Sunday, January 8, 2023

We are the only friends we have

There was a point in time, fifteen years ago, when there was no band I had seen live more times than Piebald.

This is funny, because the first time I went to see Piebald live, my liking of their music was really a secondary reason for me going.

That show happened in October 2005, and was not only the first time I saw Piebald, but also the first time I went to the Grog Shop in Cleveland Heights (the Cleveland suburb where I now live), one of my favorite music venues and one where I've seen so many fantastic shows over the years. The main reason that I went to that show was that I secretly hoped to get inside info about the rumors on the Internet that my favorite band Ozma would be reuniting, and I knew that members of Piebald and Ozma were friends with each other. I hardly knew any of Piebald's music at the time, just a few songs I'd downloaded from their website.

I went to the show wearing an Ozma t-shirt, which did indeed lead to me getting inside info, as more than one member of Piebald complimented my shirt and then told me about Ozma's plans to reunite, information that thrilled me to a fairly ridiculous degree. But the show itself was also a revelation. I hadn't been to a whole lot of concerts yet at that point in my life, and I don't know if there had been any that were just as much pure fun as that one. I vividly remember standing in front of the stage by the large speaker at the right side of the room and enthusiastically banging my head to the heavy guitar chords of Piebald's emo-tinged rock music.

After the show, I was hanging out by the bar with a couple friends and a Grog Shop employee asked if we'd like a promotional poster from the show. I gladly took one, a memento of a very memorable night, and 17 years later it's hanging in my bedroom.


I saw Piebald twice more at the Grog Shop before, in 2007, they announced they were breaking up, and so I saw them one last time at the Agora, bringing my total number of Piebald shows to four. There they were one of the opening acts for the Format, a band I wasn't particularly into, and I didn't stay until the end of the show. The Piebald set was very fun, but also sad, because I thought I'd never get to see them again.

It turned out I was wrong! They got back together and toured again starting in 2016, and another Grog Shop show in July 2017 was again one of the most fun shows I've ever been to. I wrote about this show along with Okkervil River and Andrew Bird shows I saw the same week. Wow, what a week of shows that was, and also, wow, what a different place my life was at, and what a crazy unfolding of events has proceeded to happen in the years since.

Piebald's album We Are the Only Friends We Have is one of my all-time favorites. It's just such a fun album from front to back. I was completely obsessed with it for a period of time after I bought the album. It also holds a special place in my heart as the pump up music of choice for both Cara and me on early morning drives to cycling events I went to with her and later by myself. A few months ago Piebald announced they'd be playing a few end of 2022 shows for the 20th anniversary of the album. I immediately began to consider going.

There's another Ozma connection here. In December 2019 I took a trip to California to see 20th anniversary shows for Ozma's Rock and Roll Part Three, an amazing trip and my favorite shows I've ever attended. That experience definitely made me think taking a similar trip for Piebald would be worth doing.

It ended up being something of a last minute decision to go, however, due in large part to the turbulent mental health I've been experiencing of late. But a week before the December 30 show at the Market Hotel in Brooklyn, I did pull the trigger on purchasing a ticket to the show and a plane ticket to New York.

It ended up being a very good decision. There's a lesson here. There have been a number of times when I've questioned whether I really wanted to go on a trip due to how I was feeling or things going on in my life. Every single time that I've made the decision to go, I've ended up being glad that I did. So I think that's some good data to have collected and to inform future decision making.

Going on a trip centered around seeing a favorite band live but that also involves spending time in a fun destination is one of my absolute favorite things to do. This was another such trip, a fairly short one, but a very good one. I got into town the day before the show and went on a great walk from my Manhattan hotel, including walking through Central Park, and thinking about previous times I'd been there (a topic for another planned blog post).


I also went to one of my favorite restaurants, Coppelia, and later that night to a very cool speakeasy called Patent Pending that is located in the building where Nikola Tesla once lived and worked.

I love visiting New York. There's so much to do and see and so much amazing food. I also love how easy it is to get around the city without a car. It really stands above any other American city in that regard.

The 30th was another fun day, and with great weather. I got a delicious bagel sandwich with smoked trout, walked the High Line, and checked out a cool bookstore. The main event, of course, was coming up that evening in Brooklyn. Before making my way to the concert venue, I also got a delicious pizza dinner at Roberta's, a restaurant my former Brooklyn resident sister had suggested.

I was surprised when I got to the concert venue shortly after the door time, 7, and not only were doors not open but also there was hardly anyone there waiting. It was a sparse crowd at first, but filled out well by the time Piebald played. All three openers - Rites of Springfield, Rebuilder, and Phony, put on energetic, fun sets. And then it was time for Piebald to take the stage.

There's a feeling of excitement I get about seeing one of my most favorite bands live that little else can compare to. That feeling was definitely present that night. Seeing a favorite album performed from front to back live is a rare and special thing to experience. And We Are the Only Friends We Have is an especially good album to experience that way.

When the familiar opening notes of "King of the Road" filled the room, the crowd went wild. The first four songs of Friends - "King of the Road," "Just a Simple Plan," "American Hearts," and "Long Nights," comprise one of the best opening quartets of any album I know. Seeing them performed in order live? That was something else.

Being in a crowded room, seeing a band you love play music you love, and surrounded by other people who love that music, is one of life's most special experiences. I'm always grateful whenever I get to have that experience. And this was definitely one of the top such experiences I've had since the pandemic temporarily made such experiences forbidden.

At times lead singer Travis Shettel wandered out into the crowd, holding the mic out in front of the faces of delighted fans. There was plenty of dancing, banging of heads, and pumping of fists. There was a little moshing (I could have used more, but that's okay). And there was a room full of people singing and screaming out the familiar lyrics of those twelve great songs. Album closer "Sex Sells and (Unfortunately) I'm Buying" features horn parts that were (unfortunately) not part of the live show, but some audience members did a nice job singing those parts instead.

Market Hotel is a cool venue. Nothing fancy, just a small-to-medium size room with an elevated stage at one end and a bar at the back. What more do you need? The unusual feature that makes it stand out is this - the room is upstairs in the building where it resides, and directly behind the stage is a window that looks out onto an elevated subway platform. Seeing trains pass behind the stage throughout the show was just such a cool visual that enhanced an already great setting!


After the show, waiting for the train back to Manhattan, it was also cool to see that window from the other side and think about the great time I'd just had inside that room. It felt like a very New York thing, something I'd be unlikely to experience anywhere else, at least not in this country.


Several times during the show Travis expressed great gratitude at the fact that we were all there to see them. It was amazing, he remarked, that music they had made twenty years ago was still loved so much by people today. At one point he asked if anyone there had seen them in the '90s (the band actually got their start at very young ages way back in 1994) and I was surprised by the number of cheers from the audience. That was long, long before my concertgoing days.

I definitely thought back to that night in October 2005 and to how much younger the members of the band had looked back then, and how much less young they look today. Which of course speaks to the same about me. But that's life. Where did those 17 years go?

After playing the twelve songs of Friends, the band took a quick break without leaving the stage and then continued to thrill the audience with some additional songs from other albums (mostly from 1999's If It Weren't for Venetian Blinds, It Would Be Curtains for Us All, another classic album and also one of my favorite album titles). I was especially glad when they kicked off the extra material with "Grace Kelly With Wings," one of the handful of songs I'd downloaded when I first checked out the band and therefore one of the few songs I recognized the first time I saw them, and a favorite ever since.

The show seemed to be over after five more songs were played, as the house music started up. The crowd continued to applaud, and then chants of "one more song" started up, and then I laughed when I looked over and realized the chants were being led by Piebald guitarist Aaron Stuart, who had descended from the stage and was standing in front of it and acting like he was an audience member! After two more songs, the show was over, and what a great show it was. Sneaking in before the deadline as a contender for my favorite concert of 2022.

After I took the train back to Manhattan, I stopped at a bar by my hotel for a drink. The bartender asked how my night was. I told him about how I was in town from Cleveland and had just seen a 20th anniversary concert for one of my favorite albums. He asked what the name of the band and album were. When I told him the album title, We Are the Only Friends We Have, he said, "That just broke my heart a little."

I reassured him that it wasn't sad music (not that I'm not also a fan of sad music), it's actually a really fun album, and he said he hadn't meant that as a bad thing. I mean, not that I had taken it as one. He said there was an old Irish saying, and I forget exactly what it was he said, but it was something to the effect of, does life have meaning without heartbreak?

My Google search failed to find the saying he quoted. When I searched for "Irish saying about heartbreak," the closest result was, "Death leaves a heartache no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal." Which, yeah, I can relate to. Who knows whether the bartender was quoting an obscure saying I couldn't find in my search, or whether he was misremembering, or whether he was making it up?

Anyway, I can appreciate the sentiment. The Jeff of five or so years ago might have taken the opportunity to launch into an account of all the heartbreak I've already experienced. The Jeff of today didn't feel the need to do that. I could definitely use a little less heartbreak going forward, but I'm ever hopeful.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Post-truth America

On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump was inaugurated as President of the United States. Leading up to the event, Trump boasted about the enormous crowds he was certain his inauguration would draw. This led many in the media to point out, after the inauguration, that it had in fact not drawn as large a crowd as either of Barack Obama's inaugurations.

Crowds from Barack Obama's first inauguration (left) and Donald Trump's inauguration (right). Emily Barnes—Getty Images; Lucas Jackson—Reuters

The next day, at White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer's first press briefing in his new job, he attacked the media and falsely claimed that Trump's inauguration had drawn the "largest audience to ever witness an inauguration – period – both in person and around the globe."

Later, high-ranking Trump staff member Kellyanne Conway defended Spicer's lie by claiming that Spicer was merely giving "alternative facts," and I feel like this infamous statement was a preview of so much that has happened in the five-plus years since. I feel like we are living in a country where more and more, everyone has their own alternative facts and it's getting increasingly difficult to bridge the divides they create.

I wrote a post last year in which I outlined the reasons that I characterize the modern Republican Party as akin to a cult. The reasons I focused on were two very prominent false beliefs around which the Republican Party had come to organize itself - one, that COVID vaccines are bad, and two, that Trump won the 2020 election. The first of those false beliefs has led to hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths. The second of those false beliefs led to a violent mob assault on the US Capitol and continues to threaten to tear apart our democracy.

These are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to alternative facts popular on the right. The epidemic of mass shootings and gun violence in this country gets worse and worse and nothing gets done because one of our two major political parties has concluded against all evidence that the solution is more "good guys with guns." Abortion bans are now going into effect in many states, the proponents of which ignore many inconvenient facts such as (to name just one) that ectopic pregnancies are never viable and the only safe course of action is abortion. Laws targeting LGBT people or targeting the accurate teaching of the role of racism in American history continue to be pushed forward based on total fantasies about non-existent harm to children, and instead cause very real harm to ordinary people who are just trying to live their lives.

I recently attended a birthday party for a relative and saw a number of other relatives who I hadn't seen in quite some time. I was reminded of how nice and enjoyable it can be to just spend time with people in person. But also of how there are certain topics that you just can't talk about because you're inhabiting two different worlds. Avoid those topics, and it's a perfectly lovely day with perfectly lovely people. Get into those topics, and you'll just get a headache as the alternative facts fly.

I've written a lot about the falsehoods that are popular on the American right. I'm also becoming more and more aware that different sets of alternative facts are becoming increasingly popular among many on the left. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying the two are equivalent to each other - the American right is waging an active campaign to end democracy based on lies, and no one in a position of real power or influence on the left is doing the same. Nonetheless, it's all bad and I feel it's all contributing to the fracturing of society.

With the recent disastrous rulings by the Supreme Court, a lot of people have pointed out that these things wouldn't be happening if Hillary Clinton had won the 2016 election, as a way of highlighting the importance of voting. Other people, many of whom in 2016 were diminishing the importance of voting for the Democratic nominee, have gotten angry at these statements.

Look, I get their frustration at the many failures of the Democratic Party, but that doesn't make it less true that the Supreme Court would not be making these rulings if not for Donald Trump, rather than Hillary Clinton, getting to appoint three new justices. That's a fact. The idea that voting doesn't matter is an alternative fact.

(I think we should take a "yes, and" approach in discussions of who is to blame for the current fiasco instead of a "no, but" approach. So if someone says that more people should have voted for Hillary, you can respond, "This is true, and at the same time, the Democratic Party should have done x, y, and z," instead of saying, "No, the Democratic Party should have done x, y, and z, so it's their fault, not people who didn't vote." There are so many things that could have been done differently to avert this nightmare, and I'm not pinning all the blame on not enough people turning out to vote for Hillary Clinton, just using that as an example.)

One issue where I'm becoming increasingly aware of alternative facts becoming popular in some circles on the left is COVID. Obviously, as I've written about before, COVID misinformation on the right has taken a horrible toll. I don't want to minimize that at all. But I also see a lot of people on the side who say we should "follow the science" who... aren't following the science.

For a couple of specific examples, here are things I've seen people say on Twitter recently that were racking up huge numbers of likes and that I think represent pretty common sentiments among certain groups of people. Yes, I'm sure these views are over-represented on Twitter compared to society as a whole, but I'm also pretty sure there are a lot of people out there who think similarly.

One was a person posting the weekly case averages for the state of Virginia at this time in 2020 (608 cases/week), 2021 (200 cases/week), and 2022 (2,695 cases/week). "The biggest changes? No more mask requirements and a governor who refuses to acknowledge this multi-organ damaging virus is an issue," they wrote.

No. The biggest change, or at least by far the most important, is that the version of COVID circulating today spreads much more easily and is much more immune evasive than the versions circulating in 2020 and 2021. To an absolutely ridiculous extent. These numbers say literally nothing about the effectiveness of mask requirements or guidance from the government. Yet many people out there very confidently hold the incorrect belief that the much higher case numbers now vs. one year ago are because of mask mandates going away.

My other example is someone who said this:

Every time I tell a friend their in-person social activities prolong the pandemic & prolong my isolation, 9 times out of 10 they say, "I need SOMETHING to give me release/a break."

And I say, "So do I, but your actions mean it'll be longer until I can."

Many of them are still friends because we have conversations about why their actions are ableist & they change their behavior.

The ones who don't are no longer friends.

The person who said this has some sort of condition (I'm not sure what it is) that puts them at higher risk from COVID. I have a huge amount of sympathy for people like this. I hate that this is the new reality of the world. It has to be unbearably awful to feel that you have to isolate yourself for an unknown duration because even in spite of being vaccinated, your level of vulnerability to a COVID infection is still too high to risk getting infected. (I think there are some people who are correct in feeling this way and some people who are overestimating their risk, but I don't know which category this person falls into and I'm not criticizing their personal risk assessment.)

The harsh reality, though, is that the idea that people engaging in in-person social activities are "prolonging the pandemic" is not an idea grounded in evidence.

Imagine that somehow we could make everyone stop their in-person social activities for some amount of time. (We can't, without being a totalitarian state, but imagine we could.) The number of cases would go down, but the virus wouldn't be eradicated because it's too widespread (even in many non-human animals!) and a functional society requires some contact between people and other people. Also, lots of bad side effects would happen - people's mental health would suffer; businesses like restaurants and music venues would have to close, etc. Eventually, after whatever amount of time, social activities would resume... and the case numbers would go right back up. Stopping in-person social activities would have accomplished nothing toward the goal of ending the pandemic.

To be fair, I said similar things about people "prolonging the pandemic" in 2020 and early 2021, and I can see now that I was wrong. I now think that once the virus started to spread globally, it was essentially inevitable that we would eventually reach a situation like our current one. But in my past self's defense, back then, we didn't yet know that the virus would evolve to a form where reaching herd immunity would be impossible even with very good vaccines. Also, in 2020 there was a very clear goal - by limiting in-person social activities to reduce the number of people infected until vaccines were available, we could clearly save a lot of lives. And it was a goal with an end point. Now there's no clear goal and no end point.

I want to also say that there is a lot of very justified frustration about people pretending the pandemic is over and the government not doing more about it! There are a lot of things we should still be doing - namely, pouring huge amounts of funding into improving indoor air quality and into research on better vaccines, as well as mandating paid sick leave, and better accommodations such as remote options for vulnerable people. All of these would have huge benefits both in the near term and for the foreseeable future. But I don't think there's anything that anyone could realistically do right now that would change the reality of a virus still running rampant.

The people who think there is seem to also be ignoring that, with the much more easily transmissible and immune evasive omicron variants, case numbers continue to surge even in countries that had largely suppressed the virus through the pandemic's first year-plus. This is no longer a situation where America is screwing up and we can look to a lot of other countries that are doing a lot better. We can just all be grateful that the surges in case numbers are becoming decoupled from surges in deaths.

Why is this such a big problem? These alternative COVID facts on the left aren't directly causing a bunch of people to die the way the alternative COVID facts on the right have. So what's the harm?

Well, let's look at what the second person I quoted said. "Many of them are still friends because we have conversations... & they change their behavior. The ones who don't are no longer friends."

So what we have, really, is someone telling their friends to do something based on ideas that aren't well supported by evidence. And then cutting people out of their lives who don't do that. They certainly have a right to make that decision, yes. But it's pretty bad, I think, especially if it's happening on a large scale! I think people everywhere are building up a huge amount of resentment toward other people because they don't subscribe to the same alternative facts. And it's all contributing to the fracturing of society.

Specifically, regarding alternative facts on the left, I think that with the growing threat of fascism from the right, anything that leads to a fracturing of the different groups of people who should be united to oppose fascism is a big problem.

I realize as I write this that I might sound like I think I'm above all the other people with their alternative facts and I'm some ultimate arbiter of truth. I'm not. I'm sure there are things I believe that aren't true. I just try to be really careful about believing too strongly in things that aren't really well supported by evidence.

So a big question about all of this is, are things really different now from how they've been at various other times in human history? I mean, people everywhere have always believed things that aren't true.

I'm not sure of the answer to this question. But one thing I think might make this moment actually different is the Internet. In the pre-Internet days, everyone everywhere believed some things that weren't true, but they just had their own untrue beliefs, or the untrue beliefs shared by relatively small (at a societal or global level) groups. They didn't have the ability to instantly connect with lots of other people around the world who have similar untrue beliefs, leading to increasing reinforcement of those untrue beliefs. During the flu pandemic of a century ago, someone could tell their friends an alternative fact about the flu. But they couldn't send that alternative fact out into the world and instantly be rewarded with hundreds of little hearts and the resulting little dopamine hits.

People have always to some degree self-segregated themselves based on beliefs they hold. But it seems like the extent to which that is happening today, to which people are organizing their whole lives around certain sets of alternative facts and then organizing themselves into social groupings based on belief in those alternative facts, is unusual. Perhaps even unprecedented.

It feels like we've entered a post-truth America, a place and time where the truth largely just doesn't matter. Where different groups of people all live in their own alternate realities. From my perspective, it seems like the alternate reality that is shared by the most people, and that is the most threatening to society, is that inhabited by many on the right. And that it's imperative that everyone else recognize that threat and work to stop it, but instead different groups on the left and center are drifting off into their own alternate realities. But maybe that's just what it looks like from my perspective.

Anyway, it's all pretty scary!

I don't know what the answer is. I guess I'll keep trying to do my own little part to encourage people to look at the evidence on things and not just accept at face value whatever so-called facts are popular in their in-group. As well as to encourage people to regard other human beings and their life situations with empathy and decency. It often seems futile, but I'll try.

Monday, May 16, 2022

I paid 25 cents to light a little white candle

For the last few months, I've felt like I've been seeing the number 424 unusually often. The number 424, or the time 4:24, or the date 4/24, or a 4 and a 24 next to each other. Some of you reading this already know why that number would have meaning to me. For anyone reading who doesn't know, it's because my wife Cara passed away on 4/24 - April 24, 2015. I was already feeling like I was seeing this combination of digits with uncanny frequency prior to the events I'll describe in this post. That's important background for the events I'll describe.

This year, on April 24, I traveled to Detroit to see a concert by one of my all time favorite bands, Typhoon. They're a band whose music, with lyrics grappling with mortality, was my own personal soundtrack to Cara's battle with lung cancer, so the date of the show was eerily fitting. It was even more weird to consider that the most recent previous Typhoon concert I attended had taken place on June 12, 2018 - that is, my and Cara's wedding anniversary. Significant concerts taking place on significant dates - a long running theme of my life and my blog!

It was really great to see Typhoon again for the first time in years. The band's lead singer Kyle Morton is an amazing person who I've befriended through conversations at previous Typhoon shows; unfortunately, I did not get a chance to catch up with him this time due to the band's very understandable COVID precautions. During the show he talked about how weird it was to be back out on the road playing in front of people but also how important it was, how there's such a big essential part of life that was missing when we couldn't have those in person gatherings. He also thanked people for wearing masks during the show - he has had some very serious health issues and is a kidney transplant recipient, so trying to avoid COVID is more important for him than for most people in our age bracket.

The show, along with visiting some very close friends in Ann Arbor earlier the same day, was a great way to mark an April 24. It was also not the first time I saw an important concert on April 24.

On April 24, 2018, I saw the Decemberists at Cleveland's Agora. They were a band Cara and I both loved and whose music had had some significance to our relationship. One of the highlights of that show was the performance of "Grace Cathedral Hill," a beautiful song from the Decemberists' debut album Castaways and Cutouts. I remember muttering "wow" upon my recognition that they were playing the song, because I was so happily surprised.

This has all been a prelude to what happened to me last week. I traveled to San Francisco last Wednesday to attend a meeting on Thursday and Friday where I'd discuss my research into asthma with other asthma researchers. That was what was supposed to happen, anyway. But then, on Wednesday, I realized I was feeling sick, with a sore throat and other symptoms of a respiratory infection. I took a COVID test and it was negative. On Thursday I took another COVID test and it was again negative. But I was still feeling sick. Apparently I'd come down with a cold. My symptoms had definitely made me wonder if I had COVID, even though I'm triple vaccinated and had an omicron infection at Christmas. It wouldn't be impossible. Despite apparently not having COVID this time, I still didn't want to expose all the other people at the meeting to my illness, especially considering that if they caught it, not only would they get sick, but they would have the added stress of wondering if they had COVID.

So I told the conference organizers what was going on, and then ended up with a bunch of time to kill in San Francisco, while feeling sick enough to not want to attend a meeting but not sick enough to be utterly incapacitated. I ate a lot of takeout meals. I watched a lot of playoff basketball on TV. I wandered around a lot on Wednesday, at first not realizing quite how sick I was feeling. I wore a KN95 mask whenever I was in an indoor space and tried to keep close contact with other people to a minimum. Thursday I mostly spent relaxing at my hotel, hoping I'd feel no longer sick by Friday morning, but this didn't happen. On Friday I again wandered around a lot, since at that point I was clearly missing all of the meeting and there was nothing else to do. The weather, thankfully, was beautiful the whole time I was there.

It was very disappointing to have traveled out there for the meeting and not get to participate in it, but on Friday I really managed to take advantage of my free time, and by the end of the day I came away from it thinking, oddly, that perhaps my illness had been... fortuitous?

I noticed that the famous "Painted Ladies" houses that are across the street from Alamo Square Park, as seen in the opening credits of Full House, were a couple miles' walk from my hotel, so I went there, and it was really nice just hanging out in that park for a while and taking in the sights and sounds and sun.


Heading back, I picked up some food, ate it in the park across from city hall, and then was looking at my phone trying to see if there was anything else interesting that wouldn't be a huge amount of extra walking, and I saw this:


Oh! Grace Cathedral, like in the Decemberists song! Well, I pretty much have to go, was my thought process, and then I scrolled through the music on my iPod, selected Castaways and Cutouts, hit play, and set out toward the cathedral.

I've always had a thing for cathedrals. The National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. is one of my favorite buildings anywhere. Grace Cathedral is another really nice one.



There's a line in the song that goes, "I paid 25 cents to light a little white candle," and because I'm a huge freaking nerd I of course decided, I should pay 25 cents to light a little white candle while in Grace Cathedral. (This was in addition to a $12 admission fee for visitors that I did not realize I'd have to pay until I was inside, but I decided, why not.) I first did some wandering around the inside of the cathedral, admiring the beautiful architecture and artwork and stained glass.




The whole time I was there, I was thinking of the song and of that Decemberists show that had taken place on 4/24. Eventually I decided I was ready to go and pay 25 cents to light a little white candle. I headed over toward a candle lighting station. While doing so I glanced at my watch.

The time was 4:24.

Long time readers of my blog might remember that I have a thing for noticing and pointing out weird coincidences. By now it's happened so much that things I would have once viewed as astounding coincidences, like the Typhoon show being on 4/24, I now kind of shrug my shoulders and laugh about. But this, especially in light of my already feeling like I was seeing those digits strangely often - this was a special one.

So I went, and I put a quarter in a donation box, and I lit a little white candle.


And then I stood there for a minute and talked to Cara. It's not something I do often, at least not in a direct way. But in this moment it felt like I was supposed to. I'm glad that I did.

After leaving the cathedral, I resumed my wandering, and resumed listening to the Decemberists on my iPod. The song "Grace Cathedral Hill" had not yet come up prior to my arrival at the cathedral but came on shortly after my departure. I stopped walking while listening to the song and just admired this view:


It gave me a very peaceful feeling, something I haven't had a whole lot of recently.

That night I caught a red eye flight from San Francisco to Washington DC before connecting back to Cleveland. I managed to sleep for most of the flight. Upon landing in DC, I was dismayed to receive a text message that my flight to Cleveland was cancelled and I'd have to select another flight. But this turned out to not be a problem because the flight had been replaced by another flight at the identical time. So the cancellation turned out to have no effect on my day, except for one thing, which is that I was issued a new boarding pass with an interesting combination of numbers on it:

Then, after I arrived in Cleveland, got to my car, and started driving home, I laughed when I noticed that the first gas station sign I saw showed a price of, you guessed it, $4.24.

Signs from Cara? Who knows, but it's nice to think that maybe they could be.

Wednesday, March 9, 2022

I listen to a lot of music from Canada (and other exciting observations about my music listening history)

If you know me well you know that I like numbers and graphs. You may have seen me post a lot of graphs and interpretation that I made about COVID. Here are some numbers and graphs about a more fun topic.

Every year at the beginning of December I see lots of people post their "Spotify Wrapped" on social media. It's always interesting to me to see what music other people listened to the most in the year. But for me personally, I want more than that. So this is kind of like a much nerdier and more detailed version of a Spotify Wrapped. And not just for a year, but for most of my adult life.

Since 2005, I've used the website last.fm to keep track of all the music I listen to (on a computer or iPod, at least; it can also track music you listen to on streaming services on your phone but I very rarely stream music on my phone). The popularity of Spotify Wrapped makes it clear that a lot of people enjoy being able to see stats about the music they listen to, so I recommend the website if you want more of that! If you go to my profile and scroll down, you can see my top eight artists (all time) displayed, kind of like a Spotify Wrapped:


Definitely a big lead for Okkervil River in first place. If you click around you can see breakdowns by artist, by song, by album, over different periods of time. But because I'm such a data nerd, that wasn't enough for me. Luckily, a kind person made a website that exports your entire listening history as a CSV file you can download. So after doing this, I used the programming language R (running under RStudio) to play around with the data.

Here are some of the results I found interesting. Will anyone else find them interesting? Maybe? But lots of people post their Spotify Wrapped every year, so I'm going to post this.

Top artists by year

Here's a scatter plot of my top five artists for each year by year and number of plays. There's a lot of information here so apologies for the small text. Click to open and zoom in if you care to.


Observations:

-For 2005 the data only cover the last five months of the year, hence the second through fifth place artists having low numbers. Still, I listened to songs by Ozma over 1400 times. I was super obsessed with Ozma when I started using last.fm.

-Okkervil River has by far the most appearances in my yearly top five with ten. Next is Typhoon with six. 

-The top seven yearly totals are all either Ozma, Okkervil River, or Woodpigeon.

-The highest yearly totals are all in the earlier years. In more recent years my music listening has become more spread out over a larger number of artists.

-The Weather Station in 2021 recorded my highest yearly total for one artist in nearly ten years.

Top single months for artists

These are the top fifteen totals recorded by artists for single months:

Woodpigeon comes in with three of the top five. Like Ozma, I was also super obsessed with Woodpigeon for a time. I like the story of how I discovered Woodpigeon. When Cara and I saw A Northern Chorus's farewell show in Hamilton, Ontario, in 2008, the next day we went to a music store there and each picked out one used CD to buy (knowing nothing about the music except for what we could see in the artwork and liner notes; it was a thing we often enjoyed doing). Woodpigeon's Songbook was Cara's pick. If you're an indie pop fan, I highly recommend checking out that album and even more so their subsequent album Treasury Library Canada. Sadly, Woodpigeon is the only artist in my top twenty overall artists that I've never seen live.

The way that my music has become more spread out over a larger number of artists and less concentrated on single artists is also evident here as the National's October 2019 tally is the only one on this list more recent than 2013.

Looking at this list, it's fun to think back on what was happening in my life and why I was listening to those particular bands so much in those years and months. Which is a good segue into...

I listen to an awful lot of Sufjan Stevens in December

Sufjan Stevens came in fourth on the above list with his December 2012 tally. That was the month after the release of his second five-disc box set of Christmas music. Yes, he has released ten discs' worth of Christmas music (a mix of traditional and original songs). And I love all of it. To me, Sufjan Stevens' music basically is the Christmas season. December 2012 was also when Cara and I saw Sufjan's spectacular Christmas show at the Beachland Ballroom. Definitely one of the best shows I've ever attended. So December 2012 stands out the most, but every single December, I'm putting all that Sufjan Christmas music in heavy rotation. And so if you take each of my top nine artists overall and sum up how much I've listened to them by month of the year for the entire 2005-2021 period, you get this:


There's one month for one artist that is a really huge outlier here! Everything else is fairly random, although I enjoy the nice oscillatory pattern on the Okkervil River graph.

Now let's move on to...

My music listening habits by geography (or, I listen to a lot of music from Canada)

I took every artist for whom I've recorded at least 100 total plays and manually annotated their nations of origin (as well as state or province for American and Canadian bands). First, here's a graph showing all the nations that appeared in my history, with the total number of listens for each:


The USA has the most by far, which is obviously not surprising. But the USA also has a much larger population than any of the other countries on here. What happens if we adjust the numbers to make them a ratio of the number of plays to the national population? Then we get this:


Canada surges into the lead! Interestingly, Iceland is second. Iceland's population of 366,000 is slightly smaller than the city proper population of Cleveland, Ohio. The USA is now third. I've noticed for quite a while that there's a disproportionate amount of music that I listen to from Canada considering how much smaller a population it has than the US. There's just something about those Canadians, man.

And here's a similar analysis but in list form for the top states and provinces of my music listening history. First ranked by raw number of plays:


No surprise that California comes in first considering its huge population and sizeable music scene, but it just barely edges out Ontario. Now to reorder the list by the population-adjusted numbers:

I think the fact that the top eight states and provinces on this list consist of four Canadian provinces along with the states of Oregon, Washington, Maine, and Ohio is easily the most "on brand" thing for me in this post.

And last, what I consider by far the most interesting result from the analysis I did:

Trends in my music listening by vocalist gender

Similar to the geographical annotation, I also manually annotated by lead vocals: male, female, both, or none (none meaning music without vocals or with extremely minimal vocals). I didn't really have strictly defined criteria for the categorization but just went with what felt right, so Arcade Fire counted as "male" because Win Butler does lead on a large majority of the songs with just the occasional RĂ©gine Chassagne song, whereas the New Pornographers counted as "both" because even though most of the songs do have male lead vocals, there are a substantial number of songs throughout their catalog with Neko Case or occasionally another female vocalist taking lead.

I then excluded the "both" and "none" artists (a small fraction of the total), calculated the fraction of what remained that fell under "male" vs. "female" for each year, and got this graph:

It's just such a striking trend! When I first started using last.fm in 2005, I listened to almost no music with female lead vocals. This had been true for as long as I listened to mostly music of my own choosing, going back to adolescence. 2005 was when I first started to really expand my taste in music. And going forward, there was a steady increase in how much music with female lead vocals I listened to. Finally, in 2020 and 2021, I reached very close to a 50/50 balance. It's just such an interesting trend to me. If you're a stats nerd, you might appreciate that a linear regression of fraction (either female or male) against year has a whopping 0.86 R-squared value (p = 5.1 x 10^-8).

I think it says something about how boys are socialized to avoid "girly" things. I don't remember ever having an active dislike for music with female vocals. But I still tended not to choose to listen to it. Then, as an adult, as I explored more and more music, and started to just listen to whatever I enjoyed listening to, this eventually led to a near perfect balance of vocals by gender. Funny how that worked out.

So that includes my super nerdy analysis of my music listening history. I hope someone else found it entertaining, but at the very least I did! It's a more cheery topic for graphs than how many people have died from COVID, so at least there's that.

Thursday, January 27, 2022

"3895 people died of COVID in this country yesterday" (why that's misleading, what the numbers really mean, and implications for omicron's severity)

I want to say up front, because if I didn't I think this could be easily misconstrued, that my purpose here is not to question the seriousness of what's been happening with the COVID pandemic. It's a horrific situation. And I'm also not questioning whether all those deaths were really caused by COVID. There's no reason to doubt that they were.

Also, I'm not trying to call out people who make this error, because I find it very understandable why people who haven't directly engaged with the data might make this mistake.

I also want to say up front that the most important thing to know about COVID is that everyone who's eligible should get vaccinated and boosted. People who are unvaccinated have a roughly 68x chance of dying from COVID as people who are vaccinated and boosted according to the latest numbers. We are incredibly lucky to be able to receive, for free, such an effective intervention against a deadly disease.

Anyway, I just want to talk about a thing that I see all the time that isn't accurate and that bugs me, and try to educate people a little. Because it's important to me to try to understand what's going on in the world, and I like trying to share that knowledge.

I guess I've always been someone who is a stickler for accuracy. I have a strong tendency to "well, actually" people. When I see someone make a blatant error, it's like something is triggered in my brain and I have a strong urge to correct the error. Literally, when I was in second grade I frequently corrected my teacher's spelling mistakes in front of the class. So this tendency has been around for a long time!

I very often see people on social media say "[x number of] people died yesterday from COVID" to complain about how other people aren't taking the pandemic seriously enough. (And yes, certainly, people not taking the pandemic seriously enough has been a problem since the very beginning of the pandemic.) The most recent example being "3895 people died of COVID yesterday," talking about the numbers (for the United States) that have come out in the past day as I write this post.

It is not accurate to say 3895 people died of COVID yesterday. In fact, it's impossible to say how many people died of COVID yesterday, because the vast majority of those deaths have not yet been officially recorded as COVID deaths.

Here's a graph, from the New York Times, showing where this number came from.


So, a couple things to immediately notice. One is that it's a graph of "new reported deaths by day," meaning that the deaths were reported on that day, which says nothing about when the deaths occurred. (I wrote a post in June 2020 - yeah, this has really been going on for almost two years, sigh - with a lengthy explainer on this very topic. It's been very frustrating to me seeing people continuing to make this mistake over and over for almost two years, but again, I don't really blame people who haven't directly engaged with the data for not understanding this.) The second thing is that the daily average for the last week is 2466, meaning that 3895 is a big outlier. If you're in a period of time where about 2500 people are dying each day from a disease, it's extraordinarily unlikely that suddenly nearly 4000 would die in one day. That's just not how these things work. And I notice the "[x number of] people died yesterday of COVID" trope usually comes up when there's a big outlier like this.

Why is there such a big outlier? It's because sometimes a big backlog of previously unreported deaths will be cleared in a single day.

But when did the deaths actually occur?

Well, right now I find this particularly interesting, because it relates to the issue of how big of a toll the omicron wave will end up taking.

Lately, when I see this trope about so and so many people died of COVID yesterday, I sometimes see someone add something like, "at least they were mild deaths." A snarky reference to the news stories saying the omicron variant is milder than previous forms of COVID.

The implication here is that 3895 people died yesterday of COVID, and because we're in the omicron wave those 3895 people died from omicron, and therefore omicron can't be that mild. But did those people really die from omicron?

Let's try to figure that out.

I took a look at the data reported by the state of Ohio and identified the dates of death for all the COVID deaths that Ohio reported in the one week period from January 20 to January 26, 2022. Here's a graph of those deaths showing the number that occurred on each day (there's also a handful that occurred on earlier dates that I left off the graph):


What this tells us is that more than half of the deaths that Ohio reported in the last week occurred on or before January 3; in other words, most of the deaths occurred several weeks ago. (Certainly not "yesterday.")

Incidentally, when I analyzed this for that post in June 2020, the median delay from date of death to report date was 5 days, so the delay has become much longer. I can't say what the typical delay is in other states. I'm sure that substantial delays are quite common, but as substantial as those in Ohio? I don't know. Perhaps yes in some states and no in some others.

That graph shows us when the recently reported deaths occurred. The next piece of the puzzle is, when did those people get COVID?

It's been reported that the median duration from symptom onset date to date of death, for people who get COVID and then die from it, is roughly 17 days. (I don't know if it's exactly the same for the delta and/or omicron variants, but I expect it's at least fairly similar.) So for a quick and dirty estimate of the case onset dates (which, it should also be noted, would be a few days after the infection dates), let's send everything back 17 days:


More than half of the deaths reported by Ohio in the last week would be people whose cases started on or before December 17. At that point in time, what was the prevalence of the omicron variant?

It turns out, for the week ending December 18, about 62% of the cases in the US were still the delta variant, and about 38% were the omicron variant (from the CDC's variant tracker):


I will note that, at that point in time, omicron had already reached a higher prevalence in Northeast Ohio, where I live. Still, delta hadn't been wiped out, and the rest of the state probably had numbers comparable to the country as a whole.

So we have several pieces of data from which we can extrapolate.

1. About half of the COVID deaths reported in Ohio in the last week were likely the result of cases that began in mid-December or sooner.

2. In mid-December, the majority of cases were still delta, not omicron.

3. Delta has a higher infection fatality rate than omicron. There is now an abundant amount of evidence showing this, although we don't know exactly how much higher, but it's probably at least several times higher.

Taken together, this implies that the majority, and perhaps even a large majority, of COVID deaths reported in Ohio in the last week were caused by the delta variant, not the omicron variant. This might also be true for the country as a whole, but I'm not sure because I don't have an easy way to see deaths by date of death for all the other states.

We've seen that a lot of other countries have had massive surges of cases from omicron without anywhere near as dramatic of increases in deaths as what we're seeing in the US now. This has been attributed to the poor vaccination rate in the US. And this is indeed true, but an important point that is being missed when interpreting the current death numbers is the poor vaccination rate in the US also means that the omicron wave is happening on top of an already large baseline of delta cases. Therefore, it's hard to say right now how much of the latest wave of deaths is the direct result of omicron.

Really, to be able to tell what the impact of the omicron wave is on the US's death rates, we'll have to wait at least a few more weeks. That's not the most satisfying answer, but it's the most honest answer. Additionally, teasing out the impact of omicron vs. delta on death numbers is likely going to require a more rigorous level of analysis than what is being done by most people who are commenting on COVID death numbers.

We are actually incredibly lucky that omicron does cause considerably less severe disease and death per case than all previous versions of COVID. It's horrific to contemplate how things might look right now if that weren't the case.

I hope this was informative. My purpose here was simply to try to educate people. I'm not trying to tell anyone what to do with this information. At this point, almost two years in and with no real way to know what's going to happen in the future, I hesitate to try to tell anyone what they should do in regard to COVID matters. With one definite exception, which is that everyone who's eligible should get vaccinated and boosted, and that we collectively have to increase our efforts to vaccinate people both in this country and around the world. I don't know how many people are going to end up dying from omicron vs. delta, but it's going to be a lot either way, and it continues to be true that the vast majority of those deaths could have been prevented by vaccination.

Saturday, December 18, 2021

Music for the apocalypse: the albums of 2021

I was thinking recently about the albums that have touched my life over the past year and I realized that 2021 has been an incredibly strong year for new music. I count a whopping four different albums this year that, had they been released in 2020, would have been my favorite album of that year. It's been a long time since there was a year with so many albums that I loved so much. I think the pandemic that had many of us staying home for much of 2020 and that put live music on hold for more than a year is a big reason why so much great new music came into the world. With no touring, many musicians seem to have focused extra hard on honing their craft at home and in the studio. And the distressing reality of the modern world - with not only a still raging global pandemic, but also an ever worsening climate catastrophe, and the growing threat of American democracy collapsing - has certainly provided plenty of inspiration for great music. I don't know if it's appropriate to say this is a "good thing" that came from the awful pandemic era, but I'm definitely grateful for all that music.

This isn't an attempt to make a "best albums" list for 2021, because there are lots of undoubtedly great albums that I didn't get around to listening to. Rather, it's just a list of my personal favorite albums of the year. I'll give a little blurb for each of those four albums that stood out the most to me, counting down to my most favorite. Also, honorable mentions to Lucy Dacus's Home Video (incredible songwriting and so evocative of high school nostalgia) and Olivia Rodrigo's SOUR (if I had to name a favorite song of the year, the ridiculously infectious "good 4 u" would be a contender).

And now my favorite albums of 2021.

Weakened Friends - Quitter


This is a late addition, coming out just last month, but it quickly zoomed up my list. I realized recently that Quitter brings to mind for me Piebald's 2002 classic We Are the Only Friends We Have, which coming from me is incredibly high praise. I'm not saying the two bands sound alike, just that both albums are packed from front to back with incredibly fun to listen to emotional rock songs full of crunchy guitars, catchy hooks, and memorable lyrics, and the high quality of the songs is so consistent that I'd be hard pressed to name a weak track. Also that both albums feature noticeably higher production values over their respective bands' also excellent previous albums. And hey, both albums also feature horn parts on the closing tracks!

As usual with Weakened Friends, a trio from Portland, Maine, there's great musicianship all around, but Sonia Sturino's distinctive vocals are what really set them apart from the crowd. I think she speaks for most of us with the caustic way she spits out lines like "World's a fucking mess, spin me round, I feel nauseous now" on "Tunnels."

Essential tracks: "Everything is Better," "Tunnels," "Spew," "Haunted House"

(Note for other Weakened Friends fans: I also got really into Sturino's old band The Box Tiger this year and I highly recommend them as well; a distinctly different sound but arguably just as great or close to it.)

Typhoon - Sympathetic Magic


We cross the country to the other Portland (Oregon) for the next entry on my list. The release of the digital version of Sympathetic Magic in January came totally by surprise and it was a wonderful surprise at a time I really needed it. Typhoon's music has touched me personally in a way that very few artists have. After grappling with mortality in such a beautiful way on 2013's White Lighter, a contender for my favorite album of all time, Kyle Morton began to move toward themes more inspired by events of the modern world in certain tracks on 2018's Offerings and has moved further in that direction on the band's latest brilliant release. The band's orchestral indie folk rock sound is somewhat understated here compared to previous releases, fitting for the subject matter.

Second track "Empire Builder," a narrative centered around a cross country train ride, begins with the lines, "The apocalypse is incoming, only moving slow and unevenly" and that really does capture this moment in time. I do also really like the not-totally-giving-up-on-hope closing lines: "Everybody's angry/Everybody's lonely/Maybe it's hopeless/And maybe love is not enough/But let's not rule out the possibility." And some of the lyrics from subsequent track "Motion and Thought" are so evocative to me of the strange feeling of the early pandemic days: "Told you you could call me/Anytime you want/It's not as if I've got anything going on."

Essential tracks: "Empire Builder," "Motion and Thought, "We're In It," "Welcome to the Endgame"

Julien Baker - Little Oblivions

This album continues an incredible run for the amazingly accomplished young artist whose debut Sprained Ankle would be a career highlight for many musicians, but who proceeded to take her music to another level with Turn Out the Lights and has now pushed even farther with the stunning Little Oblivions. Baker toured with a full band backing her for the first time this year, and the bigger sound is evident on the album, and it works really, really well. Listening to her first album, you might not have guessed she would make music that rocks this hard, but clearly you'd have been wrong. Baker's astonishing voice still stands out above the great textures of guitar and synth sounds.

Baker's music has always been extremely personal, her struggles with mental health so beautifully testified to in her lyrics, and it's something I think more and more of us can relate to as the world seems to come apart around us. On closing track "Ziptie," she asks, "Good God, when're you gonna call it off, climb down off the cross, and change your mind?" It's a timely question! I also have to mention that any time Julien Baker, Phoebe Bridgers, and Lucy Dacus, the three members of boygenius, come together on a song, it's one that you aren't going to want to miss. Apparently, vocals for "Favor" from Little Oblivions were recorded on the same day as those for "Please Stay" on Dacus's Home Video and for "Graceland Too" on Bridgers's 2020 album Punisher, and all three tracks are among the most gorgeous you'll hear in a while.

Essential tracks: "Faith Healer," "Ringside," "Favor," "Ziptie"

The Weather Station - Ignorance


I've already written at great length about my love for this album, which has truly become one of my all time favorites. It's a staggering achievement by the Canadian band (a project of singer-songwriter Tamara Lindeman) who had previously released a string of very good albums but nothing that came close to, or would have led one to anticipate, the masterpiece that is Ignorance. The propulsive, jazzy rock sound is a surprising change from the folk leanings of the band's previous releases, and it works wonderfully. Lindeman has always had a knack for piercingly insightful lyrics but she takes her lyrics game to the next level on these ten tracks pondering a human being's place in a world beset by catastrophe.

This album is, to me, a distillate of the experience of being human in 2021. The anxiety and the grief and still the wonder of it all. Marveling at the beauty of the natural world ("My god, what a sunset; blood red floods the Atlantic") while unable to escape "all this dying" in the headlines. Taking a moment to watch a bird in a parking lot. Remembering that "everywhere we go there is an outside, over all of these ceilings hangs a sky." "Always reeling, through long midnights of feeling" but at the same time being unable to conceal love, love for this troubled world and for other people inhabiting it with us. Years from now, I'll look back on this year, and this album will be the soundtrack of my memories.

Essential tracks: "Atlantic," "Parking Lot," "Heart," "Subdivisions"

And in conclusion, thank you, musicians, for making this sucky time suck a little less. It's hard to imagine life without you.

Thursday, November 4, 2021

"Everyone here has anxiety" (the boygenius concert trilogy)

After one and a half years with almost no in person live music - one and a half years that somehow felt both like an eternity and like almost no time at all had passed - suddenly it seemed like everyone and their brother had scheduled tours for September and October of 2021. When these tours were originally announced, it looked like the pandemic would be largely behind us by the time the shows happened. The delta variant changed things. The shows went on, with vaccine and sometimes mask requirements, musicians and fans adapting the best we could to this strange new reality. In a time of many difficult questions and no clear good answers, we try to choose the least bad answer and make the most of it.

For me, a magical Weather Station show on September 9 in Detroit kicked off a period more densely packed with exciting concerts than any I can ever remember, a period that has made me realize oh, how I've missed live music so, so much - and not only that, but how I've missed simply being around people so, so much.

Among the numerous shows over the past two months, Megan and I managed to catch all three members of fabulous indie rock supergroup boygenius - Phoebe Bridgers, Julien Baker, and Lucy Dacus - in separate live appearances. If you'd told me prior to COVID that I'd have an opportunity to see separate shows by each of the three in a period of less than a month, I'd have been astounded. These are very strange times indeed.

This post is about all three of the shows.

The first, by Bridgers, was on September 18 at EXPRESS LIVE! (yes, that is really the name of the venue - barf) in Columbus. Megan and I drove down from Cleveland, found unfortunately expensive garage parking (thanks to a simultaneous arena concert also in downtown Columbus that night), made our way over toward the venue, and quickly noticed there were just so many kids. So many kids.

I had not been in such a large crowd of people in a very long time. (An outdoor crowd, it's worth mentioning for COVID concerns - Bridgers scheduled all her shows on the tour at outdoor locations.) And so many of those people were so young. It was an interesting experience. I remembered attending an Arcade Fire show in 2007 at the same venue with Cara and my dad, and my dad looking around for people in his age bracket. This was almost like that for Megan and me.

It made me think about what a weird time this must be to grow up in. Especially now, because of COVID. But then, even before COVID. And I guess it's nice to see that some things stay the same. Young people find music that speaks to them and their concerns in whatever era they live in. With everything going on right now, it's not surprising that so many connect with what Bridgers is doing.

When Megan and I were waiting in a very long line to enter the venue prior to the show, someone drove up the side street along which the line stretched, stupidly in too much of a hurry, and loudly honked their horn right next to us at some people who were walking up the street to get to the end of the line that occupied most of the sidewalk. We and everyone around us flinched, startled, and shot a glance at the passing car. A young woman in front of us in line quickly let forth the best line of the night: "Everyone here has anxiety!" A witty and timely complaint directed at the already gone driver.

Megan and I laughed in agreement. Yes, the audience of a Phoebe Bridgers concert, or a Julien Baker or Lucy Dacus concert for that matter, is definitely enriched for people who "have anxiety." (Although how could anyone not have anxiety in the year 2021? If there are people who don't, although a part of me is envious, another part feels sorry for them because they must be really out of touch with reality.) The music of these amazing young women provides at least something of a balm for that anxiety.

After entering the venue, we took our places on the lawn and settled in amongst a crowd of people mostly at least fifteen years our juniors, and it struck me that for some of those kids, this must be the first big concert they'd ever attended, and some of them must have spent the last year and a half waiting for such an opportunity. What an experience it must have been for someone in that position.

Indie pop band Muna opened with a great, energetic set, but one that was marred by the extreme chattiness of numerous audience members. Megan said that being annoyed by that was a sign of getting old. I pointed out that I found it just as annoying when I was in my twenties as I do today.

The audience was more attentive during Bridgers's headline set, although still not as much as we'd have liked. But it was a great performance. And wow, it was just so good to be experiencing something like that after so much time without it!

It was a very warm day, with temperatures dropping only a little as the sun went down, and on two separate occasions the show was paused because someone in the pit had passed out. At a Phoebe Bridgers show! So there was a lot of excitement for sure.

One weird aspect of COVID is that despite us having been together for two years, this show was the first time that Megan and I got to see live performances of songs that were already meaningful to our relationship prior to the show. This included Bridgers's haunting song "Funeral," which Megan loves to point out was a hilariously dark choice for the first song I ever sent to her when we were texting and just starting to get to know each other. Lyrics excerpt:

I'm singing at a funeral tomorrow
For a kid a year older than me
And I've been talking to his dad, it makes me so sad
When I think too much about it I can't breathe
And I have this dream where I'm screaming underwater
While my friends are all waving from the shore
And I don't need you to tell me what that means
I don't believe in that stuff anymore
Jesus Christ, I'm so blue all the time
And that's just how I feel
Always have and I always will

After she pointed out how strange and funny it was that this was the first song I ever sent her, I obviously had to admit she was right. The thing is, "Jesus Christ, I'm so blue all the time" was not, like, a representation of my feelings about life. Okay, sometimes things seem like that, but not most of the time. I just really connect to music that gets at that sort of emotional state, that leans into the sorrow that's an inherent part of life. It's also just a beautiful song, and was a definite highlight of the concert.

An even bigger highlight was a solo performance of boygenius track "Me & My Dog," one that I was not expecting, another song meaningful to Megan and me and just an astonishingly good song. (Indeed, we "cried at [the] show with the teenagers.")

The great music was accompanied by striking visuals, something that was true of all three shows in this trilogy, the Bridgers show on a larger scale than the other two. During most of the songs, a large screen behind the stage displayed beautiful artwork matching the content of the song.


Bridgers's band was great, with the trumpet player in particular earning appreciative chants from the audience on more than one occasion. And watching those musicians on that big stage, I thought, wow, they're all so young. I thought that too at the Baker and Dacus shows. And another thing I thought, they all just seem like such good people. Not that you can know for sure. But I think you can kind of tell when you watch them interact with each other and with the audiences. It's really nice to see. The kids are all right, you know?

It was a great show. But it was just the beginning of a trilogy that would get even better.

At last year's Grammy awards, Phoebe Bridgers was nominated for four awards, including Best Alternative Music Album for Punisher. It's an excellent album, so I'm not criticizing it at all but rather praising the works of her boygenius bandmates when I say that among the most recent albums by all three, Punisher would come in third place in my rankings.

I'm glad that Phoebe Bridgers has achieved such well earned success and that so many people have connected with her music. Julien Baker and Lucy Dacus have also achieved a lot of success, but as of now, at least, don't draw nearly as large crowds, and honestly? That results in a better experience from the perspective of an audience member. Megan and I got to see both Baker and Dacus up close in two of my very favorite venues and with audiences that were totally there for the music and not to chat with their friends!

The Julien Baker show was the second of the trilogy and it took place on September 29 at Mr. Smalls Theatre in Millvale, PA, just outside of Pittsburgh. Again, Megan and I made a late afternoon drive out of Cleveland. A nice thing about living in Cleveland is that when artists schedule tours that don't hit Cleveland, there's a good chance that they'll at least hit one of Pittsburgh, Columbus, or Detroit, all very doable drives.

Our trip to see Julien Baker was marked by a remarkable amount of serendipity. This started when we missed a highway exit and ended up taking back roads through the Conneaut area, which led to us seeing a hand-painted sign next to the road advertising the amazing website ForKin.net, which led to even more amazing discoveries that I won't go into here! We marvel at the fact that we would never have known about any of it if we hadn't missed that exit. The serendipity continued as we were waiting in line to enter the venue and heard the two people behind us, a young man and a young woman, talking about the fact that the woman had offered up what she had thought was an extra ticket to the show, then after having found a buyer in the man with her, had discovered she had actually bought just one ticket to the sold out show, not two. And was therefore planning to leave rather than attend the show herself. The serendipitous part was that Megan had accidentally purchased three tickets to the show, and thus we found someone to use that extra ticket.

This was my fourth time seeing Julien Baker live. She never fails to blow me away. It was the first time I'd seen her headline a show, and she lived up to my expectations.

She is a tiny person. As illustrated in this picture of me and her taken at the 2018 Homecoming festival in Cincinnati:



When you watch her perform live, you wonder, where does that voice come from? And that voice is something truly astounding.

During the show, Baker mentioned the first time she had performed at Mr. Smalls, opening for the band Daughter in 2016. As it happened, that show was also the first time I went to Mr. Smalls, and the first time I saw Baker live. It was an unforgettable experience. I went into that show knowing nothing about her music. I left it a big fan for life.

I remember well watching her, so petite, so young (she was twenty at the time), come out on stage by herself and then just marveling at the power of her performance. She's come a long way since then; her performances now are just as powerful but in a decidedly different way. Whereas I would describe her 2016 performance as stripped down, rawly emotional indie folk, in 2021 she's a bona fide rock star with a full band and light show. Whereas many of Phoebe Bridgers's songs felt like they would better fit a more intimate venue, in Julien Baker's show the crashing, post-rock-ish guitar chords of the live arrangements of songs like "Turn Out the Lights" and  "Ziptie" would have easily filled a much larger room. So I felt very lucky to be able to experience the performance in the beautiful intimate setting of Mr. Smalls, a building that was once a church, fitting because seeing Julien Baker live borders on a religious experience.


A mid-set solo interlude including some songs from debut album Sprained Ankle took me back to that evening in July 2016 in a wonderful way. When Baker's band returned to the stage, I quickly noticed that each member was wearing a shirt I'd appreciated at the merch table on the way in - a shirt emblazoned with a large picture of Baker's face.

It was hilarious, even more so when Baker turned to her band to introduce them to the crowd, and it dawned on her that one of them was wearing that shirt, and then she had to have it pointed out to her that they were all wearing that shirt. It was her birthday, so that was how they'd decided to honor her! And as a result of this, I had to buy the shirt for myself after the show. It's such a delightful shirt, and a delightful memory - how could I not?

2021 release Little Oblivions, almost every song of which was played in the show, is an astoundingly good album. Baker's previous effort, 2017's Turn Out the Lights, is also an astoundingly good album. Sprained Ankle is an amazing debut. She has easily become one of my very favorite artists of the last few years, and one that I will never miss seeing live when the opportunity arises. And in this particular show, there was something really special about watching her perform. There was so much joy in her performance. There were so many beaming smiles. There was so much gratitude at being able to be on that stage after the dreadful last 18 months. Gratitude at the opportunity and gratitude to all her fans who got vaccinated and wore masks and came out to appreciate her music. It was gratitude that was shared by me and by most other members of the audience, I have no doubt.

Another thing I have to mention from this trip - the next morning before heading back to Cleveland we made a stop at Attic Records and it was the most amazing record store I've ever been to with a vast collection including the most random stuff that I could have spent all day browsing! We'll have to return some day to spend more time there.

The final show in the trilogy did not involve an out of town trip. Lucy Dacus made a late addition to her tour with an October 14 Cleveland date after having had to cancel a Toronto appearance. Unfortunate for her fans in Toronto, but very lucky for us here. Of the three shows covered in this post, it was the one that Megan and I had the least expectations for, but it was also the one that easily shot past both of our expectations. Dacus has put out some great music - I'm currently in love with her recent album Home Video - but she also really elevates that music in the live setting. I'd seen her once before, three years ago, but I'd forgotten just how outstanding she is live.

There was more serendipity after our arrival to this show. I was (of course) wearing my recently acquired Julien Baker t-shirt, and after Megan and I entered the ballroom and found a spot near the stage, one of a pair of women near us complimented me on the shirt. I mentioned having seen her in Pittsburgh and it turned out they had also been at that show! They were from Pittsburgh, so whereas we had traveled from Cleveland to Pittsburgh for the Baker show, they'd traveled from Pittsburgh to Cleveland for the Dacus show. They, too, had seen Bridgers recently - in Pittsburgh, the night before her Columbus show. One of them said something like, "these shows are my only source of serotonin right now," and, yeah. Yeah.

Things are so weird and hard and overwhelming right now, for just about everyone, everyone in their own way, for some more than for others, but I think we can all say, this is not the life we ever imagined we'd be living. And in a lot of ways it sucks. A lot. Thank goodness for live music. It's one of the best kinds of medicine there is. And thank goodness for vaccines for making these shows possible.

The Beachland Ballroom is one of my favorite places in the whole world. I've seen so many amazing shows there. Prior to the Lucy Dacus show, I hadn't been there in more than twenty months. That had definitely never happened before, and it was so good to be back. It felt like a homecoming of sorts. We took our place toward the front of the room on the left side and I remembered previous memorable shows I'd experienced from roughly the same spot, like Nada Surf in October 2005 (one of the very best shows of my early concert going days) and Sufjan Stevens in December 2012 (a truly magical holiday extravaganza). In a lot of ways I think this most recent show will go down as being just as memorable for me.

Bartees Strange opened the night with a great set. He originally gained recognition for an album of National covers, a couple of which he included in his live set, and which he introduced by asking the audience, "Does anyone here like the National?"

I laughed and looked over at Megan, who gave an enthusiastic "woo!" I laughed because, you see, Megan is obsessed with the National, and in fact one of the main reasons I originally swiped on her Bumble profile was that it included the fact that she listens to the National a lot. I asked her whether she had ever before been somewhere where someone asked if anyone liked the National, and she, not surprisingly, said no.

Lucy Dacus completed our boygenius concert trilogy in a perfect way. She played most of the songs from her fantastic new album, one I think I'm especially connecting to right now because it leans heavily on memories of high school and I recently attended my twenty year high school reunion, and also sprinkled in a few older songs, new unreleased songs, and covers. Like at the Phoebe Bridgers show, a (smaller) screen at the back of the stage displayed some lovely artwork matching the content of certain songs, like this for "Christine":


Dacus has an incredibly charming stage presence. She's also very adept at going between quieter songs that tug at the emotions of everyone in the room ("Please Stay" might be the most heartbreaking song I've ever heard) and louder songs that get the crowd moving. The last three songs of the main set demonstrated this nicely. From the devastating "Thumbs," with Dacus's voice over understated backing music just captivating the whole room, she then introduced the next song as a cover and launched into Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark," which I was just as thrilled to hear as Megan had been for Bartees Strange's National covers. Strange then came out on stage to play guitar on "Night Shift" and that song in particular was one of those sublime experiences that can only happen when a musician is in a room full of their devoted fans.

As the song reached its climax, the whole crowd bellowing out the words to the chorus, perhaps even louder than usual to get past our masks, I got chills. It felt like a release of all the emotions of the last year and a half. It was such a great communal experience. It was easily the best singalong I've experienced since before COVID. It was what live music is all about. I think most people in that room felt similarly.

It's a feeling I'll try to hold on to as we enter another dark winter.