WORD ON THE STREET
album review: coheed and cambria Vaxis - Act I: the unheavenly creatures
From the time I started this blog back in June, my intention was to use this page as a medium to write album and concert reviews, as well as keep a public journal of my escapades as a musician. Today, my most anticipated album of the year has been released, and I figured what better album to start reviewing than one by the band that I am most intimately familiar with? I am of course referring to New York’s sci-fi progressive rock champions (and my own biggest musical influence) Coheed and Cambria.
Vaxis - Act I: The Unheavenly Creatures is perhaps the most ambitious Coheed album released to date. Coming off 2015’s The Color Before the Sun, a more light-hearted and personal record which served as a break from the band’s science fiction concept, The Amory Wars (explored through various mediums including comic books and novels), Creatures is a true return to form for the band in every sense of the phrase. Clocking in at just under 79 minutes, Coheed and Cambria have succeeded in delivering what is possibly both their most progressive and diverse album since 2005’s Good Apollo, I’m Burning Star IV.
Jumping into something as massive as Coheed’s discography or The Amory Wars universe can be intimidating for some. Luckily, The Unheavenly Creatures serves as a soft-reboot to the story at large, and is musically diverse enough to be enjoyed without any prior knowledge of the concept. Creatures is the first in what is set to be a five-part album anthology, focusing on new characters and places set in the Amory Wars mythos, and chronologically following 2007’s No World For Tomorrow, which was originally written as the “end complete” to the epic sci-fi/fantasy saga (the following conceptual records, Year of the Black Rainbow and The Afterman served as prequels to the story).
This is no small feat for the band’s front-man, primary songwriter, and lyricist Claudio Sanchez, who just turned 40 years old this year. If the band continues to put out albums at a consistent 2-3 year pace, the Vaxis pentology will not be completed until Sanchez is in his 50’s. Each member of the band has spent the first part of this decade settling down and starting their own respective families. It is refreshing to know that these lifestyle changes have not hindered the band’s passion or creativity to create and perform new music, and if every album in the Vaxis saga is as good as The Unheavenly Creatures, the next ten years are going to be pretty great for Coheed fans.
Prologue / The Dark Sentencer
“Know now there is no time…”
A short, melancholy acoustic piano melody opens the record, followed by an ominous narration over spacey, bouncing synthesizers, drawing the listener in and building toward the epic, seven-minute progressive anthem that is “The Dark Sentencer.” Keeping in line with most of their previous records, opening an album with a track like this is nothing new for Coheed, but it’s a refreshing and comforting return after the much lighter and pop-heavy Color Before the Sun, and as the old saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Driving metal guitar riffs and chants of “Hey! Hey!” set the tone for this song, and Sanchez shows off his incredible vocal ability in all its glory, ranging from guttural growls to his signature high tenor voice
Conceptually, The Dark Sentencer is a planetary prison in which the story’s protagonists find themselves trapped in, and Sanchez sings about feelings of hopelessness and despair. In recent interviews, Sanchez has stated that there is a real-world political influence to this song as well, and I suspect some of the lyrics are aimed at President Trump and his refusal to aid Puerto Rico (where Sanchez’ family is from originally) after the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in 2017. Specific lyrics like “Here, dig me a grave, and toss in the lives that you can’t be bothered to save” and “Now shut your mouth beyond your lies / The world knows to stay away from you / The blood you let run, we march as you lead” evoke this feeling to me.
Travis Stever’s guitar work also stands out in this track, carrying the song into a soaring bridge and short but sweet solo. After a few minutes, the song returns to its heavy chorus and drives home the conceptually ironic but straightforward meta message to fans, “Welcome Home.”
The title track of the record begins with a chiptune-like synth chord progression that initially sounds more like it belongs on Sanchez’ electronic side-project The Prize Fighter Inferno, but as soon as the chorus hits it’s clear that this is a good old fashioned Coheed pop-rock song, a la “Ten Speed” or “Devil in Jersey City.” Sanchez’ soaring, infectious vocal melody sets a precedent for choruses over the rest of the album. The mix of this song is particularly good, perfectly balancing the oscillating synthesizers with Sanchez’ and Stever’s guitar tones, and leaving the rhythm section to fill in the gaps nicely. I’m not sure how anyone could listen to this song without wanting to sing out the song’s hook, “Run, run, run, run, run like a son of a gun!” immediately afterward.
Strangely enough, this song almost sounds like it should be on an alternative rock record like Jimmy Eat World’s Futures. While it’s not too distant from driving pop-rock songs off The Color Before the Sun, notably “Atlas” and “You’ve Got Spirit Kid,” it does come off as a new sound for Coheed, but somehow it just works. An ethereal intro of layered vocals singing in harmony leads into a heavy but poppy distorted guitar riff that almost gives off a pop-punk vibe in the style of New Found Glory. Sanchez hits home again with a catchy chorus, and the song slows down during the bridge under a haunting refrain of “Your favorite boy…” before coming back in hard and heavy. Josh Eppard’s groovy, hard-hitting drumming style is a stand-out performance on this track.
If “Toys” is a feel-good track, “Black Sunday” is sneakily waiting right around the corner to punch you in the face when you’re least-expecting it (much like my former alcoholic roommate). The gritty, harmonic minor lead guitar riff sounds like it comes straight out of the band’s earlier days as “Shabutie.” The hard-rock verses remind me of “Hollywood the Cracked” off 2012’s The Afterman: Ascension, and the swinging, chaotic chorus brings me back to “Eraser” off The Color Before the Sun. Sanchez’ scooping vocal melody in the chorus is reminiscent of Deftones’ singer Chino Moreno’s performance on 2000’s White Pony, while the “La-di-da” outro carrying out the song over Eppard’s marching drum-beat evokes a feeling similar to My Chemical Romance’s “The Black Parade.” The overall shift of the song from the droning, minor first half to the uplifting major outro feels like a call-back to songs off Coheed’s debut record, The Second Stage Turbine Blade, in which songs would twist and turn so many times that the endings would be unrecognizable from their beginnings.
Queen of the Dark
A haunting acoustic piano melody serves as a transition between tracks, soon accompanied by a building guitar riff with a chorus effect, and then by a screeching distorted guitar that carries the song into the verse. As soon as Eppard’s drums kick in, one thing is made clear: this song has balls. Sanchez’ vocals are soaked in reverb over a droning, dissonant guitar chord progression that make the listener feel as if they’re in a dark cavern, waiting to be sacrificed to some hungry monster. The rising chords of the chorus as Sanchez sings “When the lights went out there was no one...” create an eerie and unsettling tension that will send chills down your spine. As the last chorus builds, the screeching guitar returns, subtly rising through the mix until everything else drops out, giving out one last desperate wail until it too fades into obscurity.
The beginning of this song hits you like a truck. Fast, punk rock-style drums drive this song right off its rails through verse and chorus while distorted vocals remind me of some of the heaviest parts in songs like “Gravity’s Union,” “Gravemakers and Gunslingers,” and “The Audience.” Just as you think you might catch a break during the song’s bridge, the truck backs up over you for good measure during the breakdown. This track catches its stride with a soaring chorus at the end, finally letting off of the vicious (but oh-so-welcome) aural assault of the past three tracks.
This song is a pure pop-rock ballad in the style of “Feathers” and “From Here to Mars.” Zach Cooper’s groovy bass line shines during the verses while Stever plays a lead guitar riff similar to his part during the bridge of “Vic The Butcher” off The Afterman: Ascension. Sanchez’ vocals and rhythm guitar work during the verses almost remind me of post-hardcore outfit I The Mighty’s “Escalators” off 2012’s Karma Never Sleeps, which is particularly interesting considering I the Might was directly inspired by Coheed (their singer, Brent Walsh, has a tattoo of Coheed’s symbol, the Keywork, on his left arm). The chorus of this song is another infectious one, bright and poppy but not lacking in any emotion. Seriously, writing this many catchy choruses on one progressive rock record should be illegal. Someone really needs to reign Mr. Sanchez in.
The Pavillion (A Long Way Back)
Continuing off the poppy tone of “Love Protocol,” this track is another emotional ballad about facing a crossroad in life and having to make an important decision. I suspect this song song is about Claudio considering leaving the band, as I’m sure he’s under a lot of pressure from multiple forces on a consistent basis. Having to be on the road and away from his wife and child constantly can’t be easy, and hearing this dilemma in the lyrics makes me even happier knowing that he’s chosen to commit to his band for (hopefully) the rest of his days.
Night Time Walkers
The intro to this track is incredibly synth heavy. Sanchez’ vocals are run through some effects processors giving it an eerie, robotic feeling. Cooper’s bass line climbs through the verses until we reach yet another uplifting chorus. Spooky, spacey samples dominate the empty spaces between the instruments. The instruments drop out during the bridge and Sanchez’s vocals and synthesizer melodies carry through the first half until all guitars, drums, and bass come back in full force.
This track is a wild ride from start to finish. Haunting single piano notes introduce the song under Sanchez sweetly singing “Over my dead body…” The rest of the band strike in on a single minor chord and the tension begins to rise, releasing in one of one of the most epic choruses in Coheed’s history. Stever’s guitar riffs during the bridge are very Queen-esque, accompanied by a soaring cascade of Claudio’s signature “Whoa-oh-oh’s.” This track makes me incredibly excited for my next opportunity to see this band perform live. I can’t wait to hear an eager crowd scream along to “It’s your last chance honey better call your mother!”
All On Fire
Right from the get-go this song reminds me of a mix between “When Skeletons Live” and “The Willing Well I: Fuel For the Feeding End.” Eppard and Cooper really shine on this track, executing tight dynamic changes between parts. The band really displays some of their best metal and hard rock stylings on this song, and the haunting refrain of “All on fire / please bring water” makes me feel like I’m right there with the characters, trapped in a burning prison pit with no hope of escape.
It Walks Among Us
The intro to this song sounds like a much darker, grittier version of the title track. Sanchez’ snarling “Creature come and get it / come out and walk among us” immediately give this song some teeth. The driving bassline in the chorus reminds me of “The Hound (Of Blood & Rank” off 2007’s No World For Tomorrow, and Eppard’s double-kick drum gives it just the right boost of stamina. Knowing that the protagonists of this chapter are Vaxis’ parents, the line “There goes your bastard” makes me feel like we might be seeing the birth of the title character of the new saga, though only time will tell once I get my hands on the accompanying novella. Regardless of the story content, this song slaps.
This is definitely my favorite single Coheed has released in recent years. The verse combines the best of the pop aspects from “Blood Red Summer” and “Goodnight Fair Lady,” the the chorus might be the catchiest thing they’ve written since “The Suffering,” echoing the piano line from the prologue of the album. This the climax of the record, and it definitely feels like a chase/escape song. The infectious “Na-na-na’s” at the end of the song catch me even further in the feels knowing that they were recorded by all the band-members’ friends and families, including their kids. The piano line from the prologue returns once more, albeit slightly distorted, letting the listener know that the end is near.
I’m a sucker for a good acoustic ballad, especially when they incorporate strings into the mix, and Lucky Stars delivers on all those fronts. This intimate piece feels like it could have been another Prize Fighter Inferno song, but it fits really well at the end of this musical opus. Stever comes through one more time with a velvety, clean guitar solo over the bridge, and Sanchez drives home the record with one last beautiful chorus. Instead of ending the album in a grandiose dramatic fashion, the song simply fades out, leaving the listener hungry for Vaxis - Act II.
The Unheavenly Creatures is the Coheed and Cambria album I didn’t know that I needed, but after listening to it I’m wondering how I’ve gone all my life without it. While some fans might have been disappointed with some of their more recent work, I’ve loved every one of their records and I would have been content if they continued on the path laid out by The Color Before the Sun. Instead, they’ve performed a true return to form, and I am left both incredibly satisfied and eager for the next installment in the Vaxis series.
“Welcome Home,” indeed.
Two weeks ago I took a trip up to Portland with my friends SaveGabe and Limbo. We didn’t have any real plans other than to get away for a weekend and explore a new place. I have a handful of friends who moved up there within the last couple years that I was looking forward to reconnecting with, and the whole trip was a nice distraction from school and my normal life in Napa, at least for a bit. I didn’t bring my guitar because I wasn’t intending on playing any music while we were up there, but the three of us are all solo artists and we share an equal passion for music, so I feel like a collaboration was bound to happen. In hindsight I’m glad I didn’t bring my guitar because Gabe ended up teaching me how to play the ukulele. We also ended up working on a new song together, which was really satisfying because even though it was a step outside my comfort zone I was very happy with the end result and I’m looking forward to its release. The three of us complement and feed off each other well, and I returned home with a newfound sense of inspiration.
On Thursday, September 20th, I hosted a Balanced Breakfast meeting that featured Sacramento-based singer-songwriter Andrew Castro as our guest speaker. One of the reasons I was so drawn to Andrew is that in addition to having a career as a touring musician, he’s also a writer and he just released his first self-help book titled “Overcoming Your Anxiety… For People on the Go.” His book was listed as #1 in Amazon’s “Short Self-Help Reads” category two weeks in a row, and with good reason. It’s an easy, digestible read that can provide valuable insight to anyone who struggles with feelings of anxiety, which seems to be pretty common for most of us artists. Andrew will be performing with me next week during a songwriter showcase I’m hosting at Blue Note on October 9th.
I also had two new articles published in the Napa Register that day: one on Lisa Fischer performing at the Blue Note, which you can read here, and a review of Milky Chance’s performance at Jam Cellars Ballroom, which you can read here.
On September 22nd I performed at the Revolution Cafe in the Mission District in San Francisco during Balanced BreakFEST 2018, the first music festival put on by Balanced Breakfast. The festival featured over 60 different bands performing in 7 venues across the Mission District over 3 days, and the experience was incredibly rewarding. I shared the stage with Clementine Darling, Phoenix Tweak, Justin Seagrave, Gutter Swan, and Travis Hayes; I had an absolute blast. It was refreshing playing a set of all original material for an appreciative audience, and I’m looking forward to next year’s event.
On a more personal note, I received one of the best birthday presents I think I’ve ever gotten this year from my aunt Kay Oneal. It was my late mother’s old vinyl record collection, which I had no idea even existed. It had apparently been in Kay’s garage for somewhere around thirty years and she just rediscovered it. The records are a mixed bunch, mostly classical, showtunes and contemporary hits from the 70’s, but the standouts are a handful of live recordings of my mother’s high school ensemble band, in which she played the flute. As soon as I got home I started playing them on my turntable and I felt more connected to my mom than I think I ever have since her passing fifteen years ago. It’s so cool to have a recorded performance of her that I can listen to whenever I want. Thanks again so much Aunt Kay!
That’s about it for highlights. This week I played two birthday parties, one private event at a house in Sonoma and one at Riverhouse by Bespoke Collection. This morning I wrote an article on Brandon Kerrigan AKA Moss, which should be published in the Register this week, and then I drove out to HopMonk Tavern in Sonoma to watch my new friends in Gutter Swan perform. This Thursday I’ll be emcee-ing a local artist showcase put on by Napa’s Balanced Breakfast chapter at Feast it Forward featuring Kenji Yoshida, Moss, Danis D, SaveGabe, and Limbo. On Saturday I’ll be performing at the Andaz from 8-11, and next Tuesday I’ll be at the Blue Note hosting Return of the Valley Mavericks featuring Piper Hays, Clementine Darling, Andrew Castro, and Clark Harding. I’m really looking forward for an opportunity to show off these amazing musicians in our burgeoning Napa music scene.
Thank you as always for reading. I’ll catch you next time.
25 is weird. It’s this strange point in your life where the rest of the world expects you to be an adult and seriously prepare for your future, but your teenage years still feel like they were just yesterday and your brain wants to hold onto that youthful spirit and live every day like it’s your last. Your friends are all either getting married and working “real jobs,” or drinking at 10 a.m. and partying until 2. Technically, I’m not actually 25 until tomorrow, but that’s exactly how I feel right now and I’m pretty sure I’m going to feel that way tomorrow too. It’s one of those days where I’m running on 3 hours of sleep and coffee isn’t even keeping me awake anymore, it’s just making my heart race. I’ve been incredibly busy and admittedly a little overwhelmed with school and work these last couple weeks, but this weekend was one that reminded me of how many loving friends, family, and supporters I am surrounded by and I am so very thankful for what each and every one of them brings into my life.
Backtracking a bit to Labor Day Weekend, on September 1st I performed at Hotel Nia in Menlo Park. I played a 3-hour set on a beautiful deck by their swimming pool. I was accompanied by my friend Matty Jackson, who rode out with me all the way from Napa and served as a wonderful hype-man and traveling companion for the day. The hotel itself is an absolutely gorgeous facility, their food was delicious, and their staff treated us like celebrities. Big thanks to their manager and my friend, Stefan Aronsen, for hosting us. Definitely one my favorite venues I’ve performed at so far.
On Friday, September 7th, I performed at Brian Arden Winery in Calistoga during their First Friday Social. I got to play outside on their lawn during a beautiful sunset and sip on their newly released 2017 Rosé of Cabernet Franc .I also made friends with a mother-daughter duo from Florida visiting California for their first time, and an ecstatic group of friends visiting from Cincinnati. Moments like those remind me of how blessed I am to live and work in such a desired environment like the Napa Valley.
I played at the Andaz hotel on Saturday, September 8th, for a lively group of bar patrons and a supportive group of friends and family. I always have a great time playing there, and just like at Hotel Nia their staff is exceptionally accommodating to the entertainment. I got there early to eat before I played and got the Andaz burger. It is hands down one of the best and scariest sandwiches I’ve had in Napa. It comes topped with bacon, fried onion strings, and pickled jalapenos. If you visit the Andaz, do yourself a favor and try it. You should be fed for a week.
Yesterday I had the most fun birthday party I think I’ve ever had in all of my 25 years of life. I hosted another house concert in our backyard and brought back some of our favorite artists who have played our parties before. The lineup consisted of myself, SaveGabe from Napa, Killer Rex from San Francisco, Zach Freitas from Hollister, Serf and James from Napa, and The Unlikely Heroes from Oakland. The turnout was fantastic and every artist brought their A-game. The amount of love and support I received from friends, family, fans, and total strangers was incredibly heartwarming. The most fun portion of the night for me was playing a rock-duo set with my brother Joel on drums. We played a short mixed set of older songs from my old band, new originals, and had Serf Barto sing with me on the song we co-wrote together for last month’s Rock Lotto concert, “Mirror,” (My dad sent me a very nice email today saying he loved the song and he thought it was a cover the first time he heard it!). Big shout-out to Jamie Reynolds for running sound for the evening, and to Matty Jackson for hooking us up with a port-a-potty!
That’s about it for now. Tonight I’m going to watch Milky Chance perform at the Jam Cellars Ballroom and write a review of the show for the Napa Register, and then this weekend Gabe and I are headed to Portland to further celebrate my birthday and catch up with some old friends. As always, thanks for reading and #loveyourwork
These last few weeks have been busy, but very fun! As much as I was hoping to keep my blog updated weekly, life seems to have taken the reigns and I now realize my initial goal of posting weekly updates might have been overly ambitious in the long run. This is a good thing, because I particularly enjoy staying busy, and I think the content of my blog might be more interesting going forward if I stick to the “highlights” of the last couple weeks instead of narrating my life day by day.
On Thursday, August 9th, I had the privilege of watching my favorite band, Coheed and Cambria, perform live at the Greek Theatre in Berkeley. They shared the bill with two of my other favorite bands, Taking Back Sunday and The Story So Far. Coheed has been my favorite band since I was ten years old. Their singer, Claudio Sanchez, has undoubtedly had great influence on me as a vocalist in terms of styling and pronunciation, even though we sing in completely different octaves. Their album “In Keeping Secrets of Silent Earth: 3” was the first album I listened to as a kid that completely changed my perspective of music, and the title track off that record was the first song I ventured to learn on guitar as a teenager.
Chances are if you know me well in real life, you’re probably tired of hearing me talk about this band. Too bad for you, you’re reading my blog! One of the main reasons I love Coheed so much is their extremely versatile and eclectic catalogue of music, ranging from pop rock songs like “Here to Mars” and “A Favor House Atlantic,” to emotional acoustic ballads like “Mother Superior” and “Peace to the Mountain,” to epic progressive metal anthems such as their most famous song, “Welcome Home.” I was introduced to them by my brother Joel at a very volatile time in my life, shortly after I lost my mother in 2003, and since then I’ve held an extremely strong emotional connection to their music. Their songs have helped me through numerous hardships in my life, most recently with the loss of my stepmother, Nancy (who, for the record, absolutely hated them). For fifteen years I’ve followed this band religiously, buying all of their records (some multiple times on multiple formats), keeping up with their science fiction tie-in comic series, The Amory Wars, to the date and seeing them live at every opportunity I’ve had since I was seventeen.
I have admittedly lost count of how many times I’ve seen them perform live. If I had to guess it’s probably seven or eight, and this was one of the best times I’ve seen them for sure. Technically, Coheed and Taking Back Sunday were on a “co-headlining” tour together meaning, in theory, either band could have headlined each show. Coheed closed every night on the tour though, and after watching their performance compared to Taking Back Sunday’s, it was clear that it was with good reason. Coheed’s live energy, both on stage and in the crowd, absolutely dominated the night. From the moment the lights went out in the amphitheater and Claudio rang out the first guitar riff of their newest ten-minute anthem, “The Dark Sentencer,” I had chills running down my spine for the rest of the night. Their intense on-stage light show, incredible tightness with such intricate dynamic changes in their songs, and the sound of 5,000 energetic fans screaming lyrics like “Man your own Jackhammer!” at the top of their lungs made for a night I don’t think I will ever forget. Nothing like seeing your favorite band to give you some musical inspiration.
On Friday, August 17th, I performed at Neck of the Woods in San Francisco during Balanced Breakfast’s “Rock Lotto IIII” (not IV) event. As I mentioned in my previous blog post, Rock Lotto is a concert featuring bands from around the Bay Area that were put together “lottery style,” and given one month to write and perform ten minutes worth of new original material together. I was placed in a band with Serf Barto (of Serf and James), Robert Bradley, Mikey Rhinehart (of The Deadlies), Kerry McGrath, and Adam Stone. Sadly, Mikey broke his pinky finger a week prior to the show and was unable to play drums for us, though luckily Adam is also a drummer and was able to fill in for him. We named our band “The Broken Pinkies” in honor of our fallen band member. Rock Lotto was a really fun event to be a part of, especially when we got to sit back and watch the other bands after our performance. At the end of the night, we won the award for Best Song for our song “Mirror,” an alternative pop ballad with a bit of an 80’s feel to it with lyrical content focusing on some of the perceived vanity in our society that is promoted by the dominating presence of social media. This was a concept that hits close to home for me, as I am very active on social media and I realize just how easily it is to get sucked in to your own digital bubble. Overall, I had a wonderful time working with these musicians who I probably would not otherwise have ever collaborated with, and I am looking forward to re-entering into the competition next year.
That’s about if for highlights. I did just start another full semester of college last week and I purposely didn’t book a lot of shows during these last couple weeks in August to give me some breathing room while I worked out my new schedule, but I’ll definitely be keeping up with my busking in my spare time. My next public shows are at the beginning of September including Brian Arden Winery in Calistoga on September 7th, the Andaz Hotel in Napa on September 8th, and my birthday party/house show on September 9th featuring the return of Unlikely Heroes, Serf and James, and more of my favorite Bay Area artists. If you don’t already, feel free to follow me on Instgram @thatdudeonthecorner for daily updates (and very bad memes).
Thanks for reading and as always,
It’s been far too long since my last post on here. July has been kind of a crazy month with my stepmother’s passing, articles to write, and multiple gigs each week so I haven’t had as much time to sit down and write for myself, but I’m going to make more of an attempt to stay on top of my entries going forward. Because it’s been four weeks since my last entry I won’t be going day by day, instead I’ll just be posting my highlights from the month of July. Here it goes.
On Tuesday, July 3rd, I hosted a show at the Blue Note in Napa showcasing original work from singer-songwriters around the valley and beyond. The artists on the bill were SaveGabe, Zack Freitas, Brandon Kerrigan (under the stage name Moss), and Kenji Yoshida. The show had a great turnout and every artist brought something very unique and interesting to the table.
On Sunday, July 8th, we had another house concert at my place featuring the return of Unlikely Heroes, Sanho the Indian, SaveGabe, and Danis D, and also featured newcomer rap artists Tone from San Francisco and Phoenix Tweak from Oakland (original from Miami, Florida). I also got to play a duo set with my brother Joel on drums, and we got to perform the collaborative song I’ve been working on with Sanho live. Every artist really brought out their A-game in both their performances and their promotional efforts. It was definitely our best-attended house concert so far (and no cops were called!).
On Saturday, July 14th, I was given the honor of being a groomsman at my good friend Troy Lenning’s wedding. Troy married his wife, Shelly, on a beautiful summer afternoon in Angwin in front of a large gathering of friends and family. Watching these two people grow to love each other has been one of the most beautiful things I’ve had the privilege of witnessing in my life, and I was beyond grateful to be part of their ceremony on their special day.
It seemed almost poetic that two days after I attended a wedding, I was attending a funeral service. My stepmother, Nancy Aldrich Fennie, was laid to rest at Tulocay Cemetery in Napa on Monday, July 16th. The service was attended by many of Nancy’s friends and family, several of whom we had fallen out of touch with over the years. It’s funny how such a sad thing like death can do some good by bringing people together. At the request of my father, I played one song during her service, “Every Breath You Take” by The Police. Although the song has a darker meaning behind it, it was always a song that Nancy enjoyed hearing me play, and the chorus of the song, “I’ll be watching you,” seemed like a fitting send-off for her. Her ashes were buried near my mother’s, and as the undertakers shoveled dirt over her urn I took one flower from my mother’s grave and placed it in the ground with Nancy. It was a complete gut reaction and I’m not entirely sure what compelled me to do it, but I like to think the flower was representative of the love from the family they both came to know and share separately. Both Nancy and my mother had a great love for life, and I know that their spirits will continue to guide me in my years to come.
On Thursday, July 19th, I played an intimate acoustic set JaM Cellars, one of my favorite venues in town. Their staff is always incredibly accommodating and their guests are usually very receptive to my music. I tried something different with this show in that I created a “concept setlist” for it, I.E. one that flows with a narrative theme behind it. I’ve always been inspired by artists that record concept albums, most notably by my favorite band, Coheed and Cambria. I wanted to take that narrative focus and bring it into a live setting, and the audience responded to it well. This show had a pretty good turnout as well, and I was very humbled by a large amount of friends and local fans who came out to show their support.
The following day I left for Los Angeles with my good friend Gabe for four days. Our main reason for traveling down their was to support our friend Limbo, an electronic artist originally from Napa who was putting on her first show in a new event space in downtown LA that she had purchased and renovated. Limbo put on a fantastic show, bringing out independent music and visual artists from Sacramento, New York, Boston, and Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was truly inspiring to see someone from our hometown working hard not just to make a name for herself, but to foster a creative community and provide a space for touring independent artists.
In addition to attending Limbo’s show, Gabe and I visited the Griffith Observatory on Saturday, Venice Beach on Sunday, and Disneyland on Monday at which I, admittedly, geeked out hardcore over all of the Star Wars displays and attractions in the park. I also found time to catch up with my old friend Jack Loken in Pasadena, a high school classmate and one of the first musician friends I made at the time when I was first learning how to play guitar and write songs. Jack is in a solo project called Ender Toi, and he also supports another solo artist named Roy Blair as his guitarist. They just did a week long tour in New York immediately after I saw them. It warms my heart to see so many friends going places with their music.
Immediately after returning from LA, I met up with my Rock Lotto band for rehearsal. Rock Lotto is an annual event sponsored by Balanced Breakfast featuring band lineups that are picked “lottery style.” This is my first year signing up for the event, but I think I lucked out as far as my band lineup goes. I was fortunate enough to be grouped with my good friend Serf Barto of Serf and James, my former band-mate and also good friend Robert Bradley, Mikey Rhinehart of The Deadlies, Kerry McGrath and Adam Stone, all of whom are talented and unique musicians. We’ve been tasked with coming up with ten minutes of brand new original material to debut at Neck of the Woods in San Francisco on Friday, August 17th. We’ve only had one rehearsal so far, but the music we’re writing has made me very stoked and excited to return to practice tomorrow night.
Yesterday, July 29th, I played at the eighth annual Napa PorchFest, a one-day festival where over a hundred bands perform on different porches around downtown Napa. This was my sixth year playing the event, and for the second year in a row my good friend Wendy Lindroos (a phenomenal classical guitarist) was nice enough to host me on her porch. Gabe and I split a lengthy set together which showcased both of our original works, and then came together at the end to perform a new original song using Gabe’s loop station. Overall it was another fun event, and it’s always nice to see the community out in support of local music.
Besides playing music, I’ve written some pretty cool articles for the Register this month as well. One article I’m particularly proud of was about Jim Terry and the Terry Family Band. Jim and his sons write music about Napa, for Napans, and they exclusively play original material at their shows. They’ve only been a band for a little over a year, but in that year they’ve gained a very strong local following, with over 100 attendees watching their performance at this year’s PorchFest. You can read the article I wrote on them here. I also got to do a one-on-one interview with singer Michael Fitzpatrick from the indie-pop/soul band Fitz and The Tantrums before their performance at Robert Mondavi Winery, which should be published in this week’s Napa Register.
I think I’m caught up now. I’m definitely going to be posting more frequently than I have been because, honestly, writing all this was exhausting. I told myself I could eat after I finished this blog post, and that was over two hours ago, so I’d say it’s time to get cooking. Thank you to all of my friends and family for the incredible show of support I’ve received this month, and thank you for taking the time to read this post. I promise, I’ll be back soon.
This is, without a doubt, the hardest blog entry I've had to write. I thought about skipping this week's entry, but one of the main reasons I started this blog was to help myself look back and reflect on my weeks in an effort to help myself grow as both a professional musician and a person. That includes both the hard times and the good ones. It is my hope that putting these raw thoughts and emotions into words can help bring me some peace of mind.
There is no easy way to say this: I lost another mother this week. My stepmother, Nancy Aldrich Fennie, passed away Sunday afternoon after a long battle with respiratory illness. While I knew that this day would come eventually, I had no idea it would come so soon, and it hasn't made processing it any easier. Even now I'm wiping away tears as I type out this post. Nancy was my stepmother for the better part of thirteen years, and she loved me like I was her flesh and blood.
Nancy entered my life at a very volatile time after I had already lost a parent nearly fifteen years ago. Our relationship was rocky for many years, and I spent many days resenting and resisting her, doing everything I could to subvert her or outwit her as a teenager and young adult. She was the mother that I never wanted. I understand that's not the nicest thing to say about a recently deceased person, but to deny that part of our relationship would be to lie, and if there's one thing Nancy instilled in me it was to always tell the truth no matter how hard it is.
Nancy wasn't a perfect parent, but as an adult I now understand that no one ever is. She tried her best to fill in a pair of impossible shoes, to become a mother to a young boy who had lost his own. But all those years of friction between us made our relationship that much stronger as I came into adulthood. We came to love each other on an even plane, and through those years of hardships we forged a bond unlike any other. It wasn't just mutual love, it was mutual respect.
For the last few years, Nancy has been an invaluable asset to me as a growing musician. She spent almost her entire life working in marketing, and she loved helping me with my budding career. She helped me design this website, proofread my bio and any emails I would send out, and was there for me to bounce ideas off of her for shows and ways to market my music. When I started writing about music for the Napa Valley Register, she was the first person I would send my articles to read and edit. A few months ago I told her about my idea to start a "busking blog" where I would catalog my experiences as a professional musician and street performer. She immediately fell in love with the idea. It saddens me greatly that she never got to read an entry, as she has been in the hospital since I started writing this blog at the beginning of June.
Last Wednesday I took a day trip down to Southern California with my dad and his dog, Edgar, to check on some property he owns. Nancy had already been in the hospital but she was stabilized, and this was before we had learned how terminal her condition was. Our trip was relatively quick and uneventful, and it was a good chance for me to spend some quality time with my dad. At one point we started talking about my late mother, Charmaine, who passed away in 2003. At the time I was fascinated with how many similar qualities my mother and I both possessed, most notably in her take-charge personality, bull-headed determination, and her general attitude of "It's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission." In hindsight I realize that there's a lot of Nancy in me as well, and many of these qualities could also be attributed to her. I suppose my father has a thing for strong women.
On Saturday afternoon I got a call from my dad explaining to me that Nancy had developed a serious infection in the hospital, and that her health was deteriorating very rapidly. I was supposed to attend the first concert in the Margrit Mondavi Summer Concert Series at Robert Mondavi Winery and cover the show for the Register, but I quickly called the winery's hospitality director to excuse myself and made my way to the hospital to be with Nancy and my father. By the time I arrived she was already heavily sedated, and the sight of her lying in her hospital bed with a ventilator in her mouth and tubes sticking out of her body was one of the most difficult things I've ever had to witness. My brother and Erin arrived soon afterward, and we took my father out to dinner once it was clear that Nancy was stabilized for the time being. My father returned to the hospital that night and I went home to take care of Edgar.
My father called me Sunday morning to let me know that there was nothing more the doctors could do for Nancy, and that she was to be taken off life support later that day. I had my first gig at the Archer Hotel that afternoon from 12-3 pm, and Joel had a gig with Serf and James from 1-3. Neither of us cancelled our shows, mostly because Nancy wouldn't have wanted us to, but it was one of the hardest gigs I've had to play in my life. Joel and I met our father at the hospital that evening to say our goodbyes to Nancy. As the doctor and nurses began to take her off life support, I asked the doctor if it would be appropriate if I played some music for her. I put on Barry White, who has always been Nancy's favorite. Whenever she heard him playing on the radio, she would always smile and say that God was watching over her. About ten minutes after they had stopped all of Nancy's medication, her pulse slowed to zero and she passed away peacefully to "Can't Get Enough Of Your Love Baby."
While Nancy may no longer be with us physically, I have no doubt that her spirit will live on within me, my father, and the rest of our family. She taught me invaluable lessons about life, love, passion, business, and being a good person. I loved her more than I thought I could, and I will miss her dearly. My father and I are turning the page on a new chapter in our lives together, and the best thing we can do now is be there for each other. He tells me every day how proud of me he is, and I intend to make him prouder every day. Not just for him, but for both of my mothers.
Rest in peace, Nancy. Did I tell you today that I love you?
This week has been a bit of a roller coaster, but luckily things seem to have mellowed out. Here goes nothing.
On Monday I spent the majority of the day doing "office work", AKA answering emails, social media networking, and of course, blogging. I also spent the afternoon working closely with my good friend Serf Barto (of local rock band Serf and James) hammering out the details for a show we've been putting together at Blue Note next Tuesday July 3rd. The show is officially titled "The Valley Mavericks: Hosted by Zak Fennie," and will feature five underground artists showcasing their original material in a songwriters-in-the-round style setting. The artists on board are SaveGabe, Kenji Yoshida, Zachary Freitas, Brandon Kerrigan (debuting his new solo project Moss), and myself. I'm really excited about this show and I'm looking forward to bringing something fresh to the table. You can find tickets and more information for that show here.
On Tuesday afternoon I went to visit my stepmother, Nancy. She recently got out of the hospital due to breathing complications and had been staying in a skilled nursing facility for a little over a week. Nancy spent years working in marketing, and she is often the first person I bounce ideas off of when I'm planning a show or writing an article, so I've been missing her presence greatly. While she has always been very strong, her situation has made her downright miserable, though she was extremely happy to see me walk in with two iced coffees from Dutch Bros (her favorite) in my hand. I spent a little over an hour visiting and catching up with her, and I wanted to make sure I left her with a smile on her face.
Later that afternoon I went busking in my usual weekday spot at Whole Foods, though I decided to try something different and play an all-original set. Normally I play mostly covers and sprinkle a few original songs in here and there, but that day I was feeling more creative and I wanted to test the waters. I had also written a new original song and I was itching to test it out in front of a live audience. I used to be very conscious of my song choices when I was busking, and I think I was being hindered by this stigma that people only want to hear songs they know. I've been working hard to break that mold by playing originals and lesser-known covers. I've found that as long as I look and sound connected to what I'm playing (and it sounds good) people will respond positively.
This proved to be true when a gentleman approached me as I was playing my new song, "Reflections." He was watching and listening intently, and after I finished up the song he exclaimed, "You wrote that!" It was a statement and not a question. I smiled and told him that indeed I did, and he responded, "I've been writing songs for 20 years and I know a good one when I hear it. That's a hit!" I was very humbled by his words, as it was nice to be recognized by a fellow artist.
On Wednesday I spent the afternoon grabbing beers and catching up with my good friend Troy Lenning, who is getting married next month. Troy has been one of my best friends since we both worked together at Starbucks years ago, when I was in a rock band treating music as a hobby rather than a job. He and his fiance Shelly met at that Starbucks, and after weeks of pressure from myself and our friend Bruno, we finally convinced Troy to ask her out on a date. That was nearly four years ago, and now I'm going to be a groomsmen at their wedding. I am beyond excited to see Troy and Shelly leap faithfully into this next chapter in their lives.
Wednesday was also my father's birthday. My brother Joel, his girlfriend Erin, and I took our dad out to dinner at Filipi's Pizza Grotto. Dad seemed to have a great time, and I'm sure he was grateful to be at a family dinner where he wasn't footing the bill for a change. Unfortunately I learned that Nancy had fallen at her nursing facility that day. To make matters even scarier, my dad got a call later that night at about 1:00 AM letting him know that Nancy was non-responsive and she was being transferred to the ICU at the nearest hospital. I had just fallen asleep and put my phone up on my dresser so I didn't learn about this until the next morning. Luckily the nurses reported that she was stabilized and recovering. If there's one thing my stepmother is, it's tough.
On Thursday I had two articles published in the Napa Register, one on the Margrit Mondavi Summer Concert Series at Robert Mondavi Winery and one on Secure The Sun's show with Sanho The Indian at Blue Note tomorrow night (June 26th). My day really started to perk up when I was able to secure two gigs at a hotel that I've been trying to play at for years. I was also given the opportunity to be the official Guest Speaker at Thursday night's Balanced Breakfast meeting. I was asked by my fellow chapter leaders to give a presentation on "The Hustle", which tackled topics such as honing your craft, marketing, networking, time management, and the mental attitudes needed to succeed as an independent artist. The group was both attentive and responsive, and we were blessed with an incredible view of a beautiful sunset over the entire Napa Valley at country singer-songwriter Tim Ennis' house in the Wild Horse Valley area.
Friday night I went out to Napa Smith Brewery in Vallejo to watch my friend Sanho The Indian perform. It was my first time visiting the brewery and I was impressed with how spacious and well-run the place was. I instantly fell in love with their Organic IPA. Sanho never ceases to impress as well. Initially the cavernous brewing room made the audience feel a little sparse, but Sanho's charismatic presence immediately got all his fans standing up front and center, dancing and singing along to his music, and suddenly the room didn't feel so empty anymore. Something that has always impressed me about Sanho was a quote he gave me during an interview I did with him last month for the Register before his performance at BottleRock: "Whether there's two people in a crowd or 2,000, I always give it my all regardless."
On Saturday the sun was out in full force, cresting at about 97 degrees in the city of Napa but reaching temperatures over 100 degrees in certain parts of the valley. I went out busking that morning from 10 AM until 12 PM. The sun was merciless even then, but I was armed with five bottles of water, a full bottle of sunscreen, and pure bull-headed determination, so I wasn't going down without a fight. Two of my cousins on Nancy's side of the family came into town to visit her that day, so I spent the afternoon catching up with them and my dad at one of my favorite local spots, Napa Palisades Saloon and Brewery. I learned that Nancy was doing much better, both physically and mentally, and was scheduled to be transferred from Queen of the Valley to a monitoring room at Kaiser Hospital, which was good news because that meant she was stable enough to be moved.
I intended on going busking that evening, but it was still in the 90's through 9:00 that night, and I was pressured (albeit easily) to go out downtown with my room mate Dan instead. We started at Gran Electrica for margaritas, then made our way to Morimoto to visit our favorite bartender Josh Weed for cocktails. We ended up at the Andaz Hotel where we had the pleasure of listening to Austin Hicks performing solo at the hotel bar. Hicks has a raw and soulful voice, and I was particularly impressed with his covers of "Say It Ain't So" by Weezer and "Where Is My Mind?" by The Pixies. I had heard his name floating around recently though I had never met him in person before, so I was grateful to run into him and make his acquaintance. Austin is the songwriter and frontman for San Leandro-based indie rock band Make No Bones, and you can check out their music on their BandCamp.
Yesterday I had the pleasure of playing a birthday party for the coolest three-year-old I've ever met. Sam (the birthday boy) is an incredibly wide-eyed, curious and well-behaved child, and he is without a doubt both my biggest and smallest fan. Every time his parents take him shopping at Whole Foods he asks them "Is Zak gonna be there?" He also likes to play his toy guitar for his parents and exclaim, "Look, I'm Zak!" His parents now have a routine when they go shopping with him, in that his mother will go inside and shop while his father stays outside with Sam to watch me play. His parents also make a Spotify playlist for him to listen to based on the songs I play in my busking setlist, including Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and the Johnny Cash version of "You Are My Sunshine." His parents wanted to surprise Sam by having me play at his birthday party, and the look on his face when I walked in the door was priceless. After I had packed up, I caught Sam jamming on his guitar in my spot doing his best "dramatic rockstar" pose, which I'll post below. It's an incredibly humbling feeling to know that I've made such a positive impact on someone so young.
That's it for this post. Tomorrow night I'll be performing a collaborative song with Sanho at the Blue Note at 7 PM, and I've also got the first concert in the Margrit Mondavi series to attend and write about Sarturday night, as well as my first gig at the Archer Hotel Sunday afternoon from 12-3. Thanks for reading, and as always, #loveyourwork!
Some days I wake up and I just feel blessed to be alive. All of my anxieties have taken a back seat and all I feel is an incredible gratitude to be able to live and work in a literal paradise, surrounded by friends, family, and supporters. Today is one of those days.
Last Monday I spent the afternoon working on music with Sanho The Indian. He was mixing the new song we collaborated on, "Grind." He's planning on performing it next Tuesday, June 26th, at the Blue Note. Sanho will be opening up for Napa-based indie pop-rock band Secure the Sun, who I also had the pleasure of interviewing that evening. This show will be Secure the Sun's first performance in Napa since their hiatus, and they are expected to draw a full crowd. I ended up writing a preview article for the show that will be printed in the Napa Register this Thursday.
On Tuesday I performed at the Blue Note with Napa-based rock band Serf and James, and San Francisco-based folk-rock outfit The Fixins. It was one of those shows where I was just riding a natural high the whole night. The house was full and the crowd was lively, singing, clapping and cheering along to my originals and my covers. Many friends, family and new fans came out to show their support, some who I met for the first time and others telling me they recognized me from playing in front of Whole Foods. Shout-out to my Uncle Dana for driving four hours out of his way to come to the show. My brother Joel accompanied me on drums, though his entrance was a surprise to some of the audience. I started the set by myself playing solo acoustic, and Joel walked on stage unannounced and jumped in mid-song, after the first chorus of "Solsburry Hill" by Peter Gabriel. Playing with my brother is always a blast, and that night I felt that we played together especially well. The changes were tight, the pitches were all on, and the vibe was just plain fun. We played a handful of original songs, including a new one that we had never performed together but was well-received, and we ended our set with a sing-along medley of "The Middle" by Jimmy Eat World and "Mr. Brightside" by The Killers.
Joel also plays drums for Serf and James, and they were on their A-game Tuesday night as well. Their band never fails to draw and entertain a crowd. Joel is a solid, hard-hitting drummer and Serf is such an energetic and entertaining front-man as well as an incredible vocalist. Combined with James Porter's melodic guitar riffs and James Yokoi's groovy bass lines, they've honed in on a sound that is both infectious and unique. I joined them on stage toward the end of their set and sang the call-and response chorus of their new song "Tired" with Serf. Immediately after they ended their set and walked off stage, the audience roared with demand for an encore. Serf and James willingly obliged, satiating the hungry crowd with a haunting cover of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" by The Beatles. Overall, it was probably the most fun I've had on a Tuesday in years.
On Wednesday I took a day-trip to the beach with my friend SaveGabe. We loaded up the cooler with ice, beer, and deli sandwiches and soaked up the sun all afternoon out on Stinson Beach. Later that evening we decided drive to San Francisco and head to Neck of the Woods for their open mic night. I haven't played at an open mic in a couple years but I used to perform at them regularly, and I would make a point to travel to different cities and check out the different talent. I've met some incredibly talented musicians and good friends through open mics in San Francisco and Sacramento. I've performed at Neck of the Woods' open mic a handful of times, and a couple times I was featured as their "headlining" artist, so I was excited to check it out again. Unfortunately for us, they changed the way artists sign up to perform, which used to be first-come-first-serve, but now the talent is selected randomly, raffle style by drawing names from a hat. There were about 25 acts signed up to play that night, and neither Gabe or I were chosen until the last five names. We knew that if we wanted to perform we would be there until almost midnight, and we had showed up at 7 p.m., so we stayed until about 9:00 before driving home. Luckily, we were able to catch some stellar acts while we were there, including singer-songwriter Alexis Hall and a San Francisco-based hip-hop artist named Tone.
On Thursday I spent the afternoon busking at my local Whole Foods, where I picked up a copy of the Napa Register. I was humbled to see my article on Shelby, Texas previewed on the front page of the paper, and featured front and center on the first page of the Arts section. Shelby, Texas is a home-grown country rock band and are celebrating the release of their debut album, "We Are Shelby, Texas." Shelby also happens to be a good friend of mine who booked me on some of my first solo shows and encouraged me to pursue my career as a solo artist some years ago. You can check out the article on them here.
SaveGabe and I returned to the city on Saturday night to watch Unlikely Heroes perform at their EP release party. It was, without a doubt, one of the most fun shows I've ever been to. Unlikely Heroes are a San Francisco-based hip-hop/punk/psychedelic rock band with an energy that is so unique and truly unlike any other band I've seen (and I've seen a lot). The best way I could described them would be a mix of Kid Cudi meets Rage Against The Machine. I first saw them last fall when they performed at an event on the rooftop of Flora Springs Winery during the Napa Valley Film Festival. They also performed at one of my house concerts last month, drawing fans all the way out from Davis and Oakland to my backyard in Napa. The venue they played at on Saturday appeared to be a music school called Music City SF, and the room they performed in was a rehearsal space that must have had a max capacity of about 30 people, though it felt like there were at least 70 bodies squeezed in there, spilling out the door and into the hallway. If I had to guess the temperature in that room must have been 110 degrees. I could feel the moisture from all the perspiration in air seeping into the carpet through my shoes. I didn't mind it one bit. The music was great and the energy was electric.
What I didn't know on the drive over there was that Gabe had been invited to perform at the show as well. When we first arrived, Unlikely Heroes were playing an acoustic set to warm up the audience. After they finished up, Gabe was invited on stage to beatbox and instantly received an energetic response from the crowd. He was joined by Heroes front-man Enon Gaines who free-style rapped over his beats. Gabe kept beatboxing for several minutes, and was joined on stage by other rappers from the audience, including our new friend Tone from Neck of the Woods. Gabe was followed up by bay area alternative rock band Fellow Vessel, who played a lively set of original material along with a crowd-pleasing cover of "The Funeral" by Band of Horses.
Unlikely Heroes took to the stage once again, this time with their full-band setup, opening with their driving punk song "Super Fly." Three of the four members of Unlikely Heroes (including the one female member) decided to combat the heat by performing shirtless. Their drummer Jackson Blankenship went the extra mile by stripping down to his underwear. Despite the visible sweat dripping down their faces and into their eyes, the band performed their whole set at their peak energy capacity. The highlight of the night was the penultimate song of their set, "Bang," in which Enon engaged the thriving crowd with an intense call-and-response chant: "Let go. Reload. You know--Bang!" You can check out a video from Saturday's performance below.
Yesterday morning Joel and his girlfriend Erin cooked a delicious Father's Day breakfast for our dad at their place. We all live in Napa, though we live in separate houses, and it was nice to start out the day by getting together as a family and enjoying a home-cooked meal together. Our dad has always been a huge supporter of me and my brother, encouraging us to pursue our passions and attending shows as often as he can. We are both extremely lucky to have him in our lives.
Later that day I drove out to Petaluma to perform at McEvoy Ranch Winery for a private event. Their property was beautiful and the staff was very friendly and accommodating. When I got home I spent the evening working on a new song on my back porch. It was one of those moments were inspiration just struck and I had to hammer it out right then and there. Right now I'm calling the song "Reflections," and I'm really happy with how it came out. I like it because the mood of the piece changes gradually from the opening verse to the outro, and the descending tone of the lyrics is complemented by an uplifting swell in the music. I'm excited to perform it and when I finally get around to recording an album, this song feels like a closing piece for sure.
That's all for today. Thanks for reading and #loveyourwork!
What a week! I'm currently writing this post on Monday morning in my backyard at approximately 8:00 a.m., working off of about 4 hours of sleep. This week has been quite the roller coaster of musical experiences, from landing 3 gigs at a posh local hotel to getting my house concert shut down by the police last night. There truly is never a dull moment in the life of a working musician.
Last Tuesday I lucked out incredibly by being in the right place at the right time. I was busking at my local Whole Foods, playing a cover of "Animal" by Neon Trees when a gentleman approached me, tipped me and left his business card in my case. It turns out that gentleman was the Director of Food and Beverage at a local high-end hotel. I reached out to him that evening to thank him, and he offered me not one but three gigs at his hotel. While I won't name said hotel in this blog post, I can say that they host solo musicians regularly on their rooftop bar in downtown Napa, and if you're really curious you could probably figure it out by looking at my upcoming shows page.
Later that night I finished recording a new song with my engineer and very good friend Jamie Reynolds. Jamie has been one of my strongest supporters over the years, as well as an incredible engineer and producer. Recording music with him is one of my absolute favorite things to do. The song we recorded this week is an intimate acoustic ballad I wrote after a recent breakup called "Coffee Mug." It's a bit of a melancholy piece but I'm really proud of how it turned out, and very satisfied that I was able to take an emotionally draining experience and turn it into something positive and productive. I don't have a set release date for the song yet, but I'm hoping to have it out by the end of the month.
On Wednesday I spent the afternoon working on a new preview article for the Napa Register on the Margrit Mondavi Summer Concert Series at Robert Mondavi Winery. This is their 49th annual summer concert series, and the lineup is filled with top-name acts like Gavin DeGraw, X Ambassadors, and Fitz and the Tantrums. The Director of Hospitality at the winery was nice enough to invite me to cover the concerts, and my editor assigned me to cover the first and last shows of the series, which I am incredibly excited to attend next month. The article should be printed in this Thursday's issue of the Napa Register.
On Thursday I was invited over to my friend Chris Sanchez', AKA Sanho the Indian's house to record some vocals on a new song he was working on. Sanho is a local hip hop artist, and recording music with him was like a breath of fresh air because it's so different from the genres of music I usually play and record. Though our styles are very different, I think they complement each other well, and we were both very happy with how the piece came out. He and I are planning on performing the song together during his set at Blue Note with Secure the Sun on June 26th. To learn more about Sanho the Indian, check out the profile I wrote on him last month for the Napa Register here.
Later Thursday evening Napa's Balanced Breakfast chapter hosted our first meeting of the new season in my backyard. Balanced Breakfast is a community of musicians and industry professionals who meet to network and discuss ways to improve our local scene. I wrote more about them in my previous blog entry. Previously we've held our meeting in public spaces like coffee shops, bars, and restaurants, so this was a little different than our usual routine but the environment felt very casual and I think our meeting was ultimately a fun and productive one. Local musicians Serf and James, Shelby Lanterman, Gabe Walker, Danis D and more were in attendance. Clark Harding gave a wonderful presentation on the art of booking and securing gigs, and it served as a wonderful lesson to some of the younger and less experienced musicians in the group, and generated some great dialogue amongst the group as well. Our meeting ended with a social hour where local rapper Danis D recorded a freestyle video over Gabe's beatboxing, which I'll include on this page below this post.
On Friday evening I went busking in downtown Napa at a spot I haven't played at in a while, on the corner of First and Main Street by YoBelle and Palisades Saloon. The tourists and locals were out in full force, and the air was charged with excitement and good spirits after the Golden State Warriors swept the Cleveland Cavaliers in Game 4 to retain their title as the NBA Champions. I ran into some good friends and made some decent money, but a standout moment of the evening was when a gentleman on a bike tipped me and told me he was having a horrible day, but hearing me play music on the street brightened his mood and changed his whole attitude. He sang along with me to a joyous cover of "The Middle" by Jimmy Eat World, and left with a huge smile on his face.
On Saturday I went busking twice, once in the morning at Whole Foods and once in downtown Napa in the evening. Both were relatively "normal" shifts, though the downtown plaza was busier than normal with the Napa Valley Jazz Festival happening this weekend, and I made great money that night.
Sunday was where the real fun was at. My room mate and I hosted a house concert at our place, which is something we've done three times previously. The shows have always been lots of fun and have had great attendance. The idea for hosting concerts started last summer, when a friend's band was looking for a venue to play in Napa but their music didn't quite fit the regular "Napa aesthetic." We have a nice back deck that serves as a great stage, so I offered to host them at our place, and since then we've put together shows featuring bands from out of town sandwiched between local openers and headliners. This show's lineup featured my favorite local band Serf and James from Napa, the alternative rock outfit Death By Fireworks from San Francisco, and folk singer-songwriter Jimbo Scott from Castro Valley. The bands were all playing great and the guests were having a good time when the cops showed up to shut us down in the middle of mine and my brother's set, after Death By Fireworks and just before Serf and James. Apparently a neighbor called to complain about the noise at 7 pm, saying they were trying to sleep. This was a little disappointing because previously I believed that we had good relations with our neighbors. We make a point to visit every house in the neighborhood and leave a flyer with them inviting them to our house shows, giving them the exact time the music will go until, and providing them with all of our contact information in case we are being too loud.
The police were very respectful but stern, letting us off with a warning and allowing us to continue the party unamplified. Serf and James were great spirits about the situation, immediately busting out their acoustic instruments and crowding around the bonfire to serenade our guests. In all fairness to the police and our neighbors, we were operating illegally because we did not have an amplified noise permit. Admittedly my passion for music and art has often outweighed my desire to follow the rules and I generally operate under the attitude that it's easier to ask for forgiveness than permission, as is probably evident from my work as a busker. We do have another house show planned for next month on July 8th with Unlikely Heroes, Sanho the Indian and more on board to play and we have no plans to cancel it. We have other residences in the valley interested in hosting house concerts for us, and this week I will decide whether we want to move the show to another venue or acquire a permit to do the show legitimately at our house again. Ultimately, I'm not very mad about the experience, and I'm grateful we have been able to play shows previously with no hassle. Plus, I can now say I've had a set shut down by the cops, and I think that should be a rite of passage for any growing musician.
Today I'm finishing up an article on Napa locals Shelby, Texas for the Register to promote the release of their new album, "We Are Shelby, Texas," and tonight I'm interviewing BottleRock veterans Secure the Sun to promote their show at Blue Note on the 26th. Tomorrow night I will be playing at Blue Note with Serf and James and The Fixins from San Francisco. The show runs from 7 until 10 p.m. and admission is free for locals. I'll be opening up the show from 7 until 7:45 and my brother Joel will be accompanying me on drums.
That's all for now. Looking forward to a fun week of shows and articles to write. Thank you for reading and as always, #loveyourwork.
Throughout my years of busking and playing shows, I've had many entertaining encounters and experiences that have made me say, "Man, I wish I was writing this down." Today I decided to make that wish into a reality and start my own blog, which I've entitled "Word On The Street." This blog will essentially be my public journal as a musician, though eventually I intend on posting album and concert reviews for both local and influential musicians in my life.
Last weekend I had the privilege of attending BottleRock Napa Valley all three days. I was granted a media pass by my editor at the Napa Valley Register where I write about music. I got to see a couple of my favorite bands, The Killers and Manchester Orchestra, and I was exposed to many new great acts such as Caitlyn Smith, Allen Stone, The Night Game, Missio, Flor, and more. For the last three years I've made it a ritual to busk outside the festival each night on the Third Street Bridge leading into downtown Napa, which has always been a very fun and profitable experience. This year's experience was even more fun for me, since I enjoy playing a lot of Killers songs already, and I got to play their songs for their fans immediately after seeing them live. The crowd on Night 2 was the most receptive toward me, happily singing along to my covers of "Mr. Brightside," "When You Were Young," "The Man," "Smile Like You Mean It," and "Read My Mind." At one point I had a crowd of about 20 people around me dancing and singing the lyrics to the bridge of "All These Things That I've Done" with me (I've got soul but I'm not a soldier!). I would also like to give a shout-out to my brother's band Serf and James for playing a killer BottleRock after-party at Billcos on Saturday night.
After a very long and tiring weekend, I decided to give my voice a rest for a few days. On Friday night I played at Tank Garage Winery in Calistoga for their first Speakeasy event of the season. Tank Garage is a really interesting winery in that it's built inside of an old gas station and is decked out with tons of motorcycle and rock'n'roll decor. The space I played in was a bougie, dimly lit back room with velvet walls separated from the main tasting room by a thick curtain. The crowd that night was lively and very responsive, and I was both surprised and humbled when a good handful of friends/fans drove all the way out from Napa, nearly an hour up the valley just to see me. The staff at Tank Garage was also incredibly accommodating, and they even gifted me a 4-pack of wine. If you're curious about visiting Tank Garage, make sure you try my favorite blend "Lick," but you better hurry because all their blends are only made once and then they're gone forever.
This morning I returned to my usual busking spot at my local Whole Foods to practice my set and entertain the local patrons. I was tired and groggy, but an incredibly nice woman tipped me $50 after I'd only played a few songs. That immediately lifted my spirits, and I played out the rest of my set with a smile on my (very hot and sweaty) face. I ran into a few friends (Hi Wendy!) and a couple of my "regular" tippers commented that it was nice to see me after being gone for a couple weeks. I try to keep my market saturated (though not oversaturated) by playing there once or twice a week, but with BottleRock, finals week at Napa Valley College, and all the private events I've been playing recently I was finding it difficult to make time. It feels good to be missed though!
I also recently became a chapter leader in Napa's Balanced Breakfast group. Balanced Breakfast is an international community of musicians and industry professionals that started in San Francisco, but has since spread to 33 cities and counting across the United States and Canada. Its main goal is to build community within local music scenes and connect musicians with each other as well as other industry professionals (i.e. bookers/promoters, photographers, videographers, graphic designers, social media gurus, etc.). Our Napa chapter has been going strong for a year now, and our next meeting will be on Thursday, June 7th at 2480 Pacific Street in Napa from 7-9 pm. All meetings are open-invitation, and if you are a musician or a professional working within the music industry we would love for you to attend. To learn more about Balanced Breakfast, click here.
That's all for now. I plan on keeping this blog updated once a week, so if all goes well I should have another entry next Sunday. Thanks for reading! #loveyourwork