Foals – Metronome Festival, Prague, June 26, 2016

I have just wrapped up one of the best weekends of my life.  Two great musical acts played literally in my back yard and I was able to take my kids, both under the age of 10, to see them for free.  And we freaking pogoed!

In case you missed my previous post, Saturday’s show was hosted by none other than Iggy Pop.  Over the course of a little more than an hour, Iggy rained down catalog favorite after favorite from the Stooges to his latest offering, “Post Pop Depression”.  Interspersed between the songs were more F-bombs than you could shake a stick at. I guess if there is a bright side to that part of the equation, the girls didn’t hear those words coming out of my mouth!  Since Iggy is now 70, I can just tell them that those are words only grandpa’s say.

On Sunday night, the first ever Metronome Festival in Prague upped the ante with night-two headliners, Foals.  I’ve seen Foals play before and I can only describe the environment of seeing them play as “kinetic”.  Sunday’s show was no different but given the location of the show on the edge of Prague’s Stromovka Park, there was a little more elbow room.  That was a good thing because I again had NH1 and 2 in tow.  Mrs. NH and my trusty nephew sidekick also took part.  The 73 lb. NH1 sat on my shoulders for the duration save for about three quick breaks between songs and the encore.  As my shoulders ached toward the tail end of the show, the band brought out its closing songs which were all adrenaline-fueled stomps and helped me to push through the final minutes.  I felt like Sylvester Stallone in “Rocky IV” pulling logs on chains through the snow.  Of course I don’t recall him singing along while doing that.  Wuss.

Again, the highlight of these shows was getting to introduce my girls to such great acts in a live setting – up close and personal.  My first live show was an 80’s version of the largely hollowed out Beach Boys touring circuit.  Even still, I remember it like it was yesterday.  The fact that the girls got to see a legend in yet another career resurgence and one of the top UK bands (who had just played Glastonbury a couple nights before) made the whole thing all the more special.

Even more gratifying was that NH1’s unsolicited post-show commentary was exactly the same thing that I was thinking:

Dad, toward the beginning I was really thinking that Iggy had them beat.  But as the show went on, they really started playing the great songs and now I’m not sure who was better!  That was so awesome.  I can’t wait to see U2!

So we’re clear, U2 doesn’t even have a new album out or tour plans as of this writing but I’ve got to give the kid credit for her foresight.

NH2, on the other hand, just howled, charged me and gave me the rock and roll hand sign before giving me a hug.  She always has been pretty punk rock.

Thanks for the memories, Metronome Festival.  See you next year.

Kurt Vile and the Violators – July 31, 2012 – Meet Factory – Prague, Czech Republic

Kurt Vile - Prague - Meet Factory

I wanna write my whole life down
Burn it there to the ground
I wanna sing at, top of my lungs
For fun, screamin’ annoyingly
‘Cause that’s just me bein’ me, bein’ free

Kurt Vile – “On Tour”

John Hiatt introduced me to the idea of a musician as “a lifer” when I interviewed him many years ago.  The concept is pretty simple.  It just means that the musician in question is going to keep on writing, recording and touring until he drops.  I would imagine that Kurt Vile imagines himself a lifer as well.  Four albums into his career, it’s hard to see him doing anything else.

Tuesday night’s show was fairly well attended for the day of the week and the relative obscurity of a guy like Vile in the Czech Republic.  The crowd that did show up appeared to be full of pretty serious fans.  That said, never have I seen so many people in their mid-20’s make out one minute and then sing along to the words of the song the next.  That was some serious multi-tasking.  I’ve also never had that many shots spilled on my feet as the same demographic brought round after round up to the front of the stage for their friends.  I don’t begrudge them.  It was just sort of inexplicable.

But it was strangely fitting for a Kurt Vile concert.  His songs careen from romantic finger plucked acoustic ballads to feedback-drenched, drone fests.  Despite my impression from various YouTube clips and laconic singing on his albums that Vile is a classic stoner, he looked unbelievably lucid and technically solid at Tuesday’s show.  Stage banter was largely not-existent and his band struggled to keep up with him as one tune ended and another began.

The set list contained about 50% of the songs from “Smoke Ring for My Halo” and the rest from other releases.  His backing band, The Violators, lent some serious heft to the occasion.  On “Freak Train,” the whole band made some serious, ear-splitting noise.  Alternately, on songs like “Peeping Tomboy,” restraint and the folky side of Vile showed through.  It’s this space between loud and soft that Vile seems to travel with ease.  So much so that if he ever puts out a best of album, I’d recommend calling it “Songs to Make and Rock Out To.”

Liberation Celebration 2012 – Prague, Czech Republic

When living overseas, there aren’t a ton of places for Americans to celebrate the greatness of our nation.  (Yes, I love my country.  Yes, I know it’s not in fashion.  Deal with it.)  So when the celebrations commemorating the liberation of the Czech Republic from the Nazi occupation came around, I jumped at the chance to partake.  I also took the opportunity to take Little NH1 along for a bit of a history lesson.

Five years may seem like a tender age to be learning about geopolitics of the past and present but I’d rather get my viewpoint in there before she gets a skewed version from some other source.  On our walk to the event, we talked in general terms about WWII and about what brave American soldiers did for the Czech people and much of Europe all of those years ago.  I explained that the Czechs are our allies (like our friends) and described Hitler and the Nazis (a big army led by a very, very bad man).  It seemed to click with her and I’m looking forward to hearing her version in a few days or weeks when I least expect it.  That’s how those things happen.

The celebration itself took place on a warm Friday morning in front of the US Embassy in Prague.  Though the US actually only liberated the country up through Plzen in the west, the celebration starts in Prague and continues around the country for the next week or two.  The street in front of the embassy was lined with restored motorcycles and Jeeps belonging to enthusiasts from around Europe.  A big band was assembled on the street and played patriotic songs and swing tunes of the era.

Little NH1 heard Glenn Miller’s “In the Mood” and appeared to be just about as taken by it as her dad.  An impromptu Czech couple danced to the music and the crowd mulled around admiring the vehicles and the glorious weather and celebrating the commemoration of the liberation of the Czech people.

As we walked away from the celebration to return her school, she told me, “Daddy, I’m glad we’re Americans.”

Mission accomplished.

Sting – February 18, 2012 – Kongresové Centrum – Prague, Czech Republic

The first concert I ever paid my hard earned cash for was Sting.  To say I’ve been a fan of him for a long time is a big understatement.  So, when I give a review that is less than stellar, it means something.

I purposefully avoided his last “Symphonicity” Tour stop in Prague.  I couldn’t bear to hear the man that penned “Born in the 50’s” add an orchestral, candy-coated gloss to his work.  It all just felt so Yanni.  But when I saw he was coming this time for the “Back to Bass” tour, I was encouraged and snapped up a ticket shortly after they went on sale.

Last night’s show was not the same guy I saw playing with Stewart Copeland and Andy Summers as the Police in Munich a few years back.  This was clearly “late period” Sting.  The good news is I like his later albums from “Mercury Falling” to his last non-symphonic album “Sacred Love”.  Interestingly enough, it appeared that the man himself seems to favor that material.  It’s as if those songs were written more in his present state of mind, therefore, he can really get deep into the performances.

Stylistic differences aside, Sting was, as always, a stellar musician surrounded by other stellar musicians and then some musical sideshow that just distracts from the whole performance.  In this case it was a skinny, blonde, shrill singer/violinist that seemed to extend the high notes for Sting, play some OK parts on her fiddle and then annoy the rest of the time.  This isn’t the first occasion of Sting having a clown on stage.  Those who follow him will remember names such as Vinx and Kipper.  You come to expect it, actually.  That’s why it was such a relief when he reformed with the Police – there you knew the only clown would be Steward Copeland and that he was only doing it to annoy Sting.

All gripes aside the show was good.  Not great but good.  It was solid with an interesting mix of deep album cuts (Love is Stronger than Justice, I Hung My Head) thrown in to avoid the hit barrage.  If you’re a fan, go see him.  He’s coming back to Prague this summer.  Just know that when you plunk down your cash, there’s a clown that comes with the package.

Peter Hook and the Light – February 12, 2012 – Lucerna Music Bar – Prague, Czech Republic

I may as well have taken a time machine to 1979 London last night.  On the Lucerna Music Bar stage were 1/4 of Joy Division and his backing band, The Light, playing note-for-note renditions of every Joy Division song worth playing.  To top it off, there was a guy with the biggest mo-hawk I have ever seen right in the middle of my line of sight.  Normally, something in front of me standing over seven feet tall at a concert would be cause for annoyance.  However, this big, stupid, pogoing hairdo just helped to make the whole experience all the more legitimate.

The musicianship didn’t hurt either.  For a little under two hours, Peter Hook and the Light tore through a setlist that included the punkish early Joy Division (Warsaw) material, a top to bottom run through of their landmark album “Unknown Pleasures”, nuggets from their second album “Closer” and all the non-album singles.  It was a feast for fans of this band.  There was also a sense that Hook’s love for this music has endured the 30-some years since the death of Ian Curtis.  As a matter of fact, the sheer vigor with which these Goth classics sprang from the PA made them even more powerful.

Because of the musicianship and intensity of the show, one was able to overlook the abysmal, YouTube quality introductory video that preceded it.  The audio sounded muddled and completely unintelligible on Lucerna’s sound system.  A note to Mr. Hook: people coming to your show don’t need an introduction – we’re already converted.

Awful intro aside, anybody with even a passing interest in Joy Division should go to see this show.  It’s a tribute to a very influential band that has inspired countless present-day imitators and, even though he probably wasn’t alive in 1979, some dude with a really tall mo-hawk.

The National – August 19, 2011 – Divadlo Archa – Prague, Czech Republic

Wednesday night, Brooklyn’s The National took a brief break from their European festival tour and played the Archa Theater in downtown Prague.  The Archa is a great venue and reminds me of a compact version of DC’s legendary 9:30 Club.  When great bands like The National come to Prague to play, I love the place even more.

The National put on a solid, dynamic, atmospheric show from the word go.  Beginning with the muted “Runaway” they played a sampling from their past four albums plus the new “Exile Vilify.”  The National aren’t a “mosh pit” kind of band so there was a lot of vigorous head nodding and toe-tapping during the set.  That said, songs like “Mr. November” and “Mistaken for Strangers” elicited some serious crowd sing-alongs and a generous serving of fist-pumps from the mellow Czech/expat crowd.

The band obviously enjoyed itself and sprinkled its set with amusing stage banter.  Lead singer, Matt Beringer channeled his inner-1908’s Bono and descended into the crowd on two occasions for a sing-along – side by side with the people who had come to see the band.  The second time it happened, it was during the acoustic guitar adorned (and microphoneless) “Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks”, a song that up to that point, I hadn’t paid much attention to.  The tune definitely benefited from the stripped down and up close and personal treatment.

The band really delivered at this show.  They crafted a perfectly paced setlist with just enough crescendo to keep it interesting all while keeping their dark, moody melodic groove intact.  It was great to see one of America’s best bands conquer one of the capitals of Europe.

Primal Scream – Screamadelica Live – August 7, 2011 Vltavská Cultural Center Prague, Czech Republic

Somewhere, Czechoslovak communists are turning in their graves.

Last night’s show at the Vltavská Cultural Center in Prague had the rock band Primal Scream playing in what appeared to be the basement of a run-down building adorned with old, ugly socialist realism sculptures.  The near atomic combination of the eye-searing, color-saturated, bright visuals and ear bleeding volume of the show must have exorcised the last communist ghost from that old building.

The show was a top to bottom rendition of the landmark 1991 album Screamadelica.  However, the performance was much more than a note for note run through of the LP.  Songs were stretched, deepened and improvised upon until the blistering performance of the album almost lived up to the hype that surrounds it.  Bobby Gillespie and Co. strutted and swaggered through the songs, inspiring the packed crowd to dance, pogo and head nod their way through the set.  The disposition of the crowd was euphoric and ended up being one of the most polite crowds I’ve ever been in  – even while standing about 3 rows from the stage.

Last night was the final night of their European tour.  However, if you happen to be reading this from Japan, do yourself a favor and catch the show.  It’s a powerful performance of a classic album.

Roger Waters: The Wall Live – April 16, 2011 – O2 Arena – Prague, Czech Republic

My history with Pink Floyd’s epic album The Wall goes way back.  When I was young, my older brother had a huge classic movie poster hung on the one wall of his bedroom that was brown shag carpet.  That picture freaked me out and intrigued me at the same time.  I had never heard the music, but the poster conveyed the central battiness of it.

A few years later, while in junior high, I got grounded for a month for a particularly bumbling transgression.  However, like any good teenager, I chose to turn inward during that time and concentrate on my sullen state.  The Wall was the perfect soundtrack and Friday night probationary trips to the movie rental place yielded four back-to-back weekends of rentals of the VHS.

So, to say I know and am a fan of this album is to put it lightly.

Thankfully, Saturday night’s production of this seminal work lived up to my high standards of all things Wall.  Waters’ double themed night of a march to madness and the current onslaught of corporate and ideological dystopia meshed seamlessly as the stage prop wall was constructed across the width of O2 Arena.  The production itself was crisp and gaudy all at the same time. High-definition digital projections on the bricks of the wall were further emphasized by huge marionettes of the various antagonists of the story.  In the midst, Roger Waters stood dwarfed in the middle of the stage by the wall and the story he dreamed up some 30 years ago.  That said, his voice still managed to carry the tunes.

Waters chose to leave the music true to the original.  In fact, even sound effects that appear on the album and movie were interspersed in the production.  (The ambient, “Surprise, surprise, surprise!” during “Nobody Home” gave this Floyd nerd goosebumps.)  And, to his credit, the singer hired to take Gilmour’s parts sounded very much like David Gilmour himself.  So there was no distraction other than the huge production going on right in front of the viewer.

The show was big, heavy-handed, preachy, twisted, ridiculous and an absolute feast for the eyes.  It was perfect.  The technology that Waters has employed in this production is enough to make even the most hardened cynic take notice.

So, while the $100 ticket price and tuneless drunken Russians behind me in Act 1 made me question my reasons for being there, “Run Like Hell” and the whole of Act 2 confirmed that The Wall continues to be unmatched on record and on stage.

Mushrooms in the Šumava Mountains

edible boletus 2

We decided to get out of Prague this weekend (and out from under a collapsing ceiling in our apartment) and head down south where the Czech mushrooms grow.  We headed to the Šumava mountains with friends of ours and I rediscovered the joy of traipsing through the woods in search of edible fungi.  I was lucky enough to have done a variation of this as a edible boletus 4kid growing up in Nebraska near the Loup river.  We were in search of Morels back then and the flavor that was harvested from the ground probably has more than a little to do with my current obsession with truffles.  So, it was great to have a couple that was one part Czech along for the hunt to show me the ropes.

What started out as a cursory look along the sides of the trail turned into an afternoon of intense, off road mushroom hunting. edible boletus 3 There were all types of mushrooms growing and our Czech expert taught us how to differentiate between the edible and the poisonous.  In the end, we had a bulging grocery bag full of the good ones.  What we harvested appear to be the “Hříbky” (or “edible boletus” for all you smarty pants’).  They’re supposed to be great in soup, pasta and as “burgers.”  Our friends took the bag home and promised to cut us in on a piece of the culinary action some time in the future.  edible boletus 1I’ll have to trust them because we high tailed it out of the mountains and into the warmer beer gardens of Munich just a few hours later.

One thing is for sure, though, I really hope this will not be my last time mushroom hunting in the Czech Republic.  It was a great way to commune with nature while preparing a future meal.

The Czech Sasquatch – In His Underwear

Just one final impression of Prague for you during my last hours in the Czech Republic.  What I’m about to tell you is a phenomenon that is highly Czech from all accounts.  Nevertheless, I’ve only ever heard about it and read about it from friends or on other expat blogs.  You know, kind of like the Sasquatch.

There’s the thing about being an expat, the surprises never stop.

Now, to the story.  I was driving down one of Prague’s busiest streets (Evropska), the street that carries all the traffic to and from the airport.  It’s a 4 laner and busy.  However, on this particular morning, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a flash of white and yellow and did a double take.  It revealed a bald guy, 50’s, in his tighty-whities and yellow Crocks.  Standing there.  In front of his yard.  Traffic speeding by.  4 lanes.  Tighty-whities.  Crocs.  Wha?

Apparently this is regular practice here.  Folks go out to do yard work and instead of dirtying a pair of shorts and a t-shirt, they just go in their skivvies.  I guess its kind of logical but no less shocking when seen in person.

But for me, it really hammers home one point.  Culture shock is real.  And it’s going to hit me HARD.  I’ve been out of America a looong time.

Before I got this job, I remember seeing the guys that worked in Prague when they came back to Washington for consultations.  They always looked really lost and a bit out of place.  Now, I know why.  They were.

Seriously, how does one transision from what I just saw to the Pentagon City Mall?  I’ll soon find out.