Monday, December 11, 2023

Best Books Read in 2023

I had a goal of reading 50 books this year, and I hit that goal by October. Now that it's December, I thought I'd mention some of my favorites from those 50+.

Four short story collections stood out for me this year. Those were:
In A Lonely Place by Karl Edward Wagner
Dark Tales by Shirley Jackson
Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea by Sarah Pinsker
Riding the Nightmare by Lisa Tuttle

In the general fiction/novel category, I had three favorites:
The Wall by Marlen Haushofer
Leonard and Hungry Paul by Rónán Hession
The Woman in the Purple Skirt by Natsuko Imamura

In the mystery/thriller genre, I also had three favorites:
The Pigeon by David Gordon
How Can I Help You by Laura Sims
Resurrection Walk by Michael Connelly

Four non-fiction books were among my favorites:
Stranger in the Woods - Michael Finkel
The Art Thief by Michael Finkel
Original Wisdom: Stories of an Ancient Way of Knowing - Robert Wolff
Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle - Daniel L. Everett

Kick the Latch by Kathryn Scanlan

My Favorite Albums of 2023

This is probably my last year assembling a list like this, because nobody needs a 50 year old listing off their favorite albums of the year. Who cares really? I didn't even care that much this year, however, I did keep a playlist going during 2023 and whenever something caught my ear I would add it to the playlist. Upon review of that playlist today, I really only see nine that I can say were legitimate favorites. Here they are in the order they were added to that list.

The Necks - Travel

U2 - Songs of Surrender

Circles Around the Sun - Language

Arbor Labor Union - Yonder

Leftover Salmon - Grass Roots

Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain, Edgar Meyer, and Rakesh Chaurasia - As We Speak

John "Jojo" Hermann - It's Complicated

Idris Ackamoor and the Pyramids - Afro Futuristic Dreams

Oteil Burbridge - Lovely View of Heaven

I can't say that I have a clear overall favorite out of this group. Any one of the nine at a certain point could have been the front runner. 

Wednesday, December 6, 2023

Books Read November 2023

Resurrection Walk by Michael Connelly (11/13)

A Haunting on the Hill by Elizabeth Hand (11/27)

Note: I only finished two books in November, my lowest monthly tally of 2023. I did start and abandon two other books, so it was almost four. I read most of Out There Screaming: An Anthology of New Black Horror, Edited by Jordan Peele but I skipped too many stories for it to fully count. And I also got about two-thirds of the way through the new John Scalzi book Starter Villain but it was so terrible that I had to just stop. I've met my quota for the year anyway so I devoted what would have been some reading time to banjo playing time instead!

Monday, November 6, 2023

Books Read October 2023

Lost Places by Sarah Pinsker (10/2)

Memories of the Body by Lisa Tuttle (10/10)

Bride of the Tornado by James Kennedy (10/21)

The Art Thief by Michael Finkel (10/24)

Death in Her Hands by Ottessa Moshfegh (10/30)

Monday, October 16, 2023

2023 Richmond Folk Festival Re-cap

The Richmond Folk Festivals was this past weekend. Last Friday, Saturday and Sunday. I didn't go down to the festival on Friday. I regret that a little bit, but I certainly made up for it on Saturday and Sunday. Saturday started off rainy and cloudy, but that didn't bother me one bit because I dressed for the weather and I also know that rain means less of a crowd. It wasn't crowded at all during the time I was there on Saturday.

On Saturday we started off at the Center for Cultural Vibrancy Virginia Folklife Stage to see Virginia Meets the Virgin Islands. This talk/demo paired the St. Croix band Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights with the female Virginia gospel quartet The Legendary Ingramettes. This was a wonderful way to start things off. 

After getting some food and checking out a few minutes of the Hindustani violinist Kala Ramnath, we headed back over to the Virginia Folklife Stage for the Piedmont blues guitarist Gail Caesar. Gail was kind of shy and subdued on stage but her talent was apparent. 

Then it was over to the Altria Stage for a full performance by Stanley and the Ten Sleepless Knights. The Altria Stage is the main stage with the biggest capacity, but it's also uncovered open-air so I think people were choosing other stages over this one during the part of day where it was raining. We got right up front for what felt like a rare opportunity to see a quelbe or scratch band from the U.S. Virgin Islands. This is a type of music that I have a particular interest in. It was excellent and we stayed for the whole set.

Once that was done, we went back once again to the Virginia Folklife stage for a performance that ended up being incredibly good. It was billed as "Danny Knicely and Chao Tian - Appalachian traditions with Chinese dulcimer". What I didn't realize was that there would also be a tabla player plus a guitarist and bassist. Chao Tian was featured on an extended solo improvisation that was mesmerizing.  The Chinese dulcimer sounded great on fiddle tunes, but they did some full band Chinese tunes as well. Danny closed the set with a John McGlaughlin piece which was a showcase for the tabla. I was blown away.

It was getting to be 4pm now so we went back over to the Altria Stage for local Richmond salsa band Bio Ritmo's Folk Fest debut. Bio Ritmo has been around for 30 years so finally performing at the Richmond Folk Festival seemed like a big deal for them. It took a while to get the ten piece band set up but they started hot and never let up. The rain had stopped and I actually saw blue sky for a moment during Bio Ritmo's set. Unfortunately we called it quits for the day after this. I would have loved to have stayed longer but we needed to get home to our dogs and I wasn't sure if I was going to have a parking ticket. I didn't, thankfully.

Sunday was chilly and windy but no rain. I expected it to be packed on Sunday but it wasn't too bad. It seems like they've made improvements on logistics and getting around from stage to stage. This was the day for seeing groups we hadn't seen the day before, so I had a fairly precise itinerary planned out and still some decisions to be made. We started Sunday with State of the Ozarks String Band on the CoStar Group Stage over on Brown's Island. It's been a while since I've heard old-time fiddling, so I enjoyed this set a lot. I particularly liked the guitar and 3-finger banjo accompaniment.

After that we went over to the Altria Stage for Grupo Mono Blanco, a band from Veracruz which is a Mexican state along the Gulf of Mexico. That might explain why it had a little islandy sound to it. We had to cut that set a little short to go back to Brown's Island to catch the Native American Smoke Dancers (Haudenosaunee social dance). They had three little ones dancing with them. It felt very special.

At 2pm we had a dilemma because Baba Commandant and the Mandingo Band were on one stage, while Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper were going to be on another. We started with Baba Commandant but only stayed for a couple songs because there would be another opportunity to see them later in the day, but this was the last chance to see Michael Cleveland. It was a quick walk over to the Altria Stage to catch the last half of Michael Cleveland's set and boy did he and his band not disappoint. That was some top notch bluegrass!

Lutchinha, performing on the Altria Stage

It was hard to decide what to see next, but we stayed at the Altria Stage for the 3pm performance by Lutchinha, a band that plays Cabo Verdean music. Cabo Verde is an African island in the Atlantic ocean where they speak Portuguese, and the music is a perfect blend of those cultures. I had not researched this band and wasn't sure what to expect. I couldn't really put a finger on it but I loved every minute. We had back up plans in place but ended up staying for the entire set and actually missed some other 3:00pm/3:30pm things that I maybe wanted to see. It was worth it though.

When that was done we went to the Folklife stage for the first and only time that day and saw Rodney Stith play his classic soul music. He had a superb band with him, both singers and instrumentalists. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this set.

Now it was getting to be 5pm, when each stage has its last performance of the festival. It was time to choose and we went with Baba Commandant and the Mandingo Band over Cyril Neville. This was a tough call, but having gotten a taste of Baba Commandant earlier in the day I knew that I wanted to see their full set and this time it was going to be in the Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion. Even better! Usually I go to the Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion a lot, but this was the only time all weekend that we saw a set there. 

Baba Commandant and the Mandingo Band
Dominion Energy Dance Pavilion
with a guest sitting in on trumpet

Baba Commandant was a great way to finish off a great weekend of music. Their guitarist is awesome. I love that African style of guitar. The bassist kicked total butt. The drummer was bad ass, and Baba Commandant himself seemed to be channeling some kind of inner spirit. We ended up right at the front of the stage and the energy was intense. Baba Commandant and the Mandingo Band is like a band you'd go see in a night club on tour. 

I'm writing this the next morning, feeling a little bit funky from all the over consumption of food and drink over the weekend. It's always bittersweet when the Folk Festival is over. It almost brings a tear to my eye. Over and done with in what felt like a blink. Every single band and musician we saw was good this year. No duds whatsoever. I wish there was another day but it's time to move on and get on with the week.

Wednesday, October 11, 2023

The Time I Met Russell Batiste Jr.

Photo from the day before
we met Russell Batiste Jr.
The renowned New Orleans drummer Russell Batiste Jr. passed away on September 30, 2023 at the age of 57. As I write this it's October 11, 2023...exactly one year after my chance meeting with him which took place on October 11, 2022.

Laura and I were in New Orleans for a weeklong vacation. It was a Tuesday night and rather than see music on Frenchman Street we did a ten minute walk out of the way to check out Russell Batiste's band at Sweet Lorraine Jazz Club on St Claude Ave where, according to the local calendar, Russell would be playing.

I had heard of Russell Batiste Jr. through his work with Page McConnell and Oteil Burbridge in the band Vida Blue. Maybe not the hippest way to become aware of his musicianship, but a common entry point for a Phish fan, I suppose. Anyway, my understanding or intel for that night's event was not exactly correct. It was more like an open-to-the-public band rehearsal than a performance, per se. We were the only patrons there.

Well, not the only patrons if you count George Porter, Jr. Yes, the legendary bassist for The Meters (real New Orleans royalty) was also there to listen to the music. It sounds like I'm making this up but I'm not. In one of those weird N'awlins type moments, he wasn't playing he was just there being himself. No big deal. Happens all the time. It was all I could do not to go up to him and say something. As Mr. Porter was leaving I did manage stammer out something like "I'm a big fan of your music".

However, the point is when Russell came by on his way out the door I stupidly said something like "What were Oteil and Page really like?". Russell immediately said "I'll be right back!". After he had taken his gear out to his car not three minutes later he came back to hang out with us. The next thing I know we're outside in Russell's car listening to music, clouds of smoke billowing out onto St Claude Ave. One of his band mates in the back seat. These weren't some flashy rock star wheels by the way. I jokingly say it was a 1998 Toyota Tercel or something like that. You should have seen the things he had in there! Paper airplanes.

Russell treated us instantly like we were old friends. Comfortable, laughing, joking, goofing off, letting loose. He didn't know us. We were just tourists in New Orleans for the first time having one of those magical Big Easy moments that becomes a life long memory. We probably spent 20 to 30 minutes in his car listening to recordings of his band and unreleased Vida Blue. It never seemed to get awkward, somehow. We kind of all mutually agreed when it was time to part ways.

Even though it was still early in the evening Laura and I couldn't really do anything else that night afterward. I remember just being in awe. Not really believing what had happened. We called a ride back to our place and watched House of the Dragon when we got back. 

It was shocking to learn that Russell had passed. I'm so glad to have had that moment. He touched so many lives, including ours.


Friday, October 6, 2023

Followup - Dutchi Bike / Brompton Comparison

As I mentioned in a previous post, I sold by Brompton folding bike and used the money to purchase a Linus Dutchi 1. I actually could have bought two Linus Dutchi bikes with the money I recouped from the Brompton sale. 

I suppose I'm a little biased in this comparison because I got rid of the Brompton and got a different bike instead. The main area in which the Brompton wins hands-down should come as no surprise, and that's storage and portability. It takes up less room in the house and you can easily fit it in the trunk/boot of the car for road trips. That's the only category that easily goes to the Brompton. 

When it comes to maintenance, the Linus Dutchi 1 is expected to win. It's just got less parts. Less that could malfunction. Single gear. Coaster brake. No cables. No frills. The Brompton has so many moving parts, despite being the absolute best folding bike, it's still a folding bike. From a day to day maintenance perspective, the Linus takes the cake because of it's larger tires. I had to pump air into the Brompton's 16-inch tires almost every time I rode it. With the Dutchi I'm not expecting to have to pump those 700c tires as often. Less maintenance leads to ease of use. I can get out the door faster with fewer impediments and that's going to make me want to ride it more.

Speed actually could go to the Brompton. I think it was about 5 to 10% faster. That difference might matter if I was trying to get from point A to point B in the fastest time, but that's not a factor for me. I'm going for 30 to 40 minute rides out the door and back, so it doesn't really matter how far I go during that time as long as the exertion is there. If I can burn 300 calories on a ride I'm happy. Each time I've ridden the Dutchi so far my pace has gotten a little faster, from 11.7 mph to 12.4 mph to today's 12.7 mph pace over 7 miles. Maybe it will wind up at the Brompton speed. 

The Dutchi has a smoother ride and more visibility. The large tires can roll more easily over bumps and the higher, upright posture puts seeing and being seen at a premium. You can simply take in your surroundings and enjoy being in the moment. I'm no longer thinking about how many times I'm going to have to cross a railroad while on my route.

The last category I can think of is cool factor, which is hard to measure. What's cooler, a folding bike or a step through city bike? I'm going to go with the Dutchi again on this one. It's less eccentric looking and feeling, and seems more practical. And it came with a kickstand!

The Brompton that I had and then sold

The Linus Dutchi 1 that I got October 2023