Thursday, August 31, 2017

First Friday Five: Philadelphia-Area Festivals In September

With Labor Day Weekend comes the end of summer and the start of the Fall festival season. In addition to fun food events like Manayunk’s StrEAT Festival and the Kennett Square Mushroom Festival, here are five festivals that are hitting the Philadelphia area in September:

Made In America Festival, September 2 & 3 The two-day parkway bash was created in 2012 and has become a Labor Day Weekend staple in Philadelphia ever since. The 2017 festival hosts a mixed lineup of artists that includes J. Cole, Solange, Run the Jewels, DMX, and Sampha. Philly acts Queen of Jeans, Beach Slang, and PnB Rock are among the local musicians on the massive card. Made In America founder Jay-Z, who released his 13th album 4:44 in June, returns as a festival headliner with a performance on Sunday night.

Parkway 100 We Are Connected Festival, September 8Speaking of the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, Philadelphia will begin a celebration of the 100th Anniversary of its famous boulevard with the We Are Connected Festival on September 8. The fair is a massive arts crawl that features events at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Parkway Central Library, and Park Towne Place. Parkway 100 will have additional happenings over the next 14 months and conclude on November 16, 2018.

Haverford Music Festival, 
September 9 - The seventh edition of the Haverford Music Festival will take place on Darby Road and the grounds of the Oakmont School. This year’s festival starts at 11:45 AM and has beer and wine gardens. The festival is free and all donations and proceeds are directed to the Haverford Township Civil Council. Voice contestant Nadjah Nicole, Beetles tribute band The Weeklings, and 30 artists will grace four stages this year. Matthew Sweet, whose accomplished discography includes the 1991 album Girlfriend, is the festival headliner.

Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show, September 15-17 – The Rittenhouse Square Fine Art Show is the oldest outdoor art show in the United States. The festival was founded in 1928 and occurs twice a year. The September edition of the show takes place in the Center City park and showcases over 100 artists with a wide range of styles.

N2N Festival, September 16 – The 22nd Neighborhood to Neighborhood Festival takes place from 12:00 PM to 8:00 PM and promises a compact lineup that will primarily pay tribute to Prince. Outside of the Purple One, no festival could have a more enticing list of names for Prince fans. Both Prince’s former fiancĂ©e and band member Shiela E. and Purple Rain star Morris Day and The Time will play the free festival. Roots drummer Questlove and DJ Marty G will both DJ the event and PnB Rock will also perform at N2N. 

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Seven Thoughts On Game of Thrones Season Seven

This post contains spoilers about the seventh season of Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones finished its seventh and penultimate season on Sunday evening. The series wrapped its shortest season with the confirmation of a major fan theory (R + L = J) and epic use of an ice-spewing dragon. Here are seven thoughts on Season Seven:

The Writers’ Room – After two lackluster seasons, Game of Thrones bounced back in its sixth installment. After consecutive years of drawn-out plots that were necessitated by the large cast and complex geography of George R.R. Martin’s universe, the show had finally discovered its best balance between character development and compelling drama. That successful formula was abandoned this past season. The show shunned the longer stories and focused more on viral moments that depicted a scheme to kidnap a zombie, epic battles, and dragons wreaking havoc.

The series has recast its identity. Naturally, not every character interaction was developed to perfection in prior year and the writing was never the best aspect of Games of Thrones. The acting and production quality made the series stand out. The show has now lost out on the opportunity to create more dynamic moments between its incredible cast. The amount of viral dominance had an additional negative effect: the overwhelming flash of the season may have also negated the impact of the big moment and become predictable. If every scene is a viral sequence, the value of the battles, dragons, and special effects that the series does so well will eventually become watered down.

The Episodes – The emphasis on flashy moments makes it difficult to distinguish the episodes from each other. The best written and acted episode of the season was “The Queen’s Justice.” The midseason show was one of Cersei Lannister’s finest moments. Watching Cersei enact vengeance upon the Sand Snakes and the Queen of Thorns was particularly engrossing because of the depths of her cruelty. The episode also depicted stunning reversals in the conflict in Westeros after Cersei outmaneuvered Tyrion at Casterly Rock and Highgarden.

Cersei Lannister – Lena Headey does not receive the same amount of attention as Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, or Kit Harrington, but she is one of the best actors on Game of Thrones. Her ability to play an undisputed villain with a likeable evil is uncanny. In a season that emphasized CGI, Headey stood out as one of the most consistent actors on the show by executing the Lannister comeback with perfection.

Littlefinger – The storyline of Petyr Baelish was a frustrating plot with a satisfying ending. While few fans will take issue with the execution of the scheming Littlefinger, the scenes that led to his demise were frustrating. The choice to play Arya and Sansa against each other was more deceitful than distracting. A show can include scenes that mask a surprise, but it should not lie to hide its true intentions. The best mysteries often reveal their outcome with all of the facts present in the open. The intra-family squabbles and lack of sisterly communication that occurred when Littlefinger was not even in the room were examples of how a sloppily written story can derail a show.

The Dragons – Drogon, Rhaegal, and Viserion were clearly the MVPs of Season Seven. The detail that the visual effects crew has provided to this show is unmatched on television. Not only do these dragons look lifelike, but they act like animals as well. Little touches like Drogon angrily swiping at the giant crossbow with his tail help make the beasts seem believable. While the story that led to the creation of the Ice Dragon was a little far-fetched, its existence was an amazing addition to the season and provides excellent momentum for the Night King heading into Season Eight.

Tyrion Lannister – After six seasons of being the most cunning character on the show, Tyrion endured a slump this time around. He was frequently outwitted by Cersei, devised a scheme that cost Daenerys a dragon, and had his loyalty questioned by his queen. It also cast doubt as to how he will survive in the final season. Will he fall out of favor with Daenerys? Will he redeem himself with brilliant strategy in the war against the Night King? Has he recast himself as a Lannister by becoming secretly allied with Cersei?

Overall Grade – Season Seven merited a B-minus rating. “The Queen’s Justice” and “The Spoils of War” were by far the best episodes of the season. Both rank among the top episodes of the series, although the remainder of the season lacked the fully developed stories and character moments of prior years. The season did not eclipse the consistent quality of seasons one and six, but also did not fall into the plodding stories of seasons three and four. The season did hasten the intersection of so many key characters and set up what appears to be a final season unlike any other epic on television. 

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Game Night: A First Reaction To The Game of Thrones Finale “The Dragon And The Wolf”

This post contains spoilers about the Game of Thrones episode “The Dragon And The Wolf”

Game of Thrones wrapped up a splashy Season Seven on Sunday night, airing a finale that was a mostly predictable and somewhat disappointing exclamation point. With a 79-minute run time, “The Dragon And The Wolf” was the longest Game of Thrones episode to date. So far, this season had moved at a hastened pace. It eschewed logical timelines and important plot developments in favor of big moments. Ultimately, this writing strategy proved to be a flaw in the season that was also reflected in the finale.

The most glaring deficiency in the writing was rampant in the demise of one of the greatest villains of the show, Littlefinger. After seven seasons of his Shakespearean monologues, Petyr Baelish finally uttered his most prescient statement when he noted, “I’m a bit confused.” While his execution at the hands of Arya Stark was satisfying, the plot was similar to a poorly written whodunnit where the evidence magically appears in the last two minutes of the episode. Throughout the season Arya and Sansa have clashed in private in a way that only makes sense to lead on Littlefinger, who was not always present in the room. That misled the audience, but those scenes turned out to be more deceitful to the viewers than a red herring.

The gaps in writing also appeared in other moments of the episode. The finale opened with the Unsullied and the Dothoraki horde outside of King’s Landing (although the set appeared to be more Highgarden). The presence of the army was more flash than substance and led to nothing of significance. It ultimately was a wasted tease for the high-level conference at the Dragon Pit.

The conference itself was an interesting scene, but missed the mark on what could have been a transformative moment. It was the biggest gathering of the show’s principal characters since Robert Baratheon departed Winterfell in Season One, but felt anti-climatic. Euron leaving and Cersei’s duplicity were a solid development; however, the long-awaited discussion between Tyrion and his sister was lackluster. At no point did they show how Tyrion persuaded his sister to join the Northern effort. Game of Thrones also forgot that Tommen’s death was Cersei’s fault, not her brother’s. After a lifetime of vitriol between the two siblings, this new development was unnecessary.

Jaime’s departure from King’s Landing was also a rushed development. Cersei’s sudden confidence in Euron and the dismissal of her longtime lover was a rejection of the Lannister family’s strongest bond.

The finale did have its positive moments. After a season of Bran’s aloofness, his omniscience was finally explained to mere mortal Samwell Tarly, who laughably said “I don’t know what that means.” Their discussion confirmed the origin of Jon Snow’s birth and rightful place as king of Westeros just as he and Daenerys updated their relationship status to “it’s complicated.” Bran’s introduction of this new truth will be likely be an interesting moment next season.

The most enjoyable moment of the finale came in the closing scenes of the episode. The emergence of the Army of the Dead and the Night King riding an ice dragon was spectacular. While it was not a surprise, the collapse of the Wall and the slow march of the dead was a compelling choice to conclude the season. It would be hard not to marvel at the amazing effects from Game of Thrones’ excellent production team. The vivid sight of an ice dragon destroying the Wall was one of several excellent moments from the series that has typically crafted these moments well.

Season Seven’s finale reinforced a constant theme of the series. The production quality is spectacular, but the writing and story arcs have failed to match the quality of its crew and cast. 

"Rowboat" - Johnny Cash And Beck's Shared Moment

Few American musicians have devised song catalogs as extensive and commercially successful as Johnny Cash and Beck Hansen. Cash achieved a career as one of contemporary music’s true icons and every Beck release touches on a rare level of artistic excellence.  While Cash is primarily known for being a country artist, Beck’s music has been more eclectic and encompassed country, acoustic, pop, and hip hop. While on the surface it would appear that neither of them share much in common, Cash and Beck have a unique bond that occurred at two vastly different points in both careers: the song “Rowboat.”

“Rowboat” was originally recorded by Beck for his independent LP Stereopathetic Soulmaure, an avant-garde album that was released a week before his 1994 career-changing major label debut Mellow Gold. Like Beck’s other independent releases, Stereopathetic Soulmaure is an interesting window into the creative mind of one of the most experimental musicians of the last 30 years. Like any album that would include song fragments labeled “Noise 1,” “Noise 2,” “Noise 3” and the hidden track “Bonus Noise,” the record is not nearly as radio-friendly as Beck’s other full-length albums. It features some brilliantly-written Appalachian folk music, fragments of different songs meshed together, and just plan noise. In hindsight, it is easy to look at the album as a being a lo-fi predecessor of Beck’s diverse portfolio.

Stereopathetic Soulmaure is more than just a precursor to Beck’s storied career. It also contains a song that became an unusual intersection of two artists at opposite stages in their lives. Johnny Cash used “Rowboat” as the lead track for 1996’s Unchained album. In contrast to Beck’s then-status as a rising artist, Johnny Cash was a titan of American music who was enjoying a late career renaissance with his American Recordings series. Unchained included three songs from Cash and reinterpretations of several songs from other artists, including Soundgarden’s “Rusty Cage.” The LP was primarily recorded under the guidance of Rick Rubin and with an all-star cast of musicians: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Flea, Marty Stuart, Lindsey Buckingham, and Mick Fleetwood. 

“Rowboat” itself is a very dark song that tells the story of man who has hit a paralyzing rock bottom after a breakup. Beck’s cut of the song is a very raw take that feels like it was recorded in an obscure West Virginia dive. While Beck’s version is very good, hearing Cash sing the track elevates the lyrics to another level. Cash’s style instantly feels timeless and the isolated worldview of the narrator fits in with so many other songs in his discography (“Nobody”, “Folsom Prison Blues”). It retains the same depressed vibe as Beck’s original, but sounds more Nashville than hillbilly. “Rowboat” is also like many other songs from the American Recordings era. Cash and Rubin found a way to take another artist’s music and make it seem as if it always belonged to the Man in Black. His deep voice and weathered delivery made some of the best contemporary music of the time (Nine Inch Nail’s “Hurt,” U2’s “One”) his own and helped cement his legacy to a new generation of music fans.

This YouTube clip from unknown program (labeled as a 1997 European TV Interview) is an interesting moment. The video opens with Johnny Cash discussing the young Beck’s music and flashes to Beck watching the Cash interview in a hotel room:

Monday, August 21, 2017

The War On Drugs’ “Pain” Video Captures Philadelphia In A Unique Way

On Monday, Philadelphia band The War On Drugs released a captivating video for “Pain,” a single from their forthcoming album A Deeper Understanding. The video mixes shots of Philadelphia with clips of the band playing on a barge sailing along the Schuylkill River. Shot entirely in black and white, the film looks as if it belongs in U2’s epic concert film Rattle and Hum.

While the pensive mood of Adam Granduciel’s lyrics are a stark contrast to the groove that soothes, the video captures a uniquely Philadelphia vibe that is similar to DJ Jazzy Jeff and the Fresh Prince’s 1991 video for “Summertime.” Both videos used the Schuylkill River as the centerpiece of short films that primarily shunned the obvious shots and captured more localized parts of the city. Instead of sticking to the Art Museum and City Hall, “Pain” opens with children riding bicycles underneath an overpass. As it proceeds, the video flashes to different parts of the city and its people in a way that helps relay the emotion of the song.

A Deeper Understanding will be released on August 25. The War On Drugs will bring their tour in support of the album to the newly-revamped Dell Music Center in Philadelphia on September 21. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Game Night: A First Reaction To “Beyond The Wall”

This post contains spoilers of the Game of Thrones Episode “Beyond The Wall” and prior episodes of the series.

Game of Thrones has traditionally saved its most stunning scenes for the penultimate episode of a season. Ned Stark lost his head, the Battle of Blackwater, the Red Wedding, the battle for the Wall, Daenerys harnessing the power of her dragons, and the Battle of the Bastards all took place in the second-to last show of the every season. For the first time in seven years, Game of Thrones has produced a more balanced season and “Beyond The Wall” was just one in a series of action-packed episodes of this installment of the series.

The three plots of the episode featured mixed results. Daenerys continued her bizarre questioning of Tyrion’s loyalty and the Stark sisters clashed again. Both of these plots are frustrating and neither is having an enjoyable direction. Even though Tyrion was named as Daenerys’ most important adviser, her logic for questioning his judgment makes little sense and is only way to create unnecessary friction in the Targaryen camp. Similarly, the drama at Winterfell is needless. The Starks have finally reunited, yet Sansa and Arya are interrogating each other and Bran is flashing occasional omnipotence that has not proven to be terribly helpful.

One week after the ill-conceived, but enticing, plot of kidnapping a member of the army of the dead was hatched, “Beyond The Wall” did not disappoint. Flaming swords, a frozen lake, and an encircled band of warriors all made for a unique circumstance. The sequence was well-filmed and another testament to the production crew of Game of Thrones.

The clash beyond the Wall featured three outcomes: one was predictable and the other two were more unforeseen. Daenerys swooping in with her dragons to save the day was really the only logical outcome to the group’s predicament.

As unlikely as it was that Jon Snow would die again, his rescuer was not as anticipated as Daenerys’ dragons. Benjen Stark had previously rescued his other nephew, Bran, in Season Six. His first appearance this season was brief, but amazing. Benjen hacking through the Army Dead with his flaming flails was an unexpected and refreshing twist to the episode.

The biggest (and least predictable) outcome was Daenerys losing one of her three dragons and what became of one of her scaled children. After centuries of a dormant war between the living and the dead, the dead were better prepared for Daenerys’ dragons than anyone in Westeros or Essos. The dragon received an epic death as it crashed through the ice, but its resurrection was more shocking and creates more exciting possibilities. Will the dragon breathe ice or fire? Will it clash with its brothers in the sky? Will it fly over the Wall?

All of these future stories are intriguing and create a new dynamic as the dead look to defeat the living. The other emerging plots of the season seem to be more directionless and excessive. An inquest of Tyrion’s loyalties and Stark family drama are derailing the known qualities of previously well-established characters. The most important stories of this season have been handled well, but Game of Thrones is creating extraneous drama that is threatening to undermine the final seasons of the series. 

Is There A Streaming Content Bubble?

On Wednesday, The Wall Street Journal published an article that heralded Apple’s intent to spend $1 billion to create original content for streaming in 2018. With an indelible level of brand excellence in so many different fields, it feels like Apple will not fail to create buzzworthy programs. Apple and its competitors may be running into a different challenge. The market for good streaming content and in-home entertainment has never been stronger, but with a rapidly growing number of options is there a bubble hovering over the expansion of streaming content?

Netflix began streaming content in 2007. In 2013 the watershed series House of Cards was released and the possibilities for in-home entertainment changed overnight. Streaming companies could now release an entire season of television at once and feed our binge-watching habits. It may now seem like a moment from the Stone Ages of Streaming, but Kevin Spacey's appearance on The Colbert Report in 2013 included a discussion of the merits of bingeing television. Bingeing is such a natural part of our viewing options now, but four years ago House of Cards changed how audiences watch programs. 

Kevin Spacey on The Colbert Report, 8/4/13

After initially relegating their streaming options to Netflix or cord-cutting services, major networks like NBC, ABC, Fox, and CBS have already used various applications to explore ways to broadcast their own content. Amazon Prime has also created shows like The Main In The High Castle and Alpha House. Streaming company Hulu has not only begun developing original shows, but is also launching its own live streaming service (Hulu Plus). Earlier this week it was announced that Disney would withdraw their property from Netflix by 2019 to create two channels. One channel will be dedicated to Disney and Pixar and the second would feature content from ESPN.

Over the last two years Netflix has already invested $11 billion towards original content in anticipation of this streaming spree. Instead of being left without enticing content in the streaming wars, the service has decided to focus on developing programming in order to keep their massive subscriber base.  Despite being over $20 billion in debt, Netflix has allotted $7 billion for 2018 and plans to become their own content provider.

With this type of large-scale investment and emphasis on original content, the saturation of entertainment seems like an inevitability. The options with just Netflix alone are already overwhelming. In May of 2017 the company released a plethora of high-profile shows: Sense8, Master of None, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Keepers, and House of Cards along with comedy specials from Tracy Morgan, Sarah Silverman, and Hasan Minhaj. In June, the network followed with another slate of shows that included Orange Is The New Black and the fantastic new show G.L.O.W. With all of this content available at the same time it can be challenging to stay current with television. Unlike a typical network schedule, entire seasons are now available at once. While they can be watched at a leisurely pace, the social media-driven urgency of Must See TV is no longer a single night, but a rush to keep up with the Joneses and binge the most popular shows as quickly as possible.

Major corporations like Disney are not the only companies to enter the market. Unlike any other aspect of modern entertainment, the Internet provides the opportunity for entrepreneurship. The market allows for investment from big names in entertainment like Kevin Hart. The superstar comedian launched the Laugh Out Loud app in August. The app includes scripted and unscripted comedy and the entire Def Jam series. Smaller apps like VRV can deliver shows with a devoted following like My Brother, My Brother and Me to a targeted audience and grow their brand with similar product. These apps also have the potential to focus on diverse multicultural audiences that have been shunned by network television and grow quality content.

This mass of quality entertainment is already running up against a wall. There are only so many hours in a day and the vast amount of entertainment is already at an all-time high level. With network television in decline, the average audience for a show will continue to dwindle because customers are leaving traditional television for streaming. This will continue as the number of options grows. Another factor that will enter the equation is that most people will only subscribe to a limited number of apps. The combined cost of signing up for different apps to watch Disney, Netflix, ESPN, Laugh Out Loud, and Amazon Prime in addition to other regular options such as network television and premium channels like HBO or Showtime is likely to have a negative effect on the marketplace.

There is only so much time and money that an audience can invest in watching television. Will the billions of dollars being spent receive a good enough return to continue this wealth of entertainment and is this rush of quality entertainment really a bubble about that is about to burst?

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Song Exploder Dissects Music's Modern Masters

There are many layers to a hit song that may not stand out as fans hear music from even the most well-known artists. A listener may catch on to the drums, a vocal, or a guitar riff, but it is rare to dissect the separate components of every hit that comes out. Music fans usually just appreciate a song in its complete form. The fascinating podcast Song Exploder excels at taking apart a track and digging into the creative process of a wide variety of musicians.

The podcast is created and hosted by Hrishikesh Hirway, although the musicians are typically the only voices heard in each episode. As Hirway interviews each artist, the podcast includes isolated parts from a select recording and the musicians explain the origin of each part. Most episodes are between 15 to 20 minutes in length and provide an interesting takeaway about a song. While certain technical aspects are explored, at no point does the podcast overwhelm with studio minutia.

At times the musicians’ explanations can be exorbitant (the seven-year process to create Solange’s “Cranes In The Sky”) or focus on the happy accident (the Lumineers’ microphone clipping during “Ophelia”). Song Exploder will also delve into what did not make it on to the song. The Lumineers had recorded “Ophelia” with the help of the E-Street Band’s horn section. Their efforts were ultimately withheld from the final take because of how the horns changed the tone of the music. You can hear some of the horn section’s contribution on the episode and listen to how their addition altered the band’s traditional sound. Hearing the different cuts of the same song encapsulates why Song Exploder can be interesting for music fans. It highlights the experimentation that can occur in the studio and allows for insight into the creative process.

To date, Song Exploder has already focused on high-profile artists like U2, Michael Kiwanuka, Solange, and Gorrillaz. While most of the song choices are hits like Phoenix’s “Ti Amo,” the podcast also looks at less obvious choices as well. The Black Key’s Patrick Carney was not interviewed for any songs from his Grammy-winning band, but about his instrumental theme for the Netflix series Bojack Horseman.

The most recent episode featured St. Vincent, who discussed her new single “New York.” St. Vincent not only broke down the evolution of the track, but commented on how her affinity for swearing found its way into the song. In a way that is typical of Song Exploder, she also credited the contributions of other artists, such as Bleachers’ Jack Antonoff. Guests like St. Vincent help make the podcast unique. Even though it is more customary to watch a documentary that analyzes the recording of a classic rock album like Pink Floyd or The Beatles, Song Exploder profiles work from both established and rising musicians. This allows for the feeling that you are listening to the construction of a classic from a well-chosen roster of contemporary masters.  

Prior episodes of Song Exploder can be found at:

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Game Night: A First Reaction To “Eastwatch”

This post contains spoilers for the Game of Thrones episode “Eastwatch”

The plot twists of the Game of Thrones episode “Eastwatch” may best be defined by the question, “Wait, what?” A pregnancy, dissension in the North, a clandestine scheme to sneak into King’s Landing, and an ultra-unlikely mission to kidnap a wight were just a few of the many surprises of the season’s fifth episode.

A week after ending an episode by teasing the possible death of Jaime Lannister, “Eastwatch” did not waste any time in bringing back one of the show’s principal characters. While he and Bronn survived the battle, they may have wished they had sunk to the bottom of the lake. The episode made one thing clear: Daenerys Targaryen does not plan to conquer Westeros through benevolence. She attempted to make the survivors of the Lannister army an offer that they couldn’t refuse: bend the knee and pledge allegiance or die. Her execution of Randyll and Dickon Tarly provided an interesting conundrum for Tyrion and Varys that may play out in future episodes. Despite the danger that they represent, Daenerys’ overwhelming love of her dragons is blinding her judgment in ways that channel her father. Ultimately, her advisers are coming to terms with the fact that they may be trying to install a crazy cat lady on the Iron Throne.

Following the opening scenes, “Eastwatch” devolved into a bit of a soap opera that muddied the progression of the season. Cersei’s pregnancy was certainly a shocking addition to Game of Thrones. The fact that her brother Jaime will be announced as the father of the child not only makes the prospective gender reveal party awkward, but indicates her intention to double-down on her depravity. This change to the show is certainly unexpected and will be interesting to monitor.

Another intra-family drama to follow is the tension amongst the Stark children that has been put into motion by Littlefinger. After six seasons of following a disbanded family that was strewn throughout Westeros, watching the lack of unity between Arya, Jon, Sansa, and Bran has been uncomfortable. The repeated inclusion of Game of Thrones’ creepiest character, Littlefinger, has become frustrating to watch. No one trusts him, yet he is still in Winterfell. Why he remains in the Starks’ home makes little sense and is part of the deviation from the previous bond between the Stark children. Is Sansa becoming Cersei or is Littlefinger’s scheme a diversion from the show’s creators?

The most surprising story came from the scheme to kidnap a member of the army of the dead to bring Cersei into the fold. By sneaking into King’s Landing, Tyrion’s meeting with Jaime was an interesting scene between the two brothers, but the evolution of the scene was unexplained. How did Tyrion sneak into the Red Keep and how did he contact Bronn?

For a show involving dragons and zombies, the banding together of Jon Snow’s crew, Wildlings, and the Brotherhood Without Banners is one of the least plausible ideas that the series has ever devised. The idea of the Dirty Dozen trekking north to confront a massive army of the dead to bring back proof of life is flat-out nonsensical. All will likely be forgiven in the next episode, because this adventure has the potential to deliver some excitement.

One small nugget in the episode came from the most unexpected source: Gilly. After learning to read she dropped the news of Rhaegar Targaryen’s annulment from his wife to Sam Tarly. While Sam did not comprehend the impact of the news, the scene sets up for future truth bombs regarding Jon Snow’s origin. A cool part of "Eastwatch" came through Gendry's use of a warhammer. That instrument was also the weapon of choice for his father, Robert Baratheon, and was a brilliant choice. 

This season has been filled with fan-pleasing moments at every turn, but this episode was by far the most confounding. For a show known for bewildering revelations, “Eastwatch” included some of the least credible plots yet. There was a lot to digest in the episode. How Game of Thrones is steered from this point will be crucial to the credibility of the writers’ room.

Two Philadelphia Bands With Big Albums Out In August

Philadelphia is home to an eclectic group of rock musicians ranging from the hazy brilliance of Kurt Vile to the adrenalized guitars of Timothy Showalter’s Strand of Oaks. August will witness two important albums from artists in completely different stages – The War on Drugs and Mondo Cozmo. After signing a major label deal in advance of their newest record, Adam Grandiuciel’s band is cementing their status as one of rock’s preeminent groups. Mondo Cozmo is at the crossroads of a unique adventure. The group’s Josh Ostrander is a journeyman musician who is seizing the opportunity created by a life-altering hit and riding a wave of next-level success.

The War on Drugs - One of the biggest bands to come out of Philadelphia in recent years, The War on Drugs are releasing their fourth studio album, A Deeper Understanding, on August 25. In 2014 The War on Drugs released Lost In The Dream, a masterpiece anchored by great songs like “Red Eyes,” “Burning,” and “Under the Pressure.” The album redefined their career path and led to a deal with Atlantic Records.

The War on Drugs have already put out four strong songs ahead of the new record that may be teasing another contemporary classic. The 11-minute track “Thinking of a Place” is a reflective piece with Pink Floydian components. “Strangest Thing” is the epitome of a slow-burner anthem and should be a highlight of their upcoming tour. The fast tempo of “Holding On” almost belies the emotion of some of Granduciel’s deepest lyrics. Some indication of just how much The War On Drugs’ profile has been elevated may come the touching video for “Holding On.” The idea of the video was conceived by actress Krysten Ritter (Jessica Jones, Breaking Bad), who is dating frontman Adam Granduciel, and stars Frankie Faison (The Wire, Luke Cage).

The War on Drugs will bring their world tour to the revamped Dell Music Center on September 21 as a part of ex-Philadelphia Eagle Connor Barwin's Make The World Better Foundation

Mondo Cozmo - After experiencing a long journey with two different bands, Mondo Cozmo frontman Josh Ostrander may finally be on the cusp of something big under his new moniker, Mondo Cozmo. After fifteen years with the bands Laguardia and Eastern Conference Champions, Ostrander found transformative success as a solo artist in Los Angeles in late 2016. While in L.A., his single "Shine" caught fire and landed on top of the Billboard Adult Alternative Single Charts in January 2017. The song that was knocked from the number one spot? The Kings of Leon's "Waste A Moment," which is tied for the second-most weeks atop the Adult Alternative chart.   

His debut album as Mondo Cozmo, Plastic Soul, was released on August 4. While “Shine” is a gospel-style track sung with a Dylan gravel, much of the album is closer to U2’s Achtung Baby. The main constant of Plastic Soul is a collection of songs with a tremendous amount of energy. That vitality may be reflective the excitement of a musician who is grasping the moment. Ostrander’s disjointed path to the top of the charts is best channeled through the impassioned song “Thunder,” where he sings “Come on love, turn me around/it’s been a long [f-ing] year that I can’t wait to leave behind.”

Mondo Cozmo is currently in the midst of an international tour that will stop by the Union Transfer on September 13. 

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Game Night: A First Reaction To “The Spoils of War”

This post contains spoilers about the Game of Thrones episode “The Spoils of War”

After six seasons of following major characters who have existed in distant storylines, one of the pleasures of this current installment of Game of Thrones has been watching these actors finally converge. The episode “Spoils of War” contained a series of high-level interactions and one cliffhanger that continued one of the show’s most enjoyable seasons.

The fourth episode spent significant time with the Stark clan’s reunion. Sansa and Arya had not seen each other since the first season, yet both have grown in ways that neither could easily describe to one another. While Sansa’s evolution into Lady Stark could be predicted, Arya’s change has been the most unexpected and difficult to explain. Her swordplay skills have gone beyond a childhood hobby. Watching Arya prove her mettle as a trained soldier was important for her character because she was able to show off her abilities to her sister. Despite arduous journeys, both sisters are currently in roles that they were destined to attain. This episode was one of the most satisfying for both characters.

A part of Season Seven that is gradually becoming annoying is Bran Stark’s transition into becoming the Three-Eyed Raven. Bran’s journey has always been at a slower pace than the rest of the Starks, but unlike Sansa and Arya his newfound career is less defined. Although he will most likely play a sizable role throughout the next two seasons, Bran is currently behaving like a moody teenager in the gifted program. Bran’s scenes have become some of the most laborious on the show and he is in desperate need of a breakout moment.

One of the biggest interactions of the season has been Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen’s time together on Dragonstone. “Spoils of War” briefly seemed as if it would take the monarchs’ time together to a new level, but ultimately took a more reserved path. Daenerys has begun to know Jon as more than just a pesky usurper and her understanding of the threat beyond the Wall is now much clearer. This episode also showed that she trusts Jon and respects his abilities as a solider. It was also the most significant step forward in their alliance together.

The best part of the episode, and perhaps the most exciting part of this season, was Daenerys’ ambush of Jamie Lannister’s column as it returned from Highgarden. While the battle was significantly briefer, certain sequences were reminiscent of the Battle of the Bastards. Watching Daenerys unleash her dragons on the Lannisters was a thrilling moment as she delivered a devastating blow to Cersei. The most impressive scenes of the battle came from the incredible skills of the actors portraying Dothraki riders and the close camera work that followed them, Jamie, and Bronn. This show continues to produce these scenes in a way that reinvents what we expect from a television series.

The stunning final scene is a cliffhanger of the Jon Snow variety. It appears to be too obvious that Jamie was killed while trying to commit an act that was both brave and foolhardy. How could a one-armed man who is weighed down by armor possibly survive drowning? Game of Thrones has already saved Jon and the Hound after their characters appeared to be gone. This prediction has one week to fail, but it seems to be more likely that Jamie is next on the list of characters to make a narrow escape. 

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Delco Baseball League: A Tradition Since 1908

Summers in the Philadelphia area feature a wealth of rituals that are known throughout the region. The shore, fudgy wudgy, and spending the Fourth of July on the Parkway are just some of the annual rites of the Delaware Valley. Few pastimes in Philadelphia have entertained more summers than baseball. With the exception of the Phillies, no formal baseball organization has been a fixture for more generations than the Delco Baseball League.

The semi-pro Delco league was established in 1908, just seven years after the formation of Major League Baseball’s American League, and has remained a staple of the Philadelphia area. The league has crowned champions in every year  except 1918, 1928, and 1933. Notable players include  Hall of Famers Frank “Home Run Baker” and Charles “Chief” Bender. In 1917 Babe Ruth threatened to jump to the Delco league as leverage in a dispute with the Boston Red Sox. Even though he contemplated signing a lucrative contract to pitch for the Chester Shipyards, Ruth remained in Boston and became one of the most important icons in American sports.

The league currently has teams in Narberth, Wayne, Aston Valley, Concord, Springfield, Marple Newtown, Middletown, Upper Darby, and Chester. Narberth and Aston Valley will begin a five-game championship series on August 5.  

Even for an association that has been swinging sticks since the Theodore Roosevelt administration, the league is still capable of producing drama. I first became aware of the Delco League in 2016 when I was asked to help with the championship series. The series between Narberth and Wayne not only featured some good baseball, but it was also capped by a memorable clinching game. A close fifth game was decided in the top of the final inning. With Narberth up 4-3 in the seventh inning and waning daylight threatening to postpone the outcome of the game, Wayne’s Brian Giacobetti lined into a double-play and gave Narberth its first-ever league title.  

The teams, players, and scope of the league have changed over time, but the game remains the same. The Delco League may not garner the attention that the Phillies or events like the Manayunk Arts Festival do, but it is just as much a part of summer as they are. It is a great experience for fans and families looking to enjoy a good ballgame and a unique tradition.

The 2017 Delco Baseball League Finals Schedule:

Game One: Sunday 8/6 @ Narberth 2:00 PM

Game Two: Monday 8/7 @Narberth 5:45 PM

Game Three: Wednesday 8/9 @ Aston Valley 5:45 PM

Game Four: Thursday 8/10 @ Aston Valley 5:45 PM

Game Five: Saturday 8/12 @ Narberth 3:00 PM

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Best of Everything: A Breakdown of My Eight Concert Journey with Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

You know that you have seen a band too many times when you accidentally hand the security guard a ticket for that group’s last show at the venue from 28 days earlier. (That is also when you know that you have to clean out your wallet.) Since 2008, I have seen Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers seven times and their quasi-appearance as Mudcrutch once. Despite hearing the same band play some of the same songs in similar places, it has allowed for an unexpectedly diverse and interesting experience:

Tom Petty and the Hearbreakers, SPAC 6/23/13
The Venues – Tom Petty usually plays at the Wells Fargo Center when he comes to Philadelphia. so naturally I have watched the Heartbreakers there more times (five) than any other place. The different venues have stood out as the most treasured shows. Newark’s Prudential Center was a fun Friday road trip, but the best facility was the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, a gorgeous amphitheater in upstate New York.

Seeing Petty, Mike Campbell, and Benmont Tench with Mudcrutch in 2016 at the relatively intimate Fillmore in Philadelphia was the most amazing experience to date. Despite a 40-year run as the Heartbreakers, those three musicians played new material as part of a reunion with some of their former bandmates. It was a Tom Petty show where no Heartbreakers songs were played, but it was also the most fun because it was a completely new listening experience from a group of virtuoso players.

The Openers - I have always appreciated when a band enlists a good opener because it makes the concert experience more complete. My first-ever opening band was The Pretenders and other greats have included the Arctic Monkeys, Sharon Jones, and Trombone Shorty.

Over just six separate Tom Petty tours Steve Winwood (twice), Buddy Guy, The Wallflowers, The Shelters, Peter Wolf (twice), and Joe Walsh have all opened for the Heartbreakers or Mudcrutch. Of those great artists, Joe Walsh and Buddy Guy were by far the two best performers. My memory of Buddy Guy will always be him playing guitar as he walked around the entire floor of the Wells Fargo Center. Joe Walsh’s set contained his best solo material and was so mind-blowing that I felt emotionally drained after the show.

Steve Winwood was also amazing. One of rock’s great journeymen, he joined the Heartbreakers for the Spencer Davis Group’s rollicking “Gimme Some Lovin’” during two separate stops in Philadelphia. In 2014, the crowd was also fortunate enough to watch the Heartbreakers and Winwood play Blind Faith’s “Can’t Find My Way Home.”  

The Songs - Over eight concerts I have seen the band play 154 total songs. The Heartbreakers played 50 different songs during seven shows and Mudcrutch played 20 songs at the Fillmore. Discounting Mudcrutch, “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” “Free Fallin’,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “Learning to Fly,” “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” “Refugee,” “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” and “American Girl” have made an appearance at every show. Hearing so many of the same songs has its pluses and minuses. There are some that I will never tire of hearing (“Mary Jane’s Last Dance”) and those that I would be fine never listening to again (“Free Fallin’”), but ultimately it is hard to argue with the rush of 20,000 people singing along to every word of a hit.

Sometimes a live performance creates an appreciation for a track. Prior to the 2017 tour, Long After Dark’s “You Got Lucky” was a tune from the Greatest Hits album that I could skip over. Hearing the Heartbreakers’ synthiest track in concert surprisingly gave the song a completely new sound to me and allowed it to work its way into my recent listening rotation.

The rarities are the most fun. I know not everyone at the show came to hear “Girl on LSD” or “Sweet William,” but the times that I have been able to listen to songs like that have added a great highlight to each concert.  

What’s Left - The fan in me will likely feel somewhat incomplete. I have struck out seven times in the off-chance that the Heartbreakers will play my favorite song, “Swingin’.” While I never expect to hear it, the slight hope that it has been added to the set is always in the back of my mind and at the forefront of my bucket list when I go to a concert. 

Is seeing one band this many times overindulgent and excessive? Probably. Will I still go to a Heartbreakers concert every time I can? Without question. They are my favorite band and seeing them live this often has been a unique experience. Big arenas do not always provide an audience with the chance to enjoy some of the nuances that a great band is capable of. Seeing the Heartbreakers multiple times has allowed me to develop a greater understanding of a special group of musicians and I have savored each chance to go to a show. I can’t wait for the next tour.