Monday, February 14, 2011

Paradigm shift at the Grammys: feel the white heat of the Arcade Fire!

Win Butler and his Montreal alternative rock band, Arcade Fire, accepting their Album of the Year Award last night at the Grammy Awards.

Are you kidding me? When did the Grammy Awards get so cool?

Long lambasted for being irrelevant and out of touch with people who are music nerds, last night's Grammy Award ceremony in Los Angeles was an aberation of the highest order: a night that, for once, rewarded not just the year's hit makers and biggest pop stars but music's new visionaries as well.

Against all odds, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) awarded its most prestigious honor (the Album of the Year) to Montreal's Arcade Fire for The Suburbs, its blistering sonic assault and provocative commentary on American moral values. The ceremony's biggest surprise came just minutes after Arcade Fire performed a white hot version of the CD's most rambunctious song, "The Month of May," and caused the band's front man and primary songwriter, Win Butler, to hold the small golden trophy above his head and exclaim in disbelief, "What the hell?.....we're so happy we're gonna go play another song!"

Arcade Fire's surprise pick was met with raucous enthusiasm among the music mavens in Los Angeles. It's hard to understand why. Maybe they were cheering at the sheer unexpectedness of the moment. The band was nominated in the same catagory as Eminem, Lady Gaga, Lady Antebellum and Katy Perry and to call them "underdogs" is a rank insult to canines the world over.

It's possible that the alternative rockers won simply because the more popular artists sharing the catagory split the academy's vote. It's hard to believe the album won on its own merits or that the academy recognized the sheer brilliance of The Suburbs, as it did back in 1970, when Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band won the same catagory, the Beatles' only win for Album of the Year.

Traditionally, Album of the Year is the academy's defining moment and the academy, more often than not, gets this award right. It seems to recognize visionary moments from artists in their prime. In years past, such seminal albums as Stevie Wonder's Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life won the award (1974 and 1977 respectively); Carol King's Tapestry won it in 1972; Simon and Garfunkle's Bridge Over Trouble Waters (1971); Simon's solo recording Graceland (1987;) U2's The Joshua Tree(1988); and Bob Dylan's Time Out of Mind (1998) were all strong picks.

More recently, however, the academy's Album of the Year awards have misfired. Back on the Block by Quincy Jones (1991); Unforgettable...with Love by Natalie Cole (1992) Unplugged by Eric Clapton (1993); The Bodyguard Soundtrack (1994); MTV Unplugged by Tony Bennett (1995); Carlos Santana's Supernatural (2000) and Two Against Nature by Steely Dan (2001) are not among the career-defining moments of the artists who recorded them. All of those recordings long ago were relegated to the cut-out bins of music history.

If that is the case, last night's show represented a major paradigm shift in the academy's sensibilities. Lady Gaga, Lady Antebellum and Eminem were all recognized for their collective grasp on the Billboard charts. But this year the academy seemed to find a way to recognize musicians who were breaking new ground.

A virtually unknown bass player, Esperanza Spalding, won the Best New Artist award and seemed as nonplussed and deeply honored as Win Butler was in receiving the Album of the Year award. She promised the academy she would do her best to honor the award and make a career of music that would justify its faith in her. Her moment in the spotlight was one of the evening's high points.

Other great moments in last night's broadcast included Mick Jagger's rooster-strutting tribute to departed Philadelphia soul shouter, Solomon Burke (complete with Mick's disrobing of a kingly cape!!); Cee-Lo Green's hilarious performance of "Forget You" (the song's real title is too profane to be broadcast in primetime; its lyrics are a ribald roller coaster ride)with a collection of Muppets; the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons accompanying a croaky Bob Dylan on "Maggie's Farm"; Janelle Monae singing a blistering rendition of her hit, "Cold War" and a rousing tribute to the Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin, by five female sirens including Christine Aquilera and Jennifer Hudson.

It was the best Grammy Awards show in recent memory...and just maybe an indication that academy voters are becoming more in tune with hipster America.

Who'd have thunk it!

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Victory Brewery's 15th anniversary bash on tap for Feb. 15th

Victory brewmaster Ron Covaleski overlooking a topographical map of the county's watershed.

Victory Brewery Co. at 420 Acorn Lane in Downingtown will be the place to be for Chester County beer connoisseurs on Tuesday night, February 15.

That night, starting at 5 p.m., Victory is celebrating its 15th year in business with the unveiling of a new handcrafted beer, Headwaters Pale Ale, a name chosen to raise ecological awareness of the county's fresh water supply.

Additionally, the brewery will celebrate the occasion by continuously running a 15-minute film called "15 Years of Characters" that is dedicated to the local brewery's rabid fans and employees. The first screening will take place at 6:30 p.m. In its 15 years of existence, the local brewery has become a county landmark and a source of regional pride. It has also come to represent a worthy local example of a rising national trend in food aesthetics that has eagerly embraced taste for taste's sake.

Not coincidentally, Victory Brewery earned its rising reputation with a fistful of regional, national and international awards. HopDevil Ale was one of a dozen beers to win the Good Food Awards 2011 and it won the silver metal at the Australian International Beer Awards 2008. The brewery's Prima Pils took the silver metal at both the European BeerStar fest and the Great American Beer Festival in 2007. Its Golden Monkey brand took the broze at the Australian International Beer Awards in 2008.

The 15th anniversary party on Tuesday has plenty to celebrate. What local residents don't know is that the Victory celebration isn't just 15 years in the making. It's been a 37-year journey for its two founders, Bill Covaleski and Ron Barchet.

* * * *

Covaleski, originally from Levittown, and Barchet, originally from Norristown, met one another in Collegeville, Pa., when they were 10-year-olds at Worcester Elementary School. The two boys found they had a lot in common: both of their dads worked for General Electric in King of Prussia. Through the years of their friendship, both developed an interest in making their own handcrafted beers.

Covaleski's father developed the habit of growing his own vegetables and making his own food, a character trait that Bill envied and imitated. "He made his own sauerkraut and pickles," says Covaleski, a talkative guy prone to easy smiles. "And he brewed his own beer in the family basement. He was always interested in how things tasted and what he could do to make them taste better. He was interested in the process of taste." Covaleski took the lesson to heart.

Bill appropriated his father's homebrewing rig after graduating the Tyler School of Art at Temple University and started to make his own home-brewed beer in the family basement next to his father's beer efforts. He purchased a start-up brew kit for Barchet, his school chum, and challenged him to come up with concoctions that tasted better than his own. Their friendly competition and interest in the esoteric world of taste variations lead both men on a career path that has made them celebrated.

In 1987, the two of them explored their mutual interest in beer making on a trip to the Trappest monestary of Orval, in Belgium, revered by beer drinkers the world over. "When you live in a monestary, you need to be self-sufficient. Beer was thought of as a necessity," said Covalesk with a sly smile. What they found in Europe was different culture about drinking, a positive mindset.

"In America at the time, Nancy Reagan's 'Just Say No' campaign against drugs and alcohol was in vogue," said Covaleski. "The national attitude about drinking was pretty negative. Bars were seen as dark places, lit by neon lights and occupied by people of questionable character. In the places we visited in Europe, beer was taken by families. Husbands and wives were enjoying it in the company of their children in the open sunshine at lunch and on picnics.

"They reveled in the taste and the smell of it. We saw them consuming beers in litre containers, drinking slowly and savoring the experience of the taste of the beer. It was celebrated as part of the national culture. It really was quite a thing to see. I think for both of us, that trip was series of life-changing moments. We became two young men intrigued by the process of beer making and the culture of flavor."

In December of 1989, Barchet was hired by the Baltimore Brewery as an assistant to the company's brewer, Theo DeGroen, a German brewmaster who had hailed from the Grolsch family of brewers. He impressed his young apprentice on the importance of learning the process of beer making. After a just a year, Barchet left Baltimore to study beer-making at the Technical University of Munich at Weihenstephan. Covaleski replaced him at the Baltimore brewery and, a short time later, left to study beer-making himself at Doemens University in Germany.

Their mutual interest in beer and the way its taste could be tweaked and refined was continually expanding. They both became aware in the mid-1990s that Americans were developing a new paradigm of what food could become. "Americans suddenly became consumers of taste," said Covaleski. "In coffee, bread and beer, their tastes started to develop and expand. They started to become more demanding as consumers."

It was the perfect time to put their life-long passion for developing intriguing tastes in beer to practical use. They leased space in the old Pepperidge Farm bakery on Acorn Lane in 1995 and by February of 1996, they unveiled three different hand-crafted beers: Brandywine Valley Lager, Victory HopDevil Ale, and Victory Festbier, an Oktoberfest lager they planned to brew year round.

At the time, American microbrewed beers were just coming into their own and Americans were beginning to discover the taste differences between local hand-crafted beers and the products purvayed by Miller, Budweiser and Pabst, huge beer conglomerates than commanded the giant's share of the nation's beer market.

Hoppy ales were particularly successful in the early years of American microbrews and Covaleski and Barchet believed they could buck that tide and devolop a distinctive lager that would make local beer consumers re-think their preference for the King of Beers, Budweiser. Both were amused when their HopDevil India Pale Ale became an instant success and runaway best seller.

From the very beginning, Victory HopDevil Ale was the brewery's most popular brand. Today it accounts for 40 percent of the brewery's sales. Beer sales at the brewery have grown every year for 15 years. In 1996, it manufactured 1700 barrels of beer and employed 35 people. In 2010, it brewed 58,000 barrels of beer and now employees 180 people.

Covaleski says his "moment of recognition" that the brewery was going to be a success came at a Philadelphia beer festival in 2001. He was walking down a Philadelphia street with his vice-president of sales, Steve German. At the same instant, they both saw a discarded brown beer bottle, stashed against a wall.
"We looked at one another and said, 'what are the chances it's one of ours?' But when we turned the bottle around and saw that Victory HopDevil label, we both had the same thought: 'Someone likes our beer, not just in Downingtown, but here in the city, too!' Up until that moment, I thought I personally knew each one of my patrons."

It wasn't long after that that Victory went global.

* * * *

American craft beers like Downingtown's Victory, Sly Fox of Phoenixville and Iron Hill in West Chester presently account for five percent of the American beer market. Imports like Amstel, Heineken, Guinness and Harp account for 11 percent of the U.S. market. Covaleski sees a time coming in the near future when American craft beers have earned 10 percent or more of the national market and the size taken by imports is reduced to five percent.

He and Barchet have made several trips to Europe to introduce their beers to European consumers. In 2006, he was promoting several of his brands to beer writers at the White Horse Tavern at Parson's Green in London. One of the British writers asked Covalski a pointed question. "We have beers in Britain. Why are you here?"

The dean of British spirits writers, Michael Jackson, (author of a renowned 1977 book called "The World Guide to Beer" and host of "The Beer Hunter" on the Discover Channel) had tried Victory's beers and liked what he'd discovered in them. He took offense at the question and launched into a diatribe. Jackson died in 2007, but Covaleksi was struck by what he said: "Shame on you! If an individual makes something special, it's a mortal sin not to share it! These fellows are here to share their beers with you! We should thank them!"

Victory doesn't sell a lot of beer overseas, but it ships both kegs and cases of beer there. "You develop an attitude when you run a microbrewery that if someone is going to pay you for what you do, you want to try to accommodate him," Covaleski says. "It's a compliment to us that some people in Europe like our beer enough to request it."

Covaleksi is equally proud that Victory is one of a handful of local handcrafted beers (Yards, Dogfish Head and Troegs are some others) that are offered in specialty kiosks and sold at Citizens Bank Park, the home of the Phillies. "Someone at the stadium was really smart when they first opened the stadium," he says. "They realized there was an audience for microbrewed beers, that many local consumers wanted something more than what the large beer companies were offering. Beer has been associated with baseball for decades. It's really great the Phillies recognize what the small local breweries are doing."

Headwaters Pale Ale, the new beer that will be introduced this week, is Victory's way of making local Chester County residents recognize the importance of their fresh water supply. While overlooking a topographical map of the county inthe brewery's boardroom, Covaleski points out that there's a 750 foot decline from the headwaters of the Eastern branch of the Brandywine Creek, from which Victory gets its fresh water.

"Downingtown is like a huge drain," he says. "The water drops down to us from from various aquifiers in the county. We're very lucky that for long stretches of the Brandwine, there's no industry and no pollution. The water we use for the making of our beers is an integral part of the success of our product. Stewardship of our water supply becomes a community affair. We hope Headwaters Pale Ale will bring some awareness to county conservation efforts regarding our water supply."

Victory's growth and success makes it an obvious target for larger beer companies who know a good brand when they see one and might be tempted to make Covaleski and Barchet an offer they can't refuse. Covaleski smiles at the thought, but dismisses it. Beer is in his blood. It's all he wants to do.

"Ron and I are 47 years old," he says. "This is what we do. It's who we are. We've been wanting to do this since the time we were just boys. We expect to be making beer for a very long time."

Monday, February 7, 2011

Letting go of a personal library: no regrets

Several weeks ago, my English Department chair sent an email to my department colleagues with an offer that intrigued me: Free books!

A colleague who retired several years ago was making his collection available to any one who might be interested. First come, first served. Dr. Robert Weiss said he and his wife, Jane, were planning on moving into an apartment in Philadelphia before too long. He wanted to unload his collection.

I have enough unread books in my house to last a lifetime. Like many academics, I've been collecting them since my days as an undergraduate. I don't really need more. But the pull of perusing an entire collection was impossible to resist. I called him and said I might have some interest. What did he have?

"A little bit of everything" was his answer. But that remark didn't really do justice to his collection.

I knew Professor Weiss had founded the Pennsylvania Writing Project and run it for 18 years at West Chester University. Before that, he had been hired to teach literature at the university. I figured his personal library would have a lot of composition books (that I had little interest in) and some classic novels in time periods I had not read since I was an undergraduate (those I wanted to see for myself). My expectations for bringing home more than a box of books were pretty slight.

What I found was mind boggling, in the sense of having a mind set loose from its moorings. I discovered a treasure trove of books on ancient history and art, anthropology, philosophy, politics both old and modern, mythology, religious studies, feminist studies, economics, critical theory and literature that spanned five or six centuries.

It was plain and simple evidence that Professor Weiss was the best kind of seeker: he was curious about many aspects of the world of thought and human development. He had not confined his inquiry to one small parcel of academic expertise. He was an old-school Renaissance scholar. He wanted to know as much as he could about anything that struck his fancy.

Weiss, a friendly, avuncular man, explained he used to house his collection in a spare bedroom on shelves he had constructed himself not long after moving into his home on S. Matlack Street in 1970. Later, when the spare room was turned into the master bedroom, most of the shelving had to go to make room for a new bathroom. Leisure reading stayed in the bedroom (see picture below) but the rest of his collection was stored in his basement.

That's where I started my mission. After about 75 minutes, I had hauled five boxes of books out to my car and had barely made a dent in helping Weiss unload the detritus of a lifetime of pondering. The books were housed in a dusty, poorly lit corner of his basement on shelves that, though constructed years ago, were still sturdy. For the most part, the books were in very good shape because the basement was dry.

Yes, there were notable works of literature, old and new. Many of them were small, hardback Modern Library editions and some of them still had $1.98 price tags on them from their initial purchased 40 years ago: Anthony Trollope's The Eustace Diamonds, Blaise Pascal's Pensees and the Provincial Letters; Marcel Proust's Swann's Way; Honore Balzac's Pere Goriot; The Notebooks of Leonardo DaVinci; Augustine's The City of God; The Apocrypha; Beowolf and a nice version of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, edited by that Medieval scholar, J.R.R. Tolkien.

But what really got my intellectual pulse elevated were books on the history of religion and mythology. I took dozens of books off those dusty shelves about the ancient church and the roots of Judiasm and Christianity: Joseph Campbell's three-book series, The Masks of God; Charles Leland's Etruscan Magic & Occult Remedies; W.B. Stanford's The Ulysses Theme; Ernest Crawley's The Mystic Rose: A study of Primitive Marriage; Adolphe Didron's Christian Iconography: the history of Christian Art in the Middle Ages; H. Mellersh's From Apeman to Homer: Max Rudwin's The Devil in Legend and Literature; Ernest Becker's The Structure of Evil; and Philip Hughes' The Church in Crisis: the Twelve Councils. I brought home dozens more.

Weiss's interest in mythology, anthropology and folklore was inspired by a professor during his days as an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, MacEdward Leach. He started out studying pre-med and zoology, but switched majors halfway through his college career and ended up with a creative writing degree.

"I couldn't write very good short stories and didn't think I had a novel in me," he said. "I found myself more interested in mythology and folklore, taking that one course" from Professor Leach. That fed his curiosity, spurred his imagination and eventually lead him to seek out classics in literature.

In his free time he would head to the Penn library, look at syllabi for professors teaching Russian and French literature, and start reading those books on his own. Eventually the National Defense Education Act provided him money for an assistanceship at Temple University and he pursued and eventually received his Ph.D. from Temple in Literature in 1968.

He was hired to teach at West Chester in 1967, while he was finishing his dissertation. He retired from the university after 30 years of teaching and running the Pennsylvania Writing Project.

Giving up the books in his basement isn't so very hard, he said. "I'm glad to have someone interested in them. It's time to let them go."