The approach of a New Year has never meant much to me. After all, January 1 is another day on the calendar. Finding meaning in an arbitrary set of days doesn’t make any logical sense, but on the other hand, you gotta start and end somewhere, right? Here are some of the experiences I will remember most about 2017, including music, movies, and more, in (somewhat) chronological order.
Get Out: When I see a great movie, I actually get a physical feeling akin to electricity inside of me. It becomes impossible to move from my seat. I missed “Get Out” in the theater, but watched it at home late one weeknight, the sound down low with closed captions on so as not to disturb the rest of the house. Even in those less-than-theatrical conditions, “Get Out” was fantastic. Its combination of thrills, social commentary and humor has the feel of a classic “Twilight Zone” episode, updated to address the state of racial relations in 2017. Fittingly, Jordan Peele is overseeing a forthcoming reboot of “The Twilight Zone” for CBS All Access.
Surgery: In late March, I began feeling some lower back pain. I had experienced back pain before, and at first this felt like a minor flare-up. A week later, the pain had moved into my left leg, the sciatic nerve throbbing like an electric railroad spike was being driven into me. Soon I was using crutches or a staff to help me move around, and being driven everywhere by my wife. Physical therapy only made the pain worse. As it turns out, a piece of my disk was broken off and pressing against the nerve. Surgery was the only option. On April 19, I went into the surgical center on crutches, and walked out upright the same day. Thanks to Doctors Joshua Huffman and Donald Hilton for their diagnosis and expertise, and to my wife Renata for caring for me so well throughout the ordeal.
New Mexico Road Trip: Although I love to travel, we really haven’t been very far with the kids by car. Until this year, the extent of our road trips has been Houston, Corpus Christi, or Temple. Last August, we took the plunge and headed west to visit Fort Davis, TX and White Sands National Monument in New Mexico. The high altitude made for mild temperatures, and August suddenly became a joy. We were awestruck by the Davis Mountains, swam in the cold spring-fed pool at Balmorhea State Park, and had a blast sledding at White Sands. Along the way, we even managed to take in a movie at the Plaza Classic Film Festival in El Paso, something I’ve always wanted to do. They screen their old films in a restored movie palace of old, very similar to San Antonio’s Majestic Theatre. There’s even a pipe organ installed in the theater that was played before each performance. Oh, and how'd the kids hold up in the car for those 1,600 miles? Thanks to a Nintendo 3DS, just fine.
Jazz, TX: This still-new spot at the Pearl Brewery complex is simply the most exciting new music club to come around in years. It’s intimate, comfortable, and relaxing to spend time there. The food at Jazz, TX is excellent, and the music is top-notch, led by Doc Watkins and his Orchestra. The club regularly books the best in San Antonio jazz and blues talent, including Aaron Prado, Curtis Calderon, Ruben V, and the Jazz Protagonists. And if you aren’t in the mood for a cover charge, the after-work set at 5:30 p.m. is free, every weekday. This year, TPR partnered with the club for a 16-week series of programs that aired on Saturday nights. “Live At Jazz, TX” was inspiring for me to work on and produce for radio, as it reminded me of just how much great jazz talent there is in San Antonio.
King Crimson at Bass Concert Hall: When folks who don’t know KC’s music ask me to describe it, I usually call it “nerd rock.” King Crimson has been around in one form or another since 1969. Throughout their dramatic evolution from monstrous prog rock in the ‘70s to their New Wave-influenced 1980s lineup, guitarist Robert Fripp has remained the only constant member, and the de facto “leader” of the band. The current incarnation of the group includes three (!) drummers, and they opened their fall tour in Austin with a show I won’t soon forget. The band debuted new material and also drew from every previous era of the group’s sound. Despite stylistic differences, all the songs felt as if they were meant to be played by this lineup. This year, King Crimson has even become more open to sharing its music online, offering fans a free digital download from each live show. Here’s a link to download “Pictures of a City,” recorded live in Austin on 10/19/17.
Stephen Tobolowsky at the JCC: For years, actor Stephen Tobolowsky was “that guy” in “that thing.” But in 2012, while attending the annual Public Radio Program Directors conference, I was introduced to Tobolowsky the author and storyteller, and I’ve been transfixed ever since. It turns out Stephen Tobolowsky had for years been entertaining friends and family with stories from his life, and in 2009, David Chen of /Slashfilm invited him to record them for “The Tobolowsky Files,” an ongoing podcast that also became a limited series on public radio. In October, Stephen Tobolowsky came to the Barshop Jewish Community Center to read from his newest book, “My Adventures With God,” and to engage the audience in a lively Q&A session that offered insight into Hollywood, acting, and religion. I was honored to introduce him at the event. Thanks to the JCC, especially Aliyah Kuchinsky and Maya Siler, for making it happen.
Astros Win! Since I was a young boy growing up in Houston, I’ve been an Astros fan. My earliest memories are of Craig Reynolds, J.R. Richard, Cesar Cedeno and Jose Cruuuuuuuuuuuuzzz! I followed the team through the 1980s and great pitchers like Nolan Ryan. The heartbreak of 1986’s 16-inning NLCS loss to the Mets. I was at the famous June 3, 1989 game versus the Dodgers that lasted 22 innings. I was overjoyed when we made it to the World Series in 2005, but not surprised when we were swept by the White Sox. After several dismal seasons, the payoff came this year, and I rejoiced as Houston brought home a championship to a city that badly needed something to cheer about in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. Go Astros!
SOLI Chamber Ensemble Open Mic Night: I had been bugging my friends in SOLI Chamber Ensemble about this idea I had. “You guys should host an Open Mic Night!” I told Ertan Torgul, the group’s violinist. This year, we did it. Texas Public Radio teamed up with SOLI to present and promote our first Open Mic Night, held at Jazz, TX. Anyone could apply to perform. The rules were that the music you chose to play would have to fall into the “classical” category, had to have been written within the past 100 years, and would be ideally around 6-8 minutes in length. We had a great response! There were enough performers to fill three sets of music, and I even performed live myself for the first time in nearly 20 years. I made a few mistakes, but I was happy to get back in the game. In the audio player below, I'm playing "Opening" by Philip Glass.
Revisiting the Planet of the Apes: This year, my 10-year-old son and I dived into the classic “Planet of the Apes” movies, starting with the 1968 original, and continuing with “Beneath” and “Escape.” As the year ends, we still have to get to “Conquest” and “Battle.” My son asked plenty of questions about the series, from the special effects and makeup, to the ideas behind the films. We had some good discussions about what was happening in America when the movies were made, and how the films incorporated elements of protest, race, war, and nuclear fear into their narratives. And while my son hasn’t seen any of the newer “Apes” movies yet, I was able to catch “War for the Planet of the Apes” on the big screen this summer and was once again amazed by Andy Serkis’ brilliant performance as Caesar, as well as the way the contemporary movies—like their ancestors—reflect the world we live in and incorporate subtle caution about the folly of our human conflicts.
Snow in San Antonio: December 7, 2017 sure was magical, wasn't it? Two whole hours of flurries falling to the ground and actually sticking. What a night! I took a microphone out the next morning to capture the sound of my footprints, something I won't likely hear again for many more years.
Coco: What can I say? This movie made me cry like 27 times. From the artful papel picado opening to its emotional close, this movie about familia, historia, and how and why we remember both, is beautiful.
Dunkirk: I watched this film twice last year—once on the big screen in an awesome 70mm experience at the Santikos Palladium (three cheers for them for booking the REAL FILM print), and then again at home on New Year’s Eve. Even on Blu-ray, this movie about the evacuation of British troops from France in May/June 1940 is riveting. Though I’m not normally a fan of Hans Zimmer’s music, his score, incorporating pure sound as much as orchestral color, is the best of the year, because it's so effective.
I also watched “Darkest Hour” over the holiday season, starring Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, trying to convince a reluctant cabinet to fight the German menace rather than make a deal with Hitler. “Darkest Hour” has some fine performances and makes for an interesting companion piece to “Dunkirk,” but it’s the latter that is a masterwork.