Blues with a feeling

I once played only the blues. That was in the early and mid-1990s, when there was a blues revival going on, and I played in a jump blues band with the occasionally side gig with serious gutbucket blues guys. I knew most of the local big players, I was active in the local blues society, I’d earned my creds in the South and I was in the group of harp players who weren’t considered “Hohner owners.” That’s the derisive term slapped on the poor bastards who purchased a bunch of harmonicas but couldn’t really play them. They caught the blues bug, looked for the easiest way to get into a band and decided playing the harmonica would fit that bill. It often worked out about as well as you might suspect.

There were harp players everywhere when I moved to town in 1990. I’d go to an open mic and sometimes there’d be a dozen of them. And honestly, at the time, there were probably 20 or so in the area who were pretty good — a number not so impressive when stacked up against the dozens of hot-shit guitarists you could find around, but way more than I ran across when I lived in Little Rock or Memphis.

Now: Not so much. The blues has faded and the harp has faded even more. There are maybe half a dozen folks I know about in the area whose harp playing I respect now. Most of them don’t know me because I moved away from the blues and more into the roots rock/Americana arena, and in a lot of cases, my vocals became more useful than my harp to bands.

I write about all of this now because I recently caught a couple of fill-in gigs with Bad Influence, a band that’s been at the top of the local blues scene for almost as long as I’ve been around here. And it’s reminded me of how much I miss the blues and miss playing in places where the audience is connected to blues music. The blues has faded and bloomed and faded and bloomed, but this particular fade has been going on for a while now, and I’m not particularly confident we’ll ever see the bloom return around here. So when I get chances like these, especially with a band that carries the chops these guys do, I treasure the opportunity. And I’m reminded about why I still love this music in the first place.

Adding to the fleet

The family fleet, with the new addition

In the next couple of months, my wife’s employer is pulling the cars it allowed a handful of staffers drive home at night. That’s a perk she’s had for many years, and eliminating it blew a $10,000 annual hole in our budget, and it also meant we had to get her a commuter vehicle.

But not just any commuter vehicle, of course. It needed to be a commuter vehicle that would get her to work in terrible weather, and could be used as a work vehicle on occasion. And we needed to get that in the absolute worst environment I can ever recall for buying a new car.

The weather requirement meant AWD, and AWD meant a SUV; I wasn’t going for the gas-sucking cartoons that pass as pickup trucks now as commuter vehicles, and they’re not ideal snow/ice vehicles anyway because of the lack of weight over the rear tires.

But my wife loves her a pickup truck. We’ve had Old Blue (which is black), a 2001 Ford Ranger, for over 12 years. We bought it as a way for her to get around if I wasn’t home — she could drive the company vehicle to and from work, but nowhere else — and as a utilitarian complement to the small cars we generally owned. She made it her own, slapping on bumper stickers and a fuzzy steering wheel cover. I have fond memories of her driving up to the house in Old Blue, with Dexter sticking his head out of the driver’s side window, barking at me. But Blue needs a chunk of work now, and it’s about time we gave her to someone who will do that work and enjoy her a lot.

Anyway, if you’ve been following the headlines, you know the deal: New cars are in short supply, thanks to chip shortages and transportation issues and general nonsense. That’s the market we had to launch into, and since it looks like it’ll get worse before it gets better, I wanted to shop now instead of waiting for winter desperation to lock in.

I tried to push her toward a small SUV, even though she really wanted a pickup. She wanted POWER for all of those times she has to race at 10 mph on her crawling commute, but she wants what she wants, so I tried to accommodate her on that front. But I also found that a couple of manufacturers had launched mini-trucks — think modern El Caminos — and thought those creations might sit in the middle of the Venn diagram for the kind of cars we wanted.

In the end, we looked at four vehicles: A Mazda CX-30 turbo, a Subaru Crosstrek, and the mini-trucks: A Hyundai Santa Cruz and a Ford Maverick.

The first shock was this: Sticker prices are a freaking comedy. For example, we enjoyed the CX-30, but it was marked at $4,000 over list even though it was the end of the model year, meaning the immediate depreciation if we bought it was going to be enormous. And ordering was pretty much out of the question; the salesman said he wasn’t sure when he was going to get new stock of any kind, much less any car that was ordered from the factory in Japan.

The Crosstrek went out the window as soon as we got in it: It felt cheap but it wasn’t. And even with the larger optional engine, it was the lowest-powered of the potential picks and my wife wants POWER, if you weren’t paying attention.

We both liked the looks of the Santa Cruz, but it’s the hottest vehicle in America right now and the only model with POWER that we could ever find ran over $40,000 at LIST — before the F.U. markups many dealers were tacking on. And I was worried that today’s cool look would be tomorrow’s leisure-suit styling.

That left the Maverick. The truckette is crazy cheap at the base level (under $20K) and can be ordered with a hybrid engine, which was appealing enough to my wife that she considered waiving the POWER requirements. However, it can’t be obtained in all-wheel drive in that configuration, so that was out. There are about 100,000 people waiting for their Maverick-with-a-hybrid orders, but the occasional 4-cylinder-turbo AWD model is making its way to showrooms, so we started looking that way.

I found a well-appointed one on AutoTrader that was coming in to an Alexandria dealership, reached out to them, made an appointment and my wife and I headed in…to be told it had just been sold. It had only arrived two days earlier on the lot, and rightly or wrongly, this felt like a routine to drag us into the dealer anyway. We are the wrong people for that approach, so we left…

…and we got called back even before we got home again. The Maverick sale fell through because the buyer couldn’t qualify for financing, the dealership said (we will never know if that is true; you can understand my skepticism). I had to work, but my wife was off and went to test drive it, liked it and gave me a yell. I didn’t need any convincing; it wasn’t too truck-y for me, gas mileage was OK, the crazy-low inventories on dealer lots made me a motivated buyer and I thought it was safer on the down-the-road resale front than the Santa Cruz was likely to be (again: Today’s funky style is tomorrow’s leisure suit).

Next came the negotiation, which wasn’t all that bad except for the initial offer. I was told that I could have the truck for a mere $3K over its MSRP. I expressed my feelings about that in a direct manner. However, I did offer them list price.

Now, I’d typically never do that — I’d look up comp sales in the area and aim for that price — but this was a brand new, hot model that probably could have gotten list even in a normal market. I also strongly felt the car sales situation was going to get even worse soon. This also was a 2022 model, not a 2021, so I wouldn’t have to eat a year of depreciation by buying an end-of-year new car. We added in a couple of aftermarket accessories that put a little more meat on the bone for the dealer, they offered us great financing and we came to a deal.

And now it’s in the driveway. The spray-on bed liner was added yesterday, and we’re waiting for a locking bed cover and an aftermarket audible backup warning that my wife wanted (she’ll have to park in some not-fun situations). But we also dealt with near-empty dealership stocks and eye-popping pricing. It was a bad time to buy a new car, but we got a vehicle we wanted at a price we were willing to pay, and that’s about all you can ask right now.

Watching the Nats fade

The Nats are winding down another sad season, with the team now a shell of the World Series champs of two years ago, and it’s honestly hard to see the path forward here right now. It looks like we’re going to walk in the wilderness for a while — hopefully without the aimlessness of the Baltimore Orioles, who do not appear to be aiming for anything other than MLB revenue-sharing and denying the Nats their long-overdue TV revenues.

I’ve followed the Nats through good times and bad since they hit town in 2005, although it took me a few years to drop my Cardinals allegiance and become a true fan. That happened because of a series of moments I saw in person:

Strasburg’s first game

Games 4 and 5 of the 2012 playoffs

Max Scherzer!

The 2019 wild card game

And now here we are. The Nats’ starting pitching is depleted and the team is saddled with big contracts for Strasburg (multiple injuries and only a handful of innings pitched since the 2019 Series) and Patrick Corbin. The bullpen is an embarrassment. Carter Kieboom’s career batting average remains under .200 after MLB stints over three years. Victor Robles now shows all the signs of being a bust. We’re not going to keep Josh Bell, whose stats have bounced back to his very solid mean this year and who bet on himself by only signing a one-year contract.

Poor Juan Soto. Unless Strasburg bounces back (I would not bet on it at this point), he’s going to face a very depressing baseball existence next year. And if this team is as bad as I fear it will be in 2022, he may not be here at season’s end.

Vegas soul-cleansing

I have a Vegas Crew of guys. They’re all friends of an old high school buddy of mine, and that’s initially how I got into this crew, and I’ve been going to Vegas with them every couple of years for the last 15 years or so.

COVID put a stop to that. One of the truly hardcore members kept going to Vegas anyway, even in the pre-vaccination days, betting (so to speak) that some personal care and a mask would keep him protected (and they did). But once I got vaccinated, one of my first thoughts was, “How can I make this happen again?” I decided to put up with the mild hassle of wearing a face mask most of the time for a chance to hit Vegas and see the crew again.

And then things got impossibly better. Mask mandates were lifted in most locations for the vaccinated, and suddenly Vegas looked like it would be Full Vegas again. We even bought show tickets to see comedian Ron White — something we’d never done as a crew.

But you know what happened. The unvaccinated, predictably, chowderheaded around and the Delta variant became a menace. Clark County, where Vegas is located, became a coronavirus hotspot. And I debated canceling.

But I also could see the clear line between infections in the vaccinated and unvaccinated, so dammit, I decided to go to Vegas anyway.

The result was different, but still fun. What impressed me the most was the general compliance with wearing masks indoors. Oh, sure, there was a maskless foambrain here and there (and I was pretty confident that these same jaw-draggers weren’t vaccinated, either), but for the most part, people did what they should be doing. And as a result, I had a great time — and wearing a mask turned out to be far less constricting than I would have imagined. I visited 27 (!) hotels and casinos in four days, mostly discovering that my age is starting to really affect my ability to walk that much (and stay up late).

Vegas is my happy place. For decades, I’ve been going there for a little bit of soul cleansing. I know that lots of people hate it, especially the cheesiest parts of it (which have been fading away for years now). But that’s exactly why I love it. And this time, even with the health restrictions and precautions, I loved it again. A little look at a downtown scene: