Monthly Archives: January 2016

A Year in Review, Part 2: My ‘Thing of the Year.’

If, as many science fiction authors and some scientists have posited, there are indeed an infinite number of alternate universes, each a slight variation on the one we are currently experiencing, then we should consider ourselves blessed, because surely we are in possibly the one and only universe in which “A Broadway musical, 4 parts hip-hop/R&B and one part Les Mis, about the life and times of the first U.S. Treasure Secretary” is not a joke or a disaster, but instead a work of genius and the best piece of musical theater in at least a generation.

I’d heard mention of “Hamilton: The Musical” over the summer, not really taking in that this was a thing that existed and that people were raving about, but one day in the autumn, NPR’s All Songs Considered released a special weekend short podcast in which two hosts discussed why this show was connecting with so many people.  They played a couple of song samples as examples, starting with the track “Ten Duel Commandments”. (Check it out over on youtube.)

It’s immediately catchy and I was intrigued, so I clicked over to the live stream they had of the full cast recording.  About 30 seconds in, I was hooked.

The show, conceived by “In the Heights” composer Lin-Manuel Miranda, does indeed tell the life story of Founding Father Alexander Hamilton.  The first act takes us from Hamilton’s difficult upbringing through his rise to influence during and through the Revolutionary War, and the second traces his political career, his moral failings and their consequences, and the duel that ends his life.

So that’s the story.  Which may sound boring or may sound interesting, depending on who you are.  You may have cringed at the thought of a hip-hop musical.  But give it a listen.  Stephen Colbert, whilst interviewing Lin-Manuel, described what it was like to see or hear it for the first time.  At first you think, “Okay, this is really clever.”  Soon, you’re thinking, “Oh my goodness, this is a work of genius.”  And finally, you’re thinking, “Why am I crying right now?”

So here’s your homework.  Listen to the show.  I’ll give you framework for eighteen listens.  (Fair warning: there is a moderate amount of swearing in this show; not a ton, but two well-placed f-words and a few implied ones.  Enough to earn the CD a warning label.)  (Fair warning #2: the below is really a huge fanboy rant.)  Each time through, take in something different…

Listen #1: Don’t worry too much about comprehension or anything this first time.  Just listen and have fun!  Some songs will grab you immediately, others will sort of just sit in the background while you do other stuff.  “Ten Duel Commandments,” “Guns and Ships” and “My Shot” all grabbed me first time through.  I also wondered if I was hearing more words per minute than any other Broadway show in history.  First time through, it feels relentless.  (Actually, after writing this, I looked it up.  It is!  20000 words in 2 1/2 hours!)

Listen #2: Try to follow the story.   Maybe pay special attention to the advice Burr gives Hamilton in the very first scene (after the prologue).  Listen for that to come up again.  Brace yourself for Act 2.

Listen #3: Take time to appreciate the performance of Leslie Odom, Jr as Aaron Burr, who I think deserves next year’s Feature Actor Tony.  A case could easily be made for him as lead as well.  Notice how this is really the story of Hamilton and Burr and their two competing approaches to life.  Burr is both a character in the story and the de facto narrator 80% of the time.  I don’t know if having the narrator also play a key role has been done before on stage, but it’s interesting to listen to the story through him, as he narrates events subjectively, inserting his own opinion.  At times, he explains what’s happening with pure joy (“Guns and Ships”), annoyed jealousy (“A Winter’s Ball”), malicious joy (“What’d I Miss”), pity (“Say No To This”) and increasing darkness (“The Adams Administration”).  He is both the villain and tragic figure of the piece.  Take special time to enjoy his two biggest solo moments, “Wait For It” and the showstopping “Room Where It Happens”, an incredibly catchy old-school Broadway hit that is possibly my favourite song in the show.

Listen #4:  Soak in that one person is mostly responsible for every melody here.  Wonder what you’ve done with your own creative life.

Listen #5: Appreciate the women, especially Phillipa Soo as Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton and Renee Elise Goldsberry as her sister Angelica.  Goldsberry’s big Act 1 number is “Satisfied”, which is a fantastic moment in the show.  After seeing the events leading up to Hamilton’s wedding from one point of view, the show literally rewinds during the wedding toast, and we hear the same events from Angelica’s point of view.  The section that begins “And I realize three fundamental things at the exact same time…” is powerful and fantastic writing.

Listen #6: You’ve probably picked up by this time through that Hamilton’s three friends in the first act, Lafayette, Laurens, and Mulligan, are played by the same three actors who in Act 2 become Thomas Jefferson, Phillip Hamilton and James Madison.  All three give impressive performances, but what’s remarkable to me is how both Daveed Diggs as Lafayette/Jefferson and Okieriete Onaodowan as Mulligan/Madison change their voices to change roles.  Sure, Lafayette has a French accents but his lines are largely performed at a range that’s a bit higher than Jefferson’s, and there are only a few places where it’s clear that it’s the same guy.  And Mulligan is played as almost a thuggish ruffian, with a rough and aggressive quality to his voice, whereas Monroe speaks with an intelligence and nobility that again impresses, as it’s the same actor.

Listen #7: King George.  You will probably have already noticed how great his three songs (or rather his one song sung with three different sets of lyrics) are, but as a palette cleanser, spend this listen looking forward to them.

Listen #8: Let some of the songs and moments that didn’t immediately grab you really start to soak in.  Listen to the great way that “The Reynolds Pamphlet” transitions into “Burn”, and how intense a song that is.  Appreciate how well “Non-Stop” does everything it’s required to do, from summing up each character’s main needs to transitioning us out of the war days into the political days to closing out the first act.

Listen #9: Enjoy Act 2’s Congressional-debates-as-rap-battles.  It’s amazing how Miranda uses the vernacular of hip-hop to clearly explain political differences in both the establishing of America’s financial system and the reasons why America did not jump into the French Revolution.  By this point in your 20 step listen through, you will have learned a lot of history you didn’t know.

Listen #10: Let’s take time to give Christopher Jackson as George Washington some credit.  If most of the characters are “just like my country…young, scrappy and hungry”, Washington is the one stable and mature person in the piece, the moral center, as it were.  His introduction in “Right Hand Man” is great, but he really shines in the haunting “History Has Its Eyes on You” and in his goodbye, “One Last Time”, which uses actual text from George Washington’s goodbye speech.

Listen #11: You’ve probably favored Act One, which is more “fun”, to Act Two at this point, but at this point I love them both and am giving more time to Act Two.  So today, give your focus to Act 2.  Hear the dread in the company as they scream “No!  No to this!” as Hamilton gives into the trap of adultery; soak in again his wife’s broken and angry torch song “Burn”, sung when Hamilton’s affair has been publicly announced.  Tear up over their firstborn son’s senseless death in a duel.  And then weep openly throughout “It’s Quiet Uptown”, especially the beautiful and holy moment that arrives as the company sings the word “Forgiveness”, the word hanging there, the whole musical on pause as you soak in the implications of that concept on this story.  There’s so much more and it’s not easy listening, but man…powerful stuff.

Listen #12: Time for another palette cleanser!  Let’s look at the humor of this musical.  There’s obviously the King George songs, but a few other moments stand out.  “Don’t modulate the key and then not debate with me!”  The joyful teasing of “The Story of Tonight (Reprise)”.  And much of what Thomas Jefferson does in Act 2.  I especially like his two uses of the drawn out, “Whaaaaaaat?”  Especially the one in The Election of 1800.  Also from that track: “Can we get back to politics?”  “Please?”  “Yo.”

Listen #13 :Take some time to appreciate the recycling of melodies for different purposes.  I feel like a lot of this, though it sounds very different, was inspired by the musical Les Miserables, which often does the same thing.  But notice the way that the melody Phillip Hamilton, as a young child, sings in French later makes up the background of the upbeat parts of “Blow Us All Away.”  Or there’s the fun version and then the dread version of “Ten Duel Commandments.”  Or the quietly chanted “I am not throwin’ away my shot” when Hamilton is deciding to work for Washington.  The way “Wait For It” creeps in to Burr’s turning point in “Room Where It Happens”.  The carefree and then sad versions of “Helpless”.  And so on.

Listen #14: Actually, take a break from listening today.  Instead, it’s youtube time!  First, watch Lin-Manuel Miranda’s performance of the first track for President Obama six years ago, when he was thinking of the project as merely a concept album.  Then, watch some of the Ham4Ham performances.  The show has become such a phenomenon that upwards of 1000 people show up daily to win one of the ten “lottery tickets” in the front row that the show sells for $10.  (Broadway theaters in New York have a tradition whereby about two hours before the show, they have a drawing for cheap tickets for that day’s performance.  It’s meant to serve New York’s theater student community.  My happiest live theater experience of all time was sitting front row center for “The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee”, a ticket I won by lotto.)  So twice a week, Miranda puts together a little show in the alley by the theater for those hoping to win.  He’s brought in friends, cast mates, people from other shows, other New York figures, and so on out for a performance that’s usually less than four minutes long.  And he seems to have as much fun doing it as he does anything else.  The performance might be funny–some of the men of the cast lipsync the women’s main number–or moving–a gospel choir sings Christmas carols–or just cool.  But it’s a great idea, and it will give you affection for the cast.

Listen #15: Think about themes!  Burr’s life philosophy is to protect himself and his reputation by not fully committing to things, to wait for life to bring him to the right place.  Hamilton’s is to go out and grab what he wants, to take a stand even when it’s brash or risky or is potentially misunderstood, and for most of the show he believes that you will only get what you take.  Where do these two philosophies lead each of them?  Who is right?  Another theme: legacy.  What is a legacy? Is it important, if you’re remembered after your death or not?  The show also has a lot to say about politics, how America should function, and even thoughts about race and the fruit of insecurity.

Listen #16: Carrying on from yesterday’s deep thoughts, listen especially to the last song.  Reflect on time; none of us know how much time we will have on earth, and the show is ultimately a challenge to make the most of the time we’re given.  What do you stand for?

Listen #17: Words, words, words!  We’ve been big picture for a few days; now let’s just simply rejoice in the beauty of the flow of words in this show.  In the use of…

…rhymes.  So many creative rhymes here, also economical in the way they convey information.  (“Washington hires Hamilton right on sight; but Hamilton just wants to fight, not write.”)

…assonance as an extension of rhyme.   (“We want our leaders to save the day, but we don’t get a say in what they trade away.”)  (“There would’ve been nothing left to do for someone less astute/ he would’ve been dead or destitute without a cent of restitution/started working, clerking for his late mother’s landlord…”)

…alliteration!  (“He’s constantly confusing, confounding the British henchmen…”) (“The venerated Virginian veteran”)

And so on.  So many words, so many beautiful, beautiful words.

Listen #18: Sing at the top of your lungs!  Act out your favorite parts!  Pretend you can rap pretty good.  (I’ve got some of them pretty well down myself…)  Congratulations, you’ve now begun to absorb the beauty and genius of Hamilton: The Musical, my “Thing of the Year.”  Now if I only had a chance to actually see the thing…

A Year in Review, Part 1

Well, it’s well past the time when everyone is putting out their “Best of” lists for the year, and I’ve been thinking a lot about the music, books, films and general entertainment that inspired or moved me this year.  These aren’t “Top 10” lists so much as just a list of what stuck out.  I’m going to give you two entries, with part two covering my overall “Thing of the Year”.  (Catchy, right?)  And so let’s jump right in to the other categories here…

Albums of the Year: This was the year I turned forty-two.  That’s significant musically, because a study was recently done using Spotify user data that showed that right at around age 42, the average person stops listening to new music and settles in to mostly listening to whatever was popular (or whatever they really liked) around the time they graduated high school.  So, if I was to follow that pattern, that means that I’d spend the rest of my days absorbed in the discographies of Petra, the Indigo Girls, and Pink Floyd. Maybe add in some Guns and/or Roses.

One could do worse, I suppose, but still, no thank you.  If you know me, you know that I actually cared about bucking this trend.  But then I spent the first quarter of the year listening through my entire music catalog, getting rid of what I no longer (or never) liked and rediscovering much that I did.  So I approached my 42nd birthday with almost no new albums for the year, save a couple by acts I’ve long loved, such as The Decemberists or Sufjan Stevens.  It wasn’t until around May that I was grabbed my first new music discovery of the year, and it’s one that’s stuck with me even until now.  So the album that stuck with me the most this year is…

Leon Bridges – Coming Home.   Leon Bridges is a 25-year old native of Ft. Worth who only started making music a couple of years ago.  In his debut album, he has resurrected a specific kind of old-school soul; the album has often been compared to Otis Redding or especially Sam Cooke.  And while it does sound like the music of that era, it is also somehow modern in its production.

What I love about this record, though, are the songs and lyrics themselves.  The standout track for me is “Lisa Sawyer”, the story of Leon’s mother, including her upbringing and her salvation.  It’s a beautiful song with Leon’s voice backed by saxophone and some great BGVs.  The phrasing of it is really unusual, but after you hear it a few times it just sticks with you.

This song isn’t the only one with allusions to faith.  “River” could be a worship song; “Shine” and “Flowers” also hint at a real and vibrant faith at the heart of this singer.  But every song on the album stands out–there’s no filler here, and whether he’s singing a love song or telling the story of how his grandparents met, the whole album is refreshing in its purity and vibe.  Give it a listen.

Another record that dominated my year was Gungor’s “One Wild Life: Soul” album, the first in a three-record project, set to be completed by summer 2016.  To be honest, Gungor lost me a little bit with “I Am Mountain”, their previous album.  It’s not that I need all of their stuff to be “worship”; it’s just that I had a hard time connecting with much of the music.  But boy have they rebounded with this one.

It seems to hit everything that Gungor does well at full steam.  Worshipful, God-focused tracks?  Check.  (“Vapor”)  Thought-provoking political or social challenges to the church? Check.  (“Us for Them”, “We Are Stronger”)  Cover song, improving on the original? Check. (“Land of the Living”).  There’s a lot of emotion here, including a gorgeous song written about the birth of the Gungor’s daughter, who has Down’s syndrome (“Light”) and a vulnerable track that seems to be Michael Gungor’s testimony (“You”).  Here’s hoping “One Wild Life: Spirit” releases, oh, tomorrow.

Other notable records this year include Mutemath’s “Vitals”, which is their best album since their first, Sufjan Stevens’ gorgeous and somber “Carrie & Lowell”, and Hillsong United’s underrated “Empires”.

Songs: Much of the year was dominated by the music they played at Antioch’s ICON this year, including mainstays like “No Longer Slaves”, “The Great I Am”, and “Great Are You Lord”, but a couple of other individual songs you probably haven’t heard need to be mentioned: go listen, right now, to “River” by Ibeya, who are French-Cuban twins, and “Na Na Na” by My Brothers and I.  Great tunes.

Live Music of the Year: I went to three concerts and a music festival this year.  A quick rundown:

  1. The Decemberists – O2 Academy, Leeds.  The Decemberists were in great form; I just didn’t love the set list compared with my first experience with them, at the same venue one tour earlier.  Their latest album is good but nothing from it particularly thrilled live.  The one highlight, and it’s a bit of cliche to say so, was the crowd-pleasing encore “Mariner’s Revenge Song”, essentially a sea shanty about being eaten by a whale along side your sworn enemy.  You know, one of those.  The only thing I hadn’t loved about my first time seeing them years ago was that they did not play that song–and in fact, the Leeds show was the only one on that tour that missed it–so seeing it live this time made up for it.
  2. The Avett Brothers – Red Rocks Amphitheater, Colorado.  Mixed feelings about this one, too.  My love for the Avett Brothers is well-documented on this website, and so I was thrilled to see them in this gorgeous and famous venue.  And the venue did not disappoint; Red Rocks is beautiful and the sound far better than you’d expect from such a huge, outdoor place.

The problem is that I was a bit spoiled by my first Avett Brothers       experience–in Manchester with a few hundred people.  The intimacy of that experience is impossible in America where they are far more popular, and an outdoor show with tens of thousands of people made it sometimes hard to engage.

The other problem was again with the set list.  The Avett Brothers perform three nights at Red Rocks every July; I’m not sure if this a yearly tradition, but on this particular night they did not repeat a track in three nights.  That means close to 70 different songs stretched over three nights.  That’s a remarkable feat, even for a band with as deep a catalog as these guys.  But of the three nights, I think we attended the weakest.  They’d already played all of Emotionalism the night before, and many of their best tracks were long gone.

That said, there were some highlights.  Opening with “Talk on Indolence” was exciting; I’d never heard “Salvation Song” live before, and that’s one of my favorites — I performed it at my 40th birthday party.  They brought out their father Jim for a couple of songs, including a gorgeous version of the old hymn “In the Garden.”  It was nice hearing some new songs.  So it wasn’t a bad night; it just didn’t compare to being ten feet away.

3. Sufjan Stevens – O2 Apollo in Manchester.  On the other hand, I had somewhat low expectations for this gig and was pleasantly blown away!  Don’t get me wrong, I love Sufjan; it’s just that the album he was touring, “Carrie and Lowell,” about the death of his mother, is very low key and melancholy, and I wasn’t entirely sure it would make for a fun evening out.  I had a neighbor who wanted to go and felt it was right to go with him to get to know him better; without that factor, I’m not sure the motivation would have been there.

But Sufjan was amazing.  But first, kudos to his opening act, Madisen Ward and the Mama Bear, a son-mother team (he’s probably in his early 30s, she in her 60s) who play acoustic folk.  It was interesting and it worked.

The first part of the show sees Sufjan playing 10 of the 11 tracks on the new album.  I won’t try to describe the set, though it was amazing, because you can just go look it up on Youtube.  But the songs came across powerfully in the live setting.  Some he performed exactly as on the album.  Others were redone or remixed–“All of Me Wants All of You” a standout here–to great effect.  After that, he played a few classics, and then closed the pre-encore section with a fifteen minute version of the 3 minute closing track to “Carrie and Lowell”.  The walls of sound and light created were mesmerizing and unforgettable.

In May, the whole family went to the Big Church Day Out festival in south England.  When I saw the lineup, I knew I had to go, and we ended up bringing the whole family plus a Singaporean friend who had just gotten baptized the week before.  It’s a great festival, but they’ll be hard-pressed to top 2015’s line-up.  (And seeing 2016’s, it is good, but nowhere near as good.)  So who did we see?  I won’t share it all, but some highlights…

Day 1: Gungor: This was my first time to see the whole band play live, and it was epic.  They opened with the instrumental second half of “We Will Run”, a slow build that erupts into a wall of beauty.  They did fantastic versions of most of their biggest songs–“I Am Mountain”, “Beautiful Things”, “Dry Bones” and so on.  I was disappointed that they didn’t do much from Ghosts on the Earth, and I was intrigued by the new songs they premiered.  Sets at this festival run in the 40-50 minute range, which seems really short, and when they introduced their last song, I was disappointed to recognize the chords to what has to be one of the most covered songs ever — Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.”  Surely, I thought, there was room for something else from Ghosts or Beautiful Things.  But then Lisa Gungor started to sing, and by the last verse, I was tearing up.  Redeeming an overused song, this may be my definitive version.

needtobreathe: I wasn’t sure what to expect from these southern rockers, but their set delivered.  I like them, but they are fantastic live, and “Difference Maker”, “Wasteland” and “Multiplied” were all standouts.

Bethel Music: My experiences with big worship bands who try to hit both a worship and a concert experience are mixed, but the presence of God was there, and as we sang “Forever” and a few other similar familiar Bethel tunes, I did not want to leave that place.  Ever.

Day 2: First we took the kids to the children’s tent for a morning service, where they were introduced to Audacious Kids worship, officially the first CD that my daughter truly engaged with.  I highly recommend it.  But that’s not what we were there for…

Christafari: Some people think it’s odd that Ira and I both so love this “gospel reggae” band, who are one of the top 10 touring reggae acts in the world.  But we do.  Their set was a mix of original material and reggae covers of popular worship tunes.  It leaned more heavily in the latter direction, and we prefer the former, but they are a tight and energetic band and they preach the gospel.  Good stuff.

Lecrae: My son Joshua is four.  For some reason, his tiny brain really locked into the song “Nuthin'” from Lecrae’s #1 album “Anomaly.”  He doesn’t have much interest in many songs, but occasionally one will just grab him for reasons unknown.  This was one.  So when Lecrae opened with this, he was mesmerized.  That guy on  the stage was singing Joshie’s song!  The girls had gone off to watch Christafari’s second set, but Joshua and I ran around the fields while Lecrae did his thing; Joshua even rode his first grown-up carnival ride (those swings that go around in a circle) while Lecrae rapped nearby.  A cool way to experience a great set.

I know this is long, so just a couple more thoughts:

Films of the Year: I used to see a lot of movies.  In England, that’s really expensive.  (I took my family of four to a film in Texas; the cost was just $2 more than a single adult ticket in Sheffield.)  Plus, with kids and a full life, I rarely have the time.  The result of this has been that I only really go to films in the cinema that are truly worth the effort and money–big movies with big sound and big effects.  Now, I hate blockbusters that just exist to explode pixels.  Looking at you, wretched Transformers movies.  Still, it is possible to make quality big movies.  I only saw what everyone else saw this year (at least in the cinema), but the ones that stood out…

  1. Inside Out – a sigh of relief as Pixar really nails it for the first time in a few films.
  2. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – a sigh of relief as JJ Abrams nails the right tone and creates new characters I actually want to see more of.  Saw this opening morning and it was euphoric.  (Keep in mind, I am a lifelong Star Wars fan who timed my vacation out of Uzbekistan to Europe in 1999 so I could see Phantom Menace in the theater.  I walked out of that one confused.)
  3. Jurassic World – the most fun dumb movie I saw all year.  Loved the end sequences with the Raptors.
  4. Avengers: Age of Ultron – okay, okay, so considering they deal with the crisis in a few days, it’s not exactly an “age” for Ultron, but despite the naysayers I enjoyed this more than the original.  Also just fun.
  5. The Martian – someone recently did the math and decided that $900 billion has been spent rescuing Matt Damon from various scenarios, which is just funny.  But of all the movies he’s been rescued in, this one’s the most entertaining.  It’s definitely funnier than Saving Private Ryan.

Book of the Year: Sheffield Libraries have a good system, are really convenient, and they try hard.  But they cannot hold a candle to the Waco Library system.  Waco-ans, I hope you guys know what you have there.  I have a pretty broad taste – biographies, fiction, books by comedians, Christian Living – I like a lot of it.  And Sheffield libraries has none of it.  Sure, if you want vampire romance novels or, to be fair, a broad range of travel guides, then these are great.  But Waco…Waco has everything.

So when we were in Waco for three weeks this summer, I dusted off the library card and we probably checked out 30-40 books during those three weeks.  The kids section is amazing – a range of fiction covering all ages and tastes, a huge number of books about other cultures or famous historical figures.  Nadia learned about Harriet Tubman and Rosa Parks.  And I went through a stack of books I’d kept on a running list during our three years absence.  For many I got only a couple of chapters in before abandoning, but there was one that dominated my summer that still is with me today: Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy by the amazing Eric Metaxas.  This biography of the famed German theologian is gripping and thought-provoking.  Not only does it paint a picture of how one Christian stood for Christ in the face of evil and tyranny, and how he wrestled through the implications of his faith and the desire to destroy Hitler, but it also gives insight into how the average German citizen was slowly suckered into backing an evil regime, and what life was like for the many Germans who opposed what was happening but weren’t sure what to do.  Fantastic, and a must read.

Of course, I’ve already talked about the Wingfeather Saga in a previous entry.  And all of this was just a ramble of thoughts about the year, all leading up to part 2, to be posted in a few days.  My Thing of the Year–the work that dominated 2015 for me.  Get ready.  It’s an unexpected one…