A view of the Oroville Dam emergency spillway from the Spillway boat launch in March 2016. In February 2017, much of the area was underwater as the emergency spillway was used for the first time in the dam’s 48-year history.
My thoughts are with everyone who has been affected by the crisis at Oroville Dam, which led to the evacuation of around 200,000 people living downstream Sunday out of fear of a collapse of the emergency spillway.
In less than a week, the 48-year-old structure has been faced with the double whammy of the deterioration of its primary concrete spillway and potentially devastating erosion of a concrete weir which doubles as an uncontrolled emergency spillway. It was the first problem that led to the second problem, culminating in Sunday’s emergency. (That said, the primary dam itself is OK, despite misleading news headlines to the contrary.)
I can’t fault Butte County Sheriff Kory Honea for his decision to call for the evacuation Sunday. I don’t have all the facts, but it sounded like things were on the verge of disaster and calling for residents to leave the area seems like a sensible precaution when lives are at stake. The region has had devasating floods in the past, which led to the construction of the dam complex in the first place (that and suppling water to downstate users).
While there should be some hard looks at the decisions that helped lead to this crisis, it’s unfortunate that a full Lake Oroville has turned into calamity. It’s the exact opposite of just three years ago when a half-full lake was used as the representation of California’s prolonged drought.
It wasn’t a pretty picture at the lake three years ago, which ironically made it a tempting image for photographers and TV news reports. At the drought’s low point (pun intended), all but one of the lake’s boat ramps were out of water and marinas had to remove houseboats because of the dwindling lake surface area. The lake looked like a giant, half-filled bathtub with the exposed shoreline looking like a red-colored ring.
I remember last spring, when a good water year helped fill the dam to near capacity. I stood on the trail overlooking the spillway as water flowed down it for the first time in years.
People I spoke with then were so elated to see the spillway open and the prospect of the lake filling to capacity (it didn’t in 2016, but it came close). I was personally awestruck when I calculated how much water was flowing down the channel, even though it looked so abstract at a distance.
That picture’s totally different today. The force of water took on a new, fear-raising aspect last week as we contemplated pictures and video of the concrete spillway being critically damaged.
As the lake reached new heights, concerns did too as the lake hit the emergency spillway level of 601 feet above sea level for the first time ever over the weekend.
Less than 36 hours after Oroville crossed that threshold, evacuation alarms were sounded as there were concerns that erosion could compromise the emergency spillway (I’m curious about when people started calling it an “auxiliary spillway,” because I’ve always seen it referred to the other way.)
Considering the damage that’s been done to the concrete spillway, I think it’s understandable that something catastrophic could happen to the emergency one. I don’t know how much water would be released in that situation — it wouldn’t be as much as a dam failure, but it would still be pretty bad. Even a two-foot elevation change could suddenly release about 10 billion gallons of water in the downstream Feather River.
As of last night, the state Department of Water Resources was working to lower the lake by about 50 feet. As the lake lowers about a foot every three hours, it will hopefully reach the 850-foot threshold before a new storm hits the area in a few days.
Still, I wonder if that’s enough. The DWR’s ability to remove water has been critically compromised by the problems with the two spillways. Even as the pressure on the emergency spillway is reduced with the lowering lake level, I don’t know if officials and the public should count on it until some serious inspections and repairs are made.
I think officials should keep lake water pressure off the emergency spillway structure AND maintain enough flood control buffer space (which one document I saw stated was 750,000 acre-feet, although I think that figure actually varies based on the time of year).
To accomplish both, I think the lake level should be lowered even futher — to about 788 feet above sea level. That’s based on the current drawdown to 850 feet, plus the 750,000 acre-feet of flood control buffer.
Such a move would leave the lake about 58.2 percent full (with 2.06 million acre-feet of water stored), at least until the end of the season when the flood control isn’t needed anymore.
It’s unfortunate that we should have to lower the lake level after years of wishing for a full lake. However, this recent storm showed the inadequacy of the current, impaired control system.
Lake Oroville has already seen two periods this year where water levels surged dramatically. If we want local residents to be safe in their homes in the event of a third surge, the lake level should be dropped to a threshold that offers the most safety without risking further damage to the emergency spillway.
I always had a number of reservations about the Sierra Nevada Santa, including the fact that I don’t want to encourage drinking and sleighing. I also didn’t necessarily want to go to the expense and effort of renting a Santa costume, especially because I had doubts that I could pull off a convincing Santa.
After some consideration, I thought that I could build a snowman wearing a Sierra Nevada shirt. I always strive for a PG-rated card and the shirt in of itself is fairly innocuous. I would also need to go to a location where there was snow and my first thought was of Lake Tahoe.
I’d never been to Lake Tahoe before and I was excited to check it out while shooting my card. Although I’ve always maintained that one of my goals was to create Chico-oriented cards, I made an exception because it doesn’t really snow in Chico and that I was remaining in Northern California.
As time passed, I worried about being able to get to the picturesque lake in time. After hearing of snow in foothills and Sierra Nevada, I decided to try a location closer to home up Feather River Canyon on Dec. 8.
It was a total bust. After driving up Highway 70 along the winding Feather River, I made it to Quincy. My hopes were buoyed by the fact that the snow cover increased as I headed further uphill. I sought an open field to build the snowman and picked Feather River College just outside of town.
Attempting to build a snowman in Quincy
It … didn’t go well:
The snow didn’t clump very well and it was impossible to build a firm enough snowball to form the nucleus of the snowman.
After a few minutes of trying, I gave up and retreated down the hill back to Chico frustrated but happy that I had enough time to pursue alternatives.
The alternative came up quickly. I realized I could use my California Rail Pass that I would buy to travel to San Diego for the transportation to South Lake Tahoe. The Rail Pass was a great value — for $159, a passenger can travel to destinations within California on any seven days during a 21-day period (with several conditions). Although Amtrak doesn’t have a train that goes to Lake Tahoe, it has a motorcoach that makes the connection from Sacramento.
Leaving Davis Station in December 2013.
On Dec. 14, I made the trip to South Lake Tahoe via Davis and Sacramento. I was bundled for the cold, but it was a gorgeous sunny day. I primarily slept on the bus as it traveled on Highway 50, which was probably for the best because it is a very windy road up to Tahoe.
When I arrived in South Lake Tahoe, I was a little bummed out that the buildings were a little dowdy. I had pictured either a quaint downtown with classic old buildings or picturesque mountain village. What I saw was neither — much of the construction was simple, modern boxy construction.
Adjusting my expectations appropriately, I consulted with a map at the visitor’s center to look for an open field that would help provide an appropriate view of the mountains that ring the lake. Seeing a place that I could work, I walked a short distance to Rabe Meadow.
The meadow was perfect. There were houses nearby, but the meadow presented an open field with near-pristine snow with either stands of trees or the mountains themselves as possible backgrounds.
The snowman as I was about to leave Rabe Meadow
After picking an ideal spot, I set to build the snowman. It went far easier than before and I was able to quickly build the three spheres that would comprise my model. When it came time to put the Celebration Ale shirt over the snowman, I quickly realized that its torso was too big.
Because I was working with snow, I used my gloved hands to hack away at the snowman’s torso until it was just broad enough for the shirt to fit comfortably. As some of the photos show, the lower part of the snowman is disproportional to the rest of the snowman but I generally refrained from photographing the snowman’s whole body.
After putting on the T-shirt, I wrapped a scarf around the snowman to add further character to the creature. For his face, I used a handful of stones that I’d gathered outside my apartment in Chico. Once he was decorated, I think he resembled an Ewok or perhaps a stuffed teddy bear I had as a child.
A close-up of the Sierra Nevada snowman
Getting everything set up went fairly quickly and I was able to take dozens of photos of the snowman from different angles and distances. It was tricky because I wanted to adequately capture the background in addition to featuring the snowman prominently while showing the Sierra Nevada T-shirt.
It was a positive that I could rotate the snowman to capture different backgrounds. I tried to shoot pictures with the mountains stretching across the horizon and others with a stand of trees extending into the background.
Complicating things was trying to capture the scene without having odd objects in the background intruding on the snowman at weird angles. It was also warmer than I had expected and the snow was melting. That ordinarily wouldn’t be too big of a problem, but the water was starting to soak the T-shirt which showed up on a few shots and the rock eyes began to fall from the snowman’s face. (It turned out that it was best that I shot photos on that day because there was no additional snow that month amid the ongoing drought).
Generally, the photography went well with terrific early winter sunlight. A passerby was nice enough to take a photo of me with my creation.
The Sierra Nevada Snowman and me.
After finishing the shoot, I was able to enjoy walking around South Lake Tahoe. I had booked a room overnight, so I had plenty of time to walk out to the beach and then head back toward town for some food, libations and entertainment before calling it a night. It was definitely a great trip and I felt that I had a great card on my hands.
When I returned to Chico, I had the challenge of finding the right photo and creating the best possible card. I went through the dozens of photos and picked the two or three that I felt best captured the moment. I generally liked a photo where the snowman was in front of the mountains with the blue sky in the background. However, I ultimately preferred a picture with the snowman in front of the stand of trees because I like how the evergreens contrasted with the white snow and red T-shirt.
Once I picked the photos, it was a matter of picking the right card template. I generally didn’t like the Costco templates because I felt they failed to showcase the actual photo prominently enough. This year, I looked at the Apple iPhotos card templates and found a couple of viable options. I also tried different messages including “A Celebration for All Occasions.”
Thumbnails of possible 2013 cards.
I definitely liked the iPhoto designs better than the Costco ones, but it was tricky to adapt a template set for one perspective to Costco’s 6 inches by 7.5 inches. I also wanted to feature as much of the photo as possible and the iPhoto templates generally didn’t do that … except for one.
I ultimately went with a simple green banner across the bottom featuring the message “May Every Occasion Call For Celebration.” It was easiest to adapt for the Costco print sizes and definitely put the picture front and center.
The 2013 Christmas Card — “May Every Occasion Call For Celebration.”
Ultimately, this was one of the most fun Christmas cards to make. It’s probably the best and most beautiful card I’ve created too, although I would definitely try to keep the standard high in the years to come.
By the numbers:
278 — miles traveled for the 2013 card (83 miles to Quincy for the initial failed attempt and 195 miles via bus to South Lake Tahoe).
11 — Days before Christmas when I did principal photography.
127 — Principal photos for the card (out of 211 pictures shot during my two trips).
I’ve gone into my 2012 card before. This was probably the hardest year for me to come up with a concept and the execution isn’t the best — especially because it’s so hard to see what the image is supposed to be.
This year marked another departure from my core concept of the Christmas card. Instead of featuring either Chico, Northern California or myself, the card features a conceptual snow angel rendered as confetti on the floor of my workplace at the ChicoER.
I appreciated the help from my friend Evan, but overall this card could’ve used a bit more polish. Unfortunately, this card was photographed on Dec. 21 — one of the latest cards I’ve shot. I remember trying to get the cards printed in San Diego, but they would’ve taken too long to print. As it was, they went out after Christmas.
I again used a Costco template and so I only have a picture of the card to go off of. The inscription was a bit more poetic than usual —
Although there’s no snow, you can make a snow angel in a hot town like Chico!
On a positive note, this was the first Christmas card shot with my sister’s Canon PowerShot camera. It has better resolution and a more powerful optical zoom than the old Sony I was using (and the screen still worked, which was something I couldn’t say for the Sony at the end).
In any case, there’s more to the story here (including my original inspiration from a live-band karaoke show in Oroville).
By the numbers:
4 — Days before Christmas when I shot the primary photos.
5.3 — Miles traveled to shoot the card (at work). Also, these mileage totals are one-way — I don’t want to inflate my numbers.
18 — Photos taken for the 2012 card (that number’s about to get _a lot_ bigger for the 2013 card).
I’ve previously written about my 2011 card when it first came out. After taking a couple of years off from being wholly focused on Chico or Northern California, the 2011 card was based on an inside joke with a friend during a long-ago karaoke night.
Although my friend had moved on to greener pastures when it came time to shoot this card, thankfully Autofry was still around (although it too has since moved on to whatever counts for greener pastures among industrial food machinery).
Despite my griping, I ended up using one of Costco’s templates for the card design. I generally think it worked out OK, although I’m bummed that there’s no high-res version of the card that could be saved electronically for my records (although I suppose I could scan a print digitally).
Autofry and I hope you ‘ring’ in a merry 2012.
The 2011 card is unique because my friend Marcus only shot one photo on his cellphone. Compared with other years, I only had one option with this card. Thankfully, it worked out.
Again, I’ve written more about the 2011 card here.
By the numbers:
1 — Number of pictures taken for the card.
1.6 — Miles traveled to The Maltese for principal photography.
8 — Onion rings visible in the photo (they were delicious).
OK. I missed a couple of days because of work and because … I was mailing this year’s card to friends and family. Thankfully, I’ve already written about two of the three days so it should be fairly easy to catch up.
I haven’t yet written about my 2010 card, which was the first year that I almost didn’t do a card. In December, I was still recovering from two medical scares from the summer and fall. I recall not having a lot of enthusiasm for the project, especially if it entailed physically making the cards as in the first two years. Despite this and other challenges, the 2010 card turned out to be one of the more whimsical designs that I’ve created.
I definitely sought about creating a playful card. My first concept of depicting me placing the star atop the Christmas tree didn’t come together because the images didn’t look great. The best pic of that shoot on Dec. 14 came out too dark:
This was the best pic from my initial effort for the 2010 Christmas card.
So, I went back to the drawing board for another concept. Thankfully, it came together fairly quickly once I had the idea of “popping” into the card from an unexpected angle and located the needed headgear (from Wal-Mart). As I pondered how unbreakable the unshatterable ornaments were, I bought a pair of wearable reindeer antlers with a mini Santa hat.
I tried a couple of different places to shoot the primary image, including Woodstock’s Pizza. The images were just OK, but it did produce this fun, if a bit blurry, “Christmas buddy cop” pic with my friend Heather.
The Christmas buddy cop pose
Eventually, I think I went back to my apartment to shoot the main pic with the Cybershot. My primary concern is that I wasn’t happy with my hair. Given my medical issue, my hair decided to go on a temporary vacation. At the time, I was worried that it was a symptom of a far larger problem, but thankfully the hair grew back (for now).
The 2010 card
The primary pic turned out pretty dark, but Photoshop was able to salvage something usable over the neutral background of the hall last seen in the 2009 card. If you look closely, my ability to “cut out” the ball on top of the cap was pretty limited. I hopefully know how to fix that now.
When it came time to finishing the card, I think I used the text tool in Photoshop to add the seasonal message. I’ve looked at the card templates at places like Costco and online with iPhotos/Photos. Although I’ve ended up using templates over the years, I generally don’t like how they leave a limited amount of space for the photos. At the same time, the photo cards I received from other friends and family looked presentable and perhaps a little more professional than my earlier, artisan efforts.
This was the first year that I used Costco for my cards. I realized in 2009 that Costco was fairly economical for their standard-sized photo cards to the point that it was cheaper than my printing out the photos separately and pasting them on cardstock. It also saved a lot of time — I could have 50 cards and envelopes ready in a day when I would take me considerably longer to make the cards myself. The only real downside is paying for the annual membership, but I’m fairly strategic on when I renew so I only have membership when I really need it (every December).
Despite the difficulties, the 2010 card got out of the door (although they were probably late). I liked the main image so much that I usually use it as my avatar online at least once or twice whenever I’m feeling in the holiday spirit.
By the numbers:
1.94 — miles traveled for the card (although I ended up using pictures shot in my apartment.
3 — days before Christmas when I shot the primary photo for my card.
Continuing with my look back on nine years of Christmas cards, 2009 marks the second year and the final year of doing entirely homemade cards.
While the card production was simplified from the first year (no elaborate cutting), the main image was a bit more complicated as it featured me twice.
The theme of the card was intended to convey passing the spirit of Christmas on to others. What turned out has been described as “creepy” by a dear friend because of the black gloves in the picture (although the right glove is dark blue even if it didn’t come out that way). That was certainly _not_ my intention, but my hands weren’t photo-ready that year and I needed to improvise.
My previous blog entry on the 2009 card doesn’t go into too much detail, but I used Photoshop so I could play both giver and receiver of the tiny tree. It’s nice that retailers sell trees of all sizes — I decided to use trees sized as lawn ornaments for the card. This was my first deviation from doing holiday cards focused on Chico or Northern California, but time was short that year and I still incorporated a personal touch to the design.
I again used the family Sony Cybershot for photos. I set it up on a tripod in my apartment facing a hallway wall that I thought had sufficient light. I abstained from using the flash, especially because I wanted the Christmas lights to stand out on the tree.
My “noir” look.
Unfortunately, the light in the hallway wasn’t sufficient (at least for my camera and my personal technical ability). I turned on more lights around the hallway (which opened into the kitchen/living room) and arranged a directional light on the “set.” A friend liked the noir look of one of my test shots.
I primarily focused on getting the left side of the card right — making sure the angle and presentation of the tree was correct. As the test shots below indicate, it was difficult to get everything _just_ right (especially when working with a camera timer) but I eventually got a shot I was satisfied with.
I also tried to hide the power cord connecting to the tree’s lights. I was only partially successful, as one can see a power plug hanging from my coat sleeve.
I changed coats and gloves to shoot the right side of the card. I was worried about the shadow that the arm cast against the wall, but I was pretty confident that I could use Photoshop to edit out the shadow.
After getting my shots, I used the computer to compose the primary image. I attempted shot a neutral background as a canvas, but the final product doesn’t particularly reflect that. I remember the image came together pretty quickly as there were only really three elements. That said, doing any sort of cutout of a pine tree is a painful experience (one that I’ve repeated in the 2016 card).
The 2009 Christmas card.
For the last time, I printed out the image as prints at a local store. I switched up the white cardstock for red for a little more visual pop.
I also used a printer for my message “Spreading a little holiday cheer… and wishing you a Happy New Year.” Although it was a bit tricky to align everything correctly, I liked the clarity of the printed text although I missed the personal touch of the handwritten cursive of the previous year.
I used a glue stick to attach the photo to the card. It was time consuming and I strove to make sure the image was centered correctly.
I earlier wrote that I eliminated folded cards after 2008. My memory may be hazy — I seem to recall a fold in the 2009 card because I wrote on the inside of the card. However, I think the fact that I didn’t have a great message for the card’s interior was a key reason for moving away from folded cards.
The other reason for moving away from folded cards also included the realization of the relative economy of photo cards purchased from a warehouse store, but that’s a story for the 2010 card.
By the numbers:
0 — miles traveled to photograph the card (this was the only year so far shot entirely at home, although 2010 comes close).
3 — Trees included in the lawn decoration set.
5 — Days before Christmas when I photographed the card (again, not really enough time to get everything done).
Christmas Time is here and I’m starting my annual effort to spread a little cheer. For the past nine years, I’ve been making my own holiday cards. While I’ve generally tried to follow a theme of Northern Californian elements, sometimes I’ve focused on some aspect of my life or followed whatever fancy suited me that year.
2016 will be a bit different … but mostly the same. I’m back in Utah, so the “local” theme now applies to the Intermountain West instead of Chico. Some other things that are staying the same — I shot on location this year as I did 87 percent of my previous cards AND I’m working to make sure they get to people’s mailboxes before Christmas.
To help encourage me to make my deadline, I’m doing a countdown to look back at the eight previous editions of the card culminating with the online debut of my 2016 card. I’m (unintentionally) timing this to end on Dec. 23, which will hopefully allow enough time for the new cards to arrive in the mail and for me to wrap up this holiday special before St. Nick arrives the following day. Aiding my card quest is the fact that I’ve written about four of the eight past editions of the card (to keep things fresh, I’ll be adding some pictures from years past and add some recollections).
In all the cases, I try to do something new and something fun. Sometimes the cards are planned months in advance while others come together very quickly. Procrastination rarely helps the execution of the cards, but sometimes inspiration drops a good idea on my head like Santa and a bag of presents down a chimney.
I previously wrote about my first card just after it came out and blog posts around the time detailed my creative process in developing my first Chico Christmas card.
The first card was probably one of my most ambitious ones in terms of execution. I loved the giant (functional) wooden yo-yo at the Bird in Hand store in downtown Chico and thought it would make a great sight gag.
In order to pull the gag off, I needed the front of the card to isolate the yo-yo, letting the joke reveal itself when the reader opened the card.
There was a decent amount of stenciling and cutting to get the front of the card properly show the toy. After everything was cut, I needed to glue the photo of the yo-yo in the exact proper place or the illusion wouldn’t work.
I also chose a heavier white cardstock to help with the presentation (I worried that regular paper was too flimsy). If I recall correctly, the weight became a bit of an issue because the cards were right on the cusp of being too heavy for a single, first-class postage stamp. I remember not wanting to take the risk and bought a little extra postage to make sure everything go to their destination on time.
This first card was a lot of work and cost a decent amount of money (photos, paper, crafting supplies, postage, etc.), but I liked this initial effort. I wasn’t super happy with my handwriting as a key element of the card itself despite the homemade touch of it. Future cards wouldn’t feature handwritten elements (although I still pen a general message to every recipient). This is also the only folding card that I’ve made in the series — the 2009 card was still mostly handmade, but then I discovered the economy and efficiency of photo cards from a certain well-known wholesale retailer.
By the numbers:
0.71 — miles traveled to shoot the card.
5 — number of days before Christmas when I shot the principal photography (obviously not enough time).
13 — photos shot for this card on my family’s Sony Cybershot that I received from my sister. While I’m excited to share photos from upcoming cards, this one’s pictures don’t have a lot of variation to them (aside from trying to find the best angle and camera settings). Here’s a look at the thumbnails:
Here’s a look at the 13 shots I took for my 2008 Christmas card at Bird in Hand in Chico, California.
In just over 24 hours, the grueling 17-month-long election cycle will grind to a merciful halt. Even after weeks and weeks of ceaseless discussions, debates and squabbles, there are still some issues that haven’t been analyzed to death. One of those issues is the ballot selfie.
For those needing an explanation, the ballot selfie is where a voter takes a self-portrait with his or her ballot primarily to show who he or she voted for. In years past, it generally wasn’t an issue because people generally don’t take standalone cameras with them into the voting booth, much less wait for the photos to be developed and then converted into a format that can easily be broadcast to others. It became more of an issue in the past decade as nearly everyone now has a camera on their smartphones and can share anything with the tap of a screen.
States have conflicting laws about whether these self-portraits are permitted. USA Today publshed a breakdown, showing about two-fifths allow them, while two-fifths ban them and the rest is a muddle. For example, California law doesn’t currently allow them (despite a last-minute appeal by the ACLU), but a law overturning the ban will go into effect next year. Conversely, Utah allows selfies.
When I first heard about the issue about two years ago, I was generally opposed to allowing such photos. I theorized that the photos could provide proof in any sort of vote-buying arrangment. Such a thing could undermine the integrity of a secret ballot.
At the same time, that’s merely a theory. At least one federal court has ruled that it’s not a compelling reason to abridge a person’s First Amendment rights to express themselves in this manner. That makes sense — under strict scrutiny, a government needs to be able to show a compelling reason for a narrowly tailored law that abridges a constitutional right (and that the proposed law is the least restrictive means to accomplish this compelling purpose). That said, I’m not a lawyer and I’m not 100 percent certain that strict scrutiny is the standard here.
In any case, my concern about any hypothetical vote buying diminished when I thought about some of the practices around voting. Of note, if a voter incorrectly marks a ballot, I know some states allow the voter to return the mismarked ballot and ask for a clean one.
So, it’s possible for voters to take a photo of a ballot marked one way and then to ask for a clean ballot and cast their votes as originally intended. Given that possibility, it would be a pretty inefficient and unreliable way to manipulate the system. (Note: there may be ways around that, perhaps by checking the ballot receipt.)
Theoretically, someone could take a photo of a blank ballot prior to filling it out and subsequently use Photoshop or a basic redeye tool and virtually mark the ballot as they see fit.
With those potential safeguards, I reached a measure of peace about the ballot selfie. Ideally, people use these photos to show they are engaged in civic participation, something we generally need more of in this nation.
Then again, there’s the old adage: “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt.” We’ve certainly seen a lot of family and friends prove this saying on social media during this election cycle and posting a ballot selfie may only provide additional confirmation.
I’m tempted to take a ballot selfie myself Tuesday, but I would have to obscure my actual choices. It’s professionally unethical for me to disclose who or what I voted for and that suits me just fine (especially after what I mentioned about people proving themselves the fool).
In any case, Tuesday is the big day. If you haven’t already voted, this is your chance to have a say (balanced against others, of course). I’ll see you at the polls.
Richard plays a saxophone cover of “Hello” during karaoke night at Keys on Main in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, Aug. 9, 2016.
It’s been interesting getting used to a different karaoke scene. Back in Chico, I knew where I could go out and sing every night of the week, even when it wasn’t practical to go.
Since I moved back to Utah nearly three months ago, I’ve gone out to karaoke four times with last Tuesday being the latest. Part of my challenge is that I now work most evenings, except for Monday and Tuesday. The pickings have been relatively slim, but I’ve still been able to find some gems.
Although my sample set for testing is limited, I’ve been impressed with the quality of the performers in Salt Lake City. Conversely, I was disappointed by the general unprofessionalism of the karaoke night I found in Provo on Monday. I’ve also been happy to take advantage of late-evening runs on the TRAX light rail and FrontRunner commuter trains, although it does end my evening at around 11:30 p.m.
Beginning with a Twist
My first time getting back on the karaoke horse was last month at Twist, located just north of 400 South and Main Street in Salt Lake. It was in what could be described as a small street or alley, so I didn’t know what to expect. Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised when I walked up to the establishment. The entrance was raised and set back from the street. Patrons have to walk up some broad, shallow steps and past an enclosed patio to enter the restaurant.
Inside, the establishment was divided into three areas. The main serving area was the top-most level with the bar and kitchen. I didn’t immediately see the karaoke setup, so I headed down the stairs to a basement that included a smaller bar area and bar games, including pinball.
The basement area was too small to host karaoke so I headed up a second set of stairs and discovered a mid-floor that housed some restrooms. As I made my way around the space, I thought that it seemed a little risky to have so many stairs in an establishment that caters to people drinking alcohol, especially with the restrooms on a mid-level. Thankfully, some of my concerns were ameliorated when I discovered a second set of restrooms on the main floor — there really wasn’t a reason to go down the stairs unless a patron was partaking of games in the basement.
When I reached the top of the second set of stairs, which ended near the back of the business, I could see the karaoke setup. I didn’t immediately see the karaoke host, so I moseyed to the bar and waited, somewhat distracted by the large projection screen hanging over the opening to the basement.
The evening was off to a slow start, which is unfortunately pretty predicatable for most karaoke nights. Thankfully, the night eventually started and I was able to pick up a mic and have some fun.
My setlist was a mix of songs that are particular favorites and one Fourth of July song because the holiday had just passed. I warmed up to the karaoke host when he was surprised that he had Los Cadillac Fabulosos’ “El Matador” in his library. He was eager to sing it himself on a future night.
Here are the songs that I picked for that night:
“Mr. Blue Sky” by ELO.
“El Matador” by Los Cadillacs Fabulosos.
“America the Beautiful” by Ray Charles.
“Most Beautiful Girl (In the Room)” by Flight of the Conchords
The set up was basic — the by-now common laptop connected to a sound system. I don’t remember where the flat-screen monitor was on a stand or a table top, but it was an average situation with no serious demerits.
The crowd began to trickle in. Many of the first people to sing seemed like regulars and their friends. A couple of the regulars seemed to be fairly talented and I found myself thinking about the quality of performers possibly being a little higher in Salt Lake than relatively small Chico.
It was fun to sing again, although I’ve gotten a bit self-concious about singing after watching a recording I made at a live concert where I’m heard singing along with the crowd on a song. This self-conciousness has extended to when I sing along with the radio in the car. It’s not enough to deter me from singing or staying away from challenging songs, but it’s a good reminder that I’m still a rank amateur and these evenings are just for fun (especially when singing difficult tunes, like “El Matador”).
All too soon though, I noted I had to catch the light-rail back to my car before the system shut down for the night. As much fun as it is, I definitely I don’t want to be stranded away from home for the evening.
Unlocking Keys on Main
About three weeks ago, I stopped in a place across from Gallivan Center on Main Street that advertised karaoke on Tuesday — Keys on Main. As with Twist, I didn’t have a good idea of what to expect but the evening was ultimately a success.
The evening got off to a slow start — I guess it would be more noteworthy if a karaoke night actually started on time. There was a small group taking turns singing, so there was already a modest rotation by the time I added my name to the list.
As with Twist, there seemed to a handful of regulars joined by a small group of others. So far, I haven’t really seen a place since I’ve returned to Utah that was hopping. That’s probably because of the day of the week — two years ago, I went to a place off of Highland that eventually got crowded, but it was on a Saturday.
Whatever the crowd, the regulars were definitely solid singers. One fellow named Richard even brought a saxaphone to play Lionel Richie’s “Hello” as a solo and then joined Millie as a duet called “Millard.”
The set up at Keys was as professional as Twist and DJ Wes ran a pretty tight show. Instead of being casually set up in a corner of the bar, Keys’ karaoke set up on small stage that also accommodated dueling pianos (which were actually keyboards that were turned off, much to my disappointment). I definitely like having a stage to perform on, but any place that isn’t cramped or awkward is OK.
My song selection was based on tunes that I like singing, but haven’t had a chance to sing in a while.
“Little Lion Man” by Mumford and Sons.
“Fat Bottomed Girls” by Queen.
“Here For a Good Time (Not a Long Time)” by Trooper
Some of the songs have generally gotten a good response (like Queen), while others are just fun, like the Trooper tune. After I sang “Here for a Good Time,” a couple of guys said they really enjoyed it and wanted to know the artist. They were interested to learn that it was a band from Canada, which they reasoned why they didn’t know the song.
Again, I had to leave early so I didn’t get stranded. One patron was generous enough to offer me a ride to the train station, but I had plenty of time to get back to Salt Lake Central Station.
Disappointment in Provo
On Monday, Aug. 15, I decided to finally check out the limited downtown Provo night scene. While I’m happy to live in downtown, there’s only three late-night spots on Center Street and I have had no real compulsion to visit any of them. For example, City Lights looked appealing on the outside, I was turned off by photos of interior’s light wood paneling that screams family basement from the ’70s.
I’m not going to say which establishment I visited because what I found might get them in trouble (although there may be enough context clues for someone to take a big guess and figure it out).
I was pleasantly pleased when I first entered the business. It felt a bit like a dive, but I prefer places that are comfortable and a little lived in. I was excited when I heard somone singing on a back stage. The crowd seemed pretty diverse, although tending to be on the younger side. Overall, it was a pleasant surprise considering what I was expecting from Provo.
I grabbed a beverage and headed back to see if I could sign up for a song, even though it was getting late. I stopped in my tracks when I saw that the karaoke host was using YouTube to play the karaoke tracks. I politely waved at the karaoke host when he looked my way, but I decided I wasn’t going to try to sing that night.
I’m generally positive about karaoke tracks on YouTube … at home. It’s exciting that several karaoke music companies post their music videos to YouTube. It can be great fun to do YouTube karaoke at a house party.
However, a professional karaoke event is not a house party. Some things that people can get away with at a house party can’t fly in a place of business. For example, playing a stereo or watching a football game is generally OK at home with a small group of friends. At a local business, the owner needs to have a license or face fees from licensing groups.
The main problem with YouTube is that it is generally licensed for private, personal use. I don’t know if Google has a YouTube that’s available for commercial use.
In some ways, it doesn’t matter as the KJ handled YouTube in an amateurish way. The YouTube status bar was often visible during performances and autoplay would automatically start another (unrelated) video after the singer was done.
On top that, the KJ would scramble to mute the sound when an ad came up. Overall, I wasn’t impressed with the host. He was obnoxiously enthusiastic and interacted with performers to the point where it was distracting. Toward the end of the evening, he jokingly cursed at the audience for not being engaged.
But seriously, YouTube karaoke could be trouble
I am not a lawyer, but my impressison is that karaoke hosts generally need to use tracks licensed for commercial use — they can’t just download them from iTunes. There may be some winking at these restrictions (I don’t know how many karaoke hosts or regular people who can vouch for every song in their library). However, using YouTube as a core component of a professional gig seems like an invitation for trouble, especially if a licensing group does decide to look closer at an establishment or KJ.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. When I shared my concern online, one friend who’s a KJ responded: “Very unprofessional and they could get into some trouble if the right people found out.”
Back to Keys
I returned to Keys on Main last week. It definitely confirmed that the singers that I though were regulars were indeed regulars (although there was no sax that night and some people I thought were regulars were not present). The crowd was also about the same as before — filling less than a quarter of the seats in the large space. I don’t know if they anticipated more people — there were song sign-up slips on most of the tables, so perhaps there was a time when the place gets busy.
I drove into the city that night, so I didn’t have to worry about catching the last train out of town. I did have to watch my beverage intake and limited myself to one, which is for the best in more ways than one.
When it came time to pick songs, I stayed towards the tunes that I like singing and usually get the best reaction.
“Graduation (Friends Forever)” by Vitamin C.
“The Distance” by Cake.
“Africa” by Toto.
“Lights” by Journey
I was surprised to find that I haven’t sang “Africa” in a few months, considering that it became such a favorite in Chico. I started off with “Graduation,” explaining that I usually sing it at the end of the school year, but didn’t get to during the spring.
A couple of song choices were dictated by the fact that the songs I would’ve preferred to sing where either unavailable or unplayable. I would’ve rather sang Cake’s cover of “I Will Survive,” but “The Distance” was OK. I jumped to “Lights” when The Tragically Hip’s “Blow at High Dough” wouldn’t load (which is a shame given that the band was just ending what will likely be its last tour).
All in all, the Monday Tuesday karaoke scene isn’t too bad. It’s not hopping like it was most nights in Chico, but it’s something that can get me out of the house every once in a while. I don’t know if I’ll be making the trip every week, considering the time and distance involved (especially with curling league starting on Mondays), but it’s a nice option.
It was certainly interesting to watch the demolition of the Provo smokestacks Sunday. Although I’m new to the area, I can certainly understand at least a small portion of what it’s like to lose landmarks like the duo that towered over the skyline for more than 67 years (77 years for the older stack to the north).
In the end, the stacks were practically in their birthday suits after having asbestos-laden paint stripped off of their structures a few weeks ago. While children waved glow sticks that looked like the towers of old with the branding of “Provo City Power,” the actual towers were bare, aside from a column of numbers stretching up the side.
We were able to cover the event from multiple angles and I was happy to shoot slow-motion video of the destruction. If you watch the top of the northern stack on the left, you can glimpse a small cloud emerge as it falls to the ground. Although the stacks were last used for power generation in 2000, it seems oddly fitting that they funneled either smoke or dust in their dying moments.
Before I left the Provo Recreation Center to write up the story, I snapped a final photo of the view without the towers framed to match a shot I took earlier in the morning. Using the Juxtapose.JS tool, I created the graphic you see at the top of this entry. It’s interesting to see just how much of an impact the old smokestacks had on the Provo skyline. One can only wonder what views we will see in the years to come.