Thursday, July 26, 2012

Cash Can't Buy Autograph Bread (My Friends are Cooler Than Yours)

I'm a musician. It's what I've always done. I believe it's what I'll always do. I'm a "lifer" as they say.

Being a musician typically means living a life that is full of long nights, longer drives, poor cuisine, miniscule pay, inherently rocky relationships, hundreds of missed birthdays of loved ones, nephew's piano recitals, ........

Sounds pretty bleak huh? Well, those aspect are decidedly bleak. There is no way around that.

So how does there continue to be people (like myself) who are not only willing to suffer this existence but sacrifice so much and work for decades to have a chance at this existence?

Well, there is obviously an "up side".

That up side is the joy of creating music, performing music, and connecting with people. The joys that accompany those aspects of the musician's life out weigh all the negatives (at least they outweigh the negatives in the mind of the wouldbe musician enough to keep him/her striving for it).

Those are the more apparent , obvious bonuses to being a "lifer" musician. One that is a little less obvious is the fact that after years and years of struggling along side similarly minded musicians , you realize your friends are cooler than everyone else's friends.

Before I went to Belgium I was well aware of the tremendous careers both my friends, Beverly Jo Scott and Rick Hirsch, have had. I even realized that they were stars. But after my experiences in Brussels I realized that they are legitimate, bonafide, sho nuff, no way around it stars. Again, don't misunderstand, I knew the great things each of them had done. I could list their accomplishments for you. But these people are my friends and dare I say........colleagues?

So to see children in the mall clamor to get a picture with BJ, or when the clerk of the clothing store ran to the window and started clicking pictures of us, was odd. I knew that I had severely talented and accomplished friends, but they were still my friends. Not in Belgium, Beverly Jo and Rick are of course still my friends but they truly are celebrities.

Beverly Jo is a super star in Belgium. She has adoring fans every where from her 10 albums and infinite high profile gigs. Recently she has become even more famous due to her being a judge on The Voice Belgique and her radio show. It was fun yet amazing to see the ripple of excitement she would cause by just walking down the street to get lunch. One day while we were attempting to buy bread the cashier was such a fan of BJ that he wouldn't let her pay for it. She autographed a couple things for his wife and again tried to pay for the bread but the cashier wasn't allowing it (of course we jokingly called that loaf of bread "autograph bread" for the rest of the evening). This is my friend from Bay Minette, Alabama we are talking about. It warmed my heart to watch. But I had knowledge that Beverly Jo was a big deal in Belgium before I arrived so I had been trying to prepare myself.

I had not prepared myself for the level of celebrity Rick Hirsch has there too.

Rick has been a phenomenal friend to me for years. He also produced and played on my album, "My Brother's Keepers". Rick also happens to live in my neighborhood. So to see Rick cause some Belgian folks to get star struck too, made me doubly happy.

Beverly Jo had a dinner party at her house one of the nights we were there (no frog legs or magic. But lots and lots of food, fellowship and music).

As the evening began waning we quit singing and picking and began telling stories (enhanced with youtube clips from BJ's computer where applicable).

One of BJ's friends Alain (an incredible musician and BJ's luthier) said his favorite guitar solo ever was one Rick Hirsch had played at a live concert with Joan Armatrading at Rockpalast in 1980.

Alain had been waiting 32 years to meet Rick. Alain cued up the youtube clip (if ya wanna see the exact solo it's at about 2:50 on this clip

To watch Alain enjoy Rick's solo 32 years later and have the same child like fascination with it as I assume he did the first time, was great. Alain air guitared every subtle nuance of this 2 min solo. It was apparent that he had studied and restudied and played and played and played this solo himself.

This celebrated, experienced Belgian "lifer" was geeking out over Rick's solo. (I must admit after hearing the solo, I was geeking out myself. Rick always plays with heart and soul but it came across impressively so in that solo).

( as a side note: I asked Rick about the solo. He didn't remember it. He of course remembered the gig, but he didn't remember the solo specifically. He had just played what he felt at the moment. And 32 years later this accomplished Belgian musician was able to mimic every subtlety.)

It gives you perspective when you see an event like that. Every person (musician or not) has had that part of a song, whether it be a vocal line, a solo, a piano riff, or any other part of song that moves them so deeply that it is almost like a sonic tattoo. It stays with them til their dying day. I have many of those tattoos. So it was excellent to see this great musician turned into a kid again while listening to Rick's solo. Rick's solo had very deeply left its mark on this man's life (and being as Alain is a professional musician, Rick's solo influenced his career as well).

My friends Rick and BJ are stars. There is no denying it.

And of course Rick and BJ are two of my many many many cool, famous friends. But seeing the response people had to them on this trip just solidified what I already knew. I have cooler friends than everybody else.

So kids if you feel like you wanna be a musician let me give ya some helpful advice.

When you are a musician the conditions are usually very very rough. When you are a musician, you will likely live life uncomfortable and broke (in the traditional sense).

But that is because when you are a musician you get paid in a different kind of currency. Musicians get paid in experiences. One of the greatest of all these experiences is making friendships with incredible musicians whom you admire.

So before you shlep down to the crossroads and sell your soul, do a little soul searching.

If you are getting into music to make money, turn around, go back home, and choose ANY other career. I promise you, the workload of a musician is more than the corresponding pay check.

However, if you can value experience as currency....if you enjoy making music for the sake of making good music.......(and as I have shown you here through one example, namely, my recent trip to Belgium) If you want to have the coolest friends of anyone you know..............well .....welcome...come on in.....

"this first one's in B flat.......1,2,3,4"

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

The Sky Refused to Rain On The Smiles of Children (Brosella Folk and Jazz Fest)

I have so many hundreds of stories to tell about my recent trip to the Marshall Islands and then Belgium, it is hard to get them all out. I will try to tell stories of the most interesting parts (as deemed by me) and not make this whole blog turn into the equivalent of looking through someone's baby pictures or Aunt Edna's vacation pics.

The moment I wanna talk about today is substantial enough to warrant its own blog post though. I have no doubt about that.

The moment was one of the most memorable and magical moments I've ever had on stage. And I've had so many moments on stage that were memorable and magical that they are uncountable.

So here we go

I was asked by Beverly Jo Scott to perform with her and her amazing band in Brussels, Belgium. Of course I was intensely honored to be asked to do such a thing. I'm a huge fan of BJ so I'd be honored to play with her in an alley way or subway station. The fact that she was asking me to join her at a huge wonderful festival was all the more great.

The festival she asked me to join her at is called Brosella Folk and Jazz Festival. It has been going on since 1977 (as have I). It is a festival which, as the name implies, showcases Jazz and Folk music from around the world.

Before my trip over I studied up on the history of the festival and all the amazing artists who had played at it through the years. This made me feel even more honored and excited to be a part of the festival this year.

Beverly Jo's set at Brosella this year had a specific purpose. She had decided to spearhead a tribute to Woody Guthrie. This made perfect sense. For a festival that deeply cares about folk music, Woody's music is a perfect object of tribute. And the date of the show happened to be Woody's 100th birthday (had he still been alive).

For this reason I felt that the gig already had a little magic in it.

Anyway, the organizers and workers at Brosella are absolutely incredibly nice people with a true passion for music. The founder of the festival, Henri, actually picked me up from the airport when I arrived. That's how much they care. These folks are deeply invested in music and musicians.

Although my trip to get to Brussels had been insanely difficult (I'm sure that trip will be the topic of multiple future blog posts), the warm welcome and hospitality of the Brosella staff really put me at ease and prepared me for the festival. I could leave all the bad energy behind and focus on doing what I came all this way to do, namely make music.

I had a couple rehearsals with BJ's band (Michel GudanskiThierry RombauxRaphaël Debacker, Yves Baibay, Guy Strrobant, Rick Hirsch) before the festival.

The song arrangements that BJ and the band developed during those rehearsals were absolutely beautiful. They were fairly drastic departures from the original Woody Guthrie versions, but that was on purpose. By playing these modernized version of these songs we were a) showing that Woody's songs are timeless and can be as relevant now as much as they ever were, and b) we were showing how wide spread Woody's influence has been (because his music had reached us in our current genres despite them being so far removed from his).

As a side note, I have fallen so in love with some of the arrangements we did at Brosella that I believe that a couple of them will permenantly make their way into my set.

Back to Brosella.

On the day of the festival everyone was excited to finally unveil these songs. They were like our little gems we had been polishing in private. And we were ready to put them on display.

The morning of the show, Michel (better known as "PiFou") picked up Rick and I and headed to the venue. From my research I knew it was a picturesque outdoor venue with beautiful hedges and lush greenery all around. What I had failed to understand from my research was that the ampitheater we were going to be playing in was within a few 100 yards of the Atomium. The uniquely grand structure that is the Atomium was peeking over the tree line at us. I walked over to Rick during sound check and said, "Hey man. I know you've played all over the world, even here in Brussels, before. But have you ever played in the shadow of an atom?". He agreed he had not and we laughed.

Well although the landscape of the venue was stunningly gorgeous and the attitude of the staff and the audience was equally radiant, the weather was anything but radiant. There was a dreary, gloomy, chalky grey sky in all directions that was spitting morse code type rain consistently all morning and afternoon.
The storminess was unrelenting. There was never a strong rain, just a constant drizzle with those "dot dash dash dot dot dash dash...." showers sputtering every 10-15 minutes.

Fortunately for us, the audience wasn't even slightly dampened by the rain. I told you these people are dedicated to music. They weren't budging. I have a feeling a hurricane wouldn't have moved them from their places. The ampitheater was packed.

BJ and I discussed how the ampitheater already resembled a garden due to the lush hedges and surrounding trees, but when the sporadic showers would begin the thousands of multicolored umbrellas popping open looked like flowers springing open. This solidified the garden imagery for us.

During the 30-40 min before the show, we stood side stage and watched the "flowers" bloom a few times. It was spectacular to watch.

Well after all the waiting and build up, it was time for the actual performance.

We took the stage and played a few of my songs ("Bird on a Powerline", "If Alabama Is Not Good Enough For You"), one of Rick's songs ("Papa Come Quick") and one of Beverly Jo's songs ("Great White Ghost") as a sort of introduction as to who we are as artists. BJ then eloquently explained (in French and English) why Woody was such an important figure in American music and global music. Then we launched into our versions of Woody's songs.

The songs sounded huge. They sounded even better than they did in rehearsal. The audience was loving them. I saw people crying. I saw people swaying and dancing. I saw people deeply moved by what we were doing. And the 7 of us on stage were among those being moved. The show was powerful.

The plan for the set was to play a few of our originals to show the folks who we were, explain how Woody influenced us, play a few Woody songs, then have a group of 20 Belgian children come out and sing "This Land Is Your Land" with us. Then we would end by singing a few more Woody songs.

When we reached the children's part of the show, I was already feeling the power of the show. The Music was touching me, the venue was enhancing the experience, the audience was as responsive as an audience can be (while standing in the rain no less). But that was all just the prelude. The real magic happened when the children walked out on stage.

These 20 cute little Belgian kids haphazardly and awkwardly clamoured out in a bunch immediately to my left. As the sound engineer set up two condenser mics (so the kids would be heard), BJ explained that Brosella has a Brosella for the Kids section where the children can go and have fun with theater, music, arts and all sorts of things. She said these children had been over at the Brosella for Kids and Jan de Smet (the accordian player/organizer of the Woody part of the Brosella Kid's thing)  had taught them the words to a famous Woody song and they were going to sing it with us.

Once the mics were set and were just about ready to kick off the song, the clouds broke open. BJ said, " look at that". 2000-3000 people gasped at the sight. The sky was still dark and gloomy, the entire venue and stage where wrapped in grey EXCEPT for one huge beam of light that covered the children only. It was unbelievable to see. There was an expansive stage and acres upon acres of amiptheater and only one 10 foot by 10 foot area lit up and it was perfectly lighting up those kids.

I'm not sure if it was Woody smiling on the kids or kids parting the clouds or just a random hap stance, but it sure felt magical.

We sang "This Land is Your Land" with the entire audience and those kids helping. The crowd went wild. We continued the show as the natural spotlight disipated completely.

We got a rousing ovation from the crowd that lasted for an extremely long time.

The show was a huge success. The music sounding great, the venue was impeccably beautiful, the audience was superb but the part that stole the day was those children and the solitary beam of light they brought with them.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Pick a language ....Any Language!!

I wrote a blog yesterday about the Belgian dinner party I attended on my last night in Belgium.

For those of you who didn't read that post, it was a wonderful lengthy dinner party with friendship, fine cuisine and drinks galore. It was at the house of Filip and Domonique, friends of Beverly Jo (whom I was staying with and whom I performed with while in Belgium).

Well I won't rehash the parts of the party which I have already written about. I'll instead focus on a different part of the scene. Filip and Domonique have a son. Their son is around the same age as my niece, Lauren or oldest nephew, Emory. I believe he was 11 years old (give or take a little). As I know how unfun being one of the only kids (or the only kid in his case) at a party can be, I'd take a pause and see how he was doing every so often.

Upon arriving in Brussels I was aware that the people spoke French and most everyone knew at least an elementary amount of English. I knew people there spoke Flemish but I thought perhaps that was an older language that wasn't used much. I found out that wasn't the case. Flemish is still used prevelantly.

Here's how it works, kids are sent to either a Flemish school (predominantly in Northern Belgium) or a French school. I believe they learn a little English regardless of whether they are in Flemish or French school. I'm sure they all also learn some English from the American pop culture that seeps in TV , Movies, Books, advertisements , etc.

Anytime I find myself in a society like that (meaning a society where a majority of the people speaks 3 languages) I'm so impressed. The Belgian people at this party, for instance, were effortlessly flipping from French to English without batting an eye. I was understanding 75-80% of their French (my French listening comprehension is much higher than my French speaking ability) and obviously all of their English. I sat there all night as spectator of (and every so often a participant in) a sort of linguistic tennis match. I was loving it.

Well my lack of total comprehension limited my interjections into conversations a little. It put me at the level of 11 year old at a adult party.

So the 11 year old sat beside me and studied me like I was a spider in a terrarium.

Unlike the adults at the party , he was not fluent in English. It only took a few sentences to realize he knew very little English. That was fine I thought. I speak enough broken French that we can carry on small conversations.


After speaking French a little and seeing the look on his face I realized....the kid obviously went to Flemish school. he speaks Flemish not French.

This presented an issue because I speak absolutely zero Flemish. I can't fake my way through it as I have been doing with French. We had a language wall. This child of 11 spoke infinitely more English than I did Flemish but it still wasn't enough.

It was at this point I noticed a deck of playing cards on the table right in front of me.

As I said above, I have a niece and two nephews which I adore. Through my years on the road , I've always tried to bring them cool gifts from wherever I've been or learn new things I can show them upon my returns.

One of the "skills" I've picked up this way is magic. I'm not David Blane or Chris Angel. I have no desire to be. I truly just wanted to learn 1 trick that was cool enough to make my niece and nephews think I was cool. Well, I succeeded.....kinda. I came home after perfecting 1 solitary trick. I showed them. Their jaws dropped. Uncle Eric was the coolest.......for 10 seconds.

Then came the statement I was unprepared for , "do another one! Please please please!".

Uh Oh! How did I not see that coming? I'm not sure. But there I was. A one trick pony. I had shown them my only trick.

Well I vowed to not let that happen again. I also vowed to them I'd have more magic every time I came home. So for a year or so I'd painstakingly learn new magic tricks on every road trip. (note to all aspiring magicians: late night at a bar is a great place to practice tricks. Very drunk people are extremely susceptible to sleight of hand). Anyway, I'd work up new tricks, then bring them home to show my niece and nephews.

It's silly but it was a fun tradition.

Well, back to the Belgian dinner party.

I was there without a language in common with the kid. But I had a deck of cards. And he was 11.

I did a few fancy shuffles and noticed he was intently paying attention. So I went for a trick I was sure I could pull off fairly simply first. It was a simple , pick a card , look at it, put it back. I shuffle and the card jumps to the top of the deck type thing.

It worked to perfection. He was shocked. And just like the kids I had initially learned the tricks for, this kid wanted more more more.

I pulled out a few more complex tricks. The kid was mezmorized!

With this as the ice breaker, we became friends.

We were still at the big dinner table with everyone else but the adults were talking about politics and all sorts of subjects too deep and complex for either of us to jump into. He because of his lack of age and me because of my lack of complex language.

After a couple more magic tricks, he runs and grabs his Dad's iPad. He shows me some cool apps, then asks for another trick. We go back and forth like that for a while. Finally I decide he would be a great person to teach me beginner's Flemish (also I was running out of tricks). So for the next hour or so we would take turns pointing at some object and naming it. I'd say "clock". He'd say "gluck?"(I'm positive I spelled that wrong). Then we would go on to another common household object.

It only took a few of these to realize Flemish and English are very very similar. Of course I know they would be somewhat similar due to their common Germanic origins, but they are more similar than I anticipated.

My language lesson was fun.

I'm not sure I can say anything in Flemish that I learned that night other than "Donku Vell" (Thank you much). But that's not the point. The point is that, I made a friend (albeit an 11 year old) and I learned about another culture because I found something we could relate to. We didn't focus on our differences. We focused on our similarities.

I got back into a more light conversation with the adults and the evening continued on with lovely food and drink. But my interaction with that bright, charismatic child was great.

The instant I got back to Alabama I went and hugged my niece's and nephews' necks. I hugged them because I adore them and I had missed them. But I also had a greater appreciation for them.

By me learning silly magic tricks to entertain them they had indirectly given me tools to connect with people on the other side of the world. They had made me a better person just by being. That's a beautiful thing.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Laughter is the best medicine and it pairs well with Frog Legs

My last night in Belgium I was invited by Beverly Jo Scott and her husband Willie to a dinner party at some friends', Filip and Dominique, house. I love everything about Belgium, but one of my favorite parts is the fact I get to practice my elementary, out of practice French. I'm sure I bastardize their language pretty heinously every time I use it but they are always kind enough to let me try and help me rearrange my sentences when they need rearranging.

When we got to the party I met many wonderful people (another of Belgium's strengths). The owner of the house, Filip, was by the grill (aparently gravitating around a grill is a universal man thing. It knows no language barrier.) Being as I am a man, I too gravitated towards the grill and began chatting with Filip.

In addition to having wonderful people (who allow me to speak broken French to them) , Belgium also has incredible incredible cuisine. I ate marvelous food for breakfast lunch and dinner (and usually 3 other meals I didn't take the time to name which were interspersed throughtout the day). The Belgian folks make ordinary food spectacular and spectacular food even more so. To reach this result they have cultivated and crafted the "ordinary" foodstuffs (ham, bread, cheese, etc) but they also explore a little more than we do in the States and appreciate other flavors (i.e. escargot, boudin,...). Their level of culinary excellence has lured me into areas I would normally be afraid to go. And I have been pleasantly surprised when I tried these "less traditional"foods ("less traditional" relative to my tongue that is).

It is with this in mind that I stepped toward Filip and the grill. As I have stated I would have headed toward the grill anyway because that is what you inherently do as a man (if Filip had of been tinkering with something underneath the hood of a car I would have been equally compelled to walk over and see what was happening). But being as we were in the land of adventurous chefs,  I was extra excited to see WHAT was getting grilled.

I introduced myself to Filip and looked over into the grill. What did I see? Frog Legs!!!!!!

Filip (who speaks impeccable English as well as French and Flemmish) asked if I had ever eaten frog legs.

I said:

J'ai mangé des cuisses de grenouilles souvent. Je suis de Mobile, Alabama. Permettez-moi de vous dire .... si nous mangeons tous les cuisses de grenouilles que vous avez préparé je vais aller là-bas et attraper des grenouilles un peu plus.

(I have eaten frog legs often. I'm from Mobile, Alabama. Let me tell you....if we run out of frog legs that you've prepared, I'll go over there (pointing at a riverbed) and catch some more frogs.)

He laughed with me (and probably AT my French) and I knew Filip and I would be friends before the night was over.

There was already fruit, cheese and chips out on the table for munching, but the frog legs (which of course were delectable) were what I would call the first appetizer. Let me tell you....that was only the beginning. We ate and ate and ate. I'm not sure I can remember all the courses, but there was 3-4 different types of sausage, a couple types of salad, a traditional Belgian drink (similar to V-8 in that it is a cool tomato based vegetable drink), and more cheese, and more sausages, and I think 5-6 other courses served in a 5 hour culinary barrage the likes of which I have rarely seen (only times I've ever seen it were the other times I've been in Europe. These people eat for sport. And perfectly so). Also worth noting that some sort of alcoholic beverage accompanied each section of the meal. So after 5 hours everyone is completely sated. We all had a euphoric buzz from the belly full of delicious food and the gentle all night drinking.

For the entire party everyone was having a great fellowship. Filip and Domonique have an extremely nice but comfortable home and we all enjoyed being there.

Well by this time I was sitting next to Beverly Jo. I could see by the look on her face that we were both in a state of happiness, but we were also in the same state of sleepiness. The amazing food and drinks had had time to begin working into the bloodstream. Additionally adding to our sleepiness was the fact that we had been there since about 6:30 and it was midnight. Wow!

Like a symphony of cuisine and libation the Belgian meal is prepared with great attention to detail per course but also prepared with the overall pace and outcome in mind. This dinner party was a piece of work. Filip and Domonique were as much maestros as chefs.

We had begun with the frog leg sonata, lifted melifluously to the adagio wine/sausage course, etc........well at this point we were obviously nearing the grand finale. We had a full evening of experiences and we could sense the maestros were building to the final crescendo.

And of course they did not disappoint. Filip annouces that Domonique had prepared her famous Tarte au Sucre (Sugar Pie).

It's amazing that although if I had been asked at this point I would have said that there was no way I had room for dessert, upon reflection, I realized there was room for one slice of Tarte au Sucre.

This pie was phenomenal. It had a thin kind of flaky crust with a flavor something like pecan pie without the pecans , mixed with creme brûlée. However even that doesn't perfectly describe it. Just trust me, it was unique and tasty.

Beverly Jo and I both had a piece and looked at each other. Yep. That was it. Perfect ending to this symphony of a meal.

We were full, happy and sleepy. It was a wrap.

We took maybe 5-10 minutes to psychologically gather ourselves.

Just as we go to reach for our coats, Filip brings out some cheese...WAIT! What?

Now I didn't mean to break any NATO resolutions or cause any friction in the UN between the USA and Beligum, but I had to speak up.

I said, "MAN! Ya'll must be kidding. Ya'll breaking all the rules." (notice that 5 hours of eating and drink had turned my elementary French back into perfect redneck)

They looked at me confused (not because they didn't speak English. They were actually all very fluent. They knew what I had said just not exactly what I meant), so I explained myself.

I said, "Since man has begun to cook.....whether he is in an igloo or a hut, whether he lives in Russia or thing is certain........

After a 5 hour meal........when the Sugar Pie (or its equivalent) is brought out..... THE MEAL IS OVER! Sugar Pie is the culinary exclamation point. There is nothing else. Sugar Pie is the universal sign of "Thank you for coming, you now have about 15 minutes to head out". Sugar Pie is a food version of "You ain't gotta go home, but you can't stay here". I said, "The only way you can bring out more cheese is if it is the appetizer for tomorrow's meal and ya'll are about to fire that grill back up". If that's the case let me know so I can go hunt up some more frogs."

Everyone was laughing. Everyone was laughing hard (including me). I tried to continue but couldn't due to laughter.

I looked at BJ and she was laughing so hard she was turning purple. The more I thought about my Sugar Pie revelation and saw BJ laughing the harder I laughed. We spiralled into a side splitting laughter that had tears streaming down our faces. We were gasping for air. We cackled our way through the remainer of the evening and continued to laugh all the way to the car and still more as Willie drove us back to BJ and Willie's house. The laughter was so intense that both BJ and I were in pain. It took about an hour to wind down to a level we could even consider going to bed. I'm not sure about BJ but I was still chuckling when I went to sleep.

It had been a long long time (if ever) that I had laughed that hard.

That dinner party was remarkable and it will be one that I remember for a lifetime. But the laughter that randomly sprung from it is possibly even more remarkable. It is remarkable because that laughter made me feel better for days following that.

I have read that laughing triggers the release of adrenaline and dopamine (the body's version of morphine) and I believe it. I felt a "runner's high" type sensation. 

This natural boost couldn't have come at a better time for me. I had days and days of tribulations with the airlines and their inability to get me or my luggage back to Alabama without issue. Most people would have snapped at some point during the repeated let downs and struggles I faced during the trip home. I may have too, but I was simply too happy. 

In the most dire times of flight cancellations and luggage rerouting, I still had some of that laughter in my veins. That laughter greatly helped keep me smiling through it all.

And that is the story of how Belgian frog legs, Beverly Jo, and Sugar Pie kept me through my horrible trip home and kept a United Airlines employee unstrangled.

Monday, July 9, 2012

"You Dropped The Bomb on me, Baby!!"

When l landed in Majuro (Capitol of the Republic of the Marshall Islands) a couple weeks ago there were many tell tale signs that I was in a foreign place. The
most obvious of these was the visual surroundings. There was a little thing known as the Pacific Ocean which was visible in
virtually 360 degrees. There were palm trees, pandanus trees, and tropical bushes. There were the buildings that had obviously
been built in the time of the American occupation during WWII (late 1940's-1950's) which had been highly weathered by the
salty rain and winds combined with 60 years of heavy use.

Another sign that I was in a foreign place was the smell. The scent of salt air is definitely not foreign to me. However the way it was
mixed with the smell of Majuro vegetation and the aromas of a densely populated island was unique. The nose is a sensitive organ. And my nose was telling me I wasnt "in Kansas" anymore.

Another sign I was far from Alabama was my interactions with the Marshallese people. Of course they have a distinctive look.
They have what l'll say is an island look (i.e. coarse black hair, dark skin, etc) but it's a version of that island look that is
discernibly Marshallese. However their appearance isn't the reason for this blog. lt's their attitude.

The phrase I heard most while l was in the Pacific was "lsland Time". lf someone was late, he was said to be on "lsland Time". lf store hours
posted on the sign outside didn't really match the actual hours the store was open ..... "lsland Time". lf a 10 minute break lasted
30 it was chalked up to "lsland Time".

The people in the Marshall Islands are just laid back. They get their business done but they aren‘t overly stressed about it. And
this general attitude is instantly obvious.

A perfect example of this laxness is why I am writing this blog.

We landed in Majuro and had a 45 minute layover before taking our short flight to Kwajalein. Majuro airport is only a 40'x60' room and they probably get an international
flight once a week and maybe 5-6 island hoppers a day. Majuro is a tiny tiny airport.

We had travelled through multiple times before so we knew what to expect (for the most part). When you land in Majuro
half of the plane (typically everyone sitting in rows A, B, and C) have to get their carry on and get off the plane. Once they have
left the plane the security force comes in and checks all the overhead compartments and all the seat back pockets and seats. All passengers who are in rows D, E, and F have to hold their carry ons and awkwardly dance around the security folks as they check the other side of the plane. Therefore I always get off the plane in Majuro regardless of which side I'm on. It's usually time to stretch out tired legs when ya land in Majuro anyway.

So the rest of the Ugli Stick and l get off the plane while they check it. We head to the small airport to use the bathroom while
we wait. Once we had done that l noticed that there was a bar in the airport. You have to understand, this airport only has
enough space for probably 20-30 people to sit and yet they felt it wise to have a bar. I like the way these people think. The bar consists of about 6-7 dusty bottles. Only some of these bottles are of a brand I have heard. I looked at Tim and said, "Let's have a drink. lt's burning up. We are both
sweating. We‘ve just flown 30 hours. We‘ve finally made it (minus a short little jump to Kwaj). Plus we need to support this lovely
establishment." Tim wasn‘t so sure but he was a good sport and eventually agreed.

We walked up to the bar accompanied by the 3-4 flies that were circling. The bartender was a sweet smiling older Marshallese
lady with more than a couple teeth missing. She greeted us warmly with her half empty smile and said "Want some drink?". l said "Yes
please" then turned to Tim. “What do you want to drink, man? Selection is highly limited and we probably need to have a shot
not a drink since we will be re boarding the plane very soon." Again Tim agrees. l begin looking at the selection. lt's 1 bottle of scotch, 1 bottle of whisky and some weird beer ...... and Jager. Jager isn't the first choice for Tim nor myself but a) Jäger is something we are familiar with and b) this shot was about commemorating not about
getting enjoyment so much. So we reluctantly ask the bartender for two shots of Jager.

She grabs the bottle down and dust from years past erupts into the air. l was gearing myself up for the vintage cough syrupy onslaught when I hear the lady say the last two words any one ever wants to hear in regards to Jager ....... "No Ice".

Oh god! We are sweating in this tiny swelter box of an airport and about to "quench" our thirsts with hot Jager.

The sweet lady is already pouring. There is no backing out now.

At this point, Federal Aviation regulations are the farthest thing from my mind. I am simply trying to gear up for this self imposed
punishment/commemoration shot then get back on the plane.

Federal Aviation regulations were inadvertently and instantly brought to my mind by the sweet lady. And it was then I knew i was truly in a foreign land.

With complete disregards to her surroundings or any institution controlling said surroundings, the sweet semi-toothed barkeep says very loudly , "MAKE A BOMB?"

She was pointing to a half empty can of hot Red Bull on the shelf. But all I could think was .... "did she really just say that in an
airport?" I realize this is a more relaxed atmosphere than at say....JFK or something, but it's still an airport.

I'm sure the blank look on my face confused her because again she asked loudly, " MAKE A BOMB? MAKE A BOMB?" It then officially sunk in that this was really happening so I was able to gather myself . I waved emphatically and say "NO NO NO! Thank you though"

She smiled calmly and went about pouring our hot Jager into styrofoam cups. I paid her and Tim and I gagged down our "treat".

That sweet lady yelling "Make a bomb?" repeatedly in a packed yet silent airport is a moment l'll always remember. It was so incredibly peculiar to
me but it was also extremely memorable for me because it vividly displayed how differently the Marshallese live.
She wasn‘t yelling "Make a bomb?" in an airport as any sort of defiant act. I'm positive she had no idea what she was saying was a severe no no. She was just being friendly and happy. She may not even know the rules of global, international airports. But even if she did I get the feeling she would still have said it.

It is refreshing and relaxing to be on "Island Time" but it‘s also refreshing to be around a culture of people who have the island mind set.

A little of that mindset rubbed off on me I think.

Don‘t worry, I haven‘t made such a drastic transition that l‘lI be yelling "Make a Bomb"
in LAX. But I am a lot less stressed about all this travel when I think the Marshallese way.

“Life is good. Eat well. Have some rum, If I somehow miss the plane that comes today I will just try to catch the one tomorrow or next week.

It‘lI all be fine."

(By the way, on the way back through Majuro as we were leaving the Pacific, we went inside the airport and the same lady was working. Of course Tim and I had to revisit our friend (it was too great of an experience to not repeat. Besides I'm feeling a Marshall Islands tradition forming). Our "leaving the isIands" shot of hot Jager tasted exactly as horrible as the first one did. But there was a difference this time. When the little lady once again yelled "Make a
Bomb?", I just smiled, waited for her to ask again and calmly said "No Thanks")

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Resilience Amongst the Coral

Today was our Off Day on Kwaj. We did an Interview for the Kwajalein paper. I can't wait to check out the article. Our segment will be 1 of 16 pages. Once again Kwaj wins as far as percentages go. I've had many articles written, but never been 1/16th of an entire publication. 

After the interview I rode around the island for a bit.

Then we had a Happy Hour hang at the Kwajalein Yacht Club before dinner.

We were invited to dinner at Denise Dorn and Mike Nast's house. Denise and Mike own the boat we sailed down from Roi on the other day. Anyway, Denise is a fabulous cook. I realized this when I had her banana coconut muffins and Kona Hazelnut coffee on the boat. Since then I have heard from everyone on the island that Denise is THE BEST cook here. After last night I can see why they say that.

Denise had prepared us a mexican meal that was incredible. She had home made tortillas, shredded beef and all the trimming for making tacos. She had jalapenos which had been hollowed out and filled with cream cheese then wrapped with bacon. She had some incredible salsa. And more and more and more. And every single thing was delicious. 

We had a great evening hanging out on Denise and Mike's back patio. It was a perfect evening.

This morning Bobby and I got up and went to film the sunrise.
As I was sitting out there on the coral mound watching the sun come up on this miraculous piece of the Earth I started thinking about the local vegetation. The vegetation here is obviously different than any place stateside. I just hadn't put too much thought into why. I mean there is obviously different amounts of sunlight, water, and wind here, but I thought of another critical element. This island isn't made out of dirt. The island is almost completely composed of coral (or sand which has been formed by the pieces of coral that have been ground down over years). But coral isn't a very fertile soil type. It isn't a fertile soil type for "normal" vegetation. But the plants out here aren't "normal". These trees and bushes are resilient. They have grown to be tough enough to withstand intense winds and very little nutrients from the soil. Actually they haven't just survived in these less than ideal conditions, they have thrived. The whole island is lush and green due to their being so prolific. 

It is then that I thought back to our dinner party from last night. That dinner party wasn't just a dinner party that was great considering what was available here on the island. That was a great dinner party for anywhere on Earth. Denise and Mike (and the hundreds of other families here) have grown to not just survive on this island, they are thriving. They fed 8-9 people amazing food and entertained us all fully in their lovely home. 

This may seem pretty innocuous but I think it is more profound than that.

The people who live here (as represented by Denise and Mike) haven't simply settled for accepting the best of what's around, they have adapted their life styles to their surroundings and they are flourishing due to it. Much like the palm and pandanus trees these good folks have almost become a part of the island. When the storm comes they use its rain to quench their thirsts and wiggle their toes in between the coral and lean into the wind. 

Just as the palm trees and pandanus add to the beautiful essence of this island, so do the people who call it home. 

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Touch of Home. And A Lot of Home

 I know everyone in the states is celebrating Independence Day today, but due to being right next to (yet on the other side of) the International Date Line for us today is the 5th. And that's not me trying to be a hipster ("Oh you're partying for July 4th? yeah...we did that yesterday")

Good News is I can tell you all about our 4th of July celebration while you are gearing up for yours.

Yesterday started with rough weather. And I mean it was hanging-off-a-mast-with-a-knife-in-your-teeth bad weather. Dale, Bobby, and Tim had left about 10 minutes before in one golf cart to go to the venue site (on the opposite side of the island). When I finished showering and getting ready I took the other golf cart to go meet them. I never made it. As I got about an eighth of a mile from the Kwaj Lodge (where we live here) the rain started. And it was the good old Mobile rain that I'm accustomed to. Then it got stronger. It was getting to be a little more like the Hurricane rain of Mobile that I'm accustomed to. Once I was about half way to the destination the rain and wind got so strong I thought it was going to flip the golf cart over. The rain was hitting me like rocks and it was coming at me sideways (every one think Forrest Gump rain). Well I wasn't fearing for my safety (Hell, I was already soaked. Couldn't get wetter) but it pounding the golf cart so I looked for shelter. The next block I passed had a grocery store on it so I pulled the cart under their roof and next to a wall. The store was closed for the 4th but the shelter was saving me and the cart. I'm glad I found shelter when I did because the rain actually got worse than it already was. So I sat there kinda stuck for about 10 minutes.

The rain finally started slacking off. It wasn't calm by any means, but it was back down to hurricane level. Right then I see the golf cart with Dale, Tim, and Bobby pass at the end of the block (headed back toward the Kwaj Lodge). I run through the rain, jump in my cart and punch it. It takes a while to catch em but I eventually do. The rain picks back up and we must seek refuge again. After a few minutes of waiting we brave the rest of the ride back.

Upon getting there I discover to no surprise that the set up has been postponed.

The last time we were on Kwaj our biggest show got dumped on. Although that show was one of the most memorable, I hoped this year's July 4th would have cooperative weather.

Thankfully it did.

By the time it got to be 1-2pm it was smooth sailing (that term has more meaning to me after this trip).

We set up with the help of a great and friendly crew. (Dale said this has to be the smartest crew we've ever had. And I must agree being as the guys that were helping us were all radar engineers and rocket scientists). Anyway, one of the guys asks where I'm from. When I said Mobile, Alabama (Dauphin Island Parkway to be exact) he said that he had went to Davidson and Murphy High School (which are also in Mobile).  We started talking about all sorts of things from our home town of Mobile. He said he had been out here on Kwajalein for 18 years but he had something for me.

He went back to the sound board. As soon as the PA was up and running: what do I hear? Wet Willie.

For those that don't know, Wet Willie is a band from Mobile (our home town) that was as big as it gets back in the 70's/early 80's. For all Mobile musicians of my generation and beyond, Wet Willie showed us what was possible. They were the benchmark. The goal was to find a way to get to where they had gotten. They were a legitimate, world class band that kept true to their roots in Mobile.

Over my many years of playing I consider myself very fortunate to now be able call the members of Wet Willie my friends. Most notably of these, Donna Hall who sang backgrounds on my album, and Rick Hirsch, who not only produced my CD, "My Brother's Keepers", but also will be touring with me in Belgium (after this trip in the Pacific). These people have directly affected my life in a positive way and I still get amazed that I get to call them friends of mine.

Well with that as the back story you can see how yesterday was a special moment for me.

I was waiting to perform for the United States military ON Independence Day, half way around the world. I'm not sure how I could be in a situation where I would feel more patriotic and proud.

Then Wet Willie is played over the PA for an hour.

It was the icing on the cake. I'll tell Rick about all this when I see him in Europe in a couple weeks but the rest may never know they were a part of my "moment". But their music being there mattered to me.

I don't have any false conceptions that I have made as big a wave in the industry as Wet Willie. They were a big time signed act with multiple charted songs. But standing in that situation last night I was sure I had at least made a ripple. And who shows up to give me a reassuring pat on the back and a congratulations but Wet Willie (in the form of their music). It just felt good. The people I had looked up to were right beside me on my proudest day.

I sat back and watched the sunset over Emon Beach. There were red, white and blue streamers and lanterns dancing from palm trees and "...give me that country side of life..." filling the air.

With that as the prelude to the gig, it obviously couldn't go wrong.

Our show went off without a hitch. We were so excited to get to play for these soldiers and their families that we started 30 minutes early. That's not "rock'n roll" I know, but we wanted to give em their money's worth and more importantly let them know how much we appreciate them and their sacrifices.

Everyone in the band put on an exceptional show in my opinion. We were hitting on all cylinders.

The military danced and enjoyed their 4th of July and it felt so good to be a part of it.

As I watched the people dance I could just feel that they had been needing that show. Everyone I have talked to out here loves living and working out here, but there are sacrifices that have to be made to be here for extended periods of time.

One of those sacrifices is live music. The people that live here say the last band they saw out here was us in 2009. That's a long time without live music.

There are so many sacrifices they all have to make, but last night we made sure that having a real American party with live music wasn't one of them.

I could see it on their faces. They weren't just dancing at a small little beach party that was kind of a close proximity of what they could get at home. They were transported home. Or rather a little home was transported to them.

A lot of times I'm sure it probably feels like they are forgotten and separated from the world out here.

Well last night we brought a piece of the world to these good people. They made us feel like we brought it all.

Happy 4th of July to everyone. (Me included)

Early In the Evening (July 4th Emon Beach, Kwajalein)

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Bring Me My Parrot, ya scurvy dog!

The 43 knot wind began to pound the boat

Stinging rain assaulted our faces

Rolling white caps tossed the boat so hard that 3ft of the jib was dipped into the water.

The swirling winds spun the boat 180 degrees

We needed the mainsail dropped and we needed it dropped immediately.

We tried to drop it but it hung.  Tried again but it hung. We wondered what it could be. It should have been working.

Then we see the problem.

A tell tale rope on the mainsail had gotten hung on a lazy jake (Guide rope in the rigging).

We have to fix the problem.

Seconds later I am dangling 6 feet up the slippery mast.  I had the fingertips of my right hand hanging on to a cleat on the mast and the tips of my toes of my right foot trying not to slip off a toe hold I had found. The rest of me was stretched into open space : steak knife in my hand. The boat was pitching and everything was soaking wet. I was being thrown back and forth like a drenched rag doll. With every swing to the right I could reach the tell tale rope and saw on it a couple times. Swing left and I hold on. Swing right and I knife on the rope. Swing. Hold on. Swing. Cut. Swing. Hold On. Swing. Cut. Until finally I succeed. SNAP I get through the rope and the sail comes down.

I was relieved to have freed the sail but I was still getting beat around so I decided I would benefit from the use of both hands and feet on the mast now that the mission was completed. But I had a knife in my left hand. 

It was as I was placing the knife blade between my teeth so I could climb down the rain soaked mast that I realized.......THIS IS BAD ASS. I LOVE THIS. I"VE BEEN WAITING MY WHOLE LIFE FOR THIS.

As a kid I always fantasized of being an old salty pirate. And there I was up the mast with a knife in my mouth amidst a squall in open water ARRRRRRRGGHH
Having grown up on Mobile Bay, I have sailed for 1000s of hours. My brother had a boat, I had a boat,  my cousins had boats. Sailing was my favorite thing to do. But all that sailing was done aboard small catamarans in the relatively smooth Mobile Bay or once in a Blue Moon in the Gulf of Mexico.

The sail we made yesterday was aboard a 35-40 ft boat across the Kwajalein Atoll in the South Pacific. 

Yesterday's trip was an 11 hour sail from Roi Namur down to Kwajalein. We were traveling North to South through the largest Lagoon in the world. It's 1400 square miles of lagoon.

We ran into a couple of squalls, the worst being the one that ended with me up the mast. But we also had a few hours of nice calm sailing.

We had an amazing crew (Mark, Denise, Jim, Laura, Dale, Tim and I) which made it fun even amid the excitement.

Yesterday's sail is one I will always remember. It would have been an incredible trip even if the weather was nice the whole time. But my pirate adventures that occurred along the way made it so much better. 

FYI, I drank rum for the rest of the trip. ARRRRRRGGGH!

Monday, July 2, 2012

Gabby Shack for The Win

Last night I played an acoustic show at the Gabby Shack. 

Gabby Shack is kind of a community hang out on Roi. The Gabby Shack is 10 ft from the water. It has a fully stocked bar, a couple of rusty old refrigerators, and its own island cat. The air there is salty and thick. The people there are unbelievably laid back and as hospitable as can be. 

What I am trying to tell you is, it felt like home. Playing all night for a group of genuinely nice people while we all sat on a deck by the saltwater and drank.

I'd say this one was in my "wheel house".

There probably would've been way more people had it not rained. But I think the party was actually better for it having rained.

One interesting phenomenon in the Marshall Islands is the way it rains. 

Every single day, the Marshall Islands has crisp perfectly blues skies. Everyday the Marshall Islands also has rain. And I mean the good old Gulf Coast torrential down pour rain. The difference is that here the rain lasts a total of 10-15 minutes. So you can be hanging in the most picturesque weather imaginable, be in a severe rain, and then back to the perfect weather all in the amount of time it takes to walk to the store and back. 

I joked with the folks and said "yesterday was the best week of my life". 

I meant it mostly because we had done so many things in one day that it literally felt like many days, but this quickly changing weather played a role in that. I think when my body had been through two pretty harsh storms and three extended periods of perfect sunny weather it subconsciously drew the conclusion that days must have passed. 

Having experienced this weather change so much while we were here before and during the three days we've been here this time, we knew the routine. 

Well last night at the Gabby Shack show, it was different. It rained and rained and rained. It was an unusually long rain. It also had lots of lighting, which the locals tell me is a very rare thing. 

Anyway, you would think all that rain would have lessened the gig. And you'd be wrong. 

I think the show was enhanced by it. The rain caused all 20-30 people to have to be more tightly packed in because they had to all get under the roof. It gave it much more of a "listening room" feel than a bar feel.

The rain helped in another way too. I told you this island feels a lot like home. That includes the extremely hot and sticky salt air and the incessant insects. Because it rained all night there was a cool breeze coming through which made it the perfect temperature and also kept the flies away. 

With this nice set up and the rain helping, the show was amazing for me. I got to tell stories and play songs up close and personal to these folks. I love playing in environments like that. They were all very very receptive and interactive, but when I was playing they were attentively listening and quiet. It felt good. 

I played a while, then Dale played a while (and sounded great of course) and then we played the last hour together.

Gabby Shack definitely has a special place in my heart now. I'll always remember that show.

Today'a agenda: run across island to upload this blog, pack all my stuff, then head to the dock to sail 9 hours down to Kwajalein. Oh my god. I'm excited I can't stand it. I'm a sailor at heart and never had the opportunity to have such a large extended excursion (definitely not in the South Pacific). I'll tell ya how it goes later.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Aim Low, Boys. They're Riding Shetland Ponies.

The island of Roi Namur is the home to a US military base.
And like any military base I have no doubt there are tons and tons of missions/operations that are being done here that are above my level of clearance to know. That's how military bases operate….and I am very cool with that. 

One thing on Roi that is impossible to hide is Altair. Altair is the world's strongest radar. Oh…it's also about 400-500ft tall. It is obvious and apparent almost every place you can go on the island. 

When I say this radar is strong I mean it is dangerously strong. It's like this: The planes that fly to Roi from Kwaj have the standard safety documentation in the seatback in front of you. These documents show how the seat can be used as a flotation device, they show where the exits on the plane are, etc. But on this flight there is an extra little document.

This document says something to the effect: The area you are entering contains the strongest Radar Frequencies on Earth. This can cause bodily harm. If you experience warm sensations in your eyeballs or testicles report to the infirmary…………..

WAIT!!!! WHAT!!?!? 

At this point I'm continuing to read very carefully.

The document goes on to say the radar is more intense the higher you get therefore no one is allowed to climb anything on Roi. If you are going to climb above 15ft you must get written permission from the proper authorities on the island before climbing.

As you might have gathered, I plan on monitoring my testicle sensations extremely closely (more than normal) and heeding the non climbing instructions very carefully once we land on Roi.  

We arrive and our sweet host, Laura, says "I know you must be tired. Let me take you to your rooms."

I'm thinking that settling in and taking a nap will take my mind off of the stay low to the ground or your testicles get broiled thing.

We arrive at the apartments where we will be staying and Laura passes out the keys.


I've been sleeping on the floor and belly crawling to the bathroom. 

The New Disney (Magical Kingdom 2.0)

I'm not big into paranormal activity. I am a staunch supporter of math and science. I don't believe in voodoo or ghosts or telekinesis or the like. I just feel like occurrences shouldn't be tagged as magic simply because we don't understand them currently. We don't understand them because either our equipment and/or perceptions are insufficient to understand the occurences at this time. 

To say it another way, I believe everything can be explained. It is highly likely that our human senses or our understanding of our surroundings isn't currently sophisticated enough to grasp what is occurring during a certain wonderful phenomenon, but inherently it is knowable. 

The place I am currently at makes me question my stance.

This place is the Marshall Islands (specifically Kwajalein and Roi Namur).

In 2009 my band, The Ugli Stick, was honored to be allowed to do a USO tour for the troops. This tour included stops at military bases throughout the Pacific. Two of those stops were Kwajalein and Roi Namur. 

The instant I got there I knew I was some place special. The shows were special because we were able to play for the men and women of our military, the location was special because these islands happen to be some of the most beautiful places on Earth, but there was something more. 

I felt a connection to the place. I felt calm and comforted there. 

It is so ridiculous to relate it to this, but I felt like I was on the TV show "LOST". I had a real sense that "I wasn't supposed to leave the island." Of course I had to leave the island, but it just felt unright when I did. 

That was 3 years ago and nothing really bad has happened, as a matter of fact life has been great since then, but I always had a gnawing to get back out to Kwaj and Roi.

Thanks to the work of an incredible person and friend, Kim Yarnes, I am currently on Roi Namur. Kim worked very diligently for a very long time to get the government to allocate the funds to bring us back out here. I'd like to thank her and the government for the opportunity.

Being here, I am convinced that I was "supposed to come back to the island". 

Over the last few years I have developed a pretty severe discomfort in my upper back. I'm sure I need surgery and also could benefit from chiropractoryship but till now I've had to just deal with it. Well the 30+ hours of flying and the 3 hours of sleeping on the floor it took to get out here made my back very very unhappy. When it gets that way it is hard to concentrate on anything. The pressure gets so intense that I will find myself getting anxious. It makes me feel like I'm almost suffocating (because I can't fully inhale because my rib cage is too tense to allow itself to expand).

That's how I was when we landed on Kwaj yesterday. And guess what……..almost instantly 80% percent of my tension and back pain went away. I felt good, relaxed and whole. Again I am not negating that being in paradise and getting to see an old dear friend wouldn't be relieving anyway. But there was something greater going on.

It was (and still is ) a glorious feeling.

The mathematician in me says it's probably an actual connection I have with this island (in a higher dimension than the 3 I'm living in and able to observe). Or it's the extremely strong radar (the strongest radar in the world is here in Roi) that is giving me "That tingly feeling". Or maybe because of where these islands are the magnetism of the Earth lines up just right to make me feel better.

But I'm gonna believe maybe, just maybe .....this time....there's some magic mixed in.