Saturday, April 16, 2011

Neil Young's solo tour

Last night, a group of us went to the Durham Performing Arts Center, a truly lovely venue, for the first show of Neil Young's new solo tour, Twisted Road.

I am so glad we did. What a show!

The opening act was legendary guitarist Bert Jansch. He came out, sat in a chair, played his guitar, and sang. His voice is strong, and his guitar playing is a wonder, not flashy but beautiful at all times. The sound mix was off on his vocals, so understanding him was frequently difficult, but I still greatly enjoyed his performance.

After a long intermission, Neil Young walked onstage. In jeans, shirt, white jacket, and white hat with black band, he looked relaxed and yet a bit shy. The stage was filled with instruments, including many guitars, two very different pianos, and a pipe organ, and in the course of the show he played them all.

He opened by sitting and playing a guitar and harmonica as he sang the classic "My My, Hey Hey." The crowd went crazy--and so did I. Of course, no one, including, I am sure, Young himself, could help but notice the irony of this sixty-six-year-old rock icon singing the lines he wrote in 1979 at age 34:

It's better to burn out
Than to fade away

Of course, one of the things that's so great about Young is that he has done neither. He has kept performing, kept being relevant, and, most importantly, kept producing good new work.

For the rest of the show, he mixed songs from his new Le Noise album with classic tunes, including "Cinnamon Girl," another selection that put the crowd on its feet. His sounds ranged from simple piano vocals to acoustic guitar to heavy-reverb electric guitar, with the pipe organ and harmonica together on one song.

I absolutely loved it.

I admire Neil Young's work even when there are parts of it that I don't love--and I do at least like almost all of it and love a lot of it--because he creates the art he wants to create, regardless of whether the conventional wisdom of the moment says the work is commercially viable. That's what all of us should do: create the art that matters most to us.

If this show comes near you and you at all like his music, do not miss Neil Young.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Checking out the new Piedmont

Long-time readers will recall that Durham's Piedmont restaurant has long been a go-to place for a reliable, good meal. A while back, however, Piedmont's owners and founders sold it to the Eno Hospitality Group, which owns Zely and Ritz (which I'll be visiting again Saturday night). So, tonight, before the Neil Young concert (more on that tomorrow), we dropped by Piedmont to check out its new incarnation.

The food is definitely different, but it maintains the emphasis on local sourcing--as you would expect from a group one of whose owners runs a farm--and it was, I am happy to report, delicious. Our group sampled half a dozen starters and one entree, and every single dish was tasty. High points included the baked farm fresh egg with asparagus, which was as bright as a spring morning, and the bruschetta with pork loin and shiitake mushrooms, which was rich and flavorful.

Though I need to return when I have more time to investigate more of the dishes, this one visit convinced me that Piedmont remains one of the area's safe choices for a truly good meal. Though not in the very top tier of Triangle restaurants, it's in the group just below that peak. I definitely recommend it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

In praise of Marilyn and Jack Budrow

Marilyn and Jack Budrow run the strings program at Scott's school. That verb is about to have to go to the past tense, because after 23 years of working there, they are retiring this year. They will probably never read this, but they deserve the praise, and so they shall have it.

The Budrows have worked with Scott and Sarah since lower school. They've helped my kids learn to play in orchestras and fostered their love of music. They've done the same with hundreds of other children. I don't know them well enough to do more than say hello, but I have long appreciated them.

Time and again, I've watched Marilyn Budrow run recitals and accompany the young violinists. She's an organizational rock in the constantly shifting landscape that is any group of young people. Her passion is evident and infectious.

For years and years, I've also watched as Jack Budrow took the stage, introduced songs, told the odd corny joke, and then conducted the orchestras. Energetic and passionate, he is an always entertaining leader.

In an era in which schools all over the nation are cutting fine arts programs in general and strings in particular, the Budrows have fought the good fight to make their program vibrant and successful. They have won many of those battles, most recently returning from a Georgia competition with the strings orchestra having earned the highest scores of any musical group of any type in competition.

I'm glad to have gotten to watch them in action. The world can never have enough good teachers, and with the retirement of the Budrows, it loses two whose students will always remember them.

Well done, Jack and Marilyn.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Pride, joy, hope

Earlier tonight, I attended Scott's last school concert. Both he and Sarah have been lifers at their school, starting there with pre-kindergarten and continuing to high-school graduation. (Scott's not quite there, but soon enough, he will be.) Both have played violin for almost the entire time. I've missed few of their concerts--and hated missing those--but there was no way I was going to miss this one.

I'm so glad I was there. I found it a very moving experience.

I've written before about school concerts, and I've generally enjoyed them. This one, though, was special for several reasons. Being Scott's last, of course, was the main one. He's always shown musical talent, but he's grown into a fine violinist who has an understanding of music playing that I will never approach. I was so very proud of him tonight; I doubt he'll ever understand just how proud I am.

The program also did something at the end that the school has not done for several years: It brought together on the stage the lower school, middle school, and upper school orchestras. In this picture, which I snapped with my phone, you can get a sense of how many kids were up there playing together. (As always, click on it for a larger image.)

I have to apologize, by the way, to the conductor, because in the odd lighting this photo makes him appear headless. (I'll write more about him tomorrow.)

Scott, by the way, is sitting first chair next to a middle-school violinist.

The merged orchestra sounded wonderful. The two short pieces they played were understandably not the most complex, but I loved them. They ended with the finale from Beethoven's Symphony No. 5, and I could not help but be filled with joy.

Staring at all those kids, youngsters ranging from first grade to twelfth, I also felt something I do not feel often enough: hope. My generation and my parents' have not taken care of the planet the way we should, and I often despair of the future, but when I see bright children coming together for a common cause and producing such beauty, I find I can believe that humanity can fix its problems, and I resolve again to do my part.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011


I was unreasonably psyched about this movie. I love a good spy flick, and the child assassin theme of this film resonates with a lot of my own work. I also adore Cate Blanchett. The movie was showing 73% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes the day I went. My hopes were high.

Walking out of the theater, I couldn't help but feel dissatisfied. Don't get me wrong: I enjoyed this movie. I had a good time watching it.

I just wanted more.

Director Joe Wright was clearly in love with the face of lead actress Saoirse Ronan, and indeed she had an intriguing and interesting look. It takes an amazing actress, however, to carry that much camera time successfully, and though perhaps Ronan will reach that level one day, she's not there yet. The plot was entirely predictable, but they implemented it stylishly enough that I was willing to forgive a lot of its weaknesses. Blanchett phoned in her performance, and her southern accent mutated faster than the Andromeda Strain, but damn, she is amazing to look at.

In the end, though, I wanted a complete movie, one with a plot whose every move I did not see coming, with characters who were not entirely predictable, and I didn't get it. I did get a pleasant two hours for my money, and usually that's enough for me, but that night it wasn't.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Asian Grill

A while back, Greg Cox, the restaurant critic for the Raleigh newspaper, wrote a glowing review of the Asian Grill and awarded it four stars (out of five)--quite a high rating for a hole-in-the-strip-mall place in North Raleigh. It took us a while, but the other night, we finally checked it out.

I'm afraid I have to disagree with Mr. Cox.

Asian Grill probably is the only restaurant in the area to serve authentic Shanghai cuisine, and I'm glad to have that type of food available. Like Cox, I greatly enjoyed the soup dumplings, which resemble traditional dumplings until you bite into them and find a tasty meat soup waiting inside. The savory richness of that meaty soup raised my hopes for the meal. Indeed, if the rest of the food had been that good, tasty, and unusual, I, too, would have awarded the place many stars.

The problem is, the rest of the food was entirely average. It was as tasty as the next Chinese restaurant--but no more. I sampled one of the house specialities, the Shanghai Madness, and though it was pleasant enough, it was just another of those dishes where they toss in various meats and stir fry them and a few veggies in the same brown sauce you can find in a hundred restaurants in North Carolina alone.

Other dishes ranged from good to weak but were generally just like what you could get at any other Chinese restaurant.

If you're near the Asian Grill and just want to grab a Chinese dinner, you'll be fine. If, though, you want something exceptional, reconsider your plans or reset your expectations.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Mr. Poor Choices

In addition to being a nickname that I resist, Mr. Poor Choices is also the title of the new spoken word/comedy show that I'll be debuting at Balticon this Memorial Day weekend. That Sunday afternoon at 1:00, I'll again take the stage to tell stories and make people laugh. This show will contain some of the greatest hits of the previous two (Science Magic Sex and Wake Up Horny, Wake Up Angry) plus a bunch of new stuff I think folks will like.

We will again have a t-shirt for the show, and I will again be donating all profits from it to Balticon's reading charity. When we have a final design, I'll show it to you here. As always, if you want to order one in advance, let me know after you see the design, and we'll work it out.

I should also note that, as in the past, I recommend this show to those 18 years of age or older. Neither I nor the con has any way to police the large auditorium, but I do use all the words and discuss a variety of adult topics, so I recommend that parents keep their kids away.

Finally, though at some point soon you should be able to find it on the Balticon site, here's the description of the show that they'll be using.

Mr. Poor Choices

Spoken-word performer and 2008 Compton Crook Award Winner Mark L. Van Name returns to the Balticon stage for a new storytelling and comedy show, Mr. Poor Choices. Combining some of the best of his previous two shows with many new bits, Mr. Poor Choices will keep you laughing for an hour—and provide valuable life lessons.

Learn why you shouldn’t:
Tell a teacher your career goal is to be a piece of lingerie.
Throw a friend at gunpoint in your trunk in front of a crowd of senior citizens.
Ask a hotel night clerk for a pair of girl’s underwear.
And many more.

Not to mention the hamsters!

Join us Sunday at 1:00 p.m. for an hour of laughter in the Valley Ballroom!

Warning: Kids should wait to learn some lessons! This is an adult show, so no one under 18 should attend.
I hope to see you at the con!


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