Wes Tirey/Andrew Weathers “split”

The new split album by Asheville-based Wes Tirey and Andrew Weathers (from Oakland, Calif. by way of Chapel Hill, N.C.) is titled, aptly, split. And while the Scissor Tail Records release is a mere three tracks, don’t expect a quick listen. The shortest song clocks in at over 10 minutes. But this folk and drone combination is the indie-music answer to a relaxation soundtrack — it breathes, it wafts, it nearly stops time. That’s a good thing.

So delicately paced is the album that it takes the first song (Tirey’s “My Grandfather’s 12 Guage”) about 20 seconds to build to an audible level. It’s like easing into a swimming pool. But once in, the song ripples and flows around lithe finger-style guitar. Without lyrics to guide, the mind wanders through sun-soaked fields of dry grass, down dusty paths and into cool swaths of shade. In the song’s second half, a slide combined with a thrumming drone provides a metallic texture.

Tirey’s second track, “Requiem for Pistol Pete Maravich” continues the gun theme, though it speaks more to nature, adventure, wide skies and countryside rambles than to armaments. Who was Pistol Pete? Turns out, according to Wikipedia, he was a basketball player — the all-time leading NCAA Division I scorer, at that. And there’s a point around the song’s four-minute mark where the guitar strums dribble staccato-like before smoothing back into the gentle finger-picked rhythm. Interestingly, Pistol Pete retired from his sport and took up studies of yoga and Hinduism before dying of a heart defect moments after announcing, “I feel great.” There’s something of that biography in the song’s trancey mysticism and expansive, melodic trajectory. It feels lived in, storied, simultaneously magical and human.

Weathers’ “Stay 100,” a 20-minute track, rounds out the album. It’s 30 seconds in before the low hum can be perceived, though there’s a kind of breathless anticipation leading up to that first sustained note. The drone continues, like a struck gong or a thrown pebble, it’s concentric ripples underscoring an elegantly simple melody. Here, the guitar is electric and the mood is the sort of delicious introspection that comes in between day and night, in the opulence of the blue hour when trees take on supernatural forms and fireflies spark the darkening sky. It’s a moment both fleeting and forever, and Weathers deftly bottles its warm tones and chakra-reverberating murmurs.

Sylvan Esso at The Mothlight

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Sylvan Esso performing at The Mothlight. Photo by Monica Koerschner, via Twitter

Durham-based electro-pop duo Sylvan Esso, the project of Amelia Randall Meath and Nicholas Sanborn, launched their tour with a pair of sold-out shows at The Mothlight. The first, last night, was not without its glitches (the computer crashed, ironically, during the song “Play it Right”), but it showcased Meath and Sanborn’s considerable chemistry, energy and obvious love of making music.

The set launched with “Hey Mami,” the playful lead track to Sylvan Esso’s new, self-titled album. Meath’s voice is a remarkable soaring thing that, on the record, is supple and fluid. On stage, she matched her own vocal loops with choppier choruses — that choppiness perhaps because she was dancing, or signing over dance beats, or because the audience threw her off with a zealous singalong.

It’s hard not to draw comparisons to the record — a seamless 10-song collection whose beats take backseat to Meath’s effortless vocals. There’s a coolness that stops just shy of detachment, a pop-savvy well-paired with a trip-hop aesthetic. On stage, the songs were re-envisioned with Sanborn’s electronics up front. The loungey attitude was replaced with kinetic dance rhythms and a quartet of light features that plunged each track into a roughed-up dance-club strobe.

Not that that’s a bad thing. The “oh-ee-oh-ee-oh” refrain of “Dreamy Bruises” still seemed to call out like an echo from a well. The duo’s single, “Coffee,” had the audience singing the “My baby does the hanky-panky” hook, and the resonant bell samples cut through the din of the room. “Wolf” was an easy jog, Sanborn’s lanky figure bouncing around his laptop.

Where the recording is polished, Sylvan Esso’s live show was rough around the edges — a kind of dirtied-up alter-ego. It’s an artistic choice, and one that makes sense for capturing and creating energy in front of an audience. But will the dance party version of Sylvan Esso work, long-term? Time will tell. Meath and Sanborn are definitely engaging, and with a performance on The Tonight Show already under their collective belt — and a largely sold-out tour in process that will take them across the country, to Europe and to Mexico — the duo’s success is within reach.

Review originally published at Mountain Xpress.

Beck at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium

Photo by David Simchock

I’m not a fan of the whole “killing it” thing, but rarely has there been a more apt usage of the term than at the end of Beck's show at the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. Following the searing, sweat-drenching, absolute mayhem of the seven-piece band's performance of “E-Pro,” Beck literally wrapped the stage in crime scene tape. It was thoroughly killed.

But really, from the opening notes of the first song — they launched with “Devil’s Haircut” and a retina-scorching backdrop of lights and geometric shapes — it was clear the band meant business. (Even AC Entertainment’s Ashley Capps tweeted that Beck’s Asheville show was “super high energy and off the hook.”)

The band members (the same group who worked on both Beck’s most recent album, Morning Phase, and 2002’s Sea Change) bounced off each other, musically and physically, while the front man executed an exuberant Russian-meets-African folk dance hybrid, his moves sometimes Michael Jackson crisp, sometimes a Mick Jagger strut. The dancing, if surprising, was a good sign: Not too long ago Beck was sidelined by a spinal chord injury (sustained while making a video for “E-Pro” — perhaps part of the reason for getting homicidal with that song).

But for all the swagger and insouciance of “Gamma Ray” and “Hell Yes,” there were also fluid transitions into Beck’s more introspective songs. “Blue Moon” and “Lost Cause” were performed stand-and-deliver style; the latter especially impressive because it’s such an intimate song, and yet somehow expanded to fit the vastness of the auditorium. The most stunning of the slow songs was “Wave,” from Morning Phase. Orchestral and dark, with bowed standup bass, it veered about as far as possible from bouncy hits like “Loser.”

If nothing else, the show served as a sort of revue of Beck’s catalog and its almost schizophrenic zig-zag through genres. (Onstage, he even morphed “Sissyneck” into Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean.”) Jazz-tinged hip-hop, indie-rock, country-rock — it’s rare than an artist can take those kinds of risks and put out such a range of experimental albums and still maintain a crowd that not only comes along for the ride but doesn’t even hesitate to take up call-and-response duties on “Loser,” one of the most lyrically odd songs of all time.

The eccentricity of Asheville was not lost on Beck, who said from the stage, “We were walking through the town and there’s people playing banjos and there’s DJs and there’s God knows what going on.” Appropriately, there was a banjo solo on “Sexx Laws,” the first of a three-song encore.

The encore only got wilder from there. In the soulful throws of “Debra,” (personalized with all sort of Asheville references) Sean Lennon — in a crazy hat — came on stage and draped Beck, James Brown style, in a mantle. It was Lennon’s band, The Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger, that opened the evening. That band, a pyschedelic six-piece in long hair and wide-brimmed hats, seemed to polarize the audience. Dreamy and dark, their sound twinged and pulsed like a wasp sting. They made excellent use of background vocals and dynamics, pulling back into quiet before muscling cool melodies over thrumming bass and percussion. TGOASTT’s short set included a “Nature Boy”-esque version of  Bobby Darin’s “Golden Earring.”

Lennon remained onstage, playing cowbell through “Where It’s At.” That song pretty much introduced Beck to the world 18 years ago and still makes for both a perfect calling card and an exclamation point at the end of an incredible show.

Review originally published on Mountain Xpress.

Video interview with Songs of Water.

King of the not-so-sad sad song: Conor Oberst at The Orange Peel

Usually the opener is the opener and the headliner is the headliner and if the two happen to meet onstage it’s because the opener joins in for a song or two, special-guest-style. The Conor Oberst show at The Orange Peel on Friday did away with that formula. Openers Dawes played a full set of their hits and a few new songs, and then returned to the stage as Oberst’s backing band.

Conor Oberst, left, and Taylor Goldsmith of Dawes. Photo by Kevin Eaves, posted by @OrangeFoto on Twitter

So, what happens when you cross the folky shoegaze of Bright Eyes (Oberst’s former stage name) with the Americana-rock of Dawes? Apparently you get an amalgamation that’s equal parts both in a surprising way. Oberst started with “Time Forgot,” the familiar catch still evident in his voice, but the former mournful tones of his songs polished by flourishes of Taylor Goldsmith’s guitar and harmony vocals.

“Sausalito” (from The Mystic Valley Band) took a country rock turn, fleshed out by Dawes’ lush instrumentation. It’s possible that the original informed Dawes’ sound. Though all of the musicians in questions are young, Oberst, at 34, is the veteran performer. He’s also 20 years into his career, which is why his show included material from so many phases in his songwriting and band trajectory.

“We Are Nowhere and It’s Now,” which Oberst introduced saying, “This one’s about purgatory,” is from his 2005 album, I’m Wide Awake, It’s Morning. The song was sung on that record as a duet with Emmylou Harris. On the Orange Peel stage, Goldsmith took Harris’s parts and, while no one can sing like she can, the Dawes vocalist provided a nice foil to Oberst’s reedy warble.

For “Lonely at the Top,” from his forthcoming album, Upside Down Mountain, Oberst switched from acoustic guitar to electric. The song was slow with plenty of white space and tasteful guitar licks as Dawes took a supporting role. But at the apex, the band put out its full effort and, even with Oberst’s lyrics, it sounded like a Dawes song. Worth noting: The new album has a lot of steel guitar and the kind of slick production that would feel at home on a Dawes recording. Preview Upside Down Mountain, which releases on Tuesday, May 20, here.

“Old Soul Song,” also from I’m Wide Awake was all drama and build propelled by Griffin Goldsmith’s muscular drumming. But even there, where the band’s energy could have overwhelmed the formerly emo-ish Oberst, the marriage of styles led to a kind of heightened emotionalism. And really, Oberst isn’t the waif-y sad teenager that he once was. There’s still that trademark quaver in his voice, but he wields it with more control now. And he can belt and snarl — as he did on the agro “Haile Selassie” (from The People’s Key) and on the kick and thump of new song, “Enola Gay.” That song’s punchy angst melts, in moments, into the odd-but-successful flutter of atmospheric keyboards. On “Something Vague,” which he dedicated to his father who was in the audience, Oberst ripped at his guitar strings and jabbed at the lyrics as if they actually floated in the air in front of him.

“Hit the Switch” shuffling quickstep about isolation (“I’m completely alone at a table of friends”) that morphed into a sonic masquerade ball. New song “Double Life” played as a waltz, it’s intro an amble through shakers until the song expanded into an airy and bittersweet melancholy underscored by slide guitar played with a wah-wah. The quiet, stripped down “Artifact #1,” also from Upside Down Mountain, was a also a stand out. Deliciously melancholy, but tempered with maturity, it showcased Oberst’s progression as a songwriter. “I know I should live in the moment, but the I’d miss you all the time,” he sang.

And probably even the biggest emo-hating, warble-eschewing, rock-loving hard-heart in the audience was at least a little bit moved by the tender sentiment. And if not, they would have been hard-pressed to not appreciate how well Dawes performed the song, anyway.

eric + erica at The Grey Eagle

There are plenty of couple acts cutely reenacting Sonny and Cher, Johnny and June, Ike and Tina. It’s a thing on which countless publicists have attempted to capitalize: “Not only are they married, they also write and perform together!” But while the Crushed Outs and the Johnnyswims and the Holly Golightly/Lawyer Daves of the touring circuit have a place in our hearts, few couples come across as so perfectly matched and adorably suited as Eric Kuhn and Erica Fink of eric + erica.

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The duo opened for Sean Hayes at The Grey Eagle this week. Kuhn later sat in with Hayes, with whom he’d toured in the past. But these days, Kuhn and Fink have traded their Bay Area locale for North Carolina and are currently based in Durham.

Onstage, Fink played auto harp and sang lead vocals. Kuhn played synthesizer, backing vocals and beats. Songs ranged from the sweetly quirky “Wild Holiday” to the deeply groovy “Baby” (a Donnie and Joe Emerson cover) — all of which seemed to draw from the couple’s obvious infatuation with each other. Their easy harmonies, the way his tenor provided a base from which she could take her vocal though its acrobatics. Not that Fink over-sang anything (she easily could have — hers is a remarkable voice), and not that the duo’s glances and whispers seemed over the top, either. Instead, they come across as wholly genuine and their songs, their swoony, twilit, longing-seeped missives, are exactly the sort of love songs anyone would want written for and sung to them.

In fact, eric + erica write songs for people who are in love and simultaneously mournful at the very idea that such a love could come to an end. Each nuance — each twinkly keyboard melody, each lanky beat, each strum of the auto harp — is crafted to touch that bruise of knowing that the flip side to having is losing. And somehow that makes those sweet moments of true love that much more intoxicating, fleeting as they are, already fading into the blue hour of dusk.

Which is not to say that these are sad songs. Charming, tender, vintage-tinged: yes. These are slow dances (waltz time signatures are a favorite of the couple). Songs like “The Great Imposter” and the slow-burning “All of the Time” vaguely recall Skeeter Davis without relying on ’60s nostalgia. Crisp beats and a sexy, heavy drop in the melody add a breathless and contemporary feel to the latter.

Hopefully eric + erica continue to fan the flames of their (obvious) mutual adoration so that we can benefit from the music that relationship generates.

Moogfest Q+A: Eric Volta

“My intention, when I create, is honest,” says Moogfest performer Eric Volta. “It’s my bond with my instruments and more importantly, it’s a projection of my soul in some ways.”

Volta is a wearer of hats, writer of comics and crafter of music that lies somewhere between house and techno. He’s also a bit of a man of mystery, based between Londan and Berlin and using his Facebook bio section to thank those who write to him rather than to write about himself.

Eric Volta plays Moogfest on Thursday, April 24 at Asheville Music Hall, as part of the No. 19 showcase. He goes on at 9:30 p.m.

Mountain Xpress: Beyond amplification and electronic instruments, what ways do you see music/art and technology intersecting?

Eric Volta: Well, I’m really loving all the trans-humanist and post-humanist articles that have been coming out over the years, and if we can think that we might be neurologically linked to our instruments and machines in the years to come, it could be interesting to think that our instruments are no longer an extension of ourselves but really a fully integrated part of our anatomy.

How do you feel about playing a festival that’s equally dedicated to technology/invention and to music?

Moog has been pivotal in the development of electronic music and music as a whole. It’s a bit surreal for me still. I got tweeted by Moog [Music] – that’s just really unreal for me. It’s like being bigged-up by one of the Egyptian Gods. It’s really the coolest thing for me that I can think of.

What Moog instruments do you play or wish you owned?

I have a Voyager. I would love more. I would love a Moog modular!

What other Moogfest artist would you most like to collaborate with?

Kraftwerk! Kraftwerk! Kraftwerk! Laurie Anderson [who, unfortunately, had to cancel her appearance at this year’s festival]. Moroder! I’ve been playing Kraftwerk and Moroder in my sets, lately.

What are the top three sounds, sights or ideas inspiring you recently?

Guru.

When you create music, do you have an audience in mind?

My music is written for me. Its a personal experience, and it always has been. I think the transference has a deeper connection to the listener because of this. My intention, when I create, is honest. Very honest. It’s my bond with my instruments and more importantly, it’s a projection of my soul in some ways. And I see people feel it this way. It’s quite amazing how this transference works. And that it can be duplicated, distributed and it can reach out all over the world.

As a listener, what experience do you seek from music?

When I was younger, music was such an escape. Sometimes a way to forget something bad, or a way to enhance something special. Nothing is more soul-saving than getting a broken heart and finding solace in the most heart-breaking music. Misery loves company and it helps people to survive and get by. But it also unites. I suppose what I really love to hear is someone pouring their soul into a recording.

Anything you’re looking forward to doing in Asheville beyond Moogfest?

I hear it’s a beautiful place. I only hope I have some time to see it.

Moogfest Q+A: Moderat

Photo by @ishootmusic

“Hardly anybody has brought electronic music from Berlin to the farthest flung corners of the world with more passion and enthusiasm than … Gernot Bronsert and Sebastian Szary,” says the bio for Moderat.

The group performs at Moogfest late-night on Friday, April 25, at Diana Wortham Theatre, 12:15-1:45 a.m.

Mountain Xpress: Beyond amplification and electronic instruments, what ways do you see music/art and technology intersecting?

Sebastian Szary: There are several ways to use electronic instruments. You can of course read all the manuals and try to be as precise as possible, but [you] could also try to just browse and jam around. You can see that if you put a child in front of a drum machine or synth, without telling them what to do. After a while, they will figure out how to use the instrument with an intuitive way of learning simple technical steps. This is also questioning a classical way of learning an instrument, in my opinion.

How do you feel about playing a festival that’s equally dedicated to technology/invention and to music?
To be honest, we feel flattered and honored to be invited to Moog festival. Regarding old technical equipment/machines: We become little kids again and are very enthusiastic if there is something we didn’t explore yet.

What Moog instruments do you play or wish you owned?
The best would be the legendary Moog system from 1964 or the later-developed Moog3P. Both are mesmerizing objects. Unfortunately, we also don’t have enough space in our studio for them. But the classic Minimoog is still on our wish list.

What other Moogfest artist would you most like to collaborate with?
As old-school hip-hop kids, we would drink a beer with Q-Tip [who has cancelled his Moogfest appearance] if he drinks beer. Coffee would be fine too. The whole line up is just great. It sounds like a poem, a lot of friends, it will be a big hang-around in the dressing room area.

What are the top three sounds, sights or ideas inspiring you recently?
Good question! Basically, we start to work on a simple sound, with bass for example. We try to take an uncomplicated waveform like sinus, triangle or serrated. Those are the typical waveforms used by old, old synths. We still love to work with them. There are sounds that you can use for one or two tracks before they are squeezed like an orange. For our next session in the studio, we are planning to change all equipment that we worked with before to not just copy the same sounds we used before.

When you create music, do you have an audience in mind?
If we are in the studio, there is always the live scenario in our heads, plus the product we are doing the music for, soundtrack, album, single, movie etc. The most important question is always, “How can we generate the sounds live on stage without just pressing one button?”

As a listener, what experience do you seek from music?
For us, it is a way to communicate and express [ourselves]. Inconceivable music wouldn’t exist. It is also a great experience to work as a band in a team, [to] discuss ideas and find compromises.

Stranger Things and Truer Words

“Radio, play me into town,” is the request of local singer-songwriter Paul Edelman on Stranger Things and Truer Words, his February release. The album — highly deserving of radio attention — is a pitch-perfect collection, inspired largely by travel — in both the exterior and interior sense. The 10 tracks stitch dusty Americana and gritty folk-rock with jangly guitar and the kind of songwriting that hits sharp and sticks strong as a stubborn splinter. In the very best way.

“New Wheels” is the kind of twangy, dusky sonic expanse in which you can lose yourself. “I’m almost at the horizon and I’ll hold myself to what I find, but I’ll run out of road before I get you out of my mind,” Edelman sings. Steel guitar reinforces the track’s wistful romance.

“Chase It Down” opens like a kind of talking blues and then expands into an almost mystical melody underscored by rhythmic finger strumming, well-matched by tasteful percussion. The organ (by Steve Fordham, formerly of Mavis Staples’ band) floats, ethereal through the background, more breezy than funky.

Edelman has a unique singing style. His is not a wispy or delicate vocal. He may well be most at home on the stomping honky-tonk of “Friend You Need,” his delivery a winking, G-dropping, country-fried intonation. But even at his most rootsy — perhaps the sweetly stripped-down folk number “Campfire Song” — there’s a supple refinement just beyond Edelman’s rough exterior. He’s the modern cowboy poet, the troubadour in Carhartts and workbooks.

“The Ballad of Lizzie Mainford” aptly synthesizes that roughness and delicacy in a story-song. It’s hard not to fall in sync with the track’s easy groove, lulled by the chugging beat and cool, aerial organ tones. Again, the use of keys is inspired. THis is not the kind of album on which you’d expect to find those keyboard parts, and yet it would be a completely different project without the prudent addition of that instrument. In “Lizzie Mainford,” as much as the lyrics spin the engaging tale of a woman on the run (away from something or to it is hard to say), it’s Edelman’s use of white space and silence, both as a writer and a singer — that really elevates the song. That and the train-on-tracks chug of the hushed chorus: “It’s a ride, it’s a ride, it’s a ride, it’s a ride.”

A number of tracks — “Lizzie Mainford” and the brilliantly-named “Trouble is a Stray” — nod to Bob Dylan’s word-dense brand of folk. Edelman excels at this style, making it more of his own thing than straight-forward derivation. But the album smartly shows the songwriter’s full hand. It wraps with the twilit “Daddy Says,” a lullaby of sorts. Hand drum burbles and a gravelly low vocal compliments the song’s dad-isms: “Daddy says you never get older now, daddy says you always stay the same. Sometimes it’ll tap you on the shoulder, son. Sometimes it just rains on your game.”

The simple warmth of the track belies the complexity of its composition and emotionalism — but that’s Edelman’s charm. He wraps deep thought in the cozy flannel of his contagious song-craft. While Stranger Things and Truer Words stops just shy of being hooky, it manages to be as instantly-familiar as it is unexpected.

Pre-Moogfest Q+A with Craig Leon

Craig Leon with the late musician/engineer/inventor/producer Walter Sear’s old modular Moog. Image courtesy of Leon.

Story originally posted at MountainX.com

Sure, the Moogfest lineup is star-studded (I’m looking at you, M.I.A., Kraftwek and Niles Rodgers). But the roster — which includes over 100 acts just for the night program alone — includes some lesser-known gems worth discovering. This series of email interviews is culled from my personal list of interesting artists I plan to check out.

Among the elder statesmen of this year’s Moogfest is musician/composer/producer Craig Leon, whose music you know, even if his name is unfamiliar. Leon’s work has been in movies like Karate Kid and 200 Cigarettes, as well as on classical recordings by Luciano Pavarotti and Joshua Bell, among others. But his career hasn’t been all symphony-going and film scoring. In fact, after moving to New York City in the ‘70s to work with Sire Records, Leon signed The Ramones and the Talking Heads and worked on Blondie’s early records. The 150-plus records that he’s produced over the years include projects by Richard Hell, Guy Clark and Cowboy Junkies, as well as his own albums.

At Moogfest, he’ll perform his 1980 album, Nommos, in collaboration with a quartet from the Asheville Symphony. The record is “enshrouded in impenetrable mystery – from its understated artwork to the rich assemblage of analog synths contained inside,” according to press notes. Head Heritage said Nommos is the ‘missing link between the proto-industrial rhythm and drone of SUICIDE and the whole minimalist drone / static / repetition method of Terry Riley and La Monte Young.’”

Craig Leon performs at Moogfest on Saturday, April 26, at Diana Wortham Theatre, at 9:30 p.m.

Mountain Xpress: Beyond amplification and electronic instruments, what ways do you see music/art and technology intersecting?

Craig Leon: There is a growing need for entertainment and music projects to have strong multimedia content. This obviously is best served by digital technology linking up the audio, visual and other elements of the performance/recording. Also for streaming of live performances over the internet, to cinemas and other venues outside of just the concert hall. Actually, it’s an exciting time for all.

How do you feel about playing a festival that’s equally dedicated to technology/invention and to music?

Thrilled. I’m hoping to explore new ways of writing my music and getting it heard and seen and to experience first hand what others are doing in the same area.

What Moog instruments do you play or wish you owned?

Over the years I think I used most configurations on projects that I produced and on my own. The ones that come to mind are Moog modular 70s version, Minimoog D, Polymoog first version. I am currently using the Arturia software based Moog Modular in the performance at Moogfest and in other live shows.

What other Moogfest artist would you most like to collaborate with?

This year I’m recreating an older album of mine from 1980 called Nommos for a performance that utilizes a string quartet. At Moogfest, we will be joined by a quartet from the Asheville Symphony. I would like to collaborate with the symphony in the future performing larger scale works for full orchestra integrated with synthesizer that I will be touring in Europe later this year and next.

What are the top three sounds, sights or ideas inspiring you recently?

There are too many to list only three but this morning as I type it’s the sounds of Carl Ruggles, Virgil Thomson and Austin Pitre.

When you create music, do you have an audience in mind? If so, for whom?

No. I only write down what I hear in my head and hope that someone listens.

As a listener, what experience do you seek from music?

Transport from day to day existence. To create a sense of Ecstasy using the term as Arthur Machen uses it relating to literature on his 1902 book, Hieroglyphics. This doesn’t mean it all has to be serious. Fun counts as Ecstasy as well.

Anything you’re looking forward to doing in Asheville beyond Moogfest?

Looking forward to seeing the Blue Ridge Mountains again and maybe getting an hour or two to listen to some bluegrass music.