Heading into the new year (and decade), I’ve been giving a lot of thought to how to be positive and keep some level of hope in the face of what I believe to be some of the worst times in our history. Then this morning, one of the first things I saw was this tweet from singer/songwriter Moses Sumney:
This comes to me like a punch in the gut. Viscerally disturbing.
While it is certainly not up to me to tell Mr. Sumney how to feel, and in fact I think I understand his despair, I’m compelled to say I could not disagree more. Now is exactly the time for art.
In the current moment we’re bombarded, mostly in real time, with news of every terrible thing that happens across the globe. Fire, flood, famine, war and violence of every kind, not to mention climate change and catastrophes of every other stripe. At the same time, we find ourselves coaxed and cajoled from seemingly all quarters to pick a side, stay within our tribes, be suspicious of others who don’t look and think like we do.
It is precisely during these times of division and strife that the arts have the most power. The act of creation is, intrinsically, a statement that we are better than our worst impulses; that we stand in defiance of destructive forces, indeed in defiance or our mortality; and most importantly, that every one of us shares a common humanity. The arts, perhaps more than anything else in our lives, prove to us time and again that, as Roger Waters has said, “..there is no ‘them.’ There’s only ‘us.'”
There’s never a bad time to create, but the more it feels “insane and futile,” the more important it becomes.
Starting today, I’m revamping my site to make it a little easier to update and control. Eventually I hope to incorporate all the content from my previous site, and then move on from there. I imagine it will take some time, but hopefully these changes will prompt me to keep the site more current and active.
These were the very first paragraphs I read on the very first day of this year. I suspect I may not read anything more beautiful or near-perfect for the rest of 2015.
“There is a coarse grain in the air of the American Experience, and know it or not it has marked all of us, the way coal dust etches fixed black lines upon the lungs of miners who feel the tug with every laugh and sigh.
It is a weather system all its own, our humid cultural atmosphere: sweet as magnolia, as oily and foreboding as gunmetal upon the tongue. From the auction block to the Harlem Renaissance and on to Selma; from the Appalachian Trail to Attica; from Lewis and Clark to Harpo, Chico, Sacco, and Vanzetti; Lincoln and Douglas through to Washington’s current rancorous desperations — our national narrative, historically, has been a moveable feast, both beautiful and brutal, and it’s never been more authenticall articulated than in the language of folk songs, for they stand outside of time and speak freely, with loyalty to nothing but the truth.
Understand that when I speak of folk, it is not as a genre distinction beholden to any particular tone or instrumentation, but rather is specific to songs — ones that grow out of a regional landscape, and speak to and of those who have done the same; thus the great long table has chairs not only for Doc Boggs and the Carter Family, but Little Richard as well. Sister Rosetta sitteth at the right hand of Louis Armstrong, the father almighty, but also across from Link Wray and Nina Simone; Leadbelly and Lee Dorsey; Charles Mingus, Robert Johnson, Woody Guthrie, Geechie Wiley, and Duke Ellington; Bessie Smith, and Hank Williams; all of them giving voice to the country’s collective ragged and weary soul, its ferocious and troubled heart.
Songs tell our story most authentically because, like us, they are constantly evolving within their framework, forever being reimagined and reanimated. Every time they are taken up and sung out they are newly ratified, as all truths demand to be. Facts are cast in bronze — throw shadows and collect dust, I mean to say, but Truth is a river; and it’s sliding moan is our familial song upon it. Songs deconstruct our singular experiences and reassemble them as useful mythologies, to be parsed and shared in both sharp unison and blurred harmony. “Spike Driver’s Blues” and “Pretty Boy Floyd” underscore our distinct human condition, our cultural character, more authentically and viscerally than does, say, the Constitution. They represent only two, but are true living documents that stride and wail, invite themselves onto our tongues and then into the air like sparks from a stirred fire; are rooted in suffering and borne aloft by the deep desire not to be.
Songs are our signifiers, lifting our spirits and bubbling beneath us like subtitles, explaining us to ourselves.“
Opening paragraphs of the articleGo Tell It On The Mountain: Greg Leisz And The Architecture Of Song by Joe Henry
Well, I’ve obviously done a spectacularly poor job of blogging in 2014. No doubt my two or three readers must assume I have given it up completely. Surprise! I am back to briefly mention a few highlights of 2014 which, had I been writing regularly, would have undeniably been among the topics herein.
For our first show of the year, Suzy and I saw Justin Townes Earle at City Winery back in mid-March. As seems to be the case with JTE, it was an extremely relaxed and informal affair. He wasn’t in particularly good voice for the first couple songs, but then he found his footing and it turned out to be an excellent show. JTE may never hit the level of near-genius that marked father Steve’s best work, but in my estimation, at just the moment when Papa Steve’s output has become progressively uninspired and lackluster, Justin keeps getting better and better with each successive record. I’m all in.
One Saturday in July, I headed to Oak Hill, NY with my buddy Jim to check out the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. Always mentioned along with Merlefest, Gettysburg, Telluride, and a few others as a top-tier fest, it’s one I’ve heard and read about for most of my life. As a veteran of more Merlefests than I can count, I was excited to see how Grey Fox compared. It did not disappoint. In fact I give it points over Merlefest for manageability. Merlefest is outstanding for what it is, and truly offers something for everyone all day, every day. But it is simply HUGE. Overwhelmingly so. Grey Fox is big enough to satisfy, but small enough to get around to everything you want to see.
As long as I’m on the subject of bluegrass, I’ll quickly mention another great City Winery show from just a couple months ago: the return of the legendary Hot Rize. Back after a 20+ year absence, with a new album and a corresponding tour, it’s as if they’ve never missed a beat. With the stellar guitarist Bryan Sutton filling the role of the late Charles Sawtelle, and Tim O’Brien’s vocal work standing front and center as always, there is simply no match for this band. This is as good as it gets, folks.
Another blast from the past came in December, when our old college friend Chuck came up from NC to go with us to see Richard Barone, Marshall Crenshaw, Don Dixon, and Marti Jones do a song circle in Woodbridge, NJ. We haven’t see Dixon & Jones since sometime in the ’90s, and they are every bit as entertaining now as they always were. And obviously, Crenshaw and Barone are nothing to sneeze at, either.
Speaking of friends, over Easter weekend I had the chance to reconnect with Ken and Virginia Miller. Sometime in January I noticed that during the winter months my efforts to manage the humidity for my Miller guitar had fallen short, and there was a noticeable separation right along the center seam in the top. It was purely cosmetic, but I contacted Ken to discuss it. Eventually I decided to use it as an excuse to go down and see his new shop. When he built the guitar, he and Virginia were in Tallahassee, but they had since moved to (my home state of) North Carolina. When the weather warmed up a bit –and, as luck would have it, the seam in the top pretty much closed itself back up– I took a little extra time off at Easter and drove myself and my guitar down to NC. That Saturday, my Mom and I enjoyed a scenic ride to the Millers’ beautiful new home, which has amazing views across the mountains and fields. The workshop is bright and spacious, and Ken soon set about re-glueing the (mostly gone) seam separation, and then tweaked the setup on the guitar. After that, we visited all afternoon, picking a few tunes on some of their new instruments — Mom playing the Acousteel, Ken’s take on the dobro/weissenborn slide guitar. And that’s without doubt the main attraction at Ken & Virginia’s home: Ken & Virginia themselves, and their warm, inviting hospitality. You simply couldn’t find two finer people to spend the afternoon with. Plus, you know, they have a lot of guitars
Of course the big item on our yearly musical agenda over the last few years has been the Newport Folk Festival, and this year was no exception. Highlights for us this year included Willie Watson, Valerie June, Milk Carton Kids, Ryan Adams, and Tweedy. As always, the festival was smoothly run, easy to manage, and it still offers one of the most beautiful settings you could imagine.
Another main item on our Newport agenda is our annual check-in on the progress of the restoration of The Coronet, which I’ve written about before. For us, no trip to Newport would feel complete without it.
We’ve made a lot of friends at the festival over the years, repeat customers like ourselves, many of whom also often stay at our usual B&B, and half the fun is always catching up with each other every year. This year we spent most of our time with out friends Katherine and Jeremy, from Ottawa, and their new son Finlay, and we were also particularly happy to reconnect with the first couple we ever met at Newport, our old friends Fred and Susie. We met at Newport’s 50th Anniversary Folk Festival, which was the first year Suzy and I attended, and sat together in the same spot again the following year. Since then, Fred and Susie had missed the fest for various reasons. It was fantastic to see them again.
While there, Fred and I talked about the fact that Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell were set to do a free show in Damrosch Park at Lincoln Center a few weeks after Newport. Following a little discussion and several emails, Fred decided to come up and meet me for the show. It was extremely crowded, and initially it seemed that we may not make it in. Just as we were about to resign ourselves to listening from the sidewalk, they started letting more people in, and before we knew it we had scored some seats! Perfect weather, beautiful evening, great music, and free.
Finally, I’ll say that our most exciting find of 2014 was Lake Street Dive. Early in the year we watched the Showtime production of “Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis,” a concert film made in Town Hall in NYC. It features any number of our favorite artists, including Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings, Willie Watson, Milk Carton Kids, Patti Smith, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Joan Baez, etc. Somewhere deep in the film, suddenly there appears this band we’ve never seen or heard of, and they absolutely blew us away. As soon as the film was over, I ordered every CD they had available on Amazon.
Our first taste of seeing them live was at Newport, where they were the number one item on our to-do list. They were everything we’d hoped; tight arrangements and harmonies, polished without being slick. An infectious blend of jazz, soul, blues, and pop. Easily one of the top highlights of the festival for us this year, made even more special by the guest appearance of Mavis Staples, helping out on the song “Bad Self-Portraits.”
Four months later, in early November, we saw them again when they headlined two consecutive sold out nights at Terminal 5. As we hoped, the full concert experience was just as energized as the festival set, sustained over 90+ minutes. We LOVE this band. More please….
My first-ever iPod, affectionately referred to as the PigPod, died last week. I know it’s a trivial matter, but the internet is filled with extensive writing about meaningless things, so I’m jumping on that bandwagon.
The first time I ever saw an iPod, I hadn’t even heard of one yet. Friends had invited us for dinner, and one of their kids –just barely a teenager– had one. He was incredibly excited to show it off, and I pretended to be awed by it, but the truth is I couldn’t figure out why anyone would want such a thing. Sometimes I can be slow to catch on.
It was pretty impressive that it could hold 1000 songs. A thousand of anything is a lot; that much I understood. But at that time, none of my music was on my computer. I don’t even think I knew then how to get it onto my computer if I had wanted to. I may not even have known that it was possible to put it onto my computer. Besides, I already had a portable CD player, so why bother?
Soon after that I got into the whole SongFight! thing and cobbled together a digital recording studio, and started burning my tunes to CD-RW. In turn, Frankie Big Face, who then served with nary a hint of reluctance as my personal IT service, showed me how to rip mp3s from the CDs so that I could email my songs to the Fightmaster. But even then I only saw it as a means to that specific end. The iPod wasn’t anywhere on my radar.
Two or three years later, after we had moved to NJ, a co-worker’s husband gave her a new iPod for her birthday, fully loaded with all their music. As she was showing it to us the next day, I picked it up and, like magic, I suddenly understood. Understood so clearly that I couldn’t figure out why I hadn’t been able to understand it before. This thing was amazing.
A few weeks later my wife gave me one for our 17th anniversary. I don’t remember what I gave her, but it could not possibly have been as cool as my shiny new custom engraved 40GB PigPod. No way.
I spent the next weeks ripping our CD collection to mp3s, slowly but surely filling the ‘Pod with our tunes. It seemed to take forever, but one day it was finished and I could carry my entire record collection in the palm of my hand. To say that it changed everything may be a bit of an overstatement. But it changed a lot. No more deciding which CDs to take on a road trip, for example. Recommending a record to someone, and having it in my pocket right at that moment. It was an incredible feeling at the time.
Of course I know mp3s are not the optimal medium for recorded music, and in fact I have recently gone back and re-ripped all my CDs to lossless format. And I realize by some people’s reckoning that still leaves me at least one step behind, in that the current trend is back to vinyl LPs, audiophiles everywhere loudly proclaiming the warmth, depth, and general overwhelming superiority of the polymer groove. That’s all well and good. I miss my old vinyl records, and I often think about investing in a really kickass new stereo, including an awesome turntable. And someday I just might. But at the same time I don’t truly believe most people (and certainly not I) actually possess the ability to discern vinyl from CD, and probably not even from a 256kbps mp3. But regardless, that was never what the iPod was about. At least, not in my mind.
In retrospect, I think it’s really the ripping of the CDs that turned out to be –in the long run– the most interesting thing about having the iPod. Up until that point, I had spent my whole life leafing through my albums, and later our CDs, one by one when looking for something to play. I diligently kept them all in alphabetical order, by band name or artist’s last name, obviously, and spent hours keeping them curated, cleaned and protected. Now suddenly, all those songs were right there at my fingertips, all at once. Searchable by title, artist, album, date, or any other way I wanted to file them. The grooves couldn’t get scratched. They couldn’t be left out of their cases, or inadvertently filed in the wrong place. And I could see things about my collection that I couldn’t see before.
Without actually ever having counted, I could have easily told anyone who cared to know that we had more music by Emmylou Harris than any other artist. The first time I heard Emmy sing, I thought I might have died & gone to Heaven without realizing it, and over the intervening years I had picked up everything of hers I could find. But I would never have guessed that the second most well-represented artist in our collection would be Eric Clapton. Looking at it from the opposite perspective, I was shocked at what a small showing was made by Willie Nelson and Tony Rice, two of my all-time heroes.
Like most people, today I take iTunes pretty much for granted, rarely giving it a thought except to turn it on and, later, turn it off. But at the time, I had quite a few little revelations while loading it all up.
Of course like all things computerlicious, the PigPod was obsolete almost before it arrived at my door, and over the years our house has been home to numerous other iterations of the iPod, and now we’ve mostly moved past it in the sense that it is rare for either of us to actually listen to one. We have an old iPod Touch connected to our kitchen radio, but that’s background music at most. And the truth is the original PigPod has spent most of the last 5 years or so lying on top of the stereo system in the design studio where I work. And even there, it rarely saw any use.
Last week I brought it home and updated its contents so that my wife could use it in her workplace. Everything was fine when I synced it with iTunes, and we chuckled a bit at how we had kind of forgotten exactly how to use it. The next day when she tried to play it, the battery appeared to be dead. She plugged it in to charge, but it never came on again. She brought it home and I tried to resuscitate it, but it has simply spun its last spin.
My good friend Frank, often mentioned in this blog and on my website as Frankie Big Face, writes a really fun and interesting music blog called 9999 Songs. On occasion he invites various friends and colleagues to write a guest column. Over the holidays, I had the pleasure of stepping in to do the honors. Read my column below, and then head on over and enjoy the rest of his blog at 9999 Songs.
Wednesday, December 25, 2013
Today, I give myself the gift of the Guest Blogger. Monty Smith is one of my closest friends, an excellent guitarist and singer, and an astute observer of life. I’d rather spend an afternoon with Monty than do almost anything else. He brings his southern-born charm to this post about The Beatles, which I am sure you will enjoy as much as the song itself. Happy Christmas everyone!
Song #457 of 9999
Title: Don’t Let Me Down
Artist: The Beatles
Album: Let It Be
I suppose if you’re writing about popular music during the ’60s, choosing to write about a Beatles tune is rather obvious. On the other hand, they’re the Beatles, fergodsakes. Why wouldn’t I pick them? I’m hoping that my song choice, “Don’t Let Me Down,” is at least a bit off the beaten path.
I was born four months before the Beatles first appeared on the Ed Sullivan show. This means that, lucky for me, they were still together for most of my childhood, and still in very heavy rotation on radio until I was fully growed up and haired over. At first I was drawn to them by Paul’s gorgeous and profoundly accessible melodies, as is no doubt the case for many people. But by the time I was eight or ten I was already starting to realize that the confessional, heart- on-the-sleeve nature of John’s lyrics was where the real pay dirt was for me. Although I was too young to have any personal experience with the things he was writing about, it was clear to me even then that many of his songs were nakedly personal in a way I’d never heard from anyone else at that point in my life.
Forty years later, I’d still have a hard time thinking of a song that better embodies what I’m talking about than “Don’t Let Me Down.” I know there are more emotive songs in Lennon’s catalog — most obviously those from his post-Beatles primal scream period. And arguably some tracks from the Double Fantasy / Milk and Honey years were lyrically more personal. (Maybe even too much so.) But for me, at least, “Don’t Let Me Down” is a nearly perfect blend of melody and emotion in terms music, of fear and cautious optimism in terms of lyrics, and of plaintiveness and angst in terms of vocal performance.
There are some interesting nuts-and-bolts kinds of things to mention about the song, such as the fact that it is comprised of three song fragments Lennon was working on for the Get Back album, which eventually morphed into the Let It Be album. Apparently it was also inspired by (or at least lifts from) the chord progression from the 1968 Fleetwood Mac song “Albatross.” And there are some unusual counterpoint melody and metric things going on that Frank would undoubtedly point out and explain if he were writing this (because he is equipped to do so), and which I can hear but am not going to address further (because I am not equipped to do so).
So lastly, I will just point out that there are several versions of this song floating around. They recorded multiple versions during the Get Back sessions (one of which was released as the b- side of the “Get Back” single), and the version on the 2003 Let It Be…Naked album is actually spliced together from two different takes recorded during the famous rooftop concert on January 30, 1969. When I first decided to write this my intention was to determine which version is my favorite and recommend it specifically. But the truth is they’re all great. Just pick one and listen. It’ll be good for what ails ya.
We have been attending the Newport Folk Festival every year since it marked it’s 50th Anniversary in 2009. I think it’s safe to say that it is, quite simply, the best overall musical event we’ve ever experienced. Over the years we have enjoyed performances by some of our favorite musicians, discovered new music, and forged new friendships. If you are a fan of folk, folk-rock, country, blues, or practically any musical genre related to one of these, you need to get yourself to this festival. You won’t regret it.
But when we arrive in Newport, the first thing we go see every year is completely unrelated to the festival, to music in general, or to anything else in our normal lives. After checking in to our B&B, the very first item on our Newport agenda?
Looking into the progress on the restoration of the 1885 Schooner Yacht, Coronet.
We always stay at the Spring Street Inn, and from the very start the innkeeper, Pat — who is an absolute fount of information on local history, attractions, activities, and (most importantly, perhaps) restaurants — kept suggesting to us that we visit the International Yacht Restoration School just down at the end of the street. Apparently there are fewer and fewer people in today’s world with the skills and knowhow to build, maintain, and/or restore wooden boats and ships. So in 1993, the IYRS was founded with a mission to preserve and teach the history, heritage, craftsmanship, science, and aesthetics of boatbuilding and restoration.
I do not own, nor do I have any inclination to own, a boat. To my knowledge, only two of our family members and two of our friends have ever owned boats of any kind. Unless I actually happen to see one, boats never even cross my mind. And so, for two years, we completely dismissed that particular suggestion of Pat’s without a second thought. Our mistake.
On our third trip to Newport, in 2011, as we were strolling along Thames Street, we saw the IYRS sign and for some reason (or maybe no reason) we ambled in. There’s a little museum space there, interesting enough in a pleasantly-passing-some-time-but-not-overly-excited-about-it kind of way. An attendant told us to go upstairs and check out the library, especially the harbor view from the library window, before making our way to the next building (where the students work on their projects), and finally to the building where the Coronet restoration is taking place.
While the view from the library window was, indeed, quite something, we were more taken with the exhibit of old nautical instruments on display throughout the library itself. Of course we knew virtually nothing about what any of the instruments were or what they were used for, but they were beautiful to look at and made us happy we had decided to check this place out. From there, we wandered into the school…
…And we were bowled over. There’s a classroom and a wood shop, of course. But mostly it’s a big open building where students are in the various stages of building wooden boats of all shapes and sizes.
Visitors can stand along a catwalk and look down on the proceedings from overhead. It’s pretty interesting to see, and by this point during our first visit we were completely won over.
But this is not the end of the tour.
Continue out the back door, and you’ll find yourself in front another building, constructed right on the very edge of the water solely for the purpose of housing the restoration of the aforementioned Coronet. The scope of the project is evident immediately upon entering the door. This thing is huge.
It was huge when we first saw it in 2011.
And it’s only gotten bigger since then.
Again, visitors look down from a catwalk at the workers below.
At the very beginning, when the Coronet was brought in, it was completely disassembled. Piece by piece, board by board, everything was taken apart, cataloged, and numbered. Many of these items are sitting about on the catwalk or hanging on the walls, waiting to be put back into place (or to at least serve as templates for their newly-constructed counterparts) when the time comes.
Hopefully, these guys who are working on the restoration will fare better than the men who originally built her:
I don’t have the knowledge or vocabulary necessary to write intelligently about what they’re doing in this building. Again, in my regular life I am not a boat guy; all I know is that they’ve taken a really big, really old one apart, and now they’re fixing it up and putting it back together again. And it is utterly fascinating to watch.
In the curious way that these things often happen, all of a sudden and out of nowhere, over the last short while quite a number of different people have asked me about making beer. Just a couple weeks ago, even my mom –who I don’t believe would drink a beer if you paid her to do it– asked me how I make it. It’s like the universe, at least my little corner of it, is trying to tell me (or, in this case, ask me) something.
Of course there is obviously no shortage of readily available information about homebrewing. But on the other hand, I’ve been brewing my own beer for well over 15 years, and I do refer to the operation as “Brick Pig Brewing.” And this is the Brick Pig Blog, after all. So why not hang in here with me for a few paragraphs and let’s see how this goes, eh?
I do what’s referred to as extract brewing, and it’s really a two-part process: There’s brewing day, and then two or three weeks later there’s bottling day. As it happens, last weekend (May 4) I did both, brewing up a new batch of Bitters while simultaneously bottling up a batch of Grape Nuts Ale that I brewed several weeks ago (yes, Grape Nuts, the breakfast cereal). Since, as I said, several people had recently asked me about brewing, I took some pictures of both processes. Although I brewed and bottled at the same time, I’ll present both separately. This definitely will not constitute a complete guide to brewing, but it will give you an overview of how it’s done in the Brick Pig Brewing kitchens.
NOTE: If this does happen to inspire you to give homebrewing a try, you can buy all the equipment you need to make beer, plus a copy of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, which is considered to be the bible of the hobby, for under $100. Recipe ingredients run anywhere from around $25 per batch on up. If you don’t have a homebrew supply store near you, there are tons of online sources.
The first and most vitally important thing about brewing beer is sterilizing your equipment. Nothing is more likely to screw up your beer than a stray microbe. Fortunately there are a number of products on the market that make sanitizing a simple prospect. I use a powdered sanitizer that simply has to be mixed with warm water and sloshed on, around, over, and through every item that’s going to touch your beer. You don’t even have to rinse it. Once everything is sanitized, you’re ready to brew.
Most brewing recipes assume a 5-gallon batch of beer, which will eventually result in roughly two cases (48 bottles) of finished beer. Sometimes you’ll get 46 bottles, sometimes you might get 50. Regardless, you’re going to start with two gallons of water in a REALLY big stock pot, which, when you’re brewing, you call a “brew kettle.” While the water is cold, you put any flavoring (or “specialty”) grains into a muslin bag and plop it in. These grains will steep as the water comes to a boil.
When you reach the boiling point, you remove the specialty grains, turn off the heat, and stir in your extract. (Malt extract is basically the sugar from malted grains, in a concentrated syrup or powder form.) Now what you’ve got is called “wort.”
You want to bring the wort back up to just a low, rolling boil. Nothing too violent; just a touch more than a simmer, really. From this point you boil the wort, uncovered, for 60 minutes, during which time you’ll be making periodic additions of hops.
Hops, which is available in leaf or pellet form, will largely determine the flavor profile of your beer. There’s an enormous variety of hops available, each with its own flavor profile, and your recipe will tell you which kind(s) to use. Just as importantly, it will also tell you when to add them to the wort.
Generally speaking, you add the first hops as soon as the wort reaches the aforementioned gentle rolling boil. This first dose is known as “bittering hops,” because it mostly serves to cut the sweetness of the malt. (This is the point in the brew when your entire house will start to smell like a brewery, and your wife –if she’s like mine– will start complaining about it. That’s how you know that, so far, you’ve done everything right.) Later on, usually between the 30 and 45 minute mark, you’ll add more hops, which are called “flavoring hops.” Finally, in the last 2 to 5 minutes of the boil, the “aroma hops” go in.
At the 60-minute mark, you remove the brew kettle from the heat and chill the wort to (more or less) room temp. There are all kinds of devices on the market, called “wort chillers,” appropriately enough, that will bring your wort temp down lickety-split. But I just fill my sink up with ice water, cover the kettle, and sit it in the water for 30 minutes. This won’t bring it to room temp, but it gets it low enough for the next step, which is to pour the wort into the primary fermenter.
“Primary fermenter” is fancy terminology for “5-gallon food-grade plastic bucket.” (As is evident in the pictures, I almost always use a glass carboy instead of a bucket, but it’s really all the same.) You pour the wort into the bucket (or carboy), and add enough cold water to it to bring the total volume up to a full 5 gallons. Using my method of wort chilling, the ice water sit combined with this added cold water will bring the wort to room temp, as desired. You’re shooting for room temp because that’s where the temp needs to be in order for you to “pitch” your yeast. “Pitch” is not-so-fancy terminology for “pour in.”
Now you put in an airlock (I use an old-school blowoff tube), sit the primary in a place where the temp will remain stable and where there won’t be any direct light, and wait.
Clean up your kitchen, ‘cuz brewing day is over.
Sometime over the next 24-48 hours, the airlock (or in my case, the blowoff) will start to bubble, just a little at first, but then very actively over the next few days. This is the result of the yeast doing it’s work, converting the sugars in the wort into alcohol. The airlock allows the resultant gases to escape without allowing air to get into the fermenter. This process will continue for several days, maybe as much as a week or so. There are procedures you can do to measure the alcohol level and determine when the conversion process has finished, but I personally just let it sit there for a couple of weeks, until long after the bubbling has stopped. At this point, I normally transfer (or “rack”) to another carboy (“secondary fermenter”) and let it sit for a minimum of one more week. This is not a necessary step, but it gets the beer off the cake of sediment (“trub”) that collects at the bottom of the primary, and gives the beer more time to clear. Either way, what you’ve got when the bubbling is over is no longer wort. It’s beer.
It’s completely flat; no carbonation at all.
It’s really difficult, and socially questionable, to drink from a bucket.
The solution to both these problems:
Again, it is impossible to express how important sterilization is to the homebrewer, so out comes the powdered sanitizer once more. Just as on brewing day, everything that’s going to touch your beer has to be sanitized. Have I mentioned this is really important? If not, let me say: sanitizing is really important.
In addition to sanitizing the bucket, tubing, siphon, and other equipment, the bottles and caps also have to be sanitized. I usually boil the caps, and fortunately my dishwasher has a sanitizing setting I use for my bottles.
When that’s done, I dissolve about 3/4 cup of cane sugar (also called “priming” sugar) into a few ounces of water, bringing it just to a boil. This goes into my (sanitized) bottling bucket, which is another 5-gallon bucket exactly like the fermenter, except that it has a spigot on it. Anyway, the beer is then siphoned into this same bucket, mixing with the sugar water. After bottling, this sugar will activate the yeast one more time, just enough to carbonate the beer.
With the beer siphoned over to the bottling bucket, you’re ready to fill your bottles. (By the way, if you’ve thought ahead enough to sanitize a shot glass or something, you can snatch a little taste of your brew. What it tastes like now is pretty much exactly what it’s going to taste like later, except that it’s not carbonated yet.) A bottle filler is a rigid plastic tube with a spring-loaded attachment on the end. Apply pressure, and beer flows. Release the pressure, the flow stops. You can connect the bottle filler to a flexible tube and push it down into the bottles, but I generally connect the filler directly to the spigot and push the bottle up onto it. Same principle, but for some reason this method works better for me.
If you have a helper, this is a great point in the process for them to lend you a hand. (And there’s nothing smelly about bottling day, so your wife –if she’s like mine– might be willing to assist.) It really works well, and goes much faster, if one person fills the bottles while the other person caps them. My buddy Brian (of Two Jews Brew fame) did some of the capping duties on this particular day. I forgot to get a picture of the capping, but basically you place a cap on the bottle and use a little spring-loaded butterfly device to crimp it on.
Like I said, you’ll get more or less two cases of beer from a 5-gallon batch. This time my yield was 46 bottles. Anyway, once they’re all filled and capped, you put them back in your temp-stable, light-protected spot, and wait some more.
Clean up your kitchen again. Bottling day is over.
Sometime over the next week or two, your beer will become carbonated and ready for the fridge. The only way to know for sure when this happens is to open one up and try it. I usually try one after a week, but I find most often that they’re really ready on about day ten.
So there you have it, kids. In a nutshell, that’s how it’s done.
Starting off the New Year, as we have, I’ve been thinking. Here’s one of my conclusions: Things change.
Back in the ’90s, when I first got Internet access, people were afraid to use their real names online, much less disclose personal information of any kind. Thus my implementation of the name Brick Pig for all my online music-related endeavors. Ten or fifteen years earlier, my friend Jim Hodge and I made up the name one boring day at work; you know, one of those “this would be a good name for a band” conversations. So it seemed like the perfect username when I submitted my first entry to SongFight!, and the Brick Pig moniker has been with me ever since.
But we live in an altogether different world now, don’t we? With every Tom, Dick, and Harriet broadcasting every thought, dream and idea that comes into their head, cyberspace no longer seems like the mysterious place it used to be. Heck, anti-social as I tend to be, even I have learned to appreciate –if not exactly “like”– what Facebook has to offer.
And so, with this blog entry and the recent re-vamp of my websites, I’m TEARING DOWN THE WALL!! Ready? Here’s the big reveal:
That’s right, folks: The rumours were true! Monty Smith and Brick Pig are one and the same! And now this fact is reflected by an integrated website (only the welcome pages differ), and henceforth within the pages of this blog.
But wait! There’s more!
As my long-term readers (if I have such a thing) will know, I started this blog in ’08 with the intention of documenting the build of my first-ever custom guitar, and to chronicle my progress with my first-ever formal guitar lessons. Although I was never particularly strict in adhering to those two topics, the thrust of the blog shifted after I took delivery of said new guitar in June ’09, and even more so after I mastered the instrument —ahem— and stopped taking lessons that following December.
Effectively this space has become an amorphous, rambling account of whatever thoughts I’ve had about whatever music-related subjects are on my mind at any given time — concerts I’ve seen, festivals I’ve attended, and of course my own activities with friends, with 3TK4, and with Tori Erstwhile & The Montys. But amorphous and rambling is cool, and I’m fine with it. So fine with it, in fact, that with this post I am officially sanctioning the change.
If any of my (probably imaginary) long-term readers happen to also be sharp observers, they will note that I’ve shortened the blog title and that the subheading has been changed from “My Ongoing Quest for Deeper Musical Knowledge and a Really Great Axe” to “Messages from Monty.” This change reflects the aforementioned unification of my online personalities, while simultaneously welcoming the current-but-not-originally-intended nature of the blog.
I hope the new year brings other changes, as well. I hope to resume my guitar lessons. (That earlier bit about how I had mastered the instrument was a lie!) I hope to write and/or record some new songs. I hope to continue to discover new music, see more concerts, and go to more festivals, and perform more. And I hope to write about it more often here. Stay tuned….
This has been a rough year for anyone who shares my musical tastes. In March, we lost Earle Scruggs. Levon Helm left us in April. And then in May, Doc Watson. We lost others, too (Doug Dillard among them), but it would be pretty hard to think of three musicians who’ve had more of an impact on me than Earl, Levon, and Doc, and suddenly, within a three-month span, they were all gone. I didn’t know any of them personally, and I know that many tributes have been made to each of them by people who did. Still, in a musical sense I’ve spent my life with all of them, and in that way they seem like friends. Family, even. And so it is that I feel the need to mark their passing with a few words of remembrance.
There are a lot of singers that I love — Ray Charles, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Ella Fitzgerald, Neko Case, the list goes on — but I don’t think anyone’s voice has ever resonated into my bones in quite the same way that Levon Helm’s does. Just the right blend of sadness, sweat, and gravel, perfect and imperfect in every aspect. I’ve never heard anyone like him before, and I don’t expect to again. Unfortunately, the only time I ever saw him live was at the Newport Folk Festival in 2010, when his voice had already left him. Even so, his musicianship, stage presence, and warmth was still abundantly evident, and he was still able to raise the hair on the back of my neck. Levon Helm clearly loved his work, and so did we.
It would be hard to think of a musical genre that I don’t enjoy on some level, but it probably comes as no surprise for me to say that bluegrass is at the very top of my list. All my life, as my musical interests developed, changed, expanded and refined, bluegrass was the one constant sound that threaded its way throughout. And for me, the man who defined that sound was Earle Scruggs. I’m not a purist — I don’t think there’s any one set of rules that determines what is and isn’t bluegrass music; what is or isn’t a bluegrass band. To be sure, one of my three favorite bluegrass albums of all time doesn’t have a banjo on a single cut. Still, the hard-driving roll of a 5-string banjo is my immediate association with the word bluegrass, and Earle was the architect for it. It’s unlikely that you could name any artist who did more to shape the sound of his musical genre than Earle Scruggs did for bluegrass. As Steve Martin wrote in his March 28, 2012 tribute to Earle in The New Yorker magazine, “Before him, no one had ever played the banjo like he did. After him, everyone played the banjo like he did, or at least tried.”
If Earle Scruggs was responsible for defining the sound of my favorite music, it was Doc Watson who actually brought me to it in the first place. There was always music playing in our house when I was growing up, and most often we were listening to my father’s country and bluegrass records, so there was never a time when I didn’t know what bluegrass was. But like most of my friends, I was more interested in the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and other pop and rock music.
But one Saturday morning, I would guess this was in 1973 or ’74, my cousin Lee came by our house and brought a record for Dad to hear. They were sitting in the basement in front of our old console stereo. I went downstairs for some reason, probably to fetch something from the freezer for my mother, and the music struck me in a way that it never had before. The album was Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the landmark 1972 recording by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band featuring a host of legendary bluegrass and country artists, and the song was Doc Watson’s version of “Way Downtown.” I’m quite sure this was not the first time I had ever heard Doc’s music, and as I say, it was most certainly not the first time I had ever heard bluegrass. But it is the first time that I realized what the music had to offer; what it really meant. Four or five years later I was playing bluegrass myself, and I’ve never stopped.
Lot’s of fans have a “Doc story,” and I’m one of them. I’ve told it often, and wrote about it briefly on Facebook when we learned of Doc’s passing, but it seems only appropriate to remember it here:
Sometime around 1980, Doc came to play at a bar in my hometown of Statesville, NC. At that time he was still playing with his son Merle, and their bassist, T. Michael Coleman. My bandmates and I were not yet old enough to drink, but we were able to go to the show with our parents. You can’t imagine how excited we were.
I had a new Alvarez guitar that I paid $350 for, including a hardshell case. Just a few months before Doc’s show, I had taken the guitar with me to a Willie Nelson concert in Charlotte, where I had gotten Willie to autograph the top. I started thinking that I should try to get Doc to sign it, too, so I took it with me to the show.
We arrived early and took a table, and my father went up and spoke to one of the bartenders for a couple minutes. The bartender stepped into the back for a few seconds and then came back and motioned for my dad and I to follow him. He led us to a doorway in a narrow hall behind the bar, pecked on the door, and Merle opened it. He invited us in, shook our hands, and then he and the bartender left
Doc was seated in a wooden chair by a small table, and greeted us as if we were long lost friends or family. We introduced ourselves and exchanged a few pleasantries. He asked about Statesville, our family, asked me about school, and showed genuine interest in hearing about our band. At some point Merle came back in and joined the conversation as well. I’m sure we weren’t in there long, but it seemed like we had quite a visit. Finally I told them that I had brought my guitar for Doc to autograph.
Doc explained that “Merle does all our signin’. He signs all our contracts and autographs and everything.” So I took out the guitar and handed it over to Merle, along with a 16-penny nail I had wrapped with masking tape to about the size of a pencil, and he scratched in their names.
As Merle finished, Doc asked me if he could try the guitar out for a minute, and of course I handed it over. He ran his hands all around it, asked me a little about it, and then picked out a few bars of Windy and Warm, one of my favorites — although of course he had no way to know that. Then he played through a bit of Doc’s Guitar. Handing it back to me, he said, “That there is a fine fingerpickin’ guitar!”
I thanked them both and we all said our goodbyes, and of course in my memory the show that followed is one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. In hindsight, obviously, I know that old Alvarez is not much of an instrument, but for a good long while I felt like it was about the greatest guitar on earth.
Doc’s music and career speaks for itself. Far better writers than me have far more incisive things to say about it than anything I might come up with. But I think this story –and hundreds more from other fans like myself– tells all there is to say about the man himself. He was a treasure, and made us all richer.