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Postcards from Travel Near and Far by Jia-Rui


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90038, Hollywood

Piano music in a very unusual setting

Dear ——–,

I spent a very enjoyable Friday evening at the cemetery. (How many times do you get to write that?) I parallel-parked by some gravestones at Hollywood Forever Cemetery and met up with Ruben to catch piano music by Dustin O’Halloran and Hauschka. We sat down in the main hall of the Masonic Lodge, where movie posters hung on the blood-red walls and high-backed ceremonial chairs and enormous candelabra decorated the stage. I loved the dreaminess of Dustin O’Halloran’s Debussy-like pieces, but Hauschka’s sound was a revelation. He manipulated the piano’s tones and added percussion by stuffing his instrument with shakers, tambourines, duct tape and other items impossible to see in the dark. It was as if he was inspired to make his old-fashioned piano function like today’s electronic keyboards, which can change sounds at the push of a button and tap out tinny bossa nova beats. For one song, he poured ping pong balls over the strings, adding ghostly whispers to his melodies. Every now and then, when he hit a note hard, one of the balls flew up and bounced out into the audience.

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78701, Austin

Marina and the Diamonds at South by Southwest

Dear ——–,

Not a lot of girls can ooze sex appeal in a t-shirt and sweatpants decorated with dice, but the lead singer of Marina and the Diamonds owned the crowd Saturday at South by Southwest. I’m not sure I would’ve gotten her if I had only listened to her record, but, live, she definitely glowed with that elusive, rock-star charisma. We caught two acts at the Chop Shop/Atlantic Records tent and both were pretty kick-ass. The other act (which also happened to be British) was Scars on 45, a rocking band with a dose of folk and a dose of Oasis. Not sure if I loved these bands because the Chop Shop/Atlantic tent was warm and felt like a hug after walking through the bracing wind and uncommonly chilly 40-degree weather. Or maybe I liked them because I saw a lot of disappointing acts the day before. Chop Shop licenses music and has been known for “breaking” bands on TV shows like CSI. Gotta give an old-school label like Atlantic credit for working a new path of market-testing. Do Chop Shop favorites get an Atlantic deal upstream? Is that the tail wagging the dog?


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78701, Austin


The much-talked-about Dr.Dog

Dear ——–,

We crowded into the Cedar Street Courtyard Friday afternoon to see Dr. Dog, a band that was generating some serious buzz at South by Southwest. Their songs started off interesting, but then took weird turns into 70s jam-band-land. I felt eh about them and decided maybe this was a band for dudes, not for me. Another band in that showcase called the Local Natives was better. I really liked their catchy rhythms, but I’m still deciding how I feel about their Fleet-Foxes-style harmonies. After a nap, we went to see Man or Astro-Man? in a hay-strewn lot on the other side of the freeway. (If one wanted to design a SXSW schedule based solely on rocket-science-themed bands, that would be totally possible. Consider: We Were Promised Jetpacks, The Asteroids Galaxy Tour, etc.) MOAM? had a cool Buck-Rogers-meets-Wipeout vibe, but I wished more of their songs had vocals. Still, props for the guy in an astronaut suit playing a theremin. At 11 p.m., we were excited to see Halos, a band Bryan worked with, at Shiner’s Saloon. But the other band sharing the set with them played too many songs and the management cut Halos off after two numbers. We went home hoping for a better Saturday.


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78703, Austin

Madi Diaz at Idea City

Dear ——–,

We made it to Austin! We’ve been on the run ever since. We gobbled down some breakfast tacos with refried beans with Francisco at Copa on Friday, then met up with Sarah at Iron Cactus for an early lunch. They had this amazing pollo relleno, which featured chicken stuffed with corn bread and cheddar. We got a good start to our South by Southwest day with a raw and heartfelt set by Joshua James. Then we walked about a mile across downtown to see Madi Diaz behind the headquarters of Idea City, an advertising firm. This was the way to see music! We were sprawled out on a lush lawn as the sun peeked behind clouds, listening to a sweet, clear voice sing good songs, backed up by a polished band. They also had free tacos and beer! It was like what Coachella could be, if it weren’t 110 degrees and totally crowded. We wandered into the world headquarters of Whole Foods during our free hour and saw the largest, most ornate caramel apples ever. Everything is bigger in Texas!


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75038, DFW

Dear ——–,

I have never been so happy to be at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. We got to LAX this morning with about an hour to spare, but that was nowhere near enough time to make our 8:10 a.m. flight to Dallas, which was the first leg of our travel to Austin for the South by Southwest Music Festival. The security line at the American Airlines terminal was out the door, all the way down the sidewalk to the next terminal and back up the sidewalk all the way back again. We had never seen a line that long — and by the anxious look on everyone else’s face, neither had they. A guy pulled out those with flights boarding in the next half hour. We ran after him and he finally told us to wait for him by the elevators. We waited with blood beating in our temples for a 5-minute eternity until he resurfaced in the elevator. We tried to get his attention, but he seemed to have forgotten us. “You can’t go up on this elevator,” he said, as he closed the door on us. We went up anyway with another exasperated flier who was also pulled out of line said he was going up in the elevator. After more maneuvering, we managed to get through the screener and ran down to the gate. It was exactly 8:10, but they had closed the door. The customer service lady rated our chances on catching any of the other Dallas flights that day as 50/50. “It’s spring break and there’s some festival in Austin,” she said. We waited at three different gates and started to lose hope. Then, at 11:50, the Morrises failed to answer when their names were called. We literally got the last two seats at the back of the plane. Now we’re just trying to get to Austin…


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92310, Goldstone

In the construction zone

Dear ——–,

I forgot my steel-toed boots, so one of the guys handed me these hard plastic green toe covers, lovingly nicknamed “Klingon war boots.” I got up at 4 a.m. on Wednesday morning to drive out to the Goldstone Deep Space Communications Complex to check on the beginning of “major surgery” on the historic 70-meter “Mars antenna.” The main part of the work is replacing part of the runner and grout in the hydrostatic bearing assembly, which enables the antenna to turn sideways. The scale of this thing was immense. I had to go up several flights of stairs to get up even to the level of the steel runner. About 9 million pounds floats on a film of oil about the thickness of a piece of paper over this runner, so it’s incredibly important for the runner to lie flat. (After 44 years of constant wear and tear, it no longer does.) I was surprised by how brisk it was out there. The chill came from the wind, which was blowing at about 20 miles an hour. “A mere breeze,” one of the Goldstone staffers explained.


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90012, Downtown Los Angeles

Is that a subway entrance on Spring Street?

Dear ——-,

For a half second when I saw the green fence and the Chambers St/JMZ sign, I wondered, “Is LA finally getting some better public transit?” Then I saw the cars parked along the side of the road with too brightly colored New York and New Jersey license plates, the buses crudely painted to look like NY Metro buses and the taxis from fake companies — someone was doing a movie shoot in front of L.A. city hall … for something ostensibly taking place in New York City. I guess the weather has been a bit gray today and nothing says metropolitan government like a big concrete art deco building. They’ll just have to crop the palm trees out of the picture. I’m downtown for jury duty today, sitting in a room with hundreds of other people who look as if they don’t want to be here either. One guy was even wearing a sweatshirt with a Nazi swastika. Not sure I’m willing to go to those lengths to get out of my civic duty. I guess there’s another two hours to wait …