Eight favorites for 2018

I still resist signing up for a streaming service and buy all of my music, even though that’s basically become stupid in 2018, but I want to get the musicians paid and streaming just isn’t doing that. As a result, I still care about albums, and I still don’t listen to just anything that comes along. That’s the experience I want from my music. Here are eight of my favorites from last year, in no particular order except for my favorite at the bottom:

Soundtrack: ‘A Star is Born’: In the film, Bradley Cooper’s character is a composite of many of my favorite musicians, and Lady Gaga proved she is a fine actress (the music part already wasn’t in doubt). Cooper’s singing is a revelation, but he also gets to work with material from some of the best writers in the folkie/Americana/alt-whatever world, and that couldn’t have hurt. You know that heartbreaking “Maybe It’s Time” song in the movie? Jason Isbell’s work. I could have done without the dialogue excerpts in the soundtrack, but that’s probably just me.

Kacey Musgraves: Golden Hour: I have all of her albums, but this one pushed her from Americana star to a broader audience. NPR has tied the “Roséwave” tag to her, which seems a little unfair, but it is true that she writes songs that can seem more clever than emotionally deep. But this album has a few darker turns and seems less interested in impressing you with wordplay; it’s definitely deeper and at times a little bleaker than much of her past work. Still, it also has the fun and super-poppy “High Horse,” which is perfectly at home with a really wide variety of playlists. This is her best overall effort.

Parker Millsap: Other Arrangements: Here’s yet another terrific album from this very talented, very young Oklahoman. Like Musgrave’s work, this Millsap effort pushes him out of the Americana box and into a broader audience — but he does by rocking it up harder. He’s also a very good live performer (although I missed his DC show this year because of a gig of my own). Still only 25 as of this writing, Millsap has already released a career’s worth of excellent music.

John Prine: The Tree of Forgiveness: Now we head to the other end of the age spectrum: At 72, Prine put out his finest album in decades. Throat cancer has changed his voice, but his lyrics are still as powerful as the legendary stuff he put out in the 1970s. Just listen to “Summer’s End” or “Egg and Daughter Nite” for evidence. This album made it to No. 5 on the Billboard chart — his highest album showing ever.

The Lone Bellow: Walk Into a Storm: The band continues its consistently strong album string with this most recent effort. You really need to see them live, where they can be an absolute force, but songs like “Feather” and “Deeper in the Water” are filled with power and emotion.

Anderson East: Encore: I first heard some of his music last year, then watched him play a horribly-mixed-by-the-sound-guy set opening for Chris Stapleton in the summer of 2017. It made me wonder what all the hype was about — and then I heard this album, which came out right after the new year. The lyrics can be a little odd at times, such as when he tells a sick woman he’ll go to the liquor store for her, but there’s a method and meaning to that oddness. All of this is set to a horn-laden band that channels a really strong Stax groove. I want to see him again in a place with a working sound setup.

John Oates: Arkansas: Easily the most surprising album of the year for me; I gave this a preview when it came across my Amazon “You Might Like” suggestions and liked it immediately. Oates channels a bunch of rootsy influences in this album, from the title song to covers of Mississippi John Hurt blues chestnuts. If you just think of him as the lesser-known half of Hall & Oates, this will change your mind.

And finally, here’s my favorite album of the year:

Sister Sparrow: Gold: She drops the moniker of her band, the Dirty Birds, from this effort — although it’s obvious a lot of them play on the album. It’s more modern and less blues-influenced than her Dirty Birds efforts, but it still features Arleigh Kincheloe’s powerhouse voice that can stop you in your tracks (even more so if you see the band live; it’s hard to reconcile those belting monster vocals with the very small human from which they originate). It’s good to hear this updated sound that still is very much attached to its roots. Of all of these acts, I’d definitely go see Sister Sparrow and the Dirty Birds live first. Given some of the company here, that’s no small compliment.

(I put together similar lists in 2017 and 2015. Check them out.)

A few developments from Vegas 2018

Just got back from my sort-of-annual Vegas trip. This one was a 50th birthday celebration for a friend. Some developments:

1. This was my first Vegas trip during the ‘slow season’ — the time after Thanksgiving with the exception of Rodeo Week. It was REALLY slow — crazy slow, even on Friday night.

2. The niceness of some older hotels depends on the “refresh factor” — basically, how long it’s been since the hotel had carpets replaced, rooms painted, bathrooms redone, etc. It looks like the Tropicana, which I’ve stayed at for their funky garden bungalow rooms in recent trips, needs another refresh. And why do so many “nonsmoking” Vegas hotel rooms smell like smoke anyway?

3. Hotels visited this time: The Trop, MGM Grand, New York New York, Park MGM (good job with the massive remodeling, by the way), Bellagio, Caesar’s Palace, the Linq, the Venetian, SLS (really liked the casual Northside Cafe there), the Hard Rock, the Fremont, 4 Queens, Golden Nugget, the California and Main Street Station.

4. Didn’t blow the gambling budget but that was in part because of a really bad couple of hours in Day 2, which is the sort of thing that always sours me and causes me to gamble less.

5. Because I usually go in big groups, most of my Vegas meals are casual. Surprises on that front this time around: the aforementioned Northside Cafe, the thought put into the menu at Culinary Dropout at the Hard Rock, the buffet at Caesar’s (I’m not a buffet person but was really surprised at the overall quality here) and a really good breakfast at Tom’s Urban at New York New York (a spin on Eggs Benedict using carnitas and chopped poblano peppers).

6. Hit up a locals’ diner for the first time in a while; walked from the Trop down to Coco’s Bakery Restaurant a couple of blocks away. Highly recommended for the breakfast and the people watching. Good prices, big portions, good quality for a breakfast diner.

7. Downtown was even weirder than usual. And the 4 Queens, of which I have many fond memories, has gone straight to the dumper; it’s no longer a good gambling locale IMHO and I’ll probably avoid it in the future. And the Las Vegas Club building disappeared. And about half of Binny’s old joint is a T-shirt shop now. And I somehow didn’t go into the Golden Gate, which I love. And the renovation at the California is fantastic! And the beers from the Triple-7 at Main Street remain as good as ever.

8. Yes, I’ve been to Vegas a lot. You can read about past trips here, here, here, and here, among other entries I’ve written over the years.

Thanksgiving and giving thanks

I’m closing in rapidly on my 60th Thanksgiving. Even after all of these years, nearly half of which have been lived in the Washington area, I’ve still spent far more of them with my brother and sisters than any other alternative. But most of them head families of their own now, and their children have children, so they don’t get together often for Thanksgiving any more.

But there have been others. I spent a few alone, particularly in my early years in the DC area. I’ve spent a number now with my in-laws, who live in Florida, and that always feels like a vacation. I spent a couple Way Back in the Day with families of ex-girlfriends, avoiding the potential land mines that come with that experience. I spent one or two working in a newsroom, because newsrooms don’t shut down. And as a teenager, I once worked Thanksgiving night in a pizza joint — and it got slammed with takeout orders. (If there is one constant in my whole working life, it’s the power of pizza to improve every situation.)

But this was a rare one — I spent it with just my wife. We usually do Christmas by ourselves, but have spent Thanksgiving with just each other only a handful of times. Cooking the feast was fun — a smoked chicken and a number of the usual lifelong Thanksgiving favorites — and we enjoyed the dinner. But we also talked the things for which we are grateful. The list is long, and as we head toward the final holes on the course, that’s good to know. It’s really all you can ask.

A new mando I don’t need

Yeah, I got another (used) mandolin. Yeah, my mandolin playing is still…sub-optimal. Yeah, I need another mandolin like I need a hole in my head.

But I really want to quit beating up my Morris luthier-made mando (look back a few posts), and I got a good deal on this Gretsch Park Avenue. It sounds nice, it looks like a mandolin is supposed to look, it has an oval hole to help with sustain (better for the rootsy stuff I play vs. the sharper, more percussive tone of a mandolin with ‘f’ holes), it’s surprisingly loud, it has a built-in pickup and it won’t kill me if it gets accidentally booted over on stage. It also should be relatively easy to re-sell.

I now own three mandolins, which is about two mandos more than I really need, but at least I can fund this sickness by getting gigs that pay. And honestly, this thing is worth only about a third of the value of the harps I bring to a gig, so what’s the harm?