emmet swimming-ly

If you went away for spring break, you may have had fun, but you missed one heck of a show on Saint Patrick’s Day. As the green beer flowed, emmet swimming had a filled to overflowing Fat Tuesday’s rocking.

If you’ve never seen or heard emmet swimming, they’re hard to describe. The sound of the band on the CD vaguely resembles REM, but the closest equivalent to singer Todd Watts is Tears for Fears.

However, in a live situation, their sound is different, largely due to the introduction of bassist Rob Shaw. Between him and drummer Tamer Eid, they’ve developed a ferocious rhythm section. Try to imagine Rush’s Neil Peart with Les Claypool from Primus and you might have some idea of how they sound together. At various times, Rob was singing, although it wasn’t in time with Todd and didn’t seem to make much sense at all. I have a theory that he was singing “I’m a Little Teapot Short and Stout”, but I can’t be sure.

The couple of covers they did were quite interesting: a Willie Nelson tune, guitarist Erik Wenberg handling the vocals on an REM tune, and a really odd (but good) choice, Belly’s “Feed The Tree”.

The new songs were all well done, though some were especially memorable. These included “Emmet Swimming”, “Lisa Says”, “Expect Me”, and the closer, “Boone’s Farm Wine”, a certain future favorite of GMU students. Todd introduced “I Believe” as their only Irish tune, and it was quite enjoyable as well.

You wouldn’t think Fat Tuesday’s would be big enough for stage diving, but several people in the audience attempted it before the management requested that they stop. The crowd was very into the show, and even though the biggest reaction came from the older songs, the new songs got an enthusiastic reception as well.

Talking with Tamer and their manager between sets revealed some good news. emmet swimming has been touring the east coast (and attracting some label interest), but has taken some time to record new songs. They’ve recorded seventeen new tracks of which about ten will make their next album. The new CD will probably be out in July and will be available at local CD stores that participate in The Local Music Store network.

For more information on emmet swimming, drop a line to: S.G. Entertainment, P.O. Box 1116, Fairfax, VA, 22030.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

Satriani rocks Constitution

For those of you who may not have heard of Joe Satriani, he is the world’s greatest living guitar player. He proved it once again at Constitution Hall on Tuesday night. Recently, Joe toured with the Bissonette brothers, David Lee Roth’s old rhythm section, and I assumed they would return on this tour. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised to see the return of Joe’s original tour mates: Jonathan Mover on drums and Stuart Hamm on bass.

After a mercifully short set of mostly covers by an unknown Canadian band, Joe stormed the stage. He started the show with the first two singles off his last studio album, The Extremist, “Summer Song” and the title track. He then proceeded to perform songs off his breakthrough album, Surfing With the Alien, and its follow-up, “Flying in a Blue Dream”. Early high points included the emotional “Always With Me, Always With You” and a savage reworking of Hendrix’s “Red House”.

The reason for this tour is to promote Joe’s newest album, Time Machine, a two CD career retrospective. The second CD is a full 75 minutes of live Satch, mostly drawn from his recent tour. The first CD contains b-sides and unreleased songs as well as three new songs recorded by the current band which Joe took an obvious pleasure in performing.

One of the unexpected highlights of the night was Stu Hamm’s bass solo, including a magnificent rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner” that had the crowd on its feet. For an encore, Joe ripped through a take on “Surfing With The Alien” that left the crowd breathless.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

Blind Melon at UMBC sans Bee Girl

One of the best times to go see a group is after their album has become popular enough for them to become headliners, but before they start outgrowing the smaller places. Such a situation occurred with Blind Melon at the sold-out UMBC Fieldhouse on February 23.

Often derided by the publisher of this paper as U Made a Bad Choice, the campus is actually nicer than Mason’s. Imagine, if you could, a college campus built in a valley. However, the parking did have something in common with Mason’s, and your humble reviewer was only able to see the last minute-and-a-half of the first band, Alice Donut. Judging by the crowd reaction, though, I wasn’t sorry I missed them.

After a short wait, the Meat Puppets took the stage. Former label mates of Black Flag, their latest album, Too High to Die, is their eighth, although their major label debut. Their set mostly consisted of tracks from their new album and their previous album, Forbidden Places. The peak of their performance came with “Backwater”, a great song picking up some heavy airplay on WHFS. The Puppets are a really tight and versatile band, although their songwriting could use some work. The majority of their songs are easily forgettable.

After about a half an hour and a lot of anticipation, Blind Melon appeared. They kicked off the set with “I Wonder”, then brought a huge response from the crowd with “Tones Of Home”. Their set consisted mostly of songs from their eponymous debut. All were received well by the crowd, but the one that brought the house down (and more crowdsurfers than you would have thought possible) was their extended version of “No Rain”. No Bee-girl arrived, but no one seemed to care.

Blind Melon’s encore was incredible. They started by debuting a new acoustic song, “Walk”. After that, they enthusiastically tackled The Velvet Underground’s “Candy Says”, which segued into Social Distortion’s “Ball And Chain”. The highlight of the evening came when they ripped into a killer version of Led Zeppelin’s “Out On The Tiles”, followed by an impassioned performance of “Soak The Sin”.

Blind Melon’s performance was extremely energetic; each band member is quite talented and the band is not just a showcase for singer Shannon Hoon. I urge anyone who has the chance to see Blind Melon before they move to larger venues.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

A Top Ten Look at 1993’s Best Comics

It’s not quite the end of the year, but it’s time for the year end wrap up of comics. Here, in a more or less order, is my list of the top 10 comics for 1993.

10. Ninjak (Valiant) A brand new book, but a good one. Ninjak is Valiant’s new mysterious ninja, but the best thing about this book is the people behind it. Valiant has been known for delivering good, solid stories, but since the departure of Barry Windsor-Smith, has lacked any superstar artists for the fans to get excited about. Well, now they’ve got one. Joe Quesada (The Ray, Batman:Sword Of Azrael, X-Factor) has accepted penciling duties on this book, and with the solid storytelling skills of Mark Moretti (Eternal Warrior) this book should go far, if the first issue is any indication of where it’s going.

9. Wild C.A.T.S. (Image) While I have a problem with Image creating a work-for-hire situation when they said they’d be nothing like Marvel, I certainly have no problem with the quality of the books that do come out from most of the creators. Wild C.A.T.S. is a team of superheroes gathered together initially to fight an alien invasion. The team book is a tough concept to pull off, since it’s been done practically to death, but Jim Lee pulls it off. The writing is OK, but the main reason to buy this book is the exciting pencils of Lee. Lee manages to keep the book exciting while keeping the characters realistic in their proportions, a tough feat to pull off at Image.

8. Sachs and Violens (Marvel/Epic) Yes, Peter David (Incredible Hulk, X-Factor, Aquaman) strikes again. It seems this man excels at anything he turns his typewriter to. Joining him once again is George Perez (New Teen Titans, Infinity Gauntlet, Break-Thru). These two were first united in last year’s Hulk: Future Imperfect, and their new work looks even better. Sachs and Violens are a model and a photographer, driven to become detectives by the death of one of Sachs’ model friends. The best part of the first issue, aside from the great art, is the text in the back, where David explains his feeling on sex and violence. And what does David think of sex on TV? “Frankly, I think it’s a pain. For one thing, the cable box winds up wedged into your back and gets real uncomfortable…”

7. Jonah Hex: Two-Gun Mojo (DC/Vertigo) An old, lame Western hero. The last story with this guy attempted to send him into a post-nuclear apocalypse. I thought nobody could make him interesting. Boy, was I wrong. Famed horror (and horror western) novelist Joe R. Lansdale brings horror to the Old West, and it will never be the same. Jonah Hex is your average ornery bounty hunter with a price on his own head, who discovers that corpses that don’t stop moving make it hard to collect bounty on them. Lending a great deal of historical background are artists Timothy Truman (Scout, The Spider, Turok) and Sam Glanzman, both well known for their stories based in this time period.

6. Bone (Cartoon Books) Have you ever heard of Pogo? Remember “we have seen the enemy, and he is us”? No? Well forget it then, and go buy this book. Bone is hard to describe. It’s obviously influenced by Walt Kelly’s Pogo, but has a style all it’s own. The star is one Fone Bone, who along with his cousins Phoney and Smiley is trying to find his way back home. That description doesn’t do the book any justice, though. It’s hilarious and must be seen for itself.

5. Superman (DC) In November of last year Superman died. You wouldn’t think that leaves much room for a story, would ya? Especially with four monthly titles to put out. Well, editor Mike Carlin and his team of writers managed to do it. In April, it was established that Superman had survived somehow, and this news was followed by the appearance of four separate Supermen. The surprise was that none of the four was the real one, and one was a villain that took the combined might of the other three, plus the original, to stop. This story has been fresh and original all year, an amazing effort.

4. Cerebus (Aardvark-Vanaheim) This is hard to describe. What do you say about a book that started out as simple Conan the Barbarian parody, but has evolved into the life story of Cerebus. And when I say life story, I mean it. Dave Sim has committed to producing 300 issues over 26 years. And you know the amazing thing? He’s more than halfway there already. This book is fantastic, though. It covers one person’s life, and like life it has humor and sadness, adventure and tragedy.

3. Spawn (Image) You really have to respect someone who can listen to what the critics say, and than proceed to blow them away. The most frequent criticism leveled at Image is that it is a company made up of artists and that it’s writing, to put it mildly, sucks. Todd McFarlane had been writing Spider-Man before he left Marvel, and has been improving since, but he acknowledges he’s no Shakespeare. So in response to the critics, he hired some of the best writers in comics to write issues of Spawn this year. Alan Moore (Watchmen), Neil Gaiman (Sandman), Dave Sim (Cerebus), and Frank Miller (Batman:The Dark Knight Returns) all wrote for Spawn, producing some incredible issues along the way. Oh yeah, Spawn is short for hellspawn, he gets his powers from the devil, and every time he uses them, he gets closer to returning to the grave. This is the best book from Image, not to mention the longest running one.

2. Daredevil: The Man Without Fear (Marvel) Genius is an overused word, but it certainly applies to Frank Miller. As he makes his second return to the character he gained his fame on, it’s clear that he was born to write the adventures of this blind superhero. Even though his Daredevil has been branded the definitive one, Miller never had before told the full origin of the character the way he had done with Batman. This series answers questions about Daredevil that have remained unanswered for more than ten years, as well as providing a full origin of Elektra, his lover and enemy.

1. Sandman/Death (DC/Vertigo) There’s always one thing that rises above all others. And this year it’s Neil Gaiman’s unparalleled work on Sandman and it’s spinoff, Death: The High Cost Of Living. Gaiman’s amazing ear for dialect, speech, and mannerisms make all of his characters totally unique. Death 1-3 and Sandman 50, in particular, were incredible. The artists, Chris Bachalo and P. Craig Russell provided dazzling interpretations of Gaiman’s scripts, making for the best comics of the year.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

Understanding Comics: Read It!

Before I begin this review, I’d like to quote from a favorite cartoon of mine: “Pictures without words: Art!; Words without pictures: Literature!; Words and pictures together: pieces of worthless crap!” This sums up the mainstream attitude towards comics; at least, until now. The problem with comics is that unlike other media, there has been no critical examination of the form. That is a gap that the new book from Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics, fills admirably.

The book is basically comics’ first textbook (and isn’t that what college students want, another textbook?). Unlike most textbooks, it is done entirely in the standard comics style, which is absolutely appropriate. It begins with an attempt to nail down a definition of what exactly comics are. McCloud starts with the definition by comics legend Will Eisner (creator of The Spirit) of comics as sequential art (two or more connected panels of art). McCloud expands this definition to “juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or to produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (and if you think that’s complex, check out the dictionary definitions for art or literature).

When did comics begin? A good question. Most books about comics start around 1896 with the first comic strip, but McCloud ventures a bit farther back. He examines an Egyptian tomb painting from 1300 BC and finds that it meets his requirements to be considered comics. On the way back to the present he stops in the 16th century to examine a pre-Columbian manuscript and looks at the first interdependent combination of words and pictures in the mid 19th century.

McCloud next explains the attraction comics have via their depiction of life not being quite realistic. His theory is that a realistic view is the way we see others, but the image we have of ourselves is more cartoony, so we are able to identify more with the characters in comics. The level of reality used can affect how one views the work, and a combination of realistic and cartoony styles can result in a totally different style, such as Japanese comics (referred to as manga), where the humans and animals are done in a cartoony, but the environment they inhabit is extremely realistic.

However, the most abstract a picture, say a face, can get is not “:-|” but rather “FACE”. McCloud believes that “words are the ultimate abstraction” and that most comics have emphasized the difference between words and pictures. Writing and drawing are often seen as completely separate disciplines, even though the best comics are those in which the words and pictures seamlessly flow together. What is needed is the formation of a vocabulary for comics consisting of words and pictures. There’s a problem in the combining of the two, though. Pictures are received information, instantly transmitted and received, while words are perceived information, requiring time and knowledge to understand. In their simplest forms, the most abstract picture and the simplest word, they are close to another, which is desired to build a vocabulary, but which is often at odds with the desire for sophistication. McCloud envisions a classification for comics based on the triangle, which has three points: reality/nature, meaning/ideas, and pictures/art, into which all comics can be placed.

McCloud next introduces a concept that is extremely crucial to comics, closure, where we observe parts but perceive a whole. This has applications to everyday life, when we assume that the GMU Student Senate exists, even though most of us will never see it. Also closure is evident when we look at a photograph in a newspaper (actually just a series of dots) or watch a movie (24 pictures a second, which we interpret as action). In comics, a static medium, closure is used to simulate both time and motion. He introduces several specific types of closure, such as moment-to-moment (eye blinking) and action-to-action (ball approaching, batter hitting it) and looks at some statistics of uses of different types. He discovers that American comics almost exclusively show things happening, while manga often uses closure to set a mood. He believes that these differences are cultural, in that we are more goal oriented and the Japanese have a tradition that emphasizes “being there over getting there”. The power of closure is seen between panels when the reader is asked to see what isn’t there. With two panels of an eye open and closed, the reader will supply the motion of the eye closing, an act unique to comics.

Time is expressed mainly through panels and closure. The panel is comics’ most important symbol. A stretched panel in company with several narrower panels can denote a longer period of time. Motion is often shown with the help of a motion line (like a circle around a batter as he swings). Emotions can be shown in several different ways; with symbols (teardrops for sadness, crosshatching on the face for embarrassment) or with lines (harsh lines for anger, gentle for affection). Sound is conveyed through the word balloon, which can change in shape or typeface of the words to simulate different sounds.

McCloud looks at early cave paintings to show that when we first tried to communicate, it was through words and pictures (or show and tell). We drifted away from that until at one point words and pictures were totally separate. They slowly drifted back together around 1900, when comics as a popular medium first started. McCloud focuses on several types of combinations of words and pictures, ones which depend more on one, ones where they are seemingly unconnected, and the most important, interdependent, where together they “convey an idea that neither could convey alone”. He then provides several interpretations of a short story using these styles.

Next, McCloud answers the question: “Is comics art?”. Of course it is, especially since his definition of art is “any human activity which doesn’t grow out of either of our species’ two basic instincts: survival and reproduction”(I guess this means Expulsion is art; frame it). He covers 6 basic steps to creation of any work of art and explains the different approaches one might take to be a groundbreaker or storyteller. He briefly mentions color, that it has been limited by money and technology, and may assume more importance in the future.

McCloud closes by mentioning that comics are unique as being a communication media where the artistic vision stands the best chance of making it to the reader. This is due both to the limited number of people usually involved and the art form itself. He encourages discussion of his book, and there has been response. In particular, one reader objected to the exclusion of single panel comics strips from the definition and argues that there is closure between the strip and the caption.

The book has already gone into its second printing and is available now in your favorite comics shop. My opinion? I agree with Neil Gaiman, award winning writer, who said of the book, “If you read, write, teach, or draw comics; if you want to; or if you simply want to watch a master explainer at work, you must read this book”.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

Chris Whitley Unplugs at Old Town’s Birchmere

[cowritten with Karen Weis]

Chris Whitley performed an intimate show at the Birchmere a week ago Thursday. During a solo acoustic set, he switched between two National Steel guitars as he played new material and songs from his debut album “Living With The Law,” which “Rolling Stone” magazine chose as Record of the Year for 1991.

Whitley took brief smoke breaks in between songs, tuning his guitars as he took a puff before launching into another song.

The dinner theater setting of the Birchmere allowed Whitley to connect with his audience, whose enthusiasm never faltered. Songs from the album were especially well received, although there was incredible response for his intricate solos in the new songs.

Expulsion bugged people backstage until granted an interview. At least, the manager said, “You can go back there. He’s in a crowd, but if you can talk to him, be my guest.”

Expulsion: Are you going into the studio soon?
Whitley: Yes, in December for another album.
E: Will you be playing with a band or solo acoustic?
W: I like playing solo a lot, but I like a band too. I do a little of both on the record – one acoustic track, then one that’s in your face.
E: Is most of it written already?
W: Yes. Tonight I played most of the stuff I’ve been writing.
E: On the night of the L.A. riots, you were playing a live show at the Palace in Hollywood that was being recorded for Westwood One Radio. What did it feel like?
W: It was wild that night. We had to shoot a video the next day and then hop a bus to Phoenix. We almost couldn’t get back. The audience in L.A. is all people in the music industry. On the way out of town, all the record execs were scared that their homes in the hills would be torched, and that they’d get killed on their way home or something. To come to L.A. from Europe, as I did, to flat America, was culture shock. L.A. was so weird, it was fitting that someone was trying to burn it. Here in America, someone was pissed off. It was a weird vibe. E: Did you write a song about it, like Tom Petty with “Peace in L.A.”?
W: No, I don’t write topical things. They don’t inspire me much, though I like when people do it well. It’s interesting – I released a B-side from that show in Europe, a live version of “A Pint Of Lotion.”
E: You’ve appeared on the “Arsenio Hall Show,” “David Letterman,” and the “Tonight Show,” playing electric with a band. Did you ever try doing an acoustic set?
W: I could have. I did on MTV in Canada. It was never a question. Part of it is that TV’s so promotional. The record execs wanted to show something that represents the record. I like playing live and being able to improvise. When I was opening for Tom Petty, they played all their songs exactly the same, every night. My band’s a trio. Even electrically we can play off one another – we’ve arranged it so everyone can step out and solo. It’s organized for the record, but live it’s unrestrained.
E: What inspires you?
W: Whatever – I can’t really pick subjects. I have phrases, come up with chords, or look at something I haven’t done a hundred times and try to pull lyrics from the music. I come up with a melody in my head. I wrote “Big Sky Country” that way, hummed it into a Walkman and came up with chords.
E: How is this upcoming album different from your previous one?
W: This record’s different because I’ve been living differently since the last one. I don’t write well, meaning that I don’t choose subjects that are really accessible. I used to try, but don’t anymore. It’s deliberate for me.
E: Who are your favorite bands?
W: I like the Flaming Lips, My Bloody Valentine, Slowdive – soft but washout noise guitar. Americans…Nirvana, Hendrix, Zeppelin – stuff my parents listened to. I never listen to blues, but every now and then I listen to blues from the 50s, like Muddy Waters. Nat “King” Cole…the man had a perfect voice. Iggy Pop is my favorite lyricist in the States.
E: What were influences on your picking style?
W: Johnny Winter’s first record in 1969 – that song “Dallas” gravitated me toward using a National Steel. I listened to Andy Summers of The Police and Gary Numan. The Earth, Wind and Fire horn section syncopated it; the syncopation they had was so funky. I love it. It’s not uncommon for white guys who play Delta blues to have a peculiar style but syncopation’s important. My favorite guitar artists are still Hendrix and Jimmy Page. I don’t strum. David Pirner of Soul Asylum asked me to give him lessons, but I couldn’t.
E: Where did you get your guitars?
W: I bought both in New York. One’s ’28, the other’s a ’31 – they’re dobros. I use them, but play mainly electric guitars, mostly 50s and 60s Les Pauls or Fenders.
E: Where do you go from here?
W: I’m going back to New York tomorrow. Playing tonight was a one shot thing, not part of a tour. I’m going to Australia and New Zealand next.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

Drivin’ N Cryin’, Cheap Trick Rock in Richmond

[cowritten with Karen Weis]

In order to experience DnC at its best as a hard driving rock and roll machine, it is recommended that you see them play live. At least twice. Preferably in a twenty-four hour period, if possible. And in two different states. There’s a limited time span in a band’s career when the opportunity arises to see them as both headliner and opening act in the same week. Such was the situation recently when Drivin’ N Cryin’ headlined in Richmond, VA and opened in Annapolis, MD.

The Flood Zone is a small club located in the heart of Richmond’s downtown area. To get the appropriate feel for the place, imagine Hammerjacks at half the size. The opening act, Raging Slab, a hard rocking Skynyrdesque band from Pennsylvania who recently released their second album, took the stage at 10PM. They performed songs from both of their albums, including their current single, “Anywhere But Here,” and a cover of the Beatles’ “I’m Down.” Other than that, the songs blended together in a blur of slide guitar riffs and the writers were relieved when it was over forty-five minutes later.

After what seemed like an eternity of roadies testing equipment, Drivin’ N Cryin’ arrived on stage at midnight in a cloud of smoke. They began the show with several slower songs, including “With The People,” which borrowed a line from the R.E.M. song “King of Birds,” before picking up the pace with “Around The Block Again.” The band’s set list spanned all five of their albums, from their newest release, “Smoke,” to their earliest, “Scarred But Smarter.” By the time they played the title song, the crowd’s energy level had resulted in the formation of a mosh pit, which continued for the next three songs and then restarted periodically for the rest of the show.

The set featured a variety of old and new songs, including half of the new album, including their latest single, “Turn It Up Or Turn It Off” and three or four from the others. Highlights included premieres of new songs such as “If I’d Been Born On The Right Side of the Tracks” and a solo performance at the close of the show by lead singer Kevn Kinney, who sang a song that may appear on his next solo album.

In contrast to the rowdiness of the Flood Zone crowd, the audience at the Naval Academy Alumni Hall was extremely restrained, probably due to the fact that ninety-nine percent of them were midshipmen. To get the atmosphere, just imagine a lame Patriot Center concert with all the GMU students dressed in white uniforms. Drivin’ N Cryin’ came on sharply at 7:30 and promptly launched into a nonstop rocking set.

This set focused more on their well known songs, such as “Fly Me Courageous,” “Build A Fire,” and “Straight To Hell,” which was a change from the previous night in which some of them were omitted. The lighting crew was also more in control, particularly during “Scarred But Smarter,” which gave the song added impact. The pace of the show never let up as the band sped through its forty-five minute set, forcing the crowd to participate.

The headliners, Cheap Trick, played a fairly short hour and ten minute set, including their hits “I Want You To Want Me” and “The Flame.” Absent, however, was their version of “Don’t Be Cruel.” Lead guitarist Rick Nielsen constantly kept the crowd amused by switching guitars at every song, throwing handfuls of picks, and pompously overreacting to the audience. The band’s encore, “Dream Police,” involved half the front row joining the band on stage to sing backup and play guitar and drums.

DnC’s forty-five minutes, while not as fulfilling as their two hour plus Richmond show, was a much more concentrated performance that left one wanting more. But many of the songs were expanded significantly in the club setting and were more enjoyable. In particular, “Indian Song,” which the band always plays live but has never recorded, was enhanced by the story that served as its introduction in the club. Kevn Kinney lamented the visible lack of symbols of Native American heritage in our culture. In addition, “Pushin’ Too Hard” featured an autobiographical vignette from Kevn on his choice of occupation before launching into “So You Want To Be A Rock and Roll Star.”

When the band headlined, they had the chance to kick back and relax and respond when a business card was tossed on stage by licking it and saying, “If you want me to look at your business card, you’d better have a tab of acid on it.” At the Naval Academy, however, they were more tense, with nearly no reaction to the audience, resulting in a faster set.

The first set was looser and more diverse, giving increased exposure to the band’s catalogue, but the second set was more powerful and intense, leaving one breathless. Both sets could have stood on their own, but seen back to back they offered more insight into the unique rock and roll experience that is Drivin’ N Cryin’.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

Mason Registration: Add a Class and Drop the Lines

I thought that already working for Expulsion would make my enrollment into the graduate program easier. Boy, was I wrong.

My tangled path started last January, with the School of Information Technology and Engineering’s Graduate Program Open House. It was extremely informative, with advisors from every program there to answer questions. From that, I was easily able to decide which program to apply for.

I applied in April, and received my acceptance letter in June. With it, I received the Fall Schedule Of Classes. I tried to analyze its cryptic contents and determined that I had to register sometime between then and August. I decided to wait and see if anything else would arrive that would make things more clear.

In July, I got a copy of the graduate catalog, and received two pieces of mail from Mason. The first was about a general graduate orientation to be held on August 23rd. The second was about an orientation for computer science graduate students the night after. It also said that registration forms would be signed. Great, I thought. I could learn everything I needed and take care of registration at the same time.

I arrived for the first orientation in SUB II about halfway through the opening speeches (Hey, it ain’t my fault I don’t get off work until after six). I signed in and received an interesting packet and the Mason Student Handbook. The packet contained a graduate newsletter, a handout on resources, a schedule for The Center For The Arts, a handout for music classes, a pamphlet on sexual harassment, and an ad for Mason Money. I found it interesting that the Mason Money ad mentioned that you could use it at Domino’s, but didn’t mention that it was the only off campus merchant to have the system in place to use it. I also filled out an application for a parking sticker (which of course I haven’t received yet.)

Anyway, what I heard of the speeches was an explanation of some of the handouts, plus some Mason propaganda. It’s interesting that people think Mason is going to have a great basketball season, even though the new coach hasn’t been in an actual game yet.

But I digress. After the speeches, I went to an information session on the Mason computer system. Miracle of miracles, it was actually informative, covering topics such as how to get a computer account, how to find documentation, how to figure out an Internet address, how to logon to Mason mainframes from a home computer, and how to get help, as well as a brief discussion of where various software and hardware are.

The orientation the next night was held in a classroom in S&T II. The professor who hosted it provided information on people CS graduate students should know, some information on email and getting accounts, and most importantly, waited patiently to answer every question on courses and signed registration forms.

I left the orientation feeling moderately prepared and ready to register for classes. I thought perhaps I would register the next day. Further examination of the Fall schedule and consultation with other students made me change that plan, as registration was closed each of the next three days. The earliest I could register was Monday, the first day of classes.

I arrived in Fairfax about 8:50 that next Monday. I found a parking space about 20 minutes later, aware that perhaps all of these people were here for a reason. When I arrived at Krug Hall, the line for registration stretched out of the office and down the stairs. After several minutes of waiting in line, it quickly became obvious to me that I wasn’t going to make it to the front of the line within the half hour I had left before I had to be at work. I left, and decided to come back the next day, when the office was open until 8.

The next evening I came back, and the line was much shorter. I sat down in the office and of course discovered to my dismay that my first and second choices were both closed. I signed up for my third choice, which had already had the first class the previous day. As a matter of fact, the professor who teaches the class is an adjunct and doesn’t have an office, so the only way to talk to her is to go to the class, which kind of blows the idea of finding out what the assignment is.

I went to the course I really wanted, to see if I could talk to the instructor. Unfortunately, about 15 other people had the same idea as I did, forcing the instructor to cut the class short since there was no air conditioning and the room wasn’t designed for that many people. The professor did offer to try and find a new room to teach the class in, though.

I learned from this experience that in the future I’d better sign up for classes at least several weeks in advance. I would like to see a little more information sent to new students, like an abridged version of the information presented at the orientations, plus a suggested timeline of events, such as talking to advisors and registering.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

Bootlegs: The Real Story and the Ones to Get…

You know who you are. You’re a college student. You’ve got a favorite band. You’ve seen them live. You’ve got all their albums and videos, or so you think. That’s right, you don’t have all their albums. Don’t give that crap, I know what I’m talking about.

One of the fastest growing areas of the record collector’s market is bootlegs. Bootlegs are unauthorized audio and video recordings of a band, mostly live recordings, but occasional studio outtakes surface. And unlike regular commercial live recordings, like Van Halen’s recent album or George Michael’s just released EP, these are mostly one uncut and untouched concert. Of course, these make perfect souvenirs, especially if one is available for the show that you went to.

The largest area of bootlegs is CDs. Until the mid 80s, the preferable method of distribution was vinyl, but the obvious benefits of CDs soon became apparent. The sound quality of bootlegs can vary. Some are recorded by the soundboard (the mixing board between the guitars and mikes and the speakers), while most are audience recording. Surprisingly, the audience recordings are often very good, and some are in stereo.

Some bootlegs are actually legal. Some countries in the EEC, such as Germany and Italy, have laws that recordings that are at least ten years old may be produced, as long as royalties are set aside for the artist. Ironically, the artist can’t accept the money, because that would indicate approval of what the bootleggers are doing. Most CD bootlegs have an import stamp on them, and owning them is legal.

The fastest growing bootleg area is videos. The majority of these are recorded on a camcorder that was sneaked in, though some are unreleased concerts. The only equipment needed to produce a large number is two VCRs and a supply of blank tapes. This results in a number of people selling copies of the same shows, and a large quality difference between the generations of copies. Since the videos can be produced quickly, shows are available that are little more than a week old.

The following are totally subjective lists of my favorite audio and video boots:
Audio
1. Led Zeppelin – Tour Over Europe: Zurich, 6/29/80
Zeppelin are the unsurpassed kings of the bootleg market. Every Zeppelin show found, no matter how poor the quality of the recording or the band’s performance, has been issued on CD. At last count, that is over 400 discs. There are a large number of notable Zeppelin bootlegs, with large amounts of unreleased songs, but this double disc set is incredible. It captures the masters of rock, on their best show on their last tour.
2. Una Noche A Sevilla (A Night In Seville): Guitar Legends Festival, Seville, Spain,10/19/91
An annual concert featuring guitarists is held in Seville, Spain. In 1991, the concert was extended to five nights to feature a different genre of music each night. This particular recording is the heavy metal night, and features the remarkable talents of Joe Satriani, Steve Vai, Brian May, Nuno Bettencourt, and Joe Walsh. The only time my four favorite guitarists have performed together. Simply amazing.
3. Rush – The Spirit of St. Louis: St. Louis, 2/14/80
A great recording and performance from an awesome band, featuring a complete rendition of “2112”.
4. Great White – Live From Electric Ladyland: New York City, 5/31/91
A boot of a radio broadcast. The Electric Ladyland shows are recorded in the studio of the same name, and the sound is incredible.
5. Van Halen – “7227”: Tokyo, 1988
The name refers to the playing time. A very good show, importantly featuring a live performance of “Summer Nights”.
6. Queen – Merry Christmas: London, 12/25/76
An early show from a great band.
7. Pearl Jam – Unplugged …and a little plugged: MTV Unplugged 3/92 & England 2/22/92
Their amazing MTV performance, plus most a live show. What a bargain!
8. Guns N’ Roses – Lies and Dollars: New York City, 1988
The audio to MTV’s Live at the Ritz recording, with all the swearing left in.
9. Metallica – The Four Horsemen: Meadowlands, 4/8/92
This three disc boxed set features the complete show from the masters of thrash
10. David Lee Roth – Live at Selland Arena: Fresno, 12/14/86
Steve Vai is an incredible guitarist. ‘Nuff said.

Video
1. Brian May – Hammerjacks, 3/5/93
All right, I haven’t actually seen it yet, but I was at the show, and he’s incredible. Go buy his new album, in stores now.
2. Extreme – Baltimore Opera House, 2/1/93
I went to the next night, but this is a great show.
3. Guns N’ Roses – Capital Centre, 6/19/91
Yes, their first night, where Axl dives into the crowd to fight security before St. Louis!
4. Led Zeppelin – Compilation
There are a number of compilations out there, but look for a black and white TV performance from ’68, as well as their Live Aid and Atlantic 40th anniversary reunions (there’s rehearsal footage from the latter)
5. Queen – A Concert For Life, 4/20/92
Yes, I know a legitimate copy went on sale last week, but it’s still amazing.
6. Nirvana – Dallas, 1991
Kurt Cobain dives into the crowd, then hits the security guard trying to retrieve him with his guitar. The guard then attempts to beat the crap out of him.
7. Metallica – Albany, 1992
A complete show.
8. Pearl Jam – New York, 1992
Good show.
9. Whitesnake – Albany, 1990
Steve Vai – still amazing.
10. Van Halen – US Festival, 1983
Lousy copy, great show.

For those interested in going to a record show where audio and video boots are available, the next one is this Friday, at the Holiday Inn Dulles Airport, from 6-12PM.
The next after that is on June 6, at the Tyson’s Best western, from 10-5. The admission for both is $3.00.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]

Commuting Sucks… So Hit the Damn “Snooze…”

You know, I thought this was going to be a good week. So l work full time, so what? I can deal with no Spring Break, just stay out of my way during the week.

The Frey household is usually prepared for anything, and this storm was no exception. No last minute trips to the store for bread and milk for us. We were snowed in Saturday and Sunday, but everyone else was, so no big deal. My Siberian Husky loved it, and we just relaxed and shoveled the driveway and our cars.

The first sign of trouble was Monday morning. I woke up, threw the alarm across the room, went upstairs and looked out the window. Our street wasn’t plowed yet. Great, at least 10 more minutes added to my commute. I started up my car, backed it out, and started down the street, only skidding twice before the corner.

When I finally got out on 236, it looked pretty good, plowed, sanded, and little traffic. It was obvious to me that my usual collection of back roads I use to get to Reston was going to be impassable, so I took the Beltway and the Dulles Toll Road. The Beltway was clear, but the Toll Road was nasty. I finally got to work, and it turned out to be one of those days. For those lowlifes who’ve never worked a day in their lives, let me explain that. Have you ever had a really boring and dull class, where the only thought going through your head is that it’ll be over in an hour? Just multiply that by 8, and you’ll be somewhat close. The way home was easier. The Toll Road and Beltway were completely clear, and I only skidded once.

Tuesday morning dawned as another alarm clock bit the dust. The street still wasn’t plowed, but I could deal with that. My first hint of danger was when I went outside to start my car. The car of one of my neighbors was parked in the street parallel to it, blocking any attempt to get past it. Hmm, I thought, this could he trouble. It was.

Unknown to me at the time was the fact that every idiot with a car was under the mistaken impression that they could drive in the snow. Let me give you a little hint: If you weigh more than your car, stay home. After a good ten minutes to get my neighbor’s car out of the way, I was on my way, or so I thought.

At the end of my street was a hysterical Hispanic woman in a Volkswagen Rabbit, with bald tires. I pushed it out of the way with my pinky, and finally got out on 236, twenty minutes after I started. It was then that I discovered that every idiot with a car was on the road. I couldn’t deal with it for very long, and got off the Beltway after one exit, certain that the back roads couldn’t be as bad as the world’s largest parking lot.

To my surprise and relief, they weren’t. In fact, they were all plowed. I arrived at work half an hour late, only to face another of those days. On the way home, I discovered that my street had finally been plowed. Heck, the rest of the week couldn’t be that bad, could it.

I made a 3 point shot into the trashcan with my alarm clock as Wednesday morning broke. It was raining, but it was above the freezing point. Good, I thought, and it was, at least on the way to work.

Did I mention that I had a dental appointment that day? What kind of masochist invented this torture, where a lady wearing rubber gloves scrapes your teeth for half an hour with sharp metal objects? I don’t know, but my teeth still hurt.

Anyway, on the way home, I found out that rain plus melting snow equals twice as much water. Six inches of water doesn’t seem like much, but a current can change things. I finally made it home, though. I could rest and relax, right? Did I mention that I live in a basement? That leaks? Yes, for the second time in two weeks, one of my rugs got completely soaked. I really hate mopping, too. Oh well.

The alarm clock made a plaintive beep as I flushed it down the toilet to greet Thursday. I mopped again, then set out on my commute, and discovered that any water left on the ground had frozen into ice patches, as I slid into work. It was another of those days. Actually, it wasn’t.

I’m working on a project where Thursday I performed the intellectual equivalent of banging my head against the wall. What fun. The temperature never got above the freezing point, so the ice was still there in the evening. Yuck.

A 60 ton weight did not destroy the alarm clock on Friday, so I was forced to call in a tactical nuclear strike, code named “The Big Snooze”. The ice was still there, and it was another of those days, but it was the last one.

Let me give a piece of advice to all people who drive in the left lane. If you’re not doing at least the speed limit, GET OUT OF MY WAY!!! This week was probably payback for a couple of good weekends, but it still sucked. If you can, I advise you to spend an extra year or two at school, just to put off having to commute.

[Originally published in Expulsion, an independent George Mason University student newspaper]