Sunday, December 30, 2012

Best of 2012

     Well it's been a banner year for my music and reading hobbies. I read 71 books this year which kind of amazes me (see what you can do when you don't watch TV?). I track my reading on the Good Reads website (Terry's Good Reads list) and I gave 5 stars to eight of the books I read in 2012, but I'd have to say that the top 3 were:
Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand) - the amazing story of a 1939 Olympic runner from California who joins the air force in WW2 but is shot down over the Pacific. Sets the record for survival in the ocean but is imprisoned in Japanese camps and undergoes tortuous treatment until the war ends. Totally captivating story.
Columbus and the Search for Jerusalem (Carol Delaney) - opened my eyes to the role of faith in Columbus' life and the motivation behind his search for a short cut to the East (wanting to raise money to restore Jerusalem and hasten the return of Christ). Well-researched but so very readable.
What Good is God? (Philip Yancey) - have always appreciated Yancey's writings though I think I kinda tired of them over the years, but this was fantastic. He bases his ideas on places he has visited around the world where he has been invited to speak. Wonderful insights and some amazing stories.
     Musically I worked through my listening list (in 2011 I compiled a list of all of the albums I own - about 1200 or so) and again was surprised that I had gone through over 500 albums when I added them all up. I do find some time to listen to new releases as well, although I'm a lot more selective. The 3 2012 albums that I listened to the most (and enjoyed the most obviously) were:
Fly from Here by Yes
Babel by Mumford and Sons
Birds of Relocation by Eric Peters
     I attended a fair bit of live music this past year and there's absolutely no way I could decide on a top three. Any of these concerts would qualify:
Noel Paul Stookey in St. Petersburg, Florida in February
Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo in Toronto in March
A whirlwind April weekend with Bruce Cockburn (Friday) and Josh Garrels (Saturday) in Grand Rapids, Michigan and The Choir (Sunday) in Detroit.
Tommy Emmanuel in Toronto
Yes at Casino Rama in July
Rend Collective Experiment in Leawood, Kansas (part of an excellent worship conference)
Don Ross at Harbourfront in August (including a Q & A workshop)
Don Harron/Charlie Farquharson at City Hall in September (this guy's truly a national treasure, and yes I got his autograph)
Gungor in Canton, Michigan in October (this might qualify as concert of the year)
Kevin Ramessar band (including Mike Janzen) at the Registry Theatre in town in November
Steve Bell Trio in Cambridge in December
Sufjan Stevens Christmas Extravaganza in Buffalo (runner up for best of the year)
     Looking back at this stuff is nice. It's been a great year. However a book I read recently is making me reflect on changing my reading habits, so I doubt I'll ever surpass this year's total. I look forward to completing my listening list in 2013. 400 albums to go should be attainable looking at last year's total - BTW those 500 albums only went until November, then I listened to 50 Christmas albums in December (yeah, I'm crazy!)

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sufjan Stevens' Christmas Concert

     I'd like to try to write a review of the Sufjan Stevens concert I saw last night in Buffalo, NY (which will be challenging to put into just a few words). The venue was the Asbury Hall which appears to be an old church that has been renovated to host concerts - there are still balconies along the 2 sides and the back but the main space is empty, so people need to stand. We (that is, Alison and her friends) had friends who got there quite early so they saved us great balcony seats. The show is billed as "Surjohn Stevens Christmas Sing-A-Long Seasonal Affective Disorder Yuletide Disaster Pageant on Ice." We got a song booklet when we came in with an awesome quote from John Wesley on the cover: "Sing lustily and with good courage. Be aware of singing as if you were half dead or half asleep; but lift your voice with strength. Be now more afraid of your voice now, nor more ashamed of its being heard, than when you sung the songs of Satan." The crowd was interesting - many people had dressed up for the occasion in Santa hats, tacky Christmas sweaters, and a couple came in full Santa Claus gear. Unfortunately we had to do a lot of waiting - we got there before 6:30 and Sufjan didn't come on until after 9:00! The stage was not that big and it was just stuffed with equipment and tacky Christmas decorations, including an angel holding a candle which moved its head and arms slowly, huge tinsel curtains, and a menorah.
      About 8:00 Sheila Saputo did a pretty entertaining comedy routine. Then, eventually, to raucous applause, 6 musicians came on stage in wild costumes: Frosty, Super Chicken, Skeletor, a girl in a nun's habit and Alcatraz t-shirt, Sufjan himself decked out with lots of tinsel, a cape and red boots. Some of the stuff they had on was phosphorescent, including some tape on Sufjan's arms, so it glowed under special lighting. Then the music began and it was at once celebrative, varied, intricate, interesting, moving, and fun. There was so much to see and hear - it was a real Christmas party, complete with horns, noisemakers, streamers, balloons, blowup Santas and unicorns being thrown into the crowd. Sufjan's main instrument was the piano but he also picked up the guitar quite a bit, used the banjo a few times, grabbed percussion instruments or noisemakers, often reached back to hit the chimes and played some kind of electronic rack too. During the very cool "Do You Hear What I Hear" he alternately sang into 2 microphones, one of which was attached to a voice modulator. Every once in a while the band would set aside their instruments and do a verse of an ancient hymn (for example "Lo, How a Rose E'er Blooming") in beautiful 4-part harmony. The guys in the band moved between a number of instruments - the bass player also played trombone, trumpet, and tuba!
     At one point the curtain parted to reveal "The Wheel of Christmas" (which we had to shout out on every turn) and band members or volunteers from the crowd (Santa even got a turn) would spin it to decide which song we would sing along to. The revelry continued on for a long while - they'd intersperse the singalongs between sets of band songs. His interactions with Rosie Thomas throughout the evening were witty and entertaining. There was a bubble machine at one point and in the grand finale ("Christmas Unicorn") Sufjan put on a wild balloon costume that included some huge silver balloon trailing behind him, and a kind of confetti machine came on that blew out paper pieces to make it look like it was snowing. Then about a dozen huge red balloons came out and were bouncing around the crowd. That culminating song really captures some of the incongruity of this season with both hilarious and thoughtful lyrics. It goes on for about 15 minutes and ends with everyone shouting along with Sufjan: "I'm a Christmas unicorn, you're a Christmas unicorn, too - it's alright, I love you!" Wow! What a party!!
      By the time it was over the stage was a colossal mess. There was silly string all over the place, along with paper products of various kinds. It seems some small instruments must have been buried as well because Sufjan couldn't find his alto recorder at one point. Near the end of the show he picked up his guitar and it had lots of stuff (mostly silly string) hanging off of it but he just played it anyway.
     Sufjan came back for about a 4 song encore (all from Illinoise I think), starting out solo then building things back up again, ending with "Chicago" and the crowd sang along on all of them. I was also really impressed with the open spirit in which Sufjan presents his songs, and the evident appreciation he has for his fans (to the point of even saying 'I love you'). It's very neat to see a band applaud the crowd at the end of a performance.