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….

Something Different

At the end of my last entry I mentioned briefly that, musically, 2011 had gotten off to a good start. Here’s a little more detail on that:

One morning early in March, just as I had arrived at work and was waiting for my computer to start up, my cellphone rang. The caller, oddly enough, was a woman named Tori, who my wife and I had met only a few times through mutual friends.

Turns out that Tori is a writer, and that she had been invited to participate in an event called Funny Ladies 2, the second annual fundraiser for a local theater company. The reason she was calling me was that she had written songs for the event, rather than an essay or skit, and she needed an accompanist. She’d first contacted my friend Brian, who in turn suggested that I might be better suited to play the style(s) of music her songs were going to require.

Now, people who know me are well aware that I am not a fan of comedy. I’m blessed with many funny friends and family members, and there’s a lot of laughter in my life. But scripted jokes just don’t do it for me. I don’t watch sitcoms. I don’t go see comedy films. Don’t watch standup. Fast forward right through Letterman’s monologs. So naturally, I said “Sure, I’ll do it.”

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Over the course of that month we got together once or twice a week to learn three of her songs and to put together a bit of an act. Of course, it wasn’t at all clear to me whether any of it was actually going to make people laugh, and I think that may have been a bit frustrating for Tori. She kept asking me “This is funny, right?” or “Do you think this is funny?,” to which I could only respond, “Uhh…you’re going to have to ask someone else if it’s funny or not.”

She needn’t have worried. When the evening finally arrived, the room was packed with an enthusiastic crowd. We were scheduled last, a musical nightcap following an evening of readings, stories, jokes, and skits. Even for me, as out-of-my-element as it may have been, it was an enjoyable night, and when our turn came to take the stage the audience was primed.

We played three songs, interspersed with a little stage banter, and basically brought the house down. People loved us, and we started getting job offers before we even left the building. Which was marginally unnerving, since the three songs we had just performed were, in fact, the only three songs in our repertoire.

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

Just a day or two later, one if the show’s organizers asked us to consider putting together a full show, to be performed at some time and place to be specified later, and we’ve been working –however slowly– toward that goal ever since. We’re rehearsing every other week and methodically building our song catalog. Along the way, we have performed at another benefit show and done a couple of open mic nights at a local restaurant. So far it’s been great fun, and has given me a way to stay involved in my music despite all the complications with my work situation, which I’ve chronicled previously

Of course it’s also been an opportunity for me to use my “new” guitar in a real-world situation and see how she performs. Again, I can’t say enough good things about it. It feels great and plays easily. I’m getting great tone and volume, plugged and unplugged, and it gives me exactly what I need in any environment: subtlety in rooms where the audience is relatively quiet and attentive (the benefit shows), and plenty of cutting power in noisier rooms (open mic night). Everything I wanted and hoped for.

A 2010 Update

Well, I’ve neglected this blog for an awfully long time. And I realize now that, previous to announcing the downloads of my old band’s records, my last real entry was pretty bleak. So here I am, back to bring things up to date and, perhaps, paint a little brighter picture of things.

When I made that last report, my work situation had deteriorated so much that I couldn’t continue my lessons and had basically given up practicing. Things were bad. Unfortunately, about a month later it got a whole lot worse: My entire department was laid off, save for myself and one other member of my staff. Needless to say this was not a step in the right direction, and the fact is that to this day I have still not been able to find a way to make time for regular, structured, productive practice, let alone resume my lessons.

But on a brighter note, 2010 actually turned out to be a great year to hear other people’s music. When things got so bad, my wife and I quickly realized that for sanity’s sake we needed to make a very concerted effort to get out and enjoy ourselves, and as a result we saw lots of great live music. Tonic for the soul.

In January we saw Swell Season at Radio City. On Valentine’s Day we went to Brooklyn to see Stephane Wrembel at Barbes, the first of three times we would see him in 2010. In March, we went with friends to see Beppe Gambetta in Morristown, where John Carlini, my teacher, was among a number of musicians who made a special appearance. We saw Wilco at the Wellmont Theater in Montclair; Joseph Arthur, solo and unplugged at the Rubin Museum; The Avett Brothers at Radio City; and Leo Kottke at NJPAC in Newark.

In April, we traveled to NC for Merlefest, where we saw lots of old favorites like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Wayne Henderson, The Nashville Bluegrass Band, Tony Rice, and (again) the Avett Brothers. We also saw Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers, as well as Elvis Costello. And as is always the case at Merlefest, we discovered some new folks like Bearfoot and Harry Manx (who also opened for Leo Kottke later in the year, at the aforementioned NJPAC show).

Early in the year, when things were in the process of turning from bad to worse, we had decided not to return to the Newport Folk Festival despite having enjoyed it so much in 2009. Then we had such a good time at Merlefest that we realized skipping Newport would be a big mistake. As soon as we got back to Jersey we reserved a room and ordered our tickets. Good move: Some of the highlights at Newport 2010 were John Prine, Calexico, Yim Yames, Sam Bush (again), Low Anthem, Levon Helm Band, Swell Season (again, just weeks before the announcement that they were splitting up), Preservation Hall Jazz Band, and yet again, The Avett Brothers.

In addition to seeing all this live music, I was also fortunate enough to get together once or twice with a couple of different local musicians. One of the first people I met when I moved to Maplewood was my friend Jim, who happens to be quite a good jazz improv picker. We’d been threatening for years to get together to swap a few tunes, and in May we managed to do it. In addition, my friend Mike and I were able to go down to the monthly jam session in Little Silver another time or two during the year.

So all in all, even though I wasn’t able to fully get back into the swing of things, 2010 was nevertheless a good year for music. And as it happens, 2011 is starting to take off pretty well, too. But that’s another story. Or two…

A Peek Into The Past

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Latest is Not The Greatest

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

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

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

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

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

Pickin’ & Grinnin’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More on that when the time comes.

What I Did This Summer

Summer activities have severely eaten into my practice schedule and, to a greater extent, my blogging time. But lessons and practice do go on.

Over the last weeks and months I have been working with John on some fingerstyle bossa nova rhythm. Mostly, but not exclusively, the changes to “The Girl From Ipanema.”  Although I’m a big fan of the song, and of bossa nova music in general, the real intent here is to build up my dexterity with unfamiliar changes and to increase my chord vocabulary. After all these years of playing essentially the same…what, maybe 40 or so?…chords over and over, I am completely astounded to rediscover what a difficult thing it is to learn new chords, chord shapes, and progressions.

Along with that, I’ve been working on reading the (Ipanema) melody line as written in my song book. I emphasize “as written” because the timing presented in the lead sheet is a bit more unconventional than anything I’ve been reading thus far, and it also doesn’t necessarily match any of the vocal renditions I’m familiar with. Of course I don’t want to be a slave to the written page, but as with the chord changes, I’m considering this to be less about learning the song per sé, and more as an exercise in learning to read and count.

As we’re covering this, John is explaining a lot about the theory behind the music; how certain structures and specific voicings work together, what other options there might be for different transitions, how those options affect the mood or the feel or even the melody itself. In all honesty, the biggest part of all this information is still quite a bit over my head, and I only comprehend the smallest, most basic concepts. But every time these discussions take place, a little more of it falls into place in my head.

Most recently we’ve returned to Bill Leavitt’s Modern Method books. Book Two, page 60 to be exact: “Position Playing.” John tells me this is “where the training wheels come off.” So far I’m only working on the first two pages, but the challenges are already obvious to me. Baby steps….

Out of it all, though, some things shine through in perfect clarity:

-Building my chord vocabulary and practicing chord solos John has written for me has very definitely helped me to feel more confident about playing up and down the neck. My knowledge of the fingerboard is still seriously lacking, but it’s clear to me that I’m continuing to make progress and that the territory above the fifth fret is not the no-man’s-land I’ve always thought it was.

-My reading skills have greatly improved. When I started lessons, I knew next to nothing about relating standard notation to the fretboard. Now I’ve reached a point where recently, as I was reading through some tablature, I noticed that I had switched to reading the notation without realizing it. To be sure, I’ve got a long way to go as a reader. But again, obvious progress has been made.

-Working with the scales, exercises, etudes, etc., on a regular basis, with established goals and focused intent, has opened a new awareness  for me in regards to my attention to fundamentals. Concentrating on this work has made me realize how lackadaisical I’ve been in the past with my accuracy, and how little attention I’ve paid to tone.

-Making the time for daily practice continues to be my biggest challenge in this whole endeavor. Too often I’m not able to strike the balance and fit everything in. But I just keep doing what I can….