Monday, December 23, 2013

"Sound of Lights" Part 2

It had been a full weekend in New England. A river on fire, on purpose, in Providence. Soul Asylum and Fountains of Wayne at the Paradise Rock Club in Boston. I day away from the Northeast corridor fury on Block Island. But now it was time to head home.

The system of interstates connecting me to the western frontier of the Keystone State can be nerve-racking, boring, and never ending--all at once. The trick is to break up the trip. The question is how to do so. For me the "how" is easy, especially when traveling along a large body of water like Long Island Sound. I had already mapped out about a dozen Lighthouses to stop and see. I whittled that list down by half, to those that seemed the most interesting and spent the least of my budgeted travel time.

I re-gathered my travel gear and thanked my host for a great time, made my way out of the living history book that is Providence, and headed toward my first destination on Rhode Island’s southern coast.

Watch Hill neighborhood
I got all the way to the Connecticut border before exiting I-95, backtracking to 1-A and winding my way south to the little town of Watch Hill.

Following the virtual directions given, I dutifully parked outside of a very exclusive neighborhood and follow the path through it, beyond it, and to the end of Lighthouse Road.

As I looked back from the flashing light, I felt I had found the place where rich people go to.. Huge, beautiful homes overlooked gently breaking waves and the classic lighthouse. For my money the setting is one of the most impressive on the East Coast, although my money could only afford a short visit to this provincial paradise. Even an overnight stay at the stately Ocean House Resort is beyond most of our means.
Ocean House Resort

I lingered a while longer than planned, taking pictures of both the lighthouse and the estates it guarded. I finally left, collecting my bearings for my second stop.

Watch Hill Lighthouse
Stonington Harbor is only about a few miles from Watch Hill, as the seagull flies. Not being a seagull, I had to ramble in the mini on a 12-mile series of back roads and byways.

Latimer Reef Light
The little town is quite pedestrian, compared to the haven I left 30 minutes before. The town of under 20,000 is quaint and comprised of two main streets—one in and one out. All one needs to do is follow to the end of the main artery to find the town’s lighthouse. It was a bonus to also discover a nice view of the Latimer Reef Light, lying just inside the water’s imaginary boarder of New York. I had seen this light from afar while in Watch Hill and was hoping for a closer view.

Stonington Harbor Lighthouse
The Stonington Harbor Lighthouse is a solid stone structure that serves as a dual purpose museum, also highlighting both local primitive objects. The view from the empty beacon is nice, but the thought of another out of service lighthouse is a bit sad.

Even though there are no lighthouses to speak of in Mystic Harbor, I felt I should stop. The town is the definition of charming, and my roadside stop crab cakes were a treat. The New England Aquarium is also located just of the Mystic exit of I-95, and I enjoyed a brief visit with the attraction’s playful beluga whales.
"Bubbles" sneaks up on a visitor
As the day was beginning to wear thin, I condensed my visit in Mystic in order to get to my last stop before heading out of New England.

Five Mile Point Light is a classic structure that marks the mouth of the harbor fed by the Mills and Quinnipiac Rivers. When viewed from the outcrop of Lighthouse Point Park, New Haven shines brightly beyond. Turning around, I enjoyed my last trophy of the day—a “sparkplug” type edifice named the Southwest Ledge Light. 
Five Mile Point Lighthouse

Southwest Ledge Light
As the day began to fade into dusk, I knew I had to move on. I was staying with friends in Matamoras, so I only had a few hours to go. That was until I was led by my otherwise faultless GPS through rush hour New Haven. Still, the aggravation of that last leg was well worth the day!

Next Week: Holidays mean staying home! See you after New Year's with an "Rock Music Pioneer" you may never have heard of--but should know...

Monday, December 16, 2013

“Sound of Lights” Part 1 (10/30/13)

My fervent interest (I have to continually remind friends it’s NOT an obsession) with lighthouses began several years ago when I saw a Parade magazine cover one lazy Sunday morning. On it was a picture of Hooper Strait Lighthouse. Sitting peacefully in the middle of the Chesapeake Bay, the isolation of the odd architectural structure sparked a conversation between my wife and me about how cool it would be to live in such a dwelling.

Fort Carroll Light, MD
As tends to happen, my thoughts about such a dream did not die with the conversation. I began to look more closely at the government’s program to decommission and auction off several similar irrelevant lighthouses. Many of these were also in the Bay, an area I had long enjoyed. As I researched the various lighthouses, I became fascinated by both their number and varied histories. There are hundreds in the United States. Hell, there are over a hundred on—and along—the shores of Michigan, alone. That’s right, Michigan. Each has its own unique style and story. None caught my attention more than a decrepit little two-story structure that once marked the fort on which it stands. My interest in the light on Fort Carroll ultimately spawned a trip to the site and subsequent article I contributed to Lighthouse Digest magazine.

Since those days, I have documented my firsthand exposure to these once proud aids to navigation. This blog could have, in fact been dedicated to those experiences. Which brings me to this week’s post…

Point Judith Light, RI
As part of my trip to Providence (see “Smoke on the Water” below), I had an opportunity to spend a day six miles out into Long Island Sound on Block Island. If you have the chance, it is worth the ferry ride from Point Judith (off Interstate 95, at the end of route 108). Before we even boarded, we took time to see the lighthouse there. As is the case with most New England lights, it was functioning. Like many others, it was home to a coast guard outpost. A few pictures, then off to the terminal to catch the express ferry.

My friend had prearranged a rental car, and it was immediately clear that Block Island was not a major hub. A guy named Ken took us to his primary business at a fishing dock and our delightfully funky, purple PT Cruiser. With island map purchased from the Chamber of Commerce desk in hand, we set off for the first of two lighthouses that helped separate ships from the Island’s rocky shores.

Southeast Lighthouse
Southeast Lighthouse was open to the public, and we were fortunate enough to have a guided tour of both the light tower and adjoining keeper’s quarters. The light is undergoing restoration, with plans of converting it into a kind of museum/B&B in the near future. I hope to return sometime after the project is completed as a guest, though I’m sure the lodging fee will be substantial.

After taking in some other sites and a lobster roll for lunch, we headed to the opposite end to see the North Lighthouse. I wondered if anyone had ever considered expending some thought toward coming up with more imaginative names. My musings were confirmed when we arrived at the parking area for the North Light. We were confronted with a beach that separated us from the destination by over ten football fields in distance. My name for it would have something to do with the hike I was about to undertake.

North Light
Not surprisingly, I was the only one in my group willing to trek across the sand to see the lighthouse up close. When I arrived, I admonished myself for not bringing my wallet. I was not aware that this lighthouse was also open, for a charge. I nonetheless was able to get some nice photos of the place before facing the long walk back to the car.

The three lighthouses I saw on this day served as the first course for my “Sound of Lights” tour. Another five lights lay ahead, scattered along the rout home through Rhode Island and Connecticut.

(next week: “Sound of Lights” part 2)

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Smoke on the Water (9/28/13)

When my Providence friend suggested we attend something called Water Fire in his Rhode Island town, he described it as “a night out in the city with campfires on the river.” My mind fondly recalled college keggers, where we sat around bonfires in the middle of the woods and drank until it became difficult to walk back to our dorms. Not knowing what to expect, but trusting his judgment for fun things for me to do, I agreed to the itinerary. We were already booked for a Fountains of Wayne/Soul Asylum show at Boston’s Paradise Club and a day on Block Island for lighthouse photo ops (see part 2), so I figured it was a safe bet.

Now what I had envisioned and what we experienced were two vastly different things. I expected to see fires built along the banks of the river…not in the river! Thousands of people turned out, typical from what I was told, to take in the sights and sounds of this distinctive fall evening. And there were fires, hundreds of fires, illuminating the waterway that transverses one of the oldest of American cities.

The flames were constantly tended by groups of volunteers who cruised by in firewood-stocked boats to maintain a consistent blaze at each pot. These vessels jockeyed for water space with many more small, rented kayaks adorned with illuminated fish overhead. I thought it all seemed a bit beyond the scope of any fire codes that surely exist in a city filled with so much valuable antique--and flammable--architecture.

The throng that disguised the city’s challenged economic times lined the river, eating local fare, buying souvenirs, and watching performers toss flames about with acrobatic precision. As we made our way along the water, I noticed various genres of music emanating from under the bridges. Certain songs seemed gift-wrapped for the many young lovers strolling about, their eyes reflecting the flames and glazing with the sheer joy of it all.

A bit more wandering about brought us to one of the tunnels that open and close along the river. In one, a thousand tiles produced by school students proclaimed sentiments of 9/11. It was surely an example of quantity over quality, as several of the contributions were either nonsensical or even irreverent. Perhaps it was by design. Regardless, the city glowed with the unseasonable warmth fueled by the nurtured flames.

I’ve never seen anything quite like Water Fire. My hometown of Pittsburgh, like other cities, has its “Light-up Nights” for special occasions (like holidays and playoff games), but this was different. The sense of community I felt was palpable and special, and the warmth of the people matched the heat coming off the river. If you’re ever near this self-proclaimed “Creative Capital,” be sure to catch the fire!

(Next week: Part 2: "Sound of Lights")


Monday, December 2, 2013

Have a Cigar (Part 2)

While producing the aforementioned GigaPan project (see Part 1), I noticed a poster for an upcoming show:

All of this brings me to a Saturday night in early October. I sit in a crowded Speal’s with a standard beverage, listening to Shane Speal crank out anything from “When the Levee Breaks” to   “ Back in the New York Groove.” Shane was armed with nothing more than a three-stringed cigar box guitar and a Vox turned up to eleven. He is the first of three scheduled acts, all featuring this same powerfully simple instrument. I am hoping to make it to the headliner, April Mae and the June Bugs, as unique and playful as the starring instrument that brought me here in the first place. If their sound can be summed up, this quote from their web site comes closest:

“Americana under the influence of Jump Blues, Swing, & Rockabilly...Ba--ba--ba - Boogie! With a dab of N’awlins for extra spice! Smoke & honey vocals, Cigar Box Guitar, Upright Bass, Banjo, Washboard...servin’ up high energy & deep vintage vibes is our specialty. Roots Baby Roots!”

I was hanging in there in my wait for April Mae and company, even though it was starting to look like a long night. The second act proved more impressive than I had expected. Gerry Thompson’s Killing Aunt Grace played more sophisticated music than Shane’s “field calls and hollers.” It was called dark folk and was played by two men. Gerry could play Santa without much help, wearing a Ramones t-shirt that was slightly obscured by his full grey beard. The crowd thinned out a bit during his set, another indication that his style may have strayed too far from what the audience came to hear.

While I took in the offbeat tunes served up by Gerry and Carl, June Bugs guitarist Dave “Catfish” Fecca sat down at my table for two. He and April Mae were also taking in the other artists. He was even helping Gerry with his sound levels at times. We exchanged contact information, and I told him I’d let the band know when I posted my blog about this night and the Tavern.

I made a note to also let them know when I post the “Band:Smart” series. They may welcome the samplings of free advice.

April Mae also stopped by to chat. "Personable" as a descriptor does not do her justice. She was immediately warm and cordial, taking my hand as we talked and looking me in the eye with interest in my project. She was sincerely happy to spend some time talking with those who had come such little distance to see a band that had traveled six hours in a modest, converted school bus to play at this modest, converted venue. I couldn’t help but become a fan and supporter as we talked. The band’s second release, “It’s All About the Boogie” (see above), will just plain make you smile.

See them perform and get to know them here.
When they took the stage, all of that authentic love of what they were doing was evident. Dave went through a variety of instruments, including electric guitar, banjo, mandolin and—of course—the cigar box guitar. April Mae crooned signature songs and even a Memphis Minnie number in an earthy style while slapping and tapping her washboard with metal-tipped evening gloves. If you ever get the chance to see this band perform, I guarantee an unusual and fun time.

Four songs into the band’s set, it became clear to me why this place, which can’t be a big money-making enterprise, has endured for generations of Speals. I watched the patriarchal owner, Dan, take in the show while simultaneously socializing with any and all who stopped by to say hello. This is his life, four nights a week. If it is a financial break even, he is miles ahead in his living. 

(Next Week: "Smoke on the Water")

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

:30 Side Trip--Bottom of the 33rd

I was searching for an appropriate gift to thank a friend who recently hosted me for a weekend trip. During my search I happened across The Bottom of the 33rd by Dan Barry. I don't include this to prove my blog isn't strictly about music, although the book I'm currently reading is quite lyrical. I don't read a lot, usually because I'm not impressed with too many authors. Sure, this book is about a baseball game (the longest ever played), but how many sports books have literary morsels like this one:

"Time, once a quiet comfort, is now impatient, and clearing its throat."

Not just a book about baseball, it is a compelling and stimulating read that is inspiring this writer to become a better one.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Have a Cigar (10.12.13)
Part 1

Spending too much time online looking up semi-popular music artists that have fallen off the radar can be a semi-dangerous—or, at least, semi-expensive—pastime. Finding Chris Connelly led me to attend a weekend symposium on the music business in Chicago. I don’t regret the experience, especially having gotten the chance to spend some moments with Chris and let him know that his artistry was appreciated. “Shipwreck” is one of my all-time favorite CD’s.

Rediscovering Pat MacDonald led to a more involved and expansive series of events that ended up having nothing to do with the ex-Timbuk 3 frontman and one of the most clever artists of the early days of the music video era. What it did lead to was spending time at a tiny bar and one-of-a-kind museum located about 45 minutes east of the East’s last real city—or the Midwest’s first.

Pat’s current project is another two-person group called Purgatory Hill. I opened a video and watched it repeatedly, trying to figure out what the hell he was playing. It looked like a box with strings running along a pair of broomstick handles. It was electrified, and he was playing it like a slide guitar. It turned out that the body was a cigar box.

I had never heard of a cigar box guitar, so I set about learning more about it. I found that these guitars can have any number of strings, from one (making it a “Diddley Bow”) to six or more. Many, including those I saw on other YouTube videos, seemed to have three strings. This was appealing to me for the sole reason that it must be easy to play. It is, if you are willing to be satisfied with a basic repertoire.

I know because I bought one (see photo at right). Like all instruments of this type, it was made by hand. I got it on eBay from someone in Alaska. It has an electric pick-up and short neck. I went back to the online store for a medicine bottle slide and began messing around with it.

For help with getting started I sought videos on YouTube. Here I came across a series of tutorials by a self-proclaimed “king of the cigar box guitar,” Shane Speal. There were many more aficionados out there than I would have imagined, as evidenced by their online presence.

As is usually the case, more research revealed more connections. I never dreamt that the next one would lead me just down the road to the aforementioned establishment near Pittsburgh. I came to learn that Shane was part of a family that had for years owned Speal’s Tavern. I had passed this place hundreds of times but never even noticed it.

It turned out that this was not just some dive bar, it was home of the world’s largest collection of cigar box guitars. The museum within a tavern was Shane’s brainchild. It includes instruments he made, that others made, and even one from the early 20th Century. The display also includes informational plaques identifying each one and still more with interesting facts about the origin of the instrument and how artists like Hendrix, King and others started playing guitar on their own handmade cigar boxes.

A longtime friend of mine supplied the final connection that gave me a great excuse to check it out for myself. Her husband Dennis James, a guitar-slinger from “down under,” played somewhat regularly at Speal’s. I learned this because when my Alaskan guitar was delivered to my office, my friend saw it and immediately recognized what it was. That was surprising enough. When she told me that her husband played at Speal’s, I was floored. She suggested I come for his next appearance there, which I naturally did.

Explore the interactive version here!
After seeing the exhibit for myself, I contacted Shane and his dad to make arrangements to create a virtual tour of the place. I was quite pleased with the way it turned out. It can be explored in great detail in two parts at 

Explore the interactive version here!

(Next week: part 2)

Monday, November 18, 2013

"Loud Lovin’"
Rochester, NY (9/10/13)

Find my photos here.
The Henrietta Red Roof Inn was my home for the night. After a long day skirting the Lake Ontario coast from Old Fort Niagara to Sodus Point collecting lighthouse pictures, I arrived at the Rochester, NY suburb a little before 4:30PM. More than anything, I wanted to take a shower. I really needed to wash the day off! Sunscreen, sweat and record heat for Rochester (the Mini's gauge read 95° at one point) made the shower feel like my entire soul was being cleansed.

Afterward I settled on my king size bed to take a look at the local offerings for the evening. The city paper was conveniently located right next to the ice machine that I had stopped at before that cathartic shower. Options were typically sparse for Tuesday night. One club featured a punk band I knew of but didn't appreciate. The only other show this evening sounded a bit more intriguing, so I investigated the venue. Not only was it a great sounding, funky pub, it was only 10 minutes away – a real bonus given all the miles I already logged today. I called to ask if I could still get a ticket, dressed, and set my trusty GPS once again.

The Lovin' Cup Bistro was a very interesting place, oddly located within an upscale mini mall and adjacent townhouse and apartment development. It had an open layout with seemingly good acoustics. I was offered a drink, opted for my usual Makers Mark, and began to peruse the menu.

"DJ Tanner," a heavily inked young woman with a Meg White look, was old school all the way, from the vinyl on the turntables (Technics on the right, Genesis on the left) to the mostly obscure rockabilly, blues, R&B, and punk numbers she served up with a "Pulp Fiction" vibe. Later I told her that for all the music I thought I knew, she stumped me way more often than not. She guessed that she had somewhere between 1,400 to 1,500 records in her collection. I have her beat on the basis of pure numbers, but I also have many years of collecting on her.

The mix worked perfectly for the main act and the crowd. Segues did not seem to be a top priority, nor did they seem to be important. The jumping' jive of twists and turns added anticipation to the feel. You never knew what was coming next, but it was always dead on. In typical fashion, she ended her set with a song I never heard, "Why Can't I Touch It" by the Buzzcocks. Nice!

All the while I took my time with the menu, lingering over the bourbon that was lingering over ice. I finally settled on the "Me and the Bean" appetizer and, after a while longer, "Bell bottom blues " burger. I was hoping my table would also be my vantage point for the eight o'clock show. I enjoyed the ample garlic hummus and sweet red pepper coulis snack, and the wheat beer complemented the burger. On top of that, it turned out I got to keep my seat, so it was all good!

The headliner had a test pressing that he had autographed and was selling via raffle ticket sales before the show – like he took a page from the Band:Smart approach to real money made at concerts.

Barrence Whitfield and his band, the Savages, impressed me from the moment they did their sound check two hours before their show. Guitar, bass sax, drums, and a wailing Whitfield pounded their audience with a full-blown, no holds barred attack I was only vaguely prepared for. About three steps beyond dirty, they were at once tight and ragged--the embodiment of what rock 'n roll is supposed to be. My only worry was that my stereo wouldn't be able to support the energy level, or volume, displayed on this night.

As it happened the show was part of a series of benefits for Rochester's local music scene. The sponsoring organization, Bop Arts, is led by the owner of a great record store called Bop Shop Records. Tom Kohn served as the evening's MC. I admire his ilk. Like Cindy Barbers and her "Cleveland Rocks" organization, these are genuine people who pour heart and soul into helping local clubs and artists. I hope they are all successful, and I encourage all of you to check out the special events they produce.

Postscipt: Barrence and company appeared on a recent episode of "Later with Jools Holland." Look for it, as they rerun the program on both BBC America and Palladium.

Next Week: "Have a Cigar (part 1)