Friday, September 14, 2012

Kawasaki Concours 14 - The Ultimate Test Drive

10 days, 2,016 miles, and 2 up aboard a 2010 C14

Yes, this was the ultimate test drive. It's one thing for your local (ahem, BMW) dealer to let you take out a bike for an hour or two. It's a whole 'nother thing to live with a bike for ten days, two thousand miles, two up. My wife and I rented a 2010 C14 ABS from Mountain to Sound Motorcycle Adventures in Issaquah, WA, just outside of Seattle. The bike had just over 20,000 miles on it when we started, and it was sporting a fairly new pair of Michelin Pilot Road 3 tires.

Our 2010 Kawasaki Concours 14 rental bike

Much of what I write here will be in comparison and contrast to my daily ride, a 2004 BMW R1150RT that is approaching the 50,000 mile mark. I've owned the RT since it was new.
My 2004 BMW R1150 RT, on the Cabot Trail in Nova Scotia


Just the Facts, Ma'am

According to my Garmin Zumo 550, we covered 2,016.3 miles and our average speed was 46.5 mph. This took a little bit more than 43 hours of riding time (moving time). I will neither confirm nor deny that the Garmin recorded a triple digit top speed; use your imagination. Because of some unforeseen circumstances at the end of our ride (which will be covered later in this report), I neglected to compare the Garmin's mileage reading with the C14's odometer at the end of the ride, so I cannot report on potential odometer error. I will note that I observed optimistic readings on the C14's speedometer starting at about 60 mph (when compared to the Garmin's speedometer) and the C14's speedometer may or may not have been as much as 5 mph optimistic when the Garmin was reading 105 mph.

We were two-up and fully loaded (luggage in the side bags, plus an additional soft luggage tail pack) pretty much the entire time. The C14's on-board mileage computer reported a total average 42 miles per gallon at the end of the ride. I never, not once, put the C14 into its fuel economy assistance mode. When I can get 40+ mpg riding two up in a sporting fashion, that's good enough for me. I'll let others play the high fuel mileage game.


The Route

Our route was a large, counterclockwise loop, starting and ending just outside of Seattle. The green "pins" in the map below show our overnight stopping points.

We started with the Olympic Peninsula, then down the northern half of the Oregon coast before heading east to Bend. From there we wound our way through the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area and on up to Lewiston, Idaho. From Lewiston, we turned back west to cut across the state of Washington to get back to Seattle.

Although this post is more about the bike than the ride, notable portions included the amazingly smooth mountain road up to Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park, of course US 101 along the Pacific coast, Oregon Route 242 over the McKenzie Pass, the Cascades Lake Scenic Byway from Bend past Mt. Bachelor to the Crane Prairie Reservoir (beyond that it's too straight and boring), the Hells Canyon Scenic Byway through (duh) Hells Canyon, and Oregon 3/Washington 129 across the incredible Grande Ronde River gorge. These are some of the finest roads anywhere, and our ride included just about everything from fast sweepers, to tight twisties, technical mountain hairpins, and miles and miles of straight as an arrow empty and fast roadway.

Rough outline of our route, starting and ending just outside of Seattle

But this post really isn't about the route. It's about the bike...


Gobs and Gobs of Silky Smooth Power. What's Not to Like?

Are there enough superlatives to adequately describe the amazing 1,400 cc (well, technically 1,352 cc, I suppose) inline-four engine in the C14? Gobs and gobs of power, delivered without any fuss, without any muss. It does its job, with smooth, vibration free delivery of as much acceleration as you want, whenever you want. Yet despite having a power-to-weight ratio worthy of a rocket ship, the bike is incredibly easy to ride at low speeds and in a civilized fashion when in town or in traffic. It was so very easy to fall in love with this engine, especially in comparison to the far less powerful boxer twin in my RT. It's not even a fair fight.

The clutch on the C14 is silky smooth with a light pull. This is another area where it was easy to fall in love, particularly when compared to the much heavier pull of the dry clutch on my RT, or even when compared to the clutch on the new BMW K1600 GT/GTL bikes. The K1600 bikes transmit a very noticeable "thunk" up through the clutch lever when shifting that I found very disconcerting during a recent test drive. The C14 clutch, on the other hand, just works much like the engine - no muss, no fuss. Smooth like butter. Advantage: Kawasaki.

I was similarly suitably impressed with the suspension. It never felt upset. It never wallowed. It never bottomed. In every respect here, the C14 beat my RT hands down. It even has me thinking of looking into aftermarket suspension upgrades should I decided to keep the RT. Despite this difference, though, I found little actual difference in the two bikes in terms of pure handling. Both are incredibly nimble bikes, whether doing parking lot U turns, fast and accurate twisties, or mountain hairpins. And other than me knowing when I'll be stressing the RT suspension when viewing rough road, I thought the two bikes felt like, well, the sport tourers that they are.

One area where I do vastly prefer my RT over the C14 is on the brakes. I'm certain this is more of a feel difference than any stopping distance performance difference. And I account my preference to two factors, well maybe three: the BMW's Telelever front end, the BMW's servo assist, and the cumulative feel at the brake lever. I fully realize that many people have negative reviews and reactions to BMW's servo assist on the RT, but I happen to love it. The RT's front brake lever has a firm, hard feel to it that, frankly, is tricky to master. But I have mastered it, and the end result is a fantastic feel. I'm certain the C14 probably has as much, or heck maybe even more, stopping power. But the front lever felt softer to me, and I didn't have quite the feeling of braking authority as I do on my RT. I found little difference to the brake pedals on the two bikes, but for me, lever feel is more critical than pedal feel. Again, before any C14 owners and lovers start to pull out stopping distance facts and figures, I fully realize that my preference is likely due to a perception difference, not a performance difference. But for me, advantage BMW.


Rider Comfort - An Ergonomics Mixed Bag

A sport touring bike should be both sporty and long-haul comfortable. You might say that's what the entire category is about. We already know that the C14 excels on the sporty front. How did it did do on the comfort side?

Let's start with the truly awful. What the hell was Kawasaki thinking with those handlebars? What size human are they designed for? Somebody way taller than me? Or way shorter? Longer arms, maybe? I don't know, but I pure hated those bars. After thirty minutes of riding, the pressure on my palms and wrists was annoying as all hell. I could not find a position that ever worked. This is a serious fail on Kawasaki's part.

Before any C14 owners respond with "that can be fixed", sure I understand that. That's not the point. This isn't about what can be changed by aftermarket parts, but what I thought about the bike as it is, out-of-the-box, as it were. I don't expect any bike to be perfect in all respects, but I certainly do expect a sport tourer to at least be adequate in terms of all-day ergonomics. And the stock C14 bars simply fail here.

On the other hand, I found the stock windscreen perfectly acceptable. If I were to own a C14 might I replace the stock windscreen, as I did on my RT with a Cee Bailey? Sure, I might. But the stock screen does a perfectly acceptable job, with a minimum of buffeting, and a minimum of wind noise - for both rider and passenger. Nothing to complain about here, other than the stupid (stupid, stupid) default for the windscreen to lower itself all the way when the bike is shut off and then to stay there when the bike is started again. I was infuriated with this. It was like a car that made you adjust the car seat every fricking time you started the car. For the first couple of days I cursed the bike with an ever increasing loathing every time I started it. Then my brother taught me how to change the default setting so the windscreen would raise when the bike was started. I picked setting 3, which raised the windscreen three-quarters of the way up. From that point on, I was a happy camper. However, if you ask me, the default behavior should be to return the windscreen to the position in which the rider last had it.

I didn't really have any problem with the seat, although I do vastly prefer the stock "comfort seat" on my RT. The stock RT seat has a wider and deeper (front to back) seat pan, and gives me lots of ability to move around. The C14 seat basically felt like one position. I know that some people complain about its forward slope, but I did not find that to be a major annoyance. The seat wasn't stellar, but it was OK. Unlike the bars, I thought it was perfectly acceptable for a stock item. If I were to own a C14 I would probably upgrade to an aftermarket seat, but mostly to change the seat to foot peg relationship. I found that after about 4 or 5 hours on the bike I would feel a cramping in my hips. I suspect a higher seat would eliminate that issue.

Overall, however, I think the RT is more ergonomically friendly for the rider than the C14 - even taking the C14's handlebars out of the equation. Part of this is the ability to move around in the RT's stock seat, but another part has to do with the width of the tank. Either the RT's tank is narrower at the knees, or the pegs are positioned such that it allows more knee inward and outward movement. I can ride the RT with my knees tucked right up against the RT's tank knee pads, or I can just relax my legs and have lots of airspace between the tank and my legs. Not so on the C14, where I found my inner thighs and knees were pretty much always in contact with the tank. We had mostly very pleasant temperatures with low humidity. But I suspect in higher temperatures and higher humidity, this could get annoyingly hot and uncomfortable.


Passenger Comfort - A Nice Surprise

We were a little apprehensive when we discovered that our C14 would not have a top case. Mountain to Sound has two C14s, one with a top case, one without. We were slated for the top case bike, but it came back from a previous rental in dire need of a brake job. Thus, we had a last minute bike switch. I don't fault Mountain to Sound for this at all, and they were very accommodating and gave us a nice waterproof soft bag and bungee cords to use instead of a top case. This turned out to be a wonderful surprise! It gave Patti just enough support behind her so that she felt secure, and it also allowed her to have a great amount of upper body movement. In fact, we're even thinking of experimenting with taking the top case off the RT! Who knew?

Patti was also happy, overall, with the C14's seat. She says the seat was really comfortable, maybe even more comfortable than on our RT's seat. "I would be perfectly happy with that seat,", she said. Even more importantly, she was happy with the C14's foot pegs. Surprisingly, she thinks the fact that the pegs are not covered in rubber contributed to her liking them; not being covered in rubber made it easier for her to get on and off the bike. Rubber peg covers tend to twist. But the pegs were comfortable too. In fact, during the trip she remarked that she had never before felt so comfortable on a bike with foot pegs instead of floorboards. So for passenger comfort and ergonomics, the C14 scored big points.


Knobs and Dials

Let's cover a few additional details that aren't about long-haul comfort, but more about the fit, finish, and feel of the C14.

First, the mirrors. The mirrors on the C14 are quite good. They are well positioned, large, and vibration free. Much better than the mirrors on the RT, which are positioned lower and don't give as good of a rear view.

As I mentioned above, my legs were always in contact with the C14's tank (well, its bodywork, really). Why the heck doesn't Kawasaki ship the C14 with some sort of paint protection, especially in that scalloped area where your legs go? The RT has glued on contoured knee pads to protect the body. The C14 should have something like that, or at least a layer of paint protection film. The rental C14 was severely scratched here, and I even wondered if a previous rider had riding pants with inside leg zippers instead of outside zippers because the scratches were so deep and visible. Similarly, painted side cases look great when they are new, but it is so easy for both the rider and passenger to scuff them up when mounting or dismounting the bike. For crying out loud, ship the bike with protective film in the most vulnerable places. I wonder how many C14 owners have had to scramble to apply aftermarket film kits only after learning the hard way?

I was fairly pleased with the C14's side cases. When empty, each contains a full face helmet with room to spare. And they swallowed up my BMW side case bag liners (actually I think mine are an aftermarket, not a BMW branded product) with ease, even though they were both stuffed with two weeks worth of clothing. The latching system worked OK, although it felt fragile in comparison to the RT's latching system. This was especially noticeable when the side cases were stuffed to the gills, like when adding a jacket liner on top of the stuffed bag liner. I kept having this nervous feeling that I was going to break some internal part of the latching mechanism. Never did, but it just didn't feel robust.

And that last point holds true across the two bikes. The RT's controls and latches all have a solid, well built feel. It's the sort of feel that makes you think, "oh, German engineering." But the feeling I got from the C14's pieces and parts, the latch mechanism on the side cases and the turn signal switch are two that come immediately to mind, was that Kawasaki sourced the components from low bid suppliers. The components just plain felt cheaper, because, well, I suspect they are cheaper. And sure, I understand that this is what keeps the cost of the entire bike way down in comparison to a BMW; I get that. But given a choice, I'll take quality switches and latches any day. Another example of this is the inclusion of just a single cigarette style accessory outlet, rather than the more expensive (but arguably better) Powerlet style (also known as BMW style) outlet.

Oh, and what's with that sad excuse for a glove box? Heck, I couldn't even fit my reading glasses in it - it wasn't deep enough. Besides that, anything you do put in the glove box is going to toast - the heat build up in it was nasty. Darn near useless.

I like the idea of the dashboard computer display, but it didn't take me long to realize that the Range (distance to empty) display was utterly useless. How could they have gotten this so wrong? I love the distance to empty readout in my car (a Nissan) - it is rock steady and deadly accurate. But the C14 must be calculating the range based on very short intervals using throttle position and engine load. It wasn't unusual to see 70 to 80 mile swings in the readout at almost any time. Stupid. Bad software programming.

I ended up just leaving the dashboard display on temperature, and Patti and I both got a chuckle out of the fact that Kawasaki decided it was important to tell us that this was the "outside" temperature. Yea, thanks, I would have never guessed. That label would have made perfect sense if the C14 had another digital readout telling me about engine coolant temperature, but it doesn't. Yet another cost cutting measure, perhaps?

Given the size of the LCD, I thought the whole thing could have been easily designed to show me much more information all at once. Even just two pieces of information, rather than one. For me, I'd like a digital speed readout in a permanent spot, and then the ability to cycle through other information in an adjacent spot.

I also found myself accidentally hitting the display cycle switch on left handlebar. It took me several days to realize this. I'd have the display set to temperature, and then would be baffled when the display seemed to randomly switch over to mileage. I kept wondering if there was some sequence of events that was causing the bike to decide to switch the display, but after a while I figured out that I must have been hitting the switch without knowing it. I never did catch myself actually doing it, but it must be what was going on.

I didn't have any issues with the KIPASS (Kawasaki Intelligent Proximity Activation Start System). I kept the KIPASS fob in a zippered breast pocket of my riding jacket, since I never (never ever) get on the bike without the jacket on. I used the large ignition switch key for the fuel door and side cover locks, not the smaller key stored in the KIPASS fob; I wonder whether I'd change that behavior if I actually owned a C14. I found the ordering of the ignition switch positions puzzling. From lowest left, counterclockwise they are: Steering Lock, Off, On, and FSS (Fuel, Seat, Storage). You can only remove the ignition key when it is in that last position, FSS. What's puzzling to me is if you have the bike in Lock or Off, then to remove the ignition key you have to pass through On. Similarly, if you have the ignition key out, say to unlock the side cases, then to put it in lock you again have to momentarily pass through On. Why didn't they just order them differently, say Lock, FSS, Off, On? Do C14 owners bypass this oddity by just using the smaller FOB key?

Whew! This was a long section, I know! But these details are important when it comes to living with a machine. And I think my bottom line in this whole area is that, well, the Kawasaki is not a BMW. Perhaps just a little less attention to detail. Perhaps just a little cheaper in terms of component quality. For the new bike buyer, this area might represent the ten thousand dollar question, as this is about the price difference between a C14 and a K1600 GT. Everyone's mileage is sure to vary on this front. Is a higher level of fit, finish, and quality controls worth ten grand? I don't know. I just don't know.


Can I Get Another Gallon of Gas Please?

I'm sorry, but you ought to be able to go 200-miles on a sport touring bike without thinking about refueling, confident in the knowledge that even at 200 miles you have an easy 60 or more miles left in the tank. I never felt that confident, given the C14's 5.8 gallon capacity. Sure, I suppose that theoretically since I was averaging 42 miles per gallon that I should have been able to fuel up at 200 miles, but with no real confidence in the Range display and a precipitous drop in the LCD gas gauge bars when pushing 150 miles or so, I was not going to push my luck. If Kawasaki found room to put another gallon of gas somewhere in there, I'd be a whole lot happier.


Beauty Is In the Eye

I like to fall in lust with the vehicles I purchase, even when they have flaws. My RT is the last of the 1150cc engine, but more importantly is the last of that swoopy, sexy, curvy bodywork. I love the curves of the 1150RT, and often field positive comments about the bike's looks. The C14? Eh, it's sorta Plain Jane to me. It's not ugly, but I don't find it to be eye candy either. Part of this might be color (and come on Kawasaki, how about at least two color choices every model year, instead of just one!), but that's not all, I think. The C14 body work just doesn't seem as sleek to my eye. Too many wide seams in it. Too many unnecessary visual flourishes, like the horizontal bumps in the side cases. The lower fairing cowling, and the headlight glass seem ham-fisted to me (although I will say that the headlights are excellent). The Kawasaki badge seems unbalanced (too large). The whole visual package just doesn't make my heart go thump, thump, thump. I wish it did. Oh, how I wish it did.


All Good Things Must Come to an End, Some More Suddenly Than Expected

At about noon on our last day, just as we crested Stevens Pass on Washington Route 2, I saw something odd in the road ahead. I had just enough time for these thoughts to pass through my mind: "What's that? Oh shit!" before we hit the 10-foot long piece of pressure treated 4-inch x 4-inch lumber that was lying across our lane of travel. I had enough time to brace for the impact, but not enough to roll off the throttle, or to brake. We hit it, thankfully at right angles, at about 60 mph. There was one hell of a "bang" when the front wheel impacted the lumber.

Patti, unaware this was about to happen, was launched out of her seat. She doesn't believe, however, that her feet ever left the foot pegs. Nor did I feel her go up, or come back down again.

For a brief moment after the impact I thought to myself, "Huh, we didn't blow the tires." But then the bike landed, and the wobble was immediately noticeable. The dashboard was also reporting a zero PSI warning, which Patti noticed immediately.

I brought the bike to a safe, controlled stop without any difficulty. The front tire had zero PSI, and the front wheel was toast. The rear tire was still holding some pressure, although the rear wheel was also bent - just not quite as badly as the front. Here's a photo of the front:

Ouch!


Our ride, clearly, was over. We were just about 80-miles from completing our 10-day loop. But we were upright. All of us - me, Patti, and the bike.

Amazingly enough, the Washington Department of Transportation had a crew working at the exact spot where all of this happened. They didn't have anything to do with the lumber in the road, but they were working across the road installing electronic speed limit signs. The WSDOT (Washington State DOT) crew had watched as the lumber fell off a flatbed 18-wheeler that was about 30 seconds ahead of us. Two crew members were headed out to remove the road hazard just as we came around the bend. There was nothing they could do but watch in horror as the scene unfolded. They told us that they all reflexively pulled out their cell phones in anticipation of having to call 911. They were amazed when the bike stayed upright.
By the time I brought the bike to a stop, and Patti and I dismounted, the WSDOT crew had a truck in front of us, and another truck behind us, and they were setting out perimeter safety cones around us! These guys (and one gal) were great! They gave us water, and made sure we were OK, and stayed with us the entire two hours it took Mountain to Sound to get out to us with their trailer to take us back to Issaquah. Patti and I cannot express how grateful we were for their assistance, although we have written to the WSDOT to let them know. I also want to give a shout out to the Washington State Trooper who responded to my 911 call and took my report; he got to us as quickly as he could, and he was kind and courteous. And I would be remiss in not expressing our gratitude to Mountain to Sound. They handled everything with a calm grace, letting us know they were on the way with a trailer as soon as we called them with the news. I highly recommend them for anyone considering renting a motorcycle in the Pacific Northwest.

And I have to praise the C14, too. It was bent, but certainly not broken. It took the impact, and it was remarkably easy to bring the bike to a controlled stop. Not once did I feel any concern or danger after we landed.


ATGATT

I feel entitled to preach. Hitting that 4x4 only reinforced my belief in ATGATT - All The Gear, All The Time.

Would a lesser motorcyclist gone down? Would a better one have been able to avoid it all together? Those are unanswerable questions. But I do know this... I have been a street rider for 35 years, and I have somewhere around 180,000 miles under my seat. In that time, this was only my second "incident." The first was a self-inflicted lowside just about 30 years ago. And both incidents had exactly two things in common:
  1. neither was planned, and
  2. they both happened in an instant.
Now, you can tell yourself that you know what you are doing, that you are skilled, that you are prepared, whatever. But if you are out there in sneakers (or worse), blue jeans, t-shirt, or no helmet, I say "bullshit." I don't care if you are 6,000 yards from home going 30 mph (as I was in my first incident) or if you are 3,000 miles from home going 60 mph - when it happens, it happens unexpectedly, and it happens damn fast. It is all about risk management, and I say that you are an idiot if you are not wearing boots, gloves, helmet, and full riding suit that includes protection at the knee, hips, back, shoulders, and elbows.


Final Thoughts

Ah, the big question - am I going to get a C14, or stick with my RT? And the answer is... I don't know.

Oh sure, I freaking love the C14's power and smoothness. No question. And most, if not all, of my ergonomic complaints can be addressed with aftermarket fixes. I probably could overlook the (relatively?) minor complaints I have about switches, knobs, dials and whatnot.

I sure wish the body design made my heart go pitter-patter though. But truth be told, none of the current bikes are as visually appealing to me as my 1150RT. Not the 1200RT, not the K1600 GT, not the C14. I do want to take a test ride on a K1600 GT, though, as I have only tested the GTL up to now. I suspect I will like the GT a lot more than the GTL. Whether I like it enough to come to grips with a greater than $20,000 cost is another question though.

But the C14? Awesome bike. Powerful. Smooth. Competent. It is worth all of the praise it has received in the bike magazines. Without a doubt.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Concert Report: Spider John Koerner @ Studio 99, Nashua

On the first of June I received the latest monthly email newsletter from Village Records, a wonderful place for finding new music. While scanning the newsletter during lunch, I noticed mention of a new live Koerner & Glover CD. "Oh," I thought, "I'll have to remember to check into that later, and also double check on whether Spider John is going to be playing on the east coast this summer." With that I returned my attention to work.

Around 8pm that night, Spider John Koerner just happened to pop into my head again. I thought I'd go to his web site to see what's up with the new CD. While doing that I looked at his concert calendar and, I'll be darned, but it says he is playing in Nashua, NH the very next night, June 2nd! Woah, if not for the Village Records newsletter, and if not for remembering it later in the day, I'd have missed this completely. Serendipity.

Any hey, what's this? A new music venue in Nashua? Who knew? Studio 99 is nestled in the fourth floor of one of the old mill buildings on the Nashua River. It isn't easy to find, and parking can best be described as, uhhh, creative, but it's just the kind of place I love. Unpretentious and welcoming. Old wooden floors and brick walls, with glimpses of the river out the window. The nice folks running the place appear to be having a good run at offering a full schedule of open mics, jam sessions (jazz, blues, folk/acoustic, and bluegrass), and concerts. I'll be keeping my eye on their calendar.

Spider John Keorner @ Studio 99, Nashua - photo by Tom Spine

Spider John, if you are not familiar, is a traditional American folk and country blues musician. Based out of Minneapolis, Spider John was an early influence on Bob Dylan — back before he was, well, Bob Dylan. Oft quoted is this excerpt from Dylan's autobiography, Chronicles, Volume One:

"With my newly learned repertoire, I then went further up the street and dropped into the Ten O'Clock Scholar, a Beat coffeehouse. I was looking for players with kindred spirits. The first guy I met in Minneapolis like me was sitting around in there. It was John Koerner and he also had an acoustic guitar with him. Koerner was tall and thin with a look of perpetual amusement on his face. We hit it off right away. ... When he spoke he was soft spoken, but when he sang he became a field holler shouter. Koerner was an exciting singer, and we began playing a lot together."

Dylan correctly captured one essential aspect of Spider John - his now signature style. Part field holler, part ragtime, part country blues, part American roots, it's instantly recognizable as Spider John. I tried to find something on YouTube that would really showcase him, and this was the best I could come up with:

The show in Nashua turned out to be darn near a private concert. There were only fifteen of us in the room, and that included the event staff! Sixteen, if you count Spider John! I owe the poor turnout to the newness of the venue, its off-the-beaten-path location, perhaps a little lack of advertising, and it being a Tuesday night. While half of me wanted the room to be packed, the other half was thrilled at the intimacy.

Before the show I asked Spider John if he minded if I took some non-flash photos, and he said that was fine. So I also felt less self conscious than normal taking some shots. I have posted the six shots I am happiest with on a Flickr photo set.

Spider John Keorner @ Studio 99, Nashua - photo by Tom Spine

Spider John played two sets plus an encore, for what must have been close to two hours of music (I seem to have not noted time in my notebook). We got a slew of traditional songs, his own songs, and a few by Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter), and others. Two songs into the first set I was as happy as I could be, when we were treated to one of my favorites, Acres of Clams, a traditional song about the settling of Puget Sound; John sings what is known as the "Lay of the Old Settler" version of this song. When he finished and our applause died down I couldn't help but tell John that I loved that song!

We were treated to songs and stories of old British racehorses (Stewball), the California gold rush (The Days of Forty-nine), trains (Casey Jones), and love and war (When First Unto This Country). Prior to singing one of his own songs, Phoebe, Spider John spoke lovingly, if humorously, about the phoebe birds who have been making nests in and around his house for more than forty years, wondering about their migration every winter and return every spring.

Spider John is also known for what can only be described as corny humor. We were treated to a number of these "groaners" including the one about the two guys in the woods who came upon a grizzly bear. The one fellow says to the other, "I'm making a run for it." His friend replied, "Are you crazy? You can't outrun a grizzly bear!", to which the first guy replied, "True, but I reckon I don't have to outrun the bear. I just have to outrun you!"

Spider John Keorner @ Studio 99, Nashua - photo by Tom Spine

At the set break I made a mental note of songs that I wanted to hear in the second set. More Pretty Women Than One and Sail Away Ladies were at the top of my list, so when John announced he had just three more songs to play in the second set, I went ahead and asked, "And will More Pretty Women Than One be one of them?" While he hadn't planned on it, his tuning was right, so John obliged me with his cover of this Woody Guthrie song. John did explain, though, that Woody used to sing "more pretty girls than one" but he thought it more appropriate and respectful to sing "more pretty women than one."

Spider John Keorner @ Studio 99, Nashua - photo by Tom Spine

Spider John is nothing short of a national treasure. It's been too many years since Patti and I last saw him. If you get a chance, go see him. If you don't, go buy one of his CDs. Heck, go buy the new Koerner and Glover live CD from Village Records! Tell 'em I sent ya!

Spider John Koerner
Studio 99, Nashua, NH
Tuesday, June 2, 2009
 
Set 1:
Careless Love (W.C. Handy, Martha Koenig, Spencer Williams)
Acres of Clams (Francis D. Henry)
Stewball (Traditional)
The Wabash Cannonball (Traditional)
Dodger (Traditional)
Good Time Charlie (Traditional)
Don't Look Now (?)
Phoebe (Spider John Koerner)
When First Unto This Country (Traditional)
Red Apple Juice (Traditional)
Midnight Special (Traditional)
 
Set 2:
St. James Infirmary (Joe Primrose)
Danville Girl (Woody Guthrie)
The Ballad of Casey Jones (Traditional)
The Days of Forty-nine (Traditional)
Some People Say (Spider John Koerner)
The Summer of 88 (Spider John Koerner)
No Regrets (?)
Delt My Cards in England (?)
More Pretty Woman Than One (Woody Guthrie)
What's the Matter With The Mill (Minnie McCoy)
Goodnight Irene (Huddie Ledbetter, John Lomax)
 
Encore:
Black Dog Blues (Traditional)
Rattlesnake (?)

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Concert Report: Steve Forbert @ Tupelo Music Hall

Oh, hey. Before too much more time passes I ought to make a quick note about Steve Forbert's return to Tupelo on Sunday, May 17. Looking back at my previous concert reports, I see it was darn near exactly one year since Steve last took the Tupelo stage.

This year there was no battle over the house and stage lights, much to my camera's disappointment. Steve likes the house lights bright enough to see the audience, and the stage lights not so bright as to blind him. This worked great for Steve's interaction with the crowd, but made it extremely difficult for me to get good photos — simply not enough stage lighting, and I struggled with shutter speed all night long. I also spent the night battling the view around the vocal microphone — I was sitting more directly center stage than normal.

Steve Forbert at Tupelo Music Hall

Steve's concerts are informal affairs, and he thrives on the audience. He encourages the audience to keep rhythm, and there are also always multiple opportunities for the audience to demonstrate its knowledge of his songs and lyrics. Audience requests are also a staple, and a number of tunes were audience suggestions.

No big surprises in the set, other than perhaps One After 909. How many in the audience knew this early Lennon/McCartney song? Hard to tell. Steve also flirted with The Beatles' Good Night before launching into Romeo's Tune.

Steve Forbert at Tupelo Music Hall

The opening act was Diana Jones, a country-flavored singer songwriter with a clear Tennessee/Kentucky influence. Her voice reminded me a little of Kate Campbell, although her lyrics tended to be a bit more, ummm, serious or somber than Kate's. Nevertheless, an enjoyable opener.

Diana Jones at Tupelo Music Hall

Steve Forbert
Tupelo Music Hall, Londonderry, NH
Sunday, May 17, 2009
 
Thinkin'
Trouble No More
Hang On Again Til The Sun Shines
My Stolen Identity
Rock While I Can Rock
One After 909 (Lennon/McCartney)
Complications
My Blue Eyed Jane (Lulu Belle White/Jimmie Rodgers)
Sing It Again My Friend
The Sweet Love That You Give
The American In Me
Write Me A Raincheck
Baby Don't
Song For Katrina
California Cotton Fields (Dallas Frazier)
It Sure Was Better Back Then
Simply Must Move On
Lonesome Cowboy Bill's Song
What Kinda Guy
Blackbird
Good Night/Romeo's Tune
Encore:
Middle Age
Good Planets Are Hard To Find
 
Opening Act, Diana Jones:
All God's Children
Cold Dark Mine
Cold Grey Ground
If I Had A Gun
Henry Russell's Last Words (aka, Oh How I Love You Mary)
Pony

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Bacon - Not For Sale

(There's nothing in here about swine flu, so if that's what you are looking for, move along. Nothing to see here.)

On our travels, on a side road off of a side road, we came upon a farm. I'm not sayin' exactly where, mind you.

Out at the roadside, this farm has a neatly lettered, hand painted sign. The sign says:

EGGS

BACON

Now farm fresh eggs, there's nothing much unusual there. But bacon, well, that caught our eye. A quick conversation ensued among the four of us in the car, and a U-turn followed in short order. Foodies that we are, we had to investigate.

The farm raises, slaughters, and sells ducks and pigs, and also sells duck and chicken eggs. There's no store, per se, but rather an upright side-by-side freezer-refrigerator stocked full of goodies. It's an honor system. Take what you want, write down what you take on a clipboard inside the fridge, and put your money or check in the coffee can in the fridge door.

There's a sign taped to the door of the freezer that explains all of this, and then also this sign that gives a little more detail:

Bacon - Not For Sale
Bacon - Not For Sale

What? The carefully vacuum-sealed 1 pound packages of bacon in the freezer are not for sale because the smokehouse is not federally inspected? Oh, but if it were for sale, it would be $14 a pound? All that is missing is the "wink, wink, nod, nod."

Disappointed as we were, we realized that we couldn't buy a pound of bacon. But we did leave a $14 donation in the coffee can. And we sure are looking forward to farm fresh bacon we're gonna have for breakfast this weekend. "Wink, wink, nod, nod."

Saturday, April 11, 2009

I Ride for Paul

I know a lot of people who really enjoy riding bicycles. I'm not one of them. Given the choice, I will choose to go for a run over a bicycle ride any day of the week. I know, you probably think I'm nuts. Maybe I am. When I run, I can zone out. I can be in the moment, and my mind can wander to all sorts of interesting places. I don't get that on a bicycle. There's too much to pay attention to. Too much that distracts me. The helmet. The funny cleat shoes. Changing gears. Watching out for pot holes and other road hazards. Not to mention watching out for cars. It's all too distracting.

But every spring I put in enough bicycle "seat time" training to participate in the 100-kilometer Ride the Vineyard bike ride to raise funds for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society. This year's ride is on Saturday, May 2, 2009.

I ride for my friend Paul, and for thousands like him who are fighting MS every day of their lives. Imagine unpredictably having blurred vision, or losing your sense of balance, your ability to use your hands to grip everyday objects, or your ability to walk. Or worse. Paul has taught me what true courage is, and how to face adversity head on and with high spirits and thankfulness for every day. He is my inspiration, and I think of him often during long runs and bike rides.

The funds I raise will be used by the National MS Society to support research as well as programs to help address the needs of people living with MS, which remains an incurable disease today. Would you please consider sponsoring me via a tax-deductible donation? My goal this year is to raise $2000, and you can help by donating via my pledge page. Any amount will help. Thanks!

Please visit http://main.nationalmssociety.org/goto/tomspine to make a pledge.

Paul and me at the Cape Code Canal, June 2004
Paul and me at the Cape Code Canal, June 2004


Sunday, April 5, 2009

Concert Report: Vance Gilbert @ Tupelo Music Hall

The music keeps on coming, and on Friday night, April 3rd, Patti and I were back at Tupelo's Table 3 for one of the most gifted performers on the singer-songwriter circuit, Vance Gilbert. Where the heck was everyone else? Tupelo was nearly empty, with only about sixty tickets sold (capacity is just over 200). We've seen Vance fill the place before, so what gives? Competition from other shows? I know that the Cowboy Junkies were in Newburyport, and Susan Werner was back at Club Passim. Even still, I would have expected over a hundred people, not sixty.

Vance Gilbert at Tupelo Music Hall, April 3, 2009

Vance is so multi-talented. He can write a song that will make you cry. He's got guitar chops. He's got a voice to die for. He's got command of the stage. And he's got some serious funnies (now there's an oxymoron, eh?). The man could easily be a stand up comic, and he's worked with some of the best stand ups in the business in days gone by, including George Carlin and Bill Cosby. He puts all this to good use in his concerts.

The core of his current show is a handful of songs from his newest album, Up On Rockfield. This is a concept album in which Vance writes songs as inspired by other artists. Some of these are clearly "as if written by" efforts, while others are more "as inspired by." And others are just plain whacky.

Goodbye Pluto, an ode to the former planet, falls squarely in the whacky side; it is written as an inspirational combination of Shawn Colvin and Raffi! Old Man's Advice is written as if by Tom Waits. The line "never look for Friday's kiss with Thursday's broken heart" is clearly straight out of the Tom Waits inspiration book. Welcome to Lovetown combines John Hiatt and Prince! By far the most "as if written by" song is Judge's House, which was written as if it were an outtake from Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska album. Close your eyes and listen to the lyrics, and you can absolutely imagine that Bruce wrote this song during the Nebraska period:

It's 3:00 in the morning
On this side of town
A lonely dog barking
Is the only other sound
I'm sitting in my car
Outside this judge's house
Ten years to the day he brought
His gavel down
 
Ten years ago
But I recall it
Like it was yesterday
A man remembers when you take
Ten years of his life away

Vance Gilbert at Tupelo Music Hall, April 3, 2009

Round Midnight featured Vance channeling first Billie Holiday, then Louis Armstrong — both trumpet and vocals. Responding to a giggling child in the audience, Vance added both the Cookie Monster and Elmo to the vocal impersonations. It's likely that neither of those two Sesame Street characters ever sang the classic Thelonious Monk song before, nor shared a single song with Billie Holiday and Louie Armstrong! Vance had great fun with the giggling child, both during and after the song. It's likely she will remember the night for a long time.

Vance closed with an off microphone, acappella version of King of Rome, a not-infrequent closing song for Vance and clear crowd favorite. Vance has a powerful voice, and King of Rome is a perfect showcase:

In the West End of Derby lives a working man
He says "I can't fly but me pigeons can
And when I set them free
It's just like part of me
Gets lifted up on shining wings"

I was hoping to find a YouTube version of Vance singing King of Rome, but didn't have any luck. But here's a video of Vance singing Unfamiliar Moon from 2006 that nicely illustrates his songwriting, his vocals, and his guitar playing:

The opening act was twenty-year old Berklee College of Music student Emily Elbert.

Emily Elbert at Tupelo Music Hall, April 3, 2009

She did a nice set of her own songs, and considering she's just a sophomore in college, she clearly has one heck of a career ahead of her. You can easily find videos of her doing her own tunes on YouTube, but I was most impressed with her closing cover of Paul McCartney's Oh! Darling, and so I'll leave you with a YouTube video of Emily singing that song:

Vance Gilbert
Tupelo Music Hall, Londonderry, NH
Friday, April 3, 2009
 
It Wouldn't Have Made Any Difference (Todd Rundgren)
Taking It All To Tennessee
Castles Made of Sand (Jimi Hendrix)
Goodbye Pluto
Unfamiliar Moon
Old Man's Advice
Welcome to Lovetown
I'm So Tired of Being Alone (Al Green)
Judge's House
Highrise
Save the Last Dance for Me (Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman)
Round Midnight (Thelonious Monk)
Some Great Thing
Encore: King of Rome (David Sudbury)
 
Opening act, Emily Elbert:
In the Summertime
Caught Up In Your Love
Silent Time
Thinking Hybrid Redirected
Easy to Love
Do Without
You Put the Good in Goodbye
Oh! Darling (Lennon/McCartney)