Sunday, September 27, 2009

Bon Iver at Hollywood Forever

Bon Iver at Hollywood Forever

Last night, I worked until ten o'clock. After a long work day/night on Friday and a lousy nights sleep on Friday night, I was an absolute wreck by ten Saturday night. But I had plans. Weeks ago, I had bought tickets for Katy and I to go see Bon Iver, one of our favorite bands. Katy and I go to a ton of concerts but this one was unlike anything I had ever heard of. The show was at Hollywood Forever Cemetery at dawn on Sunday morning. For those who live outside of L.A., Hollywood Forever is a very well-known and awesome cemetery, filled with the remains and ornate headstones of many of Hollywood's most loved historical figures. The cemetery also does movie nights on Saturdays when they show cult movies on the well of the Masonic Lodge. This place is VERY unique.

So, not only was the location of the show completely noteworthy, but that fact that the show would not start until dawn on Sunday morning was entirely unheard of. The doors opened at midnight and for six hours, the crowd was entertained with two DJ sets, a feature presentation of Wes Anderson's Bottle Rocket, and then a presentation of the PBS series Planet Earth: Jungle with no sound and a super phantasmagoric soundscape played behind it.

However, given my crazy work schedule, and our unease about going straight to a cemetery at midnight, we decided we'd go home and catch a quick nap. Didn't happen. Katy went right to sleep, I stayed up all night. Watched some Seinfeld, some Glenn Beck, and then decided, OK it's time to go. I woke Katy up at 3:20, we wandered down in a foggy haze to Fred 62 and had a Bossa Nova Waffle Sunday. I have to drive home the fact that both of us were in between some weird stage of waking and sleeping that is usually reserved for hard-core drug experiences or nervous insomnia. Never in my life have I been willfully driving AWAY from home in this state. Do your best to try to imagine the remainder of the night somewhere in between this stage—though I never fell asleep, we were never awake.

Fred 62 was still hopping when we got there as the 2 AM bar crowd finished their meals. I can't tell you anything that went on around us outside of Katy drinking two to three cups of coffee and my Huevos Rancheros. By the time we paid and left, the place was emptying out and the bathrooms were a little too bizarre for our fragile mental state. We got out and climbed into my car only to find that a thick layer of marine fog had descended upon L.A. about 14 miles from the ocean. The drive to Hollywood Forever was both literally and figuratively entombed in one of the thickest layers of fog I've seen east of Sepulveda and my increasingly paranormal mental state. We parked on Santa Monica about a quarter mile from the cemetery, saw some friendly concert-goers moving towards the front gate and grabbed our blankets.

We walked though the gates at 4:30 AM and it was pitch black. Sporadic aides with flashlights guided us through the maze of tombstones, some simple, some more grandiose than any I've ever seen. We made our way to the open field in front of the Masonic Lodge surrounded by palm trees, gravestones, and lagoons. To our astonishment, we came upon the field and noticed thousands of people had beat us there. Literally thousands of blankets, and candles, and cigarettes; people sleeping next to people talking next to people smoking next to people laying on their backs staring up into the foggy blackness. If at this point my writing seems to be getting poetic and surreal, it is because from this moment on, the night begins to become a surreal mix of dreamland and reality. Thousands of people, some high, most just restless, sitting in the middle of a pitch black cemetery in the middle of one of the greatest cities in the world. On the Lodge wall, the Jungle episode of Planet Earth was providing more visual irregularity and a DJ played a dreamlike concoction of sounds and music to accompany. It was the height of a feeling normally only attainable through designer hallucinogenics being realized through lack of sleep and an incredibly comfortable alternative universe.

We found a small patch of grass in the very back of the field. The blackness of the night prevented us from, not only seeing a stage, but knowing in which direction the stage was set up. Essentially, we were just finding a place to lie down in the awesome fogginess and enjoy more of the unexpected. There were all sorts of people around us: college students talking about people they knew, a sleeping couple buried beneath their blanket, hippies passing a joint around, and incredibly annoying young twenty-something who insisted on making cell phone calls for everyone to hear, and an array of would be photogs, including Katy, all trying to capture the impossibility of what was around us.

When the movie ended, the music did as well, and we just sat there. From about 5:00 AM to 5:30, it was black silence, the only lights coming from the closed soundstages at Paramount to the south, the candles scattered amongst the field, and the large computer screen in the middle of the field presumably controlling sound, or lights, or both for the still-hidden stage. And the lights created an eerie and somewhat beautiful aura around us as the fires mixed with the fog and lit the 60-foot-tall palm trees in reddish-purplish halos. The sun was not on anyone's mind. 5:30 is a time almost universally reserved for sleeping for even the hardest partiers and the quickest early birds, yet here were several thousand of us, sharing blankets, weed, and coffee in the middle of this graveyard. Still without sleep, it was hard to distinguish reality from imagination, and I insist that this was a shared consciousness around the field. That line between waking and sleeping was blurred when we got there and was not made any clearer by the increasing strangeness and beauty that was around us.

At 5:30, two Buddhist monks took the dark stage and chanted for 15-20 minutes. They were apparently blessing the stage but the unfamiliarity of the rhythmic chants coupled with the fact that they were not visible in the night made this moment as strange as those before it. Though the lights and fires shifting caused a small change in the palm-tree halos, the sky was still a thick black emptiness. My only thought at this point was that I wanted to watch this show sitting on our blanket. I was simply not strong enough, either mentally or physically, to stand up, and sitting in the very back, behind hundreds of rows of people, I knew that eventually we would all be standing. But my fingers remained crossed.

At this point, I almost fell asleep. Laying back on Katy's empty bag, amongst the chanting and murmuring around us, I almost delved into a true dream that would not be distinguishable from reality. But as I started to fade, I heard a buzz throughout the crowd. I sat up and realized that a twenty-foot stage had been lit up in the southeast corner of the field. And much to my delight, the cheering crowd remained seated on their blankets.

At 5:50, Bon Iver took the stage. To be honest, their set-list (especially in the beginning) is hazy. I think they opened with Lump Sum, but what didn't dawn on me until this moment was that I was about to see one of the most respected live acts in the world. Bon Iver, who I've never seen, is known around the country as one of the best shows around. Through the haze of the surreality that I was living in, I forgot that the content was not merely the production but the show as well. If I would have seen this show at the Troubador on a Thursday night, it still would have been amazing.

When they took the stage, it was pitch black outside. They couldn't see us. Justin, the lead singer, complained about flash photography from the front rows bothering him coming from such a black abyss. The set slowly moved on, and during maybe the third song, I pointed up to the sky and alerted Katy that a very faint tint of dark blue was beginning to contaminate the blackness of night. Because of the heavy fog, the sun never really "rose" per se, but the sky just started changing colors. By the end of his incredible rendition of Skinny Love, which included all three other band members smashing their own drum kits in a monk-like rhythm, there was no black left. By 6:30, as Justin spoke to us about how weird this is for everyone involved and how foggy his memory is, the dense layer of fog was clearly visible sitting atop the green field which we could now see was much denser with blankets and hippies that we first could notice. By the time he told us that they would only have a couple more songs, the sun was out, the sky was white, and the palm-trees that an hour earlier wore a surreal red halo appeared to be pinning the layer of fog to the ground.

For the duration of the entire set, most of the crowd never stood. We all fought through the early morning restlessness and enjoyed an incredible set together. They played electric and acoustic, hard and mellow. Justin chatted with us and asked us if we were ok. And after their last song ended, we all stood, stretched, and gave him the standing ovation that we were waiting to give him. As Katy and I stood, we noticed the grass, the flowers, the people; things we just didn't notice in the dark.

For a final show of strangeness, we all walked out together, onto a now somewhat busy Santa Monica Blvd, clutching blankets, backpacks, sleeping bags, and coffees. Thousands of people, emerging from a graveyard at 7:30 on a Sunday has to be weird for uninformed passer-bys.

We came home and I still haven't slept. Instead, I sit here recounting the experience to you as I listen to For Emma, Forever Ago and try to convince myself that everything that I remember actually happened, and wasn't part of a dream.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

NFL Announcers

NFL Beef #1

I'm going to try to make this a running thing, that is, my unending beef with the NFL. Some will be shorter than others and that should not signify some sort of importance or ranking system on the growing list of problems that make the NFL such an offensive product. Nor should the order in which I write.

Before this begins, please allow me to offer this short disclaimer. Many of you close to me have offered the opinion that my growing distaste with the league has more to do with my beloved Cleveland Browns' failures than anything substantive. This is simply not true. The Cleveland Indians, who I love equally, if not more, than the Browns, are as inept as the Browns and possess an arguably weaker future. I still love baseball. In fact, I think that baseball's steps in the last several years—MLB Network,, lower ticket prices—have been great for the consumption of the game. Perhaps it is because I live in Southern California, away from the throngs of irrational Browns fans that piqued my interest in the NFL's off months in years past. I don't know. I would like to believe it is merely a legitimate distaste based on logical and simple criteria that I have been able to finally realize as the issues grow, and my interest fades even more.

Also, it should be noted that I LOVE college football, and still get amped when watching old clips of football games. I think NFL Films is a treasure, and many of the game's personalities still interest me. This is merely a harsh criticism of one of the most popular entertainment options in the nation that I find offensive and backwards.

Today I will discuss the announcers.

In other team sports, almost every game is broadcast by a local TV affiliate and announced by employees of the team. In baseball, the Tribe is called by Rick Manning and Matt Underwood, neither of which do anything to enhance the experience, but neither do anything particularly offensive either. Most importantly, not only do they spend the season following the team, but they call the games to a local audience trained on the players' names and histories. The games are called with an expectation of familiarity with the characters and story lines within the organization. Cavalier games are called by Fred McCleod and Austin Carr. Sure, Carr turns many fans off with his over-the-top uses of the same four phrases, and McCleod has turned off a lot ex-TV man, Michael Reghi's fans, but the same knowledge and familiarity is expected in their calls and information is more-often-than-not directed at fans of the team.

Throughout the year, and much more often in the case of the Cavaliers, games are broadcast nationally. Depending on the network and time slot the game is on, this broadcast can be the only broadcast of the team, even in the city of Cleveland. While national broadcasts are directed towards a national audience, significantly less familiar with the teams than local broadcasts, the games are usually one of the only games being nationally televised so that viewers are treated to a top-tier broadcasting team. Personally, I would rather listen to loud dogs barking than endure a baseball game called by Joe Morgan or Tim McCarver, but I respect their calls as legitimate and their opinions—though I essentially universally disagree with everything they say—rarely am overly offended by an opinion they offer.

This trend holds true with college football as well. Nationally-televised games feature top-notch announcing teams that, often, enhance the experience. So in most sports—meaning all other than the NFL—the two options are either a local broadcast directed at a small sub-section of the sports' fan base, complete with inherent knowledge of the events and characters that that sub-section shares, or a national broadcast featuring many of the game's top announcing personalities. These options aren't always ideal, but they are rarely offensive, and often offer great additions to the sport.

The NFL is different. During the regular season, every game outside of two each week are broadcast by CBS or Fox. Because all the games are played within a six hour period of one another, networks are forced to provide upwards of nine productions per week. Meaning, unless your game is the featured game of the week, you are forced to listen to bottom-tier announcing teams. Furthermore, the games are presented as if they are on national TV (which is only half true as most games are just broadcast to the two cities playing each other). So, instead of getting local teams, super familiar with the team and treating their jobs as liaisons to the team's fans, we get garbage teams, without any knowledge of the teams, outside of the handful of days spent in the days leading up to the game, speaking to general football fans, despite their audience being almost wholly composed of rabid fans without interest in general football activities. So, as a result, a fan, not even a particularly rabid fan, but a fan somewhere in between "casual" and "moderate" will consistently have more knowledge of the team than the announcers.

Furthermore, while the play-by-play man is usually the 2nd-9th best play-by-play man in the company, the color guy is always an ex-player/coach who has no choice but to view his current position as a vacation from his tedious and demanding old job. Color guys rarely exhibit the effort required to study the teams, the seasons, and the changing rules and trends within the league. We often get information and ideas that are simply being regurgitated from the tiresome and redundant pre-game shows and talk-radio forums from the previous week.

This, at least to this observer, is offensive. I follow my teams. When we have the Broncos next week, I do my best to learn about the Broncos and go above and beyond the easy and lazy opinions written by the Peter Kings and argued over by the Phil Simmses of the world. By Sunday, I will know far more about both principles than the seventh-best CBS broadcast team that I will be forced to digest for 200 minutes.

What sucks is that I am rarely, if ever, enlightened. I am often given bad or at least gratuitous information. And I am treated as a "general" football fan with interest in all thirty-two teams, despite my utter apathy towards thirty-one of them. I didn't like Brian Billick as a coach, but I took pleasure in seeing him on the sidelines because of his lack of common sense and the chance that that inability to consistently make the right decision would benefit the Browns. Now I am forced to listen to him pretend to know about the Browns and do his best to weave his favorite Brett Favre musings into the game. In any other sport, Billick would be lucky to be calling games for a local broadcast, but at least there his limited ability to learn would be focused on one team. Here, we get his opinions of a team he has spent two hours a day studying for three days.

The other insanely annoying aspect of the announcing is a residual effect. Given the NFL's wildly growing and uninformed fan base, Billick's presence on one of sixteen official NFL broadcasts passes as some sort of verification that he is a sage of information or knowledge in the complex world of the NFL. Things he says, opinions he has, are instantly credible in the world of the worst fan base on Earth. He now has the ability to affect NFL news cycles and form the paradigm from which we consume the NFL. Much like Vin Scully defining the Dodgers, or Keith Jackson elevating the game of college football to the levels it is now, the NFL is defined by the likes of Ian Eagle, Rich Gannon, Solomon Wilcots, and Billick, further dragging the games down to the levels that have turned off at least one formerly rabid consumer.

This problem will never change. Most people are unaffected by this and within the local markets, have an alternative—to mute the game and put on the local radio broadcast. However, this is one of the primary things that has turned me off in an NFL game. I spend more time critiquing the broadcast and complaining about how annoying certain announcers are than I do actually enjoying and consuming the game. That something this distracting and easily fixable is not a bigger complaint amongst the fan base I regret, but this blog post felt cathartic.