May, 2009:

Sweet Bitters CD Release Party

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We’ve seen Sweet Bitters live three times now (including last night). The first time we saw them was just over a year ago at Pete’s Candy Store in Brooklyn. I covered that evening in this post. Seven months later we saw them perform at Googie’s, covered in this post. As noted in that post, the main point of the Googie’s show was to raise money to produce a new CD.

I’m very happy to report that they did indeed produce a new CD, and a wonderful one at that! Last night was the official CD Release Party / show, even though the CD itself has been available for at least two months (we got our copy on March 30th, 2009). In the previous post I said that it would be a 13-song CD. It turned out to be a 12 song CD. I’ll get to the missing song toward the end of this post.

Even though it’s only been 14 months since we first discovered Sweet Bitters, I am very impressed by how much they have grown in that time as performers. From the day we discovered them, we knew they were both extremely talented songwriters. They both have wonderful voices, individually and when they harmonize together. They are both good musicians as well.

So, how have they progressed since we first saw them? First, the simple answer. The first show was just the two of them. It was lovely. The second show added Andrew Frawley, a drummer, to the mix. It was a very nice touch, and I had a lot of praise for Andrew’s playing in my previous post. In addition to playing live with them, Andrew Frawley also was the sound engineer for the new CD, which they recorded in his studio. Given the quality of the CD, I can now safely compliment Andrew’s talents as a sound engineer as well!

The new CD has additional instruments on it that they had never used in a live performance. To continue my simple answer as to their growth, in last night’s show, they played with a full band. Andrew once again played the drums. They added a wonderful bass player who came down from Maine to join them, Kevin Attra. Ila Cantor played electric guitar on roughly half the numbers. On a few numbers they added a wonderful cello player, Martha Colby.

Here’s a shot of all of them on stage at the same time. Apologies for the fact that Sharon and Nina have a major red eye effect here, that I couldn’t correct for. At least you’ll see the stage setup and good shots of Ila and Martha. Kevin is hiding behind Sharon, and Andrew is partially obscured by his drums:

Sweet Bitters Full Band

Sweet Bitters Full Band

That, in and of itself would be growth. However, their growth didn’t stop there. Sharon worked hard learning to play an electric bass, and showed off her new skills well in one song. Nina played the glockenspiel in one number (and it was a very nice touch!). It also made me realize that when I wrote about The Paper Raincoat a month ago, I was likely wrong when I said they played a mini-xylophone. It too was almost definitely a glockenspiel. Sharon explained the difference on stage, in a very cute story.

Here’s Sharon singing and playing the guitar:

Sharon

Sharon

And Nina, singing and playing the glockenspiel:

Nina

Nina

To be clear, I think they would still put on a great show if it was just the two of them. They don’t need a full band, but they used the additional talent to their credit.

The one thing that I took them to task on at Googie’s (very lightly) was that it was pretty clear which were Sharon’s songs, and which were Nina’s songs, even though their voices blended beautifully no matter whose song it was. That feeling/complaint was completely gone last night. Having a full band probably nullifies the problem, but I honestly believe that they have matured as a group/duo, and even playing by themselves, would mesh really well.

Four of the songs from the new CD are up for your sampling pleasure on their MySpace page. They rotate the selection on occasion. Perhaps our favorite Sweet Bitters song (at least the one we agree on) is Falling Into Place. That used to be up on MySpace, but isn’t at the moment. A good enough reason for you to buy their new CD (available on iTunes, CD Baby, etc.). Since I haven’t mentioned it yet, the new CD is named “Sweet Bitters”. Lois suggested they name it “Falling Into Place”. I agreed with Lois, they didn’t. 😉

I mentioned earlier that the CD ended up with 12 songs, from the original plan of 13. The song that got cut is one that Lois is in love with, Rich Little Poor Girl. We don’t own a recording of that, so we only get to hear it when they perform live. Last night, during their set, they didn’t play it. When the set was over, I could feel Lois’ disappointment. When the crowd cheered loud enough and long enough to make it clear that Sweet Bitters wouldn’t be allowed off the stage without an encore, Lois’ wishes were answered.

For the encore, they played Rich Little Poor Girl, and Lois got to leave completely satisfied with the entire show, including finishing on a personal high for her. Now we need to twist their arm to record it so that we can listen to it whenever we want. 😉

The show took place at Kennys Castaways, a small-ish bar in the Village. We’d never been there before, even though it’s right next to many landmark places like the Bitter End (to name just one). The sound system was very good, in particular for their vocals, which is what makes Sweet Bitters special to begin with. I don’t know exactly how many people were there, but it was packed. Quite a number of people were standing, even though Sharon pointed out to them that there were seats available in the balcony. I guess people wanted the more intimate feel of being near the stage.

We had a great time, heard excellent music, made a new friend (hi Shani), and got to support people we like and admire.

I was looking forward to a beer and a burger (Kennys menu looked pretty tempting online). Unfortunately, the kitchen was closed last night, so I settled just for the beer (very satisfying) and ate when we got home (thanks Lois for throwing together something delicious on such short notice!).

There was another group playing at Kenny’s after Sweet Bitters. It’s tough to even get noticed in the music biz (one of the most brutal ways to try and make a living that I’ve ever seen), let alone to actually make it. I was impressed by a very small touch that this next band did, to help them get noticed.

In an incredibly unobtrusive manner, near the end of Sweet Bitters set, a nearly unseen hand quietly slipped a 4×6 piece of paper onto our table. It was an announcement of their show. Clearly, this served a number of purposes, meaning that they were likely handing these out long before the show, not just to the crowd at Kennys.

At the bottom was a link to their site, pointing out that there were four songs that could be downloaded for free from that site. We didn’t hang around for their set (many reasons), but I did bother to listen to their music, and found it good enough to download (after streaming it first). You can check them out too, and decide for yourself:

The Wind-up

My point is that they weren’t in my face, but they didn’t lose an opportunity to try and reach at least one new potential fan. In addition, while streaming is nice (they have it available on their site, on their MySpace page, and in YouTube videos as well), giving me their DEMO CD as a free download will probably accomplish more, as I may actually listen to it more often than I would if I had to remember to visit their site.

In this day and age, giving away a few songs is a better way to try and grow a fan base. Here I am, not really a fan yet, but finding myself compelled to promote their music, perhaps netting them some more fans, even if I never end up listening to their stuff again. Good luck guys! 🙂

No GLEE Here

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Now that the regular TV season is over, I’m a little more attuned to potential new shows to watch, particularly during the summer.

I really like Jane Lynch a lot, in particular her turns on Two and Half Men (one of my favorite comedies). So, when I saw a commercial for a new show called Glee, and saw that Jane had a prominent role in it, I figured I’d give it a try.

Somehow, I missed the pilot episode. I have bought a TV episode from Amazon Unbox in the past, so I get their weekly newsletters. This past week, they were offering a download of the Pilot episode of Glee, for free. Cool, the universe seemed to be looking out for me.

I downloaded the 847MB file (wow, that has to be some pretty good definition, right?). A few days later, after a little bit of arm-twisting Lois into checking it out, I popped in my HDMI cable to the back of my laptop, fired up the TV, and was set to enjoy this new show.

Even though I could hear the sound, the picture was blank. Sparing you the details, Amazon Unbox was clearly applying some DRM and HDMI cables respect DRM, so I was able to see the picture on my laptop, but not through the HDMI cable on the TV itself. I could have switched to component cables, but I was just annoyed, and I put something else on the TV.

The very next day I saw someone mention that they just installed the new Hulu Desktop application. I don’t watch Hulu all that often, but when I do, it’s quite a pleasant experience, so I decided to download the app, just to check it out.

Imagine my surprise when it started playing Glee by default! I stopped it pretty quickly. Later that night I told Lois we would give it another try, using Hulu instead of Amazon Unbox. Hulu didn’t have any of the DRM problems (which were strange to begin with on a free download). So, the show fired right up, with excellent resolution as well.

Sounds like a happy ending, no? No!

After torturing ourselves for roughly 15 minutes (with no commercials), we simply couldn’t watch another second of this show. It’s possible that they redeem themselves later on. People magazine had a very positive review of the show. We’ll likely never find out. Both of us felt immensely relieved when I killed it.

Since I had Hulu Desktop up, and had the HDMI cable plugged in, I ended up watching the very first episode of It Takes a Thief (from 1968), which was one of my favorite childhood shows. Lois was bored out of her mind, but at least it was pleasant boredom, as opposed to Glee, which was actively painful. I loved the show, if for the nostalgia alone. I’ll be watching more episodes, I’m sure, likely without Lois. 😉

Glee was an experiment. The Pilot debuted now, but the rest of the series will be shown in the Fall. This was a way to build some excitement in advance. Oops…

PeopleBrowsr Boggles the Mind

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Twitter is a phenomenon. It’s one of the hottest topics in the media now, not just the tech media. Most non-Twitterers roll their eyes when someone tries to explain what they’re missing. Many first-time users abandon it pretty quickly too.

I’ve been using Twitter consistently for over two years. In my opinion, there are quite a number of ways to effectively use Twitter, but I would guess that most people fall into one particular pattern. Up until recently, for me, that was as a personal, extended away message service. In other words, I used it to let friends know what I was up to.

Because of that, I protected my tweets (meaning, I had to approve who was permitted to follow me), since the world didn’t need to know that I was off to a concert or having dinner with friends. To accomplish this low volume use of Twitter, pretty much any of the hundreds of Twitter clients more than suffice. After trying many of them, I settled on the all-in-one Instant Messaging (IM) client Digsby. It’s not a great Twitter client, but it’s a great IM client, and having Twitter integrated was a bonus (one less app to deal with).

One of the clever things that Twitter clients do (which is a clever part of the Twitter API) is to announce themselves with each tweet. I was noticing that most of the people that I was following were using TweetDeck (this was a few months ago). I looked at it, understood what people liked about it, but it didn’t fit my usage pattern, nor attract me to changing my usage. One of the reasons is that it didn’t support multiple Twitter accounts, and I had no interest in changing the way I used the one account I had (@hadar).

As any regular web surfer knows, JavaScript (JS) is taking over the web. It’s really hard to find an interesting site that doesn’t either require JS, or use JS to make the site dramatically more interesting/usable.

One day I saw a mention that one of the more sophisticated JS-driven websites was called PeopleBrowsr. Note that there is no E at the end of “browsr”. Even if I realized that it was a Twitter client, I had no interest in a web-based Twitter client. I was merely curious to see just how sophisticated a JS application could be on the web.

Folks, I was totally blown away. Aside from being wildly impressed by what one could do with JS, I quickly switched gears into discovering just how much of the Twittersphere I was ignoring (even though some of the people that I had been following for years are Twitter Rock Stars). Even more impressive is the fact that you can click on skip login, and get a complete sense of how PeopleBrowsr works, without entering your Twitter credentials.

In fact, in their default non-login mode, you already see many cool features, and can start to explore the application.

PeopleBrowsr is so awesome that many people have covered it extensively, and have done so better than I ever could. The list truly goes on and on, but I’ll just put forth three links, two video, and one blog, if you want a feature oriented tutorial:

A fantastic introduction to PeopleBrowsr Lite Mode (recommended for people who want to get their feet wet with PeopleBrowsr).

A fantastic introduction to PeopleBrowsr Advanced Mode (this is the mode I use). The same author intends to produce a video about Business Mode in the near future, and I look forward to viewing that as well.

Guruvan has an in-depth article on why he switched from TweetDeck to PeopleBrowsr, and there are many good points in there. It’s a long, but worthwhile read.

PeopleBrowsr comes in two flavors, a browser-based version (best viewed in Google Chrome, Safari and Firefox) and an Adobe AIR version. The user interface is identical in both, but there is an important functional difference between them.

The browser version is resource friendly (both to your machine, and to their servers) in that it won’t update unless the PeopleBrowsr tab is in focus. For the casual Tweeter, or the person who can’t avoid distractions, this is ideal. Only when you wish to catch up with your Tweeps, do you switch to PeopleBrowsr, and see what you’ve missed.

The AIR version runs continuously in the background (as it should), and puts up the typical popup alerts whenever a new tweet comes in. Of course you can ignore them, but the whole point is to be aware of what’s happening in the twittersphere, and that means constant distractions. This isn’t unique to PeopleBrowsr, as any other AIR Twitter client will default to this behavior as well.

I would have preferred to use the AIR application, but I have found the browser based version to be a tad more reliable. So, for the moment, I use it in Google Chrome exclusively. PeopleBrowsr is still officially in alpha (beta coming any day now), but it’s reasonably rock solid most of the time. Occasionally, there are some glitches, but given the amount of raw power in this app, the growing pains are well worth it.

Now for the big win. Because PeopleBrowsr handles multiple Twitter accounts so well, I was inspired to register two new Twitter accounts. The first is my first public account, @hadarvc. The second is for a new micro-business that Lois and I have formed, but have not yet launched, @songsandjingles.

Handling all three accounts in PeopleBrowsr is not only easy, it’s fun.

The team behind PeopleBrowsr is tireless and talented. Their pace of innovation is incredible (another testament to them, and to the power of deploying JS-based applications). They are super-responsive to any issues brought up by their users.

I highly recommend anyone who uses Twitter to give PeopleBrowsr a try. If you don’t use Twitter, and want to know what all the fuss is about, then PeopleBrowsr is a pretty cool way to discover some of the more interesting things about Twitter, without even having to create an account. How cool is that? 🙂

Update: I should mention that PeopleBrowsr is way more than a Twitter client. It can connect to many Social Media sites, including Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, FriendFeed, etc. For the purpose of this blog post, and for the majority of my personal use of PeopleBrowsr, I only covered the Twitter portion…

CMA Writers Series at Joe’s Pub

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Last night was our ninth CMA Writers Series at Joe’s Pub. Yes, we already have our tickets for the next one, which will be #10. 🙂

They started at 6:35pm. This time, there were only four people on the stage, rather than the more typical five. There was a qualitative difference as well. As I’ve pointed out in the past, many of the songwriters are less-than-spectacular performers. On occasion, there’s a real full-time performer (e.g., Craig Morgan), or someone who could be if they wanted to be (e.g., Hillary Lindsey).

Aside from those exceptions (they were just examples, there are other professional performers on occasion), the talent level varies, pretty dramatically.

Last night saw three people, plus the ever-present Bob DiPiero, who were all excellent performers in their own right. In addition, they were every bit as interesting and entertaining in their story-telling as the more typical songwriters who are the backbone of this series.

From left-to-right on the stage:

Jimmy Wayne played the guitar and sang. He’s a singer-songwriter, meaning, he performs his own work, and cuts his own CDs, and tours. He’s opening for Brad Paisley this summer! He plays a superb finger-picking style on the guitar, and doesn’t need any further accompaniment to create an excellent sound to complement his singing.

Jimmy Wayne

Jimmy Wayne

Jimmy had a very rough childhood, and overcame more than most of us have to experience (thankfully so, on both fronts!). I thought he looked 25, but he’s 37. Because of his difficult upbringing, many of his songs are filled with those stories, including all of the anguish, but with hopeful or uplifting endings. In other words, he sings from the heart!

We enjoyed every one of Jimmy’s numbers, and his stories were touching and much appreciated as well. He has a winning smile. For the first time in our nine appearances at this series, we experienced women screaming to Jimmy about him, rather than just about the songs. If he wanted to go home with someone, he could have had his pick. 😉

Bob DiPiero played the guitar and sang. Bob did his usual giant hits, and also introduced a brand new one that was just cut by Brooks and Dunn. Nice to know that when you hit the CMA Writers Hall of Fame, you don’t stop writing new ones. 😉

Bob DiPiero

Bob DiPiero

Scotty Emerick played the guitar and sang. Scotty is a master guitarist (again, an anomaly for this kind of show, but not unheard of). Jimmy Wayne is excellent, but Scotty is better, exhibiting more styles. Scotty often writes with/for Toby Keith, which meant we got to hear a couple of our favorite Country songs, Beer for My Horses and I Love this Bar (both huge Toby Keith hits!).

Scotty Emerick

Scotty Emerick

Scotty has a gorgeous voice (click from the above site to his MySpace page to hear four of his songs). Couple that with his guitar playing, and he could be a full-time performer. Unlike Jimmy, he concentrates more on song-writing. That said, he does have a CD out, and Lois bought it last night (signed, of course).

Aside from getting to hear the Toby Keith songs, Scotty also played some hysterical songs, including the first cut from his CD (also available for you to listen to on MySpace) called Love Me Like My Dog! I laughed out loud at each and every line in the song. Aside from being funny, it’s also a good song musically. He’s a real talent!

He sang another song that broke up the crowd on every verse as well, I’ll Never Smoke Weed with Willie Again. If you want to see Scotty sing and play the guitar for yourself, then enjoy this YouTube version yourself:

Dean Dillon played guitar and sang. Dean was a professional performer for many years, so it was no surprise that he was excellent last night as well. However, he concentrates more nowadays on his writing, and it has more than paid off for him. George Strait has cut more than 30 of Dean’s songs!

Dean Dillon

Dean Dillon

I am sure that Dean and Scotty are good friends, and I think I heard them say that they have written together as well. That came across last night when they each sang harmony on the other’s songs. For example, in the video above, Scotty and Toby Keith sing harmony, and Dean played the Toby part last night (just for the harmony, as Scotty sang each of the verses).

In addition, Scotty played lead guitar on many of Dean’s numbers, enriching Dean’s performance very nicely. Well done by both of them.

As much as the crowd always goes nuts for anything/everything that Bob DiPiero sings or says, surrounding himself with three people who can all sing and play so much better than him is a testament to his committment to bring extrmeley talented people for us New Yorker’s to enjoy! Bravo Bob!

That’s it for the show. We had a little adventure that worked out in the end…

We walked to Joe’s Pub last night, something we haven’t done before. We got there in plenty of time, and were probably 20th on line. When we finally got in, for the first time ever, our name was not in the computer for a dinner reservation. Aside from being hungry, you need a dinner reservation if you want to sit. No reservation? You might end up standing, especially if the show sells out (which the CMA does nearly every time).

We’re super-regulars at Joe’s and were treated extremely curteously by the staff, who never accused us of lying about not having a dinner reservation, etc. They put us in a roped-off VIP area (communal seating) while they sorted it out. As they started putting other people in there with us, we heard the same story over and over, that these people also had reservations which were lost.

This was a first, and we’ve been to Joe’s so many times, so we’ll definitely forgive them.

10 minutes into the show (so two songs were played already), they came and got us and gave us a table. Well, not just a table, but rather our table, meaning, the exact table that we request in advance every time we call for a reservation. So, no harm no foul.

I got to eat my Tuna Steak, which was cooked to perfection! I also had a perfect Chocolate Martini (they make them so well there, it’s a crime not to order one!). 😉

Next CMA show is July 30th. See you there! 🙂

Happy Birthday Lois

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Lois and I rarely exchange gifts or cards on any occasion, including birthdays. The main exception is that Lois has gone out of her way to make some of my milestone birthdays very special affairs. That included my 30th, 35th and 50th.

This was not a milestone birthday for Lois, but I decided to give her a small surprise nonetheless. Surprising Lois is no easy feat. She’s curious about lots of things, and not shy to ask questions, so some outright lying is required, something I am normally loathe to do. C’est la vie! 😉

We spend a lot of time working in Fredericksburg, VA, and often spend the intervening weekend in Richmond, VA, where we have more good friends than you can shake a stick at (always a fun thing to do). I noticed that there was a Bluegrass Festival (specifically, the City Slickers Bluegrass Festival) on Lois’ actual birthday. I knew that this would be a cool thing to do, with as many of our friends as could make it.

I already covered the event itself in a post yesterday. This post will cover the details leading up to it, and a bit of the rest of the weekend after as well.

Once I decided on this event, I wrote to a bunch of people and invited them to join us. One after another, I got back regrets that people would be out of town. Of course, it turned out that this was Mothers Day Weekend, and our closest friends were coupling that by attending a Law School Graduation for the son of another friend.

For a couple of days, it looked like it might just be Lois and me. Not that it wouldn’t be fun, but it wouldn’t be a party. 😉

Then I got one yes, followed by one maybe. That’s where the count stood for a few weeks. I bought four tickets, and figured at least we were set for a good time, and put it out of my mind.

A week out, I got another two tentative attendees, and they asked me not to purchase tickets in advance, in case they couldn’t make it. Thankfully, they were able to make it. In a wonderful surprise, someone else who was planning on being out of town ended up staying in Richmond, partially to help celebrate Lois’ birthday, so seven of us all enjoyed the show together!

Along the way, there were some twists and turns. Lois reached out to a number of friends independently, knowing that we would have more time to run around than usual, given that we would be house sitting (and dog sitting) for our friends. Behind her back, I was telling people that they should respond however they want (make plans, don’t make plans, etc., but not to reveal the surprise!).

In fact, I asked one of the confirmed people to suggest coming to see Lois at 2pm on Saturday (the gates for the Festival opened at 2:30pm) so that I could be sure Lois would want to be at the house at the correct hour. That worked out perfectly (or so I thought it would).

One of the women that Lois reached out to invited us for dinner on Friday evening to spend some time with them and their now-crawling baby girl. We were delighted and accepted right away. An hour later, she emailed again (to Lois) asking if we could move it to Saturday night. Lois instantly accepted and (thankfully!) informed me after the fact.

I wrote to our friend and said that I didn’t intend to officially cancel, which would make Lois suspicious, but that we would not be able to make dinner on Saturday because of the concert. At this point I was pretty sure that the surprise would be revealed sooner rather than later, purely for logistics reasons, or from being caught in a silly lie.

On Friday, we had lunch with our attorney in Richmond. We bumped into our hostess for Saturday night waiting for the elevator (she works for a consulting firm which is part of the same law firm). Later that afternoon, I emailed her and asked her to write to Lois and move our meal up to lunch. She did.

Lois became suspicious immediately. This was now the second time that the meal had been rescheduled. I did my best to downplay the changes. Lois was now nervous that we wouldn’t get back in time for the 2pm meeting at the house. I assured her we would.

Then Lois wrote to another person who was coming to the concert, and asked to get together for breakfast on Saturday. That person wrote to me and asked what she should do. 😉 I told her that breakfast would be fine, as long as it didn’t interfere with her ability to join us for the concert. She said it wouldn’t, and she showed up at 9:30am at the house on Saturday.

We ended up at our appointed lunch at exactly noon, perfect. We had a wonderful time catching up with our friends, and playing with the baby (a complete delight!). When it got close to 2pm, Lois was getting nervous about the person who was coming to the house. Of course, I had already redirected her to where we were (she’s the sister of the husband of the couple we were visiting). I pretended to email her, and pretended that she said she would come there instead. 🙂

Baby

Baby

Baby and Hadar

Baby and Hadar

We had a fantastic meal (home cooked) outside in the garden behind their house. It’s now three days later, and Lois and I are still talking about it.

Amazing Outdoor Meal

Amazing Outdoor Meal

At 2:30, I excused myself to go back to the house to walk the dog and feed the fish. Half an hour later, Lois showed up, and the other couple was already there. Now she finally knew something was up, but she still thought it was just going to be a get-together at the house, to say Happy Birthday.

I told her not to sit down, that we were heading to the Science Museum. She didn’t believe me. It was the truth, as the Festival was held on the grounds of the Science Museum of VA, in the Garner Pavilion. I joked that there were 6,000 strangers waiting there to sing Happy Birthday to her (and she was a little more than nervous that perhaps I was telling the truth!).

Science Museum of VA

Science Museum of VA

Until we were in the parking lot, she had no idea what we were about to do. Thankfully, she loved the idea, and the actual show, beyond my hopeful expectations. So, I done good! 🙂

After the show, we went to one of the couples’ house for home made birthday cake (chocolate-chocolate, which was beyond awesome!), and ice cream. The next day we joined most of the people who joined us for the show for an incredible Mothers Day celebration at the local country club. It was magical, with three generations of mothers in attendance, all mothers-in-law to each other.

Birthday Cake

Birthday Cake

A fantastic weekend that will not be forgotten soon. Happy Birthday Lois! 🙂

P.S. We have a ton of good looking friends. Here is one tiny bit of proof of that fact!

Good Looking Friends

Good Looking Friends

City Slickers Bluegrass Festival

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This past Saturday, May 9th, 2009, seven of us attended the City Slickers Bluegrass Festival in Richmond, VA. How and why we came to attend will be the subject of my next post, this one will just cover the event itself.

There were three headliners and one opening act. The opening act, Page Wilson with Reckless Abandon came on at 3pm. We weren’t able to get there until 3:30pm, so we caught the last 30 minutes of their set. Nothing worth mentioning (sorry), so I won’t waste space on them.

At 4:25pm, the first of the three headliners (and the one I was most curious to see live) came on, Sierra Hull. I was familiar with Sierra Hull because a very good friend of mine (an American who lives in the UK) bought me her CD (download on iTunes) a while ago. I loved it from the first listen (thanks again Chris!).

What I didn’t pay attention to until long after I loved the album was that Sierra was only 17-years-old (still is!) and that she plays the mandolin in addition to singing lead. I feel silly saying plays the mandolin, it sounds so mundane. I really love the mandolin, and I try to pay attention to the difference in style and abilities of the various top players.

Up until now, I would have rated my top three favorite mandolin players as follows:

  1. Chris Thile
  2. Adam Steffey
  3. Ricky Skaggs

Choosing between #2 and #3 above is a little arbitrary, they’re both so good. #1 however is a no-brainer for me. That’s still probably true, but I have to tell you, that after seeing Sierra Hull play for nearly 120 minutes (in two sets) on Saturday, I might slip her in between Chris and Adam. And, she’s only going to get better, I’m sure!

Lest you think I’m dissing Adam Steffey, here’s a quote on Sierra Hull’s site (front page) by Adam Steffey himself!

Sierra Hull is without doubt my favorite mandolin player!

See! 🙂 Sierra also played guitar (beautifully!) on roughly four numbers, but she was born to play the mandolin!

Backing up Sierra is a group called Highway 111.

Clay Hess plays the guitar and sings a ton with Sierra (lead and harmony). Clay is an awesome flatpicker, and he sings really well too.

Corey Walker played the banjo and sang as well. He’s really good. It was hysterical to hear Sierra (all of 17-years-old) saying “Can you believe how good Cory is, and he’s only 19?”. 🙂

Jacob Eller rounds out the band on the upright bass. Wonderful in every sense of the word.

The four of them blend beautifully together. Sierra is also as personable and commanding a stage presence as you could imagine, a seeming enigma for someone so young. The show would have been worth it just for Sierra’s two sets, but wait, there’s more! 🙂

Sierra Hull and Highway 111

Sierra Hull and Highway 111

Lois got her picture taken with Sierra right before Sierra’s second set. According to Lois, she’s as sweet and personable one-on-one as she is in front of the entire crowd!

Lois and Sierra Hull

Lois and Sierra Hull

At 5:45pm Seldom Scene came on the stage. As much as I love Bluegrass music (and trust me, I’m totally in love with the genre), I’m not a real aficionado of enough of the leaders in the category. I know a lot of groups which I love, but there are so many more that I’ve either never heard of, or have heard of but don’t really know their music.

Seldom Scene has been at the top of the Bluegrass world for over 30 years, but they fell into the category of heard of but not known by me. One of my friends (Richmond-based, but unfortunately out of town this past weekend) is a major fan, so I was really looking to finally getting to know them.

Wow! Even though these are no youngsters, they jam as well anyone blessed with youth. Their voices are amazing, individually and when singing harmony together. They are superb musicians, though none of them stood out to me like Sierra (folks, that’s not a complaint or a put-down of Seldom Scene band members). The songs were fantastic, and their 80 minute set was outstanding from the first note until the mandatory encore!

Seldom Scene

Seldom Scene

The second (literally) that the encore was over, the heavens opened up. They had predicted possible thunderstorms throughout the show, so it was nice that it held off until after 7pm, and waited until a natural intermission too. Severe lightning caused them to power down the sound board and stage. Better safe than sorry.

Sierra Hull was scheduled to come back on the stage at 7:30pm. Amazingly, shortly after that time, the rain stopped, and we were blessed with a cool evening. The show was only delayed 10 minutes, as Sierra was back on at 7:40! As I already noted above, she blew us all away again.

The final headliner to take the stage was The Grascals. Lois and I own three of their CDs, so we’re familiar with their music, and love it. I’m going to gush about them in a minute (including covering them individually), but take the time to read their bio to see how many awards they’ve won in their impressive but reasonably short career!

OK, you don’t win the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Entertainers of the Year award (in consecutive years no less!) without being something extremely special. They are indeed very special. This was our first time seeing them live, and I was really looking forward to it!

They are all superb musicians, but the focus is really on the fiddle, banjo and mandolin. The bassist is superb, but not really highlighted, and the two guitarists support the sounds wonderfully, but they are never highlighted (even less than the bass!).

Standing left-to-right on the stage:

Danny Roberts on the mandolin. He’s really good. Very fast, very clean, very interesting licks. Highlighted a lot in most of their numbers.

Jeremy Abshire on the fiddle. Holy Cow! This guy is amazing. If I had to make the call, I’d say that The Grascals highlight him slightly more than the rest, but who could blame them. He’s outstanding in every respect. Fast as greased lightning, but always interesting.

Jamie Johnson on vocals and guitar. (No particularly good link to him personally, sorry.) Jamie is the main MC (Master of Ceremonies) for the group. He also sings a slight majority of the leads. He’s very funny, has a good voice, and keeps the action rolling throughout the show.

Terry Smith on vocals and bass. (Also no good direct link.) Terry anchors the group nicely on the bass. On one number, he played slap-style, and was awesome. Terry sings on all of the songs, lead on a few. More on that in a minute.

Terry Eldredge on vocals and guitar. (Again, no good personal links. This isn’t as big as surprise to me, as I mentioned above that neither of the guitarists is a solo star in their own right.) Terry shares the MC duties (he’s quite funny), and sings lead just a tad less than Jamie, otherwise singing on every number.

Kristin Scott Benson on the banjo. Another Holy Cow! Kristin is the current IBMA Banjo Player of the Year! A month after winning that honor, she joined The Grascals. (They need to change the picture on their site to include her!) 😉 Folks, she’s amazing! I think they highlight Jeremy on the fiddle a drop more than they do her, but not by much. On a few numbers, she plays a mind-boggling riff, and Jeremy follows it on the fiddle in his own mind-boggling way, and then Kristin goes again, in a dueling fashion. Incredible!

OK, since I did my three favorite Mandolin players above, I’ll do my three favorite Banjo players here:

  1. Bela Fleck
  2. Ron Stewart
  3. Jim Mills

As with the mandolin, I’m being somewhat arbitrary in ranking #2 and #3 above, as I could listen to both for hours on end. Also like the mandolin, I think Bela is simply the best, no questions asked. Ron Stewart currently plays banjo with the Dan Tyminski Band, and Jim Mills plays with Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder.

Anyway, while I might not alter the above list (as I think I would for Sierra Hull), it would be a close enough call to consider Kristin for the #2 or #3 spot, and I’ll confidently declare her in my top four! 😉

Terry Smith is probably the strongest vocalist of the three as a soloist, but he rarely solos for them. The other two (Jamie and the other Terry) are both good individually, but really nothing special in my opinion. But, when the three of them sing together (which is on nearly every song), they produce magic. The three of them are so tight, and their voices blend beautifully.

The Grascals are fantastic, and I look forward to seeing them live again.

Sorry about the quality of this next photo. It was already dark, and the lighting wasn’t good enough for our compact camera:

The Grascals

The Grascals

This was our first festival, so we were nervous whether we’d be able to sit outdoors, on folding chairs, for seven hours. It was a piece of cake, with fabulous music, good food (BBQ) and a well-run show.

Here we are, enjoying ourselves completely!

Lois and Hadar

Lois and Hadar

Thank you Rotary Club of Richmond, VA for putting on a helluva show. We’re already planning on returning next year!

Here’s a shot from behind the stage, to give you a sense of the beautiful and relaxed atmosphere of this event:

Behind the Stage

Behind the Stage

P.S. If you’ve made it this far, Bravo! I know I rambled on about how awesome Sierra Hull is, and perhaps you don’t want to hear any more about her. But, if you have more patience, here is a long, but fantastic article profiling her five years ago, when she was all of 12-years-old! Read it all the way to the end, it’s priceless!

Twitter for Business Webinar

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I rarely accept invitations for Webinars (online seminars). I know Twitter reasonably well, having used the service regularly for over two years. Why then did I attend a Twitter for Business Webinar this past Thursday?

Two reasons:

  1. I knew one of the primary presenters for a number of years, so I had reason to believe this wouldn’t be a waste of my time
  2. I am close to launching a new, niche, micro-business, and I was curious as to whether I’d learn anything that might net me one extra paying customer 😉

The person mentioned in #1 above is Chris Abraham (if you can’t figure out how to contact him from that page, leave the Internet now!). 😉 I have known Chris for many years, originally meeting him through the Zope Community. We’ve remained in touch over the years, even as he broadened his horizons into Digital PR and Advocacy.

As for #2, even though I’ve been using Twitter continuously for a long time, I don’t use it as a business tool at all. Some of the people I follow do, very effectively, so I’m not clueless in that arena. Still, I thought Chris might have a trick or two to teach me (and others).

Joining Chris was Anamitra Bannerji of Twitter, so even if Chris didn’t come through, perhaps Anamitra would. Playing the role of MC was Owen Linderholm. I believe that Owen is part of WebinarAce, but don’t hold me to that.

Suffice it to say that my interest was held for a little over an hour. After that, it ended, rather than implying that my interest waned. 😉

After Owen’s introduction, Anamitra did a very nice job, followed by Chris. I waited until now to post this, because they said during the Webinar that they would post the slides and the recording online within a few days, and indeed, they came through with both.

Recording of the Webinar.

Chris Abraham’s Slides.

Thank you Chris, Anamitra and Owen for an hour well spent.

In addition to the live presentations, they used Twitter effectively to gather questions for the Q&A section. The entire stream of Tweets can be seen by searching the hashtag #twiz (which I believe they intend to keep using actively). People asked questions and tagged their questions with #twiz, and then Owen selected a number of pertinent questions and Anamitra and Chris responded to them. Very nicely done.