My Top Ten Musical Moments of 2014

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Music means a lot to me. I suspect there are a few of us out there. We are the kind of people who burst into spontaneous song if prompted by the right phrase or even just the right word (my kids think I have a song for everything… they may be right). We are people who, when asked, “What’s your favorite band?” or “What kind of music do you listen to?” give blank stares for a few moments, urrr and ummm, look at our shoes and feel quite awkward and often totally speechless. Why? Because those are such huge questions you might as well be asking, “What is the answer to life, the universe, and everything?”

Forty-two.

Okay, so that was an easy question to answer. But for we the Uber Music-Lovers, we the Pop Music-Snobbists, we the Keepers of the Backbeat, asking us to pick a favorite band, album, song or genre is like asking Ma and Pa Ingalls to pick a favorite daughter – It is unthinkable that there is even an appropriate response to that question!

Life is music. Music is life. I could not give you an accurate autobiography without the inclusion of lots and lots of music. In fact, when I think of my own life there is a soundtrack playing in the background: age 6, “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” by Jim Croce; age 10, “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” by Elton John; age 16, “Truckin'” by the Grateful Dead; age 20, “Radio Free Europe” by REM… you get the picture. Music, life. Life, music.

So it is probably not a stretch that when I consider the year that was, I think in terms of musical moments. These are not just favorite songs or albums from 2014, they are moments in time; moments that defined my year and helped to keep me sane and alive. To paraphrase Bono when he was talking about the Clash, Music isn’t life or death to me; it is more important than that. 

So here are my Top Ten Musical Moments for 2014. There is no way I can put these in any order of importance so I present them unadorned with numbers and in random order…

  •  Seeing the Strumbellas live in concert
The Strumbellas at Ottawa Folk Fest 2014. I'm one of the heads near the front!

The Strumbellas at Ottawa Folk Fest 2014. I’m one of the heads near the front!I

I was able to finally take in this up-and-coming Canadian pop-folk band at Ottawa’s Folk Fest this past September. I first heard the Strumbellas just over a year ago and was immediately taken in by their sound, song craft and dance-able tunes about death. Since first hearing them it has been a Strumbellas year for me; whatever else I was listening to, I always gravitated back to listening to them. They helped me through the year, no doubt about it. But getting to see them live was a magical musical moment for me. They were fun, full of life and so damn accessible – everything I imagined they’d be and more. Stomping, singing and clapping along on that unseasonably cold September night was bliss.

  • Listening to “Bad Blood” from beginning to end

bastille_2Like so many people, I had heard Bastille on the radio and been transfixed by the songs “Pompeii” and “Bad Blood”. Once or twice a year I am blown away by hearing something that sounds so different and fresh from the usually stream of crap. Bastille provided those moments for me this year. But purchasing and then listening to their album Bad Blood from beginning to end was a profound musical moment for me. So many artists are trapped in the new singles-creation mode demanded by our i-Tunes world. Often it seems like albums are once again just collections of individual songs. But Bastille made an album that grabs you by the throat and will not let you go from first song to last. I was gobsmacked.

  • Song leading and inspiration at Grow
The Grow Guitar. Tempera on canvas by me.

The Grow Guitar. Tempera on canvas by me.

Not only do I listen to a lot of music but I am fortunate enough to be someone who plays and sings music on a weekly basis. I work for a day program called Grow that serves adults with developmental disabilities. One of my duties there is song-leading in what we call “music class”, two to three times a week. With the beat-up salmon-colored Grow guitar I lead people through a wide variety of songs, from “Old MacDonald” to “Blue Suede Shoes” to “Hey Ho”. These times are really a collection of musical moments, each with their own personality; sometimes routine, sometimes fun, sometimes something almost indescribable. What I experience in these moments, however, is music as pure as it can be; a form of communication that cuts through the divisions of who is “normal” and who we deem is not. At times, I have tapped into music beyond performance or expertise; it is music as conversation, often with those who do not have words to express what is in their hearts. It is transcendent.

  • The Strypes convincing me Rock n Roll isn’t dead
Ireland's own The Strypes

Ireland’s own The Strypes

Despite the popularity of bands like Foo Fighters and the Black Keys, there seem to be no shortage of alarmists proclaiming the imminent death of Rock n Roll. This happens every few years. I remember the same discussion happening right before “Smells Like Teen Spirit” came out and knocked us all back on our collective ass. The reality is that Rock n Roll ebbs and flows but it never dies. Likely it never will, at least not in my lifetime. How can I be so sure? Because of bands of teenagers like the Strypes. I was blow away when I first heard them on the radio this year. Here are four young lads from Ireland blasting through songs that take 1960’s British Invasion bands like the Rolling Stones, the Animals and the Yardbirds as inspiration. They kick out the jams and, more than that, have given a kick-start to Rock n Roll for the digital generation. Long live Rock! Long live the Strypes!

  • Lorde emerging as the voice of her generation
Lorde on the cover of Rolling Sone, January 2014

Lorde on the cover of Rolling Sone, January 2014

Speaking of teenagers… Certainly the biggest teen sensation in music this past year was likely the most unexpected. Lorde is the anti-diva. No twerking, no sex-kitten pouting, no headline-grasping alcohol-drenched antics, just some of the most riveting music produced in the last decade. When I first heard her sing “Royals” it was like someone putting me in a trance. And that someone turned out to be only seventeen at the time.

After getting the chance to listen to her whole album I came to the conclusion that this wasn’t just another pop star on the rise; this was someone who would redefine music and popular culture for her generation. If that seems like an overstatement, consider what a very young Bob Dylan became. He had a voice and a songwriting ability far beyond his years. She has that same ability to rise above her contemporaries and take her own unique place in music. This year I caught a glimpse of the future of pop music and, Lorde, it looks good.

  • John Hiatt and Lyle Lovett saving me from a Super Blow-Out
Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt at the National Arts Centre, Ottawa, ON, Feb. 2, 2014

Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt at the National Arts Centre, Ottawa, ON, Feb. 2, 2014

I am a huge music fan, which has already been established. I am also a fan of the Denver Broncos. Having grown up in Colorado, it was hard not to be indoctrinated into the religion of Blue and Orange devotion. Guilty as charged. So last January I was ecstatic when they were going to play the Super Bowl on my birthday! When I told my wife, she started to tear up. Not because she was so happy for me but because she had bought two tickets to a concert for the night of Feb. 2, 2014 – my birthday and the night of the Big Game. She was hoping to surprise me.

I love music and I love the Denver Broncos but I love my darling wife a whole lot more. I told her there was only one option for me: Going with her to the concert and setting aside my Broncos-infatuated self for those few hours.

Turns out the concert by two wonderful songwriters, Lyle Lovett and John Hiatt, was a dazzling musical moment in my year. Not only did I get to go out with my bride, not only did I get to hear some incredible music and hilarious banter from two legends, but I also got to miss the agony of watching my team being humiliated and dismantled by the Seattle Seahawks. In a ’round about way, my love of music kept me from wasting three hours of my life and instead gave me three hours that I will treasure. Touchdown!

  •  Creeping out to Reuben and the Dark

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Another Canadian band that latched onto me was the Alberta-based Reuben and the Dark and their album Funeral Sky. I first heard their song “Rolling Stone” on the radio and I liked it a lot but it sounded very derivative of a band like Mumford and Sons. However, I decided to give their album a try and, well, it is creepin’ good music, man! Dark (as you might guess), forbidding, but very listen-able. Like the best blues and folk music that doesn’t shy away from the shadows of life, Reuben and the Dark go places in their music where most pop groups fear to tread. For that, they earned my praise.

My life this year was full of shadows. The specters of depression, anxiety, relationship conflicts, financial struggles and the usual host of issues that make life a bitch have haunted me this year. Music like this doesn’t bring me farther down, it helps me cope. Maybe that seems funny but music like this takes away the feeling that I am all alone in the dark. Music can do that; it can hold your hand or give you an embrace just when you need it to.

  •  “Hallelujah” and a Christmas reminder of my Mom
My Mom, Eleanor, and my two kids on her 80th birthday, 2012

My Mom, Eleanor, and my two kids on her 80th birthday, 2012

Two years ago, on December 7, 2012, my Mom died after years of struggling through the unrelenting hell that is Alzheimer’s disease. I was there by her beside when she died. I was looking into her eyes as she let out her last rattling breath. I felt so unworthy to be there at that moment but also felt so privileged to be one of the last people to say “I love you” to her and give her permission to “go home”. It was unforgettable.

My siblings and I had got Mom a gift for her birthday that previous spring. It was a digital photo frame that scrolls through photos. We thought this was a nice gift for a woman who treasured family, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. The frame had a built in MP-3 player and my brother had put in a number of CDs that my Mom loved. One of them was a recording of Handel’s Messiah.

As my Mom lay dying, the photo frame was gently playing music in the background. My brother had set it to random but at this time it was playing music from Handel’s most famous oratorio. I was aware of the music playing behind a very, very real life drama. But what happened after my Mom died still takes my breath away.

This past Christmas I put The Messiah on our CD player. It was Christmas afternoon, the brunch had been eaten, the gifts had been opened, and my wife and I were just hanging out in our living room. Then the “Hallelujah” chorus kicked in and in that moment I was flooded with memories of my Mom and of being there at the moment of her death.

Two years ago as my brother and I wept and comforted my Dad, grieving the loss of his wife and partner, the “Hallelujah” chorus was playing in the background. I know it sounds like a made-for-TV moment but I am not making it up. It was as if, through music, God was embracing all of us and making it clear that my Mom truly was home.

There are times when musical moments push us beyond self and beyond the pettiness of everyday. That was one of those moments for me.

  •  Playing live music in Whoville
The Whoville house band?

The Whoville house band?

Each year at Christmastime my workplace puts on a Christmas Ball for all the people we support in the Ottawa region. We usually end up with about one hundred clients and staff attending. There is always a theme that gets expressed in the decorations, food, costumes, etc. This year we had “A Very Who Christmas” complete with decorations of the Grinch’s Lair and a Who house, servings of Roast Beast and Who Hash, and brilliantly bright decorations, costumes and crazy hairdos. We also decided to go with live music this year.

I have performed music live in many different settings with many different forms of music. I am not much of a guitar player (“three chords and a cloud of dust” is how I describe it) but I can sing well. However, with my limitations on guitar, accompanying myself as I sing only goes so far. When I can just sing with a group of awesome musicians backing me up, that is a heavenly musical moment. This happened for me at this year’s Grow Christmas Ball.

My favorite moments as a musician are when you feel the joy of collaboration and the joy of being part of something alive and fun. Playing music with four other talented musicians was an early Christmas present to me. The crowd was dancing and singing along. When we were done, one of the people we support asked their staff, “Where did the house band go?” We were the Whoville House Band for a night! It was enough to make anyone’s heart grow three sizes that day.

  • Receiving the gift of a fine acoustic guitar

LHAs I mentioned, I’m not much of a guitar player. But that doesn’t keep me from trying! My other job is as a pastor of a great group of people who know me well; so well in fact that for Christmas they gave me the beautiful guitar pictured above. It was the first acoustic guitar owned by one of the guitarist in the church. He generously has passed it on to me.

Indeed, this was my gracious musical moment of 2014. And it encapsulates so much of what music gives to me to sustain me and lift me up at just the right times.

I’m looking forward to 2015; I may not get any better on guitar but I know for sure that there will be more musical gifts and memories in store.

A very Happy New Year to you all. May it be full of magical, mystical, melodious musical moments for you.

Aside

The Union of Song & Soul

the_strumbellas_01There is a soundtrack to my life. It hasn’t been composed by Hans Zimmer or John Williams.  There is no unifying theme, no brass section for the exciting bits or strings for the romantic stuff.  Minor chords do not sound in the background when I’m in danger. My soundtrack doesn’t follow all the expected formulas for scoring a movie. But, then again, my life is not a movie. Good thing, too, as my life would probably be a slow-pace, independent film with lots of actors you’ve never heard of and no budget for any CGI or special effects of any kind. Likely straight to video, too.

But at least there would be a soundtrack. And a kick-ass soundtrack, if I do say so myself.

There’s a scene in the movie “High Fidelity” where the main character reveals that his record collection is sorted chronologically, according to his own life story. To find out what album he’s looking for, he has to remember certain events in his life, past relationships. It’s as if his life and his love of music are lived simultaneously, blending and weaving with each other, influencing each other, crafting, if you will, a soundtrack to his life.

I am a major music lover or, as my wife calls me, a “music snob”. If I didn’t have a family to provide for I would probably be living in some dingy basement apartment surrounded by vinyl, CDs, cassette tapes I can’t part with and perhaps even some eight-tracks just for the retro-weirdness of it. I would’ve been a less interesting and less medicated Lester Bangs.

As the years roll by I have discovered how much the music of my life rolls along too. I am not a nostalgic music listener. In fact, I kind of despise nostalgic music listening – that is, when middle-aged folks like me listen almost exclusively to the things they cranked on their boomboxes in high-school. These are 40-somethings who talk about how totally awesome Bon Jovi/Journey/Loverboy/(insert hackneyed ’80’s band here) is and how music today has gone down hill from when they were younger and blah, blah, blah-blah blaaaaaaaah…

Wow. My wife is right; I am a music snob.

Of course, there are times I listen to music for purely nostalgic reasons, to summon feelings from past times in my life. But I find more and more that I view music as a continually unfolding composition in my life; a soundtrack that is uniquely my own. I don’t dwell exclusively on the songs of the past, no matter how wonderful they may be, because there are new songs in my life. There is an ever-expanding playlist with room for more and more tunes to come.

I was considering this because I have recently been smitten by a roots/pop-folk band called the Strumbellas. I get smitten every now and again. My family knows when said smiting has happened because they get to hear me playing that artist or group over and over and over.  They have a lot of patience with my musical crushes. The Strumbellas are a six-member group in the vibe of the Lumineers or Mumford and Sons. The main obstacle to their success is that they happen to be Canadian, which is, of course, their own damn fault. Other than that, their music is great, evidently causing a lot of spontaneous dancing to erupt wherever they play. I have not been able to see them live yet. If you happen to see them or have seen them, let me now about the spontaneous booty shaking, okay?

While driving to church one Sunday morning, I heard my first Strumbellas’ song: “In This Life”. After a pleasingly simple guitar riff and very catchy handclap intro came these lyrics: “I know the seasons ain’t been changing and everyday looks like rain/ But I’m still hoping for that sun/ The streets are filled with demons, lord, that’s never gonna change/ But I still want to be with everyone/ I know there’s something for you out there in this life/ I know there’s something for you out there in this life.”

There is someone I love who desperately wants to live an abundant life but struggles with her own demons. When I heard that song I started to get teary eyed; it was as if I was singing it to her, as if the Strumbellas had written and recorded a song for what was on my mind and on my heart in my life right then and there. Before the song was done I was smitten! And I experienced once again the power of life and music blending together and becoming part of my soundtrack; part of me.

After my Strumbellas CD arrived and I listened to it over and over and over, I ordered another one and listened to that one over and over and over. My family endured my crush and, once again, music and life came together. I discovered that so many of their songs deal with death and losing a loved one. The lead singer/songwriter of the group, Simon Ward , lost his Dad when he was only 16; I lost my Mom a little over a year ago. In their songs I was hearing incredibly life-affirming, danceable music supporting lyrics dealing with the subject of death. Here was a group seeing the spectre of death as a great motivator for life; the reality of the grave making your chance to dance so much sweeter. Check out my first blog, “Death and Life”, and you’ll see me writing those very same sentiments.

I love music. Music can be so many things. It can remind us of good times, bad times, ugly times. It can make us jig and it can make us bawl. But perhaps its greatest aspect is the mystical union of song and soul. I don’t know where my life is going, what scenes will play out, but I know there will always be an ever-unfolding soundtrack and that makes me feel a deep sense of joy.

Here’s a link a Strumbellas video for “In This Life” – Enjoy!  http://youtu.be/SjxdvGJDYm8