My Decade in Review

I think I start roughly every other post on this much-neglected blog by saying I’m going to try to write more. But this time I mean it. I meant it all the other times, too. But this time I really mean it. My plan is to use this space as a kind of open journal. I don’t know exactly what I have to write about, but I’ve made it about as easy as possible by converting to a WordPress format, so I guess time will tell.

So anyway. Since the beginning of this new year also happens to be the beginning of a whole new decade, I thought I’d start off with a roundup of notable stuff in my life from the last ten years. A few of these things have been mentioned or written about in previous posts, but a roundup is a roundup. So here goes.

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DEVILS: One of the biggest things Suz and I did in the ’10s was become season ticket holders for the New Jersey Devils. I thought I had pretty much struck gold when Suzy got interested in hockey in 2006. At that time I never would have guessed in a million years we’d (she’d) become avid fans. Ya just never know what life’s gonna bring.

It all started because we bought a partial package (I think it was 12 games) for the 2010-2011 season. We kinda thought we were shittin’ in high cotton even then. But when it came time to renew I asked the agent, just for giggles, how much it would cost for a full season. Of course it was quite a bit more expensive overall, but the per-game price was less than half what we paid for the partials. We thought we might as well give it a try, and ultimately we stuck with it for seven years. Over that time we built friendships with our fellow seatmates (and everyone at Hobby’s Deli), met players, had our photo made in the goal, watched warmups from the penalty box, toured the arena, sat on the bench…. By far the two most exciting times were going all the way to game 6 of the finals in 2011-12 ( Suzy even bought herself a playoff beard), and going to the Devils/Rangers game at Yankee Stadium in January 2014. But narrowing it down to only a few experiences doesn’t do it justice. The whole time was a blast.

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TRAVEL: To celebrate my Mom’s and Suzy’s Dad’s 70th birthdays in 2011, we made a big family trip. Suz and I flew to NC, and the following day 10 of us headed out in a convoy to Nashville. We explored and toured the town for 3 days, and then moved the party over to Memphis for 3 more. We saw and did way too many things to recount here, but some of the Nashville highlights included the Country Music Hall of Fame, dinner at the Loveless Cafe, Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, a Ryman Auditorium tour (basically a religious experience), and of course, the Grand Ol’ Opry.

On Friday afternoon while we were taking a rest before dinner, I read that Sam Bush was going to be a special guest on the bill later that night at the legendary bluegrass venue, The Station Inn. Suzy and I immediately decided we had to be there, and my sister and her husband joined us. An outstanding show, which also introduced us to singer David Peterson and fiddle phenom Michael Cleveland.

Sam Bush at The Station Inn 4/22/2011

Memphis highlights included Graceland (duh), touring Sun Studio (my second religious experience of the trip), and just walking around Beale Street where we spent two consecutive nights listening to Dr. Feelgood Potts.

In 2012 we spent my birthday week in Barcelona. We deliberately kept a leisurely pace, but we still crammed in a lot of sightseeing because we stayed right on La Rambla and almost everything we wanted to see was within easy walking distance. Of course we were thrilled to enjoy so much of Gaudi’s architecture, but Barcelona also happens to be home to a museum and foundation dedicated to my favorite painter, Antoni Tapies. And we were also completely blown away by the Boqueria market.

And we spent nearly a whole day at the Basilica de la Sagrada Familia

We visited friends in Ottawa for a long weekend in September of 2013. We all met at the Newport Folk Festival (more on Newport later), where the four of us stayed for several consecutive years at the same B&B. The Ottawa trip was more to hang out together than to really tour the city, but of course we managed to do some of both.

The last major trip we managed to fit in during the decade was a week in San Francisco and Napa in September of 2015. We met up with friends in both places and had absolutely gorgeous weather the whole time. First time in California for both of us.

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COOKING and FOOD: I realized I was interested in cooking when I started trying to recreate my grandmother’s biscuits back in the early ’90s. Then after I began brewing my own beer in ’96, I started experimenting more in all sorts of cooking. But I really got concentrated on it after we moved to New Jersey, when I bought an offset smoker. Learning about rubs, marinades, different prep techniques, and how to tend the fire on long, low-and-slow barbecue cooks really set me off and running in the kitchen. About 4 years ago I retired the offset and made the switch to a kamado cooker; tremendously expensive, but well worth every penny. Unfortunately our work schedules are no longer very conducive to cooking at home, especially during the week. But nothing is better than spending a whole Saturday or Sunday in the kitchen, messing up every pot and pan we own.

Speaking earlier of beer, after going with a couple buddies to several tasting festivals in New York over the course of a few years, in May of 2015 three of us decided to start having our own tastings. Soon more members were joining us and before you know it, we gave birth to the Maplewood Ale and Lager Tasters (M.A.L.T) Club. We take turns hosting (i.e. – providing lunch) each month, everyone brings two 16- or 20-ounce beers to share, and a good time is had by all. Genius!

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MUSIC and ARTS: Of course Suzy and I spent an awful lot of time on concerts, art shows, and assorted other entertainment over the last 10 years. Way too much, obviously, to write about it all. Here is a tiny smattering of the highlights.

As I wrote about briefly at the time, in 2011 I was asked to play guitar for a local writer who, taking a stab at something new, started writing songs. Over time she added a piano player, an acoustic bassist, and a drummer. They were some of the best musicians I’ve ever played with; each one of them well above my level. Playing with them was fantastic, and I stayed with it for about 5 years until other things got in the way, as they’ll do.

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Easily one of the most impressive artists we discovered over the last 10 years was Jason Isbell. He’s the whole package; great voice, excellent guitar chops, and his songwriting is second to none. We heard the Southeastern album first, and then he just kept getting better and better.

Another big find was Lake Street Dive. Like many people, we learned of them from the concert film Another Day, Another Time: Celebrating the Music of Inside Llewyn Davis. Just a couple seconds into their (one and only) song in that movie, we looked at each other and said, “Who is THIS!?” The next day, I bought every CD they had out at that time. In the years since, we’ve watched them grow from relative obscurity to selling out Madison Square Garden.

Other bands we fell in love with were The Wood Brothers, Gregory Alan Isakov, both of whom we heard first on The Loft channel on SiriusXM radio, and The Low Anthem, who we discovered at the Newport Folk Festival.

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There are two albums that particularly stand out for me in this time, as well. Jake Xerxes Fussell’s What In The Natural World and Noam Pikelny’s Universal Favorite. On first listening, I wouldn’t have guessed that either of these records would stick with me like they have. I mean, to be clear, I liked them both a lot right off the bat. But over time, I find that both of them stay right at the front of my mind all the time. I think of one or the other, or both, nearly every day. Universal Favorite, especially, is an absolute gem.

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In August of 2015, the Recreation and Cultural Affairs Department in Maplewood brought to town five Tibetan Buddhist monks from Drepung Loseling monastery in India for The Mandala Project. Over the course of a week in the Great Hall of the Woodland community building, the monks created a traditional mandala from colored sand. They worked on it eight hours per day, pouring the sand through long, thin metal funnels to create the image, which represents the cosmos as conceived in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. The Hall was open to the public for the duration. After completion, and according to tradition, the sand is swept up and dispersed into a river or stream in a ceremony symbolizing the impermanence of everything in life.

In 2018, the Brooklyn Museum presented the Victoria and Albert Museum’s “David Bowie Is…” and there’s no doubt it was the best museum show I saw in the last 10 years. In fact it’s one of the best shows I’ve seen, ever. And I’m not even an especially big David Bowie fan. Of course he’s been around for my whole life, but even so, it’s astonishing to see, all at once, just how influential he was. There’s essentially no part of western popular culture that he didn’t affect or address in some way. There’s not much more I can say about it except that we spent more than three hours in the show, and if my back and feet would have allowed it, I would have happily stayed three more.

Another major entertainment highlight, also in 2018, was the play Yerma, at the Park Avenue Armory. We bought tickets based on nothing more than the fact that the lead role was played by Billie Piper, who had played one of our favorite characters on the TV show Doctor Who. When I read later that the play is about a woman who wants a child and can’t conceive, I thought, “Oh well, that doesn’t really sound like our kind of thing, but it will be a nice treat to see her in a play.” And it was. It also turned out to be one of the heaviest, most intensely gut-wrenching stories we’ve ever seen. Incredibly powerful. The audience was nearly silent as we left the building.

One more exhibit that stands out in my mind is Laurie Anderson’s Chalkroom, currently showing at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA) in North Adams, MA. Laurie Anderson has been one of our favorite artists since the ’80s, and we’ve loved a lot of her work through the years. But this show is a high water mark even for her. It was the first Virtual Reality experience for Suzy and me, and I was completely blown away. It is visually stunning, as I expected, but I was not at all prepared for how real it felt. Amazing experience. I hope the show is still there next time we go to MASS MoCA. I’d love to explore it more.

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SOLID SOUND FESTIVAL: Years ago some friends we know from the Newport Folk Festival were telling us that one month before Newport they had gone to Solid Sound, a bi-annual festival in Massachusetts hosted by Wilco. Two years later, in 2015, we decided to meet them there. They were absolutely right; it’s a great festival. Located at MASS MoCA, your ticket includes full weekend admission to the museum in addition to the festival. So, as with Newport, the venue is as much of a draw as the music. Each festival includes two Wilco shows, a Jeff Tweedy show, and a full 3-day lineup of other music. We’re Solid Sound regulars now.

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NEWPORT FOLK FESTIVAL: I like to tease my mother that she starts planning Christmas on December 26th each year, but the truth is I know a little something about how she feels. Every year when I go back to work the day after we get home from Newport Folk Festival, I start daydreaming about the next year. I have so many good feelings about the festival that I hardly know what to write. It has become such a part of our lives that I can no longer see it in an objective way. Our first trip there was for the 50th Anniversary in 2009, and with each passing year in the decade since, the festival has come to mean more and more to us. We skipped it once, in 2015, when we went to Solid Sound for the first time. Then when Newport weekend rolled around, we were crushed to have been so short-sighted. We decided then and there that we would never miss it again. The quality of the music is consistently outstanding, the venue –Fort Adams State Park– is gorgeous, and Newport is a great town. But it’s so much more than that. There’s something about that weekend every year that makes you feel like you’re more than just a spectator. You, along with everyone else, become a part of the experience. The shared sense of community and good will is unmatched. (So much so that I started a blog dedicated to fostering that feeling year ’round. Check it out at millionsofsmallthings.com.) The best weekend of the year, every year.

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LUTHER: Although we brought him home in 2006, there’s simply no way to look back on the last ten years without writing a little something about Luther. He was the light of our lives for most of that time, and very literally changed Suzy’s life entirely. After a few puppy classes, it became clear that Luther loved “going to school,” and so did Suzy. Within a few years Luther was a Certified Therapy Dog and he and Suzy were visiting hospitals and nursing homes together. Soon after, Suzy was teaching classes and Luther was her demo dog. In just a few short years, Suzy had changed careers completely and become a Certified Professional Dog Trainer. Even in his old age, Luther would occasionally come out of retirement for a day or two and go to work with Suzy at the behavior clinic to show some younger dog how it’s done. Unfortunately, after a couple bouts with cancer and a few other problems, we lost him in 2018. But, my God, what a life that boy had.

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LIFE HAPPENS: Of course not everything in the last decade was happy and fun. I mean, we wound up with Trump in the White House, fergodsakes. I was never overly patriotic to begin with, but my first lesson from this administration is that I care a lot more about my country than I thought. I know this because I’ve never been ashamed to be an American until now. Only now, when everything I believe to be good and just about the U.S. is being shat on by The Powers That Be, do I realize how important it all is to me. On the other hand, however demoralizing and dispiriting it is to find ourselves in this situation, I’ve never felt more proud than I did standing with Suzy and some of our friends on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. for the first Women’s March. Never happier than to see thousands upon thousands of people show up at airports across the country to stand against the travel bans. There are way too many things to list, but I detest virtually every move Trump has made in office, and I take solace in the fact that he meets with so much resistance. However futile it may seem, it matters. Thanks to Trump, I’ve never been more concerned about other people and my ability to have an effect on them, and I know I’m not alone. I know that eventually this will all be behind us and the future will be better than the present. I don’t know when, and it won’t be soon, but it will come.

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Finally, I’ll close out this post by mentioning how we closed out our decade. In the Spring of 2018 I was unceremoniously let go from my job. I can’t precisely say it was a shock, since I knew business was slow, but I wasn’t exactly expecting it, either. Thankfully I have a lot of friends in my industry, an within two and a half weeks I found another job. But it’s in Pennsylvania, so it required us to move. We settled in Hackettstown, NJ, because it was approximately halfway between my new job and Suzy’s workplace.

Home Sweet Home

Then, a little less than a year after we moved, Suzy lost her job, too. If we’d known that was going to happen we’d have most likely moved closer to my work. But we love our house and we’re quite happy in Hackettstown, so we have no regrets. Suzy has gone into business on her own, and our location makes it possible for her to continue to see some of her previous clients. So in the end, it’s all worked out pretty well.

So those were our big points of the decade, bringing us to where we are now.

Happy New Year, everybody, and Happy ’20s!

Now Is The Time

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.

Getting Started Off Right

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 article Go Tell It On The Mountain: Greg Leisz And The Architecture Of Song by Joe Henry

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Fretboard Journal #33  2014
 

The Year In Review

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.

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Justin Townes Earle (r) and Paul Niehaus at City WInery NYC

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.

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Tim O’Brien (r) and Darrell Scott at Grey Fox Bluegrass

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.

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Hot Rize together again, at City Winery NYC November 2014

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.

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(l-r) Don Dixon, Marti Jones, Marshall Crenshaw, & RIchard Barone

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

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Willie Watson at Newport Folk Fest 2014

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.

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Latest restoration progress on The Coronet.

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.”

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Mavis Staples joins Lake Street Dive onstage at Newport

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….

The Day The Music Player Died

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.

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The Original 1000-song iPod

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.

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My Original PigPod

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.

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Personalized Engraving. Yeah man…

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.

The PigPod is dead. Long live the PigPod.

Guest Hosting

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!
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Song #457 of 9999

Title: Don’t Let Me Down
Artist: The Beatles
Year: 1969
Album: Let It Be

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wN11Q0f_52w

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.

R.I.P. Fellows, and Thanks For Everything

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.

Levon Helm, Newport Folk Festival, 2010

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.

Earle Scruggs, Newport Folk Festival, 2011

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.”

Earle and Doc

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.

Doc Watson, Statesville, NC, circa 1980

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.

My Alvarez

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.

Autographs, as signed by Merle

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.

More Time With The Teens

During my brief run with 3 Teens Kill 4 at the Howl Festival, I overheard some backstage murmurs about the possibility of another show. Shortly before Christmas, I got the call. Actually, it was an email, but you know what I’m saying.

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.

(l-r) Me, Lisa, & Raquel (The In Peace and War Choir), Doug, Julie, and Brian

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.

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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.

Brian, Tommy (reading), Joe (on tuba, behind Doug), Doug, Bill

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.

Brian, Doug (background), Julie, Anne

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.

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.