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.
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.
The Brooklyn Museum is currently running a show that includes a piece by David Wojnarowicz, who, as I mentioned in my previous post, was a founding member of the Teens. Through some series of events outside my purview, the museum contacted the band and invited them to play at their First Saturday event on January 7. And so, first week of the New Year, back to Funkadelic we went.
Quite a few changes were in store as Jesse Hultberg, one of the band’s lead singers, who now makes his home in France, would not be available this time around. There was a lot of work to be done. Some songs were scrapped from the set, others added, instruments and vocal parts were swapped, and new arrangements were ironed out. Guest performers were added to the lineup, including Joe Keady on tuba and Lovestruck‘s Anne Rassmussen on guitar and vocals.
The biggest change for The In Peace and War Choir was on the song Fisherman. During the Howl shows, lead vocals had been performed by friend of the band Antony Hegarty, of Antony and the Johnsons. For the Museum show, all the vocals were enitrely turned over to us. Over the course of the week we tried several different ideas and eventually settled on an arrangement that had the lead shared more-or-less equally among the three of us as the harmonies shifted back and forth from unison to two-part and three-part lines. It came together nicely in the end.
When we arrived at the Museum on the night of the show Melissa Ferrick, the first performer of the evening, was in full swing. This gave us an opportunity to get some idea of the acoustics of the room; the shows take place in a glass pavilion at the museum entrance, and we were none to sure of what kind of sound quality to expect. Surprisingly not bad from the audience perspective.
From the stage, though, it was a different story altogether. Our set started at 9, and from the very first note it was clear that we were going to hear nothing more than a thunderous roar on the stage. Despite a good soundcheck during which we could hear fairly well, once the room filled up and we launched into the show the sound just bounced around and became a mush for us. Wives and friends in attendance assure us that the sound out in the room was good, though, and of course that’s the main concern.
For the moment, I think this is the end of the line for the Teens and the In Peace and War Choir. Hopefully something new will crop up in the future and we can do it all again. It’s been a fun ride.
I’ve known my friend Doug for close to 20 years, I’d guess. We met through our wives, who are very close friends, and Doug and I have a number of common interests. We both have broad musical tastes, and there’s enough overlap that we talk music a lot. We even started a recording project together at one time, although it never really went anywhere.
Back in the early ’80s, before I met him, Doug was a member of a band called 3 Teens Kill 4. They gained considerable recognition and became somewhat influential in the New York indie scene of the day, partly because one of their founding members was the artist and writer David Wojnarowicz and partly because they were just a really good band. They made some recordings, did some touring, and generally made a name for themselves.
Yet somehow during all the years Doug and I have known each other, I managed not to hear any of the Teens’ music.
Last year they got together for their first-ever reunion show, along with a number of other bands, as part of a tribute night for The Mudd Club and other venues of that early ’80s “post-punk” era. My wife and I were very excited about it, but in the end the Teens’ time slot was pushed further and further back until they wound up going on at 2am or so. On a work night. There was a time in my life –I can almost remember it– when that wouldn’t have seemed like a problem to me. Alas, that time is long gone, and I didn’t make the show.
The success of that reunion, though, sparked the opportunity for the Teens to do a series of three performances during this year’s Howl Festival in the East Village at the end of October. Of course my wife and I saw this as our opportunity to take some of the sting out of having missed the Mudd Club show. Little did I know.
Just a few days after Doug told me about the gig, he sent me a text message saying they were searching for backup singers and asking if I’d help them out. And so it was that I began to rekindle my rock-n-roll career at the tender young age of 48!
For the next week, I spent my commute into the city listening on my iPod to the songs we were to learn. Then the following week I listened each morning on my way in and, after work, spent each evening rehearsing with the band and two other backing vocalists at Funkadelic, a rehearsal studio mercifully located just a block away from my office. It was a whirlwind week of meeting the band, learning our parts, and putting it all together. It was kind of exhausting, but tremendously fun. They were calling the show In Peace and War, 3 Teens Kill 4, and eventually my fellow backing vocalists and I were christened The In Peace and War Choir.
Our first performance was on a Thursday evening. Setup took a bit longer than planned, and as a result our first full run-through of the show was the performance itself. Everything went well and it was a good show, which was quite an accomplishment given what a production it was: In addition to the music itself, the show also incorporated films, several dancers, a slide projector, sound samples, an overhead projector, a PowerPoint presentation, and audience participation. There were a lot of things that could go wrong, but none of them did.
Friday night’s show was even better. The sound man and stage director made a couple minor tweaks, and of course we all had a complete performance under our belts. Everything ran a little smoother, and we were better able to find our groove.
Then on Saturday morning it snowed. Remember, this was in October. The leaves were still on the trees. And therein lay the problem.
When it first started to fall, I didn’t think much about it. This is northern New Jersey, after all. Snow is just a given, and generally poses no more than a minor inconvenience. And this time it wasn’t even deep.
Late in the morning I ordered takeout for lunch, the idea being that I’d have a good meal with my wife and then later in the city I could just grab a quick bite for dinner before the show. Turns out that the weight of even that smallish amount of snow on the leaves of all those trees adds up to some very serious damage. We drove for over an hour to pick up our food from a restaurant that is less than a mile from our house. Streets were blocked by fallen trees, live electrical wires were down all over town, stoplights weren’t working and traffic could barely move. As we ate our now-cold lunch after finally getting home, we stared out our dining room window as a tree fell across our car in the driveway. Shortly after that we heard on the radio that all NJ Transit trains had suspended operation until further notice. I was dead in the water.
Fortunately for our audience, all the other people in the show live in the city and had no trouble at all getting to the theater. I’m told that evening’s final performance was successful as well, and I’m sure it’s true. I’m just so terribly sorry to have missed it. I can’t be completely sure, but I believe this was the first time I’ve ever missed a gig in over 30 years of performing. And it had been so much fun….
At the end of my last entry I mentioned briefly that, musically, 2011 had gotten off to a good start. Here’s a little more detail on that:
One morning early in March, just as I had arrived at work and was waiting for my computer to start up, my cellphone rang. The caller, oddly enough, was a woman named Tori, who my wife and I had met only a few times through mutual friends.
Turns out that Tori is a writer, and that she had been invited to participate in an event called Funny Ladies 2, the second annual fundraiser for a local theater company. The reason she was calling me was that she had written songs for the event, rather than an essay or skit, and she needed an accompanist. She’d first contacted my friend Brian, who in turn suggested that I might be better suited to play the style(s) of music her songs were going to require.
Now, people who know me are well aware that I am not a fan of comedy. I’m blessed with many funny friends and family members, and there’s a lot of laughter in my life. But scripted jokes just don’t do it for me. I don’t watch sitcoms. I don’t go see comedy films. Don’t watch standup. Fast forward right through Letterman’s monologs. So naturally, I said “Sure, I’ll do it.”
Over the course of that month we got together once or twice a week to learn three of her songs and to put together a bit of an act. Of course, it wasn’t at all clear to me whether any of it was actually going to make people laugh, and I think that may have been a bit frustrating for Tori. She kept asking me “This is funny, right?” or “Do you think this is funny?,” to which I could only respond, “Uhh…you’re going to have to ask someone else if it’s funny or not.”
She needn’t have worried. When the evening finally arrived, the room was packed with an enthusiastic crowd. We were scheduled last, a musical nightcap following an evening of readings, stories, jokes, and skits. Even for me, as out-of-my-element as it may have been, it was an enjoyable night, and when our turn came to take the stage the audience was primed.
We played three songs, interspersed with a little stage banter, and basically brought the house down. People loved us, and we started getting job offers before we even left the building. Which was marginally unnerving, since the three songs we had just performed were, in fact, the only three songs in our repertoire.
Just a day or two later, one if the show’s organizers asked us to consider putting together a full show, to be performed at some time and place to be specified later, and we’ve been working –however slowly– toward that goal ever since. We’re rehearsing every other week and methodically building our song catalog. Along the way, we have performed at another benefit show and done a couple of open mic nights at a local restaurant. So far it’s been great fun, and has given me a way to stay involved in my music despite all the complications with my work situation, which I’ve chronicled previously
Of course it’s also been an opportunity for me to use my “new” guitar in a real-world situation and see how she performs. Again, I can’t say enough good things about it. It feels great and plays easily. I’m getting great tone and volume, plugged and unplugged, and it gives me exactly what I need in any environment: subtlety in rooms where the audience is relatively quiet and attentive (the benefit shows), and plenty of cutting power in noisier rooms (open mic night). Everything I wanted and hoped for.
Well, I’ve neglected this blog for an awfully long time. And I realize now that, previous to announcing the downloads of my old band’s records, my last real entry was pretty bleak. So here I am, back to bring things up to date and, perhaps, paint a little brighter picture of things.
When I made that last report, my work situation had deteriorated so much that I couldn’t continue my lessons and had basically given up practicing. Things were bad. Unfortunately, about a month later it got a whole lot worse: My entire department was laid off, save for myself and one other member of my staff. Needless to say this was not a step in the right direction, and the fact is that to this day I have still not been able to find a way to make time for regular, structured, productive practice, let alone resume my lessons.
But on a brighter note, 2010 actually turned out to be a great year to hear other people’s music. When things got so bad, my wife and I quickly realized that for sanity’s sake we needed to make a very concerted effort to get out and enjoy ourselves, and as a result we saw lots of great live music. Tonic for the soul.
In January we saw Swell Season at Radio City. On Valentine’s Day we went to Brooklyn to see Stephane Wrembel at Barbes, the first of three times we would see him in 2010. In March, we went with friends to see Beppe Gambetta in Morristown, where John Carlini, my teacher, was among a number of musicians who made a special appearance. We saw Wilco at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair; Joseph Arthur, solo and unplugged at the Rubin Museum; The Avett Brothers at Radio City; and Leo Kottke at NJPAC in Newark.
In April, we traveled to NC for Merlefest, where we saw lots of old favorites like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Wayne Henderson, The Nashville Bluegrass Band, Tony Rice, and (again) the Avett Brothers. We also saw Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers, as well as Elvis Costello. And as is always the case at Merlefest, we discovered some new folks like Bearfoot and Harry Manx (who also opened for Leo Kottke later in the year, at the aforementioned NJPAC show).
Early in the year, when things were in the process of turning from bad to worse, we had decided not to return to the Newport Folk Festival despite having enjoyed it so much in 2009. Then we had such a good time at Merlefest that we realized skipping Newport would be a big mistake. As soon as we got back to Jersey we reserved a room and ordered our tickets. Good move: Some of the highlights at Newport 2010 were John Prine, Calexico, Yim Yames, Sam Bush (again), Low Anthem, Levon Helm Band, Swell Season (again, just weeks before the announcement that they were splitting up), Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and yet again, The Avett Brothers.
In addition to seeing all this live music, I was also fortunate enough to get together once or twice with a couple of different local musicians. One of the first people I met when I moved to Maplewood was my friend Jim, who happens to be quite a good jazz improv picker. We’d been threatening for years to get together to swap a few tunes, and in May we managed to do it. In addition, my friend Mike and I were able to go down to the monthly jam session in Little Silver another time or two during the year.
So all in all, even though I wasn’t able to fully get back into the swing of things, 2010 was nevertheless a good year for music. And as it happens, 2011 is starting to take off pretty well, too. But that’s another story. Or two…
Summer activities have severely eaten into my practice schedule and, to a greater extent, my blogging time. But lessons and practice do go on.
Over the last weeks and months I have been working with John on some fingerstyle bossa nova rhythm. Mostly, but not exclusively, the changes to “The Girl From Ipanema.” Although I’m a big fan of the song, and of bossa nova music in general, the real intent here is to build up my dexterity with unfamiliar changes and to increase my chord vocabulary. After all these years of playing essentially the same…what, maybe 40 or so?…chords over and over, I am completely astounded to rediscover what a difficult thing it is to learn new chords, chord shapes, and progressions.
Along with that, I’ve been working on reading the (Ipanema) melody line as written in my song book. I emphasize “as written” because the timing presented in the lead sheet is a bit more unconventional than anything I’ve been reading thus far, and it also doesn’t necessarily match any of the vocal renditions I’m familiar with. Of course I don’t want to be a slave to the written page, but as with the chord changes, I’m considering this to be less about learning the song per sé, and more as an exercise in learning to read and count.
As we’re covering this, John is explaining a lot about the theory behind the music; how certain structures and specific voicings work together, what other options there might be for different transitions, how those options affect the mood or the feel or even the melody itself. In all honesty, the biggest part of all this information is still quite a bit over my head, and I only comprehend the smallest, most basic concepts. But every time these discussions take place, a little more of it falls into place in my head.
Most recently we’ve returned to Bill Leavitt’s Modern Method books. Book Two, page 60 to be exact: “Position Playing.” John tells me this is “where the training wheels come off.” So far I’m only working on the first two pages, but the challenges are already obvious to me. Baby steps….
Out of it all, though, some things shine through in perfect clarity:
-Building my chord vocabulary and practicing chord solos John has written for me has very definitely helped me to feel more confident about playing up and down the neck. My knowledge of the fingerboard is still seriously lacking, but it’s clear to me that I’m continuing to make progress and that the territory above the fifth fret is not the no-man’s-land I’ve always thought it was.
-My reading skills have greatly improved. When I started lessons, I knew next to nothing about relating standard notation to the fretboard. Now I’ve reached a point where recently, as I was reading through some tablature, I noticed that I had switched to reading the notation without realizing it. To be sure, I’ve got a long way to go as a reader. But again, obvious progress has been made.
-Working with the scales, exercises, etudes, etc., on a regular basis, with established goals and focused intent, has opened a new awareness for me in regards to my attention to fundamentals. Concentrating on this work has made me realize how lackadaisical I’ve been in the past with my accuracy, and how little attention I’ve paid to tone.
-Making the time for daily practice continues to be my biggest challenge in this whole endeavor. Too often I’m not able to strike the balance and fit everything in. But I just keep doing what I can….