Sunday, October 19, 2014

Fleetwood Mac: On With the Show

I was excited to see Fleetwood Mac in Chicago (that's actually the name of one of the band's early records), and it was a strong show. While upper ranges are long gone and Stevie Nicks' twirling far less frenetic than in the old days, Fleetwood Mac - rejoined by Christine McVie - was credible and in no danger of tarnishing their legacy.

With McVie back in the band, there is a lot less space for Nicks' and Buckingham's songs in the set. That was a good thing in that some less deserving material (mostly Buckingham's who is the least consistent songwriter of the trio) is out. On the other hand, it meant there were very few surprises in the set list. No digging into the depths of Tusk for nuggets like "Storms" and "Beautiful Child", although the band did provide an spirited rendition of "I Know I'm Not Wrong". Aside from that song, the only semi-surprise was the inclusion of "Seven Wonders". Given the track's recent use in American Horror Story, I suppose its appearance isn't a true surprise. The other casualties were solo material and any songs during McVie's hiatus. No "Stand Back", "Go Insane", or anything from McVie's In the Meantime. Say You Will was completely ignored even though the title track would have made a nice bit of resonance for McVie's return, as well as being a song that begs for her vocal harmonies to put it over the top.

While one of Fleetwood Mac's greatest refrains is singing "don't you look back" during "Don't Stop", this show did nothing but look backwards. Over half the set list was pulled from Fleetwood Mac and Rumours, with ten out of twelve possible songs from the latter. Mirage and Tango in the Night were represented only by the hits, and nothing after Tango made the set list. While the predictability was a definite minus, with a band that has this much history it's hard to fault them. This set list is what people coming to the show want to hear, and the band rarely sounded like they were just going through the motions.

McVie's return meant some of the band's biggest hits were back ("Over My Head", "Say You Love Me", "Little Lies"), and it was absolutely fantastic to see/hear McVie practically silence the arena as she performed "Songbird" to close the show. I admit that I was watching McVie during the night to see how "rusty" she might be after sixteen years off of touring, but she betrayed no overt weakness. She did a little solo keyboard run during "Don't Stop" that was fun, and she was still rocking the accordion on "Tusk". If I had one wish, it would have been to hear her deliver "As Long As You Follow" instead of "Everywhere" (which has always been limp on stage). And if I had another wish, it would be to fit in a pre-Buckingham Nicks cut from McVie ("Homeward Bound" or "Just Crazy Love").

Nicks, who has just released her latest solo album 24 Karat Gold, is experiencing something of a popular renaissance and was in fine voice all things considered. She did an especially good rendition of "Gold Dust Woman", calling forth the dark mysticism of her performances from Mac's heyday. As a die-hard Nicks fan, I was thrilled. At the same time, between her solo work and Mac work I'm getting a bit tired of "Landslide" and "Silver Springs". I have to admit I was hoping "Angel" might make an appearance over "Sisters of the Moon", which is superfluous in a set that includes both "Rhiannon" and "Gold Dust Woman". That said, Nicks got to me with "Landslide". It certainly didn't hurt that the entire audience seemed to be singing the song with Nicks.

The guitar work of Lindsey Buckingham, more than ever, is the fire in belly of this band. Supported by the apparently ageless stomp and throb of Mick Fleetwood and John McVie, his guitar work was by turns gentle, rocking, and - on his solos - searing. His solo on "I'm So Afraid" was mind-blowing in its intensity, ultimately making the song beside the point. His finger picking on "Big Love" is as dizzying as ever. To see someone playing at the speed he was often playing at and not once look down at his fretboard (and sometimes keeping his eyes closed) is inspirational to anyone who plays guitar. Sure, he's a bit pompous (the Wizard of Oz projection of his face during one song was a painfully humorous example of ego gone amok) and, yeah, his talent as a producer is overstated, but as a guitar player you simply cannot ask for anything more. He's a genius of that instrument!

There is talk of a new Fleetwood Mac album. Given the quality of music and performances being put out by these five - either in playing old material during this tour or in their recent solo output - it should be an album worthy of the attention Fleetwood Mac's supergroup status will undoubtedly attract.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Zazen in the Modern Age

Finding time for zazen is a challenge while living in the modern world. However, since few of us can retreat to a monastery to pursue our studies, we must find ways to do so within 'the real world'. This is especially important for anyone who – like me – leans towards the Soto school, which stresses the primacy of zazen in Zen practice.

One of the hurdles many people may face is finding the 'right' place in which to sit. There is tendency to gravitate towards a quiet spot outdoors or a room where we can listen to special music or a table where we have candles and a Buddha statue. Time of day can have an impact too, as we tend to prefer sitting when outside noise or interruptions are at a minimum. These preferences partly stem from popular images about what serious meditation looks like. However the preferences also arise because, when we first learn to sit in zazen, it's easier to do so in a controlled environment. After a while, this preference becomes habit and then hardens into practice.

The problem with this is that zazen is how we learn to discipline the mind. As a result, we should be developing the discipline to sit in zazen and reach samadhi in less than ideal situations. If we never learn to do so without pretty candles, the right music, and/or total quiet, then we clearly are not developing much control over our mind and thoughts. It isn't really zazen. It's an emotional indulgence with no more spiritual power than getting a foot massage, taking a hot bath, or indulging in a chocolate dessert. These activities also induce a sense of peace or happiness, but they do not teach mental discipline or help us get to Everyday Zen.  

Candles, music, lighting, and favored quiet spots are crutches. They can be justified - perhaps - for the beginner but, as we learn to discipline our minds, we shouldn’t need the cooperation of the world to practice. We shouldn’t need do-dads or gizmos or pretty sounds to create the right ambiance or 'get in the mood'. A fundamental point of Zen is that our environment does not dictate our mental state; we do! So, ultimately, a truly disciplined practitioner would be able to sit in zazen and achieve samadhi with bugs crawling all over them, a jack hammer rattling away, and the smell of garbage wafting about. 

My arrival at this realization was probably very atypical. It happened because my first experience with the power of zazen occurred almost twenty years ago, long before I was a Zen Buddhist or had engaged in any form of meditation. Far from being achieved while I was sitting in a quiet room with wind chimes tinkling around me, my first conscious experience of samadhi was while I was sweaty and gross and in the middle of practicing karate in a dojo.

So here's the story. In the dojo, our sensei would have us do forms - that is, a specified series of blocks, kicks, and punches done in smooth succession. He'd correct or make us start over again depending on any errors we made, because we had to get the forms right to be allowed to test for the next belt. As a student new to martial arts, I really had to focus because it's not just doing the moves in the right order but making sure form is correct throughout: How's the angle of my back foot? Is my fist at the right height when I punch? Are my fingers making a correct fist? Am I facing the correct direction? You get the idea; it's a lot to get right over the course of ten to twenty moves.

One day, I came to the dojo pissed off (about what I can't remember). I was steamed and annoyed and tense, and I'd been that way most of the day. After class, though, I had completely calmed down. I had simply stopped thinking about and feeling about whatever it was that had riled me. Obviously, the physical exertion of practicing karate was an outlet that must have helped. But, as I thought about it while leaving the dojo, I realized what had really led to my change of mood was not a gradual change due to physical exertion. It was a relatively quick change that occurred while I had been practicing forms.

What happened? The focus required to do forms in the proper manner forced me to rein in my mind. Instead of letting external situations and my emotions dictate my mental state and carry me away, I was focused on what I was doing in the moment...and nothing else. There was no past, there was no future. All I was concerned with was my forms. And it was a healthy focus. I was not worried about doing well, stressed about it, or anything like that. The focus of my mind was simply limited to the action of the moment. In fact, while I was very alert about what I was doing, I'm not sure I was thinking about anything at all.

As I walked home, totally sweaty and tired, I nevertheless felt mentally reinvigorated and was very happy. At the time, I'd read a tiny bit about meditation though I knew nothing about Zen Buddhism. I specifically remember thinking as I walked home that "there's something to this" and that I needed to explore it.

So I learned very early that we can practice zazen and reach samadhi in non-traditional environments, and we don't necessarily need a ton of training to do it. Doing it is important, not only for ensuring we really are learning to discipline our minds, but that we can practice Everyday Zen. So if it's hard to find time to sit in zazen, think about some time during the day that may not seem ideal but that actually should be. Getting off the bus a few stops early to walk, eating lunch at your desk, sitting on the train. And, importantly, don't mourn about the noise and distractions around you. Use them to help you hone your discipline. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Acoustic Guitar Journal #5: I Can't Sing

Writing my own songs has been a wonderful way to learn guitar and is very satisfying on a creative level. The next step from writing and playing is performing, and I would be ecstatic to perform my own songs. The problem is I cannot sing. At all. Not being humble. Can't. Sing.

I've always wanted to be able to sing but, for whatever reason, what I hear in my head sounds good while the reality is...really bad. I'd say I'm off key, except that suggests an ability to sing a wrong note. When I sing, it's always the same flat note all the way through. Painful to hear.

The obvious solution is to take lessons, and I have. Twice. With two different teachers. There was no improvement at all. I've also tried doing different things on my own with breathing and projection and taped the results looking for improvement, hoping against hope that I'd finally hit on the right approach. On every playback, I'd only to hear the same terrible sound. It didn't seem to matter what I did. It became so discouraging that I gave up years ago, accepting that singing is something I have no talent for and simply cannot do.

In the last month, a funny thing has happened. While working on songs (both my own and those by others), I'd sometimes hum melody lines while playing to get a feel for the rhythm I needed to play. While doing this, I noticed I could feel notes resonating in the body of the guitar as a vibration against my chest. Then I found I could attune my hum to that vibration exactly the way I would tune a guitar string to match a note on a pitch pipe.

It was a bit exciting when I was able to pluck a note and - by paying attention to the vibration - attune my voice to the note in the same way. Since controlling my voice in any way is something I'd never, ever been able to do, I wondered if this might be a way to train my voice to be in tune. I cammed myself performing a song or two and played it back. While I still sounded flat, there was a notable improvement. It's still no good, but it's definitely more musical sounding than I've ever heard myself sound before.

Given my history with singing, there's no way I can get my hopes up. However, whenever I'm alone in the house I perform my songs - voice and guitar - to see where this goes. In the end, it may be just another episode of wishful thinking. But it's worth a try!

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Gay Marriage Progress

I'm still stunned at how fast this has all happened. Ten years ago, I never dreamed it would happen in my lifetime.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Acoustic Guitar Journal #4: C/G Songs

Two of the songs by other people that I picked to learn first - "Wildflowers" by Dolly Parton and "Stolen Car" by Bruce Springsteen - use only or predominantly two chords: C and G. In exploring guitar tabs for other songs I like, I find that song after song after song is just those two chords (or maybe those two with one other thrown in). I started calling them "C/G songs".

It's amazing how songs that I think sound totally different from one another are all essentially those two chords and nothing else. A couple weeks ago, I had a list of songs to check out for guitar tabs and I found that two of them - one I can't remember and "Silver Threads and Golden Needles" by Linda Ronstadt - were C/G songs. I couldn't believe it!

So then I said to myself, "Well, if everyone else can write a C/G song, then so can I!" I went into my journals that I've been keeping since I was thirteen and picked a poem I had had my eye on as a potential lyric and got started. I sat down and within ten minutes I'd worked out the rhythm and had the song. Then I had to work out a chorus, which took another ten minutes. Twenty minutes later, I had my very own C/G song called "Free Spirit" (I have posted this poem to Zen Thrown Down already).

I cheated, because I added extra chords. Ended up with a D and A in the verses, and then an E in the chorus I added to the posted poem. So I guess, technically, this is not a C/G song. I'll have to try again.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Acoustic Guitar Journal #3: Songwriting as Practice

As I continue with my acoustic guitar lessons, I've been writing songs at a good clip. There are four I'm working on, with three I could perform as complete material. Very proud of this and thrilled at how easily it is coming. It just feels amazing to be consistently creative again after years of running dry. It's clear to me that the issue was the hours/stress I was dealing with from my job. It took over my life, and I did not sufficiently deal with the situation to maintain control of my life. It's been a big lesson to realize how much impact it had on me and that, as soon as I was in a place where I could breathe again, all the creative energy came back. Never again!

As happy as being creative makes me, songwriting is much more than an emotional indulgence. From a practical standpoint, it's propelling my progress on my instrument in a really organic manner. Part of learning is exploring chords and how to move between them. However, doing this while writing songs pushes me at a much higher level. It's not about just playing random chords and getting used to the changes (which is excellent exercise), but I'm now doing this while staying in the rhythm and feel of a song. This changes my whole way of thinking when I practice. From the outset, my standard is not "I'm practicing" but "does this sound like a good performance?". This is a much higher bar of mastery to demand from myself at the start, and it naturally is going to drive me to learn more quickly.

Not to say that I've mastered barre chords yet. I still have trouble with the G string going dead on minor 7ths, and I can't switch to these chords with much speed. However, the repetition of playing my own songs using these chords and not being pleased with pauses and rejiggered fingering is definite motivation to learn more quickly. I've ended up pushing myself a lot more insistently because, within a songwriting mentality, once I am exposed to anything I want to learn it so I can use it. It's like adding words to my vocabulary as a child. I feel limited by only knowing the basic chords, and I naturally want more tools in expressing myself. So I'm more invested in getting things right.

Songwriting is also helping me get more out of songs I learn by other people. It helps me 'find the song' in something like "Stolen Car" (see AGJ #2 post). I'm also paying a lot more attention to what these songwriters do, which is education all by itself. Lastly, it keeps me from getting too comfortable. I had begun veering away form finger picking, which is tougher for me to write and perform in. As soon as I noticed I was doing this, I course corrected and forced myself to continue with it and progress. Because I'm writing my own songs, not learning something is denying myself a songwriting tool. I refuse to let this happen, not from any internal discipline, but simply because if I want to write good music I can't allow it!

Overall, songwriting is a great motivator in learning my instrument as well as simply being very satisfying to do.