstock site was getting to meet Rhoda and William Pollack, a couple from New Jersey. Two of the kindest people I’ve ever met.

On July 5, we saw a mama bear and two cubs scamper across the highway as we drove to the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., where my wife would speak and where my all-time favorites appear in plaques on the wall: Mickey Mantle, Ernie Banks and the one who became my friend, the late great Tony Gwynn.

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Tony Gwynn is immortalized in the National Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York.

Nancy got a super-charged confidence boost about her Hall appearance from Kerry Featherstone, who works the night shift at our hotel in Oneonta, N.Y. Kerry gave Nancy the best hair-do she’s ever had. Kerry asked for $10. We gave her $20. Kudos to Kerry, who radiates kindness.

The next day, Nancy spoke to a packed crowd at the Hall, sharing with them the incredible true story of the great Dummy Hoy. Kids by the dozen asked her questions and (thank goodness) begged their parents to buy the book (which they did). The next day, Nancy did readings of the book at two Manhattan libraries, one in Harlem, the other in a Dominican neighborhood. The kids reveled in the story, asking her to read it to them again and again and again.

I could almost hear Taylor singing “America the Beautiful” as I drove our rented Subaru Outback onto the Hudson Parkway and gazed at the Statue of Liberty in the distance.
When we went to bed that night, we felt peaceful, so serene, as though we had savored the most exquisite vacation we’d ever had. And then we turned on the television.

***

Back home in Dallas, a gunman had fatally shot five police officers during an otherwise peaceful Black Lives Matter protest.

Suddenly, it was hard to sleep, just as it was on the night of Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, when, as a 6th-grader, I struggled with the grim reality that earlier that day President John F. Kennedy had been slain in my hometown.

The new atrocity occurred only a few blocks east of where Kennedy was assassinated, taking with him to his grave so much idealism and hope. In my mind, America hasn’t been the same since 11/22/63. Much of its beauty died on a street in my hometown.

I was hardly surprised the next morning, when our editors called, asking me and Nancy to each write a story on deadline. The newsroom had entered one of those voracious all-hands-on-deck situations.

We extended checkout two hours, wrote our stories and began the 12-hour trek back to Chicago for the flight home. We got there a bit early and ordered two “very berry” hibiscus drinks at a Starbucks in Park Ridge, Ill., where we met Rob, one of the friendliest baristas you’ll ever meet. We talked about the Cubs, the Bears, the Rangers and the Cowboys. We joked about the Rangers and Cubs meeting up in the World Series. Hey, it could happen! We exchanged contact info. I hope he’ll visit Dallas, as he said he would.

And then Rob told us something we didn’t know — quaint, bucolic Park Ridge is the hometown of Hillary Clinton. We drove by the house where she spent her youth, the Methodist church she attended, the library where she loved to read and where she made a recent campaign stop at the historic Pickwick Theatre.

Rob was like all the other people we met on our amazing vacation — warm, friendly, someone you’d love to get to know, the kind of sweet soul who makes America beautiful.

Not once during our 12 days of summer did we meet a single unpleasant person.

Not once did anyone make an offensive comment when we announced where we lived, as a few nasty people did on a car trip to Colorado I’ll never forget months after Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas.

Not once did anyone make us think that Taylor is wrong, that America isn’t beautiful.

And yet, back home, five Dallas policemen lay dead, their homicides apparently triggered as a response to the grotesque epidemic of policemen using deadly force all too often. The resulting carnage has left black men dead in Louisiana, Minnesota and too many other American locales.

Since we returned, Dallas has been a city in mourning, and yet, we have shared many beautiful moments. Our recent memorial service at the Meyerson Symphony Center saw President Barack Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama, former President George W. Bush and former first lady Laura Bush share the stage in a show of unity. A Dallas gospel singer named Gaye Arbuckle filled the Meyerson with the most soulful, healing music you’ll ever hear.

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Gaye Arbuckle performs during the July 12 interfaith memorial service for the fallen Dallas police officers. Among those gathered were Jill Biden, Vice President Joe Biden, Laura Bush, George W. Bush, Michelle Obama and President Barack Obama.

At the moment, Dallas is a city pulling together. But as President Obama said, we have seen far too much of this. It has to stop. It will remain America the beautiful, but only if we let it. There have been too many examples of a country whose problems are beginning to feel … overwhelming, insoluble.

Don’t confront us with our failures. We had not forgotten them.

But we must act on those failures as soon as possible. Or it won’t be America the Beautiful.

Nor will anyone remember when it was.

Dallas photograph: Susan Walsh, The Associated Press

***

Michael Granberry is an arts and feature writer and a Sunday arts columnist for The Dallas Morning News. He is working on a book about the founder and first owner of the Dallas Cowboys, Clint Murchison Jr. 

Editor’s note: Mike and I met as college students when we were summer interns at The Washington Post in 1973, when the Watergate investigation was at its height. He was a groomsman in our wedding; some 43 summers later, I’m honored to call him my friend — even though he’s from Texas. He’s a prodigious, immensely talented writer with a great sense of humor.

Tomorrow: Lillian Mongeau, Mile 17

Light to darkness: DCX

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Everyone — and I mean everyone — stood from beginning to end of Saturday’s 2-hour, 15-minute show by the Dixie Chicks.

With dusk falling, maybe it was fitting that storm clouds gathered over the outdoor concert venue where the Dixie Chicks had come to perform last weekend.

A few miles north of Portland, fans scattered across a sloping lawn bundled up in ponchos, rain jackets, blankets and tarps while light rain fell during two forgettable warm-up acts.

Days earlier, America seemed ready to burst at the seams, ripped apart by the newest spasms of gun violence in three states. Two African American men were shot to death by police in Louisiana and Minnesota. Five white police officers were gunned down by a black sniper in Texas, evidently seeking revenge for the civilian deaths.

Even though I’d waited years to see the Dixie Chicks live, I couldn’t help but view the weather as a metaphor for the national mood and my own.

(Aside from dark emotions unleashed by the shootings, I also was thinking of the older of our two dogs, who was spending the night in an animal hospital because of worsening symptoms associated with congestive heart failure.)

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Fans bundle up against the rain and a light wind as they wait for the concert to begin.

It wasn’t lost on me that all three of the Dixie Chicks were born or raised in Texas and that the band had gotten its start in Dallas, site of the mass cop killings. I wondered, would they address the ugliness?

Some two hours later, after a setlist of 20-plus songs, I had my answer.

***

From the opening notes of “The Long Way Around,” the mood changed in an instant. Thousands of people leaped to their feet and stayed there all night long — dancing, singing along, taking selfies and shooting videos. In the covered seats under a pavilion, the scene was much the same.

Saturday’s concert was at the Sunlight Supply Amphitheater in Ridgefield, Washington, and comes as part of the band’s first tour in a decade, dubbed DCX MMXVI.

The Dixie Chicks rocketed to fame in the late ’90s on the strength of “Wide Open Spaces” and “Fly,” but hadn’t released anything since 2006, when they won five Grammys, including Album of the Year for “Taking the Long Way.”

Lead singer Natalie Maines released a solo album in 2013, and sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison (now Strayer) had teamed up to do the same in 2010. Neither, as far as I’m aware, found great commercial success.

Seeing the band reunited, three moms in their 40s with nine children among them, was worth the wait. There’s no question that Maines, a blonde spitfire, is the heart and soul of the band. Though Maguire (on fiddle) and Strayer (on banjo, mandolin, dobro and bass) are superb musicians and fine backup singers, it’s Maines that exudes a commanding presence and Maines who speaks for the band.

It was she who criticized President George W. Bush during a concert just days before the Iraq War began in 2003, drawing the wrath of many country music fans and performers. And it was she who led the pushback after her comments led to boycotts and cut into record sales.

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Lead vocalist Natalie Maines.

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Fiddler extraordinaire Martie Maguire.

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Multi-instrumentalist Emily Strayer.

On Saturday night, as the rain dissipated, it was Maines who bantered with the audience, who introduced the musicians in their backing band, who set the tone for the evening. .

And what a concert it was. If you think of the Dixie Chicks as a twangy, country-western band, think again. They hop back and forth across genres, from country to bluegrass to rock, performing ballads, foot-stomping numbers and covering songs by Patty Griffin (“Truth #2”), Stevie Nicks (“Landslide”), Bob Dylan (“Mississippi”) — even Prince (“Nothing Compares 2 U”) and Beyonce (“Daddy Stories”).

They performed all the crowdpleasers you would expect — “Goodbye Earl,” “Sin Wagon,” “White Trash Wedding,” “Cowboy, Take Me Away” and “Wide Open Spaces.”

And they didn’t hold back on their feminist politics.

During one song, a backing video showed caricatures of all the presidential candidates. During “Goodbye Earl,” the screen showed photos of O.J. Simpson, Chris Brown and other abusive men and also included an image of Donald Trump with drawn-on devil’s horns. And when it came time for the encore, Maines at last referenced the mayhem that weighed on my mind.

I can’t recall her exact words but they were something to the effect of urging everyone to get past the crazy shit that has us warring with each other instead of coming together as a nation. And with that, the Dixie Chicks ended the night with a rousing version of Ben Harper’s “Better Day.”

***

Before the concert, I marveled at the variety of people streaming into the venue. For sure, there were big hats, belt buckles and blue jeans on many of the guys, and cowboy hats, cowboy boots and long dresses on many of the women. But there were lots of gays and lesbians, too, as well as mothers and daughters, teenagers and senior citizens.

Somewhere between the Chicks’ speaking out against President Bush and their Grammy-winning CD — somewhere en route to becoming the biggest-selling female band of all time in the United States — “the band’s fan base apparently had shifted away from the red and toward the blue,” one writer noted.

I would agree.

 

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Emily Strayer, left, and Natalie Maines perform against the backdrop of a rainbow heart.

When Natalie, Emily and Martie left the stage just before 11 p.m., I don’t think anyone left without having had their spirits lifted. Nothing like a talented trio of women to bring light to darkness through the gift of music.

Interested in more? Check out these two pieces:

“Dixie Chicks take the stage again on their own terms,” Erie News-Times.

“What it’s like seeing the still-political Dixie Chicks in the U.S. and Europe,” The Washington Post.

 

Carey Lander, R.I.P.

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Carey Lander, keyboardist and singer with Camera Obscura, was 33 when she died.

When music superstars David Bowie and Prince died suddenly barely three months apart, the world mourned their passing with concert tributes and purple-colored lighting of bridges and other monuments.

It’s totally understandable that fans of these iconic performers would honor their legacies in big, bold ways. Likewise, you would expect some form of public grieving for other well-known singers and musicians who’ve died in recent months — Natalie Cole, Glenn Frey, Maurice White.

But unless you’re a devotee of the Scottish indie band Camera Obscura, chances are the death of keyboardist Carey Lander slipped by unnoticed. She died last October of a rare type of bone cancer that she’d fought for four years. She was just 33.

I’m a fan of the band and I admit I didn’t learn of Carey’s passing until this year.

A favorite song, “New Year’s Resolution,” came up on one of my mixes and Carey’s playing made me wonder when the band might be touring in the U.S. again. I’d seen them once before in Portland — six years ago this month — and hoped they’d return sometime this year. That’s when I learned from the band’s Facebook page that they’d suspended their touring because of Carey’s death.

It made me sad, knowing how much I’d enjoyed seeing them perform, mere feet away from the stage at a densely packed nightclub. It also made me sad, knowing the impact of her passing was just as devastating on her bandmates, family and fans as any performer, superstar or not.

Carey Lander wasn’t the focal point of the band, not by a longshot. She sang background vocals and contributed to a balanced sound whose sum was greater than the individual musicians.

Judging by the obituaries in the British press, she was someone I probably would have enjoyed meeting.

She was diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare form of bone cancer which usually affects children, in 2011. She established a crowdfunding page to raise money for cancer charity, and went on to raise £56,000 (more than $80,000 U.S. dollars) — a sum that has nearly doubled since her death.

Lander told visitors on her Just Giving page: “It’s probably too late to help me, but it would be great if we could find something in the future that means children don’t have to undergo such awful treatment and have a better chance of survival.”

In a piece for The Guardian, Tracyanne Campbell, the band’s frontwoman, remembered her friend:

“Carey was always immaculately colourful in both humour and appearance, always sarcastic and funny, but also thoughtful, dignified, discreet and wise. All the best things. More than anything, she loved books – Carson McCullers, Sylvia Plath and Patrick Hamilton, Paul Auster – and also 50s and 60s vintage style, winter clothes, red roses, falling snow.

“People often thought that Carey was quite shy and unfriendly, but she wasn’t, really. She was the right kind of quiet. She could steer the band with her silence. In rehearsal, if she didn’t like something, the lack of sound from behind the keyboard spoke volumes.”

Bowie and Prince were incredible, original artists, deserving of the acclaim they received alive and in death. Carey Lander was no superstar, but clearly she’s someone who made the music industry and the community around her a better place.

Photograph: The Independent

Volunteering at the Portland International Film Festival

George at PIFF

A new volunteer at the 39th annual Portland International Film Festival.

When the year began, I resolved to try new things.

My weekly urban hikes certainly qualify. But I’ve just embarked on another new-to-me experience — volunteering at the Portland International Film Festival.

2016 marks the 39th edition of the festival and this year’s lineup offers me the opportunity to not just give back to my community but also to enjoy free admission to a handful of movies among the nearly 100 full-length features and 60 short films from three dozen countries.

I’ve signed up for seven volunteer shifts during the Feb. 11-27 festival and had planned to wait until I had done two or three of them before writing anything. But that plan went out the window after Sunday’s amazing experience.

***

PIFF volunteerArriving at noon in downtown Portland, I picked up my volunteer badge and then positioned myself at the entrance to the World Trade Center, where I greeted people and directed them to the movie on the third floor. Pretty easy stuff.

When my work was done, I hustled upstairs to catch the start of the movie — a documentary titled “Sonita.”

I loved it. Going in, I had no idea I’d be seeing a film that won the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival earlier this year.

“Sonita” is the unlikely true story of an Afghan teenager who dreams of becoming a rapper. Sonita Alizadeh was a young girl when she and family members fled to Iran to escape the Taliban in her native country. Years later, she was still living in Iran as an undocumented immigrant when an Iranian filmmaker learned of her through a relative who worked for a non-governmental organization that helps Afghan refugees.

Sonita cleaned bathrooms for the NGO and learned to read and write, but when she was 16, her mother visited and said she must return with her to get married. As a bride in Afghanistan, she would be worth $9,000.

But Sonita doesn’t want to go back.

Learning the basics from watching music videos by Iranian rapper Yas and Eminem, she writes her own lyrics, speaking out boldly against forced marriage, against the subservient role of females in traditional Muslim society, against the war in Afghanistan.

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Afghan teenager Sonita Alizadeh uses rap to speak out against forced marriages. (CNN)

It’s an audacious, even dangerous, thing to do in Iran or Afghanistan, where it’s against the law for females to sing solo. Yet, Sonita’s dream is to give voice to other young women like her who are forced into marriages arranged by their families.

The movie tracks her emotions as she flips back and forth between hope and disappointment, trying to raise money for a recording session while also confronting the stark challenges posed by family, bureaucracy and cultural traditions. It seems like an impossible dream.

But in telling Sonita’s story, director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami tells the story of millions of girls whose talents and ambitions are stifled by the practice of forced marriage. Along the way, the director faces an ethical dilemma herself: Should she pay the mother $2,000 to buy more time for Sonita to pursue her dream? Or should she refuse to do so and confine herself to telling the girl’s story?

This is one of those films that draws back the curtain on places and people that we Westerners rarely see, including the interior of a Tehran apartment, street scenes in Herat (where Sonita grew up), government offices in Kabul, striking vistas of the rugged Afghan landscape.

More compelling, though, is Sonita herself — a devout Muslim, yet a strong-minded young woman determined to blaze her own trail.

When the lights came up, movie-goers applauded loudly. When they learned the director was in attendance, they rose to their feet. It was truly a Portland moment: a standing ovation and 15 minutes of Q&A with Ghaem Maghami, who said of Sonita: “I’ve never seen a child with so much ambition.”

Spoiler alert: My former Oregonian co-worker, Deborah Bloom, now at CNN, wrote a terrific feature story about Sonita last year, chronicling her struggle and inspiring success.  Sonita’s “Daughters For Sale” music video has captured more than 350,000 views on YouTube and ultimately brought her to the United States on a scholarship to study at a private high school in Utah.

***

Tonight I’ll do the second one of my volunteer shifts. I expect to see a variety of dramas and comedies made in France, Paraguay, Argentina, Mexico, Iran and The Netherlands.

If they are anywhere near as good as “Sonita,” I will be thrilled.

(Thanks to my friend Lakshmi Jagannathan, whose own volunteering for PIFF years ago inspired me to do the same when I got the chance.)