Album Review: “Snakes & Arrows” — Rush (2007)

snakesandarrowsProducer Nick Raskulinecz lobbied hard to work with Rush on their 2007 album Snakes & Arrows, and the result is probably one of the strongest (if not THE strongest) album of the band’s later period. Ostensibly he was working to return Rush to their experimental heyday of the 2112 through Hemispheres era, although I don’t think that’s an apt descriptor of the album. For starters, Rush was never a band that spent significant (if any) time looking backward. Whether you liked the direction the band was taking or not, you could never dismiss Rush for remaining stagnant or coasting on formula. This is compounded by the fact that Snakes & Arrows lacks the epic progressive pieces that earmark those earlier albums, in favor of a record that featured 13 tracks of standard song lengths (four to six minutes), including three instrumentals.

So yeah, it’d be misleading to state Snakes & Arrows contains the lyrical and musical equivalent of “Cygnus X-1 III: Attack of the Mole People” or whatever. But what it does feature is a band still mining its creative peak. If anything, there seems to be an air of freedom here, a lack of self-consciousness that all too often plagues established, successful bands well into their fourth decade of recording and touring. Nowhere on the album does it feel like anyone is bellowing “We need a few CLASSIC RUSH SONGS here!!” This is a Rush album, no question, but it’s an album that showcases a band in measured motion and disciplined exploration. Snakes & Arrow feels a little long but it never wallows in meandering self-indulgence or pointless fan-service.

The album’s central focus is faith, its application or sublimation, the wake left behind in its practice, and the reconciliation between dauntless hope and stark pragmatism. Or something like that. Drummer Neil Peart’s lyrics seem to resonate around a central pillar of struggle, conflict, and being able to shoulder the burden while maintaining forward motion. Whether it’s being able to pick yourself up after being continually knocked down (“Far Cry”), navigating through the calamitous thicket of existence while dodging disaster at every turn (“Working Them Angels”), appreciating the beauty of life while recognizing its cynical paradoxes and uncaring destructiveness (“Bravest Face”), finding hope in the face of a universe striving for disorder (“Good News First”), or even a blanket declaration of Humanist principles (“Faithless”), this is Peart at his starkest, darkest, but yet most determined perseverance.

Musically, the band seems especially focused and economical. While there are the usual flourishes of technical and progressive complexity we’ve come to expect from Rush, none of it exists in a vacuum; all of it exists in service of the songs, first and foremost. The hard rock crunch of “Far Cry” merges seamlessly with the pop-rock catchiness of its chorus. The exotic instrumental “The Main Monkey Business” is evocative of island/Afro-Caribbean beats and Middle Eastern melodies to provide something entirely unique, haunting, and lovely. Then you have something like “The Larger Bowl”, in which Geddy Lee’s heartfelt, almost folksy vocals are intertwined seamlessly with a strong acoustic backbone provided by Alex Lifeson.

There’s a prevailing mood of versatility and verisimilitude Snakes & Arrows. An issue I have with some later-era Rush albums is that there is an overall feeling of sameness to the songs on each record (witness 2012’s Clockwork Angels, which is a rather good album but lacks variety), but that’s not the case here. While songs are thematically similar, each exists in its own style and space while simultaneously becoming part of cohesive and appealing collective. Take the three instrumental songs (“The Main Monkey Business”, “Hope”, and “Malignant Narcissism”), which are all distinct pieces: I previously discussed the exotic, worldly “Monkey”, whereas the acoustic “Hope” focuses on a bluegrass feel, with “Narcissism” a more traditional prog-hard-rock track, yet they seem to springboard off of and into each other. As an exploration of faith, its antecedents and conditionals, the album runs the spectral gamut, from rocking hard with furious rage to softening with introspective meditation, sometimes both at the same time. Snakes & Arrows is Rush at their most personal, most connective, most emotionally guttural (as emotionally guttural as Rush gets, anyhow), but still with a strong focus on musicality (complexity in service of melody), fidelity (this is a great sounding record) and tonal diversity.

Race Review: 2015 First Watch Sarasota Half Marathon (3/15/2015), or: “We’re bumpin’ booties, havin’ us a ball…”

FB_IMG_1426439300455I’ve made zero secret about how much I adore the First Watch Sarasota Half Marathon. It’s pretty much my favorite Half Marathon in all of Florida, and yes, I include all of the Disney races in that assessment. When it comes to the most enjoyable races in the Sunshine State, the Sarasota Half is top of the food chain. The race is fun, festive, scenic, low-key but energetic, roomy, uncluttered, well-organized, and an all-around great time. I’ve run this race three times over the last four years, and each time has been a great experience. Whereas the Disneyland Half Marathon in Anaheim always marks the symbolic start of my race season, the Sarasota Half always signifies the triumphant completion.

To put it succinctly: if I could only run one half marathon in Florida, this would be the one.

… OK well that’s it folks. G’nite! Here’s the vi– oh you’re still here? You’re not gonna let me slack on this one?

bttfslacker

Fair enough. I’ll do me best. The 2015 First Watch Sarasota Half Marathon was my 25th Half Marathon ever, which indeed is a cause for celebration! So let’s begin at the beginning, shall we? And believe you me, stick with me here; it “ends” well.

Tee hee. Oh, the joy of puns…

The Day Before

Boots and I began the 3 hour drive up from Fort Lauderdale late Saturday morning. Our only agenda was to pick up my registration packet at the Fit 2 Run store in downtown Sarasota, check into our hotel (the Sarasota Airport Holiday Inn — more on that in a minute), attend the scheduled pasta dinner with FIT, and pass out early that evening. Simple enough.

When I arrived at Fit 2 Run at around 2:30 that afternoon, it was pretty much packed to the gills. The line for registration pickup led out of the store and down the adjacent street. Yikes!

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Looks were deceiving. The line was long but traffic moved very smoothly… especially compared to the free-for-all zoo that was registration last year. Pretty soon I was inside where I picked up my bib, free race jacket (in commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the race), race shirt, and other materials. On the way out I said hi to several FIT friends, many of whom were pacing the race the next day (including first-time pacer and buddy Sarah aka “Helen” from the Miami Marathon). Exiting the store, I waited for Boots to pick me up while chatting with my buddies Kristi and Ines on Main Street. This particular downtown area looked like a plenty fun place to explore, with lots of boutique stores, used book shops, antiques, bars, and restaurants. Some other time, perhaps.

After motoring over to the Holiday Inn where, upon check-in, we were informed that late check-outs were NOT AVAILABLE and we had to be out of our rooms by 11AM the next morning or suffer the Wrath of Lord Palmerston or whatever. This was routinely ignored because the Sarasota Airport Holiday Inn is a terrible place to sleep the night before a race. No, seriously. The staff was making noise from the lobby area well into the evening, the beds were uncomfortable, and the air conditioner has only two modes: completely off, or LOUDLY BLASTING ARCTIC HYPOTHERMIA AT SOUND LEVELS THAT COULD RAISE THE DEAD TWO CONTINENTS AWAY. I had a terrible night’s sleep, and as such will not be staying at that hotel again.

On the plus side, I had a killer Yueng-Ling draft as part of the carbing up during the previous night’s pasta dinner, so it wasn’t a total loss. Thanks to my beer buddies Boots, Katarina, Denise, other Denise, Bruce, and others!

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So let’s get to the meat of the matter…

Race Day

Groggy and sleep-deprived, we left the hotel at 5 AM; last year, Boots and I were stuck in a bit of race traffic and we wanted to avoid it this time around. I think we succeeded. We were easily parked right near the Van Wezel center (next to the Race Area) by around 5:07. Huzzah. We killed time listening to music in the car until 6AM, where, after a quick trip to the porto units, I met up with my buddies for our team picture and general kibbitzing. The weather forecast called for hot temperatures and lots of humidity, but at that point it really didn’t feel all that uncomfortable. There was a strong, cool breeze blowing and it felt like decent running weather to me — just around the mid 60s. So needless to say, I was ready to run this thing!

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I had already decided to treat this race as a really fun training run. I had no plans to run at a race pace whatsoever; this was just 13.1 miles of training, nothing more. Instead of pushing myself in hopes of a PR or a competitive time, I wanted to just relax and enjoy this run — take in the scenery and camaraderie, and not worry one whit about my race time. Besides, I had just hit a near-PR two weeks before in Orlando at Best Damn Race. I had ZERO to prove that morning. Erstwhile running buddy Kristi and I lined up in the C corral (or what loosely could be defined as corrals) and waited for the race to begin. After a roaring take on the National Anthem (featuring a young singer who ABSOLUTELY NAILED that high note to cheers from the crowd), the race began in earnest just after 7:10 AM!

And because you demanded it, let’s take a look at the race course, courtesy of my valiant Garmin 220 watch and Google Maps:

Click to embiggen!

Click to embiggen!

It was a beautiful course, for the most part. It took us south on the Tamiami Trail, then eastbound over the Ringling Causeway, around St. Armands Circle, then back west over the Causeway to the Trail, northbound on the Trail (passing the Start/Finish area) for just over 3 miles. Right around the Mile 9 marker we turned east, passing the impeccably architected Ringling Museum of Art, which then continued with a 3 mile jaunt through the residential Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores neighborhoods. Mile 12 took us back onto the Trail, where we headed south towards the Finish Line, back at the Van Wezel center.

(I copied that course description from last year’s race report. Yes. I am that Slacker…)

I’m not going to get too descriptive of the race, other than to say I really enjoyed every second of it. The scenery afforded you by running up the Ringling Causeway is just breathtaking; you get this killer view of Sarasota Bay both coming and going! The bridge itself is no big deal, if you’ve done any sort of hill training or bridge repeats in your weekly runs. I love the turn around at the St. Armands Circle roundabout, which takes you back over the Causeway towards the mainland. Every year I want to stay in Sarasota and explore that area, yet we never seem to do that. Again, someday…

Kristi and I took off at a long-run training pace and pretty much stayed there for the entirety of the race, somewhere between 10 and 11 min/mile. Intervals were set to 5:1 and left there for the duration. As I mentioned before, this was a no-pressure situation (as well as a no-music situation; no speakers or earphones this time around) so we spent much of the time talking, chatting, joking, and/or bitching. As the sun rose the temperature shot up pretty quickly, and the humidity made itself more prevalent with the increased heat. I’ll tell you the honest truth though: it never, ever felt all that bad to me. Maybe it’s the electrolyte/salt supplements I was took, but I felt just fine. Others felt differently. Different strokes, I guess.

I also want to make the observation that I am HORRIFICALLY AWFUL with names during a race. I passed my friend Alan and called him ‘Joey’, then I finally bumped into Dale from the Mickey Milers Running Team and called her ‘Jennifer’. Please don’t take any of that personally, guys; I’m half a dope sometimes…

The least scenic and least memorable portion of the race is probably the 3 mile trek north up Tamiami Trail. Once past the Van Wezel center, it’s nothing but Burger Kings, Dunkin’ Donutses, gas stations, Super 8 motels, and strip malls until Mile 9. In addition, the area cordoned off for runners becomes much narrower. On the other hand, at least it’s pretty fast and flat, so we just motored on. Boots was snapping pictures before we left the Van Wezel area and she managed to capture this amazing Action Jackson snapshot:

Myself and Kristi right around Mile 6.

Myself and Kristi right around Mile 6.

At Mile 9, we stopped for a much need porto break and continued onward, making the turn into the Indian Beach/Sapphire Shores area. This was a welcome and scenic foray into some of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the area. Between the elegant houses, beautiful bay views, and tree-lined streets that afford ample amounts of shade, this is my favorite part of the race. Some people comment that the 3+ miles through these neighborhood sometimes seem to “go on forever” — I should know, I used to be one of them. This time around, not so much. It actually felt like it flew by, so I tried to take in as much of it as I could. Meanwhile, I could see the heat was taking its toll on the runners around me: I saw a lot of hunched shoulders, slumping running forms, flushed cheeks, and heard enough wheezing and puffing around me to realize that this race was hitting a lot of people pretty hard. Again, we started at a moderate pace and kept it throughout. That, plus the electrolytes I was taking and the lack of any speed expectations whatsoever, made the race seem fairly reasonable to me. And that’s not bravado, either; I really felt like I was having a great time (because I was).

Just after Mile 12, the course took us back onto Tamiami Trail southbound as we made our way to the Finish Area, or what I’d like to call…

Where Things Get Embarrassingly Fun

The finale of the race took a turn for the comical, but it didn’t start out that way. With less than a quarter-mile to go, we first came across Boots, who snapped these pics right here. I was in great spirits and very ready to celebrate the crossing of my 25th half-marathon finish line!

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Then we rounded the corner and prepared to take that last 0.1 miles to the Finish Line!

Let's finish this! (And thanks for blocking Kristi in our shot, Hat Guy!)

Let’s finish this! (And thanks for blocking Kristi in our shot, Hat Guy!)

We made our way down the strip and crossed the Finish Line together, finishing with a time of 2:25:51. I raised my hands up in the air to make a “25” gesture with both hands, but because I forgot all about perspective and mirror imaging, I actually ended up making a “52” gesture. Because I’m half a dope that way…

"FIFTY-TWO!!!!" Eesh...

“FIFTY-TWO!!!!” Eesh…

But it doesn’t end there. Oh no…

As I walked triumphantly from the Finish Line, a frantic gentleman ran up to me, pointing back onto the course. “Sir! Sir! You dropped your phone at the Finish Line!!”

My face turned white and I whipped around. My Armpocket was completely unzipped and empty. When I raised my arms to salute my finish, my Galaxy S5 fell out and was lying face down a few yards from the Finish Line. On the course. In dangerous possibility of being trod upon and smashed by other runners!

Well, what could I do? THE ONLY THING A MAN CAN DO. Run back onto the course, grab it, and run back without getting in anyone else’s way.

This took courage, agility, determination, and a HUGE amount of humility. I jumped back out there and grabbed my phone as quickly as I could.

And photographers managed to capture the moment where I, in all of my supreme glory, photobombed several runners’ finishing pics WITH MY ASS:

Embarrassment: Level 99

Embarrassment: Level 99

Or… if you’d prefer the animated version:

hYE5lA

So I not only butchered the “TWENTY-FIVE!” gesture upon crossing the Finish Line, I also managed to jump back onto the course and flaunt my Royal American for all of God and Country to observe. A posterior for posterity.

Way to stick the landing, Millheiser.

Several hearty laughs at my expense later, Kristi and I made our way through the Finish Area. She got her Storm Series medal (I sat out most of the series this year, having participated in only two of the races), we paused for some bay pictures, and then made our way to the FOOD! Sarasota always has a good selection, and this year was no disappointment. I grabbed the requisite banana, bagel, muffin, and the MUCH loved yogurt parfait. My GOD those are awesome. Listen, when First Watch is the corporate sponsor, you’re gonna get some good eats. They were also serving up fresh pancakes off the griddle, but I was pretty well satiated by then, and besides: it was time for BEER!

Some post-race shots:

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Also a big shout-out to Hokeyblog reader Gus (the Mummy who introduced himself to Boots during last year’s Halloween Half Marathon), who recognized me after the race and graciously agreed to pose for this pic.

Gus and me at the Beer Garden!

Gus and me at the Beer Garden!

See, gentle readers? You too can be Hokeyblog famous!

So all in all, we had another fine time at the First Watch Sarasota Half Marathon. I generally don’t like to repeat races anymore; there are so many other amazing races, courses, and different areas I really want to explore and experience. But if I have no conflicting events that weekend, I’ll make a habit to come back to Sarasota Half as much as I can. Something about this race just “feels” perfect. Or maybe it’s simply just a well-run, scenic, and really enjoyable race, period. It remains, in my opinion, the best Half in Florida, but I welcome all challengers in the future. Anyway… here’s the humble video:

Product Review: LON Little Speaker

resize_f50c74631653f4b0dcc04b28986c463a7b908aff8cb332da4fe72b5b9bfbe1e00764dce1256256I’m always on the lookout for wireless audio solutions that really work, because I’m perpetually in need of quality wireless audio. Whether it’s for better headphones while I run, less fussy audio in the car, or less clutter in the home, a solid wireless audio solution has to have that perfect balance of decent fidelity, easy handling, zero clutter, simple use of space, and so forth.

Enter the LON Little Speaker… and if that isn’t the truthiest truth in advertising ever, then I can scarcely imagine what would take that crown. At 2 inches by 2 inches, this tiny white speaker can easily fit in the palm of your hand and, without any intrusive wires or connection cables to be found, will fit pretty much everywhere you need it to be.

Let’s take a few looks at the unit. Here is the general unboxing:

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The unit is safely boxed and padded, and the speaker comes with a charge cable (your basic mini-USB) and instructions.

The left side of the speaker houses the charge port as well as a line input in case you want to connect audio directly:

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… whereas the back of the speaker has your power button.

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According to the instructions, the speaker requires two hours of charging and provides four hours of playback time. After charging the speaker, I found pairing it to my phone via Bluetooth was a breeze. I simply turned it on, put my phone into Bluetooth scan mode, found the speaker, and clicked the Pair button. No passcodes any other connection issues presented themselves. The pairing took barely a few moments and we were good to go.

To give you an idea of how small this thing is, here it is stacked against my 3″ Ludwig von Drake vinylmation:

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Again: this thing is tiny! The biggest (and let’s be honest, most important) question here is, “How well does audio sound when coming through such a tiny speaker?”

The answer is: Not bad. In fact, it’s probably better than what I was expecting from 8 cubic inches of electronics. Still, expectations have to come into play here; anyone expecting serious fidelity from this speaker probably needs a serious talking-to. This speaker is for quick, easy, portable listening, travel, background audio in a work environment, or any kind of temporary or in-a-pinch needs. For comparative purposes, I listened to music as diverse as Miles Davis’s Sketches of Spain, Rush’s 2112, Punch Brothers’s Phosphorescent Blues, and a few podcast episodes. I was overall pleased with the results I received from the speaker. For a little mono speaker, it had reasonable sound quality and decent reproduction values. I was expecting something thinner, maybe tinnier and with less range, but my expectations were exceeded. The results were fairly impressive.

Now there is no volume control on the speaker itself. Volume changes are handled from your paired Bluetooth device. This really isn’t a drawback in and of itself, but it does mean any kind of equalizations and levels you want to make must be done on your sound source. I wanted to see how loud I could make this thing go and I was able to really make some noise erupt from the Little Speaker; at those levels though, everything got pretty messy and distorted. You’re not going to break any windows with the Little Speaker. But why would you want to?

While the manual promised four hours of playback time, I was able to squeeze almost six hours from it (the online advertisements and marketing for the device also state up to six hours). I generally used my speaker at lower volumes at my work desk, which resulted in a longer playback time.

The LON Little Speaker retails for $38, which means how much value you’ll get out of it is directly proportional to what your audio needs are. For work, travel, or business needs that require easy wireless portability and simple, reasonable sound fidelity, this tiny but effective unit will perform quite well for you.

Album Review: “Fly By Night” — Rush (1975)

Rush_Fly_by_NightFly By Night, the first of two 1975 releases from Rush, is the band’s second album but is the first to feature drummer and primary lyricist Neil Peart, which in many ways makes it the band’s first “real” album. Peart brought so much to the table — more literary allusions, deeply personal and philosophical lyricism, highly dynamic drumming — that the difference between the 1974 debut album and this one is ridiculously palpable. The band began to introduce more sophisticated, progressive musicality to their songs. The quality of the production is a noticeable improvement. The unapologetic crunchy blues-hard-rock was broadened with a more expansive palette of sounds and styles.

The resulting album Fly By Night is certainly more in line with Rush’s evolutionary march than the debut record. It has the band’s first “epic” tune (the 8-and-a-half minute “By-Tor & the Snow Dog”), their first odes to classic objectivism and/or celebration of the individual (“Anthem”, “Fly By Night”), and allusions to fantasy storytelling and environments (“Rivendell”). But scattered amid all the nascent Rush seedlings are songs that are part-and-parcel of the mid 1970s hard rock scene: the mighty power-ballad-ish album closer (“In The End”), the radio rock hit (the title track, again), and a few solid album deep tracks holding everything together.

So it’s a balanced mix of Rush beginning to become “RUSH!!!” with the band still dabbling with established power trio norms of the day, but how does it work as an album? Mostly it works pretty gosh darn well. There’s much to admire about Fly By Night that it’s altogether to easy to pronounce this as Rush’s true debut. But, if you’ll pardon the callback to the opening track of their previous album, the record still feels at times like the band is finding their way. Take “Best I Can”, which to my ears sounds like Geddy took a few musical notes while touring with Kiss. This number feels like a Gene Simmons tune from the Hotter Than Hell era, albeit with infinite better musicality than that band was ever capable of achieving. Still, it’s an interesting track (penned by Lee) that yet remains firmly rooted in the band’s earlier era, rather than being indicative of where they would be heading.

Neil’s ode to the American dream and its contrast against overt militarization couldn’t be more obvious in “Beneath, Between & Behind”, a straightforward rocker with hints of broader reach but not yet reaching them. It’s one of my favorite no-fuss rock tunes from the band with an instantly catching chorus. Speaking of no-fuss rock tunes, the title track “Fly By Night” was the big radio hit from the album and (according to Wikipedia) their highest selling single to date. It’s a steady, soaring rock tune that seems to take flight almost instantly as Lifeson’s guitar riff memorably opens the track. Few songs about knowing when to make your big move could be more succinctly summarized by the declaration that “it’s time I was King now, not just one more Pawn”.

“Anthem” is of course the opening shot across the bow, the vanguard that announced what would be coming later in the epic 1976 “2112” album suite: prog-influenced hard rock taking its lyrical and storytelling cues from the work of Ayn Rand. As the album opener, it instantly heralds the band’s new direction with intricate time changes, tight musicianship, and starkly immediate declaration-of-principles lyricism. Of course, Geddy couldn’t resist throwing in a few Plant-like wails over the chorus.

“By-Tor & the Snow Dog” is the centerpiece of the album, a near nine-minute action movie draped in mythology, in which the canine hero battles a Demon-Prince from Hell in a no-holds-barred epic assault. Or something. It’s a little silly but it’s great fun, especially during the extended middle section, with growls and howls and an instrumental depiction of the clash of titans, and the eventual uplifting fanfare of Snow-Dog’s victory at song’s end. Oops, spoiler alert. “Natural Science” it is not, but taken on its own terms, it’s a sweet tune.

“Making Memories” is an acoustic shuffler about life on the road that is an agreeable if inconsequential addition; it’s a decent album track in and of itself that neither stands out nor drags the record down. The album does however make a major misstep with “Rivendell”. An overt reference to the worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien, the song is a bit of a treacle that doesn’t work, really. The lyrics are clunky and maudlin, the music flat and unmemorable. Which is a shame, as I do enjoy the softer, acoustic side of the band. A song featuring Geddy Lee on classic guitar and vocals, with no bass or drums and just a few other guitar embellishments, is definitely a step away from the expected, and Rush is at least making the conscious attempt to expand their sound. But the song is just… not good. Tediously slow, it clocks in at five minutes in length and seems twice as long. This is rectified by the album closer “In The End”, which opens with Alex’s 12-string acoustic introduction followed by rolling cymbals and Geddy’s soft vocals, exploding into nearly seven minutes of an electric mid-70’s power ballad opus. I find it a welcome piece, a bit long at its running length but with just enough Zeppelin-styled crunch mixed with tasteful restraint to keep it in the Win column and an enjoyable end to the record.

Fly By Night starts strong and even if it does sag a bit towards the end — “Rivendell”, yeesh! — it still represents a quantum leap forward for Rush, one that will almost destroy them commercially on the next album and bring them great success (and firmly reveal their mission statement to the world) on the album after that. But for all intents and purposes, and with all respect to the debut LP (which I enjoy on its own terms), this album remains pretty much where Rush really “begins”.

Jeff Galloway’s Training and Motivation Tips #3, or: “I took a ride in a world I’ll be spinnin’ for the rest of my life…”

unnamedAll of us here at the home office of Hokey Industries, LLC are pleased as pigeons to continue our partnership with the legendary runner, Olympian, coach, and all-around righteous dude Jeff Galloway by presenting the third in our ongoing series of Jeff Galloway’s Training and Motivation Tips! The hope is that you — our epic readers who epitomize wicked awesomeness at every aetheric frequency — will find these tips helpful, inspiring, perhaps even elucidating?

‘Elucidating’ is a fantastic word. It’s another way of saying ‘illuminating’, which we used last time and I’m never one to repeat myself. And I also just got me a new Thesaurus. Can you tell?

As always, Jeff’s tips will be in bold, followed by my own thoughts in… not bold. So whaddaya say? Let’s roll the bones!

Training and Motivation Tips

by Olympian Jeff Galloway
www.runinjuryfree.com

Most injuries experienced by my runners are due to 1) pacing long runs too fast, 2) increasing the weekly mileage too quickly, 3) lengthening stride and 4) stretching.

Solid. People seem to forget that those long runs are LONG for a reason; they’re when you develop stamina and endurance, rather than setting land-speed records. If you try to tackle too much mileage too quickly, prepare yourself for a long time spent off of your feet dealing with all kinds of sidelining injuries. Instead alternate weekend long runs with weekend base runs, and increase your mileage slowly. Long strides are a recipe for disaster as well, so keep that cadence count up (at least 160 pm, probably higher) and your stride quick and light… unless you want to blow out a hamstring or something. And never, ever do cold, static stretches before a run. You could hobble yourself before you even start. I find that the first mile of a long run provides more than enough adequate warm-up. Stretching afterward is at your discretion; some swear by it, others don’t need it. Find what works for you.

The principle in staying injury free is to balance gentle stress with the right recovery periods-allowing for rebuilding. (For more information, see my book RUNNING INJURIES)
You ever meet someone who claims they run 6-7 days a week? You can usually find them on crutches. In his Run/Walk/Run method, Jeff advocates three days a week of running, which is more than enough to get you across that Finish Line. I generally do 4 days a week, but I cross-train as well to exercise other muscle groups and maintain my level of fitness. No matter how you train, always take advantage of recovery time away from each exercise. And for Odin’s sake, have (at least) one day a week where you don’t exercise anything at all. Give your body the time it needs to catch its breath. It’ll thank you for it… with less AGONIZING WOE!

"No no, trust me, you DON'T need a recovery day!"

“No no, trust me, you DON’T need a recovery day!”

Finding the right Run Walk Run strategy from the beginning of a run has been the best way I’ve found to stay injury free, come back from an injury and in some cases, continue to run while the injury heals. (See my book RUN WALK RUN)
I’ve been using Run/Walk/Run for nearly four years now, and the worst injuries I’ve ever had to deal with were a case of the shin splints (which came from running 21 miles in a brand new pair of shoes) and an IT-band inflammation that lasted for a few weeks. Neither injury knocked me off my feet for too long; the shin splints went away on their own with some rest and compression calf sleeves, while targeted stretching relieved the IT-band issue. Using RWR has definitely helped me remain otherwise injury-free over the last four years. And trust me; I’m a Big Guy. All that force coming down on my skeletal structure and supporting tendons, joints, and musculature would normally be nothing less than deleterious, if I had been running in a way that didn’t minimize wear-and-tear on my body.

Let’s group the next several points together, because they make a connected thesis:

Are you concerned that running will damage joints, and other body parts ? I was told this regularly, from my first week of running over 50 years ago but the research shows the opposite result: Runners have healthier joints, etc. than non runners as the decades go by.

While researching for my book RUNNING UNTIL YOU’RE 100, I reviewed dozens of studies and could not find one showing that running harms legs, feet, joints, etc.

It may surprise you to know that many studies show that runners have fewer orthopedic issues compared with non-runners as the years go by.

A respected and large population study out of Stanford following thousands of runners over 50 who had run for more than 20 years concluded that runners had less than 25% of orthopedic issues compared with non runners of the same age.
Other than the time I broke my foot when I was 12, the worst foot injury I’d ever experienced was bursitis in my heel. Bear in mind, this was a year before I ever started running… and I got it from standing at a concert. Not even moving around, moshing, dancing, nothing. Just standing… at a Cinderella concert! Nowadays I can move around for hours without wear or tear on my body, even (or especially) when I’m not running. I definitely feel healthier; infinitely so, as a matter of fact, compared to when I wasn’t running. Running has helped me build a strong support system. We’ll see where I am in another five years, but so far so good.

"NO PAIN HERE!"

“NO PAIN HERE!”

You know what’s really going to cause you a host of back, knee, and other issues? Lack of energy, lack of activity, and lack of strength. Stay fit, focused, and active.

Finally…

As long as you stay below the threshold of irritation you can often continue to run while the injury heals.
I found this to be very true, but bear in mind you want to be mindful of your injury and treatment. Certainly more serious injuries require rest and recovery until your doctor tells you otherwise. But let’s take my IT-band inflammation from above; while I was treating it, I could most certainly run on it. However, I had to be very careful, very mindful, and very alert. I didn’t run distances of over 6 miles, I had to use compression straps to stabilize where the band met the knee, I did targeted stretches both before and after the run, and I iced afterward. I continued to heal while running. It most definitely is possible. But you also have to be prepared to stay off your feet for awhile if your recovery demands it.

But an injury doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stop exercising. Depending upon the nature of your injury, you can do strength or resistance training, swimming, yoga, biking… whatever doesn’t interfere with your healing process. Keep that fitness level up and active if you can. If you can’t, know that once you’re cleared for activity, it won’t take long to get back to where you were before your sidelining. I’ll never forget that first run after being knocked off my feet for six-weeks due to a particularly nasty ulcerative colitis flare-up. After a mile and a half at an easy pace with easy intervals, I was winded, sore, and utterly depleted of energy. It was like I had never run before in my life. The next run went a LOT better, and by the run after that I was, if not back to where I was before at my best, certainly close enough that I knew I’d be back to optimal within weeks. And I was.

Well that’s it for our Jeff Galloway Training and Motivation Tips for today. If you had half as much fun reading them as I did relaying and commenting upon them, I had twice as much fun as you, and that’s not entirely fair. So here’s a video. It’s Cinderella. I just might dance to it:

Album Review: “Power Windows” — Rush (1985)

Rush_Power_WindowsAfter the somewhat chaotic production of 1984’s Grace Under Pressure (which I suspect worked in the album’s favor, but that’s neither here nor there), Rush returned to the studio in 1985 for their followup Power Windows, a more confident-sounding and cohesive album than its predecessor (but not quite as good). Themes of power, its utilization, destructive energy, mass-market capitalization, and corruption of the spirit were brought to the forefront, a “concept” album in tone if not in narrative.

Power Windows is often looked on by fans as one of the pivotal moments (if not THE pivotal moment) during which keyboards and synths dominated the band’s sound. Certainly there’s no denying it; the album is simply drenched with them. Rush was never a band to lock down to an established paradigm; their sound and fury was ever changing and evolving. Some fans who revered albums like Hemispheres and A Farewell To Kings, with their epic side-length album cuts that reveled in intricate musical complexity and grandiose storytelling, found themselves turned off by the shorter, more “commercial” or contemporary sounding tracks on Power Windows.

In a way, you couldn’t blame them. Maybe. Rush in 1985 was, pardon the expression, a ‘far cry’ from where they were by the late 70s, even the early 80s. They were looking to expand their sound-stage and take advantage of the styles and technology of the day. But the band’s sound was still undeniably RUSH, as evident by the album opener (and lead-off single) “The Big Money”. An uptempo number, it integrates decorative keyboard lines with the sharp punctuation of Alex Lifeson’s guitar, the punch of Geddy Lee’s bass runs and drummer (and lyricist) Neil Peart’s alternating drum/electric drum/cowbell fills. It’s one of the band’s best known songs, and it still holds up, even if it does scream 80s!!! a bit more than most of their other hit singles from the era. The following track “Grand Designs” is again driven by keyboards, almost overrun by them during the chorus, but it swings with a ska-influenced rhythm that is undeniably catchy.

“Manhattan Project” is an odd song. The intro and opening seem a bit too conventional, almost a tad too “Mike + The Mechanics” for my taste (not a slam on that band, just not what I’m expecting from Rush). The song really kicks into gear during the chorus, but the verses leave me a bit cold. On the other hand, “Marathon” has always been a favorite. Everything from the catchiness of the melody, the musicianship from the band (especially Geddy’s trebly runs under and between verses), to the choral lift on the final verse, this is a great one. It’s an extremely polished and well- (some would say over-) produced track, but it serves the song extremely well.

“Territories” opens with African/Island rhythms from the band, a definite new sound integrated into their music, evolving out of the dalliances with reggae and ska that first made themselves noticeable back on 1980’s Permanent Waves and continued from that point on. The song contains some of Peart’s most direct and sometimes furious lyrics, a plea for universal tolerance and global unity: “Better the pride that resides in a citizen of the world, than the pride that divides when a colorful rag is unfurled.” Lifeson’s screaming guitar is used to great effect here, underscoring the song’s primal, pleading rage.

I really enjoy the poetic yearning of “Middletown Dreams” more than I enjoy the song. A spiritual successor to the 1982 classic “Subdivisions”, the lyrics are beautifully evocative, but the music feels flat and by-the-numbers to me. I find “Emotion Detector” to be similarly off-balanced, although with that track I’m not as fond of the lyrics while I’m more appreciative of the music. The album starts to feel a bit repetitive here, a sense of overall sameness between these two songs: extremely keyboard-dominated, low-key numbers that “explode” with Lifeson’s guitars during the choruses. I much prefer the darker, more ominous opening to “Mystic Rhythms”, the album’s closer. Highlighting a percussive, African style once again meshed with almost Oriental sounding strings from Alex’s guitar, the world feel of the song adds a musical layer of exotic intrigue to Peart’s lyrics about coming to logical terms with the supernatural and unexplainable.

Power Windows is another good record from the band, with the caveat being that it’s probably the band’s least timeless work since their 1974 debut album. Not even just the keyboard domination, electric drums, or thinner guitar tone, but the overall feel of the album is part and parcel of the mid 1980s. However, if you move past those particular production ornamentations, there is plenty of great material to be found: “Big Money”, “Marathon”, “Territories”, and “Mystic Rhythms” are easily the album standout tracks, but “Grand Designs” is a good deep cut and there are some interest parts of “Manhattan Project”. The album sags with “Middletown Dreams” and “Emotion Detector”, but those aren’t so much bad tracks as they are mostly filler. While I prefer the darker, chillier vibe of Grace Under Pressure, there is enough quality on Power Windows to make a strong argument against Rush 80s output being a “less deserving” musical period.

Race Review: Best Damn Race Orlando Half Marathon (2/28/2015), or: “In and around the lake…”

10991439_10153636483438219_2770706625581259283_nFor awhile now, I have been really itching to check out the Best Damn Race events. They presented an overall ethos which I can absolutely stand behind… and they also provided me the opportunity to use the word ‘ethos’ in a race review, for which I will eternally be grateful. Anyway, the BDR organization is a relative newcomer on the race events block, but they’ve quickly become notable for their mission to provide big-ticket, main-event races at local race prices.

As someone who has run Disney way too many times at exorbitant rates… this was a philosophy I could unequivocally support.

So far, Best Damn Race has produced (or is scheduling) race events in Safety Harbor, Orlando, Cape Coral, and Jacksonville, which basically includes almost every quadrant of Florida except mine, so I used the 2015 Best Damn Race Orlando Half Marathon as my excuse to plan a weekend jaunt to Orlando, race a little, and do some general noshing and theme parking around the area. I justified the visit with the relatively inexpensive cost of the half. BDR uses a tiered system of pricing that rewards the early adopter. The first ten registrants get in for ONE DOLLAR…

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“Money isn’t everything, Randolph…”

… while the next ten get in for $5, the next ten for $10… by the time I registered my cost was $55, which was still a massive bargain for a half marathon. Oh sure, I’d have to schlep up to Orlando, so figure in gas, tolls, hotels, and other travel-related expenses this might not have been the most cost-effective half ever. All in the name of blogging, folks! Still, the race also featured free food, free massages, and free race photos. What’s not to love?

Anyway, let’s roll right into the event itself. Boots and I left Fort Lauderdale mid-morning on Friday and arrived in Orlando roughly 3 hours later. The expo was held outdoors at Lake Eola Park, which would also serve as the Start and Finish area for the following morning’s race. It wasn’t particularly crowded that afternoon, and within minutes I already had my bib, swag bag, and race shirt in hand. There were a handful of vendors present but nothing really caught my eye; it was mostly geared towards local events, organizations, and charities. After a full lap around the grounds, we returned to our car, made our way to our hotel, checked in, and relaxed for a few hours before an early dinner at The Wave at Disney’s Contemporary Resort.

Here are some expo pics, for your pleasure and enjoyment:

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Did you see that PR Bell in the slideshow right above this sentence? I was determined to ring that sucker for all its worth the following morning. Would I be successful in my endeavors? Keep reading, gentle Hokeyfolk…

Race Day

I woke up from the worst night of pre-race sleep ever about 15 minutes before my alarm was scheduled to go go off at 5 AM. Exhausted doesn’t cover the half of it; I was literally waking up every 30-40 minutes throughout the entire evening. Certainly not the best of ways to start a race day, but I was determined to push past it. I quickly dressed and put together my race gear and supplements; we were only about a 15 minute drive away from Lake Eola Park, so I wasn’t in much of a rush or anything like that. Still, I’d rather be too early than way late, so we left the hotel just after 5:30.

But first it was all about taking this killer “About To Vacate The Hotel Room” pre-race shot!

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“Dig Me: Part Infinitus”

I’ve been swimming a lot lately; it’s been leaning me out. So I’m showing off. My blog.

Anyway… I was expecting a mountain of pre-race traffic, but at that time there wasn’t any whatsoever. The hardest part was navigating our way to the parking garage through multiple road closures, but we were parked (for free!) and good to go by 6 AM. There was plenty of time to kill, and with temperatures in the upper 50s it was just a lot easier to chill in the car for a good half hour. Finally after getting antsy enough, Boots and I exited the parking garage and suddenly realized we had no idea where we were going! Thankfully, your intrepid narrator has the Blood of Portuguese Navigators flowing through his veins, which instructed him to either turn on Google Maps or ask a stranger, because The Blood wasn’t helping out one whit. Freakin’ genetics.

Still, we managed to make it to the Start Area in Lake Eola Park with no muss and very little fuss. A trip to the porto units was in order, and after a none-too-protracted wait there Boots and I bummed around the Start Area until around 7:10. I kissed Boots goodbye and wormed my way into the Start chute and waited for the race to begin.

Here are some pre-race festivity shots:

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After the traditionally over-sung National Anthem, a blind runner was allowed to begin with his guide a few moments before the general start. By 7:17 AM, the race began (somewhat anticlimactically) in proper. I crossed the Start Line at 7:18 and I was off on my way!

Here’s an overview of the course, thanks (as always) to Google Maps and my Garmin 220:

Click to make embiggened.

Click to make embiggened.

As you can see, this was no basic out-and-back course, but one that took us on an occasionally symmetrical route starting from Lake Eola, turning north and east, then south to and around Lake Underhill, then south on Crystal Lake before turning west to Summerlin, looping back east before returning west and back to Lake Eola to finish exactly where we started.

It was a pretty humid day… moist, thick, and about 94% humidity with temperatures at about 61 degrees at race start. It had been pretty drizzly the previous day, which led to the streets being a bit wet and sometimes a little slippery. This was especially prevalent during the brick roads that made up much of the first mile or two. Still, it was mostly easy running. The vast majority of the course took us through local neighborhoods, with the occasional turn into a few commercial areas.

Also of note was that the course had a lot more elevation changes than I was expecting. It wasn’t remotely “hilly” by any stretch of the imagination, but it was the Central Floridian version of “gentle, rolling hills”, or what you more mountainous types would call “flat”. Take that for whatever it’s worth; all I remember was elevation going up 100 feet between Mile 1 and Mile 1.5.

Given that the course took us mainly through local neighborhoods, it wasn’t the most scenic of races. It was safe, pleasant, and remarkably uncluttered by traffic. It was also remarkably uncluttered by cheering spectators. There were a few people out and about, mostly people in robes standing on their lawns, driveways, or porches, holding cups of coffee and cheering on runners, but for the most part it felt pretty empty. In fact, it felt more like a training run than an actual race itself, save for the hydration and gel stations. Speaking of which, there were plenty of those on the race and most of them had enough volunteers to keep runners moving. I can only recall one of them that was a bit understaffed, forcing runners to grab their own water or Nuun (no Powerade or Gatorade, but Nuun electrolyte replacement drinks).

This was a low-key race, but I enjoyed the simplicity of it all. There were just over a thousand runners participating, so there was plenty of elbow room for everyone to run their own race. I just ran, period, and enjoyed it as much as I could. I wanted to PR, and felt strong coming out the gate, but as the temperature rose over the first hour I could really feel the humidity affecting me. What had felt effortless during the first five miles now started to feel exponentially tougher in the steamy morning air. Somehow that loop around Lake Underhill, roughly between miles 4.8 and 6.2, felt like a chore.

One particular pet peeve irked me early in the race: I started towards the rear of the pack. That was my own doing, as I should have lined up in the chute earlier than five minutes before the race. Anyway, I was shooting for a sub 2:06 race time, but as I passed the 2:30 and 2:15 pacers, I noticed that those people running with the pacers tended to form a wide human wall on both sides of the pacer, making it very difficult to navigate past them. People: DON’T DO THIS! The pacer is actually scheduled to finish the race a minute or two (or more!) ahead of their promised time; you can run behind them and still hit your goal. So no worries, OK?

Another incident was much scarier; the local police were doing a fantastic job holding up automobile traffic as runners were making their way through intersections. Well one driver wasn’t having any of THAT! She tried to make her way around the gridlock and plow through the intersection anyhow, despite a cop standing their with his hand up. He screamed, “Lady… LADY… LADY!!! STOP!!!” over and over again until she screeched to a halt in front of him. He motioned her to reverse and back up into her previous lane of traffic, walking in her direction so she would get the message. She dropped into reverse, backed up a few feet… and the minute the cop walked away from her, she GUNNED IT through the intersection anyhow, speeding away from the screaming policeman with a look of utter smug delight on her face.

I only wish I knew the rest of the story. I don’t wish ill will on anyone, but if, say, this woman was later admitted to the Emergency Room with an eggplant firmly lodged up her butt, I’d probably be OK with that.

Otherwise, it a simple, safe, humid run back to the Finish Line. Mile 12, on South Street, seemed to go directly downhill for a full mile. I decided to forgo my 5:1 intervals and run the last 2.1 miles of the race straight through, in a last ditch effort to make my PR. Strangely enough, running without intervals at that point felt pretty easy, even as the road elevation leveled off and the decline ended. It felt pretty muggy and thick out — but not all that hot, thanks to the cloud cover — and I gave it all I had.

Turning back onto Central Boulevard, I could see the Finish Line, roughly 0.3 miles away. I picked up the pace and gunned it (as best I could). A photographer captured this amazing action snapshot:

Finish Line is in sight!

Finish Line is in sight!

With Lake Eola on my left, I continued heading down Central and saw Boots near the Finish… and she captured these pics right here:

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So did I do it? Did I manage to PR? Well my existing PR (from the 2014 Avengers Half Marathon) was 2:06:04…

My time for this race? Well, I do believe this picture tells the story rather succinctly:

Oh, the Pathos…

2:06:41 — missed it by 37 seconds.

Listen, I wasn’t torn up about it. The margin of error between half marathons means that a difference of a minute or more could easily be attributed to course conditions, weather, heat, humidity, bodily function issues, crowding, whatever. I wasn’t feeling my best at this race and I still managed to run my 2nd fastest half marathon out of 24. I’ll take it. Gladly.

And here are some of those awesome free race photos!

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I met up with Boots pretty quickly, and helped myself to a ton of the post-race amenities: oranges, bagels, brownie bites, and some coffee and doughnut bites courtesy of Dunkin’ Donuts. Pollo Tropical was offering a hot meal of beans and rice, but generally eschew that sort of stuff just after finishing a race. Afterward we walked over to the PR Bell, where Boots got that picture of me GLARING SADLY at it, and then we took this pic right here:

BDR

“Dig Me: Part Infinitus Redux”

So what’s the verdict on the 2015 Best Damn Race Orlando Half Marathon? Well for the price, it really can’t be beat. Most assuredly, they live up to their reputation for providing a big ticket experience at a local event price. There was a smaller number of runners which meant pretty open racing conditions, and the Start/Finish amenities were excellent. The medal was pretty big, simply designed but beautifully rendered. That having been said, Best Damn Race is, at its core, still a local race. There wasn’t much in terms of scenery, entertainment, or cheering spectators. It’s probably not worth driving well out of your way to attend, but if you’re within striking distance of the Start Line, Best Damn Race Orlando provides a very worthwhile and enjoyable experience. Here’s the video:

Product Review: Aennon Multi-Function LED Headlamp

hl1Running at night!!

I felt that deserved a few exclamation points and some bolding… anyway, as runners, we often find the necessity to run in the heart of darkness to be absolutely and utterly paramount. Whether it’s because of cooler morning temperatures, time availability, weekend long runs that have to start at 3:30 AM… the list goes on. Bright-colored clothes are always important. Reflectors and blinking LED lights, even better.

But a headlamp? Brother, that is worth its weight in recovery chocolate milk and THEN some…

In pitch darkness, you need to be able to see the road. If there’s debris, you don’t want to trip over it. If you’re running on the sidewalk or uneven pavement, the smallest change in conditions can send you sprawling onto your Royal American. Furthermore, a headlamp will make you visible to oncoming road traffic, as well as other runners, bicyclists, or pedestrians, alerting them not only of your presence but direction and movement.

Ergo: if you’re running at night (or early morning), your headlamp is absolutely essential.

I was sent the Aennon Multi-Function LED Headlamp to review here at Hokeyblog. As always, my opinions are my own and utterly unswayed by anything other than my own empirical observations. So let’s take a look at this product:

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The Aennon Headlamp is constructed out of lightweight but sturdy plastic, with an adjustable strap that fits both around and over the head. The lamp itself has a tilt range of just about 90 degrees. Powered by three AAA batteries, it operates in three modes of increasing brightness as well as a “red light” mode.

So let’s take a look at my experience with the headlamp. Here are a few photos of the unboxing:

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The plastic construction of the headlamp felt light and sturdy in my hand. It took some minor fiddling to get the three AAA batteries in place and back into the unit, but it was mostly an easy effort overall.

Now here came the real effort: a test of the unit during my nighttime run! Here’s the picture of your Running Nerd in question, wearing the headlamp:

With apologies for the blurriness... but not for the dorkiness!

With apologies for the blurriness… but not for the dorkiness!

I’ve worn other headlamps in the past, and there is simply no possible way to NOT look dorky while wearing one. You have to know that going in, and you also have to unconditionally not care one iota about it. This is about safety first and foremost.

Anyway, the lamp felt comfortable and secure on my rather over-sized melon. I have something of a large head, so headgear of any kind — even baseball caps, for that matter — often feels too snug or oddly-fitting on my noggin. Thankfully, the adjustable straps made sure that the unit was not only well-fitted, but comfortable. No problems there.

Now there are three settings on the lamp (four if you use the “red light” mode, which I don’t and can’t see myself using for running purposes), each of them using 2, 4, or 8 of its LED lights. I ran at the brightest setting (“Ultra Bright” mode), which claims to shine up to 164 feet in distance and casts the widest dispersion of the light source. I can’t see myself using anything but the Ultra Bright mode when running at night. The manual promises up to 16 hours of battery life in “Power Save” mode, which uses only two LEDs to Ultra Bright’s eight. Logic dictates that this would leave you with up to 4 hours of power if you use the highest setting on a regular basis. In other words, keep plenty of spares around.

Otherwise, I found it to be a very useful and satisfying headlamp. It never felt hot or uncomfortable, which can happen with other headlamps that simply have a larger, “headband” styled strap that goes around the forehead with the light unit attached to the center. Furthermore, there was no slippage, bobbing, or fussing with the unit. It stayed put exactly where I wanted it to be. The 90-degree tilt was fairly versatile and managed to stay in place throughout the entire of a 5-mile run.

Overall I was pretty pleased with Aennon Headlamp. Compared with others in its class, it is also somewhat price competitive. The only issue at hand would be battery power — a super-early morning run might require 2-4 hours of darkness (or more!), so if that’s the case make sure you stock it with fresh batteries. As it stands, this headlamp is a very light, comfortable, and unobtrusive unit that does exactly what you need it to do.
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Concert Review: The Fab Faux — Ft. Lauderdale, FL (2/21/2015)

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Note: All pictures in this review were taken by the lovely and talented Boots from our seats in Row F, and without a single use of flash photography whatsoever. When it comes to buttkickin’ concert photography, my wife is Queen of the Freakin’ Ninjas!

Ahh… if there are three things we absolutely love here at Hokeyblog, it’s The Fab Faux, The Beatles, and Rubber Soul. So let’s wax poetic about all three for a spell, shall we?

As I mentioned in my album review (linked above), Rubber Soul is, in my opinion, the perfect record towards which you should direct new Beatles fans or those interested in discovering more of their music. Oh sure, everyone immediately wants to refer the budding neophyte to Abbey Road, Revolver, or especially Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, but in my mind Rubber Soul is easily the most ideal starting point. To quote myself… which is about as solipsistic an exercise as they come:

[Rubber Soul] arrives at the heart of [The Beatles’s] transitional period, turning away from the imagery of mop-topped teenybopper pop sensations towards singer-songwriters without peer, leading the vanguard that transformed the feature-length album into a singular work of art rather than a collection of singles, b-sides, and filler. With Rubber Soul, the studio had become as much an instrument as the Hofner bass, Gretsch and Rickenbacker guitars, and Ludwig kit, a tableau onto and into which the band expanded the boundaries of their craftsmanship… Rubber Soul evolved the process to a point where the production values were not just stronger; the songs were richer, cohesive, more sophisticated in their construction yet buoyed by the inimitable simplicity and purity of their presentation

I was reading and listening to a lot of Robert Greenberg when I wrote that review… can you tell?

Anyway, The Fab Faux performing Rubber Soul in its entirety was a done deal, in my book. This premiere Beatles tribute band is renowned for their ability to duplicate the sound and spirit of the Beatles’s recordings onstage. This is no “wigs and costumes” pastiche performance. If you’re looking for that kind of experience, there are a host of cover/tribute groups which will provide that level of entertainment in abundance. The Fab Faux is all about the music, and presenting the album-listening experience live and, judging by the reaction at the Parker Playhouse that night, to a rapturously thrilled audience.

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Before the concert began promptly at 8 PM, we were treated to a host of Beatles cover tunes played over the venue’s sound system, the vast majority of which are almost completely unknown to the populace at large (I particularly enjoyed Shang Shang Typhoon’s take on “Let It Be”). As the house lights went down, “Beatle Brunch” host Joe Johnson took the stage to introduce the band, and soon joined the audience to enjoy the show. I know this because he was sitting right behind Boots and I!

Let us introduce the band line-up. We have:

  • Frank Agnello – Guitars, Vocals (occasional fuzz bass)
  • Will Lee – Bass, Vocals (occasional drums, keys, and acoustic guitar)
  • Rich Pagano – Drums, Vocals
  • Jack Petruzzelli – Keys, Guitars, Vocals
  • Jimmy Vivino – Guitars, Keys, Vocals (occasional sitar and maybe a bazouki?)

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These guys are not just ridiculously talented, but extremely damn entertaining. They’ve been performing together since the 90s and this is reflected in their onstage humor and easygoing playfulness, but when it comes to the music the guys deliver in abundance. Joining them for this performance were the ladies of the Creme Tangerine Strings (Sibel Finn and Amy Kimball), who enhanced the band’s sound with violin and cello during the second part of show.

So let’s get cracking and head through the set-list, my thoughts on each song, and where/how they were originally released in both the UK and US. I’ve also included who sang lead vocals on each song, as best as I could anyhow. Again, they often reproduce double-tracked vocals live, so at times it’s difficult to tell who’s singing lead and who’s doing harmonies, but I think I got the gist of it.

SONG UK ALBUM US ALBUM
1. Drive My Car Rubber_Soul YesterdayandTodayalbumcover
Vocals: Jack Petruzzelli, Frank Agnello. The Rubber Soul album began immediately, and you could hardly choose a better opening number than Paul’s cowbell-laden ode to a rather snotty lass who still managed to get her way anyhow.
2. Norwegian Wood Rubber_Soul Rubber_Soul
Vocals: Frank Agnello Rich Pagano. Rich took lead vocals, Jack pulled out a 12-string guitar and provided harmony vocals, and Jimmy whipped out the sitar to tackle John’s classic album cut. This is one of my all-time favorite songs — Beatles or otherwise — which made this a concert highlight for me.

Jimmy on the sitar

Jimmy on the sitar

3. You Won’t See Me Rubber_Soul Rubber_Soul
Vocals: Will Lee, Jack Petruzzelli. This infectious pop number featured Will and Jack on double-tracked vocals, with harmonies from the band. Those “Ooooooh… la-la-la’s” will get you every time, man.
4. Nowhere Man Rubber_Soul YesterdayandTodayalbumcover
Vocals: Jimmy Vivino, Rich Pagano. On any given day, this could be my favorite Beatles song of all time. Everything about it is perfection: the harmonies (provided by all five members of the band), the driving rhythm, the shimmering, perfect guitar solo, Lennon’s stark, poetic lyricism… I could go on. Nowhere Man is probably the most perfect pop song ever recorded. The Fab Faux more than did it justice, they really brought it to life onstage.
5. Think For Yourself Rubber_Soul Rubber_Soul
Vocals: Jack Petruzzelli. Frank whipped out a Fender P and cranked up the fuzz, replicating the fuzz bass sound originated by Paul on the album. The first Harrison song of the evening, this uptempo number was a solid crowd-pleaser.

Frank rockin’ the fuzz bass

6. The Word Rubber_Soul Rubber_Soul
Vocals: Jimmy Vivino. Right before the song began, Will took off his jacket and showed the inner lining to the audience; it was, in fact, the “Butcher” cover to Yesterday and Today. Rather apropos, since that US album contained several songs that were missing from the US version of Rubber Soul. The band provided vocals over the chorus while Jimmy took lead on the verses. Highlights of this song included Jack’s bouncy piano work and Jimmy’s spirited maracas!
7. Michelle Rubber_Soul Rubber_Soul
Vocals: Will Lee. “Were you ever a teenager in love with a French girl?” the band asked as Will broke into McCartney’s tender ballad Michelle. You could just sit back and watch heads swaying during this number.
8. What Goes On Rubber_Soul YesterdayandTodayalbumcover
Vocals: Jack Petruzzelli. I’ll freely admit I’m not a big rockabilly fan and, as such, this song isn’t a favorite of mine. Jack’s energetic delivery worked pretty well though; his melodramatic presentation of the “Did you mean to break my heart and watch me die?” line was one for the record books.
9. Girl Rubber_Soul Rubber_Soul
Vocals: Will Lee. It behooved Frank to mention that on an album full of capo’ed guitars, this particular song was capo’ed the highest (8th fret, I believe?). Will took lead on this one, with Jimmy playing something that looked like a bazouki. I think. But what do I know? I’m just a caveman…
10. I’m Looking Through You Rubber_Soul Rubber_Soul
Vocals: Jack Petruzzelli. The hand claps that pulsated through the album track make their appearance here, featuring lead vocals from Jack with an assist from Frank.
11. In My Life Rubber_Soul Rubber_Soul
Vocals: Jimmy Vivino. In My Life is just one of those great John Lennon songs that floors you every time, and Jimmy handled it beautifully on vocals, with a spirited “harpsichordish” solo from Jack.
12. Wait Rubber_Soul Rubber_Soul
Vocals: Rich Pagano. I’ll freely admit that I’m not much a fan of this song. Not that I dislike it; it fits the album’s tenor just fine, but I’m mostly indifferent to it. The band did a great job covering the song, of course.
13. If I Needed Someone Rubber_Soul YesterdayandTodayalbumcover
Vocals: Frank Agnello. This is the second Harrison cut from the album, and it’s an absolute beaut. Frank took lead but the rest of the band handled harmonies beautifully.
14. Run For Your Life Rubber_Soul Rubber_Soul
Vocals: Rich Pagano. Pound for pound, this is probably the creepiest song The Beatles ever recorded, and probably holds the record for the creepiest song attached to the bounciest, most upbeat music ever. The highlights of the song were the dueling soloists of Jimmy, playing slide on a Gibson SG, and Jack, playing country licks on a Fender Strat. It made for one hell of an outro!
INTERMISSION
15. Hello Goodbye magical mystery tour magical mystery tour
Vocals: Rich Pagano, Jack Petruzzelli. Joined onstage by the Creme Tangerine Strings, the band won back the crowd from an easy-going lethargy of Intermission drinks and snacks with an upbeat number that got the crowd right back on their feet.
16. I Am The Walrus magical mystery tour magical mystery tour
Vocals: Rich Pagano. I Am The Walrus is always a showstopper and crowd favorite. In the six times I’ve seen The Fab Faux, they’ve always played this number to great success… and tonight it didn’t disappoint.
17. And Your Bird Can Sing revolver YesterdayandTodayalbumcover
Vocals: Frank Agnello. Lennon didn’t particularly care for this song, but in my opinion it’s one of the most unforgettable ’60s Power Pop classics. Once again, Jimmy and Jack handled the dual leads during the intro, outro, and chorus. Short, punchy, uptempo, and awesome. Like Jackie Rogers Jr. with a Bouncy C…
18. Ticket To Ride help help_us
Vocals: Jimmy Vivino. Ticket To Ride is often credited as one of “the earliest prototypical heavy metal songs”. I would agree to disagree on that particular assessment, but it doesn’t stop this song from being so gosh-darn swell! Frank whipped out the 12-string Rickenbacker for this one, bringing an unmistakably ringing chime to the table.

12-string Rickenbacker. Let the drooling commence...

12-string Rickenbacker. Let the drooling commence…

19. Here Comes The Sun abbey road abbey road
Vocals: Will Lee. The combination of acoustic guitar, synthesizer, killer harmonies and simple, direct lyrics make for one of the most beautiful songs Harrison ever recorded. With one exception (soon), I saw more people singing along with this particular song than with any other during the entire performance.
20. Glass Onion white album white album
Vocals: Rich Pagano. If you would have told me that the first song of the evening from The Beatles (“The White Album”) would have been “Glass Onion”, I would have been pleasantly… pleased. And I was. I had to give up tickets to go see The Fab Faux perform the entire White Album in Port Chester last year, and I’m still a little bitter. So this helped. A little.
21. Something abbey road abbey road
Vocals: Frank Agnello. Speaking of beautiful Harrison songs from Abbey Road, Frank took lead vocal and lead guitar duties on “Something”. I don’t even know what else I can say about this number, except it was knocked utterly out of the park.
22. Rain the-beatles-paperback-writer-parlophone-cs hey jude
Vocals: Jimmy Vivino. “Rain” was often called the best Beatles B-side ever, but in my opinion is equally as good as its stellar A-side partner (“Paperback Writer”). Jimmy even sang the backwards vocal during the outro. Good stuff.
23. While My Guitar Gently Weeps white album white album
Vocals: Frank Agnello and Jack Petruzzelli. Rich hails us out of the bridge from “Bungalow Bill” into this Harrison classic. Along with “I Am The Walrus”, this is a signature tune that the band has performed every time I’ve seen them. And of course there will be another “signature tune” to come (soon). The highlight is of course Jimmy’s absolutely shredding guitarwork: first a pitch-perfect take on Clapton’s original solo, and then an extended solo section capping off the song. Brilliant stuff.
24. Eleanor Rigby revolver revolver
Vocals: Will Lee. Amy’s and Sibel’s strings were brought to the forefront while Will sang lead on McCartney’s minor-key classic from Revolver.
25. Strawberry Fields Forever magical mystery tour magical mystery tour
Vocals: Rich Pagano. “Strawberry Fields” is one of Lennon’s signature tunes (with a LOT of help from George Martin, but that’s a knish for another deli). There was a lot of multi-instrumentation going on here, especially from Will who went from bass to keyboards to joining lead vocalist Rich on the drums, as the two performed an extended drum outro with Will pounding the floor toms and Rich rockin’ the kit.

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Twin drum outro from Will and Rich

26. No Reply Beatlesforsale Beatles-65-LP-on-Capitol-Records
Vocals: Frank Agnello & Rich Pagano. You know, Beatles For Sale gets slagged on a lot by Beatles faithful but it remains one of my favorite albums from the band. Cover tunes notwithstanding, the dark, acoustic, introspective numbers are always appealing to me, especially “No Reply”, which is so direct in its accusatory anger and desperation. Love this song.
27. Yesterday help YesterdayandTodayalbumcover
Vocals: Frank Agnello. An indisputable classic from McCartney, the perfect simplicity of the song was replicated onstage with Frank on vocals and acoustic guitar, Jack on acoustic guitar, and the Creme Tangerine Strings doing what they do best.
28. Oh! Darling abbey road abbey road
Vocals: Jack Petruzzelli. Yep, here’s another one of The Fab Faux’s signature moments, one that they’ve done every time I’ve seen them and always to rapturous applause. Jack’s spirited, soulful take on McCartney’s stalwart Abbey Road track never fails to fire up the crowd. This was no exception.

Oh! Darling...

Oh! Darling…

29. Revolution The-Beatles-Hey-Jude-UK-Exp-398886 hey jude
Vocals: Jimmy Vivino. MAN, I’m a sucker for a sanded-down, blonde Epiphone Casino… anyway, Jimmy took lead vocals on the last song of the second set, and the distortion-filled rocker brought the crowd to their feet.
ENCORE
The band retook the stage and delighted the crowd by introducing none other than rock legend Dion DiMucci, whose history of amazing hit songs hardly abides the telling, and he performed with the band through both encore numbers!

Dion DiMucci

Dion DiMucci

30. Ruby Baby rubybaby
Vocals: Dion DiMucci. Dion led the band in a spirited, soulful rendition of Lieber and Stoller’s “Ruby Baby”, one of his 1960 hit songs.
31. Twist And Shout PleasePleaseMe TheEarlyBeatlesalbumcover
Vocals: Jimmy Vivino. The evening came to a close with this rousing crowd-pleaser. Dion stayed onstage and performed the song with the band, with not a single ass-in-seat at this point. Not only was everyone dancing, the crowd was in full sing-along mode.

Phew! What a show… and while I definitely missed the guys from the Hogshead Horns — no “Penny Lane” this time around — there was no want for great music that night. Boots and I have a running statement at the end of every Fab Faux show, which is usually one or both of us saying “Every time we see them is the best time we’ve ever seen them!” No exception this night, that’s for sure. Everything in that evening’s performance was perpetrated in service of the music of The Beatles, and I’d be hard-pressed to come up with a better live way to honor the band’s legacy. Great show. Check these guys out when they’re within your confines, or close enough for a road-trip. They’re worth it.

Album Review: “Clockwork Angels” — Rush (2012)

220px-Rush_Clockwork_Angels_artworkRush’s 20th studio album (and as of this writing, their latest release) Clockwork Angels was an ambitious project in many ways. It was the band’s first studio record since 2007’s Snakes & Arrows, during which time they had seen a huge uptick in pop culture awareness and mainstream acceptance, bolstered by appearances in the 2009 feature film “I Love You Man” and in their own 2010 documentary “Beyond The Lighted Stage”. They had also released the album’s first two tracks in mid-2010 as a digital download purchase, in essence creating a new release model for their music — a year-and-a-half before the album’s release, they were already performing these songs in concert. Pretty nifty stuff.

Clockwork Angels is also a return to epic concept album format, an entire LP devoted to a single storyline conceived by drummer/lyricist Neil Peart, one that would eventually be published in novel format in association with science fiction author Kevin Anderson. The tale is set in a steampunk world (think of the future as envisioned during the dawn of the Industrial Revolution), filled with all sorts of carnivals and delights and Watchmakers and Anarchists and desert landscapes and gardens and who knows what. I’ll admit up front that I have not read the novelization or truly tried to piece together the narrative flow. As far as the story goes, I’m taking the abstract musical program approach. I’m more interested in the feel of the story rather than the specifics.

There’s also an entirely different sound to the album. Don’t get me wrong, the album is unmistakably Rush, but as Peart had mentioned in interviews, he was striking out to create something entirely more ambitious with his lyrics, his storytelling skills, even his drumming. The use of warm orchestral strings and piano (with outside musicians!) expands the scope of the music beyond “just” the three main principals. Check out the Middle Eastern rhythms, strings, and vocalizations on the title track, the distant echoes of calliopes and childlike joy on “Carnies”, or the introspective orchestrated balladry of “The Garden”.

The album has a distinct feel, and it’s an engaging one. Sadly, much has been discussed about the production and mastering of the record. So much effort went into giving the songs such a deep, textured musical palette that it’s a shame the dynamic range is buried under a heap of loudness and distortion. The result is an excessively noisy production that robs much of the album of its majesty. One can only hope a remix will someday be in the works. On a track like the otherwise engaging opening rocker “Caravan”, it feels like an absolute onslaught, but it’s even more pronounced on the softer songs that need the room, range, and clarity to really soar. The production doesn’t totally ruin the album, but it does make for an entirely less optimal listening experience.

The aforementioned “Caravan” and “BU2B” open the album, and were the tracks initially released as digital downloads in 2010. Both exemplify the misty, otherworldly milieu within which Peart’s story is presented; something seems purposefully off-kilter, but by design. Geddy Lee’s vocals are well-entrenched in a strong lower register without sacrificing expressiveness and musicality, while Alex Lifeson’s guitar tone is a thick wall of crunch and distortion and bridge-pickup wail.

The desert-sands opening moments of the title track hint of exotic flavor and distant locales, which is then seemingly obliterated by that wall-of-distortion motif that returns constantly throughout the LP. Still, it’s a winning song that shifts stylistic gears around a bit while delivering the story’s central themes and conflicts. Meanwhile what I think is the narrative’s main antagonist is introduced in “The Anarchist”, a steady uptempo rocker anchored by Peart’s rhythmic expressionism and highlighted by the orchestral punctuations during the chorus.

Four heavy rockers in a row, and the trend continues with “Carnies”. Alex is tipping his hat to Tony Iommi with thundering riffage that could have been found gestating in an abandoned pod from the “Master of Reality” sessions. The tenor of the song expands during the verses, sounding a lot less power-chord jungle and a lot more prog-hard-rock’ish. It’s not as interesting as “Anarchist”, but it mostly hits its marks. The same can’t be said for the next track… “Halo Effect” is a bizarre number; it’s probably the closest the band ever got to sounding like they were aping the structure and feel of a prototypical 80s power ballad. Witness the acoustic opening that erupts into a swell of power chords over a singalong chorus. There’s a lot more going on with the song that reducing it to a puzzling pop cultural artifact seems dismissive, but I’d be lying if I couldn’t picture the late Jani Lane covering this.

Geddy’s opening bass riff to “Seven Cities Of Gold” is reminiscent of one of his signature lines hearkening back to “Cygnus X-1 Part I”, but it segues into a fun midtempo rocker anchored by more of the same thundering heaviness we have found in abundance (at least before “Halo Effect”). There’s a bit of straining in Lee’s voice during the verses, but it’s mostly forgivable. Mostly.

The power-pop feel of “The Wreckers” is the first successful tune that breaks through the album’s seemingly impenetrable homogeneous wall. It successfully veers away from the heavy riffage and rhythm section business that has earmarked the album thus far, and it’s probably the album’s strongest track. Catchy and melodic? Without a question, but it utilizes every element of its construction great results. The orchestrations that build into a crescendo during the bridge are an album high point. “Headlong Flight” is a return to the fast, concise riffage of before, but I think to much better effect. Released as a single, it made it to the Top 5 of Billboard’s Hot Mainstream Rock Tracks.

“BU2B2″ is a short, minor-key orchestrated reprise of the earlier album track. A throwaway track, maybe, one that advances the storyline and is interesting in and of itself, but remains mostly inessential. I prefer the sensibilities of “Wish Them Well”, a brighter, more alt-rock’ish tune than we’ve heard before on the album (with the exception of “The Wreckers”, of course). The steadiness of the rhythm section and the harmonically pleasing chorus work in the song’s favor. “The Garden” caps the album off to a most pleasing effect, with Geddy’s reassuring voice sounding confident and melodic over Alex’s shimmering acoustic guitar and the swell of those sweet orchestrations.

The main element working against Clockwork Angels is the crummy brickwalled mastering, but aside from that significant detraction my only other criticism would be a sense of sameness among several of the songs. “Caravan”, “BU2B”, “Clockwork Angels”, “The Anarchist”, “Carnies”, “Seven Cities Of Gold”, and “Headlong Flight” seem to be cut from the exact same cloth. Yet there’s not a bad track in that bunch. The only song that leaves me cold is “Halo Effect”, but the rest of the album succeeds as a collection of songs that showcase Rush, late in their career, still spreading their wings (pardon the pun) and producing an overall fine album. While none of the individual tracks are absolute classic standouts in view of their entire massive catalog, the album itself acquits itself very well as a band still in perpetual motion, still making good music.

But oh, that distorted production… Eesh.