Eternal Questions

Some questions seem to be eternal ones.  Typically, they involve choices between competing views that are so obviously debatable, with good points to be made either way and strong, often passionate proponents ready to vigorously argue either side, that they’re just never going to be resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Think Beatles versus Stones.  Apple versus Microsoft.  da Vinci versus Michelangelo.  Star Wars versus Star Trek.  Einstein versus Newton.  The Gettysburg Address versus President Trump’s Twitter feed.

You get the idea?  So, is cone versus basket filter one of them?

This is a question I’m ill-suited to resolve, because the niceties of coffee brewer technology are lost on me.  Obviously, there is a difference between the basket and cone approaches.  One directs the water flow through coffee grounds that are configured to end in a fine point, and the other doesn’t.  The difference in approach and design apparently is so significant that, when you go to buy coffee from one of those high-end coffee snob shops, the barista will ask you whether you have a basket or cone filter coffee brewer.  In short, the cone versus basket debate even affects how they grind the coffee for you.  Why?  Beats me!  But I sure as heck want to get the coffee ground in a way that is most suitable for the battered, aging coffee machine we’ve got at home — one of the basket-filtered variety.

I raise the potentially volatile basket versus cone question because we’re thinking of replacing our coffee pot with a new one.  In the past we’ve had both cone and basket design machines, and to be honest I really haven’t noticed a marked difference in the quality of the coffee they produce, because my coffee taste buds just aren’t that nuanced.  But now we’re being asked to definitively choose, again — like being exiled to a desert island and being told that you can only listen to the Beatles or the Stones while you’re there — and I want us to make a good, reasonably educated choice.  And presumably one design isn’t definitively better than the other, because manufacturers keep churning out machines with both designs, leaving people like me in a quandary on this question that evidently involves significant judgment and taste.

Can somebody out there who is knowledgeable about the topic and pays attention to their coffee let me know the competing views on the seminal cone versus basket filter issue?  Simply put: why should I care?

Guitar Lessons

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In 1969, when I was about 12, my parents decided that it made sense for the Webner kids to take music lessons.  UJ and Sister Cath took piano lessons on the upright in our living room.  I didn’t have any interest in playing piano, which seemed kind of prim and stodgy, and it was the era of the early rock guitar gods, so I decided to take guitar lessons instead.  Mom and Dad bought me a basic acoustic guitar, and we were off to the races.

Of course, the experience was a disaster.  Sure, I wanted to play guitar, but couldn’t I somehow just acquire the ability by osmosis and by really, really wanting to play guitar like Eric Clapton? My teacher was a nice hippie-type guy with longish red hair and a straggly red beard — God knows how my uber-conventional parents found him in Akron, Ohio — but he was never able to motivate me to get past the dull, initial learning-the-basics stage to the actually playing a song you heard on the radio stage, and I was far from having the discipline to get there myself.  We started with some basic instruction book, and I quickly realized that I wasn’t really keen about practicing the exercises or the boring and stupid songs in the book and I didn’t have some kind of intuitive knack for playing music.  So I didn’t practice, and when I went in for lessons the teacher obviously recognized that I wasn’t practicing, and we both seemed to be okay with that.  Within a short period of time I quit the guitar lessons, the guitar went into the closet, and the dreams of rock guitar wizardry were permanently shelved.

It’s a familiar scenario for many parents.  Your child decides they want to take music lessons, or you decide they should take music lessons, you buy an instrument for them, and the experience is a dud.  They complain about practicing, you hector them to at least try, and ultimately the two sides reach an uneasy armistice in which music lessons are flushed down the memory hole, never to mentioned again. I blame myself for my guitar failure; I admittedly was a really crappy student.  But I also wonder if there was something creative that red-haired teacher of mine could have done to get me to the next step, where the enjoyment of playing compensated for the drudgery of practicing.

I thought about all of this when I saw an installment of The Daily Callus, an instructional program on YouTube.  My nephew, Miles Greene, is a highly regarded schoolteacher in the Oakland, California public school system.  He’s also an accomplished guitar player who, among other gigs, played the processional when my niece Annie walked down the aisle.  So it’s logical that Miles would combine those two aspects of his life and start teaching guitar — via the internet.  Miles’ focus is in teaching the tools of blues and rock guitar work, and The Daily Callus is the result.  That’s Miles pictured above, and you can watch him displaying his teaching skills — and I hope, subscribe to his teaching series — on YouTube.

I think it’s pretty clear that Miles is a very good teacher, and it makes me wonder if I should revive those old guitar god dreams, work through The Daily Callus installments, and see where it takes me.  Hey, where is that old acoustic guitar, anyway?

Harpsichord Heaven

On our last night in Maine we went to the St. John Episcopal Church in Southwest Harbor for a harpsichord concert by Gavin Black.  The concert benefited the Westside Food Pantry, which serves several of the surrounding communities.

Mr. Black played Bach’s Overture in the French style, which consists of an overture followed by a collection of short dances.  The piece allowed him to use both keyboards of his harpsichord and, through various minute adjustments in the position of the keyboards, extract all of the different sounds a harpsichord can produce.  Interestingly, he used a tablet device to display the music and “turned the pages” by means of a foot pedal.  The encore was a short piece by Couperin, one of Bach’s older contemporaries.

After the concert we went down to the basement of the church for a chance to talk with Mr. Black, who explained that a harpsichord is much closer, musically, to a lute than it is to a piano.  It’s an interesting instrument that produces lovely, distinctive music when played by an expert like Mr. Black.  It’s particularly well suited to the sinuous, complex compositions of the baroque era.

The little church, with a colorful (and sea-oriented) stained glass window above the altar, was a pretty spot for a concert, with good acoustics.  It was a treat to end our trip with some beautiful music and a chance to contribute to a good cause, too.

Tanking Ranking

When my friend Snow posted a Facebook entry about cleveland.com’s ranking of the 50 best albums of the ’70s, I initially resisted.

Typically, I find “top [number of your choice]” lists to be infuriating, and when a writer purports to do something like determine the “best” music of an entire decade I just can’t get beyond the sheer presumptuousness of the whole concept.  And, of course, these days such stories are obvious clickbait, right up there with stories about “weird tricks” to give you more energy or updates on how each member of the cast of Taxi looks these days.

712blvubef2l-_sy355_But, of course, I yielded, after Snow teased me with the information that the list put Dark Side of the Moon at number 10.  Eh?  If that Pink Floyd opus is only number 10, what in the world was ranked ahead of it?  So I opened the list and was immediately inflamed and enraged by pretty much everything on it.  Who was on the list, and how often.  Who wasn’t on the list.  And, of course, where albums were ranked, too.

The Stones’ Exile on Main Street as the number one album of the ’70s is a joke.  Two Black Sabbath albums in the top 50?  Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on the list, when it should be Honky Chateau?  (If you’re going to put Goodbye Yellow Brick Road on the list, why not put on The Carpenters, or KC and the Sunshine Band while you’re at it?)  How can you include Hotel California rather than On The Border?  How can you include Sticky Fingers?  And where’s Herbie Hancock’s Head Hunters, or Neil Young’s Tonight’s the Night (or Harvest, or Rust Never Sleeps), or the debut album of The Cars, or Pink Floyd’s Wish You Were Here, or Band On The Run — among others?  And does every top-50 list have to include nods to iconic figures like the Clash, or Miles Davis, or Bob Dylan, or the Velvet Underground, or the Sex Pistols, that all rankers seem to include as a matter of course to establish their rock critic bona fides?  And for that matter, when you’re presuming to do a ranking list, are we talking about artistic influence, or are we trying to acknowledge the great music that people actually listened to and that powered the decade?

The ’70s was the time period I was in high school and college, so it’s the decade where I spent the most time listening to music, thinking about music, and reading about music.  I’d go up to my room during high school and listen to albums like Deep Purple’s Machine Head (appropriately on the list, I might add), and music was always playing in my apartment when I was going to Ohio State.  By reason of those life experiences, I care about this stuff — and this list really sticks in my craw.

Next time, I’m going to stick with my inclination to not read these lists in the first place.

Guitar Riffs On The Tracks

The Denver airport has its good points and its bad points.  The bad include being out in the middle of nowhere, miles from downtown, with security checkpoints that always seem to be besieged with long lines of bedraggled travelers.

On the good side of the ledger is the fact that the Denver airport rail system tells you that you’re approaching a concourse with a guitar riff. It’s a snarling combination of quick chords, like the guitarist couldn’t quite decide how to wrap up his solo and just wanted to end it abruptly and get the heck out of there.

On some airport transit systems, you get ethereal chimes, or gently ringing bells, or even harp music to announce that you’re at the next stop.  Usually the music is something that is consciously striving to be soothing, like the airport managers are trying to use music calm down everyone who is crammed onto the transit system trying to catch their flight on time.  Not Denver!  No, the Denver airport train guitar riff has a distinct hard edge to it, properly acknowledging that modern airline travel isn’t exactly a soothing experience.

But I found myself wondering why, if you’re going to go with a guitar approach, you pick some anonymous riff rather than something that people will recognize — like, say, the epic first chord of A Hard Day’s Night, or the first few notes of Stairway to Heaven or Layla.  Maybe it’s too expensive to use part of a well-known bit of classic rock, but I’d be willing to bet that if you played one of these snippets about half of the travelers exiting the train would do so with that particular song playing in their heads.

A Hard Day’s Night seems like a particularly apt choice for the airport venue:  It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog . . . .

Classic Country

I love almost every form of live music, but I’ve got an especially soft spot in my heart for classic country.  These guys performed at a conference I’m attending, and they were terrific.  Give me a banjo, and a fiddle, and some tunes by Hank Williams or Johnny Cash or the Stanley Brothers and I’m a happy camper.  I’ll get out on the dance floor and show my appreciation, too.

You can argue about the best decade of rock ‘n roll, or whether Bach or Mozart or Beethoven was the greatest genius, but one musical point is indisputable:  modern country sucks and isn’t a patch off the George Jones/Merle Haggard/Patsy Cline/Tammy Wynette era.  Why did “country music” become some crappy form of pop music lite?  It was great to hear these guys play the vintage stuff, and in vintage style, too.

Beautiful 

Last night Kish and I hit the Ohio Theatre to see the traveling production of Beautiful, a show that tells the story of the life and music of Carole King that, in the process, sounds larger themes about American music and the ’60s.  It’s a terrific production that will be playing at the Ohio through June 11 — although given the packed house on a Wednesday night, I’m not sure any tickets are available if you don’t have them already.

King’s story is a rich one.  As a teenager with obvious musical talent, she decided she wanted to be a songwriter, which was not a standard career choice for girls growing up in the ’50s.  After selling her first song, she met her future husband, became a wife and mother while still a teenager, and with her husband wrote a series of hits, had an office in a songwriting shop on Broadway, and became friends, and friendly competitors, with another songwriting couple.  But while her career is soaring, her marriage became more troubled.  After it ended, she headed to California and wrote the songs that made Tapestry a landmark album.  The show ends with King back in New York, performing at Carnegie Hall the year Tapestry is released.

The story is told largely through songs — both those written by King and her husband and those written by others — with short bits of dialogue mixed in.  It’s fast-paced, funny, and poignant, all at the same time.  The staging is amazing, with sets silently sliding in and out and pop acts from the ’50s and ’60s cleverly recreated.  And, of course, the music is great.  Julia Knitel, who plays Carole King in this production, is a tremendous talent who plays the piano and has the singing and acting chops that are perfect for musical theater.

If you’re going to the show, get there early.  Last night the show drew a decidedly older and largely female crowd, and you’ll need plenty of time to steer through the forest of walkers, canes, and slow-moving seniors.  But we’ll give them all a break, because we know they all owned a treasured copy of Tapestry that they played over and over until their turntables broke, and when they heard the music again they were transported back to when they heard it the first time, nearly 50 years ago.  The intervening 50 years may have made the listeners older, but the music itself remains as fresh and vibrant as ever.