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.

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.

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.

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.

(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

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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!

Song #457 of 9999

Title: Don’t Let Me Down
Artist: The Beatles
Year: 1969
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.

Out of My Depth

We have been attending the Newport Folk Festival every year since it marked it’s 50th Anniversary in 2009. I think it’s safe to say that it is, quite simply, the best overall musical event we’ve ever experienced. Over the years we have enjoyed performances by some of our favorite musicians, discovered new music, and forged new friendships. If you are a fan of folk, folk-rock, country, blues, or practically any musical genre related to one of these, you need to get yourself to this festival. You won’t regret it.

But when we arrive in Newport, the first thing we go see every year is completely unrelated to the festival, to music in general, or to anything else in our normal lives. After checking in to our B&B, the very first item on our Newport agenda?

Looking into the progress on the restoration of the 1885 Schooner Yacht, Coronet.

We always stay at the Spring Street Inn, and from the very start the innkeeper, Pat — who is an absolute fount of information on local history, attractions, activities, and (most importantly, perhaps) restaurants — kept suggesting to us that we visit the International Yacht Restoration School just down at the end of the street. Apparently there are fewer and fewer people in today’s world with the skills and knowhow to build, maintain, and/or restore wooden boats and ships. So in 1993, the IYRS was founded with a mission to preserve and teach the history, heritage, craftsmanship, science, and aesthetics of boatbuilding and restoration.

I do not own, nor do I have any inclination to own, a boat. To my knowledge, only two of our family members and two of our friends have ever owned boats of any kind. Unless I actually happen to see one, boats never even cross my mind. And so, for two years, we completely dismissed that particular suggestion of Pat’s without a second thought. Our mistake.

On our third trip to Newport, in 2011, as we were strolling along Thames Street, we saw the IYRS sign and for some reason (or maybe no reason) we ambled in. There’s a little museum space there, interesting enough in a pleasantly-passing-some-time-but-not-overly-excited-about-it kind of way. An attendant told us to go upstairs and check out the library, especially the harbor view from the library window, before making our way to the next building (where the students work on their projects), and finally to the building where the Coronet restoration is taking place.

While the view from the library window was, indeed, quite something, we were more taken with the exhibit of old nautical instruments on display throughout the library itself. Of course we knew virtually nothing about what any of the instruments were or what they were used for, but they were beautiful to look at and made us happy we had decided to check this place out. From there, we wandered into the school…

…And we were bowled over. There’s a classroom and a wood shop, of course. But mostly it’s a big open building where students are in the various stages of building wooden boats of all shapes and sizes.

Visitors can stand along a catwalk and look down on the proceedings from overhead. It’s pretty interesting to see, and by this point during our first visit we were completely won over.

But this is not the end of the tour.

Continue out the back door, and you’ll find yourself in front another building, constructed right on the very edge of the water solely for the purpose of housing the restoration of the aforementioned Coronet. The scope of the project is evident immediately upon entering the door. This thing is huge.

It was huge when we first saw it in 2011.

From 2011

And it’s only gotten bigger since then.

From 2012

Again, visitors look down from a catwalk at the workers below.

From 2013

At the very beginning, when the Coronet was brought in, it was completely disassembled. Piece by piece, board by board, everything was taken apart, cataloged, and numbered. Many of these items are sitting about on the catwalk or hanging on the walls, waiting to be put back into place (or to at least serve as templates for their newly-constructed counterparts) when the time comes.

Hopefully, these guys who are working on the restoration will fare better than the men who originally built her:

From 1896

I don’t have the knowledge or vocabulary necessary to write intelligently about what they’re doing in this building. Again, in my regular life I am not a boat guy; all I know is that they’ve taken a really big, really old one apart, and now they’re fixing it up and putting it back together again. And it is utterly fascinating to watch.

And Now, For Something Completely Different

In the curious way that these things often happen, all of a sudden and out of nowhere, over the last short while quite a number of different people have asked me about making beer. Just a couple weeks ago, even my mom –who I don’t believe would drink a beer if you paid her to do it– asked me how I make it. It’s like the universe, at least my little corner of it, is trying to tell me (or, in this case, ask me) something.

Of course there is obviously no shortage of readily available information about homebrewing. But on the other hand, I’ve been brewing my own beer for well over 15 years, and I do refer to the operation as “Brick Pig Brewing.” And this is the Brick Pig Blog, after all. So why not hang in here with me for a few paragraphs and let’s see how this goes, eh?

OK, then.

I do what’s referred to as extract brewing, and it’s really a two-part process: There’s brewing day, and then two or three weeks later there’s bottling day. As it happens, last weekend (May 4) I did both, brewing up a new batch of Bitters while simultaneously bottling up a batch of Grape Nuts Ale that I brewed several weeks ago (yes, Grape Nuts, the breakfast cereal). Since, as I said, several people had recently asked me about brewing, I took some pictures of both processes. Although I brewed and bottled at the same time, I’ll present both separately. This definitely will not constitute a complete guide to brewing, but it will give you an overview of how it’s done in the Brick Pig Brewing kitchens.

NOTE: If this does happen to inspire you to give homebrewing a try, you can buy all the equipment you need to make beer, plus a copy of The Complete Joy of Homebrewing, which is considered to be the bible of the hobby, for under $100. Recipe ingredients run anywhere from around $25 per batch on up. If you don’t have a homebrew supply store near you, there are tons of online sources.


Some stuff soaking in sanitizer.

The first and most vitally important thing about brewing beer is sterilizing your equipment. Nothing is more likely to screw up your beer than a stray microbe. Fortunately there are a number of products on the market that make sanitizing a simple prospect. I use a powdered sanitizer that simply has to be mixed with warm water and sloshed on, around, over, and through every item that’s going to touch your beer. You don’t even have to rinse it. Once everything is sanitized, you’re ready to brew.

Most brewing recipes assume a 5-gallon batch of beer, which will eventually result in roughly two cases (48 bottles) of finished beer. Sometimes you’ll get 46 bottles, sometimes you might get 50. Regardless, you’re going to start with two gallons of water in a REALLY big stock pot, which, when you’re brewing, you call a “brew kettle.” While the water is cold, you put any flavoring (or “specialty”) grains into a muslin bag and plop it in. These grains will steep as the water comes to a boil.

Steeping grains
Malt extract (in plastic tub) waiting to go in after the grains steep

When you reach the boiling point, you remove the specialty grains, turn off the heat, and stir in your extract. (Malt extract is basically the sugar from malted grains, in a concentrated syrup or powder form.) Now what you’ve got is called “wort.”

Extract going in

You want to bring the wort back up to just a low, rolling boil. Nothing too violent; just a touch more than a simmer, really. From this point you boil the wort, uncovered, for 60 minutes, during which time you’ll be making periodic additions of hops.

Hops, which is available in leaf or pellet form, will largely determine the flavor profile of your beer. There’s an enormous variety of hops available, each with its own flavor profile, and your recipe will tell you which kind(s) to use. Just as importantly, it will also tell you when to add them to the wort.

Generally speaking, you add the first hops as soon as the wort reaches the aforementioned gentle rolling boil. This first dose is known as “bittering hops,” because it mostly serves to cut the sweetness of the malt. (This is the point in the brew when your entire house will start to smell like a brewery, and your wife –if she’s like mine– will start complaining about it. That’s how you know that, so far, you’ve done everything right.) Later on, usually between the 30 and 45 minute mark, you’ll add more hops, which are called “flavoring hops.” Finally, in the last 2 to 5 minutes of the boil, the “aroma hops” go in.

Bittering hops just added. You can see the green floating on top.

At the 60-minute mark, you remove the brew kettle from the heat and chill the wort to (more or less) room temp. There are all kinds of devices on the market, called “wort chillers,” appropriately enough, that will bring your wort temp down lickety-split. But I just fill my sink up with ice water, cover the kettle, and sit it in the water for 30 minutes. This won’t bring it to room temp, but it gets it low enough for the next step, which is to pour the wort into the primary fermenter.

“Primary fermenter” is fancy terminology for “5-gallon food-grade plastic bucket.” (As is evident in the pictures, I almost always use a glass carboy instead of a bucket, but it’s really all the same.) You pour the wort into the bucket (or carboy), and add enough cold water to it to bring the total volume up to a full 5 gallons. Using my method of wort chilling, the ice water sit combined with this added cold water will bring the wort to room temp, as desired. You’re shooting for room temp because that’s where the temp needs to be in order for you to “pitch” your yeast. “Pitch” is not-so-fancy terminology for “pour in.”

Carboy (“primary fermenter”) filled, yeast pitched.

Now you put in an airlock (I use an old-school blowoff tube), sit the primary in a place where the temp will remain stable and where there won’t be any direct light, and wait.

Primary with blowoff tube

Clean up your kitchen, ‘cuz brewing day is over.

Sometime over the next 24-48 hours, the airlock (or in my case, the blowoff) will start to bubble, just a little at first, but then very actively over the next few days. This is the result of the yeast doing it’s work, converting the sugars in the wort into alcohol. The airlock allows the resultant gases to escape without allowing air to get into the fermenter. This process will continue for several days, maybe as much as a week or so. There are procedures you can do to measure the alcohol level and determine when the conversion process has finished, but I personally just let it sit there for a couple of weeks, until long after the bubbling has stopped. At this point, I normally transfer (or “rack”) to another carboy (“secondary fermenter”) and let it sit for a minimum of one more week. This is not a necessary step, but it gets the beer off the cake of sediment (“trub”) that collects at the bottom of the primary, and gives the beer more time to clear. Either way, what you’ve got when the bubbling is over is no longer wort. It’s beer.


Two problems:

  1. It’s completely flat; no carbonation at all.
  2. It’s really difficult, and socially questionable, to drink from a bucket.

The solution to both these problems:


Sanitized bucket, siphon parts, and tubing

Again, it is impossible to express how important sterilization is to the homebrewer, so out comes the powdered sanitizer once more. Just as on brewing day, everything that’s going to touch your beer has to be sanitized. Have I mentioned this is really important? If not, let me say: sanitizing is really important.

Caps going on to boil

In addition to sanitizing the bucket, tubing, siphon, and other equipment, the bottles and caps also have to be sanitized. I usually boil the caps, and fortunately my dishwasher has a sanitizing setting I use for my bottles.

Steaming hot, sanitized bottles

When that’s done, I dissolve about 3/4 cup of cane sugar (also called “priming” sugar) into a few ounces of water, bringing it just to a boil. This goes into my (sanitized) bottling bucket, which is another 5-gallon bucket exactly like the fermenter, except that it has a spigot on it. Anyway, the beer is then siphoned into this same bucket, mixing with the sugar water. After bottling, this sugar will activate the yeast one more time, just enough to carbonate the beer.

Siphoning into the bottling bucket

With the beer siphoned over to the bottling bucket, you’re ready to fill your bottles. (By the way, if you’ve thought ahead enough to sanitize a shot glass or something, you can snatch a little taste of your brew. What it tastes like now is pretty much exactly what it’s going to taste like later, except that it’s not carbonated yet.) A bottle filler is a rigid plastic tube with a spring-loaded attachment on the end. Apply pressure, and beer flows. Release the pressure, the flow stops. You can connect the bottle filler to a flexible tube and push it down into the bottles, but I generally connect the filler directly to the spigot and push the bottle up onto it. Same principle, but for some reason this method works better for me.

Filling the one of the last few bottles.
(Photo courtesy Brian Glaser)

If you have a helper, this is a great point in the process for them to lend you a hand. (And there’s nothing smelly about bottling day, so your wife –if she’s like mine– might be willing to assist.) It really works well, and goes much faster, if one person fills the bottles while the other person caps them. My buddy Brian (of Two Jews Brew fame) did some of the capping duties on this particular day. I forgot to get a picture of the capping, but basically you place a cap on the bottle and use a little spring-loaded butterfly device to crimp it on.

Capped and crated

Like I said, you’ll get more or less two cases of beer from a 5-gallon batch. This time my yield was 46 bottles. Anyway, once they’re all filled and capped, you put them back in your temp-stable, light-protected spot, and wait some more.

Clean up your kitchen again. Bottling day is over.

Sometime over the next week or two, your beer will become carbonated and ready for the fridge. The only way to know for sure when this happens is to open one up and try it. I usually try one after a week, but I find most often that they’re really ready on about day ten.

Flemish Red from a previous batch

So there you have it, kids. In a nutshell, that’s how it’s done.


New Year, New Ideas

Starting off  the New Year, as we have, I’ve been thinking. Here’s one of my conclusions: Things change.

Back in the ’90s, when I first got Internet access, people were afraid to use their real names online, much less disclose personal information of any kind. Thus my implementation of the name Brick Pig for all my online music-related endeavors. Ten or fifteen years earlier, my friend Jim Hodge and I made up  the name one boring day at work; you know, one of those “this would be a good name for a band” conversations. So it seemed like the perfect username when I submitted my first entry to SongFight!, and the Brick Pig moniker has been with me ever since.

But we live in an altogether different world now, don’t we? With every Tom, Dick, and Harriet broadcasting every thought, dream and idea that comes into their head, cyberspace no longer seems like the mysterious place it used to be. Heck, anti-social as I tend to be, even I have learned to appreciate –if not exactly “like”– what Facebook has to offer.

And so, with this blog entry and the recent re-vamp of my websites, I’m TEARING DOWN THE WALL!! Ready? Here’s the big reveal:

That’s right, folks: The rumours were true! Monty Smith and Brick Pig are one and the same! And now this fact is reflected by an integrated website (only the welcome pages differ), and henceforth within the pages of this blog.

But wait! There’s more!

As my long-term readers (if I have such a thing) will know, I started this blog in ’08 with the intention of documenting the build of my first-ever custom guitar, and to chronicle my progress with my first-ever formal guitar lessons. Although I was never particularly strict in adhering to those two topics, the thrust of the blog shifted after I took delivery of said new guitar in June ’09, and even more so after I mastered the instrument —ahem— and stopped taking lessons that following December.

Effectively this space has become an amorphous, rambling account of whatever thoughts I’ve had about whatever music-related subjects are on my mind at any given time — concerts I’ve seen, festivals I’ve attended, and of course my own activities with friends, with 3TK4, and with Tori Erstwhile & The Montys. But amorphous and rambling is cool, and I’m fine with it. So fine with it, in fact, that with this post I am officially sanctioning the change.

If any of my (probably imaginary) long-term readers happen to also be sharp observers, they will note that I’ve shortened the blog title and that the subheading has been changed from “My Ongoing Quest for Deeper Musical Knowledge and a Really Great Axe” to “Messages from Monty.” This change reflects the aforementioned unification of my online personalities, while simultaneously welcoming the current-but-not-originally-intended nature of the blog.

I hope the new year brings other changes, as well. I hope to resume my guitar lessons. (That earlier bit about how I had mastered the instrument was a lie!) I hope to write and/or record some new songs. I hope to continue to discover new music, see more concerts, and go to more festivals, and perform more. And I hope to write about it more often here. Stay tuned….

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.


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.”


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.

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.