Friday, December 27, 2013

The Gourds take a Hiatus

The Gourds, Lola's Fort Worth, February 2012

Last night, I finally heard the news--I'm a bit behind; it only took me a couple months--that the Austin-based band The Gourds were taking a break from performing and recording together. The band called it a "Hiatus."

This wrecked my night. The Gourds, to me, were one of only a few local bands (I use local to mean Texas-based or Texas-based at one time) that truly mean something in my world.  I've seen them probably a dozen, fifteen times since I first watched them tear up Stubb's in Austin on New Years Eve, 1999. The only other band that comes close would be Old 97s.

Kevin Russell

The Gourds apparently haven't given an official reason for cooling it. They've been a band since the mid-1990s and their current lineup has been intact since 1999. They've attained cult status in Austin, and can tour as much as they want, making yearly swings across the country as well as a fairly intensive Houston-Austin-DFW touring schedule. They've got a big following in The Netherlands. The band's co-leaders, Kevin Russell and Jimmy Smith, are talented song writers of wildly different styles--but that melding of influences, the different lyrical and musical presentations. . .well, that's what makes the Gourds what they are.

Jimmy Smith

And what are they? I get that question a lot from friends I talk the band up to. . but I really don't have a definitive answer. Take a little Lynrd Skinner. Add some Staple Family. Toss in some swampy Zydeco, Snoop Dog, a bit of Waylon Jennings. A lot of folks define them by their unintentional viral hit, a cover of the rap standard "Gin n'Juice." But they're more than that, of course. Hell--I'm leaving out a couple dozen influences here. There is no one "way" to define the Gourds: they just are. It's Gourds music. You either get it or you don't.

Claude Bernard

And I like to think I "get it." And if I don't, I've certainly wasted far too many days and nights trying to. I've seen 'em a ton of places, and their shows have been woven into the narrative of my life: a cold night in Denton in December 2000, where my 8-month pregnant wife Mary braved thick cigarette smoke to see them for the first time; on a downtown stage on a windy spring night in Fort Worth as I cradled my three-month-old son; a blistering hot summer evening in a park in Sherman where the kids threw a crying tantrum when we had to leave early for me to get home for work; sharing a stage six-times the size they're used to playing on with a couple Chevy pickup trucks, playing to but a dozen die-hards on a mid-day afternoon at the Texas State Fair. Somehow, improbably, they took a gig playing the tiny stage in front of Central Market in Fort Worth. I doubt you'd ever see THAT again!

Keith Langford

I guess if you haven't caught them live by now, well, you might not be able to. Listening to their 12 studio records will only take you so far. To experience the Gourds, you had to see them live. You had to see Kevin's unashamed big-white-guy dance gyrations, and Jimmy's frenetic, possessed vocals and the way he laid waste to that electric bass--it's not clear what drove the rhythm more: that amazing bass or Keith Langford on the drum kit. Claude Bernard handled the keyboards and maracas, squeezebox and accordion, tossing out one liners and nonsequiters between songs. In the corner, stage left, the shy multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston would be coaxed a few times a show to lead the vocals on his original compositions, but mostly he stayed back, playing the lap steel, the fiddle, mandolin or banjo.

That the Gourds didn't perform with a single unified voice was one of their great charms--and possibly what ultimately drove the decision to take a break.  Jimmy's songs were greatly influenced by thick funky riffs, his lyrics akin to a beat poet's use of words as music even at the expense of a storytelling narrative. How often is a writer able to slip in "pythagorean theorem" to a song?but the word just fit.  A line by itself might seem jibberish; as a whole, it made. . .sense. Sorta. To wit, "Bean Bowl:"

"Flyin' moth took what it could
Yer half naked
Moth did good
A rabbit jumps it
A sheep makes it
Horse hockey
Piggly wiggly
Go cat go
And I want you to
Crawl out of my bean bowl baby
Little bit after midnight"

Kevin's compositions are more lyrical, romantic, touching: "Promenade" from Noble Creatures brings a tear to my eyes:

"I traded yer sweetness for my loneliness
Yer confidence for my own regrets
Yer simple grace for this disarray
That’s my stock and trade while you promenade"

These are creative artists, and two in one band guaranteed there'd be only so much room for both to fully explore their songwriting.  Both Russell and Smith will continue with their side projects, "Shinyribs" and "Hard Pans," respectively, as a way to more fully answer their muse.

 Max Johnston

The news of the hiatus comes only a few months after the release of the documentary film about the band,  "All The Labors,"  chronicling their shows in small taverns and theaters--and life on the road, of course. But it also touches, in a bittersweet way, about what it means to be a musician in your 40s, with family responsibilities and homes and kids and a wife you really don't want to leave for weeks at a time. And with that comes the same reflection on an impending mortality we all have at that age: are we happy doing what we're doing? Is this our lot in life? Are we as "successful" and "hard working" as we could be? And how do we define "success" and "hard work?"  The life of a musician at age 20 is a lot different than it is when you hit 45. They talked about bumping up against success time and time again, and not breaking through. They changed labels, hobnobbed with recording execs--but where has been the payoff for all that hard work? Not to be materialistic about it, but where's the nice house, the financial security, and college money for the kids? A thousand miles between gigs in a van and changing a flat tire on the side of the freeway gets old. The frustration, even if you don't define your success by record sales or The Billboard Hot 100, must be tremendous. In retrospect, you could see that October announcement coming.

Claude Bernard again

So, I'll make it a point to catch "Shinyribs" and "The Hard Pans" when they come through my town, and who knows, maybe each of these side projects will reproduce the deep well of devotion among the few who "get it." But it'll take a lot to equal the fun, the joy, the pure happiness I felt each time I emerged from a Gourds show.

Every time, it felt like all was right with the world.

And you can't give a band higher praise than that, can you?

The blogger and Kevin Russell:one of my musical heroes.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Best of 2013 photographs

A long, long time ago--back in 2007!--I put together an end-of-year "best of" list of 10 favorite photographs from the previous 12 months. I guess this was a knee-jerk habit that carried over from my newspaper days, when the last week of the year was largely given to recaps and "best of"lists.

At the risk of underwhelming the minimal readership of this blog further, I'd dug out this year's Top 10. I'll admit that they're not real grabbers. Honestly, I haven't done a lot of great photography this year. Most of these shots are close to home, and a couple of them are family photographs, for chrissake. Maybe I'm just more discerning of my work. I did make some nice railroad photographs on the few times I went out trackside, but much anymore, a train photo is a train photo is a train photo (unless, ya know, it's thirty years old, depicts something that has long since disappeared, or has a great story behind it). The train shots this year were solid railroad photographs, but nothing really that deserves being in the top 10.  At the risk of being pedantic or overly expository, I'll add a bit of commentary to them.

So here goes, in no particular order:

Aluminum Overcast: A vintage World War II C-47 cargo plane casts its shadow over a Fort Worth overpass while taking paying passengers on a quick 20 minute flight over downtown. I bought a groupon ticket that was too good to pass up and took my son E. along. He loved it, as did I. And it was LOUD in that good, roaring radial engine loud. Canon 60D.

Losing Grandpa: A very emotional photo for me, obviously. My father's long battle with Alzheimers is a couple of days from a conclusion, and we brought the boys to make a last visit with him in the nursing home. Not that it matters, but this is one of two photos taken on an iPhone4.

His First Pair of Glasses: E. takes his first look around in the optometrist's shop after getting his first pair of glasses. I was surprised he liked how he looked. I think he looks great, though that's not usually how a kid feels when it happens to him. I remember that day well myself. Fuji X20.

The Fashion Icon: I. is the actor in our family, a little ham who always surprises us with something he says or some attitude he strikes. We were headed to a friend's wedding the Fort Worth's funky Stockyards area when I put him up against the wall and told him to work it, baby. And he did. James Dean has nothing on this guy. The other iPhone image.

Feeding Time: On a visit to the Gulf Coast at Port Aransas, Texas, I got the clever idea to tell I. to hold some potato chips over his head. It didn't take long to attract a flock of seagulls that would've made Hitchcock proud. No human was shit upon in the making of this photo, either. Amazing. Fuji X10.

Barefoot, Beer, and a Six String: An enjoyable afternoon with Mary taking in the yearly Art Google, where the trendy Magnolia District in Fort Worth opens up galleries, artists sell from tables and musicians play in parking lots. This guy took the barefoot route. Big drops of rain were falling, and he was soon chased under a canopy to wait it out. Fuji X20.

Say Howdy to Big Tex: After bursting into flames in 2012, Texas State Fair icon Big Tex was back after complete reconstruction. A reproduction life-sized bust of Tex was a popular stop in one of the fair's exhibit halls. Fuji X20.

Tools of the Trade: Went to the northwest in October to give a photo presentation, and spent the day after checking out the Mount Rainier Scenic Railroad, a tourist and steam preservation operation that boasts one of the largest fleets of operating steam locomotives in the United States. It'd operated since the mid-1980s, and it was my first visit. The friendly, mostly-volunteer crew gave us the run of the place. My favorite place was the machine shop where big greasy lathes and presses made parts for locomotives where no replacements were available. Great still life possibilities of an industrial realm. Fuji X20.
12:30pm, 11/22 in Dallas: The time and date are indelibly etched into the memory of people of my generation who remember the day in 1963 when John Kennedy was murdered in Dallas. The 50th anniversary of that dark day was 2013, and as the remembrance service took place downtown, I drove through the city in weather appropriate for the somber occasion. Fuji X20.

Steve Earle and the Dukes: In 2011, I showed up for his show at Dallas' Granada Theater with a hulking Canon 60D DSLR, only to be turned back at the door with the admonishment that "the artist doesn't want any professional cameras at the concert." A bit puzzled--I guess Mr. Earle would prefer that only shitty cell-phone photos be made of him?--the incident pushed me down the road to getting rid of the big DSLR's entirely, beginning with purchase of a very small, non-threatening Fuji X-10 camera. I returned in 2013 with the X10's  successor X-20 model; I've since supplanted it with a slightly-larger but higher quality X-E2. But there's nothing wrong with the quality of this little point-and-shoot. Quite amazing performance from a camera so small. Thank you, Mr. Earle, for helping me see the light!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Back to the Basics


Dad got his first Leica, a IIIf like the one on the right, after World War II. He bought me my first "real" camera, the all-manual SLR mamiya/sekor 500TL, for Christmas in 1974, launching my interest in photography. My new Fujifilm X-E2, bottom left, merges rangefinder styling with total manual operation if desired--a perfect "photographer's camera" in a mirrorless compact format.

For Christmas this year, I've entered my third "phase" of photography.  But really, it's a return to basics.

My parents bought me my first "real" camera for Christmas back in 1974, when my dad took me into downtown Salt Lake City to an aptly named place called "Fourth Floor Camera Den" to pick out my first SLR, an $80 Mamiya/Sekor 500TL with 50mm f2 normal lens and leatherette case.

Being a Leica man, I'm sure my father would've preferred to have gotten his son properly situated with a rangefinder camera. But me, being a teenager in the 1970s, when the swaggering photojournalist with a bag of Nikon F's was perhaps in fullest bloom as a culture symbol (Paul Simon, you may recall, mentioned Nikon in his paen to Kodachrome film in the song by the same name)--well, it was all about the SLR. At least it was even since my 7th grade classmate Eric Einhorn showed me his dad's big Nikon collection at their stylish modern home high up in the Olympus Cove. There they were, what seemed like a dozen Nikkor lenses, packaged in golden boxes, protected in plastic cases. His dad, a doctor, if I recall correctly, had a couple Nikon F bodies, too, including one with a motor drive. In a world of middling camera brands like Miranda, Hanimex and Ricoh, Nikon clearly stood alone at the top of the mountain, with Pentax and Canon far, far below.

My father, Lou, the Leica fan. With the M3, Lake Powell, Utah, 1976. I used that cool metal camera strap on the X-E2 today.

 The Japanese-built Nikon was sexy and hip, and a favorite of soldiers who'd picked them up in PX's coming back from Korea and Vietnam. My dad preferred the German Leicas, of course. The brand practically invented 35mm photography back in the 1920s, and they were popular among soldiers like my dad coming home from Europe in World War 2. Dad owned an M3 when I became infatuated with Dr. Einhorn's Nikon F. For me, there never was a question: it'd be an SLR. And though I'd have preferred a Nikon, well, our budget pretty much ruled that out.

 Love at first sight: The 1959 Nikon F, the model owned by Dr. Einhorn.

That first SLR was really the first big phase of my interest in photography. I beat up on that poor old Mamiya, mashing in the front filter ring on the marginally-sharp 50mm f/2 lens. I eventually replaced the Mamiya with a succession of Nikons--FM, FT3, FM2, finally F3HP-- as I decided on pursuing a career as a photojournalist. The bag of Nikons remained another nine years after I gave up the profession in 1994, until I decided to ditch the film cameras for one of the new digital SLR's starting to challenge traditional film photograph. The move to the budget 6 megapixel Canon Rebel would mark a second phase of my photography, letting go of the notion of exposing for a single type of film instead of a full spectrum of light sensitivity that one could change from exposure to exposure. That DSLR looked like a film camera, felt like a film camera, and certainly worked like a film camera. But pixels were definitely cheaper to expose, and my laziness at not changing a roll of film until it was too late was no longer an issue. There was still darkroom work, only it was done in front of a computer running Photoshop. With each successive camera purchased--from a Rebel XTI in 2008 to a EOS 60D in 2011--it became easier and easier to take great photographs without really thinking about the process of photography. Anyone can be a competent photographer these days, something that certainly wasn't the case when my dad placed that Mamiya in my hands back in 1974. (This is much to the chagrin of professional photographers, who've seen their work disappear and their rates drop as a result of the proliferation of photographers. Many have turned to giving workshops to make up for the loss of their clients, making their potential competitors, as a result, that much better!)

Me, the serious and earnest young photographer, with my first SLR, the Mamiya-Sekor 500TL, in 1975.

So, looking for a bit more challenge to my creativity,   I start my third phase in photography this Christmas. I just sold off the last of the Canon DSLR gear to finance a leapinto somewhat uncharted waters by going all-in on a Fujifilm X-series "mirrorless" digital system. If you read the photo blogs, you'll know that many predict the mirrorless cameras to be the future of serious digital photography. With camera phones gutting much of the point-and-shoot market, developing photo technology has allowed small, compact camera bodies with a rangefinder-like digital viewfinders to equal the performance of much larger DSLR's in nearly every category, The DSLR's for now still hold the edge in several areas, among them fast focusing on moving subjects (as in sporting events) and in fast aperture long-telephoto lenses--so for now, the DSLR will remain THE camera for sports and wildlife photography. And the large sensor size of the high-end DSLR's will keep them employed by most professionals who require optimum sharpness and the largest file sizes. And, lets face it, you hire a professional, and you expect them to show up with "impressive" cameras.

That's not to downplay the quality of the Fuji X-series image. I purchased the new X-E2 body to replace my Canon 60D largely because a big bag of Canon gear was getting too heavy to schlepp around. The X-E2 body is considerably smaller and less than half the weight (.77 lb) compared to the 60D.  The range of Fuji zoom lenses, while not small compare to other compact camera offerings, are still much smaller than the Canon gear. The big bag of DSLR gear was such a drag to lug around to most places that I'd bought a much smaller camera to travel with. I found that the smaller, less intimidating camera was much easier to photograph people with.

I'd digested a lot of on-line reviews on the current crop of these mirrorless digitals, and ultimately chose the Fuji X-E2 for its comparative large sensor (same size as that on the 60D, by the way), fast focus, availability of high-quality lenses, continued and constant firmware upgrades by Fuji, and familiarity with the basic design and function of controls gained by using the X10/X20 point-and-shoot compacts over the past 18 months. And, it's a sharp looking little camera, to tell you the truth.

I've found in using the little X10/X20s that, in addition to the quality of the images they produce, that they're FUN to use as well. I recall how photography used to be in the film camera era, where a photographer had to not only compose but EXPOSE the picture properly, and the Fuji X-series makes this return to enjoyment of CREATING an essential element of their cameras. You can, of course, just keep the thing in automatic exposure and bang away like a point and shoot, but here's a camera with a shutter speed dial, with lenses that can actually be focused, zoomed and the aperture adjusted by manipulating the lens!

They're not REALLY rangefinders, these new Fujis, but they're more like rangefinders, to me, than they are DSLRs. I'm sure there will be a learning curve in transitioning to the X-E2, but I'm jazzed about it. I'm just like that 14 year old in the Fourth Floor Camera Den. And that can't be a bad thing.

I'm sure my dad, the Leica Rangefinder Fan, would have approved of this camera.