Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Wilco (The Review)

I first discovered Jeff Tweedy way back in the mid-90s, after picking up a copy of Anodyne, the virtually perfect album by alt-country godfathers Uncle Tupelo. I had no idea that the group had already broken up and formed two equally important bands, Son Volt and Wilco. I remember a lot of acrimonious debate over which group would carry the alt-country banner, but after hearing each band's debut album (Son Volt's Trace and Wilco's A.M.), I didn't much care. In my book, both efforts were rock solid then, and they still sound every bit as good today.

But then something happened. Son Volt drifted into repetitive mediocrity, and Wilco got increasingly weirder. Being There was definitely a departure from their roots, but it was still a great effort. Mermaid Avenue felt mostly like a dalliance to me, but every group is entitled to one of those, I supposed. Summerteeth was a bit spacier, but still poppy and approachable. Mermaid II was totally forgettable, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot careened between dissonant ear-bleeding chords and pointless, self-indulgent noodling. After a sample listening of A Ghost Is Born, I parted ways with Tweedy & Co.

Jeff Tweedy as brooding, egotistical savant is well documented, so there's no point in going into it here. But last Sunday, I read Timothy Finn's well-written feature on Wilco, and I got excited about today's new effort, Wilco (The Album).

Thankfully, and somewhat surprisingly, I'm not disappointed. Wilco is fun again! It starts off amusingly, with the curiously titled "Wilco (the song)." What other band can you name that has there own theme song? The Monkees? No matter... it works, and works well. Then there's "You Never Know," a charming, happy song that's also a dead ringer for George Harrison's My Sweet Lord. (I can almost hear it playing over KRGI-AM in Dad's Buick Skylark in the mid-70s.) And "Sonny Feeling" fits the tried-and-true Wilco formula -- frame some angst and dread in an upbeat, toe-tapping melody.
It feels good to be a Wilco fan again.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Obituary Overload

There's nothing like a bunch of punchlines dying to put you on notice, is there? Even as I write this, on the breezy confines of the Casa Scampwalker veranda, there are sirens -- a damned lot of sirens -- going hopefully to save some poor unknown bastard from the icy clutches of death.
But none of us escape it, do we? We make light of it -- mock it, really:

Farrah Fawcett goes to heaven. God grants her one wish. Farrah says, "Please take care of my children, and keep them from harm." So God strikes down Michael Jackson.

They say death comes in threes. Leave it to Billy Mays to throw himself in for free.

If God punishes us for whistling through the graveyard and making light of death, I'm a dead man bound for hell. But this recent spate of high-profile dirt naps has everyone thinking, doesn't it? How will the world remember you? Will you even be remembered? What's it all about?

Will you be remembered as the faithful, background sidekick like Ed McMahon? I'm still of the age that I remember Ed... always there... always quick with a laugh or a rejoinder (YES!) if Johnny's gag fell flat.

Do you hope to be eulogized like Farrah Fawcett, the bombshell that everyone wanted to be (or just plain wanted)? And though I never really paid attention at the time, she was by almost all accounts a good actress and fought a courageous fight against a horrible cancer.

Or are you going to be like Michael Jackson -- who somehow came to represent both the best and worst in humanity?

Hell, even Billy Mays, that (somewhat) lovable, loudmouthed huckster got his ticket punched. At least he knew what his life was supposed to be, and he lived it well.

But the death that brought it home for me was Marianne Stovall. She was an administrative assistant of mine back in a previous life, and she was only 58 -- but cancer doesn't care much about age, I guess.

Thankfully, I don't have a clue about when or how I'll die, and I'm not entirely sure what, if anything, people will remember about me. But I know I'm more attuned to it today than I was a week ago. And for that, I can thank Ed, Farrah, Michael, Billy, and Marianne. Godspeed. All of us.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Airsoft: This Ain't Your Daddy's Red Ryder Daisy BB Gun

For my son's nine-year-old birthday, I bought him (me) an automatic weapon. Before the Brady Bunch nuts get their panties in a bunch, it's not what you think. It's airsoft. And it's what I know I would have wanted back when I was in short pants.
I first learned of airsoft back at SHOT Show a couple of years ago, and I thought it was a bit goofy... grown men with plastic replicas of military weapons, having it out with one another, a la paintball. And I suppose you could do it that way.
Not us. My son has learned more about gun safety in the last month than I learned in a year. Seriously. He loves it because it looks cool, and it's full auto. You'd think the kid would be spraying pellets nonstop with a full auto M4, but without any coaching at all, he's very conservative with his shot placement. I think it's because I told him he was buying the next 5,000 rounds (15 to 20 bucks). Hell, with the price of ammo these days, why NOT shoot airsoft plastic pellets??
I'm amazed at how conscientious he is with gun safety... mostly because he knows that if he screws up, the gun gets put away (and it never has been, by the way). And even though airsoft can be dangerous, compared to a brass BB, it's slower traveling, and isn't packing the same amount of critter-killing joules that the BBs and pellets we grew up with. And I feel a lot safer shooting it in the backyard than something that spews ricocheting metal.
Anyhow, I'm a big fan. It's brought me and my son closer together, and it's one helluva squirrel, rabbit, and ground squirrel deterrent for the vegetable garden. Plus, they're damned fun. And let's face it... full auto kicks ass. I don't care who you are.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Urban Photo Safari: Life in the Viewfinder

Every year, a buddy of mine from work goes to great lengths to host Urban Photo Safari. The idea is a simple one, but supremely cool. Grab your digital camera, and go out and take cool pictures for four hours. Bring them back, upload them all to a central location, and then be "peer reviewed" by other participants. The winner gets... I dunno, I think some sort of gift certificate... but most importantly, they receive adulation (and envy) of his/her peers. (The winning photo is featured in this post.)
In all honesty, the competition is really ancillary. What's fun is getting up, grabbing a nice espresso from Homer's, and finding interesting places to go to take pictures. We hit the Overland Park farmer's market, Whole Foods, Bichelmeyer Meats, Dressler's Dog Supply, a random swap-n-shop, and Merriam Feed Lawn & Garden Center. (Do you detect a trend here? Food and dogs dominate my life.)
Anyhow, all locations were target-rich photo environments (like, um, a meat locker with 40 head of pigs and cattle hanging from meathooks??). And this year, we gave each kid a digital camera and THEY took the pictures. It was cool too see the world through the eyes of the kids (I'm assuming their real eyesight isn't as blurred as their photosight). And it was even cooler to see the eyes through 40-some friends, co-workers, and total strangers that took part in UPS.
If you live in the KC area, I strongly encourage you to participate next year. If you don't live around here, check out the gallery anyhow. It's proof there's some mighty talented shutterbugs in our midst. You might be one, too.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day with the Big Chief

I've been a smoker for about as long as I can remember. In fact, my dad taught me the basics of smoking back when I was probably my son's age (nine). So, in observance of Father's Day, I figured it was only fitting that I fired up my new Big Chief smoker to make a family favorite -- beef jerky.
This recipe I found in while I lived in Atlanta, in American Game Cooking, a cookbook that a buddy gave me. Newly married and living in a small apartment, we didn't have a smoker, so I made it in the oven with great results. But nothing beats the flavor and depth of a piece of red meat done in a Luhr Jensen smoker. Actually, they're no longer labeled as Luhr Jensen smokers (yes, the lure company), but are now branded as Smokehouse.
No matter, it's the same exact device as it was 35 years ago. They're simple contraptions... a riveted aluminum box, layered with wire racks, and a pan that rests on an electric heating element. They're damned reliable, too. My dad gave me his Little Chief smoker nearly 10 years ago, and it worked admirably until last fall, when it finally bit the dust. That's 35 years of jerky and chickens in one little machine. So when the time came to replace it, I figured I ought to stick with this little silver wonderbox. Here's the recipe.

2-3 lbs. lean beef roast (I typically use a rump roast. Venison, duck, sharptails, and woodcock also work quite well)

1/3 cup dry sherry

1/2 cup soy sauce

1/3 cup chicken or beef stock

3 tbs rice wine vinegar

1 tbs brown sugar
2 tsp chopped ginger

2 minced garlic cloves

2 tsp black pepper

Sriracha or Tabasco to taste

Put the roast in the freezer for at least an hour. Partial freezing makes it much easier to cut thinly. Combine all ingredients except for the meat, and bring to a boil. Once it boils for a minute or two, remove from the heat and allow to cool. Trim any fat from the exterior of the roast (fat can turn rancid even after smoking). Slice the meat thinly -- 1/8 inch is about right -- but consistency is more important than thickness. If some pieces are thin and others thick, half your batch will either be overcooked or undercooked. Brine the meat in the fridge overnight, for at least 12 hours. Lay the pieces on the smoker's racks, ensuring that pieces don't touch. Doneness is really a matter of knowing your smoker. Dad's Little Chief took 10 or 12 hours, but the new Big Chief only takes about five. Let it cool, and store in the fridge in a ziploc bag. I'm not sure what the shelf life is -- it's always been eaten within a couple of days.

Like many of my recipes, this one is served best with beer. You can take it anywhere with you, but it's particularly tasty after a hard day of hunting, eaten while sitting on a tailgate with a Boulevard Stout, sharing the day's memories with a good hunting buddy -- like my dad.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Garden & Gun: Get It

Here's a mashup for you...

Take equal parts of Southern Living, Texas Monthly, Gray's Sporting Journal, and a chicken-fried version of the New Yorker, and what do you get? You get Garden and Gun, one of the few magazines I look forward to reading cover to cover, every single month that I've been fortunate enough to receive it.

To the uninitiated (or uncouth), it seems like an unlikely combo... I get laughs when people see it proudly layed out on my desk. But once they crack it open (hoping to mock me), they begin to understand that this little book is not about begonias and .44 magnums.

It's a "lifestyle" magazine, to be sure. But I invariably cringe at that word... I mean, what asshat out there describes himself as leading a "southern lifestyle" -- or ANY lifestyle?!?!? That's a word for no-talent, just-out-of-school marketing punks that have no, well, lifestyle of their own. Anyhoo, I digress.

Back to Garden and Gun. Please tell me what other magazine you know of that has the editorial stable of Sid Evans (EIC) and David DiBenedetto (ED), along with contributing editors like Roy Blount, Jr., Pat Conroy, Rick Bragg, and Winston Groom? (If you don't know them, shame on you. Google them first (see?) then buy the damned magazine already.) Add to that some of the best outdoor writers plying their trade on a freelance basis (see Phil Bourjaily and Eddie Nickens) and this magazine is a sure bet.

Of course, no magazine is a sure bet these days. In fact, thanks, to the recession and corporate ad slashing, most mags are thinner than double-ply asswipe these days. G&G is hanging in there, and you need to know about it. Get a subscription. Buy it on a newsstand or during a layover. At the very least, visit their blogs. Trust me, pal... this day and age, we could all use some old-school southern sense.

Frozen in Time

I remember the first time I saw a movie at the drive-in like it was yesterday. Mom and Dad took us to Rocky way back in 1976. I remember being somewhat in awe of the technology, the magnitude of the screen, and the myriad teenagers primping and posturing. Being dark, there was also an element of danger, too, for this wide-eyed second grader. I remember getting to eat popcorn -- outside of the Oldsmobile, mind you, since Dad didn't want crumbs in the car. I don't remember much about the flick that night, but I can't think about Rocky Balboa without thinking about the Grand Island Twin Theater.

Whenever I mention the drive-in to anyone close to my age, they perk up and share with me what is essentially the same story. It's amazing how well kids remember that experience. Of course, drive-ins are now pretty much an anachronism, given way to VHS, Betamax, HBO, DVD, high-speed internet and Netflix. In fact, they mostly died out before I reached driving age -- the age at which two or more hours in the dark with a girlfriend could have been even more fun.

Saturday night, we took our kids to the drive-in to see Night At The Museum II. Most people in KC are surprised that such a place exists -- but I'm happy to report the Boulevard Drive-In is alive and well. We backed the Ram into our spot, and put out a couple of chairs for the kids on this uncommonly chilly June evening, while Mrs. Scampwalker and I sat on the tailgate. We bought some treats from the grocery store, and even sipped a couple of Schlitz longnecks (the 70's era seemed fitting, and they were surprisingly tasty). The place wasn't packed, but it was still full of families of every size, color, and socioeconomic status, with vehicles to match (pickups, minivans, and SUV's seemed to be the most popular varieties).

The movie was just OK (it was a sequel after all), but the experience was first-rate. I'll be curious to find out if my kids will remember Ben Stiller the way I remember Sylvester Stallone.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Woot for Rednecks

An alert reader and hunting buddy forwarded me the link to Camofire, a deal-a-day site that features hunting-oriented equipment. It's similar in concept to Woot, which features one close-out, remanufactured, or overstocked item each day for cheap.
I can't personally vouch for Camofire, but Woot does have some great deals... I've purchased my Media Center PC and Roomba (appropriately named Dustin) through them, and the price and service has been great.
And if you're a gear guy like me, at least this may be a cheaper way to feed the beast.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Hungry For Huns

The Zip-Loc block of ice labeled "4 HUNS 09/08" that was laying in the sink had finally melted, revealing four skinned, whole birds, slightly larger than bobwhite quail.
In nearly two weeks of traipsing through the entire eastern half of Montana, this was the extent of our Hungarian partridge bounty. Jon and I went to Montana last fall, looking for new experiences and challenges. And Big Sky Country delivered on all fronts. We shot as many sharptails as we cared to, and found the sage grouse hunting to be embarrassingly easy (beginners luck?). But for the most part, the Hungarian partridge eluded us. So this quartet of birds was literally worth its weight in gold, thanks to more than 2,000 miles driven in a 13-miles-to-the-gallon pickup and four-dollar gas. Mrs. Scampwalker hadn't yet blessed a return trip this fall, so there was no telling how long it'd be before I got the chance to hunt them (or eat them) again. This meal would be a special one.
The preparation, however, was a simple and classic one: wrapped in bacon, with pickled jalapeno rounds stuffed into the breast. They were sprinkled lightly with salt, pepper, garlic powder, and hot Hungarian paprika (a fitting touch, I thought), sourced from my parents, who had recently completed a tour through eastern Europe. The key is to grill the birds over hot, but indirect, heat. Doneness is as much calculated luck as skill. When pinched, the breasts should feel firm, while still yielding slightly. (Did I just write that?)
As an accompaniment, we prepared farfalle with homemade basil pesto, wilted leaf lettuce salad with bacon and hard-boiled farm-fresh egg, and a fresh-baked French baguette. This was truly a meal of God's bounty -- grown and harvested naturally, prepared and eaten with respect.
And eaten it was. My son quickly abandoned the knife and fork and tore into the bird with his teeth. My daughter commented that the bird tasted like the soil and grass where it lived. To non-hunters, that seems absurd, but those who kill and eat their quarry will no doubt understand.
It was truly one of the most enjoyable and exquisite gamebirds I've ever eaten, and I quietly savored every atom of sweat, ache, effort, and pride that went into hunting this lone Hun. I was satisfied. I wanted more. My wife did too. And now, I'm planning a return trip to Montana this fall.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Now It's Settled: Best BBQ In The World.

Well I'll be damned. I've known all along that Oklahoma Joe's Barbecue is top flight stuff, and now the experts confirm it. Then again, I live in Kansas City, where killer 'cue can be found in sleepy suburban backyards as well as packed restaurants.
Cracking open the June 2009 issue of Men's Health Magazine, I read that Anthony Bourdain has proclaimed Okie Joe's as one of 13 Places To Eat Before You Die. (Others on the list include the French Laundry, elBulli, and Katz's Deli, so they're in highfalutin' company.) Bourdain, the celebrichef, author, TV personality, traveler, and world-class raconteur calls Oklahoma Joe's "The best BBQ in Kansas City, which makes it the best BBQ in the world." Heady praise, for sure.
And he's right. But to me, naming the "best" barbecue in Kansas City is akin to choosing the "prettiest" girl between Penelope Cruz and Scarlett Johansson in Vicky Christina Barcelona -- you're just not going to go wrong whatever way you go.
And while virtually everything on Oklahoma Joe's menu is outstanding, my favorite is the Chicken Z-Man Sandwich, which isn't on the chalkboard but one that they'll happily make anytime for you. It's chunks of smoked chicken, a slice of smoked provolone, and a crispy onion ring inside a pillowy white kaiser roll, slathered with piquant sauce. Order it with a huge side of seasoned fries (we call them "crack fries," because it's impossible to put them down until they're gone) and dip them in Night of the Living Sauce, a spicy BBQ sauce made with chipotle peppers. Heaven.
Part of the charm of the place is its location -- inside an otherwise nondescript but fully functional gas station. We went there last night, and at 8:30 in the evening, it was a 15 minute line. They've since expanded to a second location in the JoCo suburbs, and while the setting isn't as unique, the food is every bit as good.
And for those who wonder, there is indeed an Oklahoma Joe. A group of buddies and I had the privilege of meeting him at the American Royal a couple of years back. I seem to recall that he once was (but is no longer) part of the KC restaurant business.
No matter -- smoked meat this good is bigger than any one man. If you're in the neighborhood, do yourself a favor and stop by. Tell 'em Scampwalker and Anthony sent you.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Sidra: Not for Pussies

I'll be the first to tell you that the Asturian Spanish sidra tastes like what I'd expect pee to taste like. It's poured from approximately a meter (piss length), from keg or bottle to glass, and it makes a funny hog-pissing-on-a-flat-rock noise. The "nose" smells, well, like an unattended urinal. It's room temp. The color is straw, and the taste is sourish. Apparently, it's what an apple-a-day gets you on the Iberian penninsula.

But dammit, when I'm in Spain, I just love the shit. Maybe it's that it's such a strange departure from U.S. of A sensibilities. Part of it has gotta be the glass that they serve it in. It's a typical tumbler, but thin, thin, THIN crystal.

I have six, thanks to Mr. & Mrs. NH, and they are indeed cool. But even in the Land of Plenty, sidra is met with a curious stare. I can't get it. I get referrals to Woodchuck Cider, which doesn't come close to fitting the bill. Online bottles? Meh.
So I've been doing TnT's in my sidra glasses. A TnT, you say? It's the drink sensation that's sweeping the nation... sub gin for tequila, add tonic and a lime, and you've got it. Order it in public, and all of a sudden, you're a trendsetter. And if it's diet tonic, it's a low-cal sub for a margarita.
I don't make this up, folks. I look out for you so you don't have to. Just keep the sidra to trained professionals, OK?
*Fragrant, ant-filled peonies are an optional, North American accessory. But chicks dig 'em, and they do smell 'purty.

Music Review: "Roadhouse Sun" by Ryan Bingham and the Dead Horses

I've been looking forward to Ryan Bingham's new effort with great anticipation. His 2007 major-label debut (if you can call Lost Highway a major label), Mescalito, earned a top spot in the Scampwalker rotation. From the dusty, hypnotizing opening track "South Side of Heaven," to the Bo-Diddley-riff-inspired "Bread & Water," to the lazy, wistful "Long Way From Georgia," I fell in love with it the first time I heard it. (I was on my way to north central Kansas on a hunting trip, if you must know -- and it fit perfectly).
Granted, the circumstances are different for Roadhouse Sun. I'm sitting in my office over my lunch hour listening instead of on an open road. Mr. Bingham is no longer an obscure troubadour, either -- he's been anointed by Joe Ely, has appeared on Jay Leno. So times are different for both of us.
From the get-go, the album feels more polished, more rehearsed. I won't call it overproduced, but it just feels like Bingham is more conscious of his lyrics and his sound. That's probably to be expected, but even with that burden, he still has a solid sophomore effort. A few standout tracks:
  • "Tell My Mother I Miss Her So" - jangly mandolin shuffle that could be a sequel to Mescalito's "Take Me To The Other Side."
  • "Bluebird" - a strong backbeat that I swear sounds like it could be an outtake off a Springsteen disc.
  • "Endless Ways" - an anthemic kiss-off that I predict I'll spin at peak volume on the way home from a rough day at work.
  • "Change Is" - I cannot wait to hear Ryan and the 'Horses hammer this one out live.
All in all, it's a solid effort that I look forward to getting to know better. Right now on Amazon, the MP3 version is on sale for a paltry $3.99, and you get an Amazon-exclusive track out of the deal, too. The kid's certainly worth a lot more than that.