Tag Archives: music

Surly Destination Brewery

Well, lucky me, I had the chance to take part in Surly’s soft opening today for lunch. So, my two little munchkins and I braved the 50° weather and journeyed all the way over the river.

I should say right off the bat that I am fully aware that this was a soft opening, and that problems are to be expected. In fact, one of the main purposes of a soft opening is to help unearth these problems before opening to the public.

The building and location definitely fit the Surly image and style. It’s tucked back into a small industrial area, just like the original brewery. Although it’s a brand-new multi-jillion dollar facility, it’s not flashy, and it sits well with the surrounding warehouses and loading docks.

The parking lot was pretty decent, but I think it will be full most of the time. There is a HUGE line of bike racks out front, and it’s just a block or two from the light rail, so hopefully that’ll cut down on car traffic. The parking lot is not yet painted, so cars were a little jumbled. I’m guessing that may not change until spring.

There’s a nice, big patio out front with a huge fire pit. I don’t know if they’ll be able to serve beer out there, but it will be great if they can. (I could totally see a small cigar bar out there, too.)

Inside, the space is nice and understated. Everything is black, grey, and metal with wooden tables. Lighting levels are nice; not too bright, not too dim. One wall is all glass and faces the brewery.

The hostesses were very friendly. Clearly, they were still working out a system for seating and tracking open seats, but they made it their problem, not ours. Each kid got a nice lunch box full of games and crayons to take to the table.

The main dining room is set up beer hall style: lots of long tables and benches. There were a couple of round tables for larger groups, and plenty of spots to split (or join) the long tables as needed. Squeezing a high chair in was tricky, as the benches prevented putting one on the side of the table, and it was really tight to put it in between tables.

OK, the important part: beer. Surly is promising more than a dozen beers for the official opening on Friday, but today there were only 8 (if I recall correctly: Furious, Bender, Coffee Bender, Cacao Bender, Hell, Cynic, Overrated, and Doomtree.) Glassware was nice and clean, and the beer was good. I would hope they get a little more experimental with the offerings, and have at least one beer engine going most of the time. Again, this was a soft opening, so I wasn’t expecting them to pull out the big guns or anything.

The menu is ambitious. Charcuterie, apps, a couple salads, a few meals, a few sandwiches, some sausages, and some sides. Pretty much everything was rich and heavy. If you like your food smoked, stuffed with fat, and swimming in a sauce or three, you’ll probably dig the menu. If you are vegetarian or have any dietary restrictions, your options will be limited. If you are vegan, you can probably stay home. The menus were disposable, so I assume they will change periodically.

The kids menu was less than ideal. The basic concept was great: pick one drink, one main course, one side, and one dessert. The main courses were good: cheeseburger, pizza, mac & cheese, and I forget what else. Since my kids are vegetarians, it came down to cheese pizza or mac & cheese. The sides were not so great: roasted potatoes, roasted cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, and a few others. Fries, applesauce, fruit cup, carrot sticks, something like that would be a welcome addition. [Side note, fries came with a couple of the sandwiches, but weren’t available on their own on the regular menu or the kids’ menu.]

So, I got the Surly burger and a side of Brussels sprouts, my daughter got mac & cheese with roasted potatoes, and my son got a cheese pizza with cauliflower. (Surly is apparently another word for cheese, because a Surly burger is a burger with cheese on it.)

While we waited for food, we checked out the restroom facilities. In addition to a men’s and women’s room, there were two family/wheelchair rooms, which is awesome. The one we went in was spacious with a changing table, which is awesome. I assume the other was the same. The sink was a little high for children, but not bad. I didn’t get the chance to check out the men’s room.

Our food was being delivered right as we left for the restroom, so we had our food waiting when we returned.

Our table filled up fast. We had two lunch boxes full of toys, three waters, a beer, two juices, and our sippy cups from home before the food came. The pizza came on a large tray with a basket for cauliflower. The mac & cheese was in a small casserole served on a big plate to hold the potatoes.  My burger and fries also came on a tray, and the Brussels sprouts were in a mini cast-iron skillet on a hot pad. And a big wheel o’ condiments. Even with the toys packed up for eating, there was NO extra space on the table. A few adults ordering a decent variety of foods would have trouble getting everything on the table.

Oh, here’s something awesome: cloth napkins. I know, there are plenty of restaurants that use cloth napkins; it’s not like Surly invented them. I’m just saying I REALLY like that at a restaurant.

The food was pretty good. My kids both ate more than they have in a long time. My daughter wasn’t thrilled with the roasted potatoes, so I traded her for my fries. (I pretty much knew that was coming.) The potatoes were way underdone; hard and starchy. The cauliflower was good, but not terribly kid-friendly, being topped, sauced, and drizzled, but they each ate a little. The mac & cheese was gone, and a good chunk of the pizza went, too. My burger was fairly basic, but good, with a nice meat-to-bun ratio. The Brussels sprouts were really good: sweet, salty, and nicely browned.

The condiment wheel was nothing to get excited about: ketchup, mustard, two BBQ sauces (one sugary midwestern, one sugary midwestern with smoke), and a hot sauce. I would have expected something a little more special: house-made relish, brown mustard, some super-flaming-death Surly hot sauce, etc.

Then dessert. The kids each got a little ice cream sundae with their meals: Izzy’s vanilla ice cream with some fruity sauce and a dollop of whipped cream on top. I got an 8-layer cake that was pretty amazing.

The service was awful. I’m chalking this up to it being a soft opening, but they’re going to need to do a lot better with the volume I’m assuming they’ll have to handle. If there hadn’t been a platoon of bussers on hand to help our server, I don’t know that we would have even gotten our food. We were there for two hours, and I barely saw him. I would have liked a Coffee Bender with my cake, but I didn’t get the chance to order one. I don’t think he was even aware they had a kids’ menu before we ordered.

About halfway through our lunch, the background music came on. Of the $30 million spent on the brewery, I don’t think much was put into the acoustics. This is a personal pet peeve of mine, and it seems especially bad in all the taprooms and breweries going for an industrial look. A big open room with lots of hard surfaces is going to be noisy. Add a bunch of people drinking, and it’s going to get loud. Background music just makes everything louder. No one can hear the music, no one is enjoying the music, all it does is make everyone talk louder. There are professionals who can help you treat your space for acoustics. Anyone opening a new restaurant or bar should include that in their budget. Fortunately, these professionals can still help after the fact.

Prices were OK, but it can add up on you. A burger, a side, a dessert, two kids’ meals, and 1 1/2 beers came to $60. Dinner and drinks for adults could easily top $50/head, which is outside my comfort zone for casual dining. The kids’ meals were definitely the best deal on the menu. I would totally order one for myself next time if they let me.

So, overall, it was about what I expected. Personally, I’d like to see a couple of lighter options on the menu. I’m not talking Weight Watchers, but maybe a little less duck fat and pork. I had assumed the menu would be meat-heavy and painfully hip, and it was. (It’s not sauce, it’s jus. Or coulis. Or emulsion. Never sauce.) Prices were a touch higher than I’d hoped  for food, but not bad for beer ($5 pints/ $3 half-pints). The service was disappointing, considering  they probably had no shortage of applicants to choose from, but that’s fixable. Also, I’ll be curious to see how they’re staffed under normal circumstances. (They were staffed out the wazoo today, and I assume they will be for the first couple of weeks while they figure out how to handle volume.) This whole write-up may sound pretty critical, but none of the problems I saw today were outside the realm of “normal” for a soft opening, and all are fixable.

I’m glad we went today, because quite frankly, the place will probably be way too busy for me to bother with for a while.

A Year of Hell, Part II: A Break, Some Condensed Hell, and a Party

 

After 36 hours of torturing our children with comfortable seats, blankets, games, and snacks, we arrived in South Carolina. Patrick had slept a little here and there, but Colleen had been up almost continuously for three days. She was tired, too tired to sleep, and not happy about it. (Let me tell you, hearing your daughter beg so hard for sleep she can’t even catch her breath is not something I’d wish on anyone.) As soon as she was released from her chains of captivity (and saw Grandma and Grandpa) she lit up like a Christmas tree. She even managed to run around and play for a little while at 2:00 in the morning.

Finally, both kids were asleep, and my wife and I crawled into bed. We were both too wired up to sleep much, but at that point, even a few hours was welcome. Besides, we now had a whole extra day with nothing planned, which is a rare enough treat, plus we had a house full of willing babysitters to help with the kids. Throw in a pool and a cooler full of beer, and things were looking up.

Not to miss an opportunity to keep things interesting, Patrick chose that day to decide that only Kim or I could hold him. If anyone else even thought about it, he’d start screaming. No big deal; he was probably just adjusting to his new surroundings. He’ll be fine in a day or two.

My sister had already been there for a week at this point, so she’d had a chance to visit the party venue and give some thought to adjusting decorations and whatnot to fit the new room. It wasn’t ideal, but we could make it work. Our contact at the venue was still being vague about a few details, but we were doing our best to just work around that. It would be OK.

We spent the day mostly relaxing and talking and eating, as we generally do whenever my family gets together. I made plans to run some errands for the party the next day, including a visit to the venue so I could see it for myself. Again, things were looking up.

The next day went more or less as planned. I ran my errands and I visited the venue, where I learned that our contact would not be there the day of the party. That meant we could safely ignore all of her stern finger-wagging and work with the much more reasonable guy who would be there. We only had two hours to set everything up, but we had gone over the plans so many times, we could do that.

The following day was the party. The schedule was pretty tight, but we had it all arranged. We had a few extra hands who volunteered to help. We could do this. We arrived at the venue a little early, unloaded everything, and got to work. Then we got a surprise.

When I spoke with the venue coordinator, she told me the tables were 3′ wide. So, I bought 3′ rolls of paper to cover the tables. The tables were actually 30″ wide. A small difference, but it meant that we had to fold down the edges on every table. The tape we brought wasn’t strong enough to hold the folded edges in place. Half of our setup team spent the entire two hours trying to get the paper onto the tables. Even so, by the time we were leaving, we could see most of it popping up. We bribed our guy to show up early for the party so we could get back in and finish the job.

So, a smaller team skipped Mass with my parents to go back to the venue and retape the tables. Now, in all fairness, I was probably more concerned with this than I needed to be, but at this point, a year of planning was getting wrenched over 6″ of paper. It was a stupid little detail that didn’t really matter, but it really affected the overall look of the room and some of the decorations couldn’t stand up on the tables. (Plus, I overheard a few snarky comments on MY poor choices in the paper and tape department. After a year of planning and some bad information, those didn’t sit well with me.)

We had about an hour to finish before the party started. It would be tight, but we were on track to make it. Until the guests started showing up about 35 minutes early. When you only have an hour, 35 minutes is a lot. Within another 10 minutes, we had a crowd. I was literally running back and forth, trying to answer questions, chat with folks I hadn’t seen in years, set out the appetizers, start the music, stash all the garbage and boxes, and generally finish setting up for a party in half the time I had hoped.

The party was halfway over before I could catch my breath and stop sweating. The rest of the ‘core’ setup team was in the same boat.

All in all, the party was great. There were a handful of details I would have changed if I could have, but I couldn’t. Most of the people there didn’t even notice. The kids were on their best behavior all night. Most importantly, my parents had a great time, celebrating 50 years of marriage with almost all of their family and closest friends.

I dragged myself into bed that night, feeling a special combination of physically exhausted, mentally drained, but emotionally satisfied.

Up next, Part III, which will probably be pretty anticlimactic after all of this. On the other hand, work starts on the roof tomorrow, so who knows what that will bring?

A Year of Hell, Part I

[Editor’s note: Please forgive the confusing verb tenses in this blog post, as it was written over the course of almost two months. What was the future is now the past, except for what is yet to come.]

The years of our lives don’t always follow the calendar. The crap pile of a year I’m calling 2013 actually began for me in September of 2012. That’s when I left a job that I loved and held loads of promise to get even better. It was an incredibly difficult process for me, trying to balance my dreams and desires against my ethics and standards, but in the end, I had to let it go. In hindsight, it was the right choice, but that hasn’t prevented it from haunting me.

This was also about the time we became a one-car family. The beater we bought to get us through became too expensive to maintain, so we had to let it go. I discovered later as I was going through the paperwork that it had actually been rolled and totalled before we got it.

I had big ambitions as 2012 drew to a close. There were a number of large projects around the house that I was finishing: new windows throughout, painting the exterior, lots of wiring, and I had even hoped to start on the plumbing. As winter settled on Minnesota, I had to concede that not all of it was getting done, but I still felt OK about what I had accomplished. I started to get a little more comfortable as a stay-at-home father of two, even if it was exhausting. My daughter started using the potty pretty regularly, and it seemed like maybe we’d be down to one kid in diapers soon.

Somewhere shortly after the new year, things began to fall apart. Even as my son started to sleep through the night a little better, my daughter stopped. I think it was a delayed reaction to bringing home a new baby, but she started to get very needy, demanding more and more attention. She stopped using the potty, almost with a vengeance. She took hours, literally, to go to bed each night. My wife and I would spend every night from around 6:00 until 11:00 or so trying to calm her enough for sleep.

She and I were getting a little stressed at this point. Our free time was from about 11:00 PM until 5:00 AM each day. That’s when we would eat dinner, wash the dishes, and try to get some sleep. She was still getting up with the little guy once or twice at night.

Fortunately, I was keeping reasonably busy with my DJ work through the winter. It’s usually pretty slow during the colder months, but I managed to do alright. It also gave me time to get the groceries each week, since Cub is open 24 hours.

I had gotten really aggressive with my diet, giving up caffeine, most dairy, most animal products in general. After two years of serious dieting and exercise, I was down to the last 15 pounds I needed to lose to hit my target. Then the lack of sleep started to take its toll.

First, I stopped getting much exercise. Colder weather and icy sidewalks made it hard to get out, two kids not sleeping made it hard to do anything inside. Plus, let’s face it: it’s hard to get motivated when one can barely stand.

Then I started having a little more caffeine. And a little more. And a little more. Then it was time to admit that I was drinking coffee daily. Then I’d have a little more when I was working late.

Then my diet started to fall apart. Healthy, natural food fell to the side in favor of food that was ready now.

Then the pounds started to come back. I fought and fought, but I just couldn’t keep the weight off anymore. My doctors kept telling me to get more exercise, and somehow they couldn’t understand that I didn’t have it in me to work out when I was sleeping three to five hours a night.

My wife was in the same boat. She had the added bonus of having given birth six months earlier, which as you may know, can cause a woman to gain a pound or two. She actually enjoys exercise, and had been itching to get out and run, but she was sleeping even less than I.

We were both getting cranky. We barely spoke, not out of anger, but as a practical matter. When two people are only awake in the same room for an hour a day, there’s only so much conversation to be had. We both felt bloated and sluggish, but couldn’t find any way out of the cycle. Every day was the same: crawl out of bed, feed the kids, wash the dishes, do the laundry, repeat, collapse. My meals generally consisted of whatever my daughter left on her plate and whatever I could microwave at 2:00 AM.

I started dragging myself to a yoga class each Saturday morning, and that helped a lot. The exercise was great, but it was also the one hour a week I had of serenity and adult interaction.

When spring came to Minnesota, it brought its usual renewed sense of hope. This time was going to be different. I was going to start making decent money as work got busier. We had a number of major projects lined up for the house, but they were solidly planned and prioritized. It would be a busy summer, but it was achievable.

Every Saturday I was either working a wedding, working on the house, or both. I was still exhausted, but I was DOING SOMETHING, and that felt good. I got most of the trim done on the windows. I built six new garden beds (plus a little one just for my daughter!) I hadn’t started on the plumbing yet, as we were still running the boiler almost every night, but that could wait. We had the whole summer ahead of us.

We had two big events planned, too. In July, there would be a family reunion in Wisconsin. In September, we were throwing a big party in South Carolina for my parents’ 50th anniversary. Over the last couple years, I’ve been gathering some information on the family to try to get a decent family tree together, and the reunion would be a great opportunity for that. The party in South Carolina would just be fun. Both would give me chance to meet some new people and get reacquainted with others.

Work was pretty solid. In fact, August was lined up to be very busy, and I was likely to make more money that month than I had since my daughter was born.

Yes, this summer was looking good. Until it wasn’t.

In April, my brother-in-law suffered a terrible accident while on vacation. The first report we got was three broken vertebrae in his neck and he’d likely need surgery. As the weeks went past and he saw more and more doctors, the news did get better, but it was still going to be months of treatment and therapy.

In June, there was a big storm and a tree fell on our house. Thankfully, no one was hurt, but the roof didn’t fare so well. The contractor (who was selected by State Farm because they were more or less preapproved for whatever repairs they felt were necessary) told us we’d be getting a whole new roof, no problem. The insurance adjuster, however, thought it would make more sense to try to get a variance from code to do a crappy little patch job. In the mean time, the roof continued to sag, causing more damage to ceilings and walls.

In July, I started to get a little sore. I still wasn’t sleeping or exercising, and I had put on some weight, so I wasn’t too surprised. It got worse. There was some swelling. Eventually, it dawned on me that I had been through this before: it was another hernia!

I ended up in urgent care to get a diagnosis. I had to cancel on a wedding that night; I ended up in the emergency room instead. The hernia was definitely expanding and getting more painful. The ER doc didn’t believe me or the UC doc. He found an infection, and decided that was impossible for me to have more than one medical problem at a time. So, after blood tests, urine tests, an extremely uncomfortable ultrasound, and a CT scan over the course of eight hours, he gave me a pill and sent me home.

So, I had to schedule another appointment to get the hernia rediagnosed. Much like the UC doc, this doctor found the hernia in seconds. We scheduled the surgery and discussed recovery times, follow-up procedures, etc.

All this was just in time for me to clear my schedule for August. Remember August? My busiest month, in which I would make really good money again for once? Yeah, cleared it.

Still, we had the family reunion in between the diagnosis and the surgery, so that would be fun. Sure, I’d rather be feeling 100% for that, but it was Wisconsin, so I knew there’d be beer.

Well, the kids were still having a pretty rough time. There hadn’t been a lot of sleeping, and now my son had stopped eating. Instead, he chose to subsist entirely on milk again, which led to some pretty serious constipation. Yeah, all day away from home with a plugged-up one-year-old. That’ll be relaxing.

My wife and I ended up spending most of the reunion taking one of the kids for a diaper change or outside so their crying wouldn’t disturb anyone. I hardly managed to speak to anyone there. Still, there were some good times mixed in there, and I was glad we went. We visited the old family farm, which my daughter loved. I got to meet a few new family members and learn a little about my ancestors.

By the time we got home, we were wiped out. I was actually looking forward to surgery, when I’d be forced to relax for a couple days.

Yeah, no luck. Within 24 hours of getting sliced, things were going badly enough with the kids that I had to get back to laundry and dishes.

A couple days later was National Night Out, and I was heading up our block party. I couldn’t really lift anything yet, but it still went well. We had a pretty good turnout, lots of food, and more folks were just starting to drift in when the rain started. So, we quickly tore everything down and scampered back home.

The next couple of weeks were a bit of a blur, as I tried to do as little as possible while still caring for the kids and maintaining a household. The anniversary party was looming, but we had a pretty solid plan for that. I was on the phone almost every day arguing with someone at State Farm about code violations and roofing repairs.

Then the party plans started to fall apart. In some ways, it was a good thing: we had gotten so many “yes” responses, that we had to change venues. No big deal, there was another room in the same building we could use. We were going from 65 people in a room that holds 75 to 120 in a room that holds 350, which would involve some creative space-filling. Our main contact at the venue was kind of a dingbat, and in the end, we just decided we’d have to show up and make the best of it.

Finally, the time came to load up the car and head to South Carolina. Right before we left, we got a phone call from State Farm that they would rewrite the estimate to cover ALL of the damage to the house: new roof, structural repairs up to code, ceilings, walls… everything. The party plans were as solid as they were going to get. We had ECFE class in the morning with the kids, so hopefully they would be tired when we started driving. My daughter hadn’t slept at all the night before, so she was due for some serious sleeping. I thought this was my turning point. After almost exactly one year of lousy timing and bad circumstances, things were looking good.

Nope. My wife didn’t get to start her packing until after midnight the night before we left. Instead of having everything ready to go and getting some sleep, we ran and ran and ran all night. And the next morning. Then that afternoon after class. Finally, two hours late and soaked in sweat, with everything but the kitchen sink crammed into the car, we left.

Then the screaming started. First one kid, then the other. Then both. Then they’d get quiet just long enough to make us think it was over. It wasn’t over. It wasn’t ever over. We stopped for diapers, we stopped for snacks. We stopped to try to soothe them. For every two hours on the road, we spent an hour stopped.

We had planned to do the 1300-mile journey in two and a half days. Things were going badly enough that I decided to just keep moving. Like tearing off a Band-Aid, it seemed best to do this quickly and be done with it. We made it 12 hours the first day, and it took 18 the next day to finish the trip. I’m pretty sure those were two of the worst days of my life; I could probably write a book about them, but I won’t. In short: our first stop was for coffee and sandwiches, our second stop was cleaning three gallons of vomit off the car seat, our third stop was for Febreze. The first 100 miles took over three hours. I drank some coffee, I fantasized about starting a new life as a troll under that next overpass, I drank some coffee, we listened to “Family Time” by Ziggy Marley 736 times (the song, not the whole album), I drank some coffee, we were chased by a psychotic truck driver, and I didn’t need any coffee to stay awake for a while after that. We missed getting creamed by a drunk driver by a matter of inches, we had a few not-so-proud parenting moments, and by the time we arrived, my daughter had slept maybe four or five hours over the course of three days. On the plus side, we now had a whole extra day at Grandma and Grandpa’s house.

Quacking Toilet, Hidden Moose

Originally, I was a little annoyed that I couldn’t post updates from the band trip to Grand Marais this weekend (no cell reception up there). Now I think it’s a good thing… I’m always looking for topics to write about, and I achieved a higher level of relaxation not being connected for a couple days.

Friday morning, after another lovely evening of insomnia, my wife and I got up around 6:30 and began preparing for the drive. Somehow, we managed to stretch that into three hours of coffee, packing, thermostat adjusting and who knows what else. Finally, the truck was full, but our stomachs were empty. We decided that every good trip begins with a solid, healthy breakfast and headed over to Baker’s Wife for doughnuts and an American Teacake.

For those of you not in the know, an American Teacake from Baker’s Wife may be the single greatest baked good ever created. It’s difficult to describe, but it’s large, sweet, crispy, chewy, gooey and about 16 other textures all in one bundle of dough. If you go in the morning, you can almost always get one that’s still warm, because none of them last more than a few minutes. They’re excellent for reducing stress.

Freshly packed with nutrients, we headed north. I had kept a close eye on the weather leading up to the trip, but it looked good. We ended up with clear skies and dry roads the whole trip, making excellent time. We managed to miss the worst of rush hour, and never hit any traffic. This is excellent for reducing stress.

As we neared Duluth, I remembered I had intended to bring an empty growler so we could stop at Fitger’s for a refill. But, my wife really wanted another Nalgene Growler anyway, so we decided to stop and get one. I ended up with a growler of Castle Danger IPA (awesome) and she got some root beer (also awesome). Growlers from Fitger’s are excellent for reducing stress.

North of Duluth, the drive starts getting much more appealing. Highway 61 replaces Interstate 35, frequently offering a view onto Superior. While not always ideal while driving, looking out over Lake Superior is excellent for reducing stress. (Especially when accompanied by snow-blanketed evergreens.)

We got into Grand Marais, passing the studios for WTIP, where we were heading for an interview later in the afternoon. OK, great, we know where that is, no problem. We began following the GPS to the lodge, since we had plenty of time. Unfortunately, Garmin’s idea of Highway 12 doesn’t quite match reality, so we turned back towards town to get directions. We stopped at a gas station/hardware store.

I asked the woman behind the counter if she knew where the Hungry Jack Lodge was. She, a couple other employees, and a nearby customer all chimed in, offering to help. Small town friendliness is excellent for reducing stress.

We headed off towards the lodge, a fairly easy 45-minute drive up the Gunflint Trail. We still had clear skies and mostly dry roads, which was wonderful. The farther we got up the Trail, the more remote it got. Buildings got farther apart and trees got closer together.

I had one main goal for this weekend: seeing a moose. It might sound silly, but I’ve never seen a moose in the wild, and I really want to. Up until a few years ago, I had never seen a bald eagle in the wild either, and the first time was awesome. Now the eagle population is coming back strong, and they’re pretty common… heck, we saw a half dozen on this drive. Still, you don’t see a lot of moose in the Cities, and it’s one of those little things I want to do before I die. (Seeing a penguin in the wild is also on the list, but that’ll be a whole separate trip.)

Anyway, the drive back to the lodge looked like a prime moose-viewing opportunity, so I was hopeful. No moose on the way in, but if this is where we’d be the next couple days, my odds had to be pretty good.

We got to the lodge, checked in with the owners (Forest and Erica), saw where we’d be playing and where we’d be sleeping. We were able to unload most of the gear before heading back into town for the radio interview. Everyone was extremely friendly and excited to have us there. We even got some help carrying equipment down the stairs. We had to fight the urge to linger too long because it was so beautiful there, but we had just barely enough time to get back to WTIP. Friendly people who are happy to see you and giving you a place to stay in a northern Minnesota paradise are excellent for reducing stress.

Looking Out My Back Door
The view out the door of the cabin.

Another uneventful drive down the Gunflint Trail and we were at the WTIP studio just a few minutes behind schedule. Jimmy & Chris were already there (along with Chrissy and Stacy) and ready to go. Again, everyone at the station was friendly, easy to work with and happy to have us there. We ended up getting about 30 minutes on air, chatting with the hosts and playing 4 songs live. Things went well, and we headed back to the lodge. My wife and I grabbed some groceries while the others went straight to the lodge.

By this point, the sun had set, and it was dark. Really dark. You don’t get this kind of dark in the cities. We were glad we’d already made the drive once in daylight, so we knew what to expect. Still, conditions were great, so it wasn’t a big deal. We got to the lodge, and there was no sign of the others. Hmmm… that’s not good. They had at least a 20-minute head start on us. Well, nothing we can do, as there is no cell phone reception out here.

Things turned out fine, as we didn’t even get the last of the gear unloaded before the rest of the gang made it. Just a missed turn and a detour damn near to Canada. I took the opportunity to grab a pint of Honker’s Ale and start the vacation portion of the trip. We got everything in, set up the stage, ordered some dinner, and just generally prepared to have a great night.

The first night went well. Forest and Erica had gotten posters printed and hung them all over the county, so the word was out. We had a crowd of drunken snowmobilers on hand before we even started, and it just grew from there. We played about 3 hours and called it a night, knowing full well we were doing the whole thing over again the next night.

Eddie Mac with Forest & Erica
Eddie Mac with Forest & Erica, owners of the Hungry Jack Lodge.

Our cabin was maybe 100 yards from the lodge, and it was still probably 30 degrees out, so after a couple more beers, we had a slow, easy stroll to bed. Crawling into bed in a toasty warm cabin in the middle of nowhere after a few pints of Honker’s Ale and a walk through the snow is excellent for relieving stress.

We woke up a little too early the next morning, but that’s OK, as it was another beautiful day. There was an intimidatingly grey sky off in the distance, but that’s OK. We headed up the road to locate some breakfast. The Trail Center Lodge was just a couple miles away, and word on the street was that they had the best breakfast around. That rumor was true.

Eight of us went to breakfast, which probably weighed about 15 pounds. Everything was fantastic, but the star of the morning was the pancake. I use the singular, as no one finished a whole one alone. If you eat three, you get them free, but I doubt they pay up very often. These things were maybe 15″ in diameter and nearly 2″ high. They weren’t just big, though, they were the fluffiest, most delicious pancakes I’d ever tasted. Giant, delicious breakfasts are excellent for reducing stress.

We dragged our bloated selves back to the lodge and bundled up for a stroll around the lake. The weather was definitely in decline, but it was still plenty nice for a lazy hike. Chris and Stacy borrowed a snowmobile and went for a ride while the rest of us headed down to the lake for some fresh air and scenery.

Looking At My Back Door
Looking At My Back Door

OK, I have to wrap this up for now. This story is getting long, and I haven’t even gotten around to explaining the title. I have to do something today other than tell rambling stories in my blog. Part 2 will just have to wait.

I Love Minneapolis

No, really, I do. Oh, sure, my last post was full off griping about the music scene, but that doesn’t change the fact that I love this city. I complain because I care; consider it constructive criticism.

I love that we have two cities here. I live in MInneapolis, but I’m not terrified of border crossings. I love that a 10-minute drive takes me to another major city with a very different vibe.

I love diversity. Whatever your color or creed, there’s a place for you in Minneapolis. It ain’t perfect, but we’re way ahead of the curve when it comes to accepting everyone.

I love beer. We have Surly and Flat Earth and Summit and Brau Brothers and Schell’s and Liftbridge and Fitger’s and more. OK, maybe those aren’t all in MInneapolis, but they’re local.

I love food. Minneapolis is the best city I’ve ever seen for eating. We have more ethnic restaurants here than anywhere I’ve ever been. We have star chefs and bakers tucked into every corner of the town. Three meals a day are not enough to explore this city, and it keeps getting better. (Saint Paul ain’t too shabby, either.)

I love bikes. Minneapolis has miles and miles of bike trails. We’re one of the top cities in the country for bicycle commuting, and that includes winter, because Minnesotans are badasses. We have QBP and Park here.

I love theatre. This town is absolutely thick with theatre, from touring Broadway extravaganzas to self-produced one-man shows. The Guthrie alone gives us more than most people can take in. Most of it falls outside of my budget these days, but it’s still nice to know it’s available if things turn around.

I love education, and I love that Minnesotans take it seriously. As much as I try to avoid ever driving through it, I love that we have one of the largest Universities in the world.

I love winter. I don’t mind the cold, and I enjoy the snow. I like it a heck of a lot better than the humidity of summer.

I love that we’re a destination for the medical industry. I have enough problems with my health that I’m gonna need some of it over the years. I like the idea that when the time comes to start replacing parts, there’s a good chance they’ll be coming from a local company.

I don’t really care about sports, but I know a lot of people do. We have pro football and baseball and hockey and basketball. We have minor leagues and college teams. We put our high school kids on TV once in a while. I think that’s cool.

I love music.  My first images of MInneapolis came from Prince. I’ve seen so many great shows here, and I’ve had the privilege of playing a lot of the same stages. I’ve seen unknown locals knock my socks off, and I’ve seen huge international stars give once-in-a-lifetime performances.

I love Minneapolis. And I love Saint Paul and Stillwater and Duluth. In so many ways, this is the best city (and state) in which I’ve ever set foot. That’s why I stay. And if I complain sometimes, it’s because I know we can do better.

You Get What You Pay For

The Twin Cities music scene is in bad shape. There, I’ve said it. It’s taboo among musicians to publicly criticize your local scene, but it’s gotten so bad, somebody has to say something. It’s like your buddy who doesn’t shower enough… you don’t want to say anything, you think maybe he’ll work it out on his own, but eventually, there comes a day that you just can’t stand to be in the room with him anymore.

Let me tell you a story about a recent gig with one of my original projects. Original music is always a touchy subject, as there are many subjective variables to consider. The quality of the music, the ability of the performers, the appropriateness of the venue, and the intangible benefits to the band all factor into the “value” of a given night. For the sake of argument, let’s set all those values to “average” for now.

So we book this show a few weeks in advance. The booking guy at the bar is on a first-name basis with several members of the band, so we figure we’re in pretty good shape. We add the show to our website, start letting people know about it, generally get the word out. We don’t have much of a draw at this point, but we always bring a few people out and get a solidly positive reaction from everyone who sees us. I got some posters printed and took them to the bar a couple weeks in advance. It’s a busy night when I stop by, so I leave the posters with the hostess.

As the day of the show gets closer, we start getting more details. There’s no stage, so we should wait to load our equipment in until they clear out some of the dinner crowd to make room for us. OK, less than ideal, but whatever. There’s no PA, so we’ll have to provide our own sound. OK, less than ideal, but whatever. We’re the only band playing, so we need to do at least two sets, but they’d like us to play longer. OK, this is no longer a typical night of original music, this is a working gig.

ASIDE—At this point, we (the band) should have ironed out the details. We should have clarified, in writing, the pay structure for the evening. As a regularly working musician, I can tell you a night like this should have been a bare minimum of $300. Heck, I’d have charged at least $100 just to bring in my PA. Unfortunately, the band member who set this up didn’t feel comfortable asking about it, and we set ourselves up for failure. I accept that we, the band, put ourselves in a bad position, but I still maintain that the bar could have behaved much better.

I like to monitor the amount of promotion the bars do for shows, just to get an idea of what’s happening. I start checking this bar’s website periodically from the time the show is booked. Hmmm… no mention of live music on the website. At all. Maybe they haven’t updated it yet. OK, two weeks out, still no mention. One week out, still no mention. A couple days before the show, and there is not a SINGLE WORD on the bar’s website about live music in general or my band specifically. Well, OK, maybe they don’t update the website very often. Oh, wait, there are regular updates about the beer and food, so clearly, someone is dealing with the website. They simply have done NOTHING to even let customers know that they have live music.

So, it’s the night of the show. Three of us in the band (plus my wife) arrived at the same time and walked in together. Right away, our guitarist sees the guy who booked the show, who instantly recognizes him, greets him, points us to a table and tells us he’ll be right back. He comes back a few minutes later with some menus and tells us our server will be right with us. OK, that’s odd, but whatever. A few minutes later, we stop him as he walks past to ask about where and when we can start bringing in equipment.

HE STOPS AND SAYS, “OH, SHIT, I TOTALLY FORGOT THAT WAS GOING ON TONIGHT.”

Are you kidding me? The guy who books the bar, who is on a first-name basis with 3/4 of the band, didn’t even remember that there would be live music? I can only assume that the rest of the staff has no clue if he doesn’t remember. So, I start looking around the room. None of the posters I brought are hanging in the bar. In fact, I can find no evidence of live music in the room. Granted, I didn’t exactly search the whole place, but usually a bar that has live music has some indication of it.

OK, deep breath. Let’s work out exactly what we’re facing here. We’re not getting paid, we’re not getting food, we’re not getting beer. We’re not getting a stage, we’re not getting a PA, we’re not even getting a corner of the bar until folks are done with dinner. We’re not getting any publicity, in fact, no one we haven’t told even knows we’re going to be there. As far as we can tell, no one in the room even knows there will be live music. What we are getting is the opportunity to play music and drink beer, assuming we want to buy some beer. We get that same opportunity weekly. We call it “rehearsal.”

I should add here that it’s so busy in the place, the booking guy barely has a minute to talk to us. Nearly every table is full, and he tells us it’s been like that all day. And there is not one red cent in the budget for the music.

So, we have a conversation with the booking guy. We explain that perhaps it’s in everyone’s best interest if we all cut our losses and call it a night. He’ll pick up the tab for the first (very small) round we ordered and he gets to keep a couple extra tables available for seating the rest of the night. Perhaps we’ll try to reschedule this in a few weeks, and walk into it better prepared. By that, I mean maybe one freaking person in the room will even know that there will be live music.

Now, you’ll notice that I’ve refrained from mentioning any names here. I did that for two reasons:

First, I’m allowing the bar and the band the chance to make things better next time. This is what we call a fuster cluck, with blame to spread around. I still feel the lion’s share goes to the bar on this one, but the band is not without fault here.

Second, I’m not singling anyone out because this attitude is not uncommon. A significant portion of the bars and the bar-going public place ABSOLUTELY NO VALUE on live music. And that’s just among the bars that book music; I’m not including the bars that don’t get involved with the scene. I’ve seen bars that take 75% of the door for themselves, then pay the sound tech out of the remaining 25%, THEN take whatever’s left for the band. (Heck, I’ve seen bars take 100% of the door and charge the band for beer.) I’ve seen bars blame the bands for poor attendance when I can find no evidence they’ve even told their patrons they have live music. I’ve walked into gigs and had the bartender exclaim, “we have bands here?” I’ve seen people stand at the door and argue over a $3 cover charge. I’ve had people come up to me with an $8 drink in their hand and tell me I should give them a free t-shirt.

This is not a nationwide phenomenon, this is the Twin Cities. I’ve travelled enough to see that there are still cities out there with a vibrant music scene. I’ve seen bars who are actually grateful that you showed up and brought people into their bar. I’ve seen rooms full of people shell out a cover charge unquestioningly for a band they’ve never heard of. It’s an embarrassment for a city that claims to embrace the arts as much as we do. Sure, there are exceptions in both directions, but overall, the general attitude towards musicians in this town ranges from indifferent to insulting.

The absolute worst part? I’ve seen fantastic musicians forced to quit. After 15 years on this scene, I can count on one hand the musicians I know who are actually making a living playing music. I can’t think of a single one who is doing it playing original music. I still make 99% of my money playing covers.

Bars, if you want good music, you might have to spend a couple bucks. Put a poster on the wall to let your customers know what bands are coming. Put a sign out front with the bands’ names on it. Spelled correctly. Make sure your whole staff is aware of the music calendar. Install a PA, and make sure a couple people on your staff know how it’s wired. And maybe, just maybe, pay someone to actually seek out good music and schedule bands that go together.

Music-loving public, if you want good music, demand it. Don’t be afraid to tell the bartender that you love live music, but are leaving because the current band is horrible. (And don’t be afraid to tell the bartender that you love live music, but are leaving because it’s so damn loud you can’t actually identify the music.) If you can spend $5 on a Miller Lite, you can take a chance on a $5 cover for 3 or 4 bands. If you like the band, buy their CD. At the asking price. Educate yourselves; if you go to see an original shoegaze band with acoustic guitars and a violin, don’t ask them to play Kid Rock. It’s insulting, and it makes you look stupid. In fact, if you’re watching an original band, don’t ever request a song unless it’s one they wrote. Ever.

There are plenty of bands who will play for free, but like most things in life, you get what you pay for.

BMI

Those of you who read my blog with any regularity might think I’m about to write about Broadcast Music, Inc., which gathers license fees for musicians. Maybe another time, although I don’t really havemuch to say about it. No, today’s post will be about the Body Mass Indicator.

The Body Mass Indicator is a number generated by a simple function of height and weight. It does nothing to account for a person’s build or fitness level. As such, it is a rough approximation of a person’s fitness. At best.

BMI was never intended to be a diagnostic indicator. Somehow, it has become a primary diagnostic indicator. Short of blood shooting out of your body, it is the first thing a doctor will look at. It has been my experience that if your BMI is above the “normal” range, many doctors believe that there can be nothing else wrong with you. They won’t consider other ailments until you lower your BMI.

But what if you suffer from a condition that makes it easy to gain weight? (Or difficult to lose weight?) How can you get a diagnosis if a doctor won’t check for anything until you lose the weight?

[Side note: I did get my most recent doctor to check for diabetes and hypothyroidism, which was great. Once those were ruled out, the next guess was sleep apnea, even though I showed no indication of it. Ummm… anything else you’d like to check?)

The latest chapter in my medical adventures began about a year ago. That’s when I aggressively started seeking help for my back pain and went to extremes to drop weight. I lost 40 pounds in nine months. That put my BMI at 30, the line between “overweight” and “obese.” Not one doctor I saw even considered the fact that I had lost 40 pounds. Because my BMI was still high, they felt there was no reason to believe that I should feel better.

According to BMI, my “healthy” weight would be between 144 and 194 pounds. I can believe 194, but can you picture me at 144 pounds? Total freakshow. Yet most doctors wouldn’t even blink at that.

An interesting tidbit I  found while reading up on BMI: a 2005 study showed that “overweight people” actually had a lower death rate than “normal weight” people (as defined by BMI). So maybe we should all be shooting for “overweight.”

My point here today is how easy it is to get bad advice and how difficult it is to get help. Maybe there’s absolutely nothing wrong with me that dropping another 40 pounds won’t fix. But I don’t believe that. Just like I didn’t believe 10 years of non-diagnosis of my hernia. Turns out I was right then. I hope I’m wrong this time.

Exercise: 3 km running.
Intake: 2010 calories, 44 grams of fat.
What I ate today: Banana, English muffin, refried beans, coffee, bread, turkey breast, mayo, green beans, turkey sausage, onions, bell pepper and blueberries.

The State Of The Music Scene

An unfocused (and poorly edited) rant; the direct result of 4 hours in the waiting room without a computer.

Our music scene is in pretty rough shape. Is this really the same town that produced Prince, Hüsker Dü, um… I’m trying to think of some recent examples. Oh, right, there aren’t any. 

I’ve been complaining about the state of the music scene for a while. Get me rolling on the topic, and I’ll subject you to a neverending diatribe against the clubs, the bands, the fans… everyone, of course, but me. I’ve remained pure, above the fray. And uninvolved.

I’ve never taken a particularly active role in my career. I don’t think of myself as a leader, though I’m not much of a follower. bands came and went, forming without me, breaking up after me. I said “yes” to every opening, even when I didn’t like the music. Then I would embrace my adopted Minnesota’s notorious passive aggression, letting my involvement wane until was off the hook.

Through it all, I played gigs. Full nights of covers, 20-minute openers, unplugged sets, smoky bars, outdoor festivals, cable access: you name it, I played it. Every show had one thing in common: whatever went wrong was someone else’s fault.

Nobody showed up? Must be the weather. Everyone left early? Must be the holidays. The bar stiffed us? They just don’t appreciate good music. I played badly? The lights were in my eyes. We sounded like rank amateurs? The sound guy* was an asshole.

So I got burned out and went the way of the trends: to the cover band world. Cover bands are doing pretty well in the Cities. I’m not anti-cover band, heck, I play with a couple now. But I (and most of the people I know in cover bands) would prefer to do something original. Unfortunately, the crowds (and the money) are in covers.

I don’t believe this is inherent, I believe it’s because the original scene has gotten lazy. If original bands approached their careers with the drive, organization and professionalism I’ve seen in the cover circuit, we would be hip-deep in world-caliber bands.

Musicians, rise up an resist! Let’s try something completely new, something that will turn the scene on its ear. I’m not talking about an all-Casio cowprog band. I’m talking about being professional. And musical. At the same time.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a band (that I may or may not have been part of) complain about the response they get from bars and patrons. “They treated us like shit!” Well, of course they did: you showed up late, talked down to the sound guy, brought in no one, got drunk, broke some glasses, played over your time slot, took too long to break down and left before the next band even started. You treated everyone else like shit first.

The first step is to get your act together. Literally and figuratively. Form your band, write your songs, and rehearse them. Then, when you’re ready, find an avenue to bring your music to the people.

The classic approach would be to record a demo, put together some basic promo, and book some shows in bars. This approach can still work if you make it. Just remember that booking the show is not the last step.

Music fans have been conditioned to believe that local music is barely listenable. If you can convince them to come to your show, they will assume the other bands on the bill will be awful. Most people believe that local music, by its very nature, is inferior to what they hear on the radio. They treat their friends’ shows like they treat their kids’ soccer games: they show up ’cause they love their kids, not to see an impressive display of athletic prowess. Sad but true.

It is your job to convince them to show up to show up and then prove them wrong.

Take control over everything you can. Start by eliminating variables. If you’re worried about the sound, find out who runs sound, meet him, maybe buy him a beer. Tell him your concerns and ask him what you can do about it. If you think the cover is too high, negotiate with the club. If you think another band on the bill is a bad fit, try to swap for a different night. If you’re worried about the draw, contact the other bands and try to work with them. In short, don’t let the show happen, make the show happen.

The work’s not over when you get to the show, either. Arrive on time and work with your sound guy for a smooth load in, set up and tear down. Introduce yourself to the bartender. Ask about their expectations from you. Thank them. Follow up afterwards: how did the night go? How can you make it better next time?

Of course, there are other options. You could go with internet distribution, live web casts, house parties, whatever. You could come up with a unique plan to get your music out there and change the industry. The general attitude remains the same: take charge, take control, take responsibility.

We’ll still have hurdles to overcome. The clubs and the media have their share of the blame for our declining scene. The fans have turned elsewhere for entertainment. They will come around if we give them a reason. Put on a show worth seeing and the clubs will host it, the media will report it, and the fans will come see it. That’s what the cover bands are doing.

 

*Out of the hundreds of shows I’ve played, I can count on one hand the female sound techs I’ve encountered (and still have a couple fingers left over). This is a different problem for a different discussion.

Mid-February Blog o’ Randomness

OK, I have nothing to write about here, but I’m making a conscious effort to write something every day, just to keep my brain limber. Or make my brain limber. Or at least prevent my brain from turning into lumber.

2009 has not really gotten off to a fantastic start. Health issues, employment issues, band issues… I’ve got issues. That probably shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone, but there it is. On the positive side, I’ve lost over 30 pounds since this summer (and counting!) Next time I see a doctor about my back, he won’t be able to diagnose me with a dismissive, “You’re fat.” Learning to take a more active role in my health is helping me to take a more active role elsewhere. Which leads me back to my attempt to write something everyday, even if it’s random stream-of-consciousness blather.

In other news, the Polar Bear Plunge is rapidly approaching. I’m pleased to say I reached my fundraising goal of $200, and there’s still more than a week to go! So, if you haven’t already pledged your support, go here and throw down a couple bucks. Drink the crappy office coffee instead of buying the delicious stuff for one day, and send $3 to the Special Olympics. It adds up.

Well, it’s nearly 10:00, and I’ve spent the entire morning trying to clean up and upgrade my WordPress and FaceBook to play nice together. We’ll see if it works.

On the road again…

Well, I’ve unexpectedly found myself back to gigging rather heavily, logging about 1300 miles and 7 shows in the last 2 weekends. The new schedule was supposed to start in July, after my vacation, but circumstances change, and a couple rehearsals are more than enough to get up in front of a festival crowd, right? At least there wasn’t a puppet show.

I’m now a member of the T. Albert Lloyd Band, a straight-up power trio. It’s been a lot of fun so far, but also a lot of work. I’ve had plenty of challenges in the last few years, learning tons of new material, but I can’t remember the last time I was this challenged merely to play. A trio leaves a lot of space to fill and mistakes become brutally obvious. Last night’s show was already significantly better than last week’s, but I’ve a long way to go before Taste.

In completely unrelated news, my back troubles have gotten absolutely unbearable. I’ve been eating muscle relaxers like candy just to get through these shows; the rest of the time I can barely stand. I have yet another appointment coming up, and I’m really hoping for something that resembles a diagnosis. Keep your fingers crossed.