Thursday, April 23, 2009

Vienna Teng

Vienna Teng continues to amaze me with her ability to engage me as both an aspiring songwriter and a listener. Her stellar lyricism is a constant, but she has taken two massive steps forward musically on her last two discs. What appeared to be experimentation in her well-received Dreaming Through the Noise is now on display on her newest album, Inland Territory, as full blown musical exploration.

Her collaboration with accomplished songwriter Alex Wong (check out his duo The Paper Raincoat, who played a phenomenal opening set) as bandmate, cowriter, and producer is delivering an incredible variety of styles in which Vienna's musicianship can continue to expand and mature. She has also pushed herself as a musician, including studying with a jazz instructor, and it is fun to see her growing confidence in what she can do on the piano.

And speaking of fun, my enjoyment of Vienna's performances has increased exponentially with the number of musicians on stage with her. Her playing and singing stand on their own, but they take on entirely different dimensions of energy and nuance when she leads a band. Tonight she played in a trio with Alex (percussion) and Ward Williams (cello, electric guitar) and they were locked in tight on every song, which included selections from all four of Vienna's albums.

I really like the songs on the new album, but will give it several more listens before commenting on here. I would love to leave you with a link to one of the songs so you could judge yourself, but I am blogger illiterate. Any help out there?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Easter musings

Despite the candy, the egg hunts, and the Easter Bunny; despite the overlap of Christianity with a Roman pagan holiday and its eventual wedding to Empire; despite all of this, the roots of Easter are in remembering and telling the story of the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Thus the traditional greeting is, "He is risen!" to which one responds, "He is risen indeed!"

In addition to remembrance, there is also anticipation. The resurrection of Jesus was viewed from the earliest days of Christian faith through the lens of the restoration of the entire world. The apex of this restoration was the final abolishment of death, perhaps rendered most poignantly through an improvisation on the writings of the Hebrew prophet Isaiah:

"Death is swallowed up in victory.
O death, where is your victory?
O death, where is your sting?"

Therefore, beyond even remembrance and anticipation, there is a present call to action. Behind the anticipation of death's eventual impotence is the faint echo of the most frequent command in the Bible - do not be afraid.

If death is defeated, we are free to live in the risky ways of Jesus that will put us in conflict with the ruling powers - proclaiming good news to the poor, proclaiming liberty to the captives, recovering sight to the blind, setting at liberty those who are oppressed, and proclaiming the year of the Lord's favor. Thus the resurrection as a promise of the full restoration of the world is more immediately an invitation to join the present work of reconciliation. The hope of the resurrection is part and parcel with the hope that what we do can and will in fact make a difference. That is why we remind ourselves, he is risen indeed.

So what does this have to do with the poem in my last post? It's about the hope of the resurrection, in all of those dimensions mentioned above, but this time through the lens of grief. More than the hope of the resurrection focusing on seeing loved ones lost again someday, for me there is the day to day battle against being paralyzed by grief.

I lost my grandfather last spring, and the grief and regret have come close to being paralyzing at times. As I mentioned in the last post, that poem was not written specifically for my grandfather, but for dear friends who lost a baby to a miscarriage this past winter. It was the last in a series of devastating losses in my community, and it cut deeply. That poem was my response to the grief, and in the end, it was about my grandfather too, because it is about the hope of the resurrection.

And what a hope it is.

A poem before Easter

Rather than my normal explorations of religious themes through the culture and history of 1st Century CE Judea, I've elected to share a poem written in January for dear friends who lost their baby. It is essentially an Easter poem.

Fallen in the Garden

Winter has come
Leaves crowned with autumn
have fallen like tears
to rest upon roots deep
in the soil of sorrow
A garden of mourning
in bloom

Also fallen
lie the seeds of promise
Joyous burden of spring
dormant beneath skeleton shadow
Hardy shell of hope
waiting within
earthen womb groaning
for glorious birth

Thursday, April 9, 2009


Gliding above these
fields glittering
with snow I am blinded
by a vision
of purity
covering the land.
If only peace
would lay its mantle
upon us with such
such finality.
I am imagining
war weary boys and girls
crowing with delight,
gazing with wonder
as whispers of promise alight
from the leaden sky
to blanket the world
in cessation,
violence at last enthralled
with the silent fall
of winter's gentle magic.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Blues Are Hungry

I am sitting in a Portland café,
drinking beer and chewing
on history, surrounded by musicians
of varying abilities and obvious ambitions.
We are quintessential musical men,
with all the attendant insecurities and illusions
that what we do matters. That what we create speaks
to others. That it is enough in this world to be
simply a voice, a human inkwell
spilling the dross of molten desire onto
dissonant harmonies,
mournful melodies that echo
from the dark places
behind human faces.

I sit at a table with three
empty chairs, my empty plate.
I am the only one with
dark skin and out of control afro.
I am apparently also the only
one who has come without
guitar or girlfriend. And I can’t prove it,
but I suspect I am not the only
one with a boulder of disappointed indecision
balanced precariously upon
world-weary shoulders. Either way,
I am alone.

A man with a beard like Father Time is playing
timeless tunes on a hungry harmonica.
A hungry harmonica?
Yes, I tell you, it is hungry!
Have you ever listened to the blues so hard
that your soul flickers with each inhale and exhale,
breath stretched on the rack of minor
pentatonic pain? The blues are all flat-fifths and appetite,
feeding on the steady rhythm
of unsightly sorrow, and
they are insatiable.

As I listen to the man play, I suddenly understand
why I have not written a song in
five years. Once lyrics have lamented love
lost and confessed confusion, what is left
to share but latent hope and
cautious dreams?

And I am afraid, so afraid, that no one will care.
What will become of me then?
What will become of me now,
surrounded by love that has found me
in a town I have come to
call home? A town
I am leaving.

I am eating the blues in this café, filling my belly
with cold beer and hot regret, willing
myself to forget that I am sitting