Monday, July 30, 2007

A matter of finances

Kudos to Christian for pointing out to me that the 9 cent a cup increase that I will suffer at Starbucks starting tomorrow will actually translate to approximately 25.44 songs purchased on iTunes over a calendar year. This could certainly help to fill the 11 gig hole remaining on my iPod.

That's something I hadn't yet considered....

Summer of Music Nostalgia II -- The Police

The Police barreled their way through Fenway Park this weekend and might I say that I suffer from post-concert euphoria this morning as a result. If waking up with ears ringing and a seriously sore throat (not to mention being seriously dehydrated) is any indication of the success of a show, then give them props for that!

I guess I expected to be majorly disappointed. After all, this had been one of the most hyped reunion tours in my recent memory, we agonized over ticket prices, debated trading up for better seats than those that we bought 5 months ago, paid up for the fan club to get better seats (although the fan club yields you exactly nothing after the ticket purchase itself) and suffered through the first 6 weeks of some mediocre to downright scary reviews from other shows in other cities. We also felt duped when we found out just a month ago that they'd be back in the fall to play the Garden, which was a much preferrable location in our eyes....we'd thought the Fenway shows would be our one shot....but more on that later.

But to say we were delighted is an understatement. As a proponent of a dynamic setlist (my U2 fan friends can roll their eyes now), I can admit that I now understand how a static setlist works out in some situations (U2 not being one of them!) In the case of The Police, we have a band who hasn't put out anything new or notable in the last 25 years (the 1986 remix of Don't Stand So Close to Me does not count), so there was no material to promote, thankfully, because everyone attending these shows wanted two hours of the band's greatest hits and that is exactly what they got.

Opening with Message in a Bottle (IMHO one of the best written lyrics ever) and immediately shifting into Synchronicity II, the band came out on fire. "Message" worked, but Synchronicity felt very disconnected, with three separate people playing their own intepretations of the song. Whether that was the case or they just couldn't hear each other, I'm not sure. But that was really the last noticeable weakness in the entire show. Somehow they managed to get back on track and continued to throw extended versions and updated compositions at us one after the other.

After a lull of Bed's Too Big and Truth Hits Everybody, The Police shifted up again and delivered one of the tightest sets of songs I've ever witnessed: Every Little Thing She Does Is Magic, Wrapped Around Your Finger, De Do Do Do De Da Da Da, Invisible Sun, Walking In Your Footsteps, Can't Stand Losing You, Roxanne, King Of Pain, So Lonely, Every Breath You Take. This 45 minutes or so was just breathtaking. "Can't Stand" did feel a bit less edgy, as did Roxanne, which suffered from a lengthy jam session that made it feel more tired than the red light district vamp it was portraying. But otherwise, this was solid and well-delivered. In particular, King of Pain and So Lonely were just brilliant. KoP was slightly extended but to good effect. So Lonely had an energy and vibe that is completely missing on the album version (and let's not forget one of these guys is older than my Dad and had been playing for nearly 2 hours at this point!)

Andy Summers, in short, is the most skilled guitarist I have ever seen (sorry Edge!). There was nothing he couldn't handle, and several times he brought the crowd to its feet just on his ability alone.

Stewart Copeland clearly has been waiting for this reunion for ages, not so much to recapture the good old days (because from many accounts, they were far from good in many cases) but because he truly loves what he does, and it shows. He was on perma-grin from the get go and played like Animal from The Muppets for the entire set. I've never seen a drummer with a more robust set of percussion tools and he uses them to excellent effect, particularly in Walking in Your Footsteps.

Sting, well...I've seen Sting at least a half-dozen times as a solo artist and have always loved his performance and have never been disappointed. This time though, I felt he was overly-smug. This tour was done on Sting's terms, when he was ready to do it (or when his album of Old English lute songs didn't make him as much as expected). As much as he was very much the same as when I'd seen him before, I really felt like he was doing this to cash in. And it was obvious at times that he might just want to be somewhere else.

But the band's disharmony was what made them good, I'm convinced of it. Secretly, some of us were hoping that this show would be the one where they would finally climb over the drum kit and pummel the hell out of each other just to get it out of the way. That would have been preferable to Sting's lyrical digs taken mid-song when the others were clearly defenseless, such as at the end of So Lonely: "I've been told I play this too slow, I KNOW." Enough already, grow up, collect your (lofty) earnings from this tour and move on. But that aside, we thank you for the return and a two-hour return to our pre-teen was heavenly.

Saturday, July 28, 2007

TdF -- why I still watch

Tour de Farce, heh? Sure, the Tour de France has its share of problems. Several riders booted for testing positive for performance enhancing drugs. Another booted for....errrrr...lying? Well, ok. I'll give them that if those are their rules.

But yet, I still watch. I tune into Versus every weeknight for the enhanced (shortened with American color commentary) and every weekend morning for the live coverage (better play-by-play with British commentary). But why? What's the draw?

Even before I rode outside myself and long before I got into Spinning, I was drawn to the sport by the story of the man himself, Lance Armstrong. Here was a story of an average guy with a less-than-average background who not only overcame a crappy childhood but then an even crappier bout with cancer to win the Tour 7 times. In a row. And did I mention his prognosis was that he was supposed to be dead now?

Armstrong showed us that cycling is about the individual mental game as much as it is about the team game. Sure, your teammates help you along. You've got some to bring you water and food, some to cushion you from other teams and evil-doers and some to, literally, pull you uphill. But, if in your head, you're too hot or too tired or just too fed up, you're not going to do it. You've got to be playing that game inside yourself as well. And these guys play it big time. And it's the watching them play that draws me in every time. Watching rookie Alberto Contador tease Rasmussen up that last hill on Rasmussen's last day before he withdrew was crazy fun for me. Contador would settle back in the climb, let Rasmussen draw to his wheel, then Contador would find the power in his legs and break away from Rasmussen with lightning agility, while Rasmussen continued to drone onward. It was like watching my cat slowly torture a fly. He doesn't want to kill it. Not just yet. But he's going to have fun until he does.

Yes, the performance enhancing drugs are a problem. And as the science to detect them improves, so will the technology to mask them. So maybe there will always be questions and the integrity of the sport may not recover. But, bear with me here. It's not as if these drugs or these blood transfusions or this bovine hormone takes a guy who's lived on his sofa with Coca-Cola and Twinkies and all of a sudden makes him able to ride 100 or so miles a day for three weeks straight. These guys could do this without the enhancements. It's just that they've lost that game in their head and they convince themselves they can do it better with a little chemical help. I'm not saying it's right. I'm just saying: they can do this without the goop. Before they even play with the forbidden fruit, there's already something naturally different about their chemistry.

Believe me, I've sat on a bike at the bottom of a 7 kilometer 8% incline at the end of a 66K ride and turned and rode back the way I came. Maybe a healthy dose of frappucino would've gotten me up 7Ks of 8%, but I opted not to find out. I lost the battle in my head. So now that I've lived that, I tune in to watch these guys not even consider turning back. They do 8, 9, 10% inclines for a lot more than 7k a lot more than once in rides a lot longer than 40 miles. And they do it for three weeks.

So Viva Alberto, Levi, George and Team Discovery! Some of us are still pulling for you...

Friday, July 27, 2007

I became one of them

For years, I had looked upon the iPod-toting, white-earbud wearing humans around me as degenerates. Do you really need to have those things with you at all times? Do you really need to have your entire music collection on your person every second of the day? I wasn't against portable music at all; I had an mp3 player that held 28 songs (hey, it was Intel's PocketConcert, a forerunner in its time) and it served me quite well. If you needed to listen to more than 28 songs at any one time (the gym, for example) then I thought that whatever you were doing you were doing too much and too long.

And then I got an iPod.

A big one, too, not the Shuffle or the Nano. The 30 gig with video. And I fell in love. It wasn't love at first sight, but a slow and gentle affair. And now I live in fear of it's eventual demise. Or even if I just forget one day and leave it at home.

I didn't buy it myself, it was a gift. And I remained skeptical at first. Then I started to load up all of my "essential" albums. And when I saw that I had room for more (nearly 24 gigs), I loaded up the non-essential albums. And bootleg shows. And the dance, trance and extended remix songs I use for Spinning classes. And I still have 11 gigs left.

It's counterintuitive for someone like me to have 3300 songs in her pocket and not really need them. In daily life, I throw things out immediately when I determine no imminent use for them. I delete draft files, files I haven't used in X amount of months or days. I am resisting the urge of my neat-freak-self to purge songs from my iPod. But then I think "why should I?" I still have 11 gigs left. Standing empty, awaiting more songs and video.

I started out just listening to it on the train to work and on the walk to and from the train, helping to make the most mundane parts of the day more tolerable. That was maybe 90 minutes a day. And then I started listening at work, again with the mundane/tolerance theory, realizing it blocks out nonsense noise in an open-air work environment and helps me to ignore what I need to to get my job done. So now I'm up to 6-7 hours a day.

And then, I found the car adapter. For long roadtrips, what is better than having 3000+ songs to shuffle through or have your co-pilot play "Name That Tune" with?

And the gym? I can create on-the-go playlists while I'm at work or walking to the train and have a brand new workout for tonight, without having to log on to the computer and delete and reload songs. Intel PocketConcert, I miss you, but not that much.

Now I'm looking at the home stereo iPod alternatives. Certainly, I'll be needing to listen to the iPod in the comfort of the living room at some point.

But I worry. I worry that there is something wrong with me when, lying in the sun beachside or poolside, I reach to my side and realize it's not there. My hearing is unmuffled from lack of earbuds yet I feel alone and exposed without my iPod. I worry that there's something wrong because when I leave my desk to run an errand and put it in my drawer, my heart still skips a beat when I get back to my desk and see it not on the desktop where it belongs, until I remember it's safely tucked away. I worry that the degradation in volume I'm experiencing this week is more than just my messing with the factory might just be the first signs of its imminent demise. Or that skip in the song that happened yesterday? Is that too a sign that the end of iPod's shelf life approaches?

I continue to coddle and cradle my baby when I can and will attempt to diagnose these little bugs if they persist.

But I can say, without hesitation, if and when iPod #1 passes on to that iPod haven in the sky, I will be most immediate in my replacement of it. Yes, I've become one of them.

The Quest for Vermeer -- revised

For those playing along at home, Abby and I are deep into the quest to see all known works by Vermeer in the world. We have a healthy start and continue to plot our next potential conquests. Unless and until they find the stolen piece from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, we may never see them all, but we're giving it a good try.

So far:
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York:
A Maid Asleep, Woman with a Lute, Young Woman With a Water Pitcher, Allegory of Faith, Study of a Young Woman

The Frick Collection, New York:
Girl Interrupted in Her Music, Mistress and Maid, Officer and Laughing Girl

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna: The Art of Painting
Careful review of my trip report indicates that this was actually on loan to Tokyo when I was last in Vienna, so reset the counter for this one!

The Louvre, Paris: The Lacemaker, The Astronomer

Maurithuis, The Hague: Diana and Her Companions, View of Delft, The Girl With a Pearl Earring

The Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam: Woman in Blue Reading a Letter, The Love Letter, The Little Street, The Milkmaid

Starbucks hasn't lost me yet....

So Starbucks has announced that they are raising prices again next week by 9 cents a cup. For all the scuttlebutt this seems to have caused others, including the business media, this doesn't even make me flinch. Nine cents? Nine cents? This is all you need to keep paying the baristas who make me smile every morning, keep providing clean, classy stores, and keep giving me coffee that doesn't taste like donuts or scalded grounds? I'll pay up, not a problem.

Starbucks is the most generous employer I've heard of in food services. They pay tuition, full health and dental, have profit sharing and a stock purchase plan. Let me remind you, I only get 2 of those where I work now. And Starbucks' generosity shows in the way its employees treats customers. I haven't had shoddy service once in over 10 years....

In the grand scheme of things, nine cents is nothing. Granted, I've converted from the cadillac drinks to straight up coffee with cream (a savings of $1.28 and 300 calories a day) on a daily basis but still, even a raspberry mocha frappucino light is worth the $3.92 it will cost next Tuesday when the increase takes hold.

Summer of music nostalgia

I suppose it's more of a money making venture for them rather than a true concern for filling my need for some real good music this summer, but I am thoroughly enjoying the return of many of the popular 80s bands for all of these "reunion tours". Sure, Sting will probably be able to finance that kitchen remodel on his 20 room villa in Italy once this leg of the tour is over, but how cool has it been to revisit my childhood musically this summer?

My sister has joined me on the Nostaliga Tour, matching me penny for penny on these bargain shows (or not as much of a bargain, in the case of The Police) in our quest to relive those teenage days on our bedroom floor listening to the songs of these bands spill out of my one speaker purple radio. It's amazing how quickly the lyrics come back, as if they haven't been sitting dusty in the recesses of our brains for the last twenty years.

Exhibit One: The Psychedelic Furs, The Fixx and The Alarm joined together a few weeks ago to send us in the way-back-machine. In short, is was phenomenal. I have somehow managed to always miss The Alarm when they come through here live, but it almost seems fitting to finally see Mike Peters live now that he's beaten cancer for a second time. The Alarm's 45-minute set was like constant lift-off, never leveling out, always surging further skyward, and finally, at the end of the set, breaking free of gravity with "Sixty Eight Guns". I'm not sure I could have mentally, physically or emotionally handled a longer set, but I would like to try!

The Fixx and The Furs were highly entertaining, but admittedly, a bit a of a letdown after The Alarm. They delivered their big hits so that the synapses connected in the nostalgia portion of our brains and we experienced instant recall of songs that reminded us of 8th grade dances, car trips with Mom and Dad and taping music using a portable cassette player with a microphone held up to a stereo speaker. How far we've come....

Next up, The Police this weekend, then Squeeze, then Live/Collective Soul/Counting Crows, and then the grand-daddy of all nostalgia shows: Barry Manilow. It's been an interesting summer for concerts, but I'm guessing this trip down memory lane is as satisfying for us as it is profitable for the bands dusting off their oldies one more time.