Friday, March 19, 2010

Together We Stand

For some time now I've been contemplating how social networking and collective intelligence can be and is being applied in a variety of life situations. My niece found this video and posted it on Facebook. I have also recently been listening to this book by Bill Kinnon.

Social networking occupies a measurable portion of my work and private life now. When it comes to interacting with my community of friends and family who are not in my immediate geographical area, or who I cannot see except infrequently due to time constraints and schedules, Facebook has become my preferred tool. I have been able to reestablish connections to friends and acquaintances from decades earlier in my life as well as know much more about people I am in ministry with but cannot be face to face with daily.

I have done ministry for some through social networking and had real life events begin in the crucible of the social network. I have observed how my children and their friends use social networking to communicate and add to their relationships, and how in some cases they are already either taking this powerful medium for granted or even disengaging from it because of the demands it can place on them. When disdain or rejection of a widely used technology appears one can assume it has become ubiquitous enough to be pushed back against.

What I'm observing now is that the generational divide between social media users and non-users is blurring faster and faster. My middle-ager, baby-boomer group is one of the fastest growing segments, but so is the generation just before ours. The drivers seem to be family issues and ease of communication.

While this type of networking is still called 'virtual', I am personally regarding it more and more as 'actual' - even as telephone conversations have been considered 'actual' communication instead of virtual for decades now. Texting, chatting, using video/audio communication like Skype, text communication like Twitter are all becoming considered to be 'actual' interactions and the 'virtual' label is losing its social meaning - now referring simply to the mechanism of the communication rather than imparting any judgment of the relative value of that interaction. Less and less is 'virtual' interaction being seen as less desirable, valid or useful as compared to accepted 'actual' interaction.

We are solving real problems through applying the power of collective intelligence and collaborative work connected over 'virtual' platforms (MySpace, Facebook, etc.). We are expanding, maintaining and continuing our personal networks through the same media. We are connecting and making community and these new technologies offer powerful tools for us to make positive differences for ourselves and others.

A church I heard about changed its policy making structure from a top-down executive model to a congregation engaging work group model. At one of the first meetings where they implemented this the people attending were broken up into work groups and given aspects of the issues being addressed to discuss and report on to the larger group. There was some resistance to the change, but one elderly member in her 80's simply stated, "This is the way we do things now."

And I think Scripture encourages us to use these various media to bless each other.

Social networking - this is the way we do things now (or it will be very, very soon.)


Friday, March 05, 2010

When Everything Old Is New Again - It's Great!

I promised a word on Eric Clapton's & Steve Winwood's 2009 live collaboration "Live From Madison Square Garden". Recently Clapton has been going this route more than flying solo. Beginning - as far as my collection is concerned - with the stunning 2004 "Crossroads Guitar Festival" DVD, his triumphant live concert reunion with Jack Bruce & Ginger Baker as Cream in 2005 and then the utterly superb "Road to Escondito" CD with J.J. Cale in 2006, Clapton has been indulging himself in playing with whomever he wants whenever he wants. I say indulgence is very good in these cases. "Live From..." is no exception.

I was fortunate enough to see Winwood live in 2008 in Edmonton, AB as the lead act with Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers. What surprised me was what an accomplished guitarist he is. My previous experiences with 'the man, the myth, the legend' were firmly planted in his string of relatively successful albums in the '80's including "Arc of a Diver" (1980), "Talking Back to the Night" (1982) & "Back in the High Life" (1986). On those recordings Winwood performed primarily as a vocalist/keyboardist. In Edmonton he wowed me with his guitar prowess, but I can be forgiven as I was still largely ignorant of his earlier career, of course with the obvious exception of "Gimme Some Lovin'". The bits I did know about via television always had Winwood seated behind his ubiquitous Hammond B-3 organ. So be it - at least I'm still learning.

To say Winwood keeps up with Clapton on this superb double CD doesn't even come close. Opening with the wondrous trilogy of "Had to Cry Today", "Low Down" & "Them Changes" with nary a fulsome organ chord in any of them, Winwood goes chord for chord and note for note with his old friend. When the organ finally comes to the fore in "Presence of the Lord" we all understand why the Hammond instrument left the dusty confines of the local church to enter the smokey environs of the local club. And it just gets better and better as the album goes on.

Clapton is as smooth, relaxed and on target as I've ever heard him. Sliding from bluesy authority to incendiary riffing to meaty rhythm to chunky punctuation he is always in the groove. He makes space for the other players to contribute better than I've heard before, yet holds the spotlight - when he is called on to - with a deft touch that speaks volumes of how he has mastered his art and his demons. Assurance, accuracy, emotion, investment, connection, soul, truth - these are just a few of the descriptors that apply to his playing on these songs

Speaking of the 'other players', the contributions of Willie Weeks on bass, Chris Stainton on keyboards and Ian Thomas on drums are all more than up to the task of constructing the foundation that Clapton and Winwood stand on while they spin their magic. Showing the innovation that set them apart originally in Blind Faith comes across particularly well in their version of Buddy Holly's "Well All Right" - a treat worth the whole purchase price of the CD in my never-to-be-humble opinion. The new players become a part of that song as if they were there when their leaders first tangled with it in 1969. But in the case of this version, time and better recording techniques plus love and appreciation have done very good things for the music. Indeed that combination has infused the whole recording with something quite special.

The set is sprinkled with songs from both Clapton's & Winwood's solo careers plus most of their Blind Faith songs. It is a well crafted set list that shows all of the dimensions of this duo's musical prowess, highlighting clearly why we and so many others love what they do. The result transcends the past, their separate journeys and previous successes and re-frames the music within the new context of their amassed skill and experience. Their obvious respect for each other and the songs brings reverence and joy in equal parts to their playing and making this much, much more than it might have been in the hands of lesser artists.

As live albums go, this one is at the top of the heap from a production standpoint. I suspect this is so because the boys new this was going to be a one-off event and the decisions that needed to be made to ensure a sterling outcome were made early on and without flinching. The technical & production staff and crew deserve a big 'thank you' for helping to get it right.

So this stuff isn't "contemporary" by most standards, but it is timeless. In may ways it should humble current artists who strive to make music that is emotional and rooted in the long-standing forms of the blues/rock genre. There really is something to be said for the results of artists who practice their craft long and well. It just "keeps getting better all the time" (thanks Paul & John). Although it is a long set, it doesn't wear thin anywhere along the way and once on the iPod one is inclined to cue up both CDs in succession and just let 'er rip.

Most of us won't get to witness something like this magical set of concerts - the live moment being relegated to the affordability and exclusivity of owning an exotic automobile or luxury yacht. This is why it is such a miracle and blessing that microphones and other recording equipment exist. And why it is such a miracle that we can experience the next best thing to being there - maybe a better thing than being there because we can visit it time and time again. And as a final thought, very often projects like this can lead to a "wish I was there" nostalgia for times past. I think in this case, could we send a copy of this recording back to where it all began in '69, the folks there might wish they were here. Time and patience can result in wondrous things.

I think I'm gonna have to buy the DVD, too.


He Plays a What?

"Unique" is a word often thrown around the music biz that stands in for phrases like "not commercial" or "we can't categorize it so we can't sell it" or most usually "doesn't play by our corporate rules so we hate it". As any of you who have been perusing this blog know, I often comment that the cognoscenti of the music world wouldn't know a good recording if they were struck across the noggin with it tied to a Fender Strat. But that happily doesn't stop good stuff from getting made. And so often it takes the hand of another artist to get it going - like in the case of this blog entry's featured artist.

In 1981 I had no idea who David Lindley was. As it turned out I heard his nitro-fueled version of "Mercury Blues" at a show in Edmonton during their summer exhibition - then called "Klondike Days", now called "Edmonton's Capital Ex". Although "Klondike Days" was a fairly ghastly name, the new name sounds like it's an ode to the ultimate ex-partner. Well living that far north does strange things to a body - but look at me, I lived there for 25 years so who am I to talk?

Self-serving digressions aside, I'm sad to say that I didn't see David and his band El Rayo-X live. The aforementioned song was the soundtrack to a synchronized water fountain and lightshow that preceded the main act - who may have been "Teen Angel and the Rockin' Rebels" - sort of Canada's answer to "Sha Na Na". They were, in my fuzzy recollection, quite good as a '50's/'60's cover band. But that David Lindley driven water fountain lightshow - that really stuck in my mind. I suspect the designer/developer of that little demonstration went on to be involved with the design of the fountain at the Bellagio Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, or at least was one of the first to use the technology - the fountains and lights were wicked fast for their day. But it was the song that got to me.

My only previous experience with "Mercury Blues" was the California-slick and slightly swampy version done by Steve Miller on his equally excellent but nothing-at-all-like-Lindley album, "Fly Like An Eagle". That version had been firmly burned into my brain for at least 5 years, including a run in 1976/77 when I'm pretty sure I listened to the whole album once a day for at least 10 months. In 3 minutes and 33 seconds Lindley shredded my connection to the Miller version and I was hooked, never looking back. Sorry Steve - I still like the rest of "Eagle".

The very next day I had me a copy of "El Rayo-X" and the rest is future history. It turned out I had been hearing Lindley before - I just hadn't noticed. Thanks to Jackson Browne, whom Lindley had done session work for, and who co-produced the album, I was getting the pure source. It also turned out that Lindley was connected to another west coast wunderkind - Warren Zevon - who also was connected to Browne. I was listening to a lot of California produced stuff at the time, but David Lindley sounded like he had dropped in from another planet. By now, you've probably noticed the meandering style this post has taken - well that's just a metaphor for what David Lindley does with a tune.

I'm going to recommend two albums for you and I'll bet that the third one I'll mention is a keeper, too - although I don't have it - yet. The first I've already named above - the second is "Win This Record" (1982) - both originally released on the Warner/Reprise label. The third "El Rayo Live" will satisfy the completists reading this - and while those three don't encompass even a tenth of Lindley's recording career, they do represent the sum total of the El Rayo-X period. And it was a wonderful and all too short spasm of creativity the music biz couldn't categorize, control or contain.

To say that Lindley's arrangements of tunes - especially covers he did - were "different" would be like saying "Nickelback's" music is only slightly formulaic and predictable. But Lindley, for all his unique approach (how about a reggae version of "Bye Bye Love"?) is one of the most musical players I have ever heard. Some of my ab-so-lute-ly personal favs are "She Took Off My Romeos", "Twist and Shout", "Talk To The Lawyer", "Ram-A-Lamb-A-Man" & "Make It On Time". You'll need both albums to hear all of those. But in every case you will be confronted by a man and a band who know exactly what they are doing - even as you are trying to figure out just what it is.

Lindley plays pretty much anything with strings on it that can be plucked or strummed. The fact that he uses an electric steel guitar to create the power chords on "Mercury Blues" was a revelation when I finally saw Lindley and most of El Rayo-X (at least percussionist extraordinaire Ras Baboo was there) on the TV show "Later...With Jools Holland" hosted by the ex-Squeeze keyboardist.

And even though Robert Randolph - the newest proponent of a very un-traditional sounding approach to the standard and pedal steel guitar - never heard of Lindley or other 'secular' bands when he was growing up, I like to think that it was Lindley who was in the vanguard of breaking down some of the barriers that relegated certain instruments to certain genres of music and made Randolph's career an inevitability.

Anyway, you owe it to yourself to give Lindley a try. He takes a bit of listening to get full value from, but it's well worth it. Just start with the tunes that grab you and give the others a chance, and then you'll find yourself hearing those same sounds in other musicians' repertoires. And that brings us meanderingly to the point of why David Lindley matters - he made those sounds first, and then others followed him. And that is the best definition of "unique" I can think of. "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."

Imitated, yes. Bettered, never!


Monday, March 01, 2010

How Do You Feel?

Recently I have become increasingly aware of health care and its associated costs through the illnesses of people I am connected to through the internet and personally. Michael Spencer, my fav Christian blogger - who is a real Christian goshdarnit - has been struck with cancer and has lost his income and health care coverage and is in real jeopardy, financially as well as physically. Kaja Foglio of "Girl Genius" had knee surgery and as a self-employed artist/entrepreneur she and her husband Phil have had to face these issues. In a circumstantial quirk that beggars description the Foglio's colorist, Cheyenne Wright, was struck with a viral infection that affected his heart. Cheyenne is even further out on the seemingly non-existent health care limb than Spencer and the Foglios as he is a free-lance artist.

Their friend and fellow web cartoonist/entrepreneur/writer and neo-Renaissance guy Aaron Williams, creator of "Nodwick", "PS 238", "Full Frontal Nerdity" and the recently and sadly demised "Backward Compatible" comic strips as well as the highly excellent, more traditionally delivered "North 40", linked to an archived American NPR broadcast of "This American Life" from October of 2009 on the subject of health care and its attendant costs. If you want the rest of this post to make any sense you must listen to this program next. Thanks to the "majick of the internets", the rest of my scribblings will patiently await your return. Hoy, Technology!

As a Canadian, and "lucky" recipient of nationalized public health care, it may seem that I don't have a dog in this fight, but I've been spending a lot more time in hospitals and being concerned about health care lately. After my mother-in-law destroyed her right shoulder in a frightening tumble down her basement stairs in October of 2009 - yet another coincidence beggaring description when juxtaposed with the date of the NPR broadcast - and that in the middle of dealing with her husband's rapidly deteriorating condition due to Alzheimer's, we were forced to pay much closer attention to such things - at least north of the 49th parallel. More recently, due to experiencing my wife suffering with an undiagnosable ailment, I have realized that many of the pressures, mechanisms and infernal internal workings of health care delivery as outlined in the "This American Life" documentary are also part of "This Canadian Life". I live in the "True North, (not so) Strong and Free (for sure not free as in 'free lunch')".

Many of the situations described in the broadcast had an all too familiar feel to them, particularly how my wife and I evaluate medical decisions based on how information is shared with us by doctors, nurses, therapists, politicians, medical insurance providers and drug companies through advertising and the ubiquitous media. These multiple streams of information have created and sustained many of the same false beliefs and unproductive ideals we see demonstrated in the US health system. The real reality check being that neither a public nor private system - nor any hybrid of the two - will solve the basic issue of a demanding public that wants what it wants - now - costs be damned.

Solutions will hopefully come from more education and understanding of the forces driving health costs worldwide, and hopefully a sober re-evaluation of our expectations of the system alongside a maturing acceptance of our mortality. OK that last part is really unlikely, but it would help us gain a better perspective. But we cannot maintain "business as usual" in America or Canada for much longer, if at all. In the meantime, folks like Michael Spencer, Cheyenne Wright, the Foglios and many, many more will be at the mercy of the system and upheld only by the mercy of the community that supports them. That's the gracious, loving adaptation that has been made as a response to the inequities and shortcomings of the health system. People who care and are caring have stepped up to help these folks - meeting needs we expect government, industry and community to address, but have spectacularly failed to do. And we all shudder at how expensive mercy has become - and that it has become a commodity at all. As a leader of a faith community, all of this impacts deeply on my work and calling in ways I am struggling to understand and deal with.

If you visit some of the links above you'll find PayPal links for some of these folks. If you're feeling OK you might send them a few bucks to tide them over. After that, you might want to get control of your own health care understanding, process and start engaging with the system in your local area. Do some work while you're up to it - while you feel healthy. It's a lot easier than having to deal with it from flat on your back in a hospital bed. But more than anything it seems we all need a network of people who care for us and will care for us when we and the system can't (or won't). No amount of money will ever purchase care that is as good as what is given freely in love. That is why I am so involved in the community God is creating through Jesus. Real hope and security lies there.

Find His community - it's the best medicine.