Saturday, November 5, 2011

Ceremonial Sauna: My First Sweat Lodge Experience

When weakness is cleared from your Heart
your prayer will reach the glorious Beloved.

Friday afternoon.
I was second to last to escape the office at 5:01.  After a quick stop at Sunflower Market for bread and cheese, I shoehorned my way into the next lane and the next, and headed home.  Friday early evening traffic was abhorrent.  Cars oozed out of left turn lanes at every intersection. It was as if time was racing while the cars ahead of me stood still.  In my mind, I was rehearsing the checklist of things to bring to the sweat lodge.  Swimsuit, sarong, towels, food, change of clothes for later, and an offering.

My religious beliefs, in a nutshell.
As I drove, I told my friend Connie that I was going to a sweat lodge.  Immediately, she was concerned I was leaving Catholicism.  Truthfully, while Catholicism is always in my heart, it hasn’t been in my schedule for a while, like maybe since Easter.  I wonder if I subconsciously worry about lightning striking after spending Easter mass in the very back of the sanctuary on the floor chatting and laughing with my favorite mistake til we finally left after communion.  And I am very quick to acknowledge that I embrace my truth in all religions and spiritual practices.  I was Mormon when I was married and would be lying if I didn’t admit I agree with a few facets of Mormonism to this day.  My new love is Rumi, a 13th century Persian Muslim poet who was dubbed the most popular poet in America in 2007.  Rumi isn't a religion, per se, but I read him religiously and rejoice at his words.  All of that said, I am a spiritual seeker and find myself in thankful awe at the organization of Earth and its inhabitants in such poetic and even sometimes painfully chaotic fashion.  It's a creation I cannot explain.  I feel the influence of God and angels in my life, even on the bad days, but I'm hardly evangelical.  I light candles and meditate on the couch at home.  And so the sweat lodge was an extension of my spirituality, not my religious preference. 

A former boyfriend had gone to a sweat lodge in Park City a couple years ago.  I was intrigued by his description of native chanting in a heated structure.   I was hoping to go with him sometime, but I more or less lost touch with said boyfriend and his friend who promised to invite me to their sweat lodge "soon."  So it caught my attention when I met Phillip and learned about his sweat lodge work.

My grand entrance.
True to form, I arrived at my destination in a whirl.  The address was on a familiar thoroughfare, and I only got a tiny bit lost.  I was on the phone so not as fully engaged in getting there as I should have been.  Still, I wanted to be early to connect with a friend I'd not yet met in person and get oriented for the evening's journey.

When I saw a few people encircling the crackling fire, I knew I was in the right place.  Phillip motioned me and others toward the entrance to the unassuming backyard off 7800 South in Sandy.  Who would've ever thought all this goes on right behind Harmons???  I was directed to walk behind the sweat lodge, which was a round, shorter than me structure no more than 16 feet in diameter.

I was the only sweat lodge attendee dressed in a hot pink bathing suit, purple and ivory tie dye cover up dress, navy clogs and a double breasted navy wool pea coat.  Imagine.  With my hot pink paisley bag toting all the requisite items on my aforementioned list, I looked like a bag lady extraordinaire.  I made a comment to Phillip that my outfit reflected his instructions on the email he sent about the sweat lodge.  Everyone else had brought clothes to change in a nearby teepee.

I met Kim, my facebook pre-friend, and also Gypsy, Brad, Alan, and Brent and others.  Elizabeth greeted me and invited me to wave smoking sage onto myself to clear any negative energy.  I thought about and tried to release the negative energy of the day and the week as she walked around me with the receptacle of sage waving the thin puffs of smoke towards me.

Settling in.
The light and motion of the fire mesmerized me.  Although I was surrounded by others, I was in my own world of thoughts, feelings, and concerns.  It felt so good just to sit there and try to make sense of the events of the week.  I always think I know where my life is heading, but in reality, life can be a blind journey, in my case, oft taken at 90 miles per hour.  The unexpected surprises us and creates new risks and opportunities. 

As we sat by the fire, a few more people walked into the circle.  I asked for water and a kind gentleman named Hanley offered his watery green juice.  "It has celery, cilantro, and other green vegetables in it," he said as he handed the jar to me.  It was sooooooooooo good!   "So you have to send me the recipe," I said, hinting we should become Facebook friends.  He advised that he mixes green veggies – whatever ones he has on hand -- in a juicer.  That easy.  The cilantro really enhances the flavor and it quenched my thirst, to be sure.

Orientation to the sweat lodge.
Phillip gave an introduction to the sweat lodge or “ceremonial sauna.”   Sweat lodges are held on every continent of the world and date back to the 5th century BC.  The ceremonies include drumming, singing, and chanting, and vary depending on who is leading the ceremonies.  The hot rocks are called “Grandfathers” and we were told to refer to Phillip as "Uncle."  He told us there would be four rounds.  I assumed these were not like a round of golf or we'd be there all night.  Someone did ask how long the sweat lodge ceremony would last and he said an hour and a half or two hours. 

"Is the sweat lodge as hot as Bikram yoga?" I asked.   Bikram was my staple activity during my seven month tenure of FUNemployment.  "Yes, but not the same and not consistently," he said as he explained that the heat came in waves then subsided.  Phillip asked if any of those attending were family or in a dating relationship.   The protocol is to keep those in familial or dating relationships apart and not even across from each other to prevent their energies from crossing or connecting.  I also asked if we could exit the sweat lodge if the heat was unbearable.  Yes, but once out, the only time to re-enter is after that "round" has ended.

We changed into our "sweat" attire of minimalist, light clothing.  For me, this meant merely removing my clogs and coat.  We huddled around the campfire with towels wrapped around our shoulders.  It was nearly dark.  Several men were adding wood to the fire.  Phillip instructed us on how to enter the sweat lodge.  Very carefully, unless you are a midget, as the ceiling doesn't reach four and a half feet.  Phillip went in first, followed by the ladies.  The gentlemen were last to enter.  We each grabbed a maraca-like shaker and once again waved sage onto ourselves before entering the dark sweat lodge.

Round 1: Ask.
All the attendees moved through the sweat lodge bent over or crawling in a counterclockwise line.  We laid out towels and blankets.  I could see the shadows of prayer ties on the ceiling.  Phillip explained there were 104 prayer ties.  Once we were all seated on the earth, we sat in silence as six glowing rocks were brought to the door of the lodge, one by one.  Phillip used antlers to place the hot stones on the earth in the center of the room.  Each rock was sprinkled with cedar, then the cedar was brushed with sweet grass against the hot stone.  When the seventh rock was brought to the door, Phillip said "Welcome, Grandfather!" and we all chimed in. 

Then the door to the sweat lodge was closed.  The glow of the rocks was the only light we could see.  The darkness of the sweat lodge was convenient.  Water was poured on the stones to create steam.  As Phillip explained, the darkness gave us a sort of invisibility to each other that allowed us to "do what we needed to do, release what we needed to release" without self-consciousness.   And because of the darkness, I was not nearly so concerned about whether my swimsuit cover up was really covering me.

Before the ceremony was underway, we heard the gentle tap of rain on the roof of the structure.  It made me feel that much more warm and cozy inside the heated room.

Round one was about asking.  How do we receive if we don't ask?  This basic principle is found in the Bible, "ask and you shall receive," and is quite prevalent in other religious teachings.  Several years ago, I learned Vedic mantras, an oral tradition taught in Hindu temples.  Mantras, too, are a means of asking.  Even new age spirituality such as manifesting or law of attraction is replete with examples of intentions, or asking the Universe to supply a desire.

Phillip opened with a song.  I cannot come close to remembering the words of the many songs sung during the course of the evening.  Gentle and powerful in tone, the songs were akin to chanting, except the chords spanned a wider range at times.  For those who were conserving energy, using the shaker was an alternative to singing.  The language, for the most part, was Lakota, one of three major dialects of the Sioux Indians.  Lakota is also a city in North Dakota.

At the end of each song and other part of the ceremony, we said "Aho" which roughly translated means "I understand" or "cool beans."  The yoga class equivalent would be “Namaste,” except we said “Aho” several times in each round.   I did a little research and learned that "Aho" is sometimes is used to say goodbye or shortened to "Ho."  It's one of those words where you want to be sure you know what you're saying lest it be taken out of context.

When round one concluded, Phillip opened the door and a gush of cool air entered the sweat lodge.  Relief.  With the door opened, seven more hot stones were brought to the doorway, and Phillip moved them to the center of the room with antlers.  We said "Welcome, Grandfather," or "Welcome, Grandmother" to each one.  Again, the glowing stones were sprinkled with cedar and brushed with sweet grass.

Round 2: Relationships with others.
When the seventh stone was in place, the door was closed and round two began.  Phillip poured water on the stones to create steam.  We were told to consider our relationships.  Family.  Children.  Friends.  Spouses.  Lovers.  Past.  Present.  Future.  It was a time to reflect on my relationships with others and to be amazed that my journey has put the right people into my life at just the right time.  And it was also a time to ponder that maybe I was in the lives of others for a reason.  After we sang a song, we were told to verbalize our intentions with respect to our relationships.   All at once.  Aloud.  The room was abuzz with voices.  I heard a couple of people softly crying.  I really couldn't hear what the women next to me were saying so I chimed in and voiced a few intentions for people close to me.  It felt good.  We concluded with more singing.

If you do your homework on Google (the font of all knowledge presently), you'll see that sweat lodges have a slightly checkered history.  People have died from exposure to excessive heat and smoke.  By the end of the second round, I was sweating more profusely but at no time was the heat intolerable for me.  I could feel that my entire dress was drenched as was my swimsuit underneath, but I felt fine, not dizzy or lightheaded.  Because of the water poured on the hot rocks, the room was full of steam which was scented by the cedar and sweet grass.  In addition to any spiritual benefits, I am sure that my sweat lodge experience was at least on par with a facial at one of my 85% off Groupon day spas.  My endorsement herein is not for all sweat lodges, only for the one I attended last night.  I would suggest you know how to exit the sweat lodge before you set foot in it and also that you ask the sweat lodge leader what precautions have been taken.

Round 3: Relationship with self.
Another seven stones were brought into the sweat lodge.  We were told that round three was to highlight us as individuals and to allow us to release those things that no longer served us.  It was about forgiveness, letting go, moving to a better place.  After a song, we verbalized simultaneously.  Then there was a shrill scream.  And another.  And another.  It was good that I didn't jump from the alarm of it or I'd have gone through the roof.  All the screams were from the same woman whose name escapes me and she probably wouldn’t want it known anyway.  Actually, there was one tiny little thing that I needed to release.  Sometimes the little demons are the most powerful and potent ... and toxic.  Die negativity, die.  Let it go.

I thought of August 2011.  I found myself questioning everything in my life, most of all, my recent attitudes and behavior.  I lapsed into a bit of a bluesy depression, which I learned later in the month may have been triggered in part by anemia.  Ladies, take your iron pills.  And see a doctor if you need to.  Please.  Anyway, during my sad and sorry ponderance, I bemoaned that I was too self absorbed and not nearly so caring and generous as my ideal me and that life was becoming one pleasure seeking event followed by the next, and maybe a few Facebook posts about all of it.  My passion for children and for helping single moms had been abandoned to the next big thing, or so it seemed.  Once I built up my iron and got over pneumonia, I knew that the people who needed my help were right in front of me and that sometimes even a kind word makes a whole lot of difference in someone’s day.  And I asked at work when we were going to start teaching Junior Achievement in the local schools again.

When the door was opened at the end of round three, we saw that it was snowing.  The person who remained outside with the fire had long since taken our shoes into the tent nearby to keep them warm and dry.  White flakes floated to the earth outside as seven more hot stones were brought to the doorway. 

I asked why the stones were also referred to as "Grandmother."  The stones represent the Creator universally speaking, so depending on each person's beliefs, that could be a man or a woman or other.  I was so reminded of my friend Michele's words "God is a woman!" in reference to my account of one of my previous romantic relationships.  Phillip further explained that the ceremony was not confined to one religious tradition and in his previous sweat lodges, he had sung songs even from Mormonism, with active Mormons in attendance.  He’d used Islamic and Buddhist chants and songs from other religions in his ceremonies.

Round 4: Gratitude.
Round four centered on gratitude.  Until we are thankful for what we have, we are unprepared to receive more.  This is a tough message for someone going through a tough time, where another day means another disappointment.  Phillip reminded us that the energy of each circle of attendees was unique, even if we attend another sweat lodge.  What a great remembrance that no matter where we are, we should savor every second of our journey.  We sang still more songs, including a chant to the song "Amazing Grace" near the conclusion of the ceremony.  We took a few deep breaths and the sweat lodge ceremony was ended.  So many beautiful words of wisdom were spoken and resonated with me, only to be lost to my memory as I prepared to exit.  Inside I was rejoicing because I made it through the ceremony, and because I could not wait to eat the multigrain bread and jalepeno cheddar cheese I brought to share with the group.

Back to reality.
Phillip instructed us to leave the sweat lodge carefully because we were somewhat "removed" from our bodies.  He admonished that standing up too quickly may result in falling down.  The women scurried to the tent for a bit of warmth.  We changed to dry clothes.  Soon everyone was in the tent, pulling fruit, bread, cheese, and even KFC fried chicken out of bags and into the center of our circle.  Food hadn't tasted quite this good for years.  It was simple but surreal.  We talked quietly and one by one, people began to leave.  The night was ended.

My new friend Kim and I walked to our cars as big flakes of snow fell on our heads.  I felt better, lighter, and relaxed, almost blissful.  After meditation, burdens and frustrations were lifted and taken from me.  I doubt I’ll be a regular monthly sweat lodge attendee, but I will definitely go again and encourage my Salt Lake friends to go.  To transcend beyond the material world for two hours was a sublime way to spend a Friday evening.  Aho.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Upmteen Things I Re-Learned This Summer

Summer arrives with a length of lights
Summer blows away
And quietly gets swallowed by a wave
It gets swallowed by a wave

-- “Summersong,” The Decemberists

Think outside the box.
The T-Pain Green Team unraveled the day of the concert. My usual volunteer base who were already consumed with boating and wine parties, so I went to T-Pain’s base (ie 20-somethings) and lined up a Green Team team in record time.
Keep it simple, stupid.
Most of the hiking trails I’ve pursued have jogs and junctures where you can choose between a few simple, well placed steps or a web of complicated ones to get to the same spot two feet ahead. Way more often than not, the simple way is better, not only in hiking but on life’s trail generally.

Urgency is an illusion.
When I was first divorced, I learned the concept of “waiting for a better offer.” This of course means saying “maybe” to allow time to weigh options. It isn’t always best to chart your course weeks or months in advance because inevitably you’ll be denied other opportunities. I bought tickets to Journey months before the concert and thereby gave up the chance to hear The Decemberists, for free. What a pricey opportunity cost that was.
Live in the now.
On my first rock climb and the subsequent ones, I learned you need to know where you’re going, but you can’t look too far forward or back without losing focus. And looking down may have disastrous consequences.

Bliss has no economic value.
The Uros people live in reed huts on manmade floating islands in Peru’s Lake Titicaca. Despite no creature comforts and few sources of income, and … no bathrooms, they smile from their toes.

The biggest and hardest blind leap of faith you take may be to not leap at all.
Why do we always have to do something to feel like life is moving forward? If I’d made the forceful choices in April I was contemplating, I’d have quit my job, sold my house, and wandered the world. Within the next few months, life brought me “aha” moments, unexpected visitors, and conversations I visualized but thought could never happen.
An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of cure.
Bring bug spray. Use lots of sunscreen. Make sure your clothing is weather-appropriate. And be ready to run from a moose or a bear or a lightning storm at a moment’s notice.

Get over your past.
Revenge and resentment about hurts and wrongs are toxic to your body and spirit. And … all of the above cause wrinkles. Give someone another chance, even if you think they don’t deserve it, and the results may please you immeasurably.
I caught pneumonia in August. I’m not sure if it was 12 airplane rides in three weeks, playing golf in the rain in Delaware, running through Peru in winter without a warm jacket, or too many early mornings and late nights spent catching planes and buses. Let’s just say, I’m going to be way more careful about getting adequate rest going forward.

What you think about, you bring about.
When I sold Mary Kay (and no, I never earned a pink Cadillac), I tired of hearing this dorky phrase. And yet … it might take months or years, but your thoughts more often than not play out in your life like a script from a made-for-television movie. So pick the good ones. Visualize running into someone you danced with months ago. And whatever you do, don’t visualize that the guy (or gal) you’re dating is in love with someone else!

Silence is golden.
Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh, hold it close, think of it, savor it ... don’t tell. The one exception would be those times when you feel in your heart you need to let someone know how much they mean to you. And you should.

Embrace the intangibles.
This summer I had a few frustrating discussions on the have’s and have not’s. What the “have’s” have could all be taken away in a flash, so why should the size of our bank accounts divide us? Whether we have or have not material wealth, however, matters little. Tangibles get lost and rot. Intangibles – joy, love, affection, caring, compassion, passion, friendship, honesty, respect, integrity – are the real treasures life offers us.
Life is full of surprises.
When I left for Peru, I thought I was leaving behind an unkempt yard with a handful of gigantic weeds. By the time I’d returned, my “weeds” were covered with my favorite flowers, sunflowers.

You never know when it will be your last chance. Sadly and unexpectedly, my Salt Lake friends and I lost a sweet friend this summer. When I go, I want to transcend to my next world dancing, maybe not jigging to the Young Dubliners but a soft and gentle slow dance.

It's okay to change your mind.
My boss keeps Dove and other chocolates in his office as a treat for the employees. I had gotten into a three-chocolates-a-day habit to keep myself and friends in those infamous Dove fortunes. Then one day, I decided I was done. My longstanding love for chocolate evaporated in a single day as if it had never existed. And it’s okay to change your mind, too.

Perspective is everything.
When I returned from my trip to Peru, it seemed as if someone had shrunk the Wasatch Mountains during the ten days I was gone. The giant rise of the Andes I saw and hiked through during the previous week made “my mountain” seem diminutive by comparison.
Life is more than fair.
I believe this with all my heart. Even those in the most humble or difficult circumstances have something amazing in their lives – unique experiences and opportunities, splendid natural surroundings, or wonderful relationships, to name a few -- to offset their difficulties or pain. As I watched a woman in Peru pick up trash in her neighborhood, my thoughts turned to her view of the beautiful Andes Mountains.  The awesome Sacred Valley was her “office.”  Look for the “more than fair” in your life and you will find it.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Making Monday Magical Was a Drop In the Bucket for Mitch Barrett

It's a drop in the bucket
And a bucket in the pond
And the pond fills the river
And the river rushes on
And every river swells a river
Until the power can't be stopped
And what becomes a mighty ocean
Started with a drop
--Mitch Barrett
"Drop In the Bucket"

Life is more than fair.  Polyanna, yes.  But oh so true once again.

It all started last Friday evening when I made an appearance at the Snowbird Mountain Music Festival with a couple of friends.  I spotted Ricochet House Concerts' Ruth Naccarato standing next to a charming long-haired gentleman and I practically sprinted over to say hi.  Before I knew it, I was shaking hands with decorated and much heralded singer/songwriter/storyteller Mitch Barrett.  When Ruthie learned I couldn't attend last Saturday evening's headliner event featuring Mitch and his band, she asked "What are you doing Monday night?  We should have a house concert."  And instantly a magical Monday evening of Appalachianfunkyrastafolksyblues music was born.

Mitch Barrett wove hand-pieced songs and stories into a brightly colorful mosaic quilt of Appalachian life.  Creatures like cosmic possums live in his world.  And Barrett, from Berea, Kentucky, brought the folklore, myths, and stories of his mountain people to life with songs like "Paper Bags and Cardboard Boxes" and "Paper, Scissors, Stone."  Barrett's song, "Sacred Yard" painted images of plastic roosters, bird baths and concrete Buddha's.  He is champion for a simple life, devoid of the trappings of careers and possessions in favor of cultivating the light within:

Everything is sacred every breath of air
Be careful what you're thinking sacred every thought's a prayer

It's the ordinary day people you talk to every day
Incantations and prophecies from the mouths of babes
You can talk about the weather or the foods you crave
It's the feeling you project not the words you say

The audience of 30 or so invited guests were undaunted by rain early in the first set.  Barrett's playful spirit was evident throughout the evening as he danced to the beat.  He sang about southern women in "Viola," "Christiania," and "Pearl."  I was captivated by the rhythmic southern love melody "Shady Grove."  Barrett included in his repertoire a couple of traditional mountain music tunes: "no need to pay royalties on those," he noted.

In between songs and sometimes during, Barrett's southern drawl put color on life in his Appalachian home with stories about neighbors, home and family.  If there's anything I miss about my years in the south, it's the lure of the accent, the words spoken smooth and slow. 

Barrett asked in the kindest, most caring way if the nation's economic downturn had affected those in the audience and our friends and neighbors.  It's humbling to appreciate that the inquiry came from a simple man who several described that night as one who travelled with barely a bedroll when attending the Rocky Mountain Music Festival some years ago.  Barrett described how his now ex-wife, or as he prefers to refer to her "the mother of my children," concurrently informed him she was leaving him and that she'd entered him in a songwriting contest.  Nothing like softening the blow.  Barrett is to be credited for acknowledging her hard work, along with his own, on their music and their CDs. 

The second set began with "Jack Gone Huntin'," a story for the children.  Barrett is the consummate storyteller: "I'm not lyin', I'm telling a story," he said, garnering a chuckle from the audience as he hinted of his CD named for that very punch line.  The legendary Appalachian music box appeared and Barrett played it as if it were a harp as he told more stories.  Storytelling gave way to a starry sky, and twinkling stage lights.  Mitch brought Ruth and Reba onstage to sing with him.  Several sing alongs later, the evening culminated with "Drop In the Bucket," a tune that evokes the feeling of being aboard a boat on the rolling Mississippi.

It's been said that a song remembers when.  With five of Mitch's CDs already loaded to my computer, I'll remember the magic of Mitch's Monday night music for a long time.

Mitch Barrett CDs
Soft Lies
Birds Fly South
Drop In the Bucket
Heart & Soul 
I Ain't Lyin' I'm Telling You a Story

Mitch Barrett
Mitch Barrett (MySpace)
Mitch Barrett (Facebook)
Ricochet House Concerts (Facebook)

Mitch Barrett - Vocals, guitar, Appalachian music box, storytelling
Owen Reynolds - Bass
Eddie Green - Guitar
Melody Youngblood - Vocals

Monday, May 30, 2011

Lessons From the Enchanted Forest: Cambriah Heaton and Kinfolk

I am doing my best to keep my head on straight
I am doing my best
I am doing my best to keep the madness at bay
I am doing my best
Put here on this planet to do my very best
Oh yes my best!
-- Kinfolk

Kinfolk's Cambriah Heaton shared her enchanting world with Ricochet House Concerts Wednesday in a magical performance that left the entire audience spellbound.  With her delicate, whispery voice, Cambriah shares the secrets of the vast universe with poignant lyrics and warm melodies.  Her fairy-of-the-mystical-forest aura leaves no question that she's an old and wise soul, in spite of her youthful appearance.
Kinfolk opened Ricochet's outdoor concert series with inspiring songs about love, life and nature from their CD, set to be released in August.  Kinfolk is the spritely Cambriah (vocals, guitar), along with Chad Taylor (bass) and Nicki Singleton (fiddle). Together, they played two sets to a crowd of musicians and music lovers alike.  The upbeat lyrics to "Fortune Cookie" spoke to me, as if from a crystal ball:

You have the ablity to overcome obstacles, said my fortune cookie.
So I took one look as I read it and thought, okay let's go cookie.
You got to pick up your feet. You got to set the pace.
Once you set yourself in motion you've practically won the race.

Cambriah's messages are not naively spoken but are sourced from her deeply human experience of life, including losing a child.  Her daughter Mandalynn's ashes are front and center onstage when the group performs.  "She is our angel," said Cambriah.
As Cambriah introduced "Mountain Song" and "Earth Song" her passion for nature as both a healer and a rich resource emerged.  Everyday love songs such as "Typical Love Song" and the endearing "Morning Lullaby" rounded out the program.
The sunsoaked ambiance of Ruthie Naccarto's backyard was transformed to an azure sky and a cool breeze by the beginning of the second set.  And the mood turned quiet and pensive as Kinfolk sang "Reasons" and "Blessed Be."  "Love Wild," an impassioned tune about wrestling angels while love takes flight, energized the crowd one last time.  I left Ruthie's backyard inspired and a little wiser, almost as if I'd spent an evening under the tutelage of an angel.
Ricochet House Concerts - Facebook page 

Set List
Where Have You Been
Mountain Song
Eyes of Ours
Fortune Cookie
Doin' My Best
Long Roads
Penchant for Habit
Typical Love Song
Morning Lullaby
Earth Song
Blessed Be
Love Wild


Sunday, May 29, 2011

U2 Concert Extra: The Fine Art of Taxi Stuffing and More

As a "sidebar" to my U2 concert review, I must admit I was completely disappointed by the lack of planning and coordination around public transportation.  With limited parking and a Trax line which stopped preciously at the stadium, we expected to be able to ride light rail.  But one would have had to crowd surf to get on one of the cars by the time they reached Trolley Square and no extra cars were running either before or after the concert to accommodate the massive crowd of over 40,000.
Unlike some of my friends, we arrived on time to the concert but only because we shoved eight of us into a cab, and we ended up walking down the hill back to Trolley Square after the concert because Trax obviously had insufficient capacity.  Thank goodness I didn't go with my original plan to take Trax from 53rd South or I'd have arrived home well after 1 am.  As it was, it was 12:30 am.  I toothpicked my eyelids open for work the next morning.
On a more positive note, because of lacking table space, we made friends with three gents and a lady from Australia.  Desert Edge Pub was overrun with concert goers a few hours before the 7 pm start time so we all agreed to share a table.  Imagine traveling all the way from down under to hear U2.  Their company has offices here in Salt Lake City, and hence, they'll be back in another 7-8 weeks.  We've encouraged them to put more concerts on the agenda for their return visit.

U2 From the Endzone

The more you see the less you know
The less you find out as you go
I knew much more then, than I do now
-- U2, "City of Blinding Lights"

If you have read this blog oft, you know that I am drawn to the stage.  Front and side, front and side, sometimes on, but always in the thick of the crowd.  When I was invited to have a ticket in U2's general admission (floor) section, I responded with a resounding "yes!"  At noon the day of the U2 concert, we looked at our tickets.  Our seats were precisely two rows from the top of the north endzone.

As we walked into Rice Eccles stadium, one could not help but notice The Claw, a massive stage set with a needle shooting to the heavens.  I know that the "typical" concert goer is awed by structures and stage sets, but as one who is enthralled by music and great performances, it's a hard sell to inspire me with a stage build out that took over 100 semi trucks to transport.  That said, I do believe I have photographs of The Claw's changing landscape of lights and colors for every song U2 sang and from a top-of-the-house vantage point the floor could not match.
The sequencing from the set list from a U2 concert which occurred several days earlier stayed the same for the group's Utah concert.  Changing a lineup flush with accompanying lights was likely a complex undertaking to say the least.  With the bigger tours, this is standard practice, sort of comparable to formula fiction.  There is a commercialized, mass appeal feel that contrasts starkly with the spontaneity of a gig playing at a venue like The Depot or The State Room, not to mention your garden variety house concert.  
Still, I wasn't disappointed by the lineup in the least and was on my feet most of the evening, dancing to familiar tunes like "Mysterious Ways" and "Beautiful Day."  In addition to the mostly fixed set list except for the insertion of Happy Birthday" to Bob Dylan on the occasion of his 70th birthday that evening, the crowd sang along to nearly every number.  In a smaller venue, it's rare that the crowd is as familiar with the band's music.  The amplification from the stage was enormous, sending huge volume to us at the opposite end of the stadium.
The crowd was jumping, dancing, and otherwise enlivened with fists in the air during the first five or so songs.  Dancing was a stadium-wide phenomenon, including for those of us in the cheap seats.  Filler conversation in between songs was minimal, but a few political messages were laced into the program.  The "power of one" message urging fans to let their voices be heard and make a difference gave me chills moreso than the cool night air.  Toward the end, Bono electrified the crowd with "Vertigo" and kept the momentum rolling through two encores, concluding with "With Or Without You" and "Moment of Surrender."
Friends who were in the general admission and VIP sections have graciously offered photographs which allowed me to live vicariously at the foot of the stage.  Their incredible shots fill in the gaps created by the seemingly endless chasm between the north endzone and Bono, proving that even or rather especially at concerts, it's all about location, location, location.
My friend Heidi and her boyfriend Kris, who provided the close-up pictures for this post, have followed U2 since the 1980s.  She noted that when she saw U2 in California, they played more songs, had three encores, and had a richer set list.  Still, a huge fan, she was not disappointed.  "It was an awesome night, perfect weather and, damn, those leather pants looked good from where I was standing."

Set List
Even Better Than The Real Thing
I Will Follow
Get On Your Boots
Mysterious Ways
Until The End of the World
All I Want Is You
Love Rescue Me
Happy Birthday
Stay (Faraway, So Close!)
Beautiful Day with Her Comes the Sun
Pride (In The Name Of Love)
Miss Sarajevo
City Of Blinding Lights
I'll Go Crazy If I Don't Go Crazy Tonight
Sunday Bloody Sunday
Walk on
Aung San Suu Kyi Message
Where The Streets Have No Name with Blowin' In The Wind
Hold Me, Thrill Me, Kiss Me, Kill Me
With Or Without You
Moment Of Surrender

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Three Faces of Jen Hajj, Utah's Desert Songstress

When Utah acoustic singer/songwriter Jen Hajj told me she attended the rival high school in my hometown, Tempe, Arizona, she became my instant friend.  Her music brings back scenes of my life growing up in the raw southwest desert.  A classically trained vocalist, Jen has branded folk music as her own.  She's sprinkled her repertoire with other genres to create unique sounds and rhythms which tell stories and touch hearts.  In the past few months, I have happened upon several of her performances.
CD Release Party, Holladay Church of Christ - March 26, 2011
The first full-length CD is a rite of passage for musicians who dare. Jen released her CD "I Of the Storm" wearing an up-do and a bright blue sequined top. I don't normally add fashion commentary, but ... "Wow!" With a full compliment of musicians behind her on stage and in the audience, Jen played her CD mix to a packed house.  A compelling part of the evening came when Jen sat alone behind the piano for "Beautiful."
The most charming compliment about Jen's performance came from a seven-year old: "Mom, I want to buy her CD so that I can hear the song 'Rain' every night." Who can argue with a testimonial like that?  "Rain" eclipses the traditional "it's raining, it's pouring" song with a drum-backed melody that evokes images of a snake charmer luring a snake from a clay pot.  If you love "Rain" as much as all Jen's fans, you will want to get a free copy of it on Reverbnation (see link below).  Between the house lighting and incorrect camera settings, photos taken during the show were less than optimal and made Jen's blue dress look red (perhaps we need a song about that?).
Diane Gulezian Art Exhibit Reception, Red Butte Gardens - April 9, 2011
Jen sang Gandhi's thought-provoking words "Be the Change" as I entered the Red Butte exhibition area.   "Conservation, some folks shudder when they hear the word, we're asked to do small things to save some silly bird" are words close to Jen's heart (she's Education Director of HawkWatch International).  Diane's paintings exude a wildness vibe, so what songstress could paint a better backdrop than Jen, Utah's queen of the desert herself?   Backdrop acoustic, yes ... shrinking violet, never.   Jen attracted the attention of my guests, most particularly the young daughter of one of my friends.  And like Jen, we were wearing dresses and Hanes in a sea of casual Friday denim. 
2011 Tucson Folk Festival, Tucson Museum of Art - April 30, 2011
The beautiful desert city Tucson was one of my childhood homes. The ride between Phoenix and Tucson flooded me with memories ... dozens of bugs splashed on the car window, cactus stands, roadrunners, Oracle, and Picacho Peak.  Seeing the exit signs along I-10 was a vivid reconnection with my past.  I spotted a lizard on the way to the front door of the Tucson Museum of Art.
Jen drew the first spot at the Songwriting Competition, not ideal because the audience wasn't quite in place nor nearly as warmed up as they were by the musician who drew the much favored tenth spot.  No worries.  It couldn't have been a worse fate than having the airline lose her luggage.  She emerged to the Tucson Art Museum's Casa Cordoba stage wearing a newly purchased violet dress and cowboy boots.  Her picturesque "Where You Take Me" came alive against a landscape of desert foliage under the warm Arizona sun.
This would be the only one of these three of Jen's performances where I was unable to drag along at least part of the audience. My parents were planning to come, but at the last minute had to attend a funeral instead. Still, it was wonderful to connect with Utah Slim as well as Peter and Mary Danzig of Otter Creek while surrounded by Palo Verde trees.
About Jen's CD ... I listened for an entire day before the CD release party and have listened yet again many times since.  Jen's work showcases her smooth, sweet voice.  Powerfully, gently, Jen conveys the spectacle of nature with songs such as "Where You Take Me," "Rain," and "Water On the Wasteland."  Yet I found myself craving listen after listen to "In The Beginning" about Adam's wayward, rebellious first wife.  The lineup masterfully weaves together more than a dozen songs with thoughtful, kind lyrics and poetic tunes. If "I Of The Storm" is the beginning, I can't wait to hear her encore CD, when that emerges from the presses.
I Of the Storm
Where you Take Me
Eye of the Storm
In the Pines
I am Home
In the Beginning
Thank You
Water on the Wasteland
Run Away

Jen Hajj
Reverbnation - Jen Hajj
Facebook Fan Page - Jen Hajj Music