Thursday, March 27, 2014

Michael Jackson The Immortal Tour - Cirque de Soleil

Desiree Bassett (non-Cirque de Soleil)
Julia goes to various events with one of her teen groups, and the most recent one was to see Cirque de Soleil's "Michael Jackson the Immoral Tour" last night in Philadelphia. None of us had ever seen a Cirque de Soleil show, but everybody seems to rave about them, so we all got tickets and went.

I wasn't sure exactly what to expect, but assumed there would be lots of acrobatics and costumes involved. As it turns out, that much was true, but it was different than that; better in some ways but a tiny bit disappointing in others. On the plus side, it was a live music concert with a full (and very good) band of perhaps 12 musicians. The costumes were nice overall, and in some cases very cool (such as LED light-up suits in the dark). The acrobatics were excellent, but somewhat predictable and got a little boring after two hours. The stage show was OK, with some bits that were pretty flat. The show relied very much on a ton of video shown on screens, dropdowns, pop ups and sheets all throughout the show. In other words, it was a Cirque de Soleil show. Despite a few lulls in the show, I can certainly see why people have so many good things to say about these productions.

Desiree Bassett in costume
The best aspect of the show for me was a terrific live band, with a very good lead guitarist (who I looked up after the show and found to be a 22-year old young lady named Desiree Bassett). I wouldn't say I am a big Michael Jackson fan, but there is no denying the amount of "everybody knows that song" music that he created, and certainly there were no shortage of great songs for them to pick from. It was Greatest Hits in a way, and performed very well, with a singer who sounded very much like Jackson.

I don't think I would have minded at all if they skipped the video, the costumes and the acrobatics and simply did the concert piece with the band front and center (instead of behind screens and in the dark much of the time). I understand, of course, that my take on this would be different from pretty much everybody else, who would not pay a lot of money to go to a Cirque de Soleil show and then hope that the acrobats and other performers would get out of the way of the musicians. But...

As for Desiree Bassett, there are a ton of YouTube videos out there of her playing with all sorts of famous people from about the age of 15 on. She certainly seems like a very marketable package; a very good musician with nice stage presence, not to mention attractive (although I can't say that the furry headdress thing from the show is really my thing).

A few video clips of Desiree Bassett:
  • Performing Layla in 2008 (at the age of 16)
  • Performing Peace of Mind with Boston in 2011 (at the age of 19)
  • In the 10 minute long Cirque de Soleil promo video (this clip also gives a terrific overview of what this show was all about). Bassett and her crazy fake hair are shown clearly, if briefly, during the Billy Jean segment of this video at the 9:30, 9:50 and 10:15 marks. Also shown in this sequence is Mariko, an electric cellist who was also amazing.
Despite being a late evening for the kids, they both loved it, as did Amp and I. We all had different favorite parts, but it was well worth the expensive tickets.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Painting Table Saturday - Mar 22 - Ceilings and Walls?

This week's update is a brief recap of a few different things, mostly not hobby related...

On the painting table this week is...a powder room remodel. OK, so that's not exactly the usual painting table update, but it is what's up next from a painting perspective. A while ago I started putting crown molding up in our first (ground) floor powder room, but never finished it. Over the last couple of days I have been spackling and sanding and installing some additional molding so that I can finally finish painting the room. This is the least fun part of the job (which is why it still hasn't been done after all this time), but we are nearing the end. The additional chair rail type molding as a band below the crown molding is something we decided to do to help hide the fact that the ceiling in this room is something akin to a potato chip. After having the bright idea of adding the crown molding, we realized that the ceiling and walls are not the slightest bit even or level. This creates bad corners and joins that will be harder to hide if the bright white trim is adjacent to the darker walls. The solution is to do a treatment similar to what the builder did in the living room and dining room - put an additional band of molding partway down the wall, and paint the drywall in between the two pieces of molding the same bright white semi-gloss as the trim work.

Crown with accent molding
By the end of the weekend, the trim is all up, spackling is mostly complete, and all that remains is some caulking and then the painting. The ceiling will get a fresh coat of flat white, the trim work will get a nice bright white semi-gloss, and the walls will get...we don't know yet. Before repainting the walls we may pull out the sink and toilet and re-tile the floor. But that is still to be determined, since we have never done tiling. But you have to learn somewhere, I guess...

We also have an older piece of artwork in a frame that is coming apart at the seams, so we made a new frame and have been staining and sealing that as well.

On the hobby front, there isn't too much to report, other than that the work on the last batch of German knights is proceeding (if at a snail's pace). I have assembled, primed and begun color-blocking a handful of lance-armed figures to go with the old ones with hand weapons.

I have also begun taking some old pieces of N-gauge model railroad track and roadbed and turning them into WW2 scenery pieces. They look OK so far, and they make use of some odds and ends that I probably would have simply thrown away otherwise.

Lastly, Grace and I have started to carve some hill pieces for my modular terrain boards. When in doubt, make more terrain...

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Painting Table Saturday - Mar 15 - More Buildings

Urban Sprawl
I haven't done much in the way of hobby stuff in the last week or so, but since I had the paints and larger brushes out from having painted the batch of buildings posted last week, I was able to plow through the seven new buildings I bought at Cold Wars last weekend in short order.

I used the same range of craft paint colors, so the new buildings fit in with the previous batch. Since the "village" was still sitting on the corner of the table from when I had taken a picture of it last week, I placed the new buildings around the edges and re-took the picture. The new buildings are five of the intact single buildings at left, right and foreground. Two new rubbled buildings for WW2 are in the back.

The biggest hassle with this batch was the fact that some of them were JR Miniatures buildings that were cast in a very plastic-y resin that wouldn't hold primer or paint very well. I think I can honestly say that this was the only occurrence I have ever had in all my years of painting where I couldn't get the primer to stop flaking off the pieces. I scrubbed with soap and water, I even used Goo Gone, but there is just something about this resin that is problematic. Eventually, by being very careful and glopping on primer and base coats, then sealing, then painting, then sealing again, I think they might be OK. But on the other hand it wouldn't surprise me a bit if the paint flakes off the first time I try to use them for anything...

This is a shame, as I really love the JR Miniatures buildings, but will now be hesitant to buy them in the future unless it is obvious that the resin has been changed.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Book Review - The Realm of Last Chances

Another book bites the dust. Steve Yarbrough is an author who I enjoy very much, and he published a new novel last year while I wasn't paying much attention to fiction books. The Realm of Last Chances (Borzoi/Alfred A Knopf, 2013, 272 pages) is the story of Cal and Kristin Stevens, a middle aged couple struggling with a failing relationship, career prospects that are spiraling downward, and a move from California to New England.

I liked this book quite a bit, and got through it in a few days. Yarbrough is always an easy read, and this was no exception. Thematically, it is very similar to his other works that I have read, and that, if anything, would be my only complaint. The flawed characters and their struggles were familiar ground, and while the setting may have changed from the deep South to Massachusetts, it didn't read very differently.

I always find Yarbrough's writing to be full of telling observations and finely crafted passages. The Realm of Last Chances did not disappoint, although I was too intent on reading to note pages...

"The process by which small pleasures had lost their power to deliver happiness was as mysterious to him as ever - maybe even  more mysterious, since their value now seemed so essential that only a fool could fail to grasp it." (p. 148)

Even if the material was similar to his other stuff, it was a great read. And what's the point in having favorite authors if you can't be pretty sure you are going to like their next work.

4 stars out of 5. Very good.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Les Miserables at Garnet Valley High School

Some videos have been uploaded from the Les Miserables shows last weekend. I think they are pretty good for high school (but I am biased)...

Master of the House

One Day More (Julia is in this one, back a big bonnet, over Marius's right shoulder [Marius's' right, not camera right]...)

Proud papa...

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Cold Wars 2014

The HMGS East spring convention, Cold Wars, in Lancaster PA, was about as brief a "fly by" for me as I have had at one of these. If it had been more than an hour from home, I wouldn't have gone at all.

As mentioned previously, this weekend is all about Julia and Les Miz, with shows Thursday, Friday and Saturday evening, and a Saturday matinee. Not perfect timing for Cold Wars also on Friday and Saturday, but a trade I would make any time. Having put in to take Friday off long ago (for the convention), I figured I would still have time for a shopping expedition if nothing else before returning home in time to help around the house while Amp and Julia went to the performance. And that's pretty much what happened. I left home at about 11am, arrived at noon, paid my daily entrance fee, shopped and chatted for two and a half hours, and was on the road home by 2:30.

I cruised the dealer area in search of something that struck my fancy, and in the absence of that, made a few useful purchases. From Old Glory, I bought a few bags of various figures (Janissary archers, and Hundred Years War militia, mounted command and mounted crossbows). From another booth I bought a half a dozen 15mm European buildings, both intact and rubbled. Per my prior post on painting buildings this weekend, you can never have too many buildings, especially bombed out ones for WW2 games. [The buildings I bought are separate from the ones I painted this weekend]

As is always the case, one of the nice things about the show was running into some old friends. I probably spent half my time at the show chatting with Ed Wimble of Clash of Arms games and Chris Parker from Day of Battle. That, and stopping by the Fireball Forward! game that I knew Leo as playing in at 2pm, just to say hi. Ed asked me to go out to Tempe AZ with him in May for four or five days to attend a board gaming convention and play a La Bataille de Dresden game against the original Martial Enterprises crew. As attractive an offer as that is, I doubt it is feasible. Bummer.

All in all, it was a nice five hour investment of time. Not exactly the optimal convention experience, but better than not having a chance to go at all...

Painting Table Saturday - March 8 - Buildings

This weekend has revolved around Julia's involvement in Les Miserables, and we have house guests staying with us (with small children) which necessitates take-down and storage of the painting table, so this week's update is somewhat of a change of pace. Since I don't have my usual painting table with access to all of my paints, I needed to find something else to make progress on other than the medieval knights I began last week.
First dark tan stucco base layer

Buildings are the perfect answer to this. I generally have some unpainted ones lying around, and since they are basically an exercise in layered dry brushing, I can do this in little ten minutes chunks at the dining room or kitchen table, in and around other things, with only one or two containers of craft paint needed at any one time.
European village

This group of 5 buildings is an Old Glory set from ten or twelve years ago, plus one JR Miniatures (old Architectural Heritage) building from their Bavaria or Prussia line. The Old Glory set was a "European Village" set that I bought and began painting about ten years ago but never finished. A few weeks ago I over-sprayed the set black to start over. The set consists of three blocks of three joined buildings each, plus a church. They are of a style that can be used for anything from the Seven Years War through World War II. Very useful to have lots of these lying around...
...and again

I would estimate that this group took a little over an hour to paint in total, which occurred in lots of 5 and 10 minute increments between Saturday morning and late Sunday afternoon. I used cheap craft paints for these, and probably used no more than 7 or 8 different colors. The stucco is a dark tan base with a couple layers of lighter dry brushing. The gray walls are two colors of medium and lighter gray. The roofs are dark brown highlighted with reddish browns, medium browns and tans. The same range of browns and grays was used to do the flagstones, grave stones in the church courtyard, and the yard areas in the different building sections.

The only thing that remains to be done before these can be considered completely done is to flock portions of the yards and then coat the whole thing with matte sealer for durability.

Not bad for an hour's work (ok, maybe an hour and a half...).

Friday, March 7, 2014

Do You Hear the People Sing?

Last night was opening night for Julia's high school spring musical - Les Miserables - so Amp, Grace and I were in the middle of the first balcony row (my seats of choice) for a prompt start at 6:30pm. These kids (...young adults...) have been working tirelessly since the Christmas holidays with after school practices and long weekend sessions. It has also pulled in Amp, who has spent lots of hours with the costume ladies, sewing, altering, distressing and revamping/re-purposing costumes and bits from previous shows (I will spare you all a picture of me modeling Thenardier's wedding banquet costume...). Despite having missed almost a combined two weeks worth of practice time due to all the snow storms and school closings, what we were treated to last night was simply amazing.

Bystander #2
There are only four shows in total; Thursday night, Friday night, Saturday matinee and Saturday night. The "Garnet" cast with the #1 leads performs Friday and Saturday nights, while the "White" cast performs opening Thursday and the Saturday matinee. As good as the "B" team was last night, I have a hard time imagining highs schoolers doing too much better than what we saw. And in six or seven group scenes, always on the right side of the stage, was my little angel, "bystander #2". Dressed in grubby peasant garb (hand crafted by Mom). And in the runaway cart scene, shouting out her one line: "Watch out!".

I should have prefaced all this by noting that the whole family loves music and musical theater, and that Les Miz is everyone's favorite (by far). Amp and I have seen the show three times in Philadelphia and once on Broadway (with Craig Schulman as Valjean one of those times). In January of 2013, we took Julia to see it with us in Philly (our time #4) when a touring company came to town after it had closed on Broadway. She tends to latch onto certain things, and Les Miz is one of those; it has been one of her favorite things for years now. Seeing it in Philly was a real treat for her, and when we found out the high school was doing it in her first year there, it seemed to good to be true. She knows the entire show by heart, and wanted to be involved. It has been a tremendous experience for her, and despite all the hard work, she has been on cloud nine for a few months now.

Some memorabilia
As for the actual show, I was anxious to see it, but wasn't quite sure what to expect. It's a long show, and not an easy one to do. The "school edition" turned out to be only the removal of a couple of lines in a couple of the songs. Other than that it was the full two and a half hours - not an abridged version by any means, and leaving most of the bawdy parts intact. Overall, I was amazed at the quality of what we saw. The sets looked just like the last time we saw it in Philly, the costumes were terrific, and the singing and acting was very good for high school. OK, so Valjean wasn't quite Colm Wilkinson, and Javert wasn't quite Philip Quast, but if they were, they'd have dropped out of school and been starring on Broadway at the age of 16 or 17. Sure, there were a few pitchy moments, but in general, it was fantastic, and exceeded my expectations.

And Julia nailed it. She hit her marks. Did all the right things. Played her tiny little part perfectly, and in the process enjoyed herself tremendously. I couldn't have been more proud, and happy for her. There is nothing like watching your child have one of those special moments, and last night was about as special a night as you could have. Brother Dave and his Darling Wife attended and brought flowers. She got flowers from us as well, and her Spirit Cheer squad coach dropped by in the afternoon before the show to drop off a third bouquet. Over the course of the next three shows there is a long list of others who will be going at least in part to watch Julia, so she is feeling like quite the little superstar. Which is how it should be.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Book Review - This Dark Road to Mercy

I finished a terrific novel a few nights back by someone who is a new author to me. The book was Wiley Cash's This Dark Road to Mercy (2014, 230 pages). This is Cash's second novel. The first, A Land More Kind than Home, received very good reviews, and if it is anything like this one I can understand why.

The story centers on the Quillby sisters, Easter and Ruby (ages 12 and 6), who end up in foster care following the death of their drug addict mother. They are taken from their foster home in the middle of the night by their father, a troubled man they barely know, and who had signed away his parental rights. In addition to being on the run for taking his children, he is also being pursued by a hired gun for something else he had been involved in. The plot is at times predictable, but then again most are.

It's a compelling story, told from the rotating vantage of three of the main characters. In some ways it reminded me a lot of James Lee Burke, or even John D MacDonald from back in the day (both Grand Masters of the Mystery Writers of America) - plot that pulls you in and keeps turning the page, an easy style that makes for an effortless read, and believable flawed characters that often ultimately end up likable (with a heartless evil guy thrown in for good measure). It is also reminiscent of another North Carolina author, and one of my favorites, Ron Rash. This is a thriller in a sense, but one that simmers rather than boils (if that makes sense), and I almost hesitate to call it that because thrillers often have the stigma of being less of a book than something that has pretentions to being "literature." No matter what you call it, this is a fine book.

4.5 stars out of 5. This supplants "...Oscar Wao"as the best book of the year so far in the early running.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Painting Table - Knights, Step 1

I managed to make some progress on these figures this weekend. I have blocked in new colors on all the horse trappings and riders and begun cleaning up some other areas. There is a lot of work left to do - shading, highlighting, horses, metalwork, detailing and heraldry - but this is a start.

In most cases, I took the dominant color of the old figure and selected a brighter shade of that color, picked a complementary color, and painted riders, shields and horse trappings in those two colors.
Step 1 - Color blocking

At this point, they already look much better than they did before I started, and are no longer the random mess of different colors they were.

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Painting Table Saturday - Mar 1 - Last of the Knights

When I repainted some of my older German medieval knights last month, I broke apart all the old stands so I could pick which figures I wanted to use first on the new stands I was making. That left me with the last nine of the worst looking ones lying on a tray on the corner of my gaming table. I would much rather be painting Ottoman sipahis right now, but I really don't feel like packing these guys away in a box somewhere to be half forgotten about, so I have decided to dive in and deal with them now.
Group 1

The paint jobs on these guys, the color choices and combinations, the terrible attempts at heraldry and some old chipped paint combine to make these a truly wretched lot. And the pictures make them look even worse than that. After inspecting them, and then taking and seeing the pictures, I actually contemplated throwing them away. That would have dealt with them very quickly. But I can't do that. So I'll be doing a complete and total repaint instead.
Group 2

Step 1 will be to block in new colors on every non-metallic surface. While I am doing that I will decide whether the armor is worth saving by touch up, or whether I need to repaint the metallic bits black and start over from scratch. Or I guess I could always strip them down to bare metal and start over... Hmm.
Group 3

While I am at it I should assemble some brand new lancer figures to add to these. And maybe a leader and banner...