Friday, October 30, 2009

A Band Called Travis

Often I am moved to write a blog about a concert. Usually, I think twice about it then leave the reviewing up to the reviewers who "know" something. Many people think all I do is go to concerts. In actuality, it only looks that way because my passion for music makes me seek it out in faraway places. My travels often involve a band called Turin Brakes. To know me is to know how I feel about their music but I rarely write about it because words are not adequate -- when I try to write how much their music moves me, it sounds silly and gushing and I never publish it.

But today I am moved enough to attempt to write about another band -- a band that, much to my surprise and dismay, cannot sell out a small venue in Cleveland yet had to book six consecutive nights at Joe's Pub in NYC because of sell-outs. The band is Travis and they're from Scotland. In 2001, they appeared poised to become one of the biggest bands in the world. That was B.C. (Before Coldplay). It's an enigma to me as to why they didn't become biggest band in the world. It certainly wasn't for lack of talent.

I first heard Travis while driving home from work three jobs ago. In the year 2000. Their UK hit, "Why Does it Always Rain on Me?" brought me to tears when it was played on 91.3 The Summit, a station out of Akron that actually plays new music (not the norm in Northeast Ohio). The next day, I had the album, "The Man Who," in my hand, and it took up sole residence in my CD player for months. I didn't see them live until 2001, when I started a new job and found one of my cohorts was also a Travis fan. We shared our Travis passion in a little bubble - no one outside of us and our spouses seemed interested in the Travis "craze." Well, my husband Jim still needed a little convincing. It would only take one gig. We saw Travis at the Lakewood Civic Auditorium. We may have been the oldest people there, but the young people seemed to have "got the memo" about Travis. The guy next to us (apparently on his own) asked me if I had seen them before. Upon my reply, he gave me the essential information: Travis is a very endearing live band, impossible not to love once you see them.

He was right. Even Jim knew it (and now, Jim might actually be the bigger Travis fan of the two of us). Sadly, Travis didn't come back to Cleveland until 2009. We had to go to Detroit to see them. Twice. Each time, the same thing. In a word: "endearing." Travis is a great live band for many MANY reasons -- talent, performance, energy -- and they are, perhaps, the most fun band to witness live after The Flaming Lips. (Does anyone want to argue with that first choice?) However, the most endearing thing about Travis is that, even in a large venue, you get the feeling they are in your living room. That feeling is, perhaps, created mostly by singer/guitarist Fran Healy who instantly develops a rapport with audiences by telling hilarious tales as lead-ins to songs. Sometimes they're about the song, sometimes they're about something that happened that day. The humor is partially due to his wonderful Scottish accent but mostly due to his comedic take on an everyday situation. In a venue full of people, Fran seems to be talking directly to you. Telling you jokes. Additionally, he is extremely humble and never ceases to acknowledge the talents and friendship of his bandmates.

I'm telling you this because it brings me to the unique "Travis" gig this past Wednesday at the Beachland Ballroom. It featured only half of Travis: Fran and guitarist Andy Dunlop. Andy is..., like..., um.... the heavy metal guitarist in a pop band. Unlike Travis basist Dougie Payne, who constantly acknowledges the audience by eye contact and smiles, Andy rarely interacts. But don't get me wrong, he puts on one hell of a show at Travis gigs. I am mesmerized by his effortless guitar playing -- it's as if the guitar is an extension of who he is -- another limb or something. The end of a Travis gig finds him soaked in sweat with audience mouths agape in disbelief at some physical feat he has just performed (such as climbing amp stacks and jumping off while not missing a note). To use a cliche, you must see it to believe it.

So back to the Beachland gig... Fran and Andy -- alone together. It was a night of storytelling and music. A chronological book of Travis songs, complete with Fran's hilarious rolling-on-the-floor-laughing anecdotes (I call them "Franecdotes"), tender moments, Scottish geography lessons and nostalgic photographs. We even got a slide show complete with technical difficulties. The music was beautiful -- Fran's voice can be heart-wrenching at times -- and we were treated to the subtleties of Andy's guitar-playing. With feedback. Afterwards, Jim and I discussed that one of Andy's great talents is the ability to control the effect of feedback. When other guitar players get feedback, it can be downright painful, but when Andy Dunlop does it, it sends shivers down your spine. At the end, they asked for requests and had a "democratic" vote on which ones to play. We managed to get one of my favorite Travis songs, Funny Thing, to cap off the night. AND we successfully converted two friends into Travis fans that night.

After the gig, Fran and Andy sold their own merch, including a bootleg CD, signed autographs and posed for pictures with every last fan. As expected, they were humble, "genuine" people, smiling and hugging and taking the time to converse. We thanked them for the years of music. They thanked US for supporting them through the years. Heck, they make it easy for us.

Here is a video and a couple of photos from the gig:

Fran Healy:

Andy Dunlop:

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Character Building by Location

Usually around this time of year, I'm either training for a marathon at similar latitudes or looking at rest and downtime going into the winter months. Last year proved that a late November marathon isn't the best choice of a race, as I stood at the Philadelphia Marathon start bundled up to my eyeballs hoping the temperature would climb above 25 degrees F that day. Besides finishing my first marathon in years on a great course in a beautiful city, nothing about that race was what I would call "fun." But, as we like to say, it builds character. (Cold weather seems to be my theme lately.)

This year finds me facing another weather obstacle -- the opposite of last year. My final race of the triathlon season -- a half-Ironman (70.3) -- takes place in Clearwater, Florida. Most northerners might look forward to Florida in November. I'm dreading it. All summer, Cleveland-area temperatures have been downright cool. The past several weeks have seen lots of rain and cold even for fall. In September and October, I've done most of my long rides on the trainer -- another character-builder. (If I could get over my fear of danger on the roads, riding in the rain might produce a similar level of mental toughness.)

Contrary to the past, my biggest fear now is the run. When I train in the heat, I run well in heat, and I've done neither of those this season. Actually, my run leg in triathlons has been the biggest disaster this year. So with only a few weeks of training left, and temperatures in the 30s and 40s, Jim has been on my case to don multiple layers while running to simulate hotter temperatures. I know it works for some, but I just get soaking wet and THEN I get cold. I'll keep toughing it out, though. I've even taken several hard runs inside to the treadmill (more character-building? you bet). The only encouraging thing is I've finally begun to feel strong and fast on my feet again. It almost makes me want to run a winter marathon. But, first, there's a half-Ironman to get through. Maybe I need to approach it differently, like imagining it as a tropical vacation. With a swim. And a 56-mile bike ride. And maybe throw in a half-marathon, just because I love to run.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Do Social Media Lists End at 23?

I'm switching gears - from triathlete to geek. As a web marketer for a zoo, I'm always looking for the best way to approach online marketing. And, because we don't sell a tangible product (we sell an "experience"), social media and networking have provided a great outlet for interacting with our audience (I've even noticed people will ask questions on Facebook and Twitter before thinking to look up the answers on our website). While learning about social media tools and searching and reading social media sites, I noticed a trend: the LISTS. Social media gurus are all about "top 'N'" lists... amused at the number of lists, and the number of "numbers," I started bookmarking them. And now I have my own list - a sort of list of lists.

It's in numerical order:

Got that? Now go forth and socialize.

(And if you want to follow the Zoo, check us out on Facebook and Twitter.)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Ironman Reflections

Today. It's the day after Ironman Hawaii. For some, it's a celebration. For some, it's a day of relief. For others, it's a day of questions. And for me, it's a day of recommitment. I worked yesterday, but every free moment I got, I couldn't help but check the leaderboard at I enjoy learning how the race unfolds -- will the leaders win the race on the bike? will they lose the race on the run? Will someone put in a legendary performance? (as was the case this year) Almost everyone who has done an Ironman knows what it's like to suffer through that mass swim start, finding a comfort zone only to face the long hard miles of the bike. Then, after your body is screaming from the aero position, you finally get vertical again, knowing you still have to run a marathon in a depleted-energy state. I question my sanity many times during Ironman. It's a constant mental struggle: evaluating how my body is handling it and deciding how how hard to go or whether to keep going. And having barely finished the Kona race once, I have experienced what my race demons really are (long story: read).

Because I tried and failed to qualify at Ironman Coeur d'Alene, I found myself checking another set of data points in Ironman Hawaii this year. I was interested in the performances of the women who DID qualify from my age group at IM CDA. In a strange way, I was rooting for them, knowing they raced smarter and faster than I did that day. But now, after seeing the results, I have been reminded of the true test that Ironman Hawaii is. Of those four women, it appeared that one didn't start (or never finished the swim), one never finished the run, and the other two finished over an hour slower than at IM CDA. I felt their pain. I remembered my own experience at Kona. The "what if"s: what if I fueled differently? what if I relaxed and slept better? what if I trained differently? But then I remembered how I felt that morning. I HAD trained in the heat. I HAD practiced my fueling regime. I HAD done what I needed to do to finish well. I HAD been confident in my race prep.

But Kona is a different planet altogether. It's like being a high school valedictorian at MIT. Square one. Everyone there got there because of hard work. Kona is the true test of wills. You may only read about the great performances: this year, Chrissie Wellington broke Paula Newby-Fraser's 17-year-old course record (by about a minute). However, for the age groupers, the great performances are rare. Kona chews up Ironman triathletes and spits them out a different person than they were at the starting line. Even those of us who didn't toe the line. Today, reading the results just made me want to go back more than ever. My first time, I was conquered by the course. If I ever get my second chance, I intend to make it count.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

In Transition

In the northern US, this is the time of year that most triathletes are either gearing up for their biggest race of the season (note: Ironman Hawaii is next weekend) or winding down after their last race. And it wasn't much different when I was a marathon runner (upcoming marathons in October: Columbus, Chicago and Detroit).

This year, my situation is a bit different. I planned my whole season around Ironman Coeur d'Alene, and when I didn't get that Kona slot, I somehow managed to regroup in time to find a race and qualify for the Ironman 70.3 championship in Clearwater, Florida on November 14. Most of my plans were not plans at all, and now I feel I'm scrambling to come up with a plan with six weeks left, dodging the post-vacation doldrums, training in the midst of the scramble to prepare for and work my employer's biggest event, Boo at the Zoo, and fighting my own lack of motivation to train outside when the temperature drops. And to top things off, my sudden increase in training volume has left me with several illnesses that have further dented my training schedule.

I struggle to cope with the limitations that come with age and changing interests. I can no longer "whip" myself into shape like I could when I was 18. Back then, after a summer of inactivity, I could start swimming at the end of August and manage an all-time PR by November. Nowadays, one hard swimming session could mean several days off with an injury. I also struggle with accepting that my life has changed and my main focus is not always triathlon. This has been the hardest thing to come to grips with. When I'm out on that Clearwater course and my speed on the bike is not what "it could be," will I remember what I sacrificed it for? Will I remember that week spent in Italy being blown away by great art, great architecture, great food and a great time with my husband? Will I remember the time we spent with great friends in London? Heck, will they even care if I don't do my best in Clearwater?

It's all a trade-off -- how to be happy with what I have and doing what I love instead of kicking myself for not being faster or stronger. So this year, for the post season, whether I do well or crash and burn, I've made plans to celebrate the end of the season in Orlando the next two days. And then make plans for Ironman Lake Placid 2010. New age group. New attitude.