A music review of Sheryl Crow’s 100 Miles from Memphis (2010).

Musical celebrities come and go, but true artists will wait around for you forever.

1oo Miles from Memphis

It took me an inordinate amount of time to realize that Sheryl is a true artist with considerable musical abilities, and not merely a megastar celebrity. I blame myself, of course, but also the media. Whenever I tuned in to commercial radio or checked the news on the Internet, there she was, drinking beer on a Tuesday with the Tour de France phenom, Lance Armstrong. The same top selling songs, the same staged photos of ultra successful, attractive individuals who seemed too good to be true. Lance, he got his comeuppance, I suppose, when his Tour titles were taken from him and he confessed to extreme levels of performance enhancing drug abuse to Oprah on TV. As for Sheryl, she merely had to endure the ignominy of being objectified as a sexy siren who just wanted to have some fun. 

But clearly, she wanted so much more. Or so much less, depending on your perspective. She wanted to make music. Good, catchy, enduring tunes that would make other musicians put down their iPhones and take notice. A nod of the head. I glint in the eye. A sign of mutual respect and recognition. Good on you, Sheryl, I imagine them saying. Great album. Honest work in the studio. Nice vocals. Superb production team. Really nice collaboration. I like it. We dig it. We salute the effort.

The thing is, I don’t have a musical bone in my body. I am a writer, not a player. Hand me a guitar, and I’ll hand it right back to you as if it were a live snake, and a venomous one at that. But even I can tell from Track 1 of 100 Miles from Memphis that the album is gonna rock. The sound, it hits you with a wall of wonder and beauty and never lets up until the final bonus track, “I Want You Back,” concludes. Sheryl collaborates here with Doyle Bramhall II and Justin Stanley, who play on the tracks, help write them, and produce them. At one point, rock legend Keith Richards shows up to play electric guitar. Justin Timberlake provides backup vocals on “Sign your Name.” Citizen Cope sings and plays with Sheryl on “Sideways,” which makes sense, ‘cause he wrote it as well.

Dig into the liner notes and you’ll see that Sheryl’s talents lie in her musical discernment to team up with vocalists and instrumentalists of extremely high caliber. A mini-orchestra of string players, sometimes. Backup vocalists, in most others. A great trumpet player (Printz Board) and saxophone studio musician (Tim Orindgreff). An awesome Hammond B3 organ player (Jeff Babko). It goes on and on. These aren’t household names, but among musicians, they kinda are. That’s what makes a Sheryl Crow album so good; sure, she’s got that breathy, sultry voice and can hit perfect notes on demand, and she’s got guitar-playing game for sure, not to mention a poet’s sense of verbal impulse. But the music, it’s a team effort. You can’t create such a lush, all encompassing sound solo. Even Mozart or Beethoven couldn’t pull that off. Music, the real kind, it needs humans to work together for hundreds of hours, if not more. Play. Record. Re-record. Mix. Edit. Master. A dozen times. And then, you have an album of quality like this one.

Sheryl, if you are reading this, know that I only own two of your albums in my personal CD collection: this one and your self-titled album from 1996. I love them both. Well, now I do. If you’re ever in the Bay Area and want a hiking partner in the redwoods or someone to show you the most secluded and pristine parts of the Pacific Coast between San Francisco and Carmel – and also where to find the best carnitas tacos (hint; in a gas station), the best craft spirits (hint: in Santa Cruz), or the most interesting beer and wine, contact me on social media. I won’t tell anyone you’re stopping by, except for my wife, of course. She’s not a fan, but then again: neither am I. I’d like to think that I’m a fellow traveler who finally found out after years of existence that you’re one of us, too. Cheers for that! And awesome work on this album. Even a musical ignoramus like me can feel the greatness. 

100 Miles from Memphis

Call it the Cowboy State if you wish, but Wyoming to me is pure road trip gold.

If you’re just passing through Wyoming, en route to some other destination, you don’t need a Benchmark Road and Recreation Atlas for Wyoming (the 4th edition is now available). You just need to stay on the Interstates, and leave the rest of this treasure box of a territory to the rest of us. The native peoples who live here. The descendants of pioneers who settled here. The locals who just call this place “home.” And the road trip planners who will scan the pages of this fantastic, large format, print resource for hours on end, searching for elusive camp grounds, trailheads, hot springs, skiing routes, and backroads where the asphalt ends and the gravel and dirt begin. 

There is so much to discover here, it almost hurts. Sure, there’s a good map of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, but there’s also the historic Wolf Hotel in Saratoga, and one of the neatest public hot springs you’ll ever find. There’s the Flaming Gorge Overlook (right across the Utah border, on Page 83) plus picturesque state routes that follow the Green River, like Highway 372. There’s US-189 through Big Piney all the way to Hoback Junction. There’s the dirt USFS route to Granite Falls and the hot springs, where you can swim in bliss while marveling at the Gros Ventre Mountains. There is the trail to Louise Lake and the Fitzpatrick Wilderness, where the Wind River Range and Continental Divide beckons. Signal Mountain Road and the best overlook near Grand Teton that is 100% drivable, even in a minivan. It’s all there, on the pages of this resource, just begging to be opened, explored, and tested.  

Turn to Pages 40 and 41, the upper right corner of this most square-shaped of states. There it is: Devil’s Tower and the Belle Fourche River. Hulett and Screaming Eagle Camp and the Devil’s Tower Golf Club. Who knew, right? Horse Creek Butte and Spotted Horse, and so much more that you’ve never even heard of before. That’s the Benchmark difference; that’s why you don’t just rely on Google Maps or your iPhone. This is why we write reviews on Amazon and post on social media. This is why we head out on the open road, in search of the unknown. In search of freedom. In search of adventure. In search, in other words, of America!

A retrospective music review of Craig Chaquico, Midnight Noon (2004).

Higher Octave albums are rarely as astonishing as this Chaquico classic.

To say that the album, Midnight Noon, which Craig released when he was approaching 50 years of age, is not my all-time favorite of his Higher Octave music releases is like saying that Sleepy isn’t my favorite of the Seven Dwarves. I mean, you kinda gotta accept the whole package, don’t you? Snow White needed all seven of those dwarves to make her life’s transformation complete. So, too, is the case with Craig’s Higher Octave music.

Higher Octave was a Malibu-based recording label focused on New Age and other types of spiritually-tinged music. Craig recorded 8 albums with them before the label was sold, downsized, and eventually moved out of California to become part of Blue Note (owned by the megacorporation, UMG/Vivendi). Midnight Noon, along with a Christmas holiday recording, Holiday (2005), were the last albums that Craig did with the Higher Octave team. The songs were co-written and produced with Craig’s longtime collaborator, Ozzie Ahlers, who plays keyboards on the tracks, alongside a talented group of seven other musicians, including Jim Reitzel (bass), Kevin Paladini (saxophone), and Wade Olson (drums). 

The songs were recorded in various studios (and at the Oak View Hotel, in one case) in Oregon, California, and New York. Predictably, the songs vary quite a lot, with lots of fusion musical styles and sounds that meander from classic smooth jazz to Latin inflected tunes to retro rock and dabblings of New Age. Craig’s guitar playing is the central pillar on which the songs are based, both acoustic and electric, but beyond that, each song kind of rises and falls on its own.

The title track, “Jazz Noon,” may be the signature song on the album, but “Outlaw in the City” has a fun, rollicking feel to it that closes things with a bang. “Dream Date” is quite catchy, but the songs tend to blend into each other unless you’re really paying attention. I like them all, and I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite. All the more reason to listen to this as a full album rather than as mix-and-match songs from a music streaming service. Convenience does come at a price.

A music review of Craig Chaquico and Russ Freeman, From the Redwoods to the Rockies.

Collaborations between top musicians like Russ Freeman and Craig Chaquico are rarely as sublime as this.

From the Redwoods to the Rockies.

Many a famous musician, especially as they get older, has tried to partner with another, well known musician to make an album together. Madonna is a prime example, particularly since she turned 50 and began to associate herself with increasingly younger, hip, and diverse male and female performers in musical genres that span the globe. And who could forget about all the “star-studded” duets so beloved in pop music, hip hop, and country?

Well, From the Redwoods to the Rockies isn’t like that. It’s not about marketing. It’s about the music. This is a collaboration between two talented smooth jazz guitarists, Craig Chaquico (a leading member of the 80s band, Starship) and Russ Freeman (a founder of the jazz ensemble, the Rippingtons). It’s released under the Windham Hill Jazz label, and the back of the CD instructs librarians and music shop owners to file it under “Russ Freeman Jazz.” 

That didn’t happen at my public library, where this CD is proudly displayed with a “Craig Chaquico Jazz” label. Other Chaquico albums are filed in “Folk” or “New Age,” but the labels in this case truly do not matter.

This isn’t Craig’s album or Russ’s album. It belongs to us all. It spans the geographic space between the redwoods of California and the Rocky Mountains of Colorado. The music is engaging, atmospheric, and inspired by nature, by Native American traditions, and by a range of American musical styles, from jazz to New Age to Latin to folk. And lots of things in-between. The songs don’t demand your attention. They invite you in. They entice you. They quietly pull you closer with their beguiling rhythms, their hypnotic guitar licks, and their peaceful energy flows. It is sacred music of the highest order.

Don’t dismiss music like this simply because it’s not what you expected. Is it properly called jazz? I don’t know. It seems so much more than that. And somehow so much less. Sound that heals. No more than this, but also no less. Is there even a label for that?

An open letter to Ani DiFranco after listening to her 2017 album, Binary. A lot.

The numbers don’t lie, Ani; I did the math. Binary is an act of transmogrification.

Ani, it really does pencil out. Great artists frequently do their best, most transformational work in their mid to late 40s. The fans often fail to appreciate the originality and maturity of the resulting work, having grown up on the angrier, messier, melodically strident music from decades earlier, but the numbers simply do not lie. Admittedly, they don’t tell the truth, either. But they reveal underlying patterns that the human ear cannot detect, because we often listen to music through the filter of our emotions, and those tend to be calibrated when we are in our relative youth. These 40-something albums aren’t always the most iconic, or the best selling; but they endure and linger in memory long after the first batch of listenings and performances are over.

Consider the following examples, taken from my personal pantheon of top rock, pop, or folk artists who each managed miraculous feats of transmogrification before turning 50. Mark Knopfler’s first solo album, “Golden Heart,” was released when he was 47. Bruce Springsteen – who is born on the SAME day as you (September 23) – released “The Ghost of Tom Joad” when he was 46. You Libras, you really have it rough, don’t you?

Tracy Chapman’s incomparable album, “Our Bright Future,” was released when she was 44; “100 Miles from Memphis,” my favorite Sheryl Crow album in recent memory, came out when she was turning 48. And even Madonn’a largely misunderstood album, “American Life,” came out when she 45 years of age. Talk about a reinvention, even by the Material Girl’s extreme, shape-shifting standards

So, you see; I do indeed have a point. These numbers, they simply don’t lie. And so we come to Binary.It’s not your typical Righteous Babe record, is it? Surely by the time of release, you were well into drafting your memoir, No Walls and the Recurring Dream (2019). You probably had already moved to New Orleans, and you had kids. The percussive style of syncopated acoustic guitar playing that was your trademark when you were in your 20s and 30s (along with your shaved head) isn’t present here. Instead, there are some amazingly talented musicians accompanying you on every track, especially Terence Higgins (drums), Todd Sickafoose (bass), Ivan Neville (keyboards, piano, organ), Sherik (saxophone), and Jenny Sheinman (violin), plus backup vocalists and other players on trumpet, trombone, the clarinet, and more. Wow! It’s like a real band, now. No more shocking performances with just you and Andy and a crowd of adoring fans looking to score with you after the set was over.

I like the new Ani who sings on this album. It’s true, I needed to consult the liner notes frequently to decipher most of your lyrics, since there was a lot of sonic stuff going on in the background, and you weren’t really enunciating the words the way you did when you were younger, spewing them out like some sort of flower-powered assault rifle into the darkness of a smoke-filled room. Eventually, I got used to it. I felt the funk. I admired the ensemble performance and deep musicality. Soon, I figured out the themes that still are at the ragged edge of your restless mind. Patriarchy and the latest male President; a woman’s Goddess-given right to choose; love as a constant challenge and questioning of age, ardor, and beauty; poetic, Dada-esque wordplay as you rage gently and at times disconsolately against the senseless violence and judgments of an illusion-soaked world; technology and the ways it divides and objectifies us all into packets of commodified data; the death penalty and the imminence of untimely ending of incarcerated lives. Somewhere in all of that labyrinth, I think that there is room for fun and fancyfree explorations of friendship, affection, loyalty, trust, and tenderness (“Even More” is like this). Time to smile, laugh, and hug a child. Kiss a butterfly. Touch the void. And cast your fate to the wind.

So, Ani, l return to the numbers. They don’t lie. You are now almost 50 years of age. You’ve published a memoir. You’ve released this transformative album that clearly isn’t like those that came before. You give interviews to the NYTimes and recommend books we all should be reading. I’m actually reading The Tao of Pooh, by Benjamin Hoff, at the moment, and David Abram is waiting in the wings when I have more energy. Let me recommend Pam Houston’s memoir, Deep Creek: Finding Hope in High Country (2019), to you as well. And maybe Vicki Myron’s Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat who Touched the World , a classic from 2008 that you could read to your children (have the tissue box ready). More animals, and maybe more nature, that’s all I wish for you at this stage of your life’s journey. And the invitation from my earlier review of Canon still stands. We don’t have any sasquatches in the redwoods, but we do have banana slugs and quails and bunnies and lots of singing, growing, shining precious things. You could do worse than all of that. Thanks, friend, for the courage to try, to struggle, to suffer, to worry, to rage, to pontificate, to strive, and never to yield. I hope eventually you will discover the stillness you so clearly seek.

A Scandinavian wood-chopping cult classic that touches the heart, head, and hands in equal measure: A review of Lars Mytting’s Norwegian Wood

One of the distinctive features of Lars Mytting’s cult classic, Norwegian Wood, is that is touches the heart, the head, and the hands in equal measure. It’s like an equilibrium triangle of the literary arts, a rare feat in any language. You will want to go out and collect, chop, and stack wood while reading, even if don’t even own an axe. You will fantasize about visiting Norway on your next extended vacation, drawn in by his evocative accounts of the Scandinavian woods and countryside, with its perfectly stacked wood piles and warm, cozy, wood-heated interiors. And your mind will be stimulated by his informative account of 20th century European history as modern societies morphed from predominately rural to majority urban and expanding communities, with all the energy and heat-related demands that such a fundamental transformation entails.

Given the salient contemporary concerns with CO2 emissions and increasing average temperatures, the argument that wood-burning, high efficiency stoves may actually be better forms of heating a home than electric or natural gas may seem less convincing now than when first published in 2011, but the author makes his case quite well with a combination of precision and passion. The environmental arguments, however, strike with less force than his philosophical and social anthropological ones, however. For many Norwegians, collecting firewood is a way of life, a means to survive harsh winters and dark nights, and a multi-generational method for living locally using resources widely available within their homeland. Norway famously has never joined the European Union, and the traditions of self-sufficiency by struggling valiantly to survive in tune with the elements is deeply rooted in the culture. Global solutions are not on the table for Lars when it comes to his narrative of local axes, splitters, mauls, chainsaws, and wood-burning stoves. He favors Scandinavian inventions, tools, and techniques – and so do the women and men he interviews. 

This is part of what makes Norwegian Wood such an equilibrium triangle of a read, as mentioned earlier: Lars uses his hands, thinks with his head, and feels with his heart when he writes about firewood. It is not an abstract or overly technical topic. As an appreciative reader of his text – and admirer of his beautiful photographs that illustrate the chapters –  I came to appreciate his unique perspective and inspired point of view. I realized that he wasn’t out to proselytize the value of Scandinavian wood stacking for the world as a whole. Each part of the planet, he seems to suggest, has its own traditions for warming, cooling, and providing their dwellings with a sense of “home.” For Lars, there is no Norwegian “home” without the warm glow, comforting crackle, and flickering light of an open hearth fireplace or energy efficient, ultra-modern wood stove. He sees things through the precise lens of science but also with the creative, wide-open eyes of an artist. Few books about a topic as specialized as wood chopping, stacking, and drying have this ability to engage their readers so deeply, even those who will never stack a cord of wood in their lives. That is why I personally find this book is so special and recommend it highly to others in search of something new to add to their lives so that it they come to see their world differently. Norwegian Wood is a cult classic for a good reason!

Moody melodies, quirky turns of phrase, superb supporting cast, & virtuoso guitar licks aplenty: A reflective review of Mark Knopfler, Down the Road Wherever.

Down the Road Wherever, by Mark Knopfler.

Over the course of a musical career spanning more than five full decades, Mark Knopfler has learned to do three things extremely well. He has become a master storyteller, due in no small part to his early years as a newspaper reporter, English major, and lifelong lover of history. He became a virtuoso guitar player by mixing and matching a dizzying array of musical styles and techniques until his own distinctive and utterly unique sound emerged – explosively at first and then, gradually, in a process of sonic evolution that lasted through middle age and beyond. And third, he found ways to work with some of the world’s best musical talents on tour and in studio to craft soulful, bluesy, toe-tapping, and emotionally moving melodies that at their best become almost incantatory, trancelike, and quietly hypnotic. Some of his most popular songs strike quick and fast like lighting, but the majority of the hundreds in his voluminous songbook seep into your skin more slowly, after multiple listenings, in front of open fires, while driving lonely 2-lane highways in Nevada, or while sipping a glass of whiskey with a passel of really fine mates. If you put it all together, you have the makings of a musical legend who lives on through his music, even as he prepares to turn 70 later this year.

Down the Road Wherever may well be Mark’s last solo album, and likely his final world concert tour. The songs have a syncretic cadence to them, with bursts and fits of frenzy but mainly a long, slow, and satisfying burn. He doesn’t need to revisit the guitar heights of Brothers in Arms or the story-telling genius of Sailing to Philadelphia anymore. Been there, done that. What stands out in this unassumingly awesome album is the “Mark & Friends” melodic majesty, fitting for a man who has been inducted into the Order of the British Empire and granted membership in the elite London’s gentlemen’s organization, the Garrick Club. It sounds so amazingly good, you will want to pop open a bottle of Santa Rita Hills Pinot and offer a toast to the musical talents who put it all together with what seems virtually no effort at all. It is smooth, lingering, and meditative. “Tunnel of Love” or “Roller Girl” these songs most definitely are not. No harm meant to those phenomenal songs, but the ones here are deeper, denser, and ultimately even better. Play them a few times, and you may just agree.

Mark Knopfler’s solo albums on CD>

If you enjoyed songs like “Basil,” Beryl,” “Mighty Man,” and “Lights of Taormina” from Mark’s earlier album, Tracker, or loved the slightly mysterious lyrics to “5:15am,” “Back to Tupelo,” or “Don’t Crash the Ambulance,” from the immensely entertaining album, Shangri-La, or if songs like “Seattle,” “Haul Away,” “Kingdom of Gold,” or “Redbud Tree” from the 2-disc compilation, Privateering, get stuck in your head, you should find the Gesamtkunstwerk of Down the Road Wherever to your liking. There isn’t a single smash song here, just a slow build up of audio accomplishment. If there is a showpiece track, it probably is #9 (“One Song at a Time”), which has the sort of autobiographical coloration, critical sense of history (references to the English slave trade and public hangings), and musical flashes of brilliance (guitar, fiddle, low whistle and wooden flute) that are Knopfler’s current trademarks

“Slow Learner” is the sneakily great song on the album, if you give its understated vocals and haunting instrumentals time to sink in  – especially the trumpet bit, which for some reason is uncredited on the liner notes – could it a guest appearance by Chris Botti, I wonder? Likely not, as it sounds like the same musician who ends track#5 (“When You Leave”) with another pitch-perfect trumpet bit, but there isn’t credit given for this in the liner notes, either. Tom Walsh, who plays trumpet on several other tracks, isn’t listed on track #11, but this could be a typo where the track numbers are mixed up. Track #12 clearly has back up vocals and a trombone part, not track #13, as indicated. Track #13 (“Matchstick Man”), with its spare acoustic guitar and wavering male vocal solo that raises unanswered questions about hitchhiker’s place in the universe amidst the dawn of a cold, snow-covered Christmas morning, is the perfect ending track, closing one chapter yet somehow leaving space for another to begin. 

In between all these tremendous signature tracks, there are lots of catchy guitar riffs and some flashes of humor, loads of introspection, top-notch backup vocals, excellent keyboards, percussion, woodwinds, and brass, and Mark’s trademark deftness of touch with both words and notes. Turning 70 doesn’t mean you check your childhood or early adulthood at the door. OBEs can still reminisce about being down on their luck drifters, and making lots of money doing something you love isn’t anything to fret about, either.

Just ask Bruce Springsteen, whose own recent album, Western Stars, would make a nice companion piece to “Down the Road Wherever.” Bruce, by the way, was also born in 1949, like Mark, about 6 weeks later. Mark is a Leo, while Bruce is a Libra. Leos are strong forces to be reckoned with, emotional people who seem to capture the attention of others. Libras, for all of their many gifts, have a hard time remaining humble and uncomplaining and tend to be overly concerned with appearances and image. Trust me, I am no astrologist, but in the case of these two magnificent male musicians and icons of late twentieth century rock, these descriptions do somehow kind of fit, don’t they?

CD artist photos for Sailing to Philadelphia (left) and Down the Road Wherever (right).

America’s Backroads with Jeff Bezos™ Episode 1: Kristall Klar Washer Fluid

Kristall Klar Washer Fluid Concentrate

Unofficial transcript of a conversation between Amazon founder and world’s wealthiest man, Jeff B., and Amazon Prime member Bradley N.

(Recorded live in Harney County, Oregon on January 3, 2021).

Jeff: Hi everyone, and welcome to Episode 1 of “America’s Backroads with Jeff Bezos™,” a new Amazon Studios documentary series, in which I explore the hidden corners of the American landscape in search of automotive adventure. I fly into a remote location in my personal helicopter to meet with an Amazon Prime member who introduces me to an automotive-related product purchased on Amazon that is particularly useful in the backroads of this amazing country of ours.

Today, we’re at an absolutely amazing winter landscape location in eastern Oregon, at the Kiger Gorge overlook in the Steens Mountain Wilderness, talking with Bradley N. about Kristall Klar premium washer fluid concentrate, which makes 12 gallons of washer fluid from a recyclable, 250ml plastic bottle for about $12 – that’s $1 per gallon of washer fluid, folks. It sounds like a really great deal, and I’ve flown in from Amazon HQ in Seattle to learn more about it. So, Bradley N., is Kristall Klar all that it claims to be?

Bradley: Yes, Jeff, it’s all that and more. You see, Kristall Klar is a German-designed washer fluid concentrate made by Nextzett that is the ultimate windshield cleaner for your vehicle. In my case, this is a Subaru Impreza Outback Sport, which is the perfect vehicle for exploring the Oregon Outback.

Here, at above 9000 feet, overlooking a wonderful, U-shaped valley just west of the Alvord Desert, you get lots of bug splat, dirt, & weather related debris on your windshield, and you’ll likely use more than a few gallons over the course of your visit. But there aren’t exactly a ton of convenience stores or gas stations in these remote parts of Harney County, and next-day shipping on Amazon just isn’t all that likely. So why not take a bottle of Kristall Klar concentrate with you?

There is also a winter deicing additive available with all biodegradable ingredients that can protect to -60C if needed. This can be added into your washer fluid tank on top of the cleaner, based on how cold you expect temperatures to be over the winter months. It takes some mathematic calculations, but I guess maybe Alexa could help. Isn’t that right, Jeff?

J: Alexa is always ready to help! Just ask her. She is really good at math. Really, really good. As in the best.

B: Assuming you have Internet access out here in the wilderness. Otherwise, all you really need to create your all-season windshield cleaner is a gallon bottle and some water, and you’ve got up to 12 gallons of washer fluid at your disposal. What’s not to love about that?

J: And at only $1 per gallon, it’s a great deal. But is it effective?

B: It is! Really, really good. As in the best. It totally clears your front and back windshields of bug splatter and road dust, and here on Steens Mountain, there aren’t paved roads. Gravel, dirt, and lots of dust. That’s what makes this place so special. But it does take a toll on your windshield, so having Kristall Klar premium windshield washer concentrate with you in your trunk is a deal breaker.

J: Well, I must say that this is truly God’s country. The views, the light, the snowfields at 9000 feet above the desert. Truly a fantastic place! I’m so glad that I flew in here by helicopter to speak with you.

B: As am I, Jeff. As am I. 

J: Well, I am going to have all my drivers and staff who take care of my fleet of more than two dozen supercars, SUVs, off-road vehicles, and electronic vehicles order Kristall Klar premium washer fluid so that I can enjoy clear, bug-free driving on America’s backroads of beauty such as this.

B: Jeff, that is a great idea. A GREAT idea! 

J: I’d drink to that. Got anything in that Yeti cooler of yours I noticed in the rear of your Subaru that would hit the spot?

B: As luck would have it, I have an 2018 estate reserve Chardonnay from Chehalem Winery (Dundee Hills AVA) along with a 2017 Zenith Vineyard Pinot Noir from Saint Innocent Winery. Which would you prefer?

J: Can I have a glass of both?

B: Indeed, you can, Jeff. I also brought a sourdough baguette, some smoked quail eggs, sliced pork tenderloin, and aged cheddar cheese along with fresh pretzels and horseradish as well. And cured king salmon with green peppercorns and caraway seeds. It’s a feast for kings here. Cheers, Jeff! Here’s to clear free windshields and lots of useful votes on Amazon!

J: Cheers! I can definitely drink to that. More of America’s backroads adventures with me, Jeff Bezos, to come!

[end of transcript].

Twelve Days of Amazon Christmas: Baz Luhrmann’s Feel-Good Masterpiece, Strictly Ballroom

Strictly Ballroom, Baz Luhrmann’s unforgettable début feature film, was an unlikely hit at the Cannes International Film Festival when it was first screened in May 1992, belongs to a handful of DVDs that my family will re-watch religiously over the winter holidays, year after year, without ever becoming bored by the experience. Why? Because the film’s fairy tale qualities, amazingly over-the-top dance numbers, nostalgia rich, MTV-era soundtrack, and memorable cast of Australian and immigrant characters never seem to get old. It’s like Sound of Music, but vastly better, especially when it comes to Generation X viewers and their progeny. 

Here’s a selection from my family’s holiday viewing list: Strictly Ballroom, The Muppet Movie, Sideways, My Neighbor Totoro, Little Miss Sunshine, Downhill Racer, and Waking Ned Devine. Quite an eclectic mix, I grant you, but each of the films has such feel-good (and family friendly) cinematic energy that you can’t help but laugh, cry, and celebrate the sheer audaciousness and extreme artistry of the directors, actors, set designers, cinematographers, and producers who willed movies like these into existence. I mean, what were the odds that such ugly duckling movies would even get made, let alone streamed years later on Amazon Prime Video? It boggles the mind.

Strictly Ballroom may be particularly well suited for viewing with younger children and adolescents schooled in reality TV shows like “Dancing with the Stars” or who have never seen an Australian movie from the early 90s. The colors, the accents, the sheer fantasy of it all – simply stunning. Cyndi Lauper’s “Time after Time,” covered by Mark Williams and Tara Morice, never sounded better, nor have I ever wanted to dance to Doris Day’s “Perhaps, Perhaps, Perhaps” as much as when watching the lead actors practice their dance moves on rooftops, in studios, and while Spanish guitar players strum and strut on a forlorn backyard patio in the railroad district of town.  And John Paul Young’s “Love is in the Air” makes you want to relive your young adulthood all over again, as if there were not a single cynical bone in your world-weary body. 

It’s not so much that Baz alluded to fairy tales like the Ugly Duckling and Cinderella in this, his first film from the “Red Curtain Trilogy,”  as that he actually created an original and timeless fairy tale of his own making. It’s the most autobiographical of his movies, and the one with the greatest staying power. It will strike you like a flash of lightning when you first watch it, so set the stage extremely well. Choose a big screen. Light a fire and collect lots of blankets and pillows. Pour a glass of sparkling wine (and chill a second bottle in the fridge). Hold hands with someone you adore – and settle in for an emotional thrill ride that will leave you breathless!

Autobiographical Storytelling Elevated to the Top Tier of Artistic Expression.

A Retrospective Review of Mark Knopfler, Tracker

Tracker, Mark Knopfler’s 8th solo album, is equal parts audio autobiography, lyrical oral history, and rapturous musical appreciation. As it was being recorded and released, Mark crossed that numerically freighted threshold of 65 (born in August 1949, a Leo). One only wishes that all senior citizens had such staying power, without attempting to deny their age or accumulated decades of memory by acting as if they were a contemporary of Taylor Swift. 

The album cover art, photographed by Mark’s longtime wife and partner, Kitty Aldridge, captures the mood here nicely. Mark stands with an acoustic guitar (probably his Gibson Southern jumbo) in the middle of a plowed wheat field golden in late fall harvest. The sky is vast and blue with cumulous clouds on the horizon and powerlines running along a tree-lined road in the distance. If you didn’t know who you were looking at, the man in jeans and black tee shirt could be anyone – maybe even your grandfather. That’s the point, I guess: Mark as everyman in a landscape that could almost be anywhere. 

Inside the liner notes, you’ll find a superb (if somewhat self-serving) essay on Mark and his musical style by Richard Ford, who laments the fact that he – a famous novelist – can’t write song lyrics like Mark. Richard then devotes seven additional, extremely wordy paragraphs to praise Mark’s songwriting in ways that would make almost anyone of modest personality blush with embarrassed pride. Richard’s essay contains almost as many words as the entire 11 tracks on the album. If you can tolerate his florid prose, it’s worth reading in its entirety. Say what you will about Richard’s skills as a writer, he definitely loves what Mark does, and it shows.

Songwise, the album covers a lot of territory than non-UK citizens may not easily recognize, such as the poet Basil Bunting and writer Beryl Bainbridge, and references to kissing “a Gateshead girl” will pass them by on first or second listening. And who’s been to Taormina unless you have Sicilian relatives, lots of money, or regularly read the NYTimes travel section? Vintage motorcycle riders may get what makes the song, “Silver Eagle” so special, but Prius drivers may not (hint: the Cushman Eagle was a glorified scooter that appealed to younger riders who couldn’t afford the real deal and that is now considered a cult classic). It may take time to realize that “Mighty Man” is about a roadway worker in 1950s Britain – and that one should never – ever – attempt to dance around a taproom with a chair in their teeth. Not even an IKEA one, unless dental hygiene isn’t high on one’s priority list.

Especially in Mark’s albums released since 2000, the supporting cast vocalists and musicians are often astoundingly good. Here, Ruth Moody is melodically marvelous on several tracks, as is saxophone player, Nigel Hitchcock, while trumpeter Matt Walsh, who also appears on Mark’s 2018 album, Down the Road Wherever, delivers a beautiful performance to “Wherever I Go,” a pitch perfect duet love song for the genuinely pure of heart. Rarely does an album of this caliber end so gently, like a doting father laying a young daughter carefully in her bed to rest. For his musical mastery and enigmatic allure, Mark at his best can be like that, sometimes. Here’s to the everyman and everywoman in us all, and to the simple things in life that ultimately matter the most, like great music.