Saturday, November 28, 2015

Concert review/trip report: Okkervil River in DC

Okkervil River is my favorite band and has been for many years. I had already seen the Will Sheff-led folk-rock outfit seven times in concert when they announced earlier this year that, for the tenth anniversary of their most acclaimed album Black Sheep Boy, they'd be playing a very brief run of shows in which they'd perform both Black Sheep Boy and the companion EP Black Sheep Boy Appendix in their entirety. Instantly I knew, since this was likely a once in a lifetime opportunity, that I had to go. So last Friday, November 20, I headed out with a couple friends to Washington DC and the Black Cat music venue for the first of the anniversary shows.

The music of Okkervil River was very significant to my relationship with my (deceased from lung cancer in April) wife Cara. Of the seven previous times I had seen them, she had joined me for six. I was naturally reminded of all those great shows - most of all, of the very first time Cara and I saw Okkervil River, on October 11, 2006 at the since-closed venue Little Brother's in Columbus. Cara and I were not yet dating at the time, but had become best friends over the course of that year. I drove down from Cleveland for the show despite it being on a Wednesday, because I had recently become a huge Okkervil River fan and I had never seen them in concert before. Any trip to Columbus was also an opportunity to see Cara, so naturally I asked her if she'd join me at the concert. Although she herself was not yet that familiar with Okkervil River's music, I can imagine how excited she was to go to the show with me. I was very excited to see her as well.

My friends and I ended up standing near the back of the room at the Black Cat, as Cara and I had also done at Little Brother's (the room at Little Brother's was smaller, though). And so I imagined Cara was next to me at this show as well. On occasion, I spoke to her, in my mind. "Isn't this great, Cara? Isn't it so cool that Jonathan Meiburg is here?"

(One of the best aspects of this anniversary show was the fact that Jonathan Meiburg, a member of the band from the earlier days who left years ago to focus on his own band Shearwater, joined Okkervil River to perform all their old songs. Meiburg, who has a stunning voice that wonderfully complements Sheff's rawer vocals, was with the band the first two times Cara and I saw them, which were probably the two best shows of all the Okkervil River concerts I've attended. Up on stage at the Black Cat, Meiburg looked so happy to be performing with his old band. It was a wonderful thing to see!)

Despite my having seen Okkervil River so many times in the past, the majority of the songs performed at this show were ones I'd never seen live before. I imagine many of them had rarely if ever showed up on setlists. Before the whole band came out, Sheff opened the show with a solo acoustic performance of the Sleep and Wake-Up Songs EP that preceded Black Sheep Boy in Okkervil River's discography. It was a great way to open the set. Sheff made an amusing and insightful comment before the last song, "No Hidden Track," about how the "hidden track" reference was very of its time and already very dated, referring to a concept that was only a thing during the CD era.

The Black Sheep Boy album was next. It opens with a gentle-sounding cover of the Tim Hardin tune of the same name, before going immediately into the visceral "For Real." I have a vivid memory of the first time I listened to the album. I got it for Christmas in 2005 after asking for it simply because I had read some good reviews online. My first listen to the CD was in fact my introduction to the band's music. I remember sitting at my computer at night, next to the window in the bedroom of my fourth-floor apartment. When that second track came on I was just blown away. And looking at my old logs, I see that after my first listen to the album, I listened to "For Real" three more times in the subsequent hour. It's a spectacular song. On the album, you can practically hear Will Sheff's spittle hitting the mic as he belts out the lyrics. Which reminds me of how, at two of the Okkervil River shows we attended, Cara commented that she got hit with some of Will's saliva while he was singing. She wasn't annoyed by this; rather, it was an indication of how close to the action she was (in both cases, I was standing behind her). The first time this happened was the second time we saw them, at the Pepper Jack Cafe (which, like Little Brother's, is apparently closed now) in Hamilton, Ontario on Cara's birthday in 2007. The other time was Cara's final Okkervil River show, on September 29, 2013 at the Beachland Ballroom here in Cleveland. On that occasion, Cara had recently had surgery to drain three liters of fluid from around her lungs. She didn't have the strength to stand through a whole concert so we had her in a wheelchair for the show so that she could be front and center by the stage. Here's a picture she took at that show:

Seeing the whole Black Sheep Boy album performed at the Black Cat was quite an experience. It's definitely a classic album. Hard to believe, of course, that it's more than ten years old now. The years really do go by. For the first time at any Okkervil River show I've attended, there was a female vocalist to duet with Sheff on the several tracks that have female vocals on the album. This was a really nice addition. Besides "For Real," another definite highlight was the much slower burning but equally intense "So Come Back, I Am Waiting." I have fond memories of this song both from that first time seeing the band back in 2006 and from the time we saw them the night before our wedding in Columbus, in June 2011.

(An aside about "So Come Back...": I've always thought it was just a bit odd that during the highly emotional climax of the song, there is what seems to me like a really cheesy pun: "Come back to your life on the lam." Get it, "lam," like "lamb," like "sheep" as in "Black Sheep Boy." Not a slight, just something that always stuck out to me. Moving on!)

The closing track of the album, "A Glow," is another song I've always loved but one I had never seen performed live. It's one of those songs with a really pretty male/female vocal duet. Great stuff.

After a short break, the band came right back for the last portion of the show, the Appendix. I've always thought Black Sheep Boy Appendix was fantastic (heck, everything the band has done is pretty fantastic), but never held it in quite the same regard as the album proper. Live, though? The Appendix might have been the very best portion of the night's proceedings. "No Key, No Plan," "Another Radio Song," and "Last Love Song For Now" were all spectacular, with the band rocking out at full intensity. One of my favorite moments, though, was the comment Sheff made before "The Next Four Months." Something about how he didn't want to "George Lucas things up too much," but he had to fix the lyrics in the song, which is about taking pills. Apparently he had gotten the dosage wrong, so "2000 milligrams" in the original version was changed to "100 milligrams" in this live performance. I just thought that was so great; I could imagine that little mistake eating away at him over all those years and I could imagine myself feeling the exact same way if I had done something like that. One of the wonderful things about live music, especially with certain performers such as Will Sheff, is seeing in person the humanity of the people whose music you've listened to so many times on your speakers or headphones. Which takes me back to that very first Okkervil River show in 2006. Sheff was sick, and apologized for it, but it didn't stop him from delivering a powerful performance. Because he was sick, he was drinking a lot of water during the show. He made a remark about being in the "hydration scene" that Cara and I remembered and referenced for years to come.

Another memory of that show is standing with Cara at the merch table near the entrance to the venue, looking at the shirts, and her asking me if I was going to buy one. I said I would wait to decide until after the show, and it would depend on whether the show was good enough to warrant making such a purchase. It most definitely was. I bought another shirt at the Black Cat last week. And here's the whole collection. Left-to-right: my shirt from 2006, my shirt and then Cara's shirt from 2013, and my shirt from 2015.

I was definitely sad, knowing that Cara would have been at the show with me (and not just in spirit) had she still been alive, but I'm very glad I got to go. It was an unforgettable experience.

My friends and I also had a nice time in DC the following day. We went to the National Gallery of Art, a museum I don't think I had ever visited in all of my many previous visits to DC. That might be partly because I thought art museums were boring when I was a kid. I've since changed my opinion. There was a lot of neat stuff there!

It was a very beautiful November day.

That evening we went to the Adams Morgan neighborhood of DC and went to several cool places. We checked out a couple of neat record stores, caught some free live music at Madam's Organ Blues Bar, and then had a fantastic dinner at The Diner. Since I finally got around to getting a smartphone recently, naturally I have to take pictures of things I eat and drink:

I had the Voodoo Parish ("absinthe, sugar cube, angostura and peychaud's bitters, bulleit rye, sparkling wine" - my reaction: "a drink with both absinthe and rye? This I have to try" and it lived up to my expectations!), the Peanut's Revenge Shake ("peanut butter, chocolate sauce, vanilla ice cream," delicious!) and a very tasty blackened salmon sandwich with caramelized red onion, mixed greens, and basil aioli. Also, one of my friends got this amazing (and vegan) Jamaican Shepherd's Pie with plantains, sweet potatoes, peppers, beans, coconut milk, and yucca.

We closed out the night by checking out one more bar and happened upon a place that was playing an amazingly nostalgia-inducing assortment of '90s alt-rock, pretty much every single track a hit from my middle school days. Songs like "Creep" by Radiohead, "Champagne Supernova" by Oasis, "Enter Sandman" by Metallica, and many, many others. It got to the point where every time the next song started up we would just look at each other and start laughing. Until finally, the music abruptly stopped, and then a minute later they started playing some lame Linkin Park remix. Which was a sign that it was time to leave.

By the way, Okkervil River fans (especially Clevelanders) may enjoy this bootleg I've just been listening to of their May 12, 2004 Beachland Tavern show. Sadly, that was before I was familiar with either Okkervil River or the Beachland, but it's really cool to hear the band back at that early point in their career and to imagine being there in that wonderful, familiar room.

Friday, November 6, 2015

If you have lungs, you can get lung cancer

November is Lung Cancer Awareness Month. Sadly, lung cancer doesn't get nearly as much attention or research funding as the other leading types of cancer, despite killing more people than breast, prostate, and colorectal cancer combined. This post is about why lung cancer awareness is so important.

When I met my wife Cara in 2006, she was not a very athletic person at all. She was already making some effort to change that. Meeting me provided her extra motivation. She knew that our chances for a long-term relationship would be better if she could join me in the outdoor pursuits that I loved. She also found, as she began to exercise more, it was something she very much enjoyed herself. It was in the spring of 2007, when she bought a bicycle, that things really began to change dramatically.

It wasn't easy at first, though. Quoting Cara in a May 6, 2013 post on Facebook:
I just want to give a shout out to any/all of my friends who are embarking on journeys to improve themselves physically (or if they're thinking about it but are afraid): You CAN do it. I remember the first time I rode a bicycle in my adult years - it sucked. My legs ached and my lungs burned. I turned around after less than a mile, and cried when I got home because I thought I could never do it. Well, now you guys know how much I love to ride now. 
Be realistic - know when pain equals actual injury/pain - but don't let sore muscles, sweat, or tiredness deter you. You might get dirty, you will be tired, you might be sore - but the results you will notice (not just aesthetically, don't make it just about that) will be your proof that you are doing the right thing for yourself. Walking, running, bicycling or whatever you want to do, just do it. I'll always be cheering you on.
Cara began to ride more and more, and within a couple of years she had become the athletic person that she was so far away from being for her whole adult life. In 2009 she did her first century (100 mile) bike tour. She was so proud of herself that she got a tattoo to commemorate the occasion. And in 2010 I was very surprised and incredibly proud of her when she averaged 18.2 mph in a 20 km cycling time trial, much faster than I had expected. I could see the fierce determination on her face as she pedaled to the finish line. She said afterwards that she finally knew what it felt like for me in all the races she had seen me run.

Cycling became Cara's biggest passion in life. In addition to riding her bike for fun, in tours, and for commuting, she also became very involved in the local cycling community and made many great friends in this way.

In November of 2012, we moved up the hill to Cleveland Heights, adding a substantial incline to Cara's daily ride home from work:
This climb was a big challenge at first, but the more Cara did it, the easier it became. Partway through 2013, however, that trend would reverse itself.

In the spring, some time in mid to late April as I recall, Cara began to experience wheezing, coughing, and shortness of breath. At first she thought it was allergies, although she had not experienced such symptoms in the past. Our move had put us in a neighborhood with many more trees, and it was allergy season, so it seemed plausible. She tried various allergy remedies, which had marginal effects.

On May 29, she did the "Wheels & Heels" ladies' social bike ride. Here is a beautiful picture of Cara with her bike, bicycle tattoo visible on her leg:
Two days later she finally saw a doctor about the symptoms she had been experiencing for over a month. On that morning, before she ended up going to an urgent care, she posted this on Facebook:
Still wheezing horribly, and now there's a crushing feeling in my chest. Fairly sure it's allergies, but I've tried Zyrtec and now Claritin and they might take the edge off - but I still can't breathe. My urgent care coverage is shit, so now begins the arduous task of finding a PCP that will see me today.
Those sound like pretty serious symptoms to me! At the urgent care, after she was given a breathing treatment and it seemed to help, she was quickly diagnosed with asthma.
Of course, she did not actually have asthma. Slightly less than three months later, she was diagnosed with stage IV lung cancer. I would be remiss not to mention the remarkable fact that a few weeks before this cancer diagnosis, she completed a two day, 150 mile bike tour, and she said that, despite all the breathing problems she had been having throughout the summer, she felt great on that ride, ultimately her final bike tour. Here is a picture of her just before the start of that ride:
The doctor who saw Cara at the urgent care never considered the possibility that such a young, active, healthy person with no smoking history could have lung cancer. Cara also remarked later, after we knew the true cause of her breathing issues, that the doctor had said "If you had a blood clot, you'd be dead" so there was no need to check for blood clots. I don't know whether Cara had any blood clots at that point in time, but she had a lot of them by the time she was diagnosed with cancer, and she certainly wasn't dead.

This is why lung cancer awareness is so important. People, doctors and patients alike, need to know that anyone with lungs can get lung cancer. Cara had been having pretty serious breathing-related symptoms for over a month when she went to the urgent care. Those symptoms could have been caused by various things other than lung cancer, but they also could have been, and in fact were, caused by lung cancer. If someone presents with those symptoms having had them for that much time, the possibility of lung cancer shouldn't be ignored. Better safe than sorry. Who knows how much difference those three months might have made? Obviously, the cancer had grown more by August than it had in May, and the more cancer there is, the harder it is to treat. For anyone reading this who doesn't already know the end to Cara's story, she passed away on April 24 of this year. If she had been correctly diagnosed sooner, would she still be alive today? I'll never know for sure, but I wouldn't be surprised.

During her twenty month battle, Cara benefited tremendously from some new treatments that have emerged due to groundbreaking research in recent years. She got to go on a lot more bike rides in 2014, after a point in late 2013 when was practically on death's door. Those treatments weren't enough to save her. Some patients have had their lives extended much, much longer by new lung cancer treatments, but the diagnosis of stage IV lung cancer remains one with a grim prognosis. And that's another reason lung cancer awareness is so important. Lung cancer research gets 1/15 as much federal research funding per death caused as breast cancer research. One fifteenth. That, to me, is shocking. More research funding would lead to better new treatments and even more importantly to earlier detection.

If you have lungs, you can get lung cancer. And every lung deserves care. These are the messages we need to spread this Lung Cancer Awareness Month and throughout the year.

Incidentally, I recently noticed that, in July 2013, Cara rated the urgent care where she was diagnosed with asthma as three out of five stars on Facebook. I'm not sure what was going through her mind when she left that mediocre rating. I imagine the rating would have been lower had she known the truth.