Thursday, March 15, 2018

Baseball Is (Almost) Back! (2018 Edition)

Just like last year, here I write yet another paean to my most beloved of sports as it gets ready to join us in emerging from a long, cold, seemingly never-ending winter. As it does every year, baseball unofficially heralds the beginning of spring and the renewal of both warmer weather and your favorite team's new season. No matter how hopeless or bleak last season was, every spring brings no guarantees, but it does bring something all sports fan hold on to more than perhaps anything else: hope. Just as the newly begun year offers a clean slate, so does the start of a new baseball season. 

This year, I'm of course looking forward to what my Red Sox do this season, but I'm also excited to  watch and coach my kids. This spring I've got two daughters playing softball (one of whom will be playing for the first time) and a son playing baseball. My youngest daughter is playing softball for the first time (she tried tee-ball a couple of years ago) so it will be fun to watch her learn the sport. My oldest daughter is playing on two teams, a travel team and a rec team, and my son is also doing the two team thing (travel and rec). Both of them have been playing a while and put in a lot of extra work outside of practices and games. They're both very good and I'm excited to watch them play and cheer them on (and in the case of my son, I also get to coach him).

What about the Red Sox? By most measures they had a successful 2017, winning 93 games and their division in a carbon copy of 2016. However, just like they were in 2016, they were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs, this time in four games to the eventual World Series champion Houston Astros. Last season's team had a huge power vacuum in the first season following David Ortiz' retirement...they were last in the league in home runs and scoring. Several of their excellent young players (Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley, Xander Bogaerts) also had down seasons. However, Andrew Benintendi in his full rookie season was a revelation on offense and defense, and Rafael Devers showed in a few months that he will be another strong young addition to the lineup in 2018. I'm looking at their young stars to rebound and, combined with the free agent signing of slugger J.D. Martinez, the offense should get back to being close to what it was in 2016. Last season's pitching was surprisingly good overall, even with the regression of 2016 Cy Young winner Rick Porcello and the loss of David Price to injury. Newcomer Chris Sale led the way last year, leading the league in strikeouts and being dominant all season before fading in August and September. I'm looking for the pitching to stay strong, hopefully injury free (looking at you, Drew Pomeranz and David Price), and more consistent (especially the bullpen). In general, though, I'm most looking forward to a better attitude from the players which I believe that will happen since there is a new skipper. Perhaps the biggest change the Red Sox made in the offseason was at manager. They fired John Farrell, who despite "leading" the Sox to victory in the 2013 World Series, was never an inspiring leader or fan favorite. Much of the malaise around the team last season was due to his history of poor in-game management, coddling of the players, and his general unimpressive leadership demeanor in the dugout and off the field. There were also team chemistry issues with many of the players, mainly Dustin Pedroia and especially David Price. New manager Alex Cora was a member of the 2007 champion Red Sox and was a bench coach on last seasons champion Houston Astros. He's young, exciting, and brings a different style of leadership to the Red Sox clubhouse which, after last season, is sorely needed. Here's hoping that the attitude in the dugout and on the field improves and these guys focus more on winning ballgames and having fun, and less on what fans and the media is saying about them. Boston is a notoriously tough market for any athlete in any sport, but since Cora played here, he'll know how to navigate it and keep the team on an even keel. I just have a good feeling about him.

Even with the retooled and loaded (at least offensively) Yankees, I'm looking for the Red Sox to be right in the thick of things this season. Spring Training is in full swing and as the weather finally starts to warm up (at least where I'm living now...winter is certainly showing no signs of going away back home in New England) and as Opening Day gets closer, I feel the same way I do every year when baseball is almost a little kid who can't wait for the season to start.

Friday, March 9, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Beatles Gear: The Ultimate Edition

Ever since I first started playing the guitar when I was ten years old, I've been fascinated by musical gear. Guitars, basses, drums, amplifiers, effects...for me, it's gear porn (if you'll pardon the metaphor). In those long-ago years of my youth almost thirty years ago, as I listened to records by the Beatles, the Who, the Stones, the Kinks, Jimi Hendrix, Cream, Led Zeppelin, and others, I would not only pore over the album art and liner notes, but I would also pay special attention to the instruments and equipment they were using. Any time I'd look at a photograph or watch footage of my favorite bands, whether they be classic rock from the 1960s and 1970s or the alternative American and British rock I grew up listening to in the 1980s and 1990s, I'd pay almost as much attention to the gear as I did the music. The Beatles' gear, in particular, always interested me and I lusted after their guitars and basses for years (in particular Rickenbacker guitars and Vox amps, both of which I finally got my hands on in my 20s). When the first edition of Beatles Gear showed up years ago, I knew it was a book right up my alley. With the recent publication of the Ultimate Edition of this book, I knew it was one I had to check out and add to my Beatles library. As you'll see from this review, I wasn't disappointed and you won't be, either.

Andy Babiuk has written a few editions of Beatles Gear over the years, but this newest and final Ultimate Edition is the most up-to-date and comprehensive of them all. Having spent years of research and careful study of the instruments, amplifiers, effects, and microphones that the Beatles used throughout their entire career on stage and in the studio, the author tells the chronological story of the Beatles' career through their equipment. Starting with the very first instruments that John, Paul, George, Ringo, Pete Best, and Stuart Sutcliffe used when they started playing in the mid-1950s, Babiuk traces not only the evolution of the band's music throughout the 1960s, but also the evolution of musical instrument and (especially) amplifier technology. The book is broken into chapters dedicated to each year of the Beatles' career and tells the familiar story of their musical development as the 1960s progressed. Accompanying all of the descriptions of their gear are photographs of the actual instruments and amplifiers being discussed and used by the Beatles. If those could not be located or photographed, accurate replicas of the appropriate vintage are shown. Not only did the author do a copious amount of research on instruments currently owned by the Beatles and their estates, but much of his research has led to the recovery of previously lost or stolen guitars and amps. In particular, the saga surrounding John's original Gibson J-160E (bought in 1962), the gold-plated Hofner that Paul never owned, and George's cherry-red Gibson Les Paul "Lucy" (given to him by Eric Clapton in 1968) are fascinating cases in instrument sleuthing, tracing and solving the mystery of their whereabouts and who possessed many of them after they left the Beatles' ownership.

Delving even further, Babiuk is able to trace the usage of all of these instruments and equipment throughout the Beatles' career. Using photographic evidence as well as recording session documentation and interviews with the staff at Abbey Road Studios, the author is able to definitively state whether certain instruments and amps were used in the studio or on stage, and at which concert appearances or recording sessions. While I was familiar with almost all of the Beatles instruments, there were a few I wasn't aware of that I learned about in this book. Additionally, there were a lot of new surprises in the many cases where I was never aware of certain guitars being used in certain situations. Of particular interest was the research into the numerous drum kits used by Ringo over the years. There was a lot of in-depth research done on the evolution and usage of his famous oyster black pearl Ludwig kits between 1963 and 1968 which was fascinating (especially the photograph of him experimenting with a double bass drum set up during the White Album sessions in late 1968). Detailed photographs and attentions to detail, such as the fonts and angles of the Beatles drop-T logo and Ludwig logo on the various bass drum heads used through the 1960s are one of the things that make this book so great. If you're like me and discussions of things such as which type of speakers inside of an amplifier cabinet fascinate you, then this is the book for you.

Similar to the book on the Great British Recording Studios that I reviewed a while ago, Beatles Gear: The Ultimate Edition is pure bliss for those of you who, like me, are as into the technical aspects behind great music as the records themselves. Even if you're not as into the gear minutiae as some of us are, this is an enjoyable and interesting book on the history of guitars, amps, and drums as the technology evolved in the 1960s, technology that both inspired and was inspired by the music that was being created. The contemporary brochures and advertisements that accompany the various pieces of equipment are also fun to look at and show the difference between marketing in the 1960s as compared to today. Simply put, whether your a musician, a gear-head, or you just love their music, this is an enjoyable, educational, and essential book for Beatles fans young and old.

MY RATING: 10/10

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Rock and Roll Chemist's Baseball and Softball Gear Review 2018

***UPDATED with reviews for cleats***

I've written of my love for baseball on this site many times. Among all of the sports I'm a fan of, it's my favorite. I played it as a kid all the way through college and I'm now in the position of having children who play it. All four of my kids play (although my second oldest is stopping with this season to focus on other things). In addition to their rec teams, my oldest daughter and my son both play on travel teams, so as you can imagine we've got a LOT of baseball and softball gear in our house and we've gone through a lot of it over the years. Since we're always having to update equipment as the kids grow or things wear out, I thought it would be fun to go through what we're all using for this upcoming season. My thinking is not only would it be fun to talk gear with fellow baseball/softball players and parents, but also to offer some advice on gear that we like in case any of you are looking for something for your own players. Please keep in mind these are just my opinions based on my years of experience playing and coaching, as well as the feedback from my kids who are actually using this stuff..I'm not endorsing anything beyond what I and/or my kids like.

I'll break it down into categories like bats, gloves, training aids, and fun stuff. Here we go...


Louisville Slugger Xeno

My oldest daughter, who is 13, takes her softball seriously and works very hard it...we probably spend on average an extra four hours in the batting cages every week on top of her practices and games. Like me, she's loyal to Louisville Sluggers (I've been swinging their wood bats since I was a kid). This season she got her first composite bat, the Xeno, and the difference in her hitting has been incredible. She's hit for average with a bit of power but since switching to the Xeno, her power has noticeably improved. Quite simply, the pop this bat has is amazing...the ball literally flies off of it when she hits it and she won't use any other bat now. She's swinging the 32"/22 oz model and she absolutely loves the bat. It also has completely eliminated the vibrations when she hits a ball toward the end of the barrel. This is one bat I highly recommend for any serious fast pitch softball player who, like my daughter, hits for average and power. If you hit solidly for both, this is the bat for you.

Easton S300

I bought this bat for my son this past summer when he needed a new bat to replace one he'd outgrown. The price was right and this bat has a ton of pop. He used it this past fall and did really well with it, but I bought it right before the new USA Baseball bat standards were released so he won't be able to use it in the upcoming Little League season. However, he's going to be using it for his travel season since they aren't beholden to the bat standards. It's a good thing because even though his new bat for Little League (see below) is basically the updated version of the S300, it is much deader and doesn't have nearly as much pop. If you're looking for a great youth bat and don't need to adhere to the new USA Baseball standard, I highly recommend this one.

Easton S450 (USA Baseball)

Starting in 2018, Little League has changed the bat standards such that all bats approved for use have to adhere to the new USA Baseball standards. Having just bought my son, who is 8, a new bat over the past summer (see above), we were now faced with the fact that his bat, while still legal for his travel team, would not be allowed in the upcoming Little League season. Needing a new bat, we turned to the USA Baseball version of his previous Easton bat. My wife and I didn't want to break the bank so we went with this relatively inexpensive bat. My son really likes the way it feels, although both of us are a little bummed at the reduced pop it has. However, this is by design as the new bat standards were put into place so that manufacturers had to make the bats hit a bit more like wooden bats. As a wood bat purist myself, I like this although they've deadened the bat enough that it's a little sad. Still, he hits the ball really well with this and has been using it almost non-stop over the last month. It's a testament to how good his hitting is that there hasn't been much of a drop off. For the price, it's a quality bat and we've never had anything but good luck with Easton bats.

Easton FS50 

My youngest daughter is 7 and will be playing softball for the first time this spring. Having seen her two older sisters play for the last several years, she's dying to get out on the field and start playing herself. Since this will be her first time, we went with this Easton fastpitch bat that had great reviews on Amazon. So far, she's done really well with it and it learning how to hit properly. The bat is light enough for her to swing it and when she makes contact, she hits it pretty hard. It's been a great starter bat for her.


Louisville Slugger Xeno Fast Pitch Batting Gloves

My oldest daughter had worn out the pair of Mizuno Jennie Finch batting gloves she'd had since 2016 and wanted another pair. However, they didn't make them the same way they used to and there were some bad reviews in terms of their durability, so we needed to find something else for her. We got her these Lousiville Slugger Xeno gloves for Christmas and she absolutely loves them. They've got a bit of padding but not too much that she can't get a good grip on the bat. The patterned palms and fingers are textured and help with the grip and the gloves are very comfortable, flexible, and breathable. We were also able to get them in purple and grey so that they'd match her team colors. Hers are starting to wear just a little bit in the palms but she's used them almost every day since getting them at Christmas and it's very minor. For the price and quality, we've been very happy with them.

Under Armour Clean Up Batting Gloves

My son wore his previous pair of Franklin batting gloves out to the point that there were holes and tears everywhere. He needed a new pair but also wanted some that would match his team colors of purple and black and he's also crazy about anything Under Armour. After a little bit of looking around, I found these Clean Up batting gloves that come in a variety of colors, including purple and black. The first thing he noticed about them was how great they look (they really do!). He also says they're really comfortable and give him a good grip on the bat. Just from touching them, I can tell that they're really very well made. My son and I are both very happy with often does that happen? I highly recommend these gloves.

Mizuno MVP Prime Glove

My oldest daughter is primarily a shortstop and third baseman. She had a nice Rawlings glove that she'd been using the last couple of years, but she outgrew it and it was also starting to tear near the opening. We went glove shopping and as soon as she put on this Mizuno MVP Prime model, she fell in love with it. The leather was really sturdy but soft and it took her no time to break it in. She says it's really comfortable and so far, it's held up great through a fall rec season and fall travel season. Mizuno typically makes really good fastpitch softball gloves and we're both very happy with this glove.

Rawlings Sandlot Leather Baseball Glove

My son was in the same boat as my oldest daughter when the previous fall season had just started: his glove was wearing out and he'd outgrown it. Being a faithful Rawlings user going back to my own childhood, we went looking for a new glove for him and ended up with this one. It was a bit stiff at first and has required a fair amount of breaking in, but he loves it and says it's really comfortable. He also says that the palm has a bit more padding than his old glove so that he barely feels the ball when he catches it. He's happy, I'm happy, and I've turned him into a Rawlings guy just like his dad.

Franklin Windmill Fast Pitch Glove

As I stated above, my youngest is going to start playing softball this spring. Her only previous experience is a season of tee ball she played two years ago and the glove she used for that is much too small now. Add in the fact that she's left handed and finding a quality glove for her is doubly challenging. Luckily, my wife did some research and found the Franklin Windmill glove. It was inexpensive, nicely built, and very easy to break in...and they also make a left handed model! Just playing catch with my daughter, she really likes this and I expect it to its job well this upcoming season. I recommend this as a nice starter glove for any girl starting to play softball.


Nike Huarache Alpha Pro Mid

My daughter was looking for a mid-top cleat for a bit more ankle support, but she didn't like the look or feel of any of the women's softball cleats. She tried on these Nikes (which are men's cleats) and loved them. They give her a lot of ankle support but are light enough to not compromise her speed (and she is a FAST runner). Also, the spikes on the bottom are made out of hard molded plastic so they grip really well. I've been a Nike guy my whole life, from basketball shoes to baseball cleats, running shoes, and everyday sneakers. Up to now, my daughter had favored Under Armour but I think these Huaraches have changed her mind a little.

Nike Force Trout 4 Keystone

Mike Trout is my son's and my favorite non-Red Sox player, so when he found out Nike made a Trout signature cleat, he wanted to try them out. Luckily, they didn't just look great and have Trout's name on them...they were really comfortable. He also wanted a mid-top cleat for some extra ankle support (plus that seems to be the fashion lately), so the Trouts fit the bill. He seems to really like soon as we got home from the store, he put them on and ran out into the yard to practice with our return trainer!


Skilz Reaction Ball 

You'll also sometimes see this referred to as a "Jeter ball" since Derek Jeter endorses it. I first encountered this strange looking ball when I took my son to a baseball clinic at a local university a couple of months ago. They had a whole bucket of these and one of the drills involved rolling grounders to the boys for them to field. Because of the irregular shape, the balls take all sorts of crazy hops and bounces. This helps with training reflexes and especially with fielding short hops. Since my oldest daughter is primarily a shortstop/third baseman and my son is primarily a second baseman/shortstop, I thought something like this would be fantastic. After finding out what it was, I ordered one for myself and I'm not sure who was more excited to use it: me or my kids! We use this as part of our infield practice when I run them through drills and besides being a lot of fun, it's great to build the reflexes up for when hard hit balls take strange hops. If you've got a player who is an infielder in particular, or just want to improve your ground ball fielding skills, I highly recommend this ball.

Skilz Impact Balls

My wife and I bought these for our son for Christmas and while we haven't used them a lot (yet) since we've been limited to indoor batting cages, the few times I've pitched them to my son he's really liked them. The balls are the size of a golf ball and made up of half rigid plastic (the yellow half) and half softer black rubber (the black half). They're really good for working on hand eye coordination when hitting because of their small size and the two-part construction makes them durable. Also, these don't fly that far once they're hit which is nice because it allows you to see where your batter is making contact with their swing (and it makes picking them all up after easier since you aren't having to chase them down everywhere!). These are fun to use and I know we'll be using them more once we can move to practicing outside.

Franklin MLB Infinite Angle Return Trainer

If there's one thing we've bought for the kids that we've definitely gotten our money's worth from, it's this return trainer/rebounder. We bought it a couple of years ago and it's gotten so much use from all of the kids (and me!) that it's paid for itself many times over. We mostly practice fly balls and grounders with it, but my son also practices pitching with it. The angle of the net can be adjusted to adjust the trajectory of the ball coming back at you, and the speed at which you throw at it determines how far back it will bounce. It's especially good because it can be used individually or in a group. This isn't a new piece of equipment for our family, but it's one that we use constantly and which I would definitely recommend to anyone who wants to get more practice in.

 BoomBah Super Pack

After using a variety of bags the last few seasons, all of my kids have realized that with gloves, helmets, bats, cleats, facemasks (for softball), and the rest of their stuff, they run out of space pretty quickly. For the travel teams they're now on, my oldest daughter and son got team bags and luckily both teams went with the BoomBah Super Pack. They were able to get them in their team colors (but a variety of colors are available) and so far they've worked out great.  There's plenty of room for all of their gear in the top compartment, there's a reinforced bottom compartment for their cleats and shoes, room to hold four bats, and lots of other smaller pockets and pouches. In addition, the front middle panel is removable and can be embroidered with team logos and player names and numbers. All in all, we're very happy with this bag.



Who doesn't like wearing eye black? I always loved wearing it as a kid and even in college...while the jury is still out as to whether it really helps keep the sun out of your eyes, it's fun to wear and looks really cool. Over the last couple of years we've found iSplack and we really like it. It comes in a ton of different colors, is easy to apply, stays on regardless of how much you sweat, and is easy to remove without any skin staining. It's just something fun the kids like to wear for their games so they've each got a stick or two in their bags.

David Sunflower Seeds

These sunflower seeds are one of our favorite snacks, and not just for baseball and softball. The kids and I usually have a cheek full of seeds during games, when I'm practicing with my kids out in the yard, or even when I'm just outside doing other things like cutting the grass or yard work. Because who doesn't like salty snacks and spitting out shells?

Big League Chew

You can't have baseball or softball without gum, right? I used to love Big League Chew as a kid and now my kids love it. I do have to admit that the concept (shredded gum in a pouch to mimic chewing tobacco) is admirable in promoting a healthy alternative to chew, I'm not sure kids today understand it the way we did thirty years ago. Still, they have fun chewing it (and I still do, too!). When I was a kid the only flavors were original and grape, but now they have three more flavors: watermelon, green apple, and cotton candy. We like them all except for the cotton candy. We go through a lot of pouches of this stuff, and we also like the bucket with the individually wrapped round/baseball shaped gumballs. 

That wraps up my gear review for 2018. My intention all along was to share information and advice on the gear we like that's worked for us over the previous fall season as we head into the spring and summer seasons. I hope this has helped anyone who's been looking for any new gear and has been fun. Sometimes I just like talking baseball and softball gear and I know lots of other coaches, players, and fans out there do as well. I'd love to discuss with you further in the comments below and if you have any suggestions or gear you'd like to talk to me about, that's even better! 

In closing, for anyone who is getting ready for the upcoming season, good luck! Have fun! And last but not ball!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Will Weston: Meridian

Astute readers of this blog will recall that a couple of years ago, I reviewed an album by Will Weston called Heart of the Order. It was and has remained one that I enjoy listening to and reminded me that while the music being churned out by the commercial behemoth that is the music industry is cause for losing hope, there is still a lot of great independent music being just need to dig a little to find it. After a couple of years, Will Weston and his band are back with their latest effort, Meridian.
From his website

"Sometimes it's simply in the blood. Despite a detached upbringing in the tropics of Hawaii, Will Weston's adherence to music runs deeper, the son of two accomplished touring and session musicians and grandson of 1950's Hollywood icons Jo Stafford & Paul Weston. Now ten years relocated to San Francisco, Weston's independent releases have refined a composite style of equally funky & soul driven rock songs, with a truest affection for melody. A lengthy residency at SF's iconic Boom Boom Room in 2015 forged both a loyal support base and core group of players behind him, earning Weston a seat at the table backed by session musicians responsible for some of the top recordings to emerge from the Bay Area. Teaming with East Bay funk-addict Nino Moschella at his own Bird & Egg Studios in 2016, Weston locked in ten ambitious new tracks due out this fall, comprising his third full-length, Meridian."

The band: 
Will Weston - Guitars, Vocals, Percussion
Nino Moschella - Bass, Drums, Synths
Max Cowan - Fender Rhodes and B3
Cyril Guiraud - Tenor Sax

Below is my track-by-track review of Meridian.

1. Able

The album starts off with computer processed drums before the melody comes in with a relaxed and lazy (in a good way!) groove. That groove is really insistent and there are some tasty guitar licks throughout. Lovely vocal harmonies on the choruses, too. A slightly understated but no less effective opener and we're off to a good start.  

2. (Not) So Good

A fast picked guitar riff opens the song before the drums playing a stomping four on the floor beat and the horns come in. This sounds very 1970s jazzy/funky. There are nice falsetto vocals in the chorus which remind me of mid-1970s funk. In fact, the song sounds like cross between Steely Dan and Sly and the Family Stone (and that's a good thing). There's a great tone on the guitar solo...gotta love those creamy Strat tones. Great bass propels the song during the outro and the horns are just so tight. I love the falsetto "whooo hooos" during the end...a very nice touch.

3. I'll Be You

It starts off with some fuzzed out guitar and organ and a syncopated tempo that lays down sparsely behind the vocals. It sort of reminds me of latter day Black Crowes in tone and overall feel. The fuzzed out horns sound really cool and help this cut stand out.

4. The Shadow

A change of gears, this time to a quieter ballad. It reminds me of The Police a little with the arpeggiated chords. It gets really pretty when the strings come in during the chorus. The cello playing a countermelody behind the vocal melody is very effective and moving. This is one of my favorite songs on the entire album.

5. Subtleties

There's a brief countdown of "3, 4!" and the song starts. The  bass and guitar sounds great as the drums and strings propel the song forward. Will does some great singing here. It has a really great late 1970s/early 1980s pop/rock sound and feel. The chorus really soars with the vocal harmonies and the sweeping strings. The song gets even better with a great saxophone solo where the band really lets loose for a bit. The saxophone continues to lead the way as it fades away in echo as the song comes to an abrupt end.

6. Set a Course

Radio chatter from what sounds like a NASA flight introduce "Set a Course" before some choppy guitar chords and syncopated interlocking bass and drums come in. The synthesizer swirls echo the vocal melody after the verses and the string swells sound a bit eerie and quite evocative.

7. Carry Me

This is a slightly slower paced song with beautiful acoustic guitar textures and percussion. The vocals are breezy and the melodies and harmonies are very pleasant.

8. Avalon

Another softer tune, but again it's one of the best cuts on the entire album. There is some aching, echoey guitar in this quiet ballad that fits perfectly in with the sound and feel of the track. Very, very beautiful.

9. Wounded Pride

This song opens up with a slightly funky bass line accompanied by dreamy guitar and organ. It sounds like what a 1980s pop song backing sounds like played with real instruments (which is a very good thing!). It reminds me a bit of XTC in terms of sound and feel during the chorus. Weston's vocals even sound a bit like Andy Partridge, who is someone anyone would be proud to be compared to. The instrumental bridge has a gorgeous organ backing while some tasty guitar licks lay on top. The vocals toward the end of the bridge are call and response and heighten the tension. Hands down, this is my favorite song on the album.

10. Only Hope

It quietly fades in and mainly contains a dialogue sample (which is where the title comes from). A mournful organ backing accompanies the voices throughout. A bit out of left field, but a very moving piece and a haunting end to the album.

Meridian has a much different feel and sound from Heart of the Order, but it still sounds unmistakably like Will Weston. It's a more somber, slightly darker sound than its predecessor and has more of a slow-burning intensity to it. Please make no mistake, though, that these are not bad things at all! Rather, Meridian has a different feel and vibe to it than Weston's previous effort, but it's no less of a strong, cohesive album. While it doesn't have the immediate earworms that the prior album has, repeated listening reveals a lot of great melodies and textures that stay stuck in your head for hours afterward. This is definitely an album that rewards repeat listens.

If you like the samples you heard above, you can buy Meridian here, and if you like what you hear  then go see Will and his band if they're playing near you! As always, I urge you to please support independent music and musicians by purchasing their music, going to see them live, and spreading the word. The artists (and your ears) will appreciate it!

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Let It Reign

WARNING: I'm a lifelong New England Patriots fan, so if you're not a fan of the team (or if you're from one of the other 44 1/2 states that are NOT in New England), you may not want to read this. You have been warned!

As Super Bowl LII gets closer, I thought it would be a fun time, at least for me and my fellow Pats fans, to reflect on how impressive it is what the Patriots have done since 2001.

Since 2001, they have:

- had a winning record every season
- won the AFC East division 15 times, including the last 9 in a row (in 2002 and 2008, when they didn't win the division, they finished tied for the best record in the division but lost out on tiebreakers)
- appeared in 12 AFC Championship games, including the last 7 in a row
- played in 8 Super Bowls (2001, 2003, 2004, 2007, 2011, 2014, 2016, and 2017)
- won 5 Super Bowls in 2001, 2003, 2004, 2014, and 2016 (and lost the other 2, in 2007 and 2011, on last minute fluke catches)
- won 3 Super Bowls in a 4 year span (including 2 in a row: 2001, 2003, 2004)
- appeared in 3 Super Bowls in a 4-year span (winning the first two in 2014 and 2016, with this Sunday's game as their second back-to-back appearance)

All the while, they've been led during the entire run by arguably the greatest coach in NFL history and the greatest quarterback in NFL history (Bill Belichick and Tom Brady, if you didn't already know). That unprecedented run of success, especially in the salary cap era where the NFL strives for parity by pushing all teams toward the same level of mediocrity, has no modern-era counterpart. Historically, what the Patriots are doing is on the same level as what the Boston Celtics did from the late 1950s to the late 1980s and what the New York Yankees did from the 1920s to the early 1960s.

Putting it into an even wider perspective, in my nearly 40 years on this earth, the Patriots have been to a total of 10 Super Bowls, which leads all NFL teams. Their 5 championships put them at second most all time, tied with the Cowboys and 49ers, and a win this weekend will tie them with the Steelers for most titles at 6. As a Boston sports fan, I've been spoiled beyond belief in my lifetime, and especially so over the last 20 years. However, the Patriots had long been the black sheep of the four teams in Boston. Prior to the early 1990s, they were an NFL laughing stock and apart from the Cinderella run to the Super Bowl in 1985 in which they were promptly destroyed by the historically great Chicago Bears, a perennial loser on the field. The nadir was reached in the early 1990s when the team very nearly picked up sticks and moved to St. Louis before Robert Kraft stepped in and bought the team to keep them in New England. The hiring of Bill Parcells and drafting Drew Bledsoe, both in 1993, helped make the team relevant and competitive; they even made it to the Super Bowl again in 1996. But it wasn't until hiring Belichick and drafting Brady, both in 2000, that the seeds for the dynasty were sown. I won't bore you with any more of the details because if you're a Patriots fan you already know them and if you're not, you still know them and are probably sick of hearing about them!

In closing, whether you're a Patriots fan or not, whether you're rooting for them against the Eagles this weekend or rooting against them, I hope you'll join me in taking a moment to appreciate what they've been able to accomplish over the past two decades as this is a run we aren't likely to ever see again in professional sports in general and (especially) in the NFL specifically. Win or lose this weekend, they go down as the latest dynasty in American team sports...and with the way Brady is still playing at age 40, they may not even be done yet.

Friday, January 12, 2018

BOOK REVIEW: Riding So High: The Beatles and Drugs

Countless book have been written on the Beatles with just about every aspect of their lives and careers touched upon. While their music has obviously been most heavily covered, there have also been numerous books about their fashion, relationships, solo careers, and influence. Thus, any time a new Beatles book comes on the market, it has to be very interesting and look at the band from a completely different angle in order for me to be interested. The new book Riding So High: The Beatles and Drugs checks both of those boxes. In this book, author Joe Goodden has decided to look at the Beatles story through the lens of their drug use. Before anyone thinks that this book in any way glorifies drug use, let me assure you that it does not. Goodden states as much in his introduction and having read it myself, I can confirm that this is the case. It instead takes a scholarly approach at describing the Beatles' drug usage and how it informed and influenced their music and the relationships in the band. By remaining impartial and not passing judgments in either direction, the author has managed to write a book that is both informative and fascinating.

The central premise of this book is that the Beatles story is inextricably linked to their drug use, from their beginnings in Liverpool through the band's career, split, solo careers, and beyond. Riding So High is written such that each chapter is its own section dealing with a specific drug. There are chapters dealing with tobacco, alcohol, amphetamines, marijuana, LSD, cocaine, and heroin. They're laid out in that order as well, from least harmful (relatively speaking) to most harmful, which also follows the general arc of when they entered the Beatles' orbit (which itself is no coincidence). While the chapters about tobacco and alcohol are somewhat innocuous, it's starting with the chapter on their amphetamine use where the book really starts to get interesting and begins to put their career into context through the lens of their substance use. Beat poet Royston Ellis first showed the band how to extract the Benzedrine from inhalers, but in a new revelation, it turns out Jane Asher's father, Dr. Richard Asher, also showed this trick to Paul after he moved into their house in 1963. From here, the Beatles fueled their grueling nights playing for hours on end in Hamburg and Liverpool with German amphetamine-based diet pills called Preludin. As they became famous and the demands of Beatlemania began to punish them mentally and physically, they remained indebted to speed in order to keep pace with their schedule. Eventually, pep pills gave way to strong amphetamines like Black Bombers and Purple Hearts, both of which became very popular with the Mod subculture in early 1960s London as well as with the hip crowd and rock cognoscenti of the era.

The infamous "Two Junkies" interview during which John & Yoko are stoned (& sick) on heroin

Another big revelation in perhaps the longest chapter, on marijuana, is that contrary to the legend that they first smoked it with Bob Dylan on their 1964 US tour, they had in fact tried it as far back as 1960. However, at that time they associated it more with jazz and folk musicians and didn't seem to care for it; there were also claims from the Beatles and those around them that they didn't really notice an effect from it. However, that all changed after the encounter with Dylan, and if one drug could be said to have influenced the Beatles' music more than any other, it would be marijuana. It was certainly the one substance all four of the band members used for the longest period of time. All of them grew to use it habitually, none more than Paul McCartney. His many brushes with the law (including the Japanese bust in January 1980) became infamous and it wasn't until the early 2000s that he finally announced he'd quit smoking it. LSD is the one other drug the Beatles are most commonly associated with, especially during their psychedelic period in the 1960s. While again, all four of them used it, it was George and most notably John who were regular users. Ringo was a less frequent tripper while Paul was the last one to use it and only a handful of times during the band's lifetime. While LSD opened up spiritual doors for George that lasted the rest of his life, for Lennon his daily usage of the drug for nearly two solid years led to ego death, reduced productivity, lessened aggression, a lack of confidence in his abilities, and some episodes that can be characterized as drug-induced psychosis. The return of his "normal" personality after he ceased regular use of the drug in late 1968 was anything but coincidence.

Even more interesting were the two chapters dedicated to substances the Beatles used (and are associated with) the least . Cocaine was only really used by Paul during the Beatles years of 1967 and 1968 and he stated quite clearly that he didn't much like it. In the post Beatle years, the other three indulged in it quite a bit. As for heroin, while Paul tried it once, John was the only one who used it regularly, and he and Yoko became full-blown junkies shortly after beginning their relationship in 1968. If one drug can be said to have actually had an impact on the end of the band, it would be heroin. While there were certainly numerous other contributing factors to the split, heroin did play a part as it sapped most, if not all of John's enthusiasm, energy, and productivity as a Beatle. While he somewhat spuriously blamed the UK press and the other three Beatles themselves for why he and Yoko started taking heroin, the book does shed light on the fact that it was a few years into the 1970s before he and Yoko finally got the monkey off their backs. After the chapters detailing individual drugs are additional chapters describing how substance use affected the four Beatles' solo careers and lives from the split to the present day.

One of best things about Riding So High is that the author maintains an objective and dispassionate voice throughout, never glorifying, condoning, or making light of the Beatles' drug use. Rather, Goodden only shows how their drug use influenced their behavior, relationships, and of course their music. The book has a lot of interesting new tidbits that kept even a longtime Beatles obsessive like me engaged and informed (and with as much minutiae on the Beatles as I know, that's no easy task!). One common thread that ran throughout the book was the cautiousness of Paul McCartney. Alone among the four Beatles, he routinely was the last to try something and, with the exception of marijuana, was the lightest user of said substance. The author also does a great job of following each Beatles' drug use and the consequences of their behavior into their solo careers, from Paul's multiple marijuana busts to Ringo's alcoholism, George's cocaine binges, and John's out of control behavior during his "Lost Weekend" of 1973-1975.  Unique among Beatles book in the angle it takes in telling their story, Riding So High: The Beatles and Drugs is one of the most interesting and informative new Beatles books I've read in years. I highly recommend it to any Beatles fan, including seasoned Beatles fans and scholars. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I am confident any Beatles fan will, too.

MY RATING: 10/10

Friday, December 15, 2017

BOOK REVIEW: The Who: I Was There

The Who were one of what I like to call the "Big Four" British rock bands to come out of the 1960s, the other three being the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and Kinks. While these bands were and are still known for their legendary albums from that era, all four were also at varying times heavily touring and playing to fanatical audiences across the globe. However, of these four it was the Who who were the ultimate road dogs, relentlessly playing anywhere and everywhere throughout the 1960s and well into the 1970s. While the Beatles retired from the road in 1966, the Stones slowed to sporadically touring certain regions in alternating years, and the Kinks were banned from touring the US from 1965 to 1969, the Who started in 1964 never slowed down until the end of 1973. Even then, they played several large concerts in 1974 and returned to large full scale touring in 1975 and 1976 before taking 1977 & 1978 off. Sadly, Keith Moon's death in September 1978 ended the original line-up of the Who and while they toured from 1979-82, again in 1989, and have been basically touring nonstop from 1996 to the present, it's the original (and in my opinion, the only real) incarnation of the band the evokes the most awe for their live performances.
Continuing on in the same vein as the previous books in this series which document fan memories of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones concerts during their vintage 1960s/early 1970s years, I recently reviewed this next book in the series focusing on The Who. While the book is around 450 pages long, the first 410 pages are taken up with the Keith Moon era, to give an idea of where the focus of the book is (and rightly so). Starting with their earliest shows from 1964 in hotels, pubs, and small clubs and tracing their career to the stadiums and arenas they headlined upon become rock superstars in the late 1960s, the book contains memories (and memorabilia) from those who saw the band at all stages of their legendary career. As with the other books in the series, the gigs of the 1960s, especially, hearken back to a more innocent and inexpensive era for seeing top acts in concert. In additions to countless small gigs all over the UK and US before the band became megastars in 1969, some of The Who's most famous concerts have recollections from those lucky enough to attend. These include the shows at Leeds University in 1970, their Woodstock and Isle of Wight shows from 1969, their legendary 1970 Isle of Wight show, Monterey Pop in 1967, the Cow Palace (1973) and Boston Garden (1976) debacles, and Keith's two final shows at Kilburn (1977) and Shepperton (1978). Speaking of Keith Moon, a common thread running throughout the book is his kindness during interactions with the lucky fans who shared their memories in this book. While most people quoted in the book remember John Entwistle as friendly and Roger and Pete as hit or miss (either prickly or gracious), everyone who was fortunate enough to meet Keith couldn't say enough of how nice and friendly he was. There is even a story from a man whose father became friends and (briefly) business partners with Keith in the early 1970s. Being the self-proclaimed "biggest Who fan in the world," it's easy to see how Moonie would act this way with fellow Who fans. It's yet another thing that makes him one of the real characters in rock history and reinforces how tragic his passing in 1978 really was.

The final 30-40 pages of the book contain memories of concerts from the post-Moon era of the band, mainly the immediate 1979-1982 aftermath (including the Cincinnati disaster on December 3, 1979). Beyond that are scattered memories of the 1989 "Who on Ice" tour (as it's derisively called by many fans) and their endless greatest hits tours from 1996 to present. One such show in 1997 I was lucky enough to attend, and while I didn't send my memory in for the book, I wrote about it here on this can read it HERE.

As with the other books in this series, you won't learn anything new in terms of facts about the band or their music. On the contrary, many of the memories contained within have factual errors as far as which songs were played or when/where certain concerts were; I put these down to the length of time between the when the shows occurred and the fan recollections coming decades later. What this book does offer is another trip back to a simpler time when seeing a great live band only cost a few dollars, musicians were approachable, and rock was in its infancy. As it always should be, it was only about the music and the experience of seeing fantastic bands playing right in front of you. On those terms, The Who: I Was There is another fun time capsule and one any Who fan or fan of 1960s music in general should enjoy.