Archive for the ‘My Home Town’ category

SwanShadow Gives Thanks: Part 9 — Defying the Mayans

November 22, 2012

Every Thanksgiving Day since 2004, I’ve posted in this space a 26-point alphabetical sampling of people, places, and things for which I’m grateful. I consider myself to have been truly blessed in life, despite having endured many of the dark times that inevitably arise when one lives as long as I have. I’ve been touched by so many great human beings and wonderful experiences that it’s impossible to list them all when I express my annual thanks. So, nine years ago, I hit on this structured overview method. I’ve returned to it each Turkey Day since.

This year has been a unique one. I got married for the second time, to the incredible force of nature I refer to in these posts as the Pirate Queen. We did some traveling, shared many fun times, and went about the business of being newlyweds, with all of the changes, reconfigurations, and negotiations that newlywedness entails. Quite a few of my appreciations this year derive from our freshly married life and our newly shared home in San Francisco, the world’s most spectacular city.

And on we go.

On this Thanksgiving Day 2012, I’m grateful for…

Acting and actors. It took me the better part of a half-century to figure out what I want to be if and when I grow up. Since embarking on a career as a voice actor, I’ve developed a deep appreciation for the craft of acting, and for the people who do it skillfully. (Which is pretty much every voice actor I’ve worked with to this point. But I’m getting better.) I’m fortunate here in the Bay Area to be part of a thriving community of voice acting professionals. My actor friends and colleagues amaze me continually with their talents, with their determination to succeed in a difficult field, and most of all, with their giving, encouraging spirits. You wouldn’t suppose that folks who compete daily with each other for paying work would be so supportive of, and generous toward, those against whom they compete, but I see it happen all the time. Not all creative people are good people — no more than all of the people in any category are good people — but most of the actors with whom I study and work are genuine and decent.

The Big Island of Hawaii, where the Pirate Queen and I spent a blissful chunk of our honeymoon. (And yes, I’ll get around to posting about that portion of the trip.) From the eerie moon-like desolation of the Kona Coast, to the lush tropical beauty of the island’s eastern shores, to the awe-inspiring power of Kilauea, the Big Island is a source of endless fascination. With luck, I’ll manage to get back more quickly than the 20-plus years than separated each of my first three visits.

My Clipper Card, my little plastic passport to public transportation. For the benefit of the foreigners in the room — that is to say, those of you not from the Bay Area — San Francisco is served by two separate transit systems. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) is the sleek electric railway that connects San Francisco with the East Bay, and with its own airport to the south. (They’re working on an extension that will run all the way to San Jose.) MUNI is The City’s own conglomeration of buses, cable cars, trolleys, and an integrated streetcar-subway network known as MUNI Metro. The Clipper Card, introduced just a couple of years ago, enables passengers to utilize both systems with a single payment mechanism. With parking in The City at a legendary dearth, we use BART and the Metro as often as possible to get from our neighborhood to downtown.

Dim sum, exquisite bites of savory or sweet ambrosia. We’re going for some with visiting friends this very weekend.

I loves me some European paintings. A long-ago course in college first opened my eyes to the works of the classical masters. This year, we had several amazing opportunities to view some of my favorites up close and personal. In February, we saw the exhibition “Masters of Venice” at the DeYoung Museum. Among the attractions in this show were several creations by my favorite Renaissance artist, Titian, including “Danae” and “Mars, Venus, and Cupid.” In September, the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s collection offered some of the most memorable moments of our junket to New York City. I stood for several minutes in slack-jawed bedazzlement at an original poster by Alphonse Mucha, the Czech genius who pioneered the Art Nouveau style. As the old saying goes, I might not know much about art, but I know what I like.

Festus Ezeli, the Nigerian center out of Vanderbilt chosen by the Golden State Warriors with the 30th pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. The kid plays hard, and gives a great interview. More than that, just saying his name makes me smile. Go ahead — try it.

Gray squirrels (specifically the Western gray squirrel, Sciurus griseus). Several of them visit our back yard on a daily basis. I get a kick out of watching them cavort and forage and play hide-and-seek with the neighborhood cats. It’s funny — after living for many years in a suburb surrounded by semi-rural agricultural land, I figured that I’d never see a wild animal again once I moved into the big city. I see more squirrel action outside our kitchen window in a week than I saw in three decades in Sonoma County.

My favorite Horsewoman, also known as my beloved Daughter. I could fill volumes with tales of how bright and witty and talented The Daughter is, but for this particular line item, I’ll confine myself to her equestrian hobby. After 10 years of riding, she fulfilled her dream this summer by acquiring her own horse — a tall, handsome, four-year-old chestnut Thoroughbred she named Gryffin. A half-brother to 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom, Gryffin didn’t enjoy his sibling’s career at the track, but he’s made The Daughter deliriously joyful as her stable companion. Having endured so much tragedy over the past few years, including the passings of her mother, her grandfather, and our family dog, she deserved something special. I’m delighted for her that Gryffin came along.

Itoya Profolios, in which I store my comic art collection. They’re archival-safe, elegantly simple in design, and the perfect vehicle for original art on paper. One of my greatest thrills is sitting down with an Itoya on the table before me, and marvel at some of the treasures I’ve managed to pick up over the years.

Johnny Foley’s Irish House, home of the most entertaining dueling pianists you’ll ever come across. The Pirate Queen and I dropped into Foley’s on our fourth date, and we’ve made frequent weekend pilgrimages ever since. She even had her bachelorette party there. Stop by on a night when Nathan, Jason, or Lee are tickling the ivories and belting out requests. The rest of the crew is talented as well, but those three guys consistently put on the best show.

KJ. Life goes on, but I never forget. I would not be the person I am today without her nearly 30 years of influence on my life.

Lady Liberty. I didn’t expect to be as impressed or moved as I was by seeing the Statue of Liberty in person during our New York City trip — even despite the drenching downpour that struck during our visit. It was powerful to be reminded what a privilege it is to be an American citizen… and to be reminded that almost all of us are the descendants of immigrants, whether willing or unwilling. We get a bit stuffy sometimes about “those people” crossing our borders in search of a better life for themselves and their families. Unless you’re 100% Indigenous North American, “your people” came from someplace else, too. Let’s not forget that the Statue of Liberty lifts her lamp beside the golden door as a sign of welcome, not to slam the door shut.

Mount Davidson, the tallest of San Francisco’s 47 named hills. We live about a third of the way up.

Nineteenth Avenue, the busiest north-south thoroughfare on the western side of The City. For my final two years of college, I commuted along it several days each week to and from San Francisco State University. These days, it’s the path I travel when I head toward the Golden Gate Bridge to visit The Daughter, or other points northward. Man, there’s a lot of traffic on that street some days. But without it, it would be tough to get out of town in that direction.

Orange October. For the second time in three years, my San Francisco Giants won the World Series championship. This season, the Giants battled back from potential elimination six times during the Division and League Championship Series, on their way to a sweep of the Detroit Tigers in the main event. (Ironically, I was a Tigers fan as a youngster, before switching allegiance to the Giants when my family moved to the Bay Area in the mid-1970s.) Behind stellar play by World Series MVP Pablo “Kung Fu Panda” Sandoval, National League MVP Buster Posey, and a fortuitous late-season acquisition, second baseman Marco Scutaro, and with lights-out pitching by the best collection of arms in baseball, the Giants took a determined step toward establishing themselves as the Team of the Decade.

The Porthole Palace, as I nicknamed the Pirate Queen’s house the first time I came to pick her up for a date. Little did I know I’d live here someday. It’s quirky and cozy, and it’s home.

Quentin Tarantino. Because someone ought to be thankful for the director of Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Jackie Brown, and Kill Bill. Someone other than QT himself, that is.

My Rode NT1A, the microphone that is my constant companion during my work day as a voice actor. It always makes me sound good. The performance is up to me. I took it on the road with me when we went to New York, and recorded an actual job on it in our hotel room. (My second microphone, which I also love, is a Studio Projects C1. But that doesn’t start with R.)

Subaru — specifically, the green Forester I inherited from KJ. It’s a sturdy, solid, dependable car. I was unaware until very recently that Subaru has a reputation as the unofficial vehicle of the lesbian community. (Seriously. It’s a thing.) I’m totally cool with that. I’d make a terrific lesbian. I like women, and I drive a Subaru.

The Trivia Championships of North America, which we’ll call TCONA to save me typing. Held in Las Vegas each summer, it’s a merry assemblage of trivia-obsessed folks from all over the continent. This year, I came home with a gold and a silver medal in team competition. More importantly, I spent a rollicking weekend at Circus Circus renewing old Jeopardy! acquaintances and making several new friends. Next year, TCONA will invade the Tropicana. You’ve been warned.

Union Square, the heart of San Francisco. Every now and again, it’s cool to just stand in the middle of all the commotion and watch the tourists hustle past. Wander through the ginormous Macy’s. Stroll into Neiman Marcus and pretend you can afford the stuff they sell there. Have a plate of silver dollar pancakes at Sears Fine Foods. Bask in the glow of the big Christmas tree if it’s the season. Wonder how so many panhandlers convened in one location. Drink in the atmosphere that is Baghdad by the Bay.

Video games, my favorite projects as a voice actor. (Okay, let’s be honest — my favorite project is any one that pays.) Among the characters I got to play in games this year were a Pied Piper, a snake monster, a Russian jeweler, a beatnik priest, a street thug, and a mysterious narrator. Yes, I love my job.

Our wedding, during which the Pirate Queen became my wife. (That’s a double W, if you’re keeping score.) On a beautiful, breezy Saturday afternoon in May, we exchanged vows in front of about 50 friends and family members outside the Argonaut Hotel on Fisherman’s Wharf. The Pirate Queen was a radiant vision in white, as lovely a bride as any man could hope for. The Daughter stood in as my Best Person, and carried out her assigned duties with aplomb. The accomplished a cappella quartet PDQ sang two soaring numbers. I managed not to drop the ring or trip over my own feet. It was the perfect start to our new life together.

XD. I don’t know exactly what Extreme Digital Cinema is, but they have it (and huge signs boasting about it) at the Cinemark cineplex where we occasionally catch a flick. I think it’s something like IMAX, only all digital. Aren’t you glad someone invented that?

Yirgacheffe, a delicious coffee from Ethiopia. As you probably know if you’ve been a regular here over the years, I love a good cup of coffee. I’m especially partial to the brightly tangy, citrusy varietals grown in East Africa, of which Yirgacheffe is one. A mug or two, and I’m ready to face the day.

Zaftig women. Rubens, Titian, and Botticelli knew what they were doing when they selected those voluptuous models for their masterpieces. I salute my female friends who refuse to succumb to the cultural propaganda that a woman can’t be attractive if she wears a dress size in double digits. Ladies, be boldly unafraid to rock the beauty in yourselves, curves and all. The legendary philosopher Sir Mix-A-Lot said it best: “To the beanpole dames in the magazines: You ain’t it, Miss Thing.” Word.

And of course, I’m thankful for you, friend reader. I’m sorry I’ve been AWOL these past several months — I’ll try to post more consistently in the coming year. (Yes, there will be a coming year. Those Mayans just ran out of tablets to write their calendar on.) I still have plenty to say… some of which may actually be worth your perusal.

I hope you and those you love have a magnificent Thanksgiving. Take a moment to count your own blessings, and let the people for whom you’re grateful know that you appreciate them. Now go have some turkey, already.

San Francisco Restaurant Resolution: Week Three — Town Hall

June 22, 2012

The third week of our eatery exploration (read this first if you missed the original premise) found us celebrating our first monthiversary at a restaurant called Town Hall. I thought this would be an appropriate location for a special celebration, because our first outing as an “official” couple — the first time the Pirate Queen introduced me as “the boyfriend” to people she knew — was a company holiday party a year and a half ago at San Francisco City Hall. Since I didn’t think Mayor Lee would let us set up a candlelit table in his lobby, Town Hall — which, as it happens, is nowhere near City Hall — seemed like the next best thing.

Town Hall is located in SOMA (that’s “South of Market,” for you out-of-towners) in a building that I suspect was once a factory or warehouse. Due to the entire interior surface of the restaurant being exposed brick and glass, sound reverberates through the dining room like a colossal echo chamber. Dinner at Town Hall is, for this reason, a little like eating next to a jet turbine running at full throttle. It may be the loudest place I’ve ever taken a meal where there wasn’t a baseball or basketball game being played. (The noise pollution on the night we visited was exacerbated by a tableful of testosterone-fueled yuppie businessman types whose conversational volume level betrayed the quantities of adult beverage they had consumed during their stay.)

Fortunately, the food kicks butt.

I started with an appetizer of barbecued shrimp, served in a decadent Worcestershire-based sauce that perfectly melded sweetness and sharpness. A pair of old rubber galoshes, grilled and covered with this sauce, would be awesome. The shrimp, tasty in and of themselves, were exquisite. I was glad that the Pirate Queen talked me out of my first choice, buttermilk biscuits accompanied by prosciutto and red pepper jelly. (But we’re going back to Town Hall, specifically for those biscuits.) The Pirate Queen kicked off the festivities with piquillo peppers stuffed with blue crab and cheese, which she described as outstanding.

For my entree, I chose the buttermilk fried chicken. Now, let’s be honest — the best fried chicken comes from your grandma’s stovetop, not a fine-dining kitchen. Most restaurants that serve fried chicken opt for either of two extremes: crispy but blandly flavored, or deliciously seasoned but mushy and greasy. Town Hall achieves that rare split up the middle — a crust that’s light and crunchy but also redolent with spices. The meat underneath was done to a turn while still moist and juicy. It wasn’t the best fried chicken I’ve ever eaten, but it reminded me of that one, which is about as good as you can find. I’d have taken a bucket home if they’d let me. The Pirate Queen loved her main course of bacon-wrapped trout — she said that her favorite fish arrived perfectly cooked, and you know… bacon. (Quite a few dishes at Town Hall feature bacon. I’m not saying that as though it’s a bad thing.)

In addition to the cuisine, we gave high marks to our server, who made a couple of spot-on suggestions, and was attentive without being intrusive.

To reference an old proverb:  You can’t fight City Hall, but you can fight hunger at Town Hall. This superlative eatery nearly pegs the Uncle Swan ratings meter with a lofty four tailfeathers out of a possible five. I’d have given them four and a half, as the Pirate Queen suggested, but I feel compelled to dock half a tailfeather for the excruciating noise level. Still, Town Hall delivered the finest flavors we’ve sampled so far on our summer tour. It’s definitely cleared itself a spot on our “must go back” list.

You’ll find Town Hall at 342 Howard Street, South of Market in downtown San Francisco. It’s an easy two-block walk down Beale Street from the Embarcadero BART and MUNI station.

The perfect Cain

June 14, 2012

Over at ESPN.com — a site owned by a network that typically can’t be bothered to cover the Giants because, after all, we don’t have real sports out here on the Left Coast — David Schoenfield just asked the question, “Did Matt Cain throw the greatest game ever?”

Well, let’s see…

Matt Cain's perfect game: June 13, 2012

No hits.

No walks.

No baserunners.

27 up, 27 down.

14 strikeouts, tying the record for the most ever in a perfect game… a record set by Sandy Koufax, who for five seasons may have been the greatest pitcher ever.

A feat accomplished only 22 times in the 130-plus years of baseball history.

Yes, Mr. Schoenfield…

I believe he did.

You go, Matty. We’re glad you’re on our side.

San Francisco Restaurant Resolution: Week Two — La Taqueria

June 12, 2012

For our second weekend of new-to-us restaurant exploration (read this first if you missed the original premise), the Pirate Queen chose what many diners consider the best place in The City to score authentic Mexican food. We needed a no-frills, hassle-free stop on our way out of town for a concert, and La Taqueria on Mission fit the bill.

La Taqueria: Best in the world? I think not.

The prosaically named La Taqueria frequently appears on lists of San Francisco’s tastiest budget-friendly eateries. Its carnitas taco ranks at #4 on 7×7’s 2012 Big Eat, the local magazine’s annual checklist of “100 Things to Eat Before You Die.” When you enter the restaurant, you’re greeted by an entire wall plastered with dining awards and honors, in addition to a blazing neon sign that boasts, “The Best Tacos and Burritos in the Whole World.” That’s a lofty standard for the Mission District, home to more taquerias than you can shake your sombrero at. So, we went in with high expectations. Did La Taqueria deliver?

Well… sort of.

The Pirate Queen ordered two tacos, one filled with carne asada and one with chorizo. I mixed things up differently, pairing a carne asada burrito with the highly touted carnitas taco. We shared a basket of chips mounded with the house salsa. All five of our items proved delicious. The meats were uniformly well-cooked, tender, and flavorful. The beans in my burrito were nicely seasoned and boiled whole rather than refried. The chips offered good solid crunch, and the salsa accompanying them tasted fresh and bright.

But I kept looking at that sign, and asking myself, “Is this really the best taco and burrito in the whole world?” Bite after bite, the answer came back, “Not so much.”

Tacos at La Taqueria

I’m not even sure that La Taqueria serves the best tacos and burritos in the Mission, much less the entire planet. They’re good, yes, but not exceptional. In fact, the last burrito I ate in the neighborhood, at El Toro (on Valencia, between 16th and 17th Streets), was at least the equal of my La Taqueria example, and might have been just a skosh better. It was certainly bigger, and perhaps better value for the money. That’s one of the challenges at La Taqueria. Unlike most of their Mission competitors, they only make burritos in a single modest size, which pales in comparison to the deluxe and super options at other taquerias. If you have a decent-sized appetite, you’ll need to add at least an extra taco to your order so you don’t walk away still hungry.

The quality of the fare at La Taqueria is unquestionably high. Little complaints bugged me, though. Both the carnitas and the carne asada contained far too much juice for the amount of meat. While I have no issue with moist meat as opposed to the dry and tough variety, an overabundance of liquid results in limp tortillas and an overall soggy finished product. My burrito and taco both proved too waterlogged to be consumed out of hand, leaving me to poke into them with a flimsy plastic fork. That’s not my ideal taco- or burrito-eating experience.

I had a similar issue with the chips-and-salsa combination. There was absolutely nothing wrong with either element on its own. (I prefer a lighter, less dense tortilla chip, but that’s strictly an individual aesthetic.) However, I’d rather have my salsa served in a separate container, so that I can apply it to individual chips as I dine, thus maintaining chip integrity. La Taqueria dumps the salsa on top of the chips like cheese on a bad ballpark nacho, and achieves the same unfortunate effect — sodden chips that are both difficult to handle and less than pleasant to eat, tasty though they might be.

Chips and salsa at La Taqueria

As taquerias go, La Taqueria provides a better than average atmosphere for your culinary pleasure. The walls of the funky dining area are festooned with posters from old Mexican films. I got a chuckle from the visual pun created by the poster for a movie entitled “A.T.M.” mounted immediately above the ATM. The furnishings are simple yet comfortable, and there’s patio seating out front if you care to watch vagrants meandering by as you nosh. Counter service was efficient, if not particularly engaging. Once we placed our order, food was dispensed with lightning quickness.

Clearly, thousands of folks — many of whom paraded in and out of the restaurant during our dining hour — hold La Taqueria in much higher esteem. All of the points I make above are subjective. I certainly enjoyed the flavors of my repast at La Taqueria, and I wouldn’t mind eating there again. With so much nearby competition for my Mexican cuisine dollars, though, I’m sure that I’ll probably find my way into several other joints in the Mission before I circle back around to this one.

On the Uncle Swan scale, La Taqueria rates three tailfeathers out of a possible five. The Pirate Queen, less easily impressed than I, lobbied for two and a half, but I’m in a generous mood. You could certainly do far worse than this if your tastebuds are in a Mexican frame of mind, but I’m equally certain that you could do better, too. If nothing else, it’s an opportunity to check that carnitas taco off your bucket list.

You’ll find La Taqueria at 2889 Mission Street (between 24th and 25th Streets) in San Francisco.

A final sting from the Scorpions

June 11, 2012

The Scorpions: Klaus Meine, Matthias Jabs, Rudolf Schenker, and Paweł Maciwoda

Let’s get this on the table right now: I wouldn’t describe myself as a huge Scorpions fan. (We’ll leave the issue of whether I would ever describe myself as a “huge” anything for another time.)

Back in my radio days, I always thought of the Scorpions as “that German metal band with the weirdly misogynistic album covers” — i.e., the Scorps’ 1979 release Lovedrive, which depicted a woman with bubblegum stuck to her exposed breast. And, to be bluntly honest, too many of the Scorpions’ lyrics sounded like they were written by someone for whom English wasn’t a primary language… which, come to think of it, is true. I dug a few of their hits — “The Zoo” is a fun, chugging rocker with a catchy hook, “Wind of Change” is as solid a power ballad as the genre allows, and come on, who doesn’t bang his or her head to “Rock You Like a Hurricane”? — but not enough to land the group on my list of top-rated acts. Liked ’em, didn’t love ’em.

When the Pirate Queen mentioned a few months back that one of her favorite bands from the ’80s was coming to town, however, I rallied to the cause.

And so it was that last Saturday evening we made our way down to Mountain View’s Shoreline Amphitheatre — or as I prefer to call it, Le Grande Brassiere — to check out the Scorpions on their final pre-retirement tour. (Considering that Scorpions lead singer Klaus Meine turned 64 last month, and the band’s founder and guitarist Rudolf Schenker will join him at that age in August… yeah, it’s probably about time to hang ’em up.) The Pirate Queen had been ill for several days with a nasty cold, but as she put it, “Either you or I would have to be on our death bed for me to miss the Scorpions… and if it were you, I’d see if someone could watch you for a few hours.” (She was kidding. I think.)

The show kicked off with Tesla, the hard-rocking Sacramento quintet who’d opened for the Scorpions on their 2004 U.S. tour. (I gleaned this factoid from the back of a passing T-shirt.)

Tesla: Let's get uncoiled.

A talented act who’ve knocked around the circuit for nearly 30 years, Tesla’s repertoire boasts a total of two hit records — a power ballad with the astoundingly original title “Love Song,” which climbed into the Billboard Top 10 back in 1989, and a cover of the Five Man Electrical Band’s 1960s classic, “Signs.” The band served up their duo of familiar tunes, surrounded by plenty of perfectly serviceable filler, during an entertaining hour-long set.

Tesla guitarist Frank Hannon

To Tesla’s credit, their performance held my interest throughout, even though I couldn’t have named more than the aforementioned two songs. Lead singer Jeff Keith probably had better voice back in the day than he displayed on this particular night, but his cigarettes-and-whiskey rasp was more than enough to do the job. (I don’t know whether Keith either smokes or drinks, but if he doesn’t, he might as well. He already sounds as though he’s pounding down a fifth of Jack Daniel’s and two packs of Marlboros daily.) I was highly impressed with Tesla’s guitar combination of Frank Hannon — who worked much of his fretboard magic on a double-necked Gibson — and Dave Rude; I’d gladly pay to hear these two gents rip it up anytime.

I’ll award Tesla’s Saturday show two-and-a-half tailfeathers on the Uncle Swan scale of a possible five. They get docked a half for Jeff Keith’s wearing of the ugliest shirt I’ve seen on a rock concert stage in 35 years.

Tesla lead vocalist Jeff Keith: Dude, what's up with that shirt?

When the Scorpions took the stage (after nearly an hour of technical set-up), I could tell immediately that we were in for a fun evening. From the thunderous opening riff of “Sting in the Tail,” the title track of the band’s final all-original studio album, the Deutschland destroyers grabbed the audience by the throat and never let up.

Scorpions Rudolf Schenker and Klaus Meine

Klaus Meine displayed a remarkably powerful voice for a man of his advanced years — I’m sure that a couple of the high notes soared a half-tone or so higher in decades past, but all in all, the diminutive vocalist (who reminded me of the late Ronnie James Dio, another powerhouse instrument packed into an impossibly tiny frame) sounded about as incredible as he did on any of the Scorpions’ albums.

Scorpions lead vocalist Klaus Meine: He looks bigger on screen.

Meine’s vocals surfed above a sonic tsunami generated by one of the tightest — and unquestionably loudest — ensembles I’ve seen in a while. The Scorpions have always boasted a guitar tandem among the best in rock, starting from the band’s origins, when rhythm guitarist Rudolf Schenker played alongside his brother Michael, one of the most capable artists in the history of the instrument, to Uli Jon Roth, who replaced Michael on the Scorpions’ early albums and helped create the band’s signature sound. Rudolf hasn’t lost a step that my ears could detect, and lead guitarist Matthias Jabs — who joined the band in the late ’70s, just before the hits started coming — continues his dominant presence as the Scorpions’ melodic engineer. (It’s no accident that the Scorpions transitioned from metal legends to mainstream rock superstars when Jabs entered the fray.) Among the fastest fretmen in the game, Jabs blasted out one scorching cascade after another before taking the spotlight near the end of the set for a blistering extended solo (dubbed “Six String Sting” on the setlist) that would have made many of his fellow guitarists lay down their weapons in homage.

Scorpions lead guitarist Matthias Jabs: He be jabbin'.

Not to be outdone, drummer James Kottak kept the fire burning all night, combining powerhouse bass drum kicks with flashy stickwork across his kit, perched on a moveable riser that at times towered 20 feet above his colleagues. The lone American in the band, Kottak also added background vocals on several numbers while never missing a beat. His “Kottak Attack” solo featured his own customized music video — starring the drummer himself in a surrealistic parody of several of the Scorpions’ album covers — that brought down the house.

Scorpions drummer James Kottak: Attacking.

The Scorpions’ farewell tour setlist compiles most of their chart-making hits, including “Send Me an Angel,” “Holiday,” “Tease Me Please Me,” my favorite “The Zoo,” and the set-closing “Big City Nights,” while adding a sprinkling of more recent works, such as “Raised on Rock” and “The Best is Yet to Come.” (Interestingly, the show contained not a single number from their first five albums, a.k.a. the pre-Matthias Jabs years.) The band saved three of its biggest crowd-pleasers — “Still Loving You,” “No One Like You,” and of course, “Rock You Like a Hurricane” — for the no-surprises encore.

Scorpions: One final sting before retirement.

Uncle Swan gives the Scorpions a well-earned four tailfeathers out of five, and wishes them well in retirement. Assuming, of course, that they actually retire. Old rock bands never seem to truly go away, even when it’s time… just ask the Rolling Stones.

One final question, though… are there really scorpions in Germany?

San Francisco Restaurant Resolution: Week One — Bissap Baobab

June 4, 2012

Shortly before our wedding, the Pirate Queen and I discussed measures we could take to maintain the fun and newness of our courtship as we entered our Spousal Unit phase. (Frankly, we feared falling into a rut over time, as many couples do.) We thought about the activities we most enjoyed together as we were dating, one of which was exploring interesting new dining options. Given that we’re fortunate to live in one of the greatest foodie destinations in the world, there’s no reason to confine ourselves to the same old joints… as excellent as some of those old joints may be.

So, we made a pact: Every weekend between now and Labor Day, we’ll challenge our palates with a San Francisco restaurant that neither of us has patronized previously. By the end of the summer, we’ll have discovered at least fourteen new places to eat — some of which, we hope, might work themselves into our list of go-to spots.

This past weekend, we began our culinary journey at Bissap Baobab, a Senegalese restaurant in the Mission. (The signage on the building reads “Little Baobab.” Apparently, the restaurant under that name merged with another establishment nearby, called Bissap. If you look for reviews on Yelp, either the old name or the new will get you to the correct page.) Although both the Pirate Queen and I have traveled — and dined — internationally, neither of us had sampled Senegalese cuisine. Truth to tell, before arriving at Bissap Baobab, I wasn’t aware that Senegal had its own unique cuisine. But then, that’s one reason we’re undertaking this experiment — to learn about unfamiliar cuisines.

As it turns out, those Senegalese know a thing or two about food. We began our repast with two appetizers: aloko (fried plantains accompanied by a tangy yogurt-based sauce), and prawns swathed in a spicy red curry. I liked the plantains more than did the Pirate Queen — as you’ll doubtless deduce as you read this and future posts on this topic, she’s not partial to sweets — but we both agreed that the curry prawns were a hit. The sauce was pungent, but not overly intense, and with surprising levels of flavor. The shrimp themselves were slightly overdone, but not rubbery. (Shrimp may be the most difficult protein to cook perfectly. No, I take that back — octopus and squid are even trickier.)

The Bissap Baobab menu includes only five or six entrees, most of which consist of a basic sauce to which a selection of meats (or tofu, for you vegetarian types) can be added. Depending on the sauce, the meat options range from lamb or chicken to fish (tilapia, mostly) or prawns. All entrees can be accompanied with either rice or couscous. The Pirate Queen chose the yassa (a rich, mustard and onion-based sauce) with lamb, and enjoyed it thoroughly. My entree, called coco, consisted of a tilapia fillet grilled on skewers, then layered with a slightly sweet coconut-onion sauce and sliced potatoes. The fish was expertly cooked, and the well-balanced sauce made a perfect match.

We found the flavor profiles surprising and memorable. I expected something similar to either Moroccan or Ethiopian cuisine — two styles of cooking with which I’m quite familiar. Instead, Bissap Baobab’s food reminded me more of both Caribbean (which made sense, given the West African heritage of many Caribbean residents) and Indian cuisine, the latter of which came out of left field. The unique combination of spices, aromatics, and other ingredients is distinctive and very appealing, and I’ll look forward to other opportunities to expand my connection with this wonderful regional style.

As for the restaurant experience beyond the food itself: Like many restaurants here in The City, Bissap Baobab suffers from complications of space, or lack thereof. We were shoehorned into a corner in which our table wedged cheek-by-jowl with three other small tables, two of which were occupied by other diners. The staff, to their credit, figured out quickly that the arrangement was too cramped, and removed the unoccupied table to create breathing room between the three that remained. Aside from this minor snafu, we enjoyed our visit. Our waitperson offered friendly, helpful explanations of both the dishes and the drink menu, and answered all of our questions with a smile. Food arrived at our table with reasonable promptness, though we did have to wait a stretch to settle our check at the end of the meal. The interior of the space is decorated with bright, hand-painted murals that lend the ambiance a vibrant energy.

Uncle Swan gives Bissap Baobab a solid three-and-one-half tailfeathers out of a possible five. If you’d like to try a regional cuisine that offers some savory surprises, check out the Senegalese fare at Bissap Baobab the next time you cruise the Mission. (A bit of trivia: Bissap is the hibiscus flower; baobab is a fruit tree also called monkey bread.)

You’ll find Bissap Baobab at 3388 19th Street (between Mission and Capp) in San Francisco’s Mission neighborhood.

My funny Valentine

February 9, 2012

For those of you who’ve expressed an interest in my burgeoning voice acting career, here’s a little something I voiced recently.

It’s a promotional video for a Bay Area men’s chorus that delivers Singing Valentines. NIA Creative, an awesome marketing and production company, produced the project.

Fun stuff…

…and if you decide to purchase a Singing Valentine for your beloved, please tell ’em your Uncle Swan sent you.

You can still rock in America, even if you need a rocking chair

October 6, 2011

Way back in America’s bicentennial year (1976, for those of you who are either too young to recall or lousy at math), Jethro Tull recorded a concept album entitled Too Old to Rock and Roll; Too Young to Die. The record’s theme reinforced the notion that rock music is a young person’s game. (Remember The Who’s “My Generation” — “Hope I die before I get old”?)

Last evening, the Pirate Queen and I — along with several thousand fellow members of our chronological demographic — spent four blissful hours testing that theory, as ’80s rock fossils Night Ranger, Foreigner, and Journey cut loose with the hits at Sleep Train Pavilion in Concord.

The last time I attended a show at the aforementioned venue, it was a cold, stormy night almost exactly 20 years ago, when KJ and I huddled on the lawn in a pouring rain to hear local favorites Huey Lewis and the News. (Rock historians will recall that as the night music impresario Bill Graham died in a helicopter crash, on his way home from that very concert.) I don’t even think Sleep Train, the furniture chain that’s now the name sponsor of what used to be called simply Concord Pavilion, even existed then. I know this for sure — the long uphill trek from the parking lot to the amphitheater seemed less steep and distant when I was in my late 30s.

By the time we found our seats at ten minutes before the scheduled showtime, opening act Night Ranger had already taken the stage. (Apparently they neglected to make allowances for their now slower-moving target audience.) Still, we managed to hear 95% of a sharp-edged set that included the band’s most familiar tunes — “When You Close Your Eyes,” “Sing Me Away,” “Don’t Tell Me You Love Me,” and prom-night legend “Sister Christian.” The band also busted out a credible cover of Damn Yankees’ “Coming of Age,” a nod to the band bassist and singer Jack Blades co-founded while on hiatus from Night Ranger in the early 1990s. The set concluded with “(You Can Still) Rock in America,” complete with flags and red-white-and-blue graphics.

Of the evening’s three acts, Night Ranger most resembled the lineup most famous under the name. All three of the band’s founding members — Blades, drummer/vocalist Kelly Keagy, and lead guitarist Brad Gillis — were on stage, and in top form. Keagy even stepped out from behind his kit for the opening of “Sister Christian” (which he wrote for his younger sister). Blades remains the energetic frontman he’s always been, and Gillis’s powerful riffs found a worthy match in those of relative newcomer Joel Hoekstra.

Night Ranger’s kickoff performance earned an enthusiastic three-and-a-half tailfeathers out of a possible five from your Uncle Swan, even though I’ve never really been a huge fan of the band. The Pirate Queen’s assessment was more subdued — “too rock and roll for me,” she opined as the stage was being reset for Foreigner. (Yes, “too rock and roll” sounds oxymoronic to me, too.)

When Foreigner launched into their set with “Double Vision,” I whispered to the Pirate Queen, “There’s not a single member of the Foreigner I remember on stage.” (“I wish you hadn’t told me that,” came the terse reply.) Indeed, the only original member who’s still with the band — guitarist Mick Jones — has missed much of the group’s current tour due to health problems, leaving what basically amounts to a flashy cover band performing under the Foreigner logo.

Not that Faux-reigner doesn’t put on one heck of a show — they certainly do. Former Hurricane lead singer Kelly Hansen represents a total departure in both vocal quality and stage presence from Foreigner’s original vocalist Lou Gramm (to my sensibilities, Hansen both looks and sounds a lot like Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While he trades Gramm’s sweet tenor for a husky heavy-metal growl, Hansen’s a lot more fun to watch than the relatively laid-back Gramm ever was. (He also deftly handled a technical glitch when his wireless microphone went dead during the opening verse of “Head Games.” He probably thought someone was playing… oh, you’ll figure it out.) Hansen’s favorite foil, multi-instrumentalist and Tom Jones doppelganger Thom Gimbel, seemed to have a blast bouncing from rhythm guitar to saxophone (mostly notably for a ripping solo on “Urgent”). Mick Jones’s stand-in on lead guitar, Bruce Watson (formerly of Rod Stewart’s backup band), did a nice job handling the familiar Foreigner repertoire.

And familiar it was. I don’t think there was a single number in the entire Foreigner set that’s not still in heavy rotation on classic-rock radio stations everywhere. From “Cold As Ice” and “Dirty White Boy” to “Feels Like the First Time” and “Hot Blooded,” the Foreigner soundalikes tore through hit after hit in fine style. The only weak points came with the lush ballads “Waiting for a Girl Like You” and “I Want to Know What Love Is,” which simply aren’t well suited to Hansen’s vocal style, or vice versa. As is the band’s custom, they brought on a local choir — in this case, from a Concord high school — to back up the latter song. The kids were… well… cute.

The band saved my all-time favorite Foreigner number for the encore: “Juke Box Hero.” Hansen was back in his element for this crowd-pleasing crusher, which left the audience shouting for more — despite the cheesy computer graphics that looked like they’d been cribbed from an ancient Commodore 64 video game.

Uncle Swan gave Kelly Hansen and Faux-reigner a solid four tailfeathers out of a possible five for their rousingly entertaining set. The Pirate Queen enjoyed them too, despite the disappointing lack of original Foreigner personnel.

After waiting in interminable lines for the restrooms, we were ready for the night’s headliner. Journey grabbed the audience from jump street with the pounding, soaring “Separate Ways.” I was especially curious to hear how the band’s current lead singer, Arnel Pineda, would sound live. Any doubts I might have harbored vanished during the opening number.

Pineda, the Philippine native famously hired after guitarist Neal Schon discovered him singing Journey covers on YouTube — is the real deal. His phrasing isn’t as nuanced as that of Journey’s legendary former vocalist, Steve Perry (probably because English is Arnel’s second language), but Pineda has the same power and pure clarion tone. He’s also a nonstop dynamo on stage — running, dancing, leaping. I couldn’t believe the guy is in his mid-40s. I’m only five years older, and if I cavorted like Arnel for just two songs, I’d need a good night’s sleep and half a bottle of ibuprofen.

Schon blazed through his trademark solos in rare form. I’d swear he’s a tighter player now than when I last saw Journey live 30 years ago. Keyboardist, singer, and occasional guitarist Jonathan Cain and veteran bassist Ross Valory held down their roles as musical backbone and elder statesmen flawlessly. The band’s secret weapon is drummer Deen Castronovo, who’s played with everyone from Ozzy Osbourne to Steve Vai. Castronovo brings a heavy-metal thunder to Journey’s pop-rock sound, lending their concert sound more punch and depth than I remembered.

I liked that Journey surrounded the expected hits — “Lights,” “Wheel in the Sky,” “Faithfully,” “Open Arms” — with some of their lesser-known songs from the band’s classic period, specifically “Stone in Love,” “Only the Young,” and “La Do Da.” I was okay with them salting in a couple of numbers from their new album (“City of Hope,” the first single from Eclipse, is a pretty decent song that compares favorably with the band’s vintage material), because you’ve always gotta be promoting. I longed for a few old favorites — “Anytime,” “Just the Same Way,” “Line of Fire,” and “Who’s Crying Now?” in particular — but by the time Journey plowed into its roof-raising two-song encore (“Any Way You Want It” and the inevitable “Don’t Stop Believin'”), I’d forgotten that I’d missed anything.

Journey scores a whopping four and one-half tailfeathers out of five for kicking it old school, but with Arnel Pineda’s fresh energy. (Uncle Swan docks Neal Schon half a tailfeather for that whole Michaele Salahi business. Y’know, just for the tacky factor.) The Pirate Queen proclaimed the entire show the best concert she’s seen in years, outside of Madonna. It’s tough to argue with Madonna.

Not all of the music from three decades ago holds up today — listen to any Kim Carnes lately? — but the arena rock of Night Ranger, Foreigner, and Journey still brings joy to my middle-aged ears. We had a great time reliving the glory days with this trio of iconic ensembles. It was well worth the interminable hike to and from the Sleep Train Pavilion parking lot, and a night of short sleep.

You can, in fact, still rock in America. Even if your lead singer is from the Philippines.

Comic Art Friday: Wonders from WonderCon, part 3

April 29, 2011

In our two previous Comic Art Friday posts, we looked at two of the new artworks I commissioned at this year’s WonderCon. Today, we’ll look at the last of my big scores.

Supergirl, pencils and inks by comics artist Brian Stelfreeze

A commission from Brian Stelfreeze topped my wish list for WonderCon weekend. Brian is, in my rarely humble opinion, one of the most unique stylists in comics today — no one else’s work looks quite like his, and vice versa. To the best of my knowledge, this year marked Brian’s first appearance at WonderCon in the years that I’ve been attending, so I was determined to seize the opportunity to commission a drawing from him. I own two of his pieces that I’ve purchased from other collectors — a Wonder Woman and an Elektra — but it’s always extra-special to get something that the artist created for me personally.

I offered Brian the opportunity of drawing either Storm or Supergirl. “You can’t go wrong with either one,” he observed, as he looked at the reference pictures I handed him. When Brian saw that I requested Supergirl in her costume from the mid-1970s, he immediately gravitated toward that choice. His finished artwork used Cheryl Ladd — the “other” blonde from the classic ’70s detective series Charlie’s Angels — as inspiration.

Brian Stelfreeze, WonderCon 2011

Brian’s Supergirl reflects the artist’s affection for both the character and the era from which her costume derives. In the vernacular of the times, I’d call this creation “solid.” It appears that Mr. Stelfreeze would concur.

One of Brian’s fans shot video of him while he was drawing his Supergirl. Check it out:

I commissioned one other new piece at this con — a nifty portrait of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, drawn by Tom Hodges. I don’t usually collect color art, but I make the occasional exception, I made one here to allow Tom to do the drawing his way — in particular, to take advantage of this bright blue drawing paper that makes a perfect backdrop for the blue-suited Spirit. I like the fresh energy Tom brought to this legendary hero.

The Spirit, mixed media art by comics artist Tom Hodges

And that, friend reader, wraps this review of WonderCon 2011. That’s also your Comic Art Friday.

Comic Art Friday: Wonders from WonderCon, part 2

April 22, 2011

Last week on Comic Art Friday, we took a peek at the first new artwork I picked up at WonderCon 2011, a Common Elements commission that comics legend Ernie Chan drew in advance of the convention.

But I wasn’t done with either my Common Elements theme, or with the Amazing Chan, quite yet.

The Rocketeer and the Hulk, pencils by Ron Lim, inks by Ernie Chan

The design for the action-packed scenario above sprouted from the pencil of artist Ron Lim — or, as I like to call him, “the late Ron Lim,” because I’ve never yet been to a convention where I didn’t spent at least a couple of hours on the first day circling Ron’s table in Artists’ Alley, waiting for his arrival. Eventually, Ron always shows up, and when he does, he always delivers. Ron’s such an engaging personality — in addition to his awesome artistic talents — that I never miss a chance to renew our acquaintance, and to have him add another drawing to my collection.

Ron Lim, WonderCon 2011

Once Ron completed the pencil art, I carried the piece to the drawing board of the masterful Mr. Chan, who finished it in ink.

Ernie Chan, WonderCon 2011

Oh… the Common Element between the incredible Hulk and Dave Stevens’s high-flying Rocketeer? Both had girlfriends named Betty. In the case of the Hulk, it was Betty Ross, daughter of the Green Goliath’s nemesis, U.S. Army General Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross. The Betty of the Rocketeer’s dreams never had a surname that Stevens ever revealed, but her image was based on 1950s pinup queen (and one of the earliest Playboy Playmates) Bettie Page.

Although it seems as though I spend all of my convention time hanging out in (some might use the term “haunting”) Artists’ Alley, I do manage to check out a few of the panels as well. A highlight of this year’s experience was meeting one of my favorite artists, Bob Layton, the long-time Iron Man stalwart. Bob created a pair of pieces for my Common Elements theme a few years back — one featuring Captain America and Booster Gold, and another showcasing the same two heroes in their temporary guises of Nomad (an identity Cap briefly assumed in the 1970s, in the aftermath of Watergate) and Supernova (the mysterious hero of DC’s Countdown maxiseries, who eventually is revealed to be Booster Gold). When I introduced myself to Bob, he immediately remembered the two commissions — “I never forget my commission clients,” he affirmed — and told me all about his current screenwriting projects in Hollywood.

Bob Layton, WonderCon 2011

Bob’s panel consisted of a lively, entertaining solo interview, in which he dissected his lengthy career in comics as an artist, writer, editor, and publisher. He’s unquestionably one of the brightest, most down-to-earth — not to mention funniest — people I’ve met within the comics industry.

Next Friday, we’ll display more new art and talk more story from WonderCon 2011. See you in seven.

And that’s your Comic Art Friday.