Bonanzatronic madness: Gogol Bordello at the Royal Oak Theater

6 Aug

Gogol Bordello sign

A band that can cause a real panic at the disco …

Raise your hand if you’ve never heard of Gogol Bordello … or if you have heard of them, raise your beer so you don’t spill it as you crowd-surf.

The eight-member gypsy punk outfit is led by Eugene Hutz, a Ukrainian by birth with Romani heritage on his German mother’s side whose family moved after Chernobyl  and eventually relocated to Vermont; he now lives in Brazil. Hutz is skinny and beaky, with a silver canine tooth, wild hair and a pirate’s mustache. He sings with a pronounced accent that serves his material well and plays a rugged acoustic guitar with rambunctious grace.

Photo by my concert buddy Davis Kurepa-Peers

Photo by my concert buddy Davis Kurepa-Peers

The rest of the line-up is just as internationally far-flung, with musicians from Belarus, Scotland by way of China, Russia, Ethiopia, Ecuador and Los Angeles. The name is an homage to Ukrainian writer Nikolai Gogol … and, well, a brothel. The lyrics are a mix of English, Romani, Spanish and for all I know, Esperanto. Their songs jump from pogo-worthy punk to ska to straight-up rock, along with several ballads that sound like what you’d hear at the end of a Russian wedding reception right before the last of the drunken guests are kicked out of the hall.

My partner is quite the fan of Gogol Bordello, starting with their 2010 album Trans-Continental Hustle. (I just found out that was produced by Rick Rubin, whose exquisite taste knows no musical boundaries.) She took our older daughter to see them at the Fillmore a couple of years ago and sat in the balcony as our daughter joined the crush of fans standing near the stage. After more than 90 minutes of mosh pit churn with the “gypsters” she was dehydrated and half-deaf: in other words, she’d had a great time.

Gogol Bordello blue

Photo by Davis Kurepa-Peers

When she learned my partner had gotten tickets for me and our younger daughter to see the band in Royal Oak, she had just one piece of advice: “Wear shoes you don’t care about.”

We arrived early enough to stake a claim standing one level above the main floor behind a railing so we could see everything without getting trampled. Our neighbors to the left were a pony-tailed guy and his girlfriend with an ice-blue pixie cut and flawless red lipstick (who, upon learning my daughter was 12, told her, “You’re gonna go far, honey”). On the right was Bald Tattooed Handlebar Mustache Guy, who brought half his family with him since he’d had so much fun at the Fillmore show. Who needs an opening act when you’ve got an audience like this?

(There was an opening act: Man Man, which brought funk and surrealism together in a way that might have made Frank Zappa proud … although someone will have to explain to me what was up with the guy in the neon green boiler suit and melted piggy face mask who wandered on stage during a couple of their numbers.)

Gogol Bordello puts on an amazing concert, even if you’re like me and don’t know the words to their songs (and have no desire to slam dance). Grinning the entire time, we were swept away by their energy and showmanship – although they aren’t as zany as in their earlier days:

Yet this show was not shtick or the “bonanzatronic madness” Hutz described in Mother Jones a few years back. It’s a combination of tribal tradition and new music, partying and protest: the world seen through immigrants’ eyes. As they sing in “Immigraniada,”

It’s a book of true stories
True stories that can’t be denied
It’s more than true, it actually happened
We comin’ rougher every time

 

See you on the flip side at the show I’ve been waiting for all summer: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at DTE Energy Music Theater August 23!

P.S. Looking for a rock and roll romance?  Love and Other B-Sides is available in paperback and e-book editions now on Amazon.

Love is not a choice: Panic! At The Disco at Meadow Brook Music Festival

30 Jul

Panic at the Disco - picture 2

Photo credit: my concert buddy Davis Kurepa-Peers

I’ve spilled some virtual ink in the past about how underwhelmed I am by the music of Panic! At The Disco – and how my daughters adore them. Having taken the elder one to two of their shows, the younger one was clamoring to go when it was announced they were playing at Meadow Brook this summer. In her words, “You owe me.”

Here’s why:

As she never tires of reminding me, the girls could have seen them for only $3 each two summers ago at the Arts, Beats & Eats festival in Royal Oak. I said no for many good reasons. The band was scheduled to play late in the evening; there were rumors that a concealed weapon contingent was going to show up just to prove they could; I didn’t want my 16-year old responsible for protecting her 10-year old sister amid unanticipated chaos … and I really, really, REALLY didn’t want to chaperone because I couldn’t justify seeing a band I could care less about for a third time when I’d only seen Tom Petty once.

As punishment for my maternal protectiveness – and mature musical taste – I was now stuck paying 12 times more per ticket to see Panic! in an outdoor venue swamped by freakish thunderstorms and mosquito repellent.

In keeping with their management company Fueled By Ramen’s penchant for punctuality, the show started promptly at 7:30 p.m. with opening acts Magic Man and Walking the Moon; both were fun and energetic and worked their skinny jean-clad asses off. Then when lead singer Brendon Urie took the stage, the place went nuts, with Beatles-level shrieking from the 7,700 soggy fans that became downright deafening when he took his shirt off ten minutes later …

Panic at the Disco - picture 1

Photo credit: Davis Kurepa-Peers

I appreciate Urie for how well he treated my older daughter and other fans the last time he came through town, staying late to sign autographs and pose for photos. I also have a new-found respect for him in light of the Westboro Baptist Church’s recent homophobic protests, likely sparked by the band’s ode to bisexuality, “Girls/Girls/Boys.” He also stated in an interview last year that while he’s happily married to a woman and identifies as straight, he’s “experimented in other realms of homosexuality and bisexuality”  in the past, hence the pinheads with hateful posters outside of his Kansas City show. Urie turned it into a fundraiser for the Human Rights Campaign, offering to contribute $20 per protester; when only 13 showed up, he rounded it up to an even $1000 and added in a percentage of the merchandise. Nicely done!

As a veteran of their live performances (sigh), I have to admit Panic! At The Disco puts on a good show. Brendon Urie is an engaging  pop singer with a scorching high vocal range that served him well during their cover of “Bohemian Rhapsody.” (Here I was, singing along to that song just two weeks after hearing Queen and Adam Lambert perform it at the Palace … déjà vu all over again.) What’s more, their fans enjoy each moment with every fiber of their beings. My daughter was vibrating in anticipation before the show. She sang every lyric and danced at every opportunity. She bought a tour t-shirt with her own money, and if you knew how tight she is with a buck, you’d know how significant that is. She had a completely great time.

That’s something I don’t see at many of the concerts I go to: utter delight. That’s worth the price of admission right there.

See you on the flipside … or at the next stop on my Concertpalooza tour: Gogol Bordello at the Royal Oak Theater on July 30

P.S. When you take Love and Other B-Sides to the beach, you don’t have to worry about getting sand in your Kindle! My novel is available in paperback, as well as in e-book format, on Amazon.com. Read and share!

A Challenge to the Whole Human Race: Queen + Adam Lambert at the Palace of Auburn Hills

14 Jul

Without any scientific proof to back me up, I will state that Queen’s music is the most famous in the world. I’ll wager you could go up to people in any country, stomp your feet twice and clap, do it again, and they’d respond by singing in perfect English, “We will, we will ROCK YOU!”

photo by James Kurepa

photo by my son and concert buddy James Kurepa

It was no surprise, then, that their Palace gig was sold out on July 12. There hasn’t been a Queen tour of this magnitude in years, and the casting of Adam Lambert as the featured vocalist – who had the chutzpah to audition for American Idol with “Bohemian Rhapsody” – was inspired and inevitable: who else in the world has the chops and the fearless feyness to be as outrageous as their catalog demands? (I still can’t fathom how Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers was their singer in concerts past; nothing about his style says “Queen” in the least.)

I was thrilled for the chance to hear Brian May. Listening to News of the World over and over again on my month-long bus trip around the country as a twelve-year-old Girl Scout, May became my first guitar hero. That album taught me that each great guitarist has his own musical signature. No one else plays like he does; for May, lack of imitation is the sincerest form of flattery because no one can match him.

Adam Lambert at the top of the show in the first of at least five costumes

Adam Lambert at the top of the show in the first of at least five costumes

This was the first time my son and I have gone to a concert together in more than ten years. It’s taken us this long to find an act we could both enjoy. He likes pop metal; I like the songs of my youth; we both like a well-done massive spectacle. And we were not disappointed, what with lasers, smoke machines, flamboyant costumes, a “guitar cam,” a disco ball and more – all framed by an enormous Q that spilled out onto the stage as a walkway into the audience.

Lambert is a trained pop vocalist who doesn’t have the growl and grit of a rocker, but Lordy, the man can sing – even when supine on a couch:

Still, the specter of Freddie Mercury was everywhere. May sang a duet with film clips of Mercury, and drummer Roger Taylor sang “These Are the Days of our Lives” with footage of the band in their prime thirty or more years ago. Lambert gave Mercury a shout out early on and alternated verses with him on “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It was as if they all had to ask permission from Mercury’s ghost to perform in his stead. Some critics have groused that this demonstrates that the band’s best, most innovative days are behind them. Perhaps that’s true.

But let’s face it: you can’t hear a Queen song without thinking of Freddie Mercury: who he was and why he died.

There’s an insightful Rolling Stone piece this month, “Queen’s Tragic Rhapsody” by Mikal Gilmore, that portrays Mercury “perceived homosexuality” as the reason for – and the near undoing of – the group’s success. In this age of Modern Family and out-and-proud pro ball players (and Adam Lambert, for goodness sake) the article is required reading. We should never forget how truly remarkable it is that a hard rock band fronted by a bisexual singer/songwriter became a staple of nearly everyone’s musical DNA … and how Mercury’s death from AIDS was a watershed moment in rock music coming to terms with both the disease and homophobia.

Mercury didn’t know he was going to be diagnosed as HIV-positive not long after he performed this version of “Who Wants to Live Forever?” in 1986 so the song is eerily prescient in retrospect:

No wonder that when they closed the show with “We Are the Champions,” I was crying. That song, which has been co-opted for every possible commercial purpose, represents something very specific to me about gay pride in the face of ignorance, prejudice and death. Gilmore acknowledges this, saying, “Some listeners have also heard ‘Champions’ as Mercury’s sly, subversive avowal of gay forbearance,” although he believes that’s no longer true since it’s become “the universal bully chants of victors at sporting events.”

But therein lies Freddie Mercury’s victory. He proved “an old queen” could be the biggest badass in the masculine world of rock and roll. The openly gay man who sings his songs more than twenty years after he died knows he owes him a great debt.

So do we all.

See you on the flip side, when Concertpalooza moves on to Meadow Brook Music Festival for Panic! At The Disco on July 27!

P.S. Love and Other B-Sides is now in paperback! If you’re old school about your reading material, now you can hold an actual copy of my first novel in your hands … or a virtual one on a Kindle, Nook, iPad or smart phone.

I think I’m in love but I’m getting kinda nervous to say so: Beck at the Fox

2 Jul

This is going to be the best concert summer EVAH!

While my friend at Every Record Tells a Story revels in seeing every great band under the sun in a matter of days at the Glastonbury Festival, I will be able to spread my joy out from June through September right here in Detroit … and stay quite a bit drier. (What is it about rock festivals that attracts precipitation?) Five concerts in ninety days, plus a couple of Major League Baseball games tossed in, has made me Ticketmaster’s best customer. I, as the kids say, am stoked!

The Fox Theatre in all its gaudy glory (Photo by Lois DeBacker)

My concertpalooza kicked off on June 28 with Beck at the Fox Theatre. For the many times I’ve seen shows at the neighboring Fillmore, I had never set foot in the Fox before – and it is a show in itself. Built as a movie palace in the 1920s, it is in full regalia after being fully restored in 1988. Ornate does not begin to describe the interior; even the festooning has been festooned. Everywhere you turn, there’s something to gawk at: vermilion columns on all sides; a gilded elephant’s head at the center of the proscenium; the glass-jeweled chandelier, which weighs a literal ton and looks like Auntie Mame designed it for her Christmas tree. The elevator still requires an elevator operator; the ushers are black-blazered and helpful. Even the bar – with the plastic cups labeled “$7.00 Wine” – seems to be from a more civilized era.

All of which makes it a strange place to see a rock concert … and the perfect place to see Beck.

beck-scratchedBeck is a musical collage artist, assembling samples, riffs, hooks and lyrics from any number of sources and genres like so many pieces of broken colored glass and scuffed bric-a-brac. He may be best known for the nonsense rap of “Loser” and the jokey soul of “Where It’s At,” but as his current album Morning Phase proves, he is just as adept at creating songs that are rich, melodic and moving. No slouch as a musician, he’s a gifted guitarist and solid vocalist and can play a mean harmonica when he wants to. For this tour, Beck surrounded himself with six equally versatile musicians who moved easily from dreamy country & western to electronic beats to total noise.

About 45 minutes after I and my newly anointed concert buddy Lois settled into our seats in the center of the back of the top balcony, an announcement came over the PA that due to unforeseen circumstances, the (unnamed) opening act was not going to be able to appear. I thought this was just a joke, but apparently not. The opener was to have been Ghost of a Sabre Tooth Tiger, fronted by Sean Lennon, and there were problems at the Canadian border.

Beck: blue and blurry from the balcony

Beck: blue and blurry from the balcony

As a result, Beck opened for himself with a 40-minute acoustic set followed by a second act of his up-tempo pop hits: more songs than he’s played at most gigs on this tour. He was good-natured throughout the evening, dancing like no one was watching when the mood struck and playing and sounding great.

I haven’t been to a fully produced rock show in a while, and it was a treat not only to hear such great music performed so well (while sitting down, no less) but also to bask in the incredible lights and video tailored to each song. “Waves,” a somber song from Morning Phase with a chorus of the word, “isolation,” pinned Beck in a spotlight between columns of red light washing up the gold latticework on either side of the proscenium. I had chills.

If you wrote off Beck as a slacker rapper back in the Nineties because of “Loser,” you’re missing out on a lot of great music, no matter what your musical druthers. Here’s just one of many examples for you to enjoy:

See you on the next stop on the concertpalooza tour: Queen + Adam Lambert at the Palace of Auburn Hills on July 12

Check … Check … Name-Check …

19 May

Eric Church Springsteen KaraokeWe in metro Detroit are able to tune into CBC Radio 2 out of Windsor. It’s worth a listen despite my general lack of enthusiasm for Canadian rock music, mainly because you never know what you might hear next: jazz, world music, even a classic rock program hosted by Mr. “Takin’ Care of Business” himself, Randy Bachman.

Running errands last weekend, I heard the DJ recommend a Canadian singer/songwriter who is trying to snag the attention of her favorite rock star through a tribute song. The name of the song was enough to get me to check it out:

Now that I’ve listened to it all I can say is, I should not be so quick to take the advice of a Canadian DJ.

It’s nice and all but WWTPD? doesn’t live up to its title’s potential. It combines the Canuck tendency of being mildly amusing way too long with the infuriating pop country practice of name-checking a much better performer in an attempt to build credibility (or beg for a collaborator). And if this tune really does succeed in getting Mr. Petty’s professional attention, Ms. -Lee may be disappointed. As reported in Rolling Stone last year (with additional context from a nifty blog I just discovered, Saving Country Music), he’s got a major beef with bland pop country.

Don’t get me wrong. There are any number of terrific songs that mention other singers or groups – here are just a few:

  • Arthur Conley’s “Sweet Soul Music”
  • “Daft Punk is Playing at My House” and “Losing My Edge” by LCD Soundsystem
  • Weezer’s “Buddy Holly”
  • “Runnin’ Down a Dream” by Tom Petty (who mentions singing along with Del Shannon, perhaps because Tom Petty produced some of his later work … and/or because Tom felt guilty about stealing bassist Howie Epstein away from Del to join the Heartbreakers)
  • and one of my favorites, “Elvis is Everywhere” by Mojo Nixon (although he’d probably reassess his opinion of Michael J. Fox at this point):

Likewise, there are any number of terrible ones:

  • “Moves Like Jagger” by what’s his name from The Voice
  • ABC’s “When Smokey Sings”
  • “R-O-C-K in the U-S-A” by John Mellencamp
  • “Don Henley Must Die,” also by Mojo Nixon (whose career pretty much died with this song)
  • and one of my least favorites, Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire” (name-checking musicians is the least of the song’s problems)

Ms. -Lee’s tune falls somewhere in the middle of the list, yet for me it’s as much a cautionary tale as a mediocre song. These days, name-checking has gone far beyond shoring up your street cred. It’s bad enough that we trick ourselves into believing we know stars personally because every scrap of their life stories is available online. With the blinding success of Justin Bieber, a Canadian (!) discovered by Usher via YouTube,  we’re being led to believe that celebrities are just a tweet or video clip away from becoming our champions or even our friends. We expect them to reply to our Facebook posts or retweet our compliments or otherwise acknowledge our existence, with a certainty that borders on madness. Let’s face it, they appreciate “the fans” but can’t possibly be expected to appreciate each fan individually … especially when someone’s angling for a favor in the process.

Moral of the story: if you name-check a rock legend, you’d better 1) have a damn good reason and 2) have a damn good song. Of course, if you’re dropping the name of a Nineties’ television phenomenon, knock yourself out:

(True confession: I was such a fan of The X-Files back in the day that I plunked down a chunk of change on eBay for a grainy, seventh-generation copy of this on VHS. Don’t judge me …)

See you on the flip side …

P.S. On a writerly note, The Story Cartel is once again offering its online writing workshop/marketing seminar. I highly recommend it to those who are considering writing creatively and haven’t taken that first step: this could be that first step. Because of the Story Cartel Course I got a lot of practical advice on self-publishing and promotion, social media, and simply writing better … and I have a published novel and picked up a writing award to prove it! Register today and let them know I sent you.

Intermission: Join me on a Blog Hop

5 May

American Craftsmen book coverTom Doyle, my college friend who just published his debut science fiction thriller American Craftsmen (“Seal Team Six meets ancient magic” – order your copy now!) invited me to participate in a blog hop; here’s a link to Tom’s blog. He is giving me the opportunity to gab about my writing process while promoting his great work, then I introduce you to three of my friends with great blogs of their own. How could I say no? So here goes:

What am I working on?

I am writing the first draft of the sequel to my first novel, Love and Other B-Sides, with a goal of having at least half a manuscript by Christmas this year. This gives me a chance to spend time with characters I love and answer the demands of my legion of fans (ahem) who asked for another Stee Walsh tale.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?

I listed the book on Amazon under “romantic comedy” and “humor,” which are pretty broad. Another writer friend of mine, Sheri Holman, suggested that my genre instead was “latte literature,” which I take to mean that it’s intelligent and entertaining enough that a person wouldn’t feel guilty about reading in public at a Starbucks.

Until that genre becomes a thing, you could say that Love and Other B-Sides is a rock-and-roll romance, of which there really aren’t that many; most rock novels are angsty and important and not much of a hoot.

Why do I write what I do?

My past career as an actor gave me plenty of time to contemplate fame, especially given my lack of it. So I’m fascinated by the intersection of art, stardom, craft and “cool,” and how that’s baked into the American psyche.

How does my writing process work?

I work a full-time job and have a daughter in middle school who flatters me by asking for my help editing her writing projects. I’m also not the type who can get up at 5:00 a.m. to write uninterrupted. Let’s just say my time is not always my own. I have a goal of writing at least six hours a week, which would include drafting new parts of the manuscript, editing existing material and posting an occasional blog plus trying to market my existing work on the side. In a good week, I put in a couple of sessions over the weekends plus one or two nights as well. In a bad week, my promise to myself is to do something for the book every day, even if it is just opening it and checking a paragraph for grammar.

When I wrote B-Sides, I would take any time anywhere to write: the library; a coffee shop; McDonald’s; our dining room. Now that my older daughter went to college, I have had the luxury of reclaiming a bedroom as my office, which is where I do most of my writing. I write the scenes I’m drawn to first then see how I can bring them together in an overall narrative. That’s fun but not very efficient; at this rate, I will run out of lifespan before I finish all I’m setting out to do.

Enough about me. Next up are my three blog friends:

Pam Houghton is a freelance feature, essay and marketing communications writer. Her work has appeared in the Christian Science Monitor, Michigan Prime, Metro Parent, Michigan College Guide, Birmingham Patch, and numerous other publications. Visit Pam at http://pamhoughton.com/category/soul-searching-at-starbucks.

Also hopping is Scott Spielman, a work colleague who is also a prolific fiction writer in multiple genres – mystery, fantasy, historical fiction and probably others that I haven’t been privy to. Buy his work on Amazon and read his blog at http://karaokejournalist.blogspot.com

Jason Wendleton lives and breathes rock music.  His blog Defending Axl Rose is less about Guns N’ Roses and more about whatever earworm he can’t get out of his head. Jason lives in Denver and is attempting to write a book. Read his trenchant rock blog at defendingaxlrose.com.

See you on the flip side … and enjoy the Kinks: 

Concert Buddies: If you don’t have one, GET ONE!

25 Apr

The guys in Deer Tick look like what the Hold Steady guys probably looked like in college ...

One of my favorite bands, The Hold Steady, played at Pontiac’s Crofoot Ballroom Wednesday night. I discovered “the best bar band in America” by a total fluke a couple of years ago: I saw a few of their CDs in the library stacks, remembered I’d read something positive about them in Rolling Stone, and decided to give them a try, then fell hard for their storytelling and muscular musicianship. They have a new album – Teeth Dreams – hence the tour.

The band playing in this area for the first time in five years was a cause for great celebration, but more than a little sadness. Seeing this band in concert has been a cultural Great White Whale for my older daughter and me: long pursued but always just out of reach. Now they were here and she was not, since she is in college in New York (only a subway ride away from Brooklyn, the band’s home base, I might add).

Other than my daughters, I can’t convince anyone else I know to go to concerts with me on a regular basis. (A recent exception: my friend Lois went with me to the Majestic to see Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings – great company for thunderously amazing show.) Granted, the outfits I want to see aren’t usually chart-toppers, so the overlap between my social circle and fans in metro Detroit is a sliver. This time out, I didn’t help matters when I described The Hold Steady to friends as “a lot like Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band without half the instruments – if Bruce and the boys only sang about stoned, drunken, remorseful Catholics in Minneapolis.”

(At least they have a band name I can say without having to brace myself for bemused expressions from those who don’t follow alternative music: I can’t talk about the Airborne Toxic Event or Band of Skulls without a lot of eye-rolling.)

But you know what the real problem here is? I’m an adult. So are my friends. We have to plan ahead. We have to commute and work a full schedule and see to the kids and get up early the next morning. After running around all day, the prospect of standing for four hours in a half-inch of beer to be crushed by knuckleheads pushing toward the stage isn’t a really a draw, even if you are a stone-cold fan.

So I went by myself to see The Hold Steady. It was just me and 500 fellow tribesmen.

Craig Finn at the Crofoot 042314Tribesmen is an accurate term. The typical Hold Steady fan seems to be between 28-45, male, Caucasian, dark-haired and wearing button-up granddad shirts:  the exact description of Craig Finn, the lead singer. Finn looks like your sophomore English teacher, lurches across the stage with an endearing lack of coordination, and speak/sings these weirdly literate stories about burned-out losers searching for love and hope.

Here’s a sample lyric from “You Can Make Him Like You”:

You don’t have to deal with the dealers
let your boyfriend deal with the dealers
it only gets inconvenient
when you wanna get high alone

Before they started their set, Finn explained why they were down to four pieces: their newly hired guitarist Steve Selvidge had to leave the tour to be with his wife and new baby, who came a few weeks early (musicians are adults with adult issues, too). Then they launched into a two-hour, gloriously rich performance.

As the evening wound down after midnight, Finn thanked the audience. “You had a million other things you could do tonight but you chose to come to a rock-and-roll show,” he said. “You came here to be with people who all like the same thing. These days, that’s really important.” Then as the final song wrapped, he introduced the members of the band then pointed out to the audience, “And you, you, you, YOU – we are ALL The Hold Steady!” We all cheered in tribal solidarity and the show was over.

It was freakin’ amazing! You have to take my word for it … since you weren’t there.

So next time, who’s with me?

Enjoy a song by the band from its early days when they were officially a four-piece band:

See you on the flip side …

Before you go, another shout-out to those who have bought my first novel, Love and Other B-Sides! If you haven’t yet, it’s not too late to be cool like they are – download it today!

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