Peace And War, Then Snow

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.

3TK4's "No Motive" Album, 1982

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.

77 White Street, former site of The Mudd Club

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….

Something Different

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.”

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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.

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Doing our thing at Funny Ladies 2. (I don't know what the heck I'm looking at.)

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.

A 2010 Update

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…

A Peek Into The Past

I started playing guitar sometime in 1978, when I was in the eighth grade. Almost immediately I was getting together with friends to form bands. Of course my first thought was to become a rock star, but pretty soon it became clear that we could get a lot more gigging opportunities (and have a lot less gear to lug around) if we played bluegrass. By the time I was a high school sophomore I’d been through various incarnations of two or three bands, and everything finally shook out into a band called The Southland Ramblers. The personnel included me, my father, another father and his two sons, and a couple of friends. By late 1980 we were gigging regularly, had a bit of a following, and were starting to make a (very) little money. We decided we should make a record.

We picked out an assortment of some of our popular tunes, practiced them for a few months, and headed down to Arthur Smith’s recording studio in Charlotte, where the whole thing was recorded and mixed in one eight-hour day. “Here Come the Southland Ramblers” came out in 1981. We got 1000 copies of the LP and 500 8-track tapes, and it was just about the coolest thing any of us could imagine. Even better, people bought ’em!

Might as well make another one, then, right? In 1982 we recorded “We’re At It Again” at Bias Recording Studio in Springfield, Virginia. If anything, we were even more excited about this second record because it included a few of our original songs. Again, everywhere we played, people bought ’em up. Sweet.

We never found out what the connection was, but at some point after the second record came out, we got a call from Granite City Studios in Mt. Airy, North Carolina, asking if we’d like to record there. They offered us a really good deal (free recording and mixing, if we agreed to buy the records directly from them), and so came about our third record, “The Autograph Album.” Almost everyone who’d bought our first two records had asked us to autograph them, much to our surprise, so with this record instead of a front cover we included a 8×10 black-and-white glossy inside the shrink wrap. Hence the album name.

Well, as the younger among us headed off to school and/or out into the working world, the Ramblers inevitably dissolved — though the records, for a time, continued to sell. It’s a nice footnote, as well, to mention that later on my dad bought my mom a dobro, she learned to play, and they formed a band and continued to use the Southland Ramblers moniker for several more years.

All of this is preamble to the point of this post: Just before Christmas, an old friend of mine from high school, a very fine drummer named Bob Dunlap, transferred all three of our old records to CD for my mom. Thanks to Bob’s efforts, I’ve consequently been able to convert the songs to mp3 and post them on my website.

It’s been odd for me to hear them after all this time (I have copies of them, of course, but I haven’t owned a turntable in decades), and I can’t possibly offer even a remotely objective opinion about them, but for better or worse they are now available for anyone hear.

You can download them (for free) from my other website by clicking here. I’d love to get any feedback you might have about them. And, if you haven’t done so before, please feel free to click around and explore the rest of the website while you’re there. Let me know what you think….

The Latest is Not The Greatest

Since beginning this blog I’ve tried pretty hard to keep it focused cleanly on the subject at hand, which is to say my guitars, my guitar lessons, and my opinions and experiences related to both. I’m not completely convinced the world requires a public record of any of these things, but I am positive that what the world DOESN’T need is a public record of the more personal aspects of my life. I have made a conscious effort to only mention friends, family, my workplace, etc., insofar as they have some connection to or impact on the aforementioned guitar-related experiences.

And so it is that I write now about outside forces that have affected my musical pursuits over the last couple of months; not to complain (God knows I’m doing enough of that off-line these days), but rather to keep this record complete.

Since my last entry in October, a number of changes have taken place at work, chiefly the unexpected departure of my boss and the relocation of our NYC offices. Along with the continued crappy state of the general economy, the consequences of these two occurrences have been staggering. In addition to all the usual trials and frustrations of moving, our office relocation was also an office resizing — from a crowded-but-adequately-sized space to something roughly half the size. Over a month later now, we still haven’t figured out quite where to put everything. Worse, the absence of my boss has left an oversized hole in upper management which has resulted in an oversized dose of micromanagement coming from the top. My level of exhaustion and frustration is staggering and at least vaguely depressing.

All this may seem completely off the mark as related to the topics of this blog, but the connection is that all this has thrown me and my home life into such upheaval that I have almost completely stopped all my musical activity. First, my daily schedule became so irregular and unpredictable that I was forced to suspend my lessons. Since then the stress and overwork have increased exponentially, to the point where I’ve also suspended my practice time. I haven’t lost my interest and enthusiasm, but I’ve found that the only way for me to recharge my batteries is through passive activity: I can listen to music, watch TV, read…. I just can’t expend the energy to pay attention, make the decisions, and concentrate on the myriad of details necessary for mindful, constructive practice. Of course this, too, adds to my general frustration.

It’s very hard for me to see where this is all leading. My gut tells me the situation at work is unlikely to improve. It remains to be seen if I can find a way to personally deal with the situation more effectively, or if I’ll have to make changes of a more drastic nature. Certainly I can’t continue indefinitely down this same path.

Pickin’ & Grinnin’

Since settling in Jersey, I’ve been keeping an eye and an ear out to find bluegrass or folk musicians who might like to get together and play. I know they’re out there. They aren’t standing around on every street corner and coming out of the woodwork like they are in North Carolina, but they’re around. Every time we go to a show featuring any of our favorites — Sam Bush, Del McCoury, Dan Tyminski, Tim O’Brien, etc., the venues are packed and the audiences are enthusiastic. And where there are fans, some of those fans are also musicians. So they’re definitely here somewhere; it’s just a question of finding them.

My problem in finding other musicians is twofold, comprised of equal parts passivity and laziness. First, I rely too heavily on a personal theory that like-minded individuals will inevitably be drawn together without making any particular effort. But then, I’m so content to sit around the house doing nothing that in order for my aforementioned theory to actually work, those like-minded individuals would pretty much have to be miraculously drawn into my living room in order for me to find them. Not completely outside the realm of possibility, but somewhat unlikely.

This being the situation, I’ve been in Jersey six years now without meeting any of these fellow folk and bluegrass players. Upon this gradual realization, it occurred to me to post a message on our town’s online forum to see if anyone would respond. In less than 24 hours I found someone within a 15 minute drive from my house.

Unfortunately, we made contact just as everything in my life seemed to be going haywire all at once. My wife got sick, work went nuts, and my car broke down. So it was that even after we found each other, it took several weeks for us to get together and swap a few tunes.

But finally in September we both found a free Saturday and my new-found picking buddy Mike and I got together. He came to the house around 2, and we played through everything that came to mind until after 5:30.

For me, the coolest thing is that Mike played banjo, not guitar. Don’t get me wrong; two (or more) guitar players can make some great music and have a heckuva great time playing together. It happens often. Throw in a banjo, though, or a mandolin or pretty much anything other than a guitar, and you’ve automatically given the music another whole dimension. Also, I happen to just really dig the banjo in the first place, and I can’t remember the last time I sat down with a banjo player. It’s been at least a decade, maybe more. I had a blast. Mike also plays steel guitar, so there’s more fun to come on future Saturday afternoons.

This also was my first opportunity to play my new guitar with another musician, and I was really pleased with it. Strumming rhythm, the tone meshed well with Mike’s picking, and the volume very easily held it’s own. I stumbled through a few leads and a couple fiddle tunes, and it was plenty easy to keep my single-note lines loud enough, as well.

It’s been quite a long while since I played with another musician and I was rusty, to say the very least. But there was no way to diminish the quality of the instrument I was playing or the amount of fun I was having. From every aspect it was a great afternoon, and as Mike was leaving we made a preliminary plan to go together to the next jam session of the Bluegrass & Oldtime Music Association of New Jersey on the third Sunday in October.

More on that when the time comes.

What I Did This Summer

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….

Hot Fun in the Summer Time

At the beginning of August my wife Suzy and I attended the Newport Folk Festival for our first time, joining in the celebration of it’s 50th Anniversary. I suppose it’s only tangentially related to the topics of this blog, but it was such an enjoyable musical experience that it made me want to jot a few lines just to mark the occasion.

The festival is held in the Fort Adams State Park, where essentially the entire venue is surrounded by water. Boats are sailing by both far and near, many pulling up just off the shore to drift and listen to the music from the main stage. It was a blazing hot weekend, but the venue was so gorgeous and the festival was so good there could be no cause for complaint.

In purely logistical terms, it was easily the most manageable outdoor festival we’ve ever attended. The crowd was large, but not overwhelming. The three stages were far enough away from each other that there was no discernable noise interference between them. Yet they were close enough together to make for very quick and easy maneuvering back and forth to catch the all the acts you might want to see. And three stages was just the right number; enough to offer a variety of performers at all times, but not so much that you got the nagging feeling (a la Merlefest in NC) that you were always missing something important somewhere else.

Most importantly, of course, the 50th Anniversary lineup of performers was excellent: Legends and festival icons like Pete Seeger, Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Arlo Guthrie, and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. Musicians of all kinds from across the decades: Iron & Wine, Mavis Staples, Del McCoury, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Neko Case, Guy Clark…. Practically every name on the list was an act we wanted to see, and none disappointed.

NOTE: All performances from this year’s festival are available for listening and/or downloading on NPR’s website. I would especially recommend the sets by Gillian Welch, Iron & Wine, Billy Bragg (beware curse words and political veiws), Guy Clark, and David Rawlings Machine (whose cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ was a standout of the whole festival for me).

This was also our first time to visit the town of Newport (and the state of Rhode Island, for that matter), and we loved it. Our B&B, the Spring Street Inn, was pleasant and very comfy, and was conveniently situated just down the block from an excellent coffee shop called Spring Street Espresso. A very short walk toward the harbor was the main drag of interesting restaurants and shops on Thames Street. Basically everything we could want, all within an easy few minutes’ walk in any given direction.

Simply put, we enjoyed everything about the trip. So much so, in fact, that we’ve already booked the same room for next year.

A Closer Look

As I write this, it’s almost exactly three weeks since I received my first custom hand-built guitar, Ken Miller #139. Having followed its development closely throughout the build, even to the extent of traveling to Florida to visit Ken’s shop, I had every reason to believe that I would be extremely pleased with the results. But however high my expectations, I was completely unprepared for what a wonderful instrument it turned out to be. Having had some time now to get to know her a bit, I’m taking time to write down some of my impressions. I’m also adding a few more photos.

First, this guitar is simply gorgeous to look at. Although it doesn’t show especially well in these pictures, the Adirondack spruce top has a tight grain interspersed with subtle bear claw figuring, with more prominent figuring across the lower bout.

click any photo for a larger image
click any photo for a larger image

Equally subtle are the blue-green hues of the abalone rosette.

These somewhat understated features are contrasted against the powerful visual statement made by the back and sides. Fashioned from the highly figured quilted Honduran mahogany of “The Tree,” they can be almost dizzying to look at.

The bindings throughout, as well as the armrest bevel and the headstock veneer, are of Brazilian rosewood. Wooden purflings are teal and black. This photo also shows some of the bear claw figuring in the spruce top.

The fingerboard is ebony bound by Brazilian, with stainless steel frets. At the twelfth fret, more abalone inlay: the Tibetan word for “karma.”

Karma

But of course the true measure of any instrument is how well it performs, and here is where #139 really shines. The fingerboard is extremely easy and the set-up is great. This combined with it’s light weight make it a very comfortable guitar to play, made even moreso by the armrest bevel.

Most impressive of all, though (saving the best for last), is the sound. I’ve played many, many guitars over the years, and recently tried out many more before I began working with Ken. It is not an overstatement to say that none of them matched #139 for tone. All my life I’ve heard guitarists say a given guitar “rings like a bell,” and now I know what they mean. The trebles here are clean and bright, and the mids full and rich. The bass has a woody, robust complexity without any sacrifice in tonal clarity. Across the entire fretboard the guitar responds to the lightest touch with wonderful tone and tremendous volume and sustain.

If it is not already obvious, I will state it plainly: I don’t believe I could be any more pleased with or excited about a guitar than I am with #139.

Here At Last!

This morning at 11:30 I brought her out of the box, and I’ve hardly taken my hands off of her since. Ken Miller #139 has finally arrived! I did take a few minutes for some pictures:

 

Click Any Image for Larger Photo
Click Any Image for Larger Photo

The Back

And it sounds every bit as good as it looks! I’ll write more at some point when I can bear to stop playing it for awhile.