Friendly Spotlight: Pittsburgh New Works Festival

Wherein I talk about my involvement with the Pittsburgh New Works Festival and the show I’m in, “Drop It.”

Where: Father Ryan Arts Center, 420 Chartiers Ave McKees Rocks, PA

When: Thursday, September 30th @ 8pm (with an opening night party!)
Friday, October 1st @ 8pm
Saturday, October 2nd @ 5pm and 8pm
Sunday, October 3rd @ 2pm

Cost: $10 at the door, or advance at:


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Friendly Spotlight: Pointing to the Sky

I’m on the cusp of creating a new series of videos with the intention of creating vlogs with value, as a social networking buzz phrase generator would say.  Please enjoy the first in the series, wherein I experiment with YouTube annotations and spotlight videos created by filmmakers friends of mine.

Spotlighted videos:

Space Case


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3-D Gorillaz

Behold “Stylo”, the latest from Gorillaz new album Plastic Beach. Wow.  I discovered the video this morning from a journey of random clicking that began with a Borders Books email coupon.  The song itself is a step-closer to the phenomenon of the last 2-3 years where formerly “80’s” style music is performed un-ironically, un-referentially, just unabashedly.  As for the video itself, it’s a bit freaky to see the Gorillaz in full 3-D – it reminds me of the collection of real-life toons such as Homer Simpson or Super Mario; we accept them in their disproportionate fake world, but in ours it’s unsettling.

And of course inexplicably, yet awesomely, Bruce Willis appears to stop the band of outlaws once and for all.  Why is he in the desert?  Why is he above the law?  Why can he look at the camera – twice in a row, no less?  More questions meant to be unanswered by the mad geniuses behind the Gorillaz.

The two contributing voices (it’s unclear to me whether they are samples or actual new recordings – in 2010, does it matter anymore?) are Mos Def and Bobby Womack.  Mos Def, of course, pioneering hip-hop star and member of under-appreciated duo Black Star, is oddly more recognized for his small appearances on uber-popular Chapelle’s Show and his disappointingly-middling film career.  Bobby Womack, one of the most stunning soul singers from the early 70’s, was introduced to me through the opening airport-people-mover-sequence of Jackie Brown, performing the chilling “Across 110th Street”, some Philly Soul at it’s finest.  Their inclusion on this track makes me appreciate more and more what Gorillaz are doing – bending not only genres of music, but eras of music to create something both retroactive and fresh.

The Gorillaz have been an incredibly intriguing group from the start.  Debuting in 2001 with “Clint Eastwood“, few people knew what to make of the industrial/hip-hop/slacker feel of the song paired with the decidedly 2-D animation of the video.  It was catchy enough, though didn’t seem to lead to much else.  “I think I recognize that guy’s voice…he’s British…wait, isn’t that the dude from Blur?”

But then the story got deeper.  We learned that the animated persona’s were the band – how this plays out in a practical sense, no one knows.  But that became part of the appeal.  Like David Bowie/Ziggy Stardust before them, and Gnarls Barkley to follow, there were no bones made about who actually recorded the music – Damon Albarn (yes, the dude from Blur), Del tha Funkee Homosapien, and a long list of other occasional contributors.  Either way, the world’s first and (Guinness-certified) most successful “Virtual Band” were here to stay.

Speaking of Gnarls Barkley, producing-half Danger Mouse continued his post-“Grey Album” rise in 2005 by producing Gorillaz second album “Demon Days.”  From Feel Good Inc. to the possible “Clint Eastwood” follow-up Dirty Harry, Gorillaz continued their popularity and stance as one of popular music’s most daring and creative entities.

What do you think of the track?  Have you been a fan of Gorillaz for a while, or did one particular song reel you in?  Share comments and thoughts below!

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Beautiful Modern Musicality

Grizzly Bear strikes me as the type of band that writes and writes and creates a large schlepping of material, then starts to think about recording techniques and what’s possible with the material they have ALREADY written or come up with. Raw Raw Raw (to borrow the bear imagery). And perhaps that’s the only touch of irony with Grizzly Bear – the fierceness of the name contrasted with the beauty of the music. You could describe some moments of “Southern Point” or “About Face” as ferocious, but again, only in contrast to the subtle wistfulness of the other melodies populating the track.

Like the Arcade Fire before them, Grizzly Bear exist without ironic detachment (sonically speaking – the tone of their videos, especially “Two Weeks”, suggests a sense of humor with the material). This is not to say, however, that they are humorless like, say, 3 Doors Down, or any other band that takes a stance of Importance with a capital “I” yet sound like two-dimentional imitations of what their rock n’ roll forebears successfully accomplished. And in that way, even their goals are outdated.

What plagues the poor Grizzlies, however, is all of that frightening buzz and ballyhooed importance (lower-case) put upon them by bloggers, critics, and even so-called music fans. With every media outlet (music or otherwise) rolling out their year-end Best-Of Lists, it’s hard to find a list that doesn’t include this year’s Veckatimest. What does seem to be hard, however, is finding new ways to describe the music. “Patient”, “Careful”, “Choirboy”; these words populate many reviews and re-reviews. Unfortunately the plethora of mentions and the content of these mentions tend to do the band more harm than good.

My suggestion to you? Just listen to it. Experience the music and form your own opinion. Open your mind and partake in beautiful modern musicality. Don’t ever catch yourself saying “music today sucks.” You’re just not listening to the right music (i.e., turn off Top 40 radio).

Hell, take it from Michael McDonald, the former Doobie Brother and Yacht Rock King himself, who this year recorded vocals for a new version of Grizzly Bear’s “While You Wait For The Others.”  The song itself is the closest they come to pop perfection on the album, even surpassing “Two Weeks” in it’s taught structure.

“When I was with the Doobies, the style of music was that we all went over the falls with chord progressions, trying to make things as complex and interconnected as possible,” he says. “The punk movement swung towards being as primitive as possible, but now it’s back to where these guys are good musicians. I never thought that would come back around, but it has.”

Oh thank God it has.

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Generally speaking, my work as a public speaker with Making It Count keeps me within two hours of Pittsburgh (with the occasional trip to Crazy Cleveland and Average Akron). Every once and a while, however, there is a need in a far away market. A need so great that the managers call to me to fill this void with my speakerliness. Now it’s obvious that they call me because I’ve been crazy enough to give in to their outlandish requests before, but I like to think that it’s because no one else can perform the pre-written and pre-sculpted presentation quite like me. It’s that attitude that gets me through the rigors of the Pittsburgh International Airport.

This past August, the Big Impractical Calling came in the form of a Monster College Advantage presentation at Minnesota West Technical and Community College in Canby, MN. Now, Minnesota is a BIG state. But then again, most states are much bigger than we perceive them to be. Anyone that’s driven from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia has the same conversation at about Harrisburg: “What?? Still another hour and a half?”

I flew into the Minneapolis/St. Paul (or “The Twin Cities” as even official signage refer to them) and was lucky enough to stay at a hapless Days Inn within walking distance of the Mall of America.

Now, a cynical voice kept reminding me that this was nothing more than a temple to consumerism erected by a Middle America desperate for an attraction; luckily, this was not my actual voice. I had to see what the depths of this behemoth of architecture held.

As a child, South Hills Village Mall in the South Hills of Pittsburgh was the BIG mall. This is where mom took us once, maybe twice a year and then later, where every night out in high school ended, aimlessly wandering past American Eagle wishing we could afford more fashionably worn-out clothing. Mall of America, in contrast, looms over the landscape like several airplane hangars connected by signs advertising MACY’S and BEST BUY. The actual airplanes flying to and from the nearby airport finish the image.

I could write for paragraph upon paragraph about the sights I saw in the first 10 minutes – giant Lego’s, a rollercoaster, and the most comprehensive Mall Directory I have ever seen.

You are here...I think?

I was wise enough to not actually go shopping as 1) anything I found here could probably also be found in Pittsburgh and 2) I flew here and needed to travel light. My main goal, therefore, was to find some dinner. It is here that Twitter got involved.

I am trying my best to use avoid using the most cliched term among social media enthusiasts, but it’s incredibly apt: The Power of Twitter is pretty amazing. On my way to the shopping mecca, I had tweeted that I was checking out the Mall of America and was wondering where I should eat. Within a half hour, a kindly Twitter-er named @jshopsthemall suggested that I eat at Crave, a one-of-a-kind joint on the third floor that offers an entertaining view of the amusement park section (seriously). Turns out @jshopsthemall runs a website that specifically sets up routes for first- and second-time shoppers who are overwhelmed by the experience. I ended up eating at Crave, enjoyed green beans with sun-dried tomatoes interspersed throughout, and wandered back to my crappy Days Inn satisfied.

My favorite part of the trip, however, was the moment I realized that my destination school was a mere eight miles from the South Dakota/Minnesota border. My mission was clear.

I don't know what I'm doing here either.

Naturally, I planned to simply get out of the car, take a picture in front of this sign, run across the street and take a picture in front of the Welcome To Minnesota sign, then head back to the airport.

All that happened. But then I kept going.

The GPS graphical read-out teased me by showing the edge of a State Park only about 1-2 miles away. Big deal, right? Dead wrong. I have a Passport to Your National Parks that needed stamped. While this practice is usually reserved for young Boy Scout-types or middle-aged loser types, I find myself right in the middle, so onward and upward.

Unfortunately, I soon remembered that stamps are only available at National parks, and this was a lowly State park. I did, however, have a pleasant conversation with an elderly man working at the outhouse-sized Visitor’s Center. While loading me up with brochures and travel guides (I’m constantly amazed by what “attractions” state departments can milk out of seemingly dismal offerings), we talked about the history of this park, as well as differences between East Coasters such as myself and the typical Midwest visitors. I asked if he had ever been to Pittsburgh, and he regaled me with a tale of going out on the town one night in the Steel City on his way to New York City, before being shipped out to fight in WWII. It was a fascinating and enriching stop on my crazy but ultimately unforgettable work trip.


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Idle Banter

Behold, a new short film that I was honored to be a part of this summer.  My friend Dave asked me to be a part of his team for the Pittsburgh 48 Hour Film Project, a traveling organization that hits several cities around the country to hold contests for local filmmakers.  Every participating team needed to include a character named Alan or Alana Beaumont, the line “That’s never happened before,” and a present (or gift) as some sort of prominent prop.  The final catch was that each team had to draw a genre from a hat, then stick to that genre when making their film.  My team ended up with “surprise ending”, which of course is more of a plot device than a genre, but it was open-ended enough to allow us room to explore.

Enjoy, and let me know what you thought.  As someone more experienced in comedy, it was a fun and educational time.

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Spilling The Beans

IMG_0110_2I’m currently sitting in a small corner cafe called “Spilling The Beans” on the main drag of Oil City, PA, across the street from the library.  It’s a picturesque scene, with a strong wind blowing the yellow leaves down from the trees and across the street as old folks stroll past a row of freshly-painted benches.  Inside, a gathering of five gray-haired men debate sports, TV, and YouTube.  My croissant bacon-egg-cheese was fantastic and freshly made (real egg!).  Someone’s whistling consistently resembles the sound of a communicator on Star Trek.

A set decorator with an unlimited budget couldn’t fabricate a more quaint, fall-theme decorated, every-pastry-perfectly-displayed coffee nook in a town far from everywhere.  Come to think of it, the wardrobe department would be given a run for their money too.  All of the old guys have awesome sweaters and/or vests on.  Sweaters made of fleece and with patterns like that of a Native American who’s given in to industry but wants to maintain his heritage in wool.  Vests like one would wear hunting though these guys aren’t hunting anything but a bargains and bathrooms every half hour.

As a public speaker for’s Making It Count, I travel all over Western Pennsylvania, New York, and Eastern Ohio giving presentations to high school and college students.  Needless to say, most of my assignments are hardly noted destination cities – but when I have the time, I like to drive around town and find a local diner or coffee shop and imagine what it’s like to live there.  Here what the people talk about, see what they see day to day and how it contrasts with the constantly changing landscapes in my personal viewmaster.  I also like to find the perfect breakfast sandwich.

Have you ever had a memorable experience in a place that no one’s ever heard of?  A place that you wouldn’t have necessarily considered worth a visit, yet you now look forward to returning?  Share in the comment section below.

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