Friday, May 26, 2017

Viola, We Never Knew Ya

Photo by Eric Hays, Flagstaff Live
Flagstaff's Viola & the Brakemen
began as a legend written on a local mural

There may be a rational explanation but it’s nowhere near as accurate as the mythic one. And after numerous interviews with the members of Flagstaff country-folk-rock-something-but-definitely-not-bluegrass band Viola and the Brakemen, the only conclusion is the truth is murky at best. Just who the hell is Viola? It must be asked. There is nobody in the band named Viola, just as there was nobody actually named Jethro Tull. Well, actually there was. So Viola is even less so.

Is she a chimera, a mystery girl, a waif-like ghost skipping in the alleys of downtown just before dawn? We may never know. Did we ever know Viola? Of course not. Whatever the idea of Viola has morphed into, it’s now also a heat-stroked desert sound coming from the songwriting heart of singer-songwriter Brian White, a phantom that is only cool water cupped in our hands at Oak Creek—where White has written many songs—or from the high-altitude, non-manufactured melting snows where the Kachinas roam. Such a person cannot exist but can only be imagined when you close your eyes and listen to White’s style of musical breeze. He makes up the words for his songs for a band that “only make sense” when expert acoustic music is attached for the safety of the consumer.

“Viola is before my time, and now is legend,” says the band’s drummer, Matthew Tress.

White explains it this way: “Her name was Nora and she played the viola. I thought about calling [the band] Nora and the Brakemen, but instead used Viola to infer both definitions of the word. I like the contrast of a flower and the steel that makes up the railroad and in conjunction with the Southern Pacific Railroad position title ‘brakemen.’ We are asked all the time if (band members Kristin Straka or Jessica Ludwig) are Viola. They always respond by pointing at me!”

In fact, the band’s name has proved to be so evocative and anthropologically local that “Viola & the Brakemen” is now memorialized on the Route 66 mural on the back wall of downtown’s Lumberyard Brewing Co.

“The band name stuck when the Mural Mice (R.E. Wall and Maggie Dewar) added our name as a bumper sticker in the mural on Phoenix Street at Lumberyard Brewery,” White says. “At that point I took Viola and the Brakemen on officially.”

So the evolution of the band was a kind of collective happening, a stream-of-consciousness thing ignited by one fact, codified by local muralists, and now a part of the Flagstaff historic district landscape. The mural image is a kind of faded, half-shadow that’s tilted, naturally, almost upside down, as a barely stapled old band flyer seemingly petrified to the brick wall. At this point, even if there are still band show notices stapled on Flagstaff telephone poles that are older, it appears Viola and the Brakemen will be almost as permanent as the hot dog stand on Route 66 that inspired Jackson Browne to write “Take it Easy.” Especially as brick murals in the great cow towns and mining hubs in the American West prove to endure as the decades roll on.

In any case, that brick-of-an-idea Viola and the Brakemen is the brainchild of White, who among other things is a kind of cyberspace marketing and communications wiz, working on a Master’s in Education Psychology, and really knows a lot about trains.

“The inspiration for the name came directly from my father and his position as brakemen for Southern Pacific Railroad,” he says. “The brakeman was a position on the caboose. They assisted the train when stopping, but in the mid-’80s the caboose went away because they would add more engines for power [longer freight trains] and stopping. But if you were a brakeman at the time you would keep your title per union by-laws. New hires would come in as ‘trainsmen’ while anyone before the caboose was omitted remained a brakeman due to the difference in pay.”

Of the music, a key turn of phrase stands out, “flowers” and “steel.” The new music found in the various digital formats, including on Bandcamp, the real good fortune for White is the quality of the backing band, which among other things, features an experienced player on bass, Keith Gomora, who, with the train beats, keeps each song swinging into some funky places in unexpected ways. As a group they are impressive, with Straka on the violin and Ludwig on vocals and percussion, as well as the work of drummer Tress, whose family has a recording background in the early days of Christian rock in Florida.

The off-the-grid melodies of country-porch, hippies out in the woods playing Marshall Tucker songs, and yes, all of those references to Oak Creek and mid-Western farm life, it comes at you in surprising ways. White says he’s influenced by the Byrds, Wilco and even shoegaze, a more recent critic’s word for guitar-playing frontmen with so much focus on the pedals for guitar effects on the floor they are therefore staring at their shoes. And indeed, there is a very rich palette to the songs, which are steeped in a very Arizona twang and rich harmonies—especially considering White’s background growing up as a kid, the son of an original brakeman who was also a country musician, spending a lot of time at San Xavier del Bac church southwest of Tucson.

“I am an Arizona native and I was born very close to the border of Arizona and Mexico,” he explains. “My ‘playground’ was the San Xavier Mission and I believe this upbringing lends a hand to my Southwestern musical roots. I grew up roaming miles and miles of desert lands in flip-flops, flipping rocks over to check out the weird creatures of the desert in my youth and later taking motorcycle journeys through the Tohono O’odham Nation as I got into my teen years. I had 20 years in Tucson and 21 years in Flagstaff, and I have never lived anywhere else.”

In the final analysis, as far as the legend of Viola goes, in terms of the wake she left, there’s a warm comfort in knowing that somewhere out there is a band whose idea of “going to church” is playing long Sunday afternoons at the porch at Flagstaff Brewing Co. Shows no doubt muted with great frequency by the turbulatin’ of the engines and sirens along Route 66 and the river of trains running by.

~ Originally published in Flagstaff Live, Arizona Daily Sun

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

Asleep at the Wheel keeps it rolling along Route 66 for Museum Club show

Talk about one of the great band names in music history, Asleep at the Wheel is a national institution. The country music group from Paw Paw, West Virginia has been in perpetual motion since 1970, right as country rock was taking off for the Eagles, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. Even though they were a part of the hippie counter-culture at the time, touring as an opener for Alice Cooper and Hot Tuna and earning the praise of Van Morrison, they kept to the retro side of the country scene, doing authentic songs with an eccentric audacity, respecting a tradition that, at the time, didn't know it was an endangered species.

But now after 50 years they are one of the holdouts of the country traditions, recently releasing an album decided to Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, a legendary group from the 1960s known for pioneering western swing and conjuring images of raucous nights playing music behind chicken fence wire in dusty pool halls and small town honky tonks.

However, in recent decades, Asleep at the Wheel, since it is a national cultural institution, is more likely to play the swankier fine arts venues, such as the Musical Instrument Museum in Scottsdale, or, the Dell E. Webb Center for Performing Arts in Wickenburg, the Heritage Hall in Paris, Texas.

Band leader Ray Benson says even though the band has frequently been to Flagstaff, it's been a long time since they played at the Museum Club. The Route 66 connection and the history of Flagstaff's roadhouse venue is enormously important to the band, Benson says during a telephone interview from his home in Austin, Texas.
"The reason we are playing at the Museum Club is it's a nostalgic show," he says. "We haven't played there in 30 years ... With eight players it will be amazing if we all fit on the stage."

There is something ubiquitous about Asleep at the Wheel. They have been around for so long, doing shows year-round, they always seem to be a permanent marker on the upcoming concert horizon, and if you miss them now there's no doubt they'll be back again soon. In the imagination, they are that travelling troupe pouring out of the tour bus to have a bite to eat somewhere around Route 66. And this week, they will be driving several days from Decatur, Illinois, generally taking the direction of Route 66 from the Midwest to the Southwest.

"We will be doing sections of Route 66," he says. "This trip is going to take us a long way in the few days."

The group is racking up remarkable numbers. Benson says they are currently on their seventh tour bus, and even though the current model is equipped with internet, GPS and satellite TV, "They still break down from time to time." In addition to that, he says 90 different players have been in the band over the years, and with the exception of Benson, all of the current players are 30 years old or younger.

The band has won nine Grammy Awards and placed 20 singles on the Billboard country charts, including their highest-charting single, including "The Letter That Johnny Walker Read," which went to number 10 in 1975. It's a tune that needs to be heard on an old juke box.

The band went through a lot of challenges in its second decade, but emerged late in the 1980s even stronger after Benson took over as the band's leader. The albums "10" and "Western Standard Time" started a comeback for the group.

"That was the third incarnation of Asleep at the Wheel," he says of those years. "We had three female singers but I decided to take over as lead singer, since I was developing as a songwriter and producer. We had a hot band and a great idea and we put it together with 'House of Blue Lights.' "

The song sounds like a kind of mission statement, as Benson sings:

Lace up your boots and we'll broom on down
To a knocked out shack on the edge of town
There's an eight beat combo that just won't quit
Keep walkin' 'til you see a blue light lit
Fall in there and we'll see some sights
At the house of blue lights
There's fryers and broilers and Detroit barbecue ribs
But the treat of the treats 
Is when they serve you all those fine eight beats

By the 1990s they had found a groove and had become permanently recognized as traditionalist mainstays of country swing. In 20 years Asleep at the Wheel had gone from irreverent upstarts to being the keepers of the flame. That reputation was consolidated when, in honor of the 66th anniversary of Route 66, did a tour all along the remaining elements of the Mother Road, and their tributes to the music of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys won them two more Grammys. They kept touring in support of a second Bob Wills tribute album, "Ride with Bob." 

A play based on the life of Wills, with Benson, playing himself and meeting the spirit of the legendary country swing icon, was performed around the country, including the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C.

Yet another Wills tribute, "Still the King," continues to cement Asleep at the Wheel to the very ground floor of the country swing tradition.

"Its been an amazing ride," Benson stated recently. "From Paw Paw to San Francisco to Austin, we've seen it all. But, rest assured, there's still many exciting projects in the works. The Wheel keeps rolling!"

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The struggle of the California Condors of the Vermillion Cliffs of Arizona

John Sherman's view of a condor nest on the Vermillion Cliffs, Arizona

Flagstaff wildlife photographer John Sherman is on a mission. His subject was once on the brink of extinction. After being placed on the federal endangered species list in 1967, only 22 California condors were known to exist, and were extinct in the wild by 1987. But now 71 condors are alive in the wilds of northern Arizona and southern Utah. And Sherman has vowed to get at least one photo of every one of them. The point: to highlight the precarious nature of one of the largest birds in North America as they attempt to make a comeback from centuries of misfortune.

One of his new photographs demonstrates the incredible wingspan of a California condor, which can be nine feet or more. They are immense in size, sure. But there's also this: the largest birds in the wilds of North America are numbered with tags as well as GPS transmitters on their wings. These items make the bird appear to be some kind of football player, race car or at least racing plane, but these non-natural items are really indications of a species on life support.

That's because one of their biggest foes right now is lead poisoning from the ingestion of bullets not shot at them, but at the carrion they eat.

When a lead bullet strikes an animal target, it explodes into tiny particles. Thus, when a carrion bird, clean sweeper of the southwestern deserts, ingests those particles, they are in danger of lead poisoning. But copper bullets are different; when they hit the target, they generally stay intact. Just that one difference could mean everything for the survival of the California condor species.

The intention of Sherman's photography project is not only to show their odd beauty, but also their vulnerability.

"By showing every bird in the population, which is about the size of a deck of cards, you can put them up on a poster and see every one," he says. "By doing that I can divert people from the politics of condors and have them think about the biology and ecology. They are on a tipping point right now ... I hope I live long enough to see them without tags."

That one simple change in hunter's shooting habits in the protected area could make all of the difference. In most situations, in terms of protecting an endangered species, the issues can be far more complicated. Lead poisoning, which the birds are constantly being tested for, has been identified as the main thing that could prevent the condors from having a chance at self-sustaining survival. Lead shot in gut piles left by hunters is a big source of concern. Since the birds feed in groups, just one such carcass could potentially poison several birds. So hunters are being asked to not only switch to copper shot, but also to remove all carcasses and animal parts from the field.

"What does it say about us, as a species, if we can't make such a small sacrifice that pays such dividends?" Sherman says. "We really can get the lead out of the environment."

So far he has photographed 58 out of 72 (one, however, was recently shot dead). He has seen them at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, at Navajo Bridge on Highway 89A, and where they have been released into the wild, on Vermillion Cliffs, near Kaibab National Forest to the west and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area to the east.

Photo by John Sherman

Sherman believes by capturing every one of them with his long lenses, he can make a strong statement about how few there are.

"I would like to be able to make a poster that says, 'This is it. This is all there is. Help us out.' "
The "us" in this case includes the biologists who are constantly observing and tracking the condors. For nearly 20 years, program personnel have released low numbers of condors into the wild every year, with the last release this past September. Each condor, fitted with radio transmitters and monitored daily by field biologists, is the beneficiary of a special provision of the Endangered Species Act that allows for the management of their reintroduction in the wild.

Decades, perhaps even centuries of decline, due to poaching, lead poisoning and habitat destruction during the settlement of the West, led to the point of thie rnear extinction by the late 1970s. Then in 1987 all remaining wild condors were captured, then bred at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park and the Los Angeles Zoo. Captive breeding increased their numbers and now there are slightly more than 400 condors total living in the wild or in captivity. They have been reintroduced in northern Arizona and have since migrated into southern Utah as well (including the Grand Canyon area and Zion National Park). They are also being reintroduced into the the coastal mountains of central and southern California, and northern Baja California.

In 2006, a condor pair was seen nesting in Northern California for the first time in a century. A decade later captive birds were also being bred at the Oregon Zoo and the World Center for Birds of Prey in Boise, Idaho. Five years ago, the number of wild condors actually in California had increased to 100 individuals, with 73 more in Arizona. Three years ago, more than 200 of the estimated 400 California condors alive today were living in the wild.

The rugged Vermillion Cliffs provided every type of condition needed for the birds' survival, especially the ridges and caves condors need for nesting. But another big advantage is the isolation from humans.

For the average person, the best time to see the condors is in the spring and summer at the South Rim and Zion National Park. In the winter, they can be found at the Vermillion Cliffs National Monument, as well as along the Colorado River corridor near Marble Canyon. Perhaps the easiest chance to see them is on the Navajo Bridge. In fact, several of the best closeup photos of the birds that Sherman has taken were shot at Navajo Bridge.

Sherman says it's a pretty good haul by four-wheel drive, with some hiking involved to get the photo equipment near enough to the birds, but not too close. The birds are naturally curious, and fairly unafraid.

"They are impressive in their statures, but not that hard to photograph," he says. "I make the assumption that 99 percent of the time the animal knows I'm there. I approach very slowly, but only close enough where I'm within the comfort zone for the bird. It's not a success if the animal runs away when I'm shooting."

He says he acquired the patience necessary to photograph these elusive, rare birds in rock climbing and bouldering, which also require intense study of the object for long periods of time. "Bird photography is the bouldering of the photography world," he says. "It taught me a lot I didn't know about myself, in terms of the patience I had." Sherman first began shooting photos of birds during a trip to the Colorado River wetlands, and then moved on to shooting peregrine falcons, which he says are far more difficult to capture than condors. At one point, during an assignment on peregrine falcons, he wondered if it would be easier to shoot penguins.

He believes himself to be a "staunch traditionalist," which means he doesn't use tricks, such as putting out bait to draw the animal in, or bird calls to trick the bird into coming closer. Sherman only wants a photo of what the birds will normally do. "You have to be dedicated to spend time with them and when something happens, I feel so enriched the photo becomes secondary. It's like, 'wow, that's so cool.' I don't even care about the photo."

His ideal behavior, he laughs, is to take on "the physique of a ruminant," which basically means appearing to be as non-threatening as possible.

On the face of it, getting a photo of every single condor in Arizona sounds like a pretty daunting task. The birds can fly anywhere from 150 to 200 miles in a day, and tips provided by biologists based on their GPS positioning can only help so much. They might be reading at one position at that moment, but who knows where they will be hours from now across some of the most isolated, rugged areas. Sherman says it helps that they are numbered, and therefore easy to identify to avoid any redundancy.

"If you find one, you often find more than one in a group," he says. "There are not an awful lot of loners. The biologists told me there were two I would never get, but I did. So that gives me the faith that I can get the rest. It's going to be more important to track down the leads (provided by the biologists) when I get down to 10."

But it's a game he plays, and it keeps him motivated.

"I'm sure that when there is one left I will be thinking of that one as Moby Dick," he says.

Photo by John Sherman

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Howling from a rooftop: Sol Drop drops their debut album 'It’s Alright'

Just how prepared can three juniors at Northern Arizona University be? While the new college semester began with the annual arrival of daily parties and all the young dudes shouting over the din of giant stereo speakers, as well as the rivers of people running in and out of the bars downtown, the members of Sol Drop, a band that’s not even two years old, has been carefully hatching a plan.

This week they will be releasing their first CD, It’s Alright, at an album release party Friday at the Firecreek Coffee Co. In a carefully thought out marketing strategy, receipt of the new work will be included in the cost of attending the event. After U2 rankled the world of Apple users by automatically depositing their last record, Songs of Innocence, into their music player files, the incident, even if it did tee-off some music fans who simply didn’t like (hated) the band, did highlight the crisis of the ongoing search for some kind of new distribution paradigm in the age of the Internet.

In response to these kinds of issues, Sol Drop’s lead singer, guitarist and NAU honors student Kathryn Meyers, who is “leaning” toward marketing in her studies at NAU, decided to draw from the past.

“We are forcing people to buy the CDs by including it in the cost of admission,” she laughs. “I know Prince would do it back in the day. He’d give his new CD to people at his shows, and then by doing that he’d make it No. 1 on Billboard."

Sol Drop is a power-trio described by its members—Meyers, Sean Buechel (bass) and Brian Dorsey (drums)—as fast-blues. Meyers’ vocals are drawn from a kind of ’80s female punk weirdness, with snarls and yelps and extended phrasing reminiscent of anyone from David Byrne, Wendy O. Williams or to her several years of listening to the “Riot grrrl” genre of music of Sleater Kinney and Bikini Kill. But her playing is inspired by Jimi Hendrix. Meyers says she started listening to Hendrix as a young teen growing up in the Arcadia district of Phoenix/Scottsdale. From there she moved on to learning to play guitar by listening to blues standards by B.B. King and other blues masters.

“I was into Joan Jett and all of those women who came out,” she says. “That interested me, those women inspired me that way. A lot of people tell us that I sound like the singer for the B-52s, but I’ve hardly ever listened to them other than hearing the song “Rock Lobster.” I certainly don’t try to sound like the B-52s.”

As far as the “how-we-got-together” story goes for Sol Drop, it’s one of the better stories you could ever hear.

Meyers, who clearly came to NAU with the idea of starting a band in mind, had noticed Dorsey walking in a dorm hallway with a drum key on a carabiner. Then she asked if he was a drummer. He was, having played in various bands in Santa Rosa, Calif. She got his number with the idea they would later jam, then sent him a text message several months later. He didn’t realize who it was at first, but then remembered the connection.

The problem was, even if they wanted to play music together, they had nowhere to practice. It was pretty impossible in the dorms they were living in.

But then one day Meyers found a power outlet on the top floor of a parking garage on campus.

As Buechel describes it, “We took our stuff on the top of the parking garage and found a common place where we could play. We did it just loud enough with the drum set to where we could hear each other playing,” says Dorsey. “From just doing that we got some fans who came by to listen, and many of them have been coming to our shows ever since. Nobody told us to stop, for some reason. People really enjoyed it, which was cool.”

Meyers says that within a week of playing on the parking garage, they had their first gig at Firecreek.

This summer they went on a DIY tour up and down the West Coast, first starting in Phoenix, then going from Southern to Northern California, finally ending up in Las Vegas, where they played at a deli.

“We did 10 shows in nine days,” Meyers says. “We did one in a party room in a bowling alley. That was an interesting story. The owner cut the power on the band playing after us because they were too loud.”

During the band’s short time together, they have played at least 60 shows, many of them in Tempe, Phoenix and Scottsdale. Their new CD was recorded in Chandler, at an independent studio called Clamsville and run by John Herrera, who Meyers says has given the group “a lot of good tips.”

Standout tracks on the new seven-track CD include the opener, “Fake,” which starts out with striking punk guitar then leads into a very Hendrix-like section. Her vocals are bratty in the punk form. Another good song is “Rewinder,” in which Meyers’ pursues a bluesy chord progression, then sings in a snarling melody laced with sarcasm. Indeed, the seven-song release is a showcase for Meyers’ brilliance as a new young talent in Flagstaff.

Working the social media, especially using Facebook and Snapchat to keep in touch with their emerging following of say, 100 people, the band is trying to do all of the right things. For Sol Drop, there is a plan, with the CD, “ready for a couple of months, and now they are ready for the show,” Meyers says.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Social injustice and a nation's bad karma on a Sunday afternoon

Sometimes, not very often, the weird complexities of social injustice, as well as the contradictory reactions of people caught in this complex web of peace and violence, come right to your doorstep. And the moment of synchronicity is amazing enough to make you feel like the event must mean something profound. Such was the case today on a sleepy Sunday afternoon in Flagstaff, Arizona.

I had spent the day reading "The Apache Wars," by Paul Andrew Hutton, and had been moved by waves of emotions, usually disgust, sometimes tears, by the way Native Americans had been treated in the Southwest. At one point, after reading about the death of Cochise and the forced removal of the Chiricahua people to the San Carlos reservation due to the abrogation of a long-standing peace treaty, I decided to take a break and go for a smoke outside my apartment.

While I sitting on my chair, I looked at the stones in my backyard area, and wondered about how much blood had been spilled on them, or at least near them, in the 19th century. Then, thinking about the previous night's riots in Milwaukee, pondered on the lingering effects, all of the bad karma, born out the tragedies of "civilizing" America.

This story is true. You just can't make this stuff up.

Just then, I heard a kind of yelp. Then I noticed how across the street, some college students were sitting on the fence, taking pictures with their cellphones, looking at something that I couldn't see. Then I heard drums. Then I saw police cars coming from all directions, coming from the different adjacent streets to the main road. At first, it looked like a funeral procession was near.

Moving to the west down the street, escorted in front by several Flagstaff police officers, was a small line of demonstrators, the first of which were holding a banner that stated, "Blue Lives Murder." My first thought was how strange. How completely bizarre. The police were leading a parade of people opposed to them. I wondered how they must have felt.

More protesters followed, carrying signs with pictures of people, mostly blacks, who had been killed by the police across the country.

By this time, there were police cars everywhere, blocking the traffic, followed by a police cruiser with god knows how much electronic equipment. As far as I could tell, there were more police on this detail than actual demonstrators.

Once this procession passed, they went around the corner, drums beating, the police in escort. All of it peaceful enough, but laced with unfathomable irony.

It was definitely a combined Native American, Black Lives Matter protest. A railing against the injustices of our day. But I don't know exactly if what I heard next is right. As I said, I had been reading a lot about the attempted genocide of the Apaches. So, you can take this last reporting as purely subjective: As the chants and drums were going on unseen between myself and some houses, as they headed toward downtown Flagstaff, I swore I could hear repeated shouts, "Cochise! Cochise! Cochise!"

It could have also been "No peace! No peace! No peace!" But then, what difference does it make?

Saturday, August 06, 2016

Trump's chaos theory, the media elite and the looming one-party system


     Donald Trump's new economic team of 13 billionaires has been labeled as a potential threat to his populism. Of course, the corporate media has missed the point, as usual. His populism, a boxed-in mass of personality cultists, is secure, as far as it goes. The attempt to absorb the lower end of the middle class to form a Workers' Party, facing irrelevance in a stagnated global economy, is reminiscent of what dictators did in Russia, Germany and Italy during the 20th century.

     What media has yet to realize is that the Trump 13 is yet another cabal of radical power brokers, all of whom have proven a mastery for coming out ahead when the economic foundations of society crumble. We are witnessing a dangerous con of epic proportions. With the likes of these, it barely matters if Trump wins or loses the election. He is a calculating, reckless bomb thrower stirring up racial hatred to suit his aims because he believes that when it all comes crashing down, he and his friends will be the scum that rises to the top.

     That is the only way his Captain Chaos routine makes any sense. The social disease he has unleashed serves all purposes, as far as he's concerned. Is it about greed? Hardly. Team 13 is rich enough. You can already buy anything you want with a billion dollars, an example of how Caesar wept when all worlds were conquered. Is it about fanaticism? Surely. Is it about authoritarian control on an unprecedented scale? Bingo! The most chilling aspect of Trumpism is the idea of deportation forces for undocumented immigrants, a nightmare scenario conjuring images of the Nazi SS (Schutzstaffel), South American death squads, the Russian Red Brigades and myriad forms of ethnic cleansing.

     The Trump campaign is merely a symptom of a groundswell of failures among the GOP leadership that have been going on for decades. His candidacy is a rejection of the Republican elite. Trump's ascendancy as presidential candidate occurred because the other candidates in the GOP primary, a group of anti-democratic opportunists, played the waiting game too long for the past eight years.

     They were too easily tied to the failure of the Bush era, the disaster of the Iraq invasion, the discredited theory of trickle-down economics, deregulation of the banking industry and its disastrous corruption, too dialed in to big money campaign financing, all leading to the worst depression of our time. What we are witnessing right now is part of an organic process of a withering away of a ruling assembly who failed to show any willingness to legislate in the face of dire challenges facing the nation, from immigration reform to income inequality to the monstrosity of entrenched turbo capitalism.

      In this demise many Republicans were left with nothing other than the desire for a dictatorial authoritarian type, since their own party leaders were dithering on the job. Trump is the chicken come home to roost after an era of obstructionism.

    Unfortunately, if a splintering Republican party breaks up into two parties, a fringe-right and true conservative right-centrist holdouts, then the entire right is split into irrelevance. This would lead to a Democratic regime that would more or less lead as a one-party nationalist regime, since most likely it would pull the liberal movement further to the right as it absorbed marginalized ex-Republicans, only to alienate the millennials of the new left.

     Could we see the emergence of a four-party system, as the Greens and Libertarians gain mainstream acceptance? Not likely, or, at least, that could take decades. You need a 15 percent share of the electorate to even get on the same stage for debates. And the Fourth Estate, the media, isn't going to throw its weight into covering a 15 percent market share. The media will continue to ignore such parties until the economics of journalistic coverage compels then to do so.

     But dismissing third-party candidates is an affront to real democracy. When will the media oligarchs allow third-party candidates to debate on the same stage? Never. Or, if so, this could take more than decade. The positioning of the media elite depends on kissing up to those in power in order to gain access. It's a problem with the overculture. And Jesus, people who are insulting committed far-left dissenters because they don't like Clinton are just another face of Trumpism. But progressives won't be convinced by all-or-nothing group-think. The Democrats need to convince the left-wing fringe voter with something more than anti-Trump pragmatism, and meanwhile are playing a dangerous game by pandering to the disaffected right.

     Independents, in the meantime, can only drift as homeless news junkies trying to find a place to belong. Every Sunday they can wake up each morning to watch "Meet the Press" and "Fox News Sunday." Not so much because these shows include good reporting or insightful chatter, but because viewers need to know what the lies are. And then they can wonder: Why?

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

Music as Medicine: Summit Dub Squad celebrates 11 years of healing through hip hop infused reggae

     Each morning you turn on the tech with one eye open, the other closed, as if the day's reported disasters may be a bomb about to explode. The stress of the summer season's news has been overwhelming of late. But then you click on a video by Flagstaff, Arizona's own Summit Dub Squad, and you are brought back to the idea that there's nothing funny about peace, love and understanding. It's a video of a show at the Flagstaff Brewing Company and the band is playing. The song opens to the sound of sirens. So yeah, it seems relevant to the times: Panic in the streets! Panic in the streets! The reggae and hip/hop tune, listed as "Hopiland Winter," is quite democratic. The band and the crowd are one. Hopi reggae artist Casper Lomayesva is the guest MC, and then the band finishes off the tune with a heartbeat rhythm, bouncing bass and chinking guitar that flashes into blazes of effects. Everyone in the foreground is dancing, sharing drinks, waving their hands in the air. This is a real good act. There is hope. There is peace out there, freedom, fun. And after more than a decade, Summit Dub Squad is still around: something you can count on.
     "That's definitely a big part of the reason we play music, the healing nature of the music," says lead singer B Dub, one of the founding members of the Summit Dub Squad, which has been providing regular dub therapy to Flagstaff music fans for 11 years. "It's the positive vibration, even if it only lasts as long as the show."
     The core of the band started out as hip hop fans who were hanging out at a house in the Southside area of Flagstaff, until they had to abandon gathering at the place after it was damaged in an electrical fire. The hip hop crew moved on to playing at a house on Summit Avenue. Hence, The Summit Dub Squad was formed. That core group includes B Dub (lead vocals, acoustic guitar, melodica), Hunter E. RedDay (vocals, flutes and electric guitar), Dub Docta Paul (bass), and dj SOE (turntables, keys, drums, general percussion). At any given time, they may draw any number of musicians into their communal mix.
     Says dj SOE (Andrew Baker), "We have a show coming up at the park, and we have some extra percussion instruments so kids can come play with us. We can be just the four of us, but we've had as many as 10 people on stage."
RedDay describes it as a collective.
    "We were established in 2005 and it was a four-piece coming off multiple projects," he says. "It was more of a hip hop collective in the beginning. Our connection as friends goes back further than the band itself. We've kept a hardcore four and we have had numerous people come and go, and now it's evolved into this full-fledged group of people from the community who play with us."
      The band's description at pretty much says: "SDS stands for human rights and environmental justice in a time of insane corporate greed, utilizing roots reggae and positive hiphop music as the channel to chant down babylon!" According to RedDay, who was born in Tuba City, but then traveled around the country and became a fan of any kind of music "with a good beat and a message," their music has a strong connection to "the Hopiland."
     "The message of the music is local, but it's also very global," he says.
     The Summit Dub Squad presents a very good example of what people like to do in mountain towns. They are looking for social interactions that connect with the land, the sky and the shared resistance against the horrors of urban civilization (Babylon, aka Phoenix) and the persecution of oppressed peoples. SDS updates the traditional reggae of Bob Marley, Peter Tosh and Burning Spear, and B Dub sites the influence of KRS-1 and especially Public Enemy, a group which he saw at one of his first live shows in Phoenix in the early 1990s.
    "I believe, and the rest of the band really believes, music has a very healing quality to it, but people really undervalue that quality in music," B Dub says. "We put a lot of intention in peace, love, unity and respect."
     The title track to their latest of four self-produced albums on iTunes, "Rootsman Journey," features a snaking bass far more pumped up for the urgency of the times, and there is a forceful energy in the way the lead guitar races past the usual chinking of the style. The dub lyrics, as well, move quickly through the ears at a racing hip hop pace.
     "It's a high-elevation sound flavor, that's what we play," says dj SOE, another original "core" member of the band. "It's a lot of heavy bass and drums on a lot of songs. It's really influenced by the dub versions of Jamaican reggae, where you strip back the vocals, putting the bass and the drums and the effects up front."
     They play around 20 to 30 shows a year, performing at least once a month in Flagstaff, and have played on short tours across the Southwest. They have opened for Israel Vibration and Lee Scratch Perry, who B Dub called the "Godfather of  dub reggae."
     The band has a real advantage that has helped them out in terms of productivity: they have their own studio on the fringes of town, in the Pinedale community.
     "I can't imagine what the cost to produce our albums would be without it, the way we do it," B Dub says. "Considering the amount of time we spend on things, it's a huge advantage. We can produce an entire album over the course of a year, and it creates a momentum for us where we can really celebrate our album release parties."
    The eleventh year of the band finds each of the "core four" celebrating how long they have lasted as a group, and how big of a community of musicians they represent. All healing is local, the members say, and no one in the band mentioned anything about getting signed to a major label, or other types of future, fame or glory. They are performing a necessary service in Flagstaff, offering good vibrations. There are few reggae bands in Flagstaff right now, and that includes the Yotis, and dj SOE plays in both of them. So that service is kind of rare.
     "The more the world has reggae music, the better the world is going to be," he says.
As RedDay says, "We aren't trying to take over. We just ride the wave. We're still here. We are needed."

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Friday, July 29, 2016

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Sunday, January 24, 2016

Goldwater Institutionalized

Most recent news from Arizona's politics includes bills being discussed in the state legislature to allow guns to be carried on college campuses. The curious irony in northern Arizona is the best-known appearance of hand guns resulted in a deadly shooting on the campus of Northern Arizona University. The basis for this wave of open carry stuff is, of course, the Second Amendment, built upon the premise, among other things, that a militia would be needed to remain armed in case, say, the British came back. And in the case of the shooting right down the street, it turned out it wasn't a British invasion, but a fleet of television trucks to display what, exactly? is the benefit of having guns on campus. But extremism is ... blah, blah, blah ...

If you follow this flintlock musket policy initiative to a few logical implications, all part of a Barry Goldwater meme buried like valley fever in the sands of the Southwest, then the sovereign principality of Arizona should send away all federal employees, including the military and border patrol. Then it can establish its own constitution, supreme court, and enforce what it really has in mind, a rigidly biblical caliphate where everyone should be carrying a rifle to everything.

Arizona voters are the first to blame for the apparent dysfunction of this crew. But rather than voting out the designers of the budget crisis, a governor was put in to reinvent the wheel. And Goldwater Institute goons were brought in to be the "yes" men. Sounds like the crunch over school funds is just the tip of the iceberg since these designers, not being scientists, won't embrace the wheel until more research comes in. It's good advice to keep following the money for all kinds of categories as the radicals seek to privatize law enforcement, prisons, social safety nets or hand over public lands to developers. They seem to be intent on handing over government programs to a legion of mercenaries, reintroducing a system that we haven't seen since the 19th century, or, in some cases, the Middle Ages. It's becoming a cruel world, indeed. Which is why, I suppose, all of these rifles are needed.

The Goldwater Institute, hunkered down in the melted money mounts of Paradise Valley, is a menace to compassionate governance. If we had listened to that bunch, there would be no light rail system in the Valley. It's an anti-union, anti public healthcare think tank for the tax dodging cronies of the New Capitalism, replacing social ideals fought for across the Western World with a new religion called "profit." We haven't seen this wave greed hounds since the Reagan era, and now the fate of the 99 percent is at their mercy.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

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