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Archive for the ‘NPR/PRI/PBS’ Category

SOUNDTRACK: JOSEPH-Live at the Newport Folk Festival (July 29, 2017).

 Every year, NPR goes to the Newport Folk Festival so we don’t have to.  A little while afterwards, they post some streams of the shows (you used to be able to download them, but now it’s just a stream).  Here’s a link to the Joseph set; stream it while it’s still active.

Joseph is a band of three sisters and their sound is a little like Indigo Girls–if there were three of them.

When Natalie, Meegan and Allison Closner shout together to the heavens, accompanied only by Natalie’s acoustic guitar, it’s a joyful noise that intrinsically celebrates their bond.

So yes, Joseph is all about harmonies.  They play six songs from their recent album I’m Okay, No You’re Not which is a pretty great release (with a few songs that go a little too commercial).  For the most part, it is just one guitar and three voices.

Their first song “Stay Awake” starts off quietly with one of the sisters (Natalie, I assume) singing and plucking a spare melody on the guitar.  And then about a minute and fifteen second in, all three sisters sing and suddenly the song is magical.

 “Canyon” has a number of amazing moments, but especially when they sing along with one of the sisters taking lead and the other two doing some great harmonies.  When the lead sings “I wanna feel it,” all three singers soar to the rafters in a gorgeous harmony (around 7:25 of this set).

They get applause for “S.O.S.” before playing it.  This is their poppiest song and the one that verges closest to a sound I don’t like (especially for them).  But it’s hard to deny it when they sound so good live.

For “Planets” they ask if anybody wants to sing and they give the audience a mildly complicated melody to sing.  I can’t really tell if the audience is any good at it, but the sisters seem to like it.  And “I Don’t Mind” has a terrific melody even without the harmonies, but when they come in it’s even better.

They describe “Sweet Dreams” as like a lullaby that they used to say to their mom ” Sweet dreams, I love you, good night.”  But this song is anything but a lullaby.  The melody is sophisticated and their voices are powerful.  It’s quite something,.

They have time for two more.  We’ll sing one from our old record and…maybe our single.  That single, “White Flag” finds a stellar balance of pop and folk.  It hits just the right edges of pop to make the song insanely catchy but with an almost aggressive folksiness that is undeniable.  And live it’s almost breathtaking.

Their voices are just amazing.

[READ: June 20, 2017] “I Have Fallen in Love with American Names”

Earlier this month I posted a piece from Roth about names.  I assume that this excerpt comes from the same source.

Roth’s parents were born in New Jersey at the start of the twentieth century.  They were at home in America even though “they had no delusions and knew themselves to be socially stigmatized and regarded as repellent alien outsiders.”  And that is the culture that Philip grew up in.

Butt the writers who shaped his sense of country were born in America some thirty to sixty years before him.  They were mostly small town Midwesterners and Southerners.  None were Jews.

What shaped those writers was not mass immigration from the Old Country and the threat of anti-Semetic violence, but the overtaking of farms and villages  values by business culture.

He says what attracted him to writers like Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Ring Lardner, Sinclair Lewis, Thomas Wolfe and Erskine Caldwell was his own ignorance of everything North South and West of Newark, New Jersey.  And the way that America from 1941 to 1945 was unified: (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: WILCO-Live at the Newport Folk Festival (July 29, 2017).

Every year, NPR goes to the Newport Folk Festival so we don’t have to.  A little while afterwards, they post some streams of the shows (you used to be able to download them, but now it’s just a stream).  Here’s a link to the Wilco set; stream it while it’s still active.

I have been really enjoying Wilco’s most recent albums, but it’s their live shows that are exceptional.

Opening with “Random Name Generator” they segue into a very string-heavy “Via Chicago” (a one-two punch of greatness that would leave me flabbergasted).  The recording of this song is particularly great because you can really hear the craziness that Nels Cline adds to the noisy sections.  And the strings also loom large, which I find interesting.  It sounds like a full string section, but maybe its’ just synths?

Wilco have so many albums and so many songs.  Most of their live shows run over two and a half hours.  So this barely-over-an-hour set means excising.  And yet they don’t just play a hits set.  There’s quite a few songs from their latest album, Schmilco and a deep cut from Wilco (The Album).  That particular song “Bull Black Nova” has a cool guitar solo back-and-forth between Cline and whoever else was on guitar at the time.

A mellow “Reservations” leads to a lengthy “Impossible Germany” with an extended guitar solo from Cline.  “Misunderstood” gets a big round of applause (and a suitably chaotic middle section–a mini freakout).

Earlier, Jeff Tweedy said “I don’t feel like talking” but before “Heavy Metal Drummer he says, “I guess I feel like talking a little bit…  Nah.”  Then “Hope we didn’t ruin your lovely day, we didn’t mean to if we did.”

They play a fairly shambolic “I’m the Man Who Loves You” which means not that they play it sloppily but that they play it noisily–from time to time one instrument or another has a little noisy fun while everyone else keeps playing like normal.

As the set starts winding down and Tweedy starts to chat with the crowd, someone shouts something and he says

Happy birthday?  Don’t bring that up.  It’s nowhere near my birthday.  [pause] I might never have another one. [groans from the audience] I just wanted to draw everyone’s attention back to our mortality.  I thought we were having too much fun… it sucks. [pause]  You guys have been heartwarming and reassuring.  Every time I think that everything in the world completely sucks we get to play in front of an audience and share something with people that I know is real and I know it exists and will always exist…  And there will always be more of this than whatever the fuck that is.

They play a lovely “Hummingbird” and a crowd pleasing “The Late Greats.”  Tweedy tells us that “my dad says ‘life is happy and sad and it hurts,’ I wrote about 1,000 songs to say that.”

Tweedy can’t help impart some more advice for our troubled times:

Just show up.  Just show up for everybody and things will be all right.

Before the final two songs, he says, “A lot of people have been yelling for this song, which is understandable.”  It’s from the Billy Bragg & Wilco album of Woody Guthrie songs and it’s called “Christ for President.”  It’s more true now than ever.

For the final song, Billy Bragg himself comes out (that’s what so cool about Newport Folk Festival) and they play a rousing rendition of “California Stars.”

Festivals are never quite as good as regular concerts if you really want to see one band. The sets are always shorter than you want.  But this is pretty fine.  And the recording quality is superb.

[READ: June 20, 2017] “The Countess’s Private Secretary”

This issue has a section of essays called “On the Job,” with essays about working written by several different authors.

Jennifer Egan was indeed the private secretary to a Countess.  The Countess was a woman of some authority.  One time Egan was on her way to work for her.  There was some kind of fire emergency in the building and pedestrian traffic was halted.  The Countess shouted out the window to the emergency crews insisting that Egan be let through.  And she was.

Egan said that being the private secretary often meant “becoming” her–starting at 1PM their lives were more or less the same. It helped that Egan herself was tall and slender, Catholic and full of nervous energy.  She was also short-tempered, just like the Countess.  Indeed, even their handwriting matched pretty well.  Although the Countess told Egan that she liked and her, Egan always knew she was just a servant.  The Countess was not above telling her that garlic oozed from her pores for days after she ate it.  Plus her cowboy boots were coarse, her spelling was atrocious and so on.

(more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MARGARET GLASPY-Live at the Newport Folk Festival (July 30, 2017).

Every year, NPR goes to the Newport Folk Festival so we don’t have to.  A little while afterwards, they post some streams of the shows (you used to be able to download them, but now it’s just a stream).  Here’s a link to the Margaret Glaspy set; stream it while it’s still active.

Margaret Glaspy has been making music professionally since 2010, but she released her solo debut last year and it’s really good.  She plays a rocking guitar, although she seems to play a lot on the higher strings.  Her sound isn’t tinny, but it’s a much more treble than bass.  But she’s got a two piece backing band to pick up and complement the low end.

She also has a unique vocal delivery style.  She enunciates words with a strange inflection–I never would have guessed that she is from California.  And it’s that unique sound that I think makes her lyrics that much more interesting.  She’s also not afraid to throw in a curse or a graphic description in her lyrics.

Glaspy played 13 songs in total.  10 of the 12 songs from her record, two new ones and a Lucinda Williams cover.

She doesn’t speak much, she just gets right to the music, playing the first five songs faithfully to the record with just enough grace notes to make it stand out.  But she seems to let it all hang out by the time she gets to “Situation” which has a much louder, rougher guitar sound–she really lets loose and it sounds great.

She introduces the band Daniel Ryan on the bass and Tim Kuhl on the drums and then she starts the slower “Black is Blue.” I hadn’t noticed before but at times her delivery is kind of like Laura Marling’s in this song.  “You Don’t Want Me” has a spoken word section and her delivery once again reminds me of Marling’s.  They certainly don’t sound alike, but there is something similar in the style–that would be an awesome double bill.

She might explain her lack of talking when she says, “This is my first time at Newport and I don’t take it lightly.  So thank you so much for having me.”

The NPR blurb also sees a lot of strength at the end of her set, so I’ll let them sum up

She says she’s “Got some new songs for you:”

a slow-burner called “Mother/Father” and another that doesn’t yet have a title [the chorus: life was better before we were together].  A late-set highlight was “Memory Street,” which boiled over into a seething solo before a final verse that had Glaspy repeating a disjointed phrase over and over, to the point of uneasiness [it is quite long, she sings the words “Times I” with an appropriate skipping sounding drum click for over 20 seconds]— a compelling imitation of the skipping record her lyrics invoked.

She plays a cover of Lucinda Williamss’ “The Fruits of my Labor.” and then ends with “You And I” and that catchy circular guitar riff that is so wonderful and original.

Glaspy has been on my list of people to see live and I hope she comes back this way after she tours around for a while.

[READ: June 20, 2017] “The Work You Do, The Person You Are”

This issue has a section of essays called “On the Job,” with essays about working written by several different authors.

Toni Morrison (it’s hard to think of her as doing something “before” being an author) speaks of working for Her, in the 1940s in a house that had all kinds of things that she had never seen before: a hoover vacuum cleaner or an iron not heated by a fire.

She gave half of her earnings to her mother–which meant she was helping pay the rent, which made her feel good. But she also got some money to squander of junk. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: PINEGROVE-Live at the Newport Folk Festival (July 30, 2017).

Every year, NPR goes to the Newport Folk Festival so we don’t have to.  A little while afterwards, they post some streams of the shows (you used to be able to download them, but now it’s just a stream).  Here’s a link to the Pinegrove set; stream it while it’s still active.

I was pretty excited to hear what Pinegrove did at a big venue like this.  And, true to form, they sound great and are kind and generous to the people helping them out as well as all the fans who are there: “thanks for taking a chance on us.”

What’s particularly fun about Pinegrove is that their songs are mostly pretty short–but they feel fully complete.  But that means you can get 11 songs in a 45 minute set.

The band is in the process of writing and recording new music but this set is all older stuff (1/2 from Cardinal and the rest older).  But this is such a clear recording (with occasionally pops from the bass), that it’s great to be able to hear these songs live and to hear what they do differently with them.

The first song, “Old Friends,” Evan Stephens Hall seems a little less voice-cracking than usual (as if he’s trying to sing pretty for the Festival), but when he gets into the middle of “Aphasia” he sings “But if I don’t have you by me then I’ll go underground” with reckless abandon and the crowd goes nuts.

To me the most notable difference in these songs is the louder harmony vocals of Nandi Rose Plunkett.  And they sound terrific (Plunkett has her own band Half Waif who I’ve been interested in seeing, although i hope it doesn’t distract her from Pinegrove).

They run through several of the songs and they all sound great–the band really transcends when they play live. (and the rabid fans certainly help).

He introduces the band and has a problem getting Plunkett’s name out (I’ve got an avocado in my mouth).  Then he runs through everyone else: Samuel Skinner on guitar, Joshua Fairbanks Marre on the guitar and vocals, Adan Carlo on the bass guitar, Zachary Levine on the drum kit and vocals (he gets a big response).  And then they introduce Lincoln their newly acquired trusty stuffed sloth.

They dedicate “Angelina” to Lincoln, (he ends by saying “just a tiny little song”)

Okay we’re gonna quickly play two more songs.  After a quick “The Metronome” Hall introduces the final song by saying

Most of these songs are about love whether it be romantic, platonic, or familial and when they began they were about how to love the people we knew the best we could, but a more important initiative is loving the people we don’t know as well as we can.  It’s a localized sentiment but also a very public sentiment.

This works as a wonderful introduction to “New Friends” which sounds tremendous with all of the harmony vocals firing on all cylinders.

[READ: June 20, 2017] “Brush Clearing with the Teen-Age Boys in Arkansas”

This issue has a section of essays called “On the Job,” with essays about working written by several different authors.

Richard Ford writes of working in the summer of 1967.  He worked for the Neighborhood Youth Corps in Little Rock.  It was not a job he wanted, just one he could get.  He had always had jobs and wasn’t about to not have one during the summer while living with his mother.

So he enrolled in this program which “summons images of clean cut boys standing at attention, but was really about low income (black) kids getting work experience.”  And he realizes now it was designed to keep them in school and out of the State’s hair. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: MAGGIE ROGERS-Tiny Desk Concert #641 (August 7, 2017).

I had been hearing Maggie Rogers’ name on WXPN and have liked “Alaska” which they’ve been playing.  But I didn’t know much else about her.

But reading the blurb reminded me of where I had initially heard of her:

Maggie Rogers became a viral star on the strength of a video in which Pharrell Williams raves about a demo of what’s become her signature song, “Alaska.” Since then, Rogers has signed a label deal, toured extensively and released a sweetly approachable, inventively arranged EP called Now That The Light Is Fading.

For her Tiny Desk debut, Rogers performed all three of the EP’s best-known songs, opening with the recent singles “On + Off” and “Dog Years,” the latter of which she calls “a song for all the pups.” Then, after dismissing her band, she treated us to a few warm words about public radio before introducing “Alaska.”

Maggie has an interesting voice that sounds similar to someone (it’ll come to me), but with a slight country twang.  It seems like she could easily fall into the country umbrella but her songwriting goes in a slightly different direction.  (I’m also astonished that she looks to be about 18).

She plays three songs (there are 5 on her EP),

“On+Off” starts with a piano intro and Maggie singing. When the middle section kicks in and she plays guitar there a much louder sound. It’s quite catchy.  I really like the delivery of the “Ooohs” that she adds.  There’s something about the way she does it that sounds very cool.

“Dog Years” is a slower, slightly more country-sounding song, but again the “ooohs” won me over.  This time the ooohs are harmonized by her band and it sounds even better.  She also demonstrated some wonderful high notes.

Her band leaves for the final song which she starts by telling everyone that “public radio has been a part of her musical discovery–since she used an NPR compilation to DJ her middle school recess.”  She’s very sweet.

Th final song is “Alaska” which she says is a song about coming back into your body.  It has a really pretty chorus–once again, her voice soaring to lovely high notes.  I prefer the recorded version to this solo version, but she sounds great by herself as well.

[READ: June 27, 2017] “Crossing the River No Name”

I was a little concerned about this story because it was set in Khost, Afghanistan and I thought it was going to be an intense war story–and war stories, like sports stories, pretty much end one of two ways.

So it begins on a rainy night in March 2009.  The narrator and his patrol are sent to interrupt a group of Taliban.  They reached a river and Hal, the leader, called on the best swimmers to swim across and set up the guide rope.  They made it across and secured the line.  The rest of the patrol got across but when it was the narrator and Hals’ turn they hit trouble.

Hal was afraid of the water.  He’d joined the Navy to get over that fear and it worked.  Most of the time.  He knew of one other example when Hal had had a brief freak out.  But this was the second one.  The river grew darker and they were pulled under. (more…)

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SOUNDTRACK: DIET CIG-Tiny Desk Concert #640 (August 2, 2017).

The guys at NPR have raved about Diet Cig for quite some time.  Especially their live show.  They played at a small club near me and I thought about going but I couldn’t make it.  So I was happy to hear they played a Tiny Desk so I could see what all the fuss was about.

Diet Cig is yet another duo:

with drummer Noah Bowman propelling the high kicks and constant pogo bounce of guitarist and singer Alex Luciano. With a candied voice, she sings of being on the cusp of adolescence — but underneath that bright veneer Alex sings truth to power, and about what it means to be a punk in a skirt, dealing with disrespectful souls. “I think you’re the kind of guy / who would meet me at a party / and forget my name / and try to take me home all the same,” she sings on “Sixteen.”

And while the songs do have some angst, it’s the incredibly happy infectious nature of Luciano that made me instantly fall in love with them and berate myself for not going to see them in a small club when I had the chance–I see they’re selling out shows in London now.

They play 3 songs in 9 minutes (and the last one is pretty extended because Luciano is dancing all over the place: on desks, on the drums, everywhere.  None of the songs are terribly complex, but that’s fine.  They’re charming pop punk nuggets

“Sixteen” is what gets the parental warning. Its starts off slowly:

when I was sixteen I dated a boy with my own name / it was weird in the back of his truck / moaning my own name while trying to fuck

then it picks up and Alex starts bouncing around.  And although the song is kind of sad, “I’ll never barbecue again, and you can keep all of your shitty friends” she can’t stop smiling all the way through.

“Tummy Ache” is when she really starts dancing–doing high kicks and bouncing around all while playing nonstop guitar.  The lyrics are simple but great: “I don’t need a man to hold my hand / and that’s just something you’ll never understand.”

“Harvard” is the first song they wrote.  It has the amusing chorus of  “fuck your ivy league sweater.” She bounces all over the place, climbs on the desk, steps over to the drums and plays the last chords from the bass drum.  As the final chord rings out she reaches into her fanny pack and throws confetti all over herself as she jumps down.

The set is delightful and adorable and boy, I hope when they come back to the area it’s to another small club.

[READ: August 2, 2017] “New World”

This story centers around a global event that I know nothing about.  That combined with some confusing lineage angles made this story less satisfying for me than it should have been.

The story is about the independence of Ceylon (currently Sri Lanka) from Britain.  The story presumes we will know a few details about this event (I knew none: Independence from Britain occurred in 1948, but had a convoluted history trying to attain full independence).  I assume knowing that is useful to the story.

But for our story the impact is more local.  When the new prime minister Don Senanayake spoke first in English and then in Sinhala–no one knew what he was saying–but they all heard the word Ceylon.  Sir William (no last name given) left the country on the eve of independence and he left all of his property to Mr Balakumar, the Tamil manager.

The story is written from a “we” narrator: “We didn’t see Selvakumar approach.”  The “we” are married ladies (who mustn’t be too old, although they do mention husbands at one point).  They are mostly interested in Selvakumar’s story.

This character was fascinating but slightly confusing–at one point he says of himself:  “How can an Indian bastard be prime minister?”  Selvakumar worked for Mr Balakumar, and the man often whipped the boy for doing a poor job (I loved the grotesque detail that he was beaten so hard with the sugar cane that he “smelled like brunt molasses.”

But the real conflict for Selvakumar is with a boy named Muthu.  Muthu, they said, would grow up to be like his father Mr Padmanathan who thought of himself as a big boss.  Muthu was 10 and that was the only reason his father allowed his son to have a friendship an “Indian coolie.”  Muthu would teach Selvakumar whatsoever he learned in school.  The thing that stuck with Selvakumar the most was Marco Polo and his travels.

While the village was celebrating its independence, a storm came through the village.  The rain came hard and fast and began to knock down the poorly made houses.   It flooded the ground, which turned into raging torrents.  When the rain subsided, the people slept “by the ruins of our homes.”  And yet despite the destruction, they knew that Independence would be a more lasting and powerful event for them.

As they assessed the damage, it became clear that Selvakumar was missing.  Had he been killed?  Everyone scoured he area for him.

But I found this part really confusing.  The main part of the story was full of so much detail that I was really surprised by how unstraightforward the end was.  .

This sentence, once unpacked, makes sense but reading it in context created so many visuals that I couldn’t parse it right away.

By the time we discovered the yellow-tipped butterfly on the fat corpse, Muthu’s father had rounded the hillside, dragging his son by the ear with one hand and comforting the wailing Mrs. Balakumar with the other.”

So much is going on there.

Suffice it to say that someone has died.  But something else largely unexpected has happened as well.

The end of the story sees the women imagining their future and the future of the boys in the village as well.

There was a lot going on in this story and I felt like some things came just out of the blue. It was strange how the story begin speaking of the future as one thing but then things changed dramatically after the storm.  Although apparently not because of the storm.

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SOUNDTRACK: FRAGILE ROCK-Tiny Desk Concert #634 (July 14, 2017).

Fragile Rock are an emo band.  But they are not your typical emo band because they are a band of puppets.

And for just 15 minutes on a glorious spring day in Washington, D.C., National Public Radio became National Puppet Radio.

It was the real-life breakup of band leader Brently Heilborn that led to the formation of the woefully woven band Fragile Rock. But these aren’t just any puppets — no. They are emo puppets, armed with drums and guitars and glum tales to tell, with songs like “Wake Up to the Breakup” and “I Am Sad (And So Am I)” that which draw from the spastic boogie of The B-52s and the laments of The Smiths. At one point, you’ll see Fragile Rock empty a bag of “bloodied” socks, tossing them into the crowd, before breaking into the song “Socks Are Murder,” a playful take on The Smiths’ thoughtful “Meat Is Murder.”

The band consists of seven puppets (handled by 8 performers) and three actual musicians (see below for the details).  They play three punky songs.  And I wish I liked the songs a little more.  There’s something that doesn’t quite live up to the visual fun of the band.

“Wakeup To The Breakup” is a fast punk song, but the song isn’t quite as catchy as I’d like.  But I do like the spirit of the song and the amusing “crowd surfing” of Milo S.  I also enjoyed the amusing commentary afterward: “There’s so many sad breakup songs… but sometimes it’s a wonderful thing.  So if anyone came here today with someone you don’t want to leave with… that song legally counts as your conversation.”

The second song is a lot more catchy (and a bit funnier).  As an introduction, Milo says, “A lot of you don’t want us to get political on National Puppet Radio.”  But they need to speak out that “Socks are Murder.”  The lyrics are largely clever: “argyle is a lie / with every step a puppet dies.”  I rather like the way the chorus starts with him dead panning “Socks Are….”  “socks are murder!”  When the song ends, he glowers: “We don’t appreciate your laughter.”

Before the final song, Milo says “We’re very happy to be here at the legendary Tiny Desk Concert.  We’re assuming we set the bar so high this will be the last one.  So we’d like to close out the series….”  The backing puppets all look aghast: “It’s not funny!”  The song is dedicated to everyone’s dark muse, “Fairuza Balk.” It’s the catchiest of the three with great backing vocals.  I like at the end when the final line is “She was in The Craft” and the guitarist chimes in.  “And The Waterboy.  She was in The Waterboy, etc.”

And in the spirit of the day Fragile Rock managed to crowd surf a puppet bringing giggles to a crowd of reporters, editors and friends, while puppets depicting NPR hosts Susan Stamberg, Michel Martin and Robert Siegel (the latter actually received a playful kiss from none other than Nina Totenberg) — all created by NPR’s own puppet master Barry Gordemer — objectively observed.

As the video ends, you can see the puppets getting of the elevator and then sitting behind the NPR microphone.

It’s a very fun, make no mistake.  I just don’t think I’d enjoy the songs without the visuals.

  • Musicians

    Milo S. (lead vocals, handled by Brently Heilbron); Nic Hole (bass, handled by Megan Thornton); Kyle Danko (guitar, handled by Chadwick Smith); CoCo Bangs (drums; handled by Taylor Love and Luke Wallens); The Cocteau Triplets (back up vocals; handled by Emily Cawood, Kim Stacy, and Bryan Curry); Cindy Ward (bass); Ryan Hill (guitar); Jayme Ramsay (drums)

[READ: August 1, 2017] “Le Réveillon”

This excerpt comes from a 1977 untranslated novel called Livret de famille.  It was translated by .

The piece begins as we learn of the death of Fats.

The narrator was 18 when he met Fats.  He was introduced to the large man (the nickname was not ironic) by a cabaret girl, Claude.  At midnight she would appear on stage wearing a mink coat and evening gown.  She would perform a striptease while two white toy poodles capered around her and snatched her underthings as she removed them.

Fats was a regular presence at her shows and would leave notes for her afterwards.  When she introduced Fats to the narrator, Fats laughed that the narrator had the same name as brand of cards in Italy, so he began calling him Poker. (more…)

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