Tuesday, April 26, 2016

In our garden: Reflections on Earth Day 2016

Purple iris

Earth Day, a day that inspires awareness and appreciation of all the gifts earth and nature gives us, was observed worldwide on April 22.

It is often said that love begins in the home. And, so does our love for our planet earth. Last week, in preparation for Earth Day, I took advantage of our moderate temperatures that we who live in the San Francisco Bay Area enjoy throughout the year. The opportunity to be outside allowed me to spend some quality time in our garden.

As I looked around, I thought to myself: "If I love the earth, all will bloom naturally."

We are blessed to have nine different rose bushes as well as irises, calla lilies, fuchsias, rhododendrons and camellias surrounding our house. Indeed, we have an abundance of beautiful blooms throughout the entire year, especially during the month of April when all of them are in bloom at the same time. They get plenty of sunshine and clean air, and as we are aware that northern California is in a drought, we are mindful not to be careless in how much we water our flowers and plants.

And, so, in celebration of Earth Day, as I do so often throughout the year, I grabbed my camera and took lots of photographs, recording these colorful moments in our garden for others to appreciate and enjoy. Consider it  as my random act of kindness. 

May every day be like Earth Day to us.

Queen Elizabeth rose

All That Jazz rose

Purple rhododendron

Calla lily

Rainbow-colored rose

All photographs © Michael Dickens, 2016.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

It was a memorable night for a "detour" with Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello / Pumping it up after all these years.

Elvis Costello is an extraordinary songwriter and performer. He's worked diligently at his craft for the past 40 years to attain a special place in the music world, listening to songs from many years ago to the latest hits. He's stayed relevant. Now, in his latest adventure, aptly called "Detour," Costello takes his audience on a musical journey through his vast songbook that's not only intimate and entertaining, but also humbling and inspiring. 

Elvis Costello / Performing "Watching the Detectives."
On March 30, at the Nob Hill Masonic in San Francisco, in just the second night of his current solo "Detour" tour – and in what was my 11th Costello adventure – I saw a show like no other he's given, and I've seen Elvis perform with his various backing bands, including the Attractions, the Imposters, and the Sugarcanes; in a duet show with his longtime keyboardist Steve Nieve; accompanied by the extraordinary New Orleans pianist Allen Toussaint backed with a brass horn section – even dressed in black tuxedo performing with the San Francisco Symphony. 

Elvis Costello / Performing "Town Cryer."
Musically, throughout the two and a quarter-hour performance, which began in near darkness with "Complicated Shadows" and concluded with three encores – the first and third joined by twenty-something sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell of the Georgia roots-rock duo Larkin Poe, whom added beautiful harmonies to classics such as "Blame It on Cain" – the 61-year-old, bespectacled Costello moved freely between a variety of acoustic and electric guitars lined up behind him and a baby grand piano off to the side, digging deep into his catalog to share his classics like "Accident Will Happen," "Watching the Detectives," "Alison," and "Pump It Up" as well as covers by Los Lobos ("A Matter of Time") and Bob Dylan ("Down on the Bottom"). There were also poignant renditions of some of my personal favorites, "Shipbuilding" and "Town Cryer," and his lovely rendition of "Ascension Day" was a fitting tribute to Toussaint, whom he collaborated with on the 2006 album The River in Reverse in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina.

Elvis Costello / Joined by Larkin Poe during the first encore.
Conceptually, in "Detour," the rectangular stage was arranged to resemble a 1960s living room with its focal point being an oversized retro Lupe-O-Tone TV set that served as a delightful prop to show candid, never-before-seen black-and-white family photographs, portraits of personal heroes – including Toussaint and the Bay Area cowboy swing-bluesman Dan Hicks, both recently deceased – and a filmed performance of his father, the band leader Ross MacManus, enthusiastically singing the Pete Seeger-Lee Hays folk standard "If I Had a Hammer" with a Latin dance twist to it. Costello even climbed inside the TV set to perform "Alison" and "Pump It Up" during his second encore.

Elvis Costello / Sharing a conversation with his audience.
In between songs, Costello – ever the raconteur – showed why he's also a wonderful conversationalist and gifted storyteller, too. His acerbic banter and delightful repartee was evident as he shared with his audience many intimate stories and anecdotes about his music family – both his father and grandfather were professional musicians and inspired him – growing up in Liverpool at the same time that The Beatles were becoming international rock-and-roll superstars, the origins of his music, parenthood as a father to twin boys with his wife, jazz pianist Diana Krall, and life on the road, that were both revealing and humorous. There were funny reminisces about coming to play San Francisco for the first time in his early twenties back in the 1970s. Much of this was covered in detail in his recent 670-page memoir, Unfaithful Music & Disappearing Ink, which showed Costello to be an intelligent, thoughtful, witty and lyrical writer. 

In explaining the name he picked for his current group of shows, "Detour," Costello deadpanned, "Where I come from, when people would ask 'Where are you going?' the answer was always 'We're going on de tour.'" It drew nice laughter from the sold-out audience.

Elvis Costello / Performing "Shipbuilding."
With a career spanning four decades – and a few detours along the way – Costello has morphed from "a snotty, defiant New Wave hell-raiser into a distinguished gentleman," wrote the Huffington Post. Now, ever the progressive thinker, mover and shaker, Costello does as he pleases, and these days he's place an emphasis on performing rather than recording. This has given him a chance to gain a new perspective and musical point of view in his celebrated repertoire and to share a nightly, intimate conversation with his audience. Always an in-touch tunesmith, it's reflected in rearranged renditions of many of his old songs, such as "(The Angels Wanna Wear My) Red Shoes", "(What's So funny 'Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding," and the blistering guitar loop and distortion in "Watching the Detectives." Costello even found a place  – a detour – to cover a few Tin Pan Alley standards, such as the 1930's "Walking My Babe Back Home" (which he dedicated to Krall and his twin boys), his own introspective "Jimmie Standing in the Rain" (including a coda of "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?", which he sang un-miked and a capella) and a downbeat version of the 1927 classic "Side by Side."

"Oh, we don't know what's coming tomorrow / Maybe it trouble and sorrow / but we'll travel the road sharing our load / Side by side."

One of the many highlights for this most Baby Boomer crowd included Costello singing "Everyday I Write the Book," which he nicely wrapped into a lovely cover of Nick Lowe's "When I Write the Book."

"Now I can remember like it was only yesterday / Love was young and foolish like a little child at play / But, oh how lovers change, I never dreamed how easily / 'Cause now I'm just a shadow of the boy I used to be."

Elvis Costello / Biding his San Francisco audience good night.
On this memorable night of musical expression in San Francisco, Costello was as spontaneous as he was entertaining – his set list changes from night to night – and on this night he slipped in the Grateful Dead's "It Must Have Been the Roses" joined by Larkin Poe during one of the encores. It's easy to see why Costello is such a music fan and champions the works of others.

Elvis Costello's Nob Hill Masonic, San Francisco, set list:

Main set (solo): Complicated Shadows / Red Shoes / Hope You're Happy Now / Accidents Will Happen / Ascension Day / Church Underground / Radio Soul /Motel Matches / Matter of Time / Shipbuilding /When I Write the Book – Everyday I Write the Book / Walking My Baby Back Home / Ghost Train /Town Cryer / Watching the Detectives / It's Not My Time to Go.

First encore (with Larkin Poe): Pads, Paws, and Claws / Love Field /Blame It on Cain / That's Not the Part of Him You're Leaving /Down on the Bottom.

Second encore (solo, performed inside TV set): Alison / Pump It Up.

Third encore (solo): Side By Side / Jimmie Standing in the Rain – Brother Can You Spare a Dime? / It Must Have Been the Roses (with Larkin Poe) / Peace, Love and Understanding (with Larkin Poe).

All photographs © Michael Dickens, 2016.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Mississippi memo: You don't love your neighbor by discriminating against them

Mississippi / From Hospitality State to Hostility State, thanks to H.B. 1523.

Dear Mississippi,

In case you missed it we've already had this conversation. You don't get to decide who sits at the lunch counter.

Love, America

The above letter that's making the rounds on Facebook sums up a lot of common-sense feelings in just a few words. In a matter of days, Mississippi went from being the "Hospitality State" to the "Hostility State," thanks to the recent passing of a hateful and discriminatory measure (House Bill 1523) by the State Legislature.

Memo to Republican Governor Phil Bryant: "You don't love your neighbors by discriminating against them." Shame on you.

Mississippi / "You're on my mind ... "
Indeed, I've been saddened by the appalling news that my former home state of Mississippi (where I graduated from high school in the Gulf Coast city of Ocean Springs) last week passed legislation and the governor signed into law "The Religious Liberty Accommodations Act," which directly targets the LGBT community throughout the state – from Tupelo to Biloxi, from the Delta to the Gulf Coast and everywhere in between.  The bill is so draconian that the state's largest daily newspaper, the Clarion-Ledger of Jackson called it "an act of oppression."

According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation's largest lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) civil rights organization, H.B. 1523 "would allow individuals, religious organizations and private associations to use religion to discriminate against LGBT Mississippians in some of the most important aspects of their lives, including at work, at schools, and in their communities."

In an April 6 editorial, The Clarion-Ledger wrote: "Through the swish of  pen, (Governor Phil) Bryant signed away the rights of families, ignored the pleas of residents and businesses, and wrote another page in the state's history that future generations will be shocked – even embarrassed – to read. With a final stroke of that pen, Mississippi welcomed its latest Jim Crow law and displayed a sign for the world to see: Welcome to Mississippi. No gays allowed. Mississippi and its citizens deserve better than this unconscionable law."

In no time at all, Mississippi became the butt of jokes nationwide, as evidenced by a satirical Mississippi Anti-LGBT video released by the comedy website Funny or Die, which has already received 50,000 views on YouTube:

According to an article in the South Mississippi Sun-Herald newspaper over the weekend, Gulf Coast mayors seemed unanimous in their stance against H.B. 1523, saying it didn't reflect the residents of their respective South Mississippi cities. Each worries about the negative publicity and potential economic fallout that might hit the Coast. (On Monday, rock singer Bryan Adams pulled out of a concert scheduled for Thursday in Biloxi to protest the signing of H.B. 1523.)

Ocean Springs Mayor Connie Moran told the Sun-Herald she thought H.B. 1523 was unnecessary and bad legislation. "It is nothing more than codified discrimination," she said. "This just set us back to the 1960s. We're just moving from a sense of bigotry from race to sexual identity.

"Freedom of religious expression is every individual's right, but it has no place in government."

Memo to the Mississippi State Legislature and other supporters of H.B. 1523:  Folks, it's 2016 not 1966! Have you not learned from your past?

Fortunately, there's at least one voice of reason in Mississippi, despite all of the shambles happening at the state capitol. It belongs to independent bookseller Square Books, located on the town square in Oxford, the city which is home to the University of Mississippi. In business since 1979 – and widely known among readers as the hub of William Faulkner's "postage stamp of native soil," Yoknapatawpha – Square Books in its infancy hosted a variety of racially and culturally diverse authors including Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg and Alice Walker as well as Mississippians John Grisham, Richard Ford and Willie Morris.

Over the weekend on their Facebook page, the owners of Square Books posted a message that read: "In the wake of HB-1523, we at Square Books want to make sure you know that you are welcome here. Always. 'If you are anyone, from anywhere, we hope you will visit us, and we hope you may find something you would like to read.'"

Square Books gets it – that H.B. 1523 needs to be repealed. Now, let's hope that the state's governor and legislature get it, too. Sooner than later.

As Rev. Susan Russell, an Episcopal priest and activist from Pasadena, Calif., recently wrote on Huffington Post, "Let's get back to work making this a country where the pledge of 'liberty and justice for all' doesn't depend on your zip code. It's what we're all called to do."


Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Baseball haiku: Play Ball!

Posey's at the plate / Panik's on the run from first /
Belt awaits his turn.

Celebrating Major League Baseball's 
2016 Opening Week
with a series of haiku poems:

Fathers playing catch /
 Tossing the ball back and forth /
With their sons, all's well. 
Peanuts! Cracker Jacks!
The smell of fresh-cut green grass.
Batter up! Play ball!

The crack of the bat ...
Pence looks up to the night sky.
Catches the full moon.

Baseball on the air,
Nine innings of word pictures.
A hungry mind smiles.

Always playing, Pence /
We believe in Hunter Pence /
Pence, always cheerful.
Now pitching: Matt Cain.
Twenty-seven up, all outs.
Matt Cain: A perfect game.

Seventh inning stretch,
We stand, stretch, and sing: Take me
Out to the ball game ...

Long fly ball hit deep,
The crowd rises together ...
"It is OUT-TA here!"

Strike three called; game's over.
Giants win, the Giants win!
Life's good. Let's get even!

Photographs: All photos by Michael Dickens ©2016.