Giving Sugarloaf its Propers: An Update to My Sunday River Love Story

sugarloaf_usa_logoIt’s Monday in late March.  My legs ache beautifully.  The strong sensory memory of a Bag Burger lingers.  The vista seen from the Snowfields still moves my skier’s soul.  And those turns a few days after 15″ of snow: damn it’s good to be alive on the same planet as Sugarloaf.

I was lucky enough to ski and stay in Carrabassett Valley this weekend with some seasoned Loafers.  They had read my article, Sunday River and Me: An Unlikely Love Story, and most reacted pleasantly, having understood the geographical reality that guided me into the arms of the apt ski companion that is Sunday River.  However, some Sugarloafers, like Phish fans, Red Sox fans, and Religious zealots of all shades, didn’t take too kindly to my words of praise for the Newry, Maine resort.

One fanatical Loafer seemed to physically bristle at my utterance of the four slight words: I like Sunday River.  We’ll call said Loafer “Pat.”  Pat continually tried to sell me on the virtue of the Sugarloaf terrain I already adore.  He asked me if I liked my Bag Burger.  Pat, you should have already known the answer.

But what can you do?  Deep believers get defensive when their faith is challenged, even in the most feeble manner.  (Just check out the comments beneath my review of the Trey Anastasio Band show this past January.)

For Pat’s sake – and for the sake of other mono-mountain Loafers – however, I’m going to give Sugarloaf its propers.  It was, as you know, my first alpine love in the great state of Maine.

Sugarloaf Mountain

1. Sugarloafers can ski.  Riding the lift, I watched a sea of perfect turn skiers rounding out their quick turns in full control.  Proficiency is the minimum on this mountain.

2. The snowfields are everything I remember: steep, snowy, vast.  I got that heart-in-the-throat feeling dropping in.

3. Sugarloaf is a community.  The bar at The Bag seemed to be filled with one group of people who all knew each other during Saturday’s apres ski.  Sugarloaf is a place filled largely with citizens of the mountain, not out-of-state tourists demanding the high end resort lifestyle.  (Though these people do haunt the mountain.  Sorry, Pat, but you know it’s true as well as I do.)

4. The Rack.  Surprising draft offerings from Maine’s brewers.  Eclectic decorum.  Solid music.  Just go.

5. The snow is as good at Sugarloaf as it is anywhere else in the East.  It’s not just the 15″ dumping that preceded my trip that makes me say this.  Those who have skied Sugarloaf know what I’m talking about.  Blame it on the location, the groomers, the adept skiers who don’t push the snow around with their turns, or Ullr, the god of snow himself, but this snow is great.

Pat and all you other Loafers-who-detest-Sunday-River, there you have it.

At one point, we were traversing back to the Spillway chairlift when Pat asked me, How does it feel to be back

I dreamily replied, It’s like getting back into bed with a former lover: after a few awkward exchanges, it’s like you were never apart.

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Sunday River and Me: An Unlikely Love Story

Sunday River

In the seven years I’ve lived in Maine, I’ve entertained the Sunday River vs. Sugarloaf comparison ad nauseum.  For years I was on the Sugarloaf side, and to a certain extent, I still am.  During my early years in Maine, I lived virtually equidistant to both mountains.  Sugarloaf seemed to have stronger terrain, better skiers, less — pardon the term — Massholes, and an all around cooler vibe.  When I had the choice between the two, Sugarloaf won every Saturday morning when I tossed my skis in the back of my Subaru.

But then I moved to the Portland area, and constant day trips to Sugarloaf became an impossible dream given the demands of life.

Still needing to get my ski fix, I mourned the loss of my beloved Sugarloaf and all that entailed: no more weekly Bag Burgers, no more regular Seth Wescott sightings at The Rack, no more breaknecking down Upper Gondi Line, no more distant view of Mount Katahdin on a sunny day, and most sadly, no more Snowfields.  I began to have anxiety as I visualized a life at Sunday River where I would have to traverse through inept skiers and riders from out of state, deal with the madness of the lodges, have to use a stupid term like “Chondola,” and worst of all, think constantly of my lost love: Sugarloaf.

Not one to mire in love lost, I took my silver pass, my sticks, and my deep desire to make weekly turns in the winter to Newry and the slopes at Sunday River, resigning to visit the Loaf only a couple of times a season.  Sunday River was my new winter digs.

The first couple of years were hard.  Like any new relationship, I kept expecting my new winter lover to be just like my old one.  I found myself looking around the mountain demanding answers to my many questions.  Why are so many awful skiers on black diamond trails?  Why do snowboarders sit in the middle of trails in a line?  Why is there no burger worthy of my Bag Burger palate?  Why can’t these skiers pick a line and stick with it?

In those first couple of seasons, I’d have conversations that went like this:

Me: I have to ski at Sunday River this weekend.

Them: That’s the worst.

Me: I know.  Isn’t life unfair?

Them: Yup.

You must be wondering what changed?  How did I go from badmouthing Sunday River to openly professing my love?  Well, I imagine, like two people who have an arranged marriage, after the initial shock and resentment at the forced coupling settles, you stop looking for who you want the person to be and start seeing her for who she is.  And like people, all mountains are beautiful in their own way.  When I stopped demanding that Sunday River be Sugarloaf, I started to fall for the mountain.

When the Loafy fog cleared from my goggles, what I saw was a resort with challenging terrain, plenty of opportunity to ditch the novice crowds, and ample parking.  All it took was skiing with someone who knew and appreciated the mountain, and I saw what was there the entire time I was dreaming of a life at the Loaf.

How to fall in love with Sunday River:

1. Park at Whitecap Lodge.  There are extensive opportunities to slide your vehicle into a spot within a couple minute walk to the lift.  When the other lodges are packed, this place is not. Also, the Shipyard Brewhaus is waiting for you at the end of the day.

2. Ski the sides of the mountain.  White Heat?  Yes, please.  Oz?  You betcha.  Jordan Bowl?  I’m already making turns down Blind Ambition.

3. Ski the middle during lunch and at the end of the day.  The people who come from out of state are dying for the resort experience, which means they clear off the trails to buy lunch and quite early.  While they’re dumping money into Maine’s economy, make hard turns on Right Stuff and Upper Sunday Punch.

4.  Hit up Suds Pub in Bethel for an apres ski beverage.  The place is brimming with good, local beer.

5.  Get over the fact that you’re not at Sugarloaf.

If I sound zealous, like a man in love, you’ll have to excuse me.  I’m still wearing my ski pants, having spent the snowy day digging my edges into snow in Newry.

All zeal aside, maybe my love of Sunday River is a greater lesson in life: It’s a damn shame to love what you can’t have, all the while neglecting the great love within reach.

Submission to NPR’s Three Minute Fiction: Oxford Blue In Green

Jerry, buddy, the sun’s just come up.  It’s six in the morning here, so it’s midnight in New England.  I’m glad I didn’t wake you, but I did hope to talk.  I haven’t been to bed yet, buddy.  It’s brilliant here.  That’s what they say about everything—brilliant.

It’s come to me though.  All of it.

I thought it might come to me in my tutorials, but I stopped going last week.  They’ll probably toss me by Thanksgiving, but Oxford isn’t for me anyway.  I don’t belong here with the prep school dandies who size up your accent and call you a war-loving American.  It’s not worth arguing.  They wear their jackets and ties, and not the cool ones you and I wear on stage to look like Coltrane.  No, it’s strictly garish.

I met a girl from France.  She barely speaks English.  She spends her days in a lab and dances all night in the clubs.  Jerry, she’s opened me up at the chest.  She takes me to the Thames and tells me that if we jump in we can float to the ocean.  Tonight we finally jumped in, wearing all our clothes.  I had played at a club in Jericho—a hip room with an awful indie scene, but tonight was transcendent.  I was wearing my black suit, the one I bought at the Salvation Army in Portland.  She was in the crowd listening to my bass notes coming through the house speakers.  Her hips told me what notes to play.  After I packed away my upright, she led me to the Thames and said, Let’s float through London to the ocean and swim for your shores.  I was loose enough from whiskey that I grabbed her hand, and we fell in.  Buddy, it was cold, but I couldn’t feel it.  I laughed so hard I thought I’d break a rib.  I was far from the trailer parks of home.  I might as well have been on Neptune.

We climbed out and ran through the streets—her clutching her chest, me heaving my upright.  In her apartment we stripped down and showered.  Our feet were blue from cold.  You can imagine the rest.  But that’s not it.  That’s not how I figured it all out.

Blue-In-GreenKind of Blue was playing on her speakers.  She fell asleep around five, but I was awake.   Listen, when “Blue in Green” came on, it hit me.  I put my suit on—I didn’t care that it was wet, that’s how things are with me these days.  I left her place without my bass.  I didn’t even shiver on my way to the Museum of Natural History—that’s how alive I feel.  The entire way I hummed that slow Miles line.  People must have thought something of me the way I was dripping and humming.  But I’m not even drunk anymore.

I got to the steps of the museum right before I called.  I’m waiting to get inside.  It opens in an hour.  I could go back to my room and change, but I feel good, so I thought I’d call you.  Inside here are dinosaur skeletons and a dodo bird.  I just need to get inside.  I can’t explain it.  I need to stand next to each vertebrae of their t-rex and match it with “Blue in Green” and the way the French girl’s hips rise and fall with my bass notes.  I’m electric.  It’s all coming together.  Call me when the sun’s up in New England.  Listen to Miles today.  For me, buddy.  For all of us.

Drinking Beer Can Save Your Community

We live in a world that is becoming increasingly less diverse.  Languages are dying by the minute as indigenous peoples become modernized.  Dialects are getting watered down by the influx of media.  Local color in every nook and cranny of the world is under assault from the far reach of corporate brand-washing.

A beautiful reaction to this assault on regional culture has been the local economy movements of farmer’s markets, art communities, and independently owned businesses.

But by far, the most celebratory movement to preserve the identity of local regions is the craft beer movement, and it’s a full swing revolution at this point.

In Mainebeer me, for example, we live in a land of craft beer abundance.  Every time I pull up a stool at a Portland watering hole, my eyes fall on a new tap or a 22 ounce bottle.  And here’s the best part: it’s all amazing beer.  Have you had a Maine Brewing Company Peeper?  Their mouthful-of-hops Lunch?  How about a Rising Tide Zephyr?  Baxter Brewing Phantom Punch Winter Stout anyone?  Winter Session Ale from Peak Organic?  New Guy IPA from Atlantic Brewing Company?  Can I interest you in an Oyster Stout from Marshall Wharf Brewing Company?  Or maybe a Full Throttle Double IPA from Sebago Brewing Company?

I need to stop.  This list is making me really thirsty.  The best part about the list above?  There are so many beers I left out.  I heard the other day that over twenty new breweries are set to open this year in Maine.  Twenty.

SmuttyAnd that’s just Maine.  Drive over the New Hampshire border and you have a new list of beers all idiosyncratic to their region.  I’m biased to hopped up beers, so the Smuttynose Finestkind IPA is a must when I’m in the Granite State.  Head to Vermont and enjoy a Heady Topper from the Alchemist Brewery.  These beers both define and are defined by their region.  Not something Budweiser can boast.

From New England to the Pacific Northwest, the micro beer movement is a safeguard against corporate banality.  While the diversity of local culture is shrinking, it’s expanding on the libation front.

We are lucky to live in the golden age of beer.  Each day we should raise a glass to the Microbrew Renaissance of the twenty-first century.  The Great Beer Awakening is upon us.  The gas pedal is pressed to the floor.  The engine is humming.  Get strapped in, grab a pint, and enjoy the beer utopia in whatever region you live in.

Your community is depending on you to do your part.  And, damn is it a tasty role.

Cheers.

Submission to NPR’s Three Minute Fiction: Sad Eyes Hazel

New Message GIFCassie, I’m sorry for filling your voicemail, but I keep getting cut off.  I just can’t believe about Daniel.  Why is he doing this?  Doesn’t he remember about Sunday school?  Your husband was the teacher, for God’s sake!  But I’m sure you’ve been over this in your head and in your conversations with your new priest—you do have a new priest, right?  It’s so hard with you in Florida.  But the weather must be nice.  Me, I hate the heat, but Bud loves it.  He’s always—

____________________

Well, there it goes again, that lady’s voice cutting me off.  Listen, your son’s face is all over the papers up here.  You must know.  Somehow his mug shot found its way onto the front page of the Courier.  He is handsome, even in these pictures.  Then there’s the Herald with the picture of him from high school playing football.  I think it’s the picture they ran when he was a senior.  It’s color.  He’s diving for the ball.  His hazel eyes are wide open.  You can see it in his eyes—even then he was a sad boy.  His soul must ache.  I’ve recorded all the news pieces about him.  There’s one where he’s covering his face as they’re leading him into court.  Tall, that boy.  Last night alone there was a story about him on all the networks.  I’m wearing myself mad trying to keep up with the recording.  But I—

____________________

I’m so tired of hearing that lady ask me if I’m satisfied with my message.  I know what I’d call her if I wasn’t a member of St. Andrews Church.  I was talking about the videos and articles.  Daniel is everywhere.  I’ve got it all.  At prayer group, I asked if anyone had the Courier and Herald from last week—the ones I recycled before I realized Daniel’s story was being reported.  We knew he was troubled, but wow.  Agnes has copies so don’t worry.  We prayed for him.  The picture that first came out was Daniel leaning against the cruiser.  If it wasn’t your son, I’d say the whole story was almost exciting.  Daniel was good.  Father Ray always said he was one of the best alter-boys he’d seen.  He had a way with incense, I’ll say that.  I have all the—

­____________________

Sorry it’s been an hour since I last called—I wish you’d pick up.  Agnes came over with the other articles, and we talked about Daniel.  So many articles.  She agrees that he was good.  The hearing begins next week.  Will you and Peter be coming home to Maine?  Everyone at St. Andrews would love to see you.  We’ve all been so taken by Daniel’s story.  I’ve started a scrapbook of Daniel’s stories—it’s tasteful, I promise—and I want to send it to you when all this is done, along with the videos.  I’ll keep snipping articles and recording the news until the story’s over.  I thought you and Peter would want them for yourself.  Maybe you could show them to your new priest.  I’m looking at the football picture of Daniel right now.  You’ll want that one.  Those hazel eyes.  I do hope you’ve settled into your new life in Florida and that you’ll call me.  I have so much I want to say about Daniel.  Those sad eyes.  Hazel—

Album Review: The Beast in its Tracks, Josh Ritter

JR_TBIIT_Digipack_F

Let’s get something clear right off: Josh Ritter is the best singer/songwriter on the scene these days.  Best is a slippery term, but I stand behind my diction.  Argue as you probably should with such a bold statement, Ritter is the man who gave us “The Temptation of Adam” (Historical Conquests) and “The Curse” (So Runs the World) — two of the strangest, most vivid love songs I’ve heard in…well, ever.  And listening to the first three songs on Animal Years consecutively is life altering.  Go do it.  Seriously.  Good, now tell me you didn’t just experience sonic nirvana.  If I were president, my first order of business would be to invent, then appoint Josh Ritter to, the position of Songwriter Laureate.  There is no other songwriter I would want documenting the tragedies and triumphs of these United States.

Now that we’ve established my devotee status, you can imagine how giddy I was when I heard that Ritter’s seventh album was due out this month.  Giddy?  Yup.  Giddy.  When I discovered that The Beast in its Tracks was a breakup album, I was further intrigued.  Great writers, regardless of genre, use language to lucidly express life’s confusion.  Or, as W.H. Auden put it, “Poetry is the clear expression of mixed feelings.”  For Auden’s theory at work, just listen to Blood on the Tracks, Dylan’s breakup album.  (Not sure how I feel about the similar title Ritter chose for his breakup album.)

Big thanks to NPR’s First Listen for putting The Beast in its Tracks on their website in its entirety a week before it was available for purchase.  Upon my first headphone listen, I was struck by the naked production.  Ritter’s work with bandmate/producer Sam Kassirer over the past few albums made me expect something with the same layered sonic vein.  Though it still has the textures and subtleties of a Josh Ritter album, The Beast is something different.  Thick organ sounds and distorted guitars aren’t as present as past records.  Ritter puts his words at the forefront, often backed only by acoustic guitars.

I know what you’re thinking: So you’re saying he’s a dude singing about heartbreak with an acoustic guitar.  But listen, what I’m saying is that it’s Josh Ritter singing about heartbreak with an acoustic guitar.

Ritter Bates CollegeThe album has a couple arcs threaded through the thirteen songs.  The first track, “Third Arm,” clocks in at a mere fifty-six seconds.  (The song title suggests the post-divorce disorientation Ritter’s dealing with.)  The songs become longer as the album progresses, finally swelling to four and a half minutes by the fourth track.  Building the length of the songs as the album advances has a nice effect.  It kind of miffed me at first, but like side B of Abbey Road, I began to be moved by the song fragment opener.

Another arc is the evolution from lost love to new love.  If the lyrics are truly autobiographical, then it seems like Josh has a new lover.  How do I know this?  Because he tells us about it in the song “New Lover.”  This is a clever, misdirection song.  He begins by building up his old lover with lines like, “I feel like a miser, I feel low and mean / For accusing you of stealing what I offered you for free,” and “I don’t know who you’re with these days, might be someone new / and if you are I hope he treats you like a lover ought to do.”  The song makes a sharp turn at the chorus: “I’ve got a new lover now, I hope you have a lover, too.”  Boom.  Take that, ex-wife.

Moments like this litter the album, keeping it from simply being a him-against-her breakup album.  There’s a moving on in these songs that’s refreshing.  It keeps the album from feeling too heavy-hearted — though I figured the joy-filled songwriter couldn’t stay mopey too long anyway.

After many listens, “Hopeful” is the song that sticks out as the gem.  God, the lyrics are so raw.  He’s a man bearing it all.  The song is honest to the point of being almost uncomfortable.  We see the breakup laid bare.  Case in point: “She kept telling me about the good things I deserved / That I wanted somebody I’d mistaken for her / But one look in my eyes and she’d know she was wrong / So she wouldn’t look back at me until she was gone.”  Painfully vulnerable.  The song’s production, instrumentation, and arrangement are fresh as well.  In contrast to the first three songs, there’s more than acoustic guitars here.  Overall, the song’s a winner.

Josh at Bates CollegeA Josh Ritter zealot though I may be, I don’t believe that the man can do no wrong.  In his catalog there are some clunkers, and this album has some sloppy lines.  In “New Lover,” Ritter sings, “There are things I cannot sing for the fear of sour notes.”  Personally, I think he could have put that philosophy to work in some of these songs, because the album does contain some sour notes lyrically.  But fuck it, remember the poems you wrote when your heart was broken?  I’m sure, like the ones I’ve written, they were not models of Auden’s “clear expression of mixed feelings.”  I’ll let you find the sour notes and judge for yourself.

This album marks a new landscape for both Josh Ritter the writer and Josh Ritter the man, and both will have to pick up the pieces and live in the wake of divorce.  The Beast in its Tracks is a strong effort from a man trying to make sense of the confusion of human relationships and, like the majority of his work, it’s worth your listen.

Is the Clash of the Titans Good for the Portland Music Scene?

Clash Empty Stage 2

This is a question I’ve been asking myself and fellow musicians for years.  I’ve heard emphatic yes’s from musicians who claim it gives their talents an enthusiastic crowd they might not otherwise have access to.  I’ve also witnessed colossal rants from song-writers who demand that the tyranny of the Clash be ended because it waters down the musical palate of the every day Portland music venue attendee.  And in contrast to the zealous responses, members of the Portland music scene have also shrugged their shoulders and said, Maybe it’s a little bit good for the scene, or Maybe it’s a little bad for us.

Where do I stand?  After playing in two Clashes and attending my dozenth or so Clash last Wednesday (Arcade Fire v. Vampire Weekend), I’d say it’s just a little on the bad side of the good/bad spectrum.

clash soundboardFrom a musical standpoint, Clashes can be hit or miss.  When a Clash is on, it’s transcendent.  Take the Temptations v. The Supremes encore Clash performance I attended a few years back.  The rhythm section sounded straight out of the Motown Snake Pit.  The vocals were Detroit clean.  Men dressed in suits and women in mid-century modern dresses.  The horn section sounded tight.  Obviously the entire band had put in countless hours to get every hit, melody, and harmony right.  I shared wide-eyed looks with strangers.  Looks that said, Can you believe this is happening in our town?  I left feeling that I’d had the chance to step into a time warp and listen to the music as it once was (though the members on stage were a bit pale-skinned for Motown).

When it’s on, it’s tribute music like no other.

But it’s not always on.

When it’s off the music is sloppy and under-rehearsed.  The costumes fall short of class and enter into kitsch.  I saw a Jackson 5 performance that was embarrassing to watch.  The rhythm section sounded like the one played in your drunken neighbor’s garage.  The afros were tacky and borderline racially insensitive.  This so juxtaposed the class of the Temptations/Supremes performance, that I, like many others that night, got drunk and freely booed.  On top of all this, there was a ten to fifteen minute gap between songs so by the end of the night the audience had only heard twelve songs. Overall, I felt we’d all been scammed.  Bamboozled.  Hoodwinked.  Were the musicians on stage bad musicians?  Hell no.  Were they under-prepared to present this music to paying fans?  Hell yes.

Maybe that’s the biggest flaw of the Clash series as it exists today.  The product is rarely transcendent.  I wasn’t around for the early years of the Clash when it resided at the Big Easy, so maybe once upon a time there was some real quality control.  Before they exhausted the big guns to cover and had to begin to either thin out the lineups or recycle old ones.  Now it appears to be running on auto-pilot, with Spencer Albee or whoever’s running it for the night popping in at the beginning to make sure the musicians at least showed up, then leaving for much of the performance, only to come back at the end of the night to thank everyone for coming and count the money.

Clash 5With all this being said, I will give a big compliment to the musicians covering Arcade Fire last Wednesday (2.20.13).  They knew the songs.  They played the subtle moments from the album making their performance crackle and hum.  They believed in the magic of Arcade Fire’s music, and as a result the audience believed.

They were young, and perhaps that’s what the Clash has to offer Portland other than a steady droll of cover music cascading into the boozy fan’s ear: it gives young musicians out of the top-notch USM music program a big stage and a large audience to live their dream for a night.

Mine is not a jingoistic, fist-raised Viva la Clash! nor a bombastic call to bring down the  cover series.  It’s an I’ll-go-when-I-really-really-love-the-music-or-the-musicians shrug.

Which makes me think: Shouldn’t we expect more in a city full of such great talent?