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Josh Hurst

Anais Mitchell - Hadestown

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My goodness. The new album from folk singer and songwriter Anais Mitchell is a full-on "folk opera," based on the myth of Orpheus but set during the Great Depression and set to music that incorporates country, blues, even ragtime. The cast of players includes Justin Vernon from Bon Iver, Ani DiFranco, and Greg Brown.

You can read about the album-- and listen to a couple of tracks-- at NPR. And, here's Thom Jurek's review.

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Politics. Greed. Human nature. Redeeming love. The power of myth. The enduring appeal of American music. This has got to be one of the most substantive and insightful records I've heard in a while. And one of the best. I'm loving it.

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I'm pretty sure it's the coolest thing yet released this year-- or at least, my favorite. :)

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Guest thom_jurek   
Guest thom_jurek

I'm pretty sure it's the coolest thing yet released this year-- or at least, my favorite. :)

Josh and Andy: I'm SO glad you all are into this. Along with Peter Wolf's upcoming album--yes, the former frontman from the J.Geils Band--but for totally different reasons, this is my favorite record this year so far and it WILL make it onto my end of year list.

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Thom, I hope you'll start a thread and say more about the Peter Wolf album some time; your high praise for it leaves me wanting to hear more! I also noticed that Tom Erlewine's review of it is already posted at AMG, and it's similarly glowing.

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Thom, I hope you'll start a thread and say more about the Peter Wolf album some time; your high praise for it leaves me wanting to hear more! I also noticed that Tom Erlewine's review of it is already posted at AMG, and it's similarly glowing.

I am actually writing a new review of this for the AMG site. Not because Tom's is bad--far from it--but because he felt he was too hasty and gave it shorty shrift when it deserved more (he's a busy guy) and asked me to write a new one. It's not released until next month.

Peter's record (you can start the thread with this post if you want)is nothing more --or less--than a set of really good rock and roll songs and funky ones, done without overproduction or pretension. There are so few records made with actual rock and roll SONGS anymore (think Bruce Springsteen, Graham Parker, Southside Johnny, and Ian Hunter), this one sounds invigorating and fresh to me. But then, I am an old man . . . anyone who wants to see the promo documentary can email me at allmusic--tjurek@allmusic.com

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Anais Mitchell on herself and the origins and recording of Hadestown It's REALLY long and came from a great site called The Basement Rug.

here's the web link which might make for easier reading, scroll dowen until you get tothe title below. You can find it here.

The long-winded story of Hadestown

by Anaïs Mitchell ~ Wednesday, 3 March 2010

ANAIS MITCHELL: A HISTORY OF HADESTOWN ON HER FAMILY

My parents were hippie back-to-the-landers; I was raised on a farm in Vermont. We didn’t have a television and we barely had neighbors, but my dad had a library full of books—especially all the classics of a certain era, like Proust and D. H. Lawrence and Durrell, etc.—and records, lots of old folk and psychedelic rock records. And they all lived in the same library, the books and the records, and my dad, as a novelist and an English prof, was a real lyrics man, which I am sure all led to me thinking of songwriting as one wing of the literary tradition, a noble poetic enterprise. I can remember my dad sitting me down making me listen to Santana’s “Europa”—it’s an instrumental piece—and my dad going, “Can you see it? Zeus has changed himself into a bull and kidnapped the beautiful Europa and now he’s running, running, running down to the sea…” He was also real into “Home at Last,” Steely Dan’s song about Odysseus: “Still I remain tied to the mast…” I don’t mean to give him all the credit, but he passed along some major stuff to me about life, art, music, Greek myths, whatever, that I’m still playing out. My brother and I spent a lot of time running around in the woods making up games and stories—and that’s kind of still what I’m doing with the opera, in a way. My brother once decided he was going to build an opera house on top of a cliff that overlooked our farm. He was a teenager then and he enlisted all his friends to come help out. They cleared a piece of the woods but they never really got any construction going. That kind of crazy ambitious idea, if not encouraged by my parents, certainly didn’t really faze them: “Oh, yeah, Ethan’s building an opera house on the back cliff…”

ON VERMONT, LIVING THERE, AND THE ORIGINS OF HADESTOWN

I always thought I would move to a big urban center like New York, but I now live in a 200-year-old farm house in another rural part of Vermont, not far from the Northeast Kingdom, where Bread & Puppet Circus is. It’s a very radical part of the state: tons of anarchists and puppeteers and stuff. There are a lot of fiercely independent creative people in the area, including Ben Matchstick and Michael Chorney, my collaborators on Hadestown. Vermont is a very special place, totally beautiful, but it’s easy to feel cut off from the rest of the country up there, especially during the long cold winter. A lot of us are trying to homestead in one way or another, and it takes a certain kind of crazy mindset. We have a dozen chickens and two cats. Almost everyone on our road has a big vegetable garden. We’re learning how to grow our own food and put it by for the winter. We have to rely on friends and neighbors a lot—we help each other out stacking wood, digging a garden, or whatever needs to be done. Being so far out we also kinda have to make our own fun. We still don’t have a television. We have a wood stove—that’s the television of rural Vermont. We don’t live in New York, there aren’t a majillion things to do on any given night, so we have to come up with stuff ourselves. I don’t know if a thing like Hadestown could have gotten off the ground someplace else. I don’t know if people elsewhere would have been as game, but in Vermont it was pretty natural; it was like friends and neighbors coming together to help each other out and make some fun: “Oh, there’s a pile of wood in your driveway? I’ll help you stack it” leads to “Oh, you want to write an opera? Sure, I’ll be Hades!”

ON THE FIRST RUN

When I first started writing the songs for Hadestown I had a few friends in mind to sing the parts, mostly singers from different bands around Vermont, and they ended up being the original cast. We rehearsed in a frenzy in the evenings during what I think was a two-week period. Our rehearsal space, and the first place we mounted the show, was the old labor hall in Barre, Vt., a beautiful old historical building where a lot of union organizing went on in the thirties. There was so much about those first shows that was flawed (at least writing-wise, on my end, in my own opinion) but they were some of the most magical moments of my creative life so far. Ben Matchstick created a whole world, a whole visual vocabulary for the show, in just a couple weeks. He’s a real magician, an eleventh-hour genius; he has the ability to make something out of nothing—no budget, no time, a rabbit from a hat. Then, of course, the collaboration with Michael Chorney, who wrote some of the most haunting and beautiful arrangements I’ve ever heard on any songs. One crazy thing about Michael is he doesn’t use any composing software, and he doesn’t play the arrangements on a keyboard as he writes them; he really just hears them in his head and writes them down with a pencil on staff paper—so a lot of the music he hadn’t actually heard out loud until the band got together a few days before the show! The band was Michael’s project at the time, Magic City; they had started out as a Sun Ra tribute band but were quickly evolving into something bigger. There was really a sense from the beginning of the collaboration that the Hadestown show had three voices in it: my songwriting voice, Ben’s visual/theatrical voice, and Michael’s orchestral voice. It was a sum-greater-than-the-parts kind of thing.

ON THE SECOND RUN

The feedback we got from those shows was pretty overwhelming. It felt like we had struck some kind of nerve. Still, there was so much missing from the story; people were saying things like, “Hey, I was so moved by that … What was going on?” So when we decided to mount a second draft of the show Ben and I really made an effort to flesh out the story with the lyrics and staging—not just the metaphoric emotional stuff, but the characters, the plot, the arc. I’d say writing-wise the show took many steps forward, but a couple steps back, during that second edition. I spent months writing very expositional lyrics that eventually got cut. There was constant tension in my mind between getting the story across and preserving the poetry of the songs: not just the purdy language, but the metaphors. It really dawned on me during this process that Hadestown was never gonna be a Broadway-style show. I was watching all kinds of Broadway stuff on video, classic musicals, trying to get a feel for story arc and so on. Everything is so clear and crude in those shows. The protagonist comes out onstage and the first number is him going “This is who I am, and this is what I want, and this is what is standing in my way, la la la…” But as much as I love a clear-cut story, this show just didn’t want to go there, at least not all the way. To me, from a writing standpoint, the second draft of the show was kind of stuck in a netherworld; it was surely more focused than the first draft, but there was also a bit of expositional overstretch … which did not in fact make the story more understandable. For example, we really went deep into the post-apocalyptic stuff in the second draft. The idea was that Hades had broken his contract with Persephone—instead of letting her go above ground for half the year, he traps her in Hadestown, so the seasons are out of whack, and the above-ground world is nearly uninhabitable. There was this one song—“Epic,” it was called—which took forever to write, and attempted to tell that backstory. It was very dense and poetic and it was the battleground where I played out the exposition-vs.-poetry conflict for months as I edited it and re-edited it. It’s where I learned firsthand this lesson I heard in an address Sondheim gave where he said, “You have to understand that an audience hears a song in real time. It doesn’t matter how clever or beautiful your lyrics are, if they pass by too quickly for the audience to comprehend, it’s not working.” After the second run I’d ask people, “So didja get the thing about Persephone being trapped in the underworld, blah blah?” and they’d be like “Nope, didn’t catch that. So anyway…” It really blew my mind. I’d gotten into a place where I was concerned with trees and not forests. I was changing lyrics right up till opening night—which I see now was unnecessary, not to mention stressful. As for the staging, the second time round we had more money and more time (though not by much!). The cast was expanded; Ben had pulled together some crazy awesome stuff with lights and this “utility chorus” that moved sets around on stage and populated the world he’d created. He really wrote some crazy beautiful staging sequences for that second draft of the show. As for Michael’s arrangements, he added an instrument (viola) to the band during that second year, and made all kinds of changes and improvements and additions to the score. There were a handful of new songs, intros, bridges. His was a hard position to be in vis-a-vis the collaboration because as the story was changing and Ben and I were rethinking plot points, lyrics, etc., there was plenty of perfectly gorgeous score that had to be modified or even scrapped to accommodate the changes. It’s hard to edit lyrics and staging, but probably even harder to edit a score for six instruments! That year we had a more ambitious tour schedule put together in conjunction with Alex Crothers of Higher Ground Music: kind of a Vermont legend, he runs the one rock room in Vermont where nationally touring bands play. We actually did “tour” around Vermont and then down to Boston. We were driving this old schoolbus painted silver that used to belong to a local circus company. We were loading the entire set, the sound and light equipment, onto this bus and setting it up on different stages. We were crazy to try and tour a theater show like that. It was full-on winter and there were white-out blizzards a couple of nights. I lost a bunch of money on that tour, because of a few very dead towns, but a lot of the shows were really fantastic.

ON THE GUEST SINGERS

After the second run, there were again a lot of changes I wanted to make. I wanted to go a step further toward fully-realized characters, and a step backward toward the simplicity of the story in the very first show we did. I wanted to let go of some stuff that had never really sat right with me as a lyricist. We talked briefly about trying to mount another run the following year but the consensus seemed to be that to finish the songs, the song-cycle, should be the priority before staging again, and what better motivation to do that than booking studio time to commit the stuff to tape forever and ever? I worked real hard in advance of the recording but it was not as easy as I’d thought it might be to get things to a finished place. It felt a little like doing a crossword puzzle where there’s just a few squares missing, and it can only be one very specific thing. That is, we’d created a world, and now I had to be consistent within it, lyric-wise, music-wise. “Wedding Song,” “Flowers (Eurydice’s Song),” “Nothing Changes,” and “I Raise my Cup” were all new additions. “Wait,” “If It’s True,” and the two “Epics” also underwent major changes. I cut a song that had had a gorgeous score, and one that people were sorry to see let go. It was pretty tough! But there was a crazy motivating factor, and that was, one by one these guest singers were getting on board. Ani DiFranco was the first, and I owe much of the momentum of the recording to her faith and belief in the project. I don’t think she’d even heard the Persephone songs when she said she’d sing them. That’s brave! Then there was Greg Brown: I’d imagined him singing the Hades part for a long time but still whenever I hear his voice coming in on “Hey, Little Songbird” I laugh for joy. His voice is subterranean, it has strange overtones, I feel it in my belly almost before my ears. He and Ani were both early songwriting heroes of mine. … Then there’s Justin Vernon: That was kind of a cosmic casting situation. Justin and his manager reached out of the blue and asked if I wanted to open the Bon Iver tour of Europe. They’d never met me; they had just heard my record once and liked it, and they thought, Let’s have her open the tour! It’s unthinkable, really. The very first night of the tour, when I heard Justin sing “Stacks” in Newcastle in the UK, my heart exploded; I thought, “He HAS to be Orpheus.” I wrote my manager Slim [Moon] and Todd [sickafoose] the producer: “He is the Orpheus of the century!” I loved the idea that Orpheus, as a supernatural figure, could sing with many voices at the same time. But I had to have a stern little talk with myself that night; I was like, “This guy doesn’t even know you, and he’s already doing you a huge favor having you on the tour; you can’t ask him right away, you might weird him out, wait till the end of the tour and then see if it’s the right thing to ask him…” But the second night of the tour we were on a ferryboat from Scotland to Norway and I’d had a couple glasses of wine and I couldn’t bear it any longer—I just blurted it all out in a rush: the opera, the record, will you please please please be Orpheus? and Justin just said, “yes.”

ON THE RECORD

The first thing we recorded was Michael’s orchestral arrangements, and it was a powerful thing to hear them in the clarity of the studio rather than the rush of the stage. They positively soared. We recorded them with some incredible musicians mostly from Todd’s Brooklyn scene: Jim Black on drums, Michael of course on guitar and Todd on bass, Josh Roseman on trombone, Marika Hughes on cello, Tanya Kolmanovitch on viola, and at some point Rob Burger popped in and laid down some mind-boggling accordion and piano. We were in a beautiful and expensive studio so we had to act fast to record all twenty tracks or whatever it was. Todd is a great producer, able to hear everything at once, able to know if a take was “there” or not, able to encourage everyone to feel the same things, breathe together, breathe magic into things, even in studio world. He was marvelous in that stressful situation. Then he laid down all sorts of other instruments, sometimes following the notes of Michael’s score but in another “voice” or register, sometimes supporting the score from beneath with a lushness and weirdness. He recorded some very weird stuff: a glass orchestra, a trumpet player who mostly played percussively, and at one point he said something about how he was hunting for “vintage futurism” sounds. “Vintage futurism” is how I had once described the Hadestown story. Together we sorted through the vocals—from New Orleans, Iowa City, Eau Claire, Los Angeles, Vermont—at Todd’s home studio in Carroll Gardens. Todd is patient, totally discerning, and totally open at the same time.

THEMES OF HADESTOWN

I think it’s safe to say all three of us—Ben, Michael, and I—are pretty influenced by the work of Bertold Brecht and Kurt Weill. Brecht seems to approach the same tough theme in Threepenny Opera and Mother Courage: morality ceasing to exist in desperate conditions. “First you must feed us, then we’ll all behave…” “ When the Chips are Down” is really kind of an homage to that idea. “You can have your principles / when you’ve got a bellyful.” To me this is also the whole theme of the Joker in The Dark Knight and maybe the other Batman movies I haven’t seen. The Joker sets up horrific little test scenarios with human subjects to try and prove that people who are scared and desperate will turn on their fellow man. It’s a tough theme because we all recognize that capacity in ourselves—but that’s not all we have a capacity for, as the Joker finds out. To me the essence of “Why We Build the Wall” is, it’s meant to provoke the question. Take global warming to its terrifying logical conclusion and imagine part of the world becomes uninhabitable and there are masses of hungry poor people looking for higher ground. then imagine you are lucky enough to live in relative wealth and security, though maybe you’ve sacrificed some freedoms to live that way. When the hordes are at the door, who among us would not be behind a big fence? These conditions exist already, but most of us don’t have to acknowledge them in a real way. I really and truly had no specific place in mind when I wrote “Why We Build the Wall.” People often say, “Oh, that’s just like Israel/Palestine, or that’s just like the US/Mexico border,’” and maybe it is, but the song was written more archetypally. One funny thing is, the first song ideas came as long ago as 2004-5. I didn’t get deep into it till ’06 when we started working on the production, but in any case, the Depression-era stuff was part of the show long before the US economy tanked. I remember Ben and I watching Matewan together to get ideas about poverty, company towns, mining, etc. The whole show became uncannily relevant in the past year or so, which I didn’t expect. When I play Hadestown songs in my own shows, I usually introduce the show as quick as I can saying, “It’s based on the Orpheus myth, and set in a post-apocalyptic American Depression era …” At some point in the past year I noticed people were laughing pretty loud when I said that—it was so close to home! The real moral of Hadestown to me is, yes, we’re fucked, but we still have to try with all our might. We have to love hard and make beauty in the face of futility. That’s the essence of what Persephone sings at the end of the show: “Some birds sing when the sun shines bright / my praise is not for them, but the one who sings in the dead of night / I raise my cup to him.”

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My review.

This album deserves a review that goes through each track and traces the story, the characters, and all the implications-- but gosh, besides me and Andy and Thom, who would read it?

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Wow.

Just...

Wow.*

*Reaction reserved for only those rare experiences of being stunned and swept away by something beautiful.

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Guest thom_jurek   
Guest thom_jurek

Wow.

Just...

Wow.*

*Reaction reserved for only those rare experiences of being stunned and swept away by something beautiful.

Right Mr. Overstreet. Exactly.

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Wow.

Just...

Wow.*

*Reaction reserved for only those rare experiences of being stunned and swept away by something beautiful.

Right Mr. Overstreet. Exactly.

It's an astonishing album, all right. I'm still trying to take it all in, which is why my comments are vague. I know I really like what I hear, but I'm not entirely sure why. There is, for example, an element of Broadway (Off Off Off Broadway, but still ...) musical about the whole production, and normally that's something that would send me shrieking in horror out the nearest exit. But the writing is brilliant. Most of the singing is brilliant. I can usually take or leave Greg Brown, but he's absolutely perfect for the role of Dick Chen, er, Hades. I'm not a big Ani DiFranco fan, but I love her singing on this album. And Anais Mitchell, with whom I am not otherwise familiar, just ties it together wonderfully. "Why We Build the Wall" could very well be the best song I've heard this year. Sing it Dick, er, Greg.

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Guest thom_jurek   
Guest thom_jurek

Wow.

Just...

Wow.*

*Reaction reserved for only those rare experiences of being stunned and swept away by something beautiful.

Right Mr. Overstreet. Exactly.

It's an astonishing album, all right. I'm still trying to take it all in, which is why my comments are vague. I know I really like what I hear, but I'm not entirely sure why. There is, for example, an element of Broadway (Off Off Off Broadway, but still ...) musical about the whole production, and normally that's something that would send me shrieking in horror out the nearest exit. But the writing is brilliant. Most of the singing is brilliant. I can usually take or leave Greg Brown, but he's absolutely perfect for the role of Dick Chen, er, Hades. I'm not a big Ani DiFranco fan, but I love her singing on this album. And Anais Mitchell, with whom I am not otherwise familiar, just ties it together wonderfully. "Why We Build the Wall" could very well be the best song I've heard this year. Sing it Dick, er, Greg.

I gotta tell you Andy, I am NOT enthralled with Ms. Mitchell's other records, too much under the confessional sway of Ani D for me. (And I don't like Greg Brown before The Poet Game, after that I love the guy--maybe it's Bo Ramsey's guitar playing.)

Edited by thom_jurek

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"Why We Build the Wall" is the one that bowled me over as well.

The only Greg Brown album that's ever won me over is Further In. But yeah, his voice fits so perfectly here, as does Justin Vernon's.

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Hugues   
The only Greg Brown album that's ever won me over is Further In.

Same for me. I love Greg Brown just for that album, for it shows what he can do in the soul department. You know, stuff like "China".

As for Anaïs Mitchell, I know two of her previous albums, and she can write nice melodies, but I had trouble with her voice (how can we explain that? we have a topic already, it must be very subjective). So the fact she has many guests on this highly praised new effort won't annoy me, I guess.

I'll add that I know Anaïs is a great friend of Rachel Ries (they even did a country EP together), and the latter recorded two splendid, intimate albums which are dear to my listening heart.

Edited by Hugues

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I'll admit that I normally don't care for Brown, DiFranco, or Justin Vernon as singers-- but all three as just outstanding here. Brown is the first one that really stands out, but DiFranco has become the album MVP for me; as I said in my review, I really think she could get a second career as a Broadway star right now if she wanted to.

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Guest thom_jurek   
Guest thom_jurek

"Why We Build the Wall" is the one that bowled me over as well.

The only Greg Brown album that's ever won me over is Further In. But yeah, his voice fits so perfectly here, as does Justin Vernon's.

He's not "vulnerable" enough for you, is he, Dr. Overstreet? ;)

Edited by thom_jurek

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Hey, that's my Columbus buddy Joel Oliphint. That's great to see.

Now I can't wait for the indignant comments to start rolling in. If U2 elicits controversy, I can only imagine the caterwauling that may ensue when people realize that the "social justice" focus is just another code word for socialism. Of course, that assumes that Glenn Beck fans will listen to the album, which is probably a false assumption. It might be best if we keep it that way. Shhh. This album sucks.

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I'm seeing the live show on Thursday night. Has anybody seen this? I'm wondering if she brings a cast of singers, or if she sings it all herself...

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And it includes a lengthy history of the show, concluding with these comments:

The real moral of Hadestown to me is, yes, we’re fucked, but we still have to try with all our might. We have to love hard and make beauty in the face of futility. That’s the essence of what Persephone sings at the end of the show: “Some birds sing when the sun shines bright / my praise is not for them, but the one who sings in the dead of night / I raise my cup to him.”

Funny, then, that the music is so inspiring, and the creativity so hope-giving.

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Tyler   

And it includes a lengthy history of the show, concluding with these comments:

The real moral of Hadestown to me is, yes, we’re fucked, but we still have to try with all our might. We have to love hard and make beauty in the face of futility. That’s the essence of what Persephone sings at the end of the show: “Some birds sing when the sun shines bright / my praise is not for them, but the one who sings in the dead of night / I raise my cup to him.”

Funny, then, that the music is so inspiring, and the creativity so hope-giving.

My favorite line from that part was this one: "It’s a very radical part of the state [Vermont, where Mitchell is from]: tons of anarchists and puppeteers and stuff." I never knew puppetry was so revolutionary.

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Wow, what a show.

If you get chills hearing Greg Brown sign "We Build the Wall," you gotta hear Mitchell sing it herself. It becomes a thing of rage and terror.

I knew Mitchell was going to be great, but the unexpected highlights of the evening were the generous 30 minutes she gave me for an interview in the green room, and the opener: Jeffrey Foucault.

Mercy. Jeffrey Foucault is the real deal, and a complete situation: Vocals, guitar-playing that would impress Bruce Cockburn, and lyrics that had me scribbling down lines in my journal. I'm going to start collecting this guy's stuff, and if he comes back as the main event, I'm there. As the crowd sat in a moment of stunned silence after the song "Ghost Repeater," my friend Brian, who know more about rock and rock history than anybody else I know (except, perhaps, Whitman and Jurek) leaned over and whispered, "That. Was. A. Truly. Great. Song." Brian rarely says anything like that. I was too choked up to respond.

And yes, I'm now reading *this* thread. No "ahem" necessary.

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