Sunday, July 12, 2009

The small town that makes me “ooh” and “ahh.”

[Apologetic Note: This blog entry begs for photos. It screeeams for at least a couple photographic examples of what I witnessed, moon-wise and fireworks-wise, over the Fourth of July. However, I’m not currently too skilled at nighttime photography, and I was also on a crowded pontoon boat where setting up a tripod and immersing myself in experimentation mode wasn’t exactly an option. So, um...please use your imagination. Thank you.]

There’s something to be said for small-town fireworks. And on the Fourth of July, that “something” was, “Ooh.” And, “Ahh.”

We watched the fireworks from what is quickly becoming my favorite place to see the night sky light up...on a pontoon boat on a small inland lake in northern Wisconsin.

Three times I’ve been a passenger as we slowly make our way over the glasslike water shortly after dusk, passing the silhouettes of the trees and buildings surrounding the lake as the last hues of pink and orange and salmon disappear from the sky.

And one of my favorite sights is even before the fireworks begin, as we move to join the armada of already anchored boats on the water’s surface, their guide lights identifying them, residents and visitors to the lake preparing to be bedazzled by the light show to celebrate the holiday.

This year we had to wait until about a half-hour after dusk, but I didn’t mind the wait, as others grew a bit impatient. I just soaked it all in, and stared at the brilliant moon disappearing behind the clouds, and then peeking back out again through a hole that seemed to be expertly positioned in the clouds just to give us one more view.

Part of the fun of being out on the pontoon boat is hearing the reactions of the handful of kids along for the show.

The “oohs” and “ahhs” aren’t the same if they’re not sprinkled in with one little girl’s reaction as she sees her first-ever fireworks display. She must have exclaimed, “A fiyah-wook!!” a couple dozen times as the sky lit up.

And no matter how excited I was to see them, I cannot duplicate the expression of a 4-year-old boy watching a colorful explosion in the sky and then screaming, “That was AWEsome!!”

I’ve seen some impressive fireworks displays in my years, from the days we’d spend all day on the beach in Two Rivers and then at night could see three sets of them going off down the lakeshore...from Two Rivers, Manitowoc, and, faintly, Sheboygan.

And Kohler has a great homey Americana feel to its celebration, with the Kiel band and just the right number of people in its small bowl-shaped park.

I don’t know if the small lakes in northern Wisconsin received a chunk of the stimulus package to spend on holiday celebrations, or what, but...the only display I’ve seen that was more impressive was on opening night of Summerfest a few years ago.

And that’s Milwaukee! To open the biggest musical celebration in the Midwest. Up Nort is most definitely not, um...Milwaukee.

This show had everything required for a spectacular display...the big explosions that seemed to fill the sky from top to bottom, the little fizzly ones that made curly, quirky patterns, a few good white-light boomers, plenty of static cling-sounding choices, and everything in between.

Plus the bonus of being right on the water, among so many other small boats.

At about three different times during the show, we thought it was coming to an end, and at one point I even said, “That’s the exclamation point on a great fireworks display!” But then...they kept going.

And my buddy a few seats away said, “No, Gregg. That was just a comma.”

How true, punctuationally speaking.

Because when the finale came...oh, we knew it! And it was AWEsome!!

So where’s the best place you’ve ever ooh-ed and ahh-ed?

“All architecture is great architecture
after sunset; perhaps architecture is really
a nocturnal art, like the art of fireworks.”
—Gilbert K. Chesterton

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Where Have You Gone, Steven Page?

It probably doesn’t take too great of a leap to agree with the statement that, when listening to live music, the lead singer makes or breaks the experience.

But let me give you a bit of a back story as one example to the contrary.

Many years ago when I saw Sister Hazel for the first time, at the county fair in Wausau, the band was arriving very close to the starting time of its performance, and for whatever reason, the lead singer was on a different flight than the rest of the group, and his flight was delayed.

The event organizers pushed back the start of the concert for as long as they could, but eventually a decision had to be made, and Sister Hazel came out on stage, sans one lead singer.

“Great,” I thought. “Drove a couple hours to see a talented new band, and what am I going to see?”

Turns out, the rest of the group came on stage and rocked the crowd. The performance was definitely missing a certain unique voice, but the other band members covered surprisingly well, and to this day I joke about what a great performance Sister Hazel gave the first time I saw them…minus one very important member.

Fast forward to last weekend. Summerfest.

We’d discussed going down on Saturday, and a Barenaked Ladies concert at 10 p.m. was going to (hopefully) be the highlight of that day.

Steven_PageAfter a group of us made plans to meet on the Summerfest grounds, a buddy sent me a link late last week to a story that lead singer Steven Page had left BNL a few months earlier, after charges of drug possession were brought against him.

While I’m a pretty big fan of BNL, this was the first I’d heard of this change in the band’s lineup.

This news brought me even more concern than learning years before that I’d have to hear Sister Hazel without its frontman, because BNL was already well established, and had a dozen or so very big hits that depended heavily on Page’s unique lead voice.

But I had faith in the other members of the band, and we were all ready to give them a chance to keep us secured among their fandom.

The threat of rain kept us from getting to the stage at an early enough hour, and by the time we showed up, about 45 minutes early, the bleachers and tables and aisles and rows were all filled.

So we hung out in back, and then moved way off to the left side to get barely a glimpse of the stage, and when Barenaked Ladies finally came out, it was easy to tell very early on that they weren’t the same Barenaked Ladies.

They stuck to much of their newer music, which only the most dedicated fans could sing along to. Among the first five songs they played, we knew one, and even that one was a bit...flat...without Page belting out the vocals.

A buddy of mine who had no interest that night in seeing the BoDeans, tapped me on the shoulder during the fifth song and asked, “Wanna go over and check out the BoDeans?”

And that was the end of our BNL concert experience. I doubt we missed much during the next hour of their show. And until they fill the gaping void that is Steven Page’s absence, I may spend my time enjoying their music through my headphones rather than through giant loudspeakers next to a stage.

The BoDeans put on an impressive musical performance for those in the group who hadn’t seen them before, and they played two of my favorite songs as encores, so it made for a good move.

And coincidentally, a few of us hung around into Sunday and went back to the grounds later in the day to see (dramatic come-full-circle pause) Sister Hazel. With lead singer planted firmly in front of a microphone, and not on a late flight in.

Because of course, the lead singer really does make or break the musical experience.


“When we started I wasn’t the singer.
I was the drunk rhythm guitarist
who wrote all these weird songs.”
—Robert Smith