So I was supposed to start this new thing tomorrow where I wake up at 4:45 and swim for an hour and a half before work, but my veins are a-buzz with electricity and my ears are still ringing from what I’m officially declaring The Best Gig of My Life.

So it looks like the new plan will have to wait until Tuesday.

I’ve been waiting to see The Decemberists live for months, possibly years. Possibly since the day I accidentally fell upon “Red Right Ankle” and began my love affair with Colin Meloy. So much of who I am is tangled up in their music that they’re permanently enshrined on my ribs. And tonight, I finally got to see them on stage, in one of the coolest and most historic venues Nashville has to offer.

I knew going in that this gig was going to be fantastic. The first half of the show was dedicated to The Hazards of Love. The Decemberists, along with guest performers Becky Stark and Shara Worden, performed the album in its entirety. And when I say performed, I mean really performed. All they needed were props and costume changes, and they could have put the best Broadway productions to shame. The Hazards of Love is a rock opera, and their performance of it tonight practically made it into Jesus Christ Superstar.

There were lights and instrument changes, and Becky dressed as Margaret and Shara dressed as a jealous queen. There was (frankly terrible and improvised) choreography. They were dramatic and serious and, yes, energetic, but almost like they were just trying too hard to put on a show–and not as if they were the goofy, quirky musicians their fans know and love. Don’t get me wrong, The Hazards of Love was an incredible performance. And somehow, the story’s arc was more vivid performed live than listened to on the record. I was able to appreciate the album as something new and entirely different.

Colin Meloy posted earlier this week on Twitter that he was suffering from a scratchy throat. At first, it wasn’t terribly noticable. There was a little strain here and there, but when he started into “The Rake’s Song”, it was apparent just how tired and exhausted he seemed. Aside from that, though, “The Rake’s Song” was the highlight of the first set: in addition to John Moen’s drumset, Chris Funk, Shara and Becky, and Jenny Conlee all played individual drums in synchronization, under criss-crossing, spooky white lights. One of my least favorite songs on that album, it was performed in a way that made it haunting and eerie, rather than sinister.

When Meloy and Stark finally sang their last notes as William and Margaret in “The Drowned”, they took a brief intermission, and the crowd collectively heaved a sigh. It had been a very intense hour.

When the band reconvened on stage, it was to an uproarious crowd and with significantly more joviality on their part. The Decemberists, all quirky and nerdy and awkward and silly, had finally arrived. Commenting on the need to appease the “ghosts of Ryman Auditorium”, Colin Meloy wailed and warbled through several ghost stories in a row: “Leslie Ann Levine”, “Eli, The Barrowboy”, the double-suicide anthem, “We Both Go Down Together”. They played “The Bachelor and the Bride” and then turned autobiographical with “an undisclosed member of the band’s personal experience with a YMCA sports program” in “The Sporting Life”.

Meloy was in high spirits, indeed for his second go-’round. He had the audience on our feet, clapping and laughing along to “the worst song I’ve ever, ever written”: a hilarious four-line song about Dracula’s daughter. This was followed by the story of how, after realizing how terrible it was, God promptly shed one enormous tear, which splashed down to Earth and flooded the world, but irrigation systems were developed out of this tragedy and from the flood, the city of Nashville was born and God told country music singers to “go forth and be twangy”.

Next was “O, Valencia!”, to which I screamed and thrased along. And “Billy Liar” became an all-out romp as, for the closing “ba-ba-ba-dum”s, Meloy divided the main floor into “house left” and “house right” (“And if you don’t know what that means, ask the drama fag sitting next to you to explain the etymology of those terms. Because let’s face it, at a show like this, at least one person next to you is a drama fag!”) and gave us each our own parts to sing, throwing in a sort of “alley-ooop” for the participants in the balcony. He then conducted us, allowing us to sing in his place for several minutes while he narrated and encouraged and laughed.

When, finally, he gave the signal to cut us off after a rousing crescendo, Shara Worden and Becky Stark rejoined the group on stage for an amazing cover of Heart’s “Crazy on You”. Bows taken and thank-yous given, they took the shortest of breaks before coming back for an encore, hailed back to the stage by several hundred feet stomping and hands pounding on the wooden pews that comprise the Ryman’s seating.

The encore was brief, but wonderful. Colin delighted us by performing a new song, something sweet and tender about winter and January and much more like the Decemberists of Castaways and Cutouts than of The Hazards of Love. Though I was hoping for it, and really expecting them to play it, they never did play “The Crane Wife”, versions I, II, or III. Instead, they ended the show with “Sons & Daughters”, which was really quite perfect. And when they got to the last refrain, “hear all the bombs fade away”, they surpised us all by asking and encouraging everyone to hop on stage and join them. Nearly half the main floor seemed to take them up on the offer, and if it weren’t for my path being blocked on both sides, I would have been up there in an instant, too.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating at all when I say that tonight’s show was the best gig of my life.


In my literary life, there is love and there is hate. I rarely close a book and say, “Eh, it was just okay.” If I don’t like it, I put it down. But if I love it, I refuse to let go of it.

Almost everyone I know who has read or attempted to read Wicked, Gregory Maguire’s imagined, revisionist prequel to L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, has said it’s slow and awful and exhausting to get through. I’ve heard it’s disappointing compared to the musical, compared to the 1939 film, compared to Baum’s originial. I’ve heard it’s strange and bizarre and unusual. So when I attempted to read it last year, I approached it with that mindset. And I hated it. All five pages I made it through.

And then I saw Wicked on stage last weekend and figured it couldn’t really be that far off the book, could it? And if I loved the musical so much, I couldn’t really hate the book, could I?

No, I couldn’t.

It’s easy to understand why some people would be put off by the novel. The musical is sort of a mindless melodrama, with darker themes, yes; but the novel is philosophical, political, and haunting. It comes as a bit of a shock after all that singing and dancing. And so, yes, understandably, readers expecting Glinda to float around in a bubble are going to be surprised to instead find a pertinent discussion of human rights, power, and the nature of evil.

The scope of Maguire’s story was breathtaking. From the thoroughly imagined personalities of his characters (and they are as much his as they are Baum’s), to the details of Oz and it’s four countries, to the philosophies, mythologies, and allegories hiding just under the surface of his words. Fashioning characters and telling their story is difficult enough when the medium is strictly fiction. When it’s a fantasy world they inhabit, and somebody else’s fantasy world, at that, the talent required for an author to pull off that trick successfully is incredible.

A friend recently told me that he wasn’t ever able to develop any kind of concern for or relationship with the characters in Maguire’s world. I disagree, and personally, I loved the novel. I devoured Wicked in three days and found myself really attached to Elphaba. Part of it might be that I tended to share her worldview, part of it might be that I felt really and truly sorry for her. I think a lot of it was just that so many of the mistakes she made were not mistakes: they were actions with results gone awry, or they were careful decisions completely misinterpreted by the rest of the world. Elphaba’s life was a series of miscommunications, of missed communications, and a tragic lack of understanding.

Sure, she was haughty and bitter and even, on ocassion, a little mean-spirited. But never wicked, never evil. Essentially, that’s the question left burning in the reader’s mind when the last page is turned: What is evil? Is it, as so many characters in the book claim, an absence of goodness? Is it a tangible thing each of us are in danger of picking up? Is it determined by our intentions or our actions? And why was Elphaba so willing to assign the label of Wicked to herself?

He lingered at the door, and said, “The Lion wants courage, the Tin Man a heart, and the Scarecrow brains. Dorothy wants to go home. What do you want?”
…She couldn’t say forgiveness, not to Liir. She started to say “a soldier,” to make fun of his mooning affections over the guys in uniform. But realizing even as she said it that he would be hurt, she caught herself halfway, and in the end what came out of her mouth surprised them both. She said, “A soul–“

In the end, Elphaba is a sad, tragic heroine. She’s wracked with guilt–for her sister, for her father, for Doctor Dillamond, for Fiyero, especially Fiyero, and even later, for his family. She’s consumed with grief and frustration and the fear of being used against her will. But she’s likable, and she’s deeply human.

Maguire poses several questions in Wicked, but answers few. One of the cool things about this novel is its ability to both reframe a well-known story and to explore the unknown hows and whys of the Wicked Witch of the West. But his diction is lush and rich, and maybe the best thing about this novel is the way Maguire encourages his reader to fall in love with the magic of the English language all over again.

“It’s not lying; it’s looking at things a different way.”

Some people were raised on rock ‘n’ roll, and while I was to a point, too, I was mostly raised on musical theater. My grandmother was always involved in some drama guild or other, and during the years we spent living with her, our bedtime stories were told through Broadway showtunes and our Saturday afternoons were spent watching all four hours of The Fiddler on the Roof on VHS or watching Gypsy on TV over and over again.

The summer nights we spent attending performances at Cincinnati Young People’s Theater eventually translated, for me, into a love of performing and being on stage. I was never very good of an actress, or a singer, or a dancer, but in high school, I joined the drama club and belted my heart out in musicals and tried not to screw up my few lines in the fall play. In college, I played a character named Whitney who was an alcoholic and sufferer of PTSD in an anti-war dramatic reading of A Piece of My Heart. But being in drama was never about acting for me, it was about being a part of something that has the power to really, really touch people.

Last night, after more than a year of waiting, I finally saw Wicked at TPAC’s Andrew Jackson Hall. I was familiar with the music, familiar with the story, and familiar with all the praise and rave reviews it’s received since it opened on Broadway six years ago. I would have seen it last September at the Aronoff in Cincinnati, in the front row no less, if our tickets hadn’t been for the same night I was moving to Nashville. So instead, I bought two tier level tickets for my mom’s birthday and last night, we took our red velvet seats four rows back in the first tier.

All the praise and esteem and expectactions I had going in were completely blown out of the water. The sets! The costumes! The lighting! The choreography! The . . .everything! Everything about this musical far exceeded all the hope I had for it.

From Glinda’s floating bubble to the flying monkeys to Elphaba’s show- and heart-stopping flight to the gorgeousness of the Emerald City, it was all so overwhelming. I was crying by the end of Elphaba’s first solo, “The Wizard and I”, just from the sheer talent and range of Marcie Dodd’s voice. To say I was paralyzed with joy is an understatement, but every single scene brought something more amazing than the last and it was impossible to look away, even for a moment.

The story was so much sadder and more interesting than I imagined it would be. And knowing my penchant for tragic heroes, I was on Elphaba’s side from the beginning. And though the quote that opens this post comes from a conversation between Fiyero and Elphaba about beauty, the cool thing is that it’s completely representative of the whole story. Wicked isn’t a lie about the Wicked Witch of the West, it’s looking at what wickedness really is. Glinda asks, “Are people born wicked, or do they have wickedness thrust upon them?” And the story of Wicked gives a very clear answer to that question.

I posted to Twitter at intermission that I had already been blown away. A lot of that had to do with the fact that Act I’s closing scene, “Defying Gravity” was so powerful and visually stunning that my bones were shaking in time to the music and Elphaba’s grand exit practically made my head explode. Even now, just listening to the soundtrack, I’ve got chills. If tonight’s closing show wasn’t sold out, I’d happily pay to go again.

I tried to read Gregory Macguire’s novel awhile ago, but didn’t give it much of an effort. Last night’s show has encouraged me to try it again. I know there are differences, but I like the idea of being able to access the story of the Wicked Witch as I know her now over and over again.

The only thing left to think about is if the rumored film adaptation can possibly compare to the imaginative and beautiful world of Wicked on stage?

Aside from today being one of the most fantastic days I’ve had in a long time–including no less than a three-hour roadtrip, a tour of Graceland, and Lisa-Marie standing next to the Lisa Marie–I also had one of the most poetic experiences of my life.

After standing in the humidity, staring down at the spot where Jeff Buckley drowned in the Wolf River Harbor, and after watching the sun sink over the Mississippi River, and after unexpectedly stumbling into a music festival on Main Street in Memphis, and after walking up and down Beale Street literally singing “Walking in Memphis” to myself, and all of this after vising Graceland and seeing Elvis Presley’s grave, still none of it compares to the sensation of driving across the Mississippi River on a beautiful bridge just after dark, with one of my greatest friends riding shotgun, crossing the Tennessee-Arkansas stateline just to say we did, while heat lightening raged above the Memphis skyline and a Genuis playlist based on Gaslight Anthem’s “High Lonesome” played the Frightened Rabbits’ “Good Arms vs. Bad Arms.”

And though the Mississippi River belongs to Mark Twain, the only thing I could think of in that moment was Walt Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last in the Door-yard Bloom’d” and how the moment was just so beautifully, heartbreakingly American: the freedom of the open road, the depth and breadth of the river underneath us, the neon lights and blues music of Memphis lighting up the eastern shore, and the rage of a Southern summer thunderstorm brewing just above us.

Elvis was in that moment. And Mark Twain was in that moment. And Martin Luther King, Jr. And Walt Whitman. And Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan. And Emily Dickinson. And Jason Isbell. And Jack Kerouac. And every American artist and poet who’s ever written about the road, and the South, and freedom, and the heat. They were all there, crammed in the cab of my truck with Lis and me, crossing back into Tennessee from Arkansas, gazing out my cracked windshield at the white flashes of cloud-to-cloud lightening illuminating the ink black, humidity-thick sky over America’s greatest waterway.

And it was perfect. It is so precisely etched in my mind, like the lightening was etched on my retinas, that it will never leave me. And just like Whitman’s poem, I’ll mourn its passing now that it’s gone, but the memory of it–and the memory of how it felt–will never fade away.

My love for Grimey’s New and Preloved Music knows no bounds. In the midst of the Great Broken Car Saga of last week, I wandered in the record store on 8th Ave South to attempt some music therapy. I left with The Weakerthans’ Reunion Tour LP and The Decemberists’ The Crane Wife LP, which, for various reasons, is probably the most signifant musical purchase of my life.

But I also left with the knowledge that Toronto’s Great Lake Swimmers were going to be doing a free, in-store performance at Grimey’s on Sunday afternoon prior to their show at 3rd & Lindsley that same night.

If there was ever a reason to love the sound of a banjo, Great Lake Swimmers are it. Their music is so charming and autumnal that it’s impossible not to love them. Libby had introduced them to me several years ago with “Moving Pictures, Silent Films” and though I adored the song, I never did go after the rest of their music. Then this past May, when Libby came down for a visit, she brought their latest album, Lost Channels along with her. We played it on the way to dinner and I liked it so much that I uploaded it and played it for most of the rest of the weekend.

I showed up around 2:30 yesterday for their 3:00 set and already there was a small crowd gathered. We hung about the store while the band pushed the racks of records apart and set up their instruments in a tiny space lit by strands of christmas lights. They cracked open beers and did a sound check while the in-store stereo screamed with the band, Death. And then Tony Dekker quietly, and unassumingly walked to the middle of the floor and started playing “Moving Pictures” while the rest of the quartet milled around.

The contrast between those first few lonely chords and the raucous noise of Death was stark and much appreciated. The song was beautiful, and, if it’s possible, Tony Dekker’s voice is even more haunting heard live than it is on the album. The rest of the band joined him, and they moved into “Your Rocky Spine,” with its tinkling banjo and quirky lyrics. I’d never heard that one before, but as I listened, I was finally able to see what Libby had been going on about ever since she’d introduced me to them. It was a song to give me chills, with its lines like, “I traced my finger along your trails / And your body was the map, I was lost in it.”

Their afternoon set was short, punctuated by the banjoist making jokes about drinking beer in the afternoon and throwing in some funky effects with his pedal. It was small and intimate and stripped down to the essentials of what good live music should be: a microphone, a guitar, and some really amazing lyrics. They asked the audience for suggestions for their closing song and someone behind me yelled for “Various Stages,” another song I was unfamiliar with.

I can now say that I’m no longer unfamiliar with it. It’s possibly the most touching song I’ve ever heard, and when it was over, I immediately wanted to hear it again and again and again. The band hung around to chat a little and sign some posters, and after telling them how great they sounded, I rushed home to download their entire discography from iTunes.

I spent the rest of the afternoon listening to their earlier releases, preparing for their show at 3rd & Lindsley. They, along with the Old 97’s frontman, Rhett Miller, were playing Nashville Sunday Night, Lightning 100’s weekly live music broadcast tradition. Instead of standing between bins of discount CDs, this time, I had a front-row seat at the bar. They played several tracks from their new album, and I think Tony may have had a little stage fright because whenever he took a break to talk to the crowd, he would stumble on his words and repeat himself. But he was so endearing and his Canadian accent was so disarming that we all let it slide.

They played another really great set with plenty of banjo. (A few photos from both gigs are up here.) I kept thinking that their upright bassist looks a lot like what I imagine Harry Potter would look like at 40 years old: round glasses, curly black hair graying just a bit, and a button down flannel to go along. They closed the show with “I Am Part of a Large Family” and said how proud they were to be playing in Nashville.

After they broke down their instruments, Rhett Miller picked up his guitar and started playing. I’m not particularly interested in his music, but he was funny and he’s obviously very talented. I listened to him for a little while, then decided to call it a night.

But not before I had something of an epiphany: I really don’t hate Nashville. As a matter of fact, I’m actually kind of starting to like it here. Who would have thought?

Yesterday wrapped up my photographic trip down the musical alphabet, so I thought in honor of that, I’d post a few of my favorites from the A – Z set. I have to admit to being pleasantly surprised by how some of these turned out, and I imagine I’ll be incorporating other projects like this throughout the rest of my Re-Six-Five.

C is for Carly Simon, “You’re So Vain”

H is for The Hold Steady, “Two Handed Handshake”

J is for Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit, “Hurricanes and Hand Grenades”

M is for Marah, “Formula, Cola, Dollar Draft”

O is for Oren Lavie, “Her Morning Elegance”

R is for Regina Spektor, “On the Radio”

S is for Say Anything, “Woe”

W is for The Weakerthans, “Left and Leaving”

X is for XTC, “She’s So Square”

The rest of the alphabet can be seen here.

It is with regret and disappointment that I make the following admission:

I have officially given up on David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest and the Infinite Summer challenge along with it.

As of last week, I was 200 pages behind schedule, and much as I really did love Wallace’s writing, I didn’t feel like spending four months of my life reading just one book when I could be reading a book every week or so. Someday, perhaps I’ll get back to it.

I spent my afternoon at BookMan/BookWoman yesterday, mostly just browsing and enjoying the freedom of being able to contemplate buying a book, now that I’d released myself from the restrictions of Infinite Summer. I picked up a complete collection of Emily Dickinson’s poems and a battered copy of The Little Prince that, according to the inscription in the front, Wende Hall was given as a birthday present on September 25, 1976 by someone called Rene. The Little Prince seems to be referenced everywhere I turn, but I was never read it as a child and I had never really heard of it until one of my friends in high school read it in the original French for an assignment.

In giving up David Foster Wallace, I wanted to read something simple, but still profound. I wanted something short and quick, but with some depth to it still. I found that all in Bernhard Schlink’s The Reader. I picked the book up several months ago, when the movie of the same name was getting rave reviews. And with a title like The Reader, how could I resist?

The story was surprising, and completely unexpected. It’s a bizarre and unlikely love story, written through the lens of a very sterile, black-and-white moral compass. Schlink’s writing is modern and terse, without being harsh, but starkly reflective of the German author and his country’s history.

I’m so used to reading stories of the Holocaust from the victims’ perspective that, at first, I was shocked and almost put-off by the novel’s setting in post-war Germany. But it’s funny, in the warped way of things, because the novel attempts to display, as the protagonist says, both “understanding and condemnation” of what average Germans experienced under the Third Reich. And the whole time I was reading, I kept trying to do the same thing: to condemn Hanna for her acts, while at the same time, under the impossibly subtle, beautiful, and philosophical guidance of the author, understand and empathize with her.

This novel was in no way a celebration of the extraordinarily inhuman acts ordinary Germans carried out during World War II, but neither did it elevate Jewish suffering. Instead, Schlink astutely examined the way modern society thinks about things like war and death and collective history. And much as I wanted to villify him, or criticize him, I couldn’t, because I found myself agreeing with him.

When Michael, the narrator and protagonist, examines his love for Hanna after he learns of her crimes, he feels guilty and shameful for having loved a criminal. He visits a concentration camp, hoping the experience will atone, in a way, for the sin of having loved her. But rather than coming away from Struthof feeling repenetent and absolved, he came away feeling even more ashamed. Ashamed that his sadness was a product of morality and not of genuine empathy or regret.

When I think back on the weeks I spent in Bosnia last summer, and the suffering and loss etched in every aspect of Bosnian culture, I realize that it did not upset me the way it upset the other people I was with. It upset me in a clinical way, in a philosophical way. I looked at Bosnia and I thought, “This is upsetting because tragedy and genocide and mass murder and war should be upsetting.” If I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that I was not upset or affected because something about Bosnian suffering touched me on a personal level; I was upset because I recognized that as the appropriate social response. And much like Michael, something about that response really bothers me. Especially, because under normal circumstances, I am an incredibly sensitive person.

I don’t want to make it seem as though The Reader was simply a dry and academic look at post-war life. It’s not; it was a novel, and a very fine and insightful novel at that. It was an interesting story and if the characters weren’t exactly compelling, they weren’t without merits or believability, either. And though Schlink’s writing was sparse and bare, it was not without emotion or depth.

This was quite a singular novel, able to infuse a really odd love story with philosophy and morality, while avoiding being heavy-handed. It was disturbing, in some ways; humanizing in others. But mostly, The Reader questions modern life and what it means to share a collective history and why we respond to things the way we do.

George Steiner says in his endorsement, “The reviewer’s sole and privileged function is to say as loudly as he is able, ‘Read this’ and ‘Read it again.'” And I think he may be right.