Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Halloween Pumpkins

The annual ritual of pumpkin carving is getting a little more fun these days as Grace gets old enough to do more than just stay for the first two minutes and then walk away, leaving all the work for me. Amp had seen a picture of a neat idea for a pumpkin, and we tried to replicate it. It looked ok, but the pumpkins weren't quite the right size to get the effect we were looking for. Next year, I think we will try this again, having learned what to do and what not to do this year. The girls really liked the idea of the pumpkin skull coming out of the pumpkin head, we just need to get the right size and shape of orange pumpkin for the outside. The other pumpkin is Grace and Mom's traditional pumpkin.

Pumpkin skull explosion before:

Pumpkin skull after:

Grace's Pumpkin:

We certainly aren't pros at this by a long shot, but it is a messy good time.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

The Jinx is On

Well, since making fun of Hurricane Sandy a few days ago, the storm has slowly been making its way up the coast, offshore, but is set to turn sharply northwest. Inland. Right at me. It is being called a hurricane meets a nor'easter meets a full moon high tide... making for what they are calling a storm of potential historic proportions, with unprecedented flooding. Lovely. The most recent predicted storm track I saw had the eye shifting a little south of what they were previously estimating. I think it now passes directly over my house sometime Tuesday morning.

School has been cancelled Monday and Tuesday already, they have declared pre-emptive states of emergency in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The governor of PA and the mayor of Philadelphia, among others, are urging evacuations from all low lying areas, and that all non-essential emergency personnel stay off the roads. The amount of rain we could get in one day would equal five feet of snow. Yikes.

For those in the US of a certain age, I am starting to feel like the person in the margarine commercial (many years ago) who fooled with Mother Nature.

I don't consider myself a big-time weather worrier, but they have been talking this up enough the past few days that I am prepared to camp in my house with no power for days if necessary. Some of that backpacking gear might come in handy after all if we need to rough it in our own house. Non-perishable food stocks, water and juice and Gatorade, water filtration, all laundry done, battery supplies full, everything charged, cars gassed up...

An overcast rainy and breezy day today is supposed to deteriorate tomorrow throughout the day, peaking overnight and into Tuesday morning. But where and when the storm actually goes, nobody knows.

And now we wait.

Thursday, October 25, 2012


Well, the weather forecasters are happy. A combination of Hurricane Sandy coming up from the south, a big storm coming out of the west, and a blast of cold air coming down from Canada sets up the possibility (yet again) of the world coming to an end sometime late this weekend or early next week. Last I heard, we could get 3 feet of rain followed by 10 feet of snow all the while getting winds that will knock down any tree taller than me. In addition to canceling Halloween, we may have power outages lasting through Thanksgiving and jeopardizing the Christmas holiday season. Needless to say, the kids are not pleased. I have assured them that everything will be ok and that we will almost certainly be able to leave the house by New Years, provided of course that our french toast supply holds out.

I would stay and write more, but I need to get to the store and buy eggs, milk and bread before they sell out.

[PS (Fri 10/26/12) - Why do I have a bad feeling that we are now going to lose power for days?]

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Asia - Keswick Theater - 10/20/2012

I had the thrill of seeing Asia live last night for the first time in 29 years, and it was a great show. Amp and I had originally intended to see the show with The Neighbors, but after buying the tickets months ago, they realized they would be traveling and unable to go. Brother Dave and Leo filled in admirably, and all seemed to have a good time.

Steve Howe
This was only my second time to the Keswick Theater in Glenside, but it is a nice place to see a show - an old 1,300 seat theater (with a bar) where no seat is a bad seat or too far from the stage. One of the things that had me especially excited about this concert was the fact that we had seats in the sixth row, dead center. They turned out to be every bit as good as I hoped they would be. And the thought of seeing one of my favorite bands from my teen years brought back a lot of fond memories. This is the 30th anniversary tour, and all four original members were on board: Steve Howe (from Yes) on guitar, John Wetton (from King Crimson) on bass and lead vocals, Carl Palmer (from Emerson Lake and Palmer) on drums, and Geoff Downes (from Yes and the Buggles - Video Killed the Radio Star, the first ever video played on MTV) on keyboards and backing vocals.

After buying the tickets, I did some digging into what all these guys had been doing in recent years, and learned a bunch of things I didn't know. Apparently, Asia for the most part never ceased to exist in the 1990s and 2000s, but continued on with a wide array of non-original members coming and going. Albums that I had never heard of were released; people I had never heard of were in the band. But in 2008, the original lineup released an album (Phoenix). And toured some. And then released an album in 2010 (Omega), and toured some. And now have released a third new album ("XXX"). So they have actually put out more material and toured more in the last 5 years than they did back in the day. All while mixing in Yes albums and Yes tours, and Emerson Lake and Palmer reunions, solo and other small group projects, etc.

I do like the surprise of not knowing what a band is going to play at a show, but I was curious enough about this one that I cheated and looked up set lists online a few days before. What I could find for the prior few shows was pretty consistent from one to the next, so I jotted down the most recent one and took it with me. With one exception on Howe's acoustic solo original piece, it was dead on. So this is exactly what the show was, with my notes and comments (all songs are from the first album, Asia, unless otherwise noted):
Downes and his U-shaped 3-tier stack of keyboards
  1. Only Time Will Tell - This was not one of my absolute favorites from the first album (although I liked everything), but it was a terrific song to start the show with. Downes started in with the classical-ish intro, Palmer led Wetton in to establish a solid base, and then Howe came in over the top with an ethereal guitar line. It sounded just like... Asia. Probably my biggest "I wonder..." coming into the show was how the vocals would hold up. Their sound was primarily defined by lush keyboards and multilayered harmonies on the choruses. As performers age, the first thing to go is generally the voice, and I wondered how badly that might be the case here (as their ages run from 60 through 65). I was pleasantly surprised, and would continue to be throughout the evening. Wetton's voice was clear and strong, and range was not too much of an issue as his parts were never typically very high (so less upper range to lose). The harmonies were interesting (and very effective for the most part), and I am still not 100% sure how they did it. The only band member singing backup was Downes, but it sounded like more than one person. He was typically singing into a pair of mics, and I am guessing that they ran the signals through electronics that varied the end result just enough in tone and effect that one person became like several similar but slightly different people. Howe had a stand mic, but I don't remember ever seeing him use it. Palmer was singing along at times, but didn't have a mic. It worked fine.
  2. Wildest Dreams - A favorite and very well done. 
  3. Face on the Bridge ("XXX") - The first of three songs from the new album, and I liked it a lot.
  4. Time Again - Perhaps my favorite song because of the complicated instrumentals. I loved it. By this point, several songs in, I had lapsed into focusing primarily on Steve Howe. Being about 30 feet from him, I could see every move of his fingers with perfect clarity and detail, and I was completely mesmerized. We could see every little detail of everything down to the level of who was wearing what kind of rings on which fingers. Very very cool. The term that kept coming to mind watching Howe was "spider fingers" - long thin fingers dancing effortlessly up and down the fretboard. "Awesome" is an overused word, but I think it really can be called "awe" when your mouth is literally hanging open.
  5. Tomorrow the World ("XXX") - Another good new song.
  6. Ride Easy - This is an early track recorded along with the first album, which according to Wetton's intro, they wanted to include on the first album but the record company people told them not to. Wetton thought the record company people were wrong, and I agree. I have this on a 1990 "best of" CD and have always liked it a lot.
  7. (something Vivaldi) - Steve Howe acoustic guitar solo part 1. Stunning classical guitar piece, with Howe seated alone at center stage. He later said that this was Vivaldi, but I don't know what specifically.
  8. Bach Chorale Prelude - Acoustic guitar solo part 2. More beautiful classical.
  9. All in the Course of a Day - Acoustic guitar solo part 3. An up tempo contemporary piece. Fast and clean. I know I saw Dave watching with rapt attention through this part...
  10. I Know How You Feel ("XXX") - Wetton/Downes duo part 1. The third song from the new album, and another winner. Looks like I will be getting this album. Wetton singing by himself with only keyboards behind him showed that his voice was still nice and clear, if ever so slightly challenged in the higher range.
  11. Don't Cry (Alpha) - Wetton/Downes duo part 2. Wetton jokingly introduced this as the most popular song the band had ever done, and the one that broke them up back in 1983. I don't know the full story behind the breakup, but I do know that despite pretty much the entire second album (Alpha) having been written by Wetton and Downes, Wetton left the band prior to the tour for that album. The famous "Asia in Asia" concert video in Japan has Greg Lake on vocals and bass instead of Wetton. Whatever the full story is, and whether or not you can read anything into this song being performed by only the two that wrote it, it was another nice duo arrangement of a good song. 
  12. The Smile Has Left Your Eyes (Alpha) - Wetton/Downes duo part 3. This started out as a duo, but partway through the other two returned to the stage and finished up the song as a full band like on the album.
  13. Cutting it Fine - I remember this as being one of the less memorable songs from the first album, but the live version was really strong, driven by a good guitar line. I have to go back to this on the album and give it another listen.
  14. Holy War (Omega) - More new-ish music. This was probably my least favorite of the five newer songs they did, but it was still pretty decent.
  15. (Drum solo) - Palmer is known as one of the better drummers out there, and is famous for long solos with lots of acrobatics, and we certainly got one of those. We got tricks with sticks, gong playing, crowd interaction, and some fabulous drumming. The crowd loved it. I remember him doing something similar way back in the day, and I don't think he's lost much of anything in the intervening years. He seemed to be having an absolute blast performing.
  16. An Extraordinary Life (Phoenix) - Another newer song, and another really nice one. At this point I am planning on buying myself some newer Asia albums for sure... probably all three of them. This is the last of the newer material and it has all been good.
  17. Here Comes the Feeling - Back to the first album.
  18. Open Your Eyes (Alpha) - A longer song from the days of "everything will be 4 minutes long for MTV and the radio". Very typical Asia in terms of soft vocal bits interspersed with driving full-band bits. The difference between soft and loud is one thing on an album, but I absolutely love that feeling in the concert hall when a soft part dives back into something louder and you can feel the contrast through the air, through the floor, through your chair... The song had a nice long instrumental crescendo building to a climax before the band left the stage.
  19. Sole Survivior - Encore part 1. The crowd was on its feet for much of this, and the band really sounded great. I loved watching Howe on this as he played pretty much the whole song using a wahwah pedal. Great song. Which led us inevitably into...
  20. Heat of the Moment - Encore part 2. Not necessarily my favorite, but there was probably no way that this wasn't going to be either the first or last song of the show. The band really seemed to be enjoying themselves (Howe even looked up from his guitar I think...), and the main part of the song led into a house-lights-up audience participation segment. Cutesy, but a nice way to end the show.
Asia in 2010
And with that the concert was over. Two hours end to end, and I was thrilled; if nothing else, it reminded me that the kind of music that I liked in my youth is pretty much still the kind of music I like now. Songs with a nice melody, but also songs that can be musically complex and technically impressive in the execution. Now, as well as back then, Steve Howe is the single biggest thing that makes this band for me (much the way that he is a major reason I always liked Yes). In addition to being a fabulous technical guitarist, I like the way he fits into the band(s); he is not a standard play-chords-through-much-of-the-song-and-then-solo-a-little guitarist. There is chord playing of course, but much of his time is spent playing primary or secondary melody lines, descant parts, background soloing, riffs and fills, all of which make the music much more interesting to me.
Bleached out pic from my seat - close!!

Guitar notes - Other than the acoustic section and a few bits where he played a few bars on a second guitar (with effects) on a stand, Howe played the guitar in the picture above for the entire show. I don't know what it is... but I have seen pictures of him playing this exact guitar in much much earlier Yes pictures, so he has had it for a very long time (or an identical one). He used one Line-6 cabinet with two mics in front of it, and a few pedals and stomp boxes, but for the most part relied on a clean bright sound with minimal extras.

Great show, and you know what? I do feel young again... :-)

Friday, October 19, 2012

Moody Blues - Never Comes the Day...

Anticipation. I have tickets for my wife and I and our friends from across the street to do an overnight trip to Atlantic City to see the Moody Blues at Caesars Palace at the end of November. Having been to a concert last Friday (Rush), and another on tap for tomorrow night (Asia), I am very much in a live music frame of mind.

The Moody Blues have been my favorite band since high school, and I have seen them live at least a dozen times, dating as far back as 1982/1983 when they toured for The Present, and the opening act was Stevie Ray Vaughn and Double Trouble. It has been a few years since I last saw them (at the Tower Theater I believe), and I am anxious to see them while they are still touring.

A few recent YouTube clips of concert footage from this year:
It is odd to see my musical idols in their twilight years, a little saggy and with a pot-belly here or there, but that they can still do this in the vicinity of their 70th birthdays is amazing to me (Justin is 66, John 67 and Graeme 71). They might not be what they were, but when I close my eyes it is still Justin Hayward and the Moody Blues. It works for me...

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Guitar - Observations

Having spent a decent bit of spare time noodling around on my various guitars recently, I have come to the following conclusions (some relevant, some less so):
  • I'm not very good. Not very good at all...
  • ...but I do have a good feel for music. I just need to practice enough to turn that aptitude into the ability to play.
  • I have so very much to learn...
  • ...but I want to learn.
  • My Strat is a very very very nice guitar (yep, it's worth at least three verys).
  • The Les Paul is a very nice guitar.
  • The ES-335 copy is what I hoped it would be after all. Thankfully. Dreams die hard...
  • My technique stinks. I hold the pick wrong, put my fingers in the wrong place, hold the neck wrong in the left hand... some of which can be fixed... some of which, after 30 years of bad habits, will need to be accommodated for. On the bright side, watching YouTube concert footage of some of my guitar idols seems to indicate that their technique isn't text book either. This is a good thing.
  • I am thankful for Dave's experience in being ahead of me on the learning curve (way way ahead). He can drag me along with him, at least a little bit...
So... I am grateful for Dave, and for YouTube lessons, and just wish I had more time....

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Rush - Philadelphia - 10/12/12

Rush is one of my favorite bands, and I have been fortunate enough to see them twice before, both at various times on the Snakes and Arrows tour for their last album. They are touring this fall in support of their newest album, Clockwork Angels. The new album is somewhat of a concept album, and going into the show last night I liked it, but didn't love it the same way that I have the previous album. It is musically complex and interesting to listen to, but it is far from a "catchy tune singalong album". When this tour was first announced, Dave and I discussed going, as did my neighbor Anthony, but I was already lined up to see Asia next weekend at the Keswick, so concerts on back to back weekends seemed perhaps too much of an indulgence.

Fast forward to last week, when Anthony raised the idea again, to a somewhat lukewarm reception on my part. I wanted to go but still didn't know if I wanted to do another concert. Then we all went to the Bull Riding event at the Wells Fargo center last Friday, and they were advertising upcoming events heavily, such as Rush... We talked. I caved. We bought tickets on StubHub. And last night, off we went...

Show time was 7:30pm, which we both found unusual, so we left home a little after 5:30, and headed down to the arena. We got there before 6:30, and had time to listen to some Rush on the car stereo and have a beer or two before heading in. We grabbed a quick meal of stadium food (decent but ridiculously over priced, of course), and got to our seats promptly at 7:30, just in case they started on time. We were on the short end of the arena, second level; pretty far away but facing the stage head-on, which for a Rush show is perfect given the amount of video that they show on the huge screens behind the stage. Section 207, row 10, seats 8 and 9 to be specific.

The band took the stage after their usual pre-show video, and launched into Subdivisons, followed by Roll the Bones. Neither of these are favorites of mine on the studio versions, but both are very good live, especially Subdivisions, with Geddy Lee rolling through a nice fluid base line while playing keyboards and singing. I'm not sure how he does it. My jealousy knows no bounds... The rest of the ten-song (65 minute) first set was a mix of older stuff, such as Grand Designs, The Pass, Force Ten and The Analog Kid. One of the highlights for me was the last song, Far Cry, off of Snakes and Arrows.

One bit of between song banter from Geddy had the band promising a long night, and after a 15 minute intermission, they returned to the stage for the second half of the show. We had looked up a set list from a recent show to get an idea of what else the band had in store for us, and there were another 12 or 13 songs in store before an encore. The whole first part was basically the vast majority of the new album (nine songs by my count), backed by an eight piece head banger string section. It was a cool sound, and funny to see violins, violas and cellos rocking out behind the drum kit. As I said, I wasn't totally in love with the new album before the show, but I am after. It was amazing to see practically the entire album done live. The remainder of the second set was Dreamline, Red Sector A, a drum solo, and then two highlights of any Rush show, YYZ (their best live song for my money), and Spirit of the Radio.

After Spirit of the Radio, they left the stage for less than a minute, and came back to do a 12 minute encore of Tom Sawyer, followed by three parts of the 2112 Overture; Overture, Temples of Syrinx, and the Grand Finale.

As always, I left the show in absolute awe of the talent of these three guys, and the amount of sounds they can put out. It was well worth paying more than face value for the tickets, and I am very glad we made the decision to go at the last minute. My only complaint, if there is such a thing, is that they didn't do two of my old favorites, Limelight or Freewill. Or Closer to the Heart for that matter. Or The Trees. Or Red Barchetta. I'll stop there. The first two I saw on the last tour... The other three I have not yet seen live. Maybe someday.

Now that I am playing more guitar, and own too many of them, I watched what Alex Lifeson was playing with a lot of interest. He is a 100% Gibson guy. The majority of songs were played on a black Les Paul, sometimes with a whammy bar. A number of other Les Pauls were trotted out, including natural finish and a dark cherry red. For Far Cry at the end of the first set, he used a bright white hollow body, that judging from the picture here (under "Variations"), may have been an AL-355, or something similar. From what I remember noticing, Geddy use two different Fender Jazz basses, a black one most of the time, sometimes switching to a dark turqouisey blue one. I seem to remember way back in the day that Geddy used Rickenbacker basses, but not any more.

My sister in law posted a link to something on Facebook the other day that could never be more true than right now: nobody ever spoke their last deathbed words as "I went to too many concerts..."

Thursday, October 11, 2012

Vampire Counts - Black Knights

This unit of skeleton cavalry is the third complete unit for my Vampire Counts fantasy army. They were completed a month or so ago but I never posted a picture. I have enough figures to make another unit of these, and will paint those in a much darker color scheme. I like the way these turned out; I was going for more of an ethereal and ghostly look rather than a dark and forbidding look. The next batch will go for dark, dingy and dirty.

The completed part of this army now includes 10 crypt ghouls, 5 dire wolves (pics coming soon) and these 5 black knight cavalry.

A few more units and individual figures are in process, including a unit each of zombies and skeletons, another unit of dire wolves, a vampire lord to lead them, and a wight king special character. I have figures stockpiled after that...

Monday, October 8, 2012

Warhammer - Empire Knights

I have been painting a lot recently, but not posting much. I'll try to fix that over the next few days and post some pictures of what I have been working on.

Last night I put the last highlights on this small unit of 5 Empire knights for Warhammer fantasy. As I've said before, I like to mix in some different things beyond my normal historicals, and painting Games Workshop figures is enjoyable because of the tremendous detail on the figures. These obviously aren't painted as any particular unit as shown in the Empire army book, but I felt like doing a blue scheme with yellow and red details for interest, so this is what I ended up with. They were a lot of fun. I assembled these a long time ago and did the first stage of base coating and then stuck them in a box. During that time I apparently forgot something that I didn't notice until it was too late for me to want to do anything about it. They come with shields that I was supposed to glue on at some point in the process (after I had done the basic painting in the areas that the shields would make inaccessible). By the time I remembered it didn't seem worth the trouble.

Looking at the pictures, I will probably go back and add some highlighting to the flag, which I am not happy with yet, and maybe highlight the visible parts of the horses a little better. It's funny how the brutal honesty of a high resolution close up photo makes me want to paint better, or put in just a little more effort.

My next Empire unit will probably be 5 Pistoliers. I should do a block of foot, but I like painting the small units of mounted troops better. Or maybe a great cannon and crew. Or maybe the mounted general. Or maybe...

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Rodeo Weekend

Friday night, I did something I had never done before. And then Saturday night, I did it again.

Julia's teen group was going on an outing Friday night, and this time around they were going down to the Flyers' arena to see Professional Bull Riding on tour. When Julia was little, she used to love bull riding on TV, and there used to be one channel where she could find it fairly regularly, so she was very excited at the prospect of seeing it in person. Grace liked the idea as well, so we picked up three tickets cheap on Stub Hub and decided we would go separately. While I can't say as though this is something that has any real interest for me, any chance to get out with the family and do something different is always nice.

We dropped Julia off at 6, and grabbed a quick dinner on the way down for the 8pm show. In the car on the way, we laughed when we got a text message from our good friends across the street asking whether we thought our kids would like a cowboy hat. We texted back something to the effect of "we know where you are going tonight!" When we got there and got to our seats, there were maybe only 5,000 people in the 20,000 seat arena, and we could see Julia a few sections to our left and our friends directly across from us. We all had a good laugh at that, waving at each other like little kids.

As for the event itself, it was different, but fun. The bulls were amazing, and the riders were impressive. The riders were from the expected parts of the US (TX, OK, CO and NC), with many others from Brazil and Australia. I can't imagine how hard it must be to do what they do. They are the best in the world at this, and the vast majority couldn't stay on the the full eight seconds to register a score. There was one bull toward the end that was astounding. Most bulls seemed to fall into two general categories, at least to the untrained eye; the "buckers" and the "spinners." The bull at the end that had the crowd gasping did something I wouldn't have thought possible. It came out of the chute, bucked once or twice, and then jumped straight up in the air several feet off the ground. Vertical. Straight up like on a pogo stick. I still can't believe it. That was Grace's favorite (and mine!). She also like the rodeo clown.

We all had a good time. The music was loud, everything seemed pretty informal, and the crowd was treating it more like a party than anything, and most importantly the girls had fun.

Saturday ended up being something similar. The neighbors were going the Unionville country fair, not far from us, and we decided to go as well. The highlight of that show was to be the second annual Willowdale pro rodeo circuit event at 6pm. Unlike Friday, this event had 7 different kinds of things, including steer wrestling, calf roping, bucking broncos, team roping, women's barrel riding and bull riding (again). As the announcer kept reminding us, these were the best in the northeast US at these events, but on this particular night, the animals came out on top by a very wide margin. Steers wouldn't go down, calves wouldn't get roped, barrels wouldn't stay up, and riders couldn't stay on anything that was moving fast or unpredictably. It was still fun, although it was chilly and the sight lines at the temporary arena weren't very good. If anything, it made me appreciate how good the guys on Friday night had been after not a single rider in this event could stay on for the full eight seconds.

So... Forty plus years of my life with no rodeo, and then two rodeo events in two days. I can't say as though I am a convert by any means, but it was nice to do something completely different. The kids had fun and have asked if we can go again when they come back next year. I guess that a year from now, I just might be ready.