Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dawes Nothing is Wrong review

My first listen to the new Dawes album Nothing Is Wrong must have been on a good day because it hooked me right away.  I wasn't bothered by any of the things that initially kept me from loving their debut album:  chorus heavy songs, pitch-perfect harmonies, excellent but safe musicianship, and overly heartfelt lyrics. (Hey - it worked for the Jayhawks). 

All those characteristics are still there - things which could have been negatives to me - but I've come to realize that these are the things that make Dawes' music so endearing, on both the first album and this newest one.  It's easy to wrap yourself in Dawes' carefully crafted song structures once you are confident that not a single lyric, note or solo is going to do you wrong.  In a much cooler world, this would be what you hear on easy-listening, light rock radio stations. 

While I did agree that their debut album North Hills had the feeling of an "instant classic", I didn't give in to its laid-back late 70's California sunshine until I could hear the follow up.  There is no question that North Hills will age well, but now that we can put it up against the bolder, more fully-formed sophomore record Nothing Is Wrong, it's worth speculating that that perhaps Dawes is no fluke but rather an increasingly important facet in today's contemporary musical landscape.  Frankly, my mind is chock full of favorite bands and's pretty packed in there and I don't have a strong desire to let new stuff in, especially something that is not tried and true.  But somehow, because of this album, Dawes the band has found some real estate in that head space. 

One of the things I like the most about the Dawes sound is that it exists outside the trappings of today's indie rock.  Some people like to compare them to Jackson Browne or Tom Petty.  I never listened to those guys much so I don't have that point of reference.  To me it occupies the same void as early Grateful Dead albums - the studio work from American Beauty through say, Mars Hotel.  It has that vibe, if you can dig it, which is a lofty comparison to make.

Simply put, Dawes are tasteful, mature musicians who know how to keep things simple, with an eye toward a greater arc than what's currently hip or trendy.  Nothing is Wrong could pass for that overlooked vinyl album from your uncle's record collection; some band from 30 years that you'd heard was good but never got around to listening to.  But it's not that.  It's new and yours to discover and be one of the first to experience  for yourself.  After time spent listening little details and nuances might start to emerge: that jammed out segment at the end of Fire Away jumps out at you in a way it never did before, for example, or some lyric in a song like So Well will really hits hard, and you'll be ready to let this be another of your favorites, as I have done.

Friday, June 24, 2011

PBS Arts Fall Festival - Give Me the Banjo

PBS recently announced its PBS Arts Fall Festival, a nine-part series of performances, artist profiles, documentaries, and films about - you guessed it - the performing arts!  It kicks off Friday, October 14th, 2011 at 9PM with Gilbert and Sullivan’s “H.M.S. Pinafore”.  This exciting line-up of programming will be broadcast Friday nights into mid-December.  

I'm particularly excited about the film they are calling Give Me the Banjo, formerly known as the Banjo Project DocumentaryGive Me the Banjo is narrated by actor, comedian and banjoist Steve Martin.  It is produced and directed by Marc Fields with Michael Kantor as executive producer. Tony Trischka is co-producer and music director. 

PBS sizzle clips from The Banjo Project on Vimeo.

Having amassed over 400 hrs of footage during almost a decade of production, Marc Fields and his creative team are now feverishly working to complete post-production in time for the fall broadcast.  The film explores the roots of American music through its quintessential instrument - via the minstrel show, ragtime and early jazz, blues, old-time, folk, bluegrass and country. It follows the banjo from its African slavery roots to the 21st century, featuring performances and commentary from musicians such as Pete Seeger, Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, Taj Mahal, Béla Fleck, Don Vappie, Cynthia Sayer and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, as well as from leading music historians, folklorists, banjo makers and collectors. 

Hip-hip hooray for the banjo and its placement in a national prime time showcase!!!  And kudos to PBS for picking this up.  Another special in this series is PBS Arts from Seattle: AMERICAN MASTERS "Pearl Jam Twenty", director and music journalist Cameron Crowe's portrait of the seminal rock band in honor of their 20th anniversary.  Culled from over 1,200 hours of rarely and never-before-seen footage plus recently shot concert and interview footage, this looks to be a good chronicle of the grunge rockers.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Four Days of Music Completed - The Hot Seats, Grisman and Phish

Laura and I just completed a four night run of seeing live music.  On Thursday, June 16, 2011 we traveled to VA Beach to see local string band favorites The Hot Seats at Doc Taylor's Seaside Lounge.  I've seen the Hot Seats (AKA Special Ed & the Shortbus) many times over the last 5 or 6 years, and they never disappoint.  This night was no exception.  The Hot Seats were without their fiddler for this show, and while that does leave a void, I think it also inspired them to do a creative setlist that included covers like Morning Blues, Rye Whiskey, as well as rarely played originals like Drag Rag and Sell Your Babies to the Army.  This was a free show near the main drag of a touristy area, so it attracted a unique variety of people.  The crowd was a combination of sketchy VA Beach locals/hobos, drunken blue collar tourists on vacation, seasoned bar regulars, old fans of the band, and friends & family.  A weird combination but the band made the most of it; playing one of the most fun shows I have ever seen them do.  Right up until the end when an intoxicated, but seemingly harmless (???) local helped himself to the drum set during Sandy Boys, one of my favorite songs they play.   
The Hot Seats with "new" drummer.  Picture by Laura Fields.

Unfortunately the band wasn't charmed with this dude's boldness, and when a cue to get off the drums was mistaken for a drum solo, the song ended mid-way and the show was over.   

A side note: free evening parking is almost non-existent during the summer months in the touristy area of VA Beach, but if you are going to Doc Taylor's and arrive early you may be able to find a spot in the small lot behind the building. (Wish I had known this first - it would have saved 20 minutes of driving around looking for a spot). 

We made the drive from VA Beach back to Richmond the next day - a trip which should take less than 2 hours under normal conditions.  However, due to the worst traffic jams I have ever encountered on this route, it took approximately 4 hours to complete leaving us no time to stop by home first.  I don't handle traffic stress very well anyway, so it was a relief to finally pull up near Brown's Island at six o'clock in plenty of time to catch Friday Cheers, which consisted of The Hot Seats again, but this time opening for the David Grisman Sextet.  The weather looked very iffy minutes before show time, with some dark clouds, wind, and rain looming.  However by the start time of 6:30pm all rain and clouds had ceased and it made for a beautiful evening.  I think the weather contributed to a lighter turnout initially, so The Hot Seats didn't play to as large of a crowd as I had hoped.  This time with their fiddler Graham DeZarn, the song selections consisted of their most road-tested and crowd pleasing numbers, boiled down to a 45 minute set meant to impress, or at least not offend, the "Touch of Grey" crowd assembled to see Grisman.  I suspect the Sam Stone cover went over particularly well with this bunch.  I have seen The Hot Seats do all these songs many times before but I still enjoyed it because of the setting and having some good friends join us made it even better.  Soon, however, the Hot Seats were done and it was time for the David Grisman Sextet to come on stage.

It'd been, I dunno, maybe 13 years since I'd last seen the David Grisman Quintet live.  I don't really keep up with his music or career that closely so I was interested in seeing what he's been up to.  Like myself, the main reason over half the crowd is even there is because of Grisman's association with Jerry Garcia, and of course Grisman always plays into this with his notorious name-dropping and banter between songs.  His band consisted of veteran flute, bass and drum players, and newer guys on fiddle and guitar.  The sound was basically the same as I remember, or maybe a little more "lite" than before.  I prefer music with a little bit more bite, I think.  Grisman's sound is almost too jazz-grassy for my taste and it was easy to let your attention wander during this set.   There were moments when I really enjoyed it, and it was relaxing, but nothing about it blew me away.  The flute player was dressed in a way that you couldn't help but make fun of, and there were also many jokes made - mostly by me - about this being a "sex" tet.  It was over fairly early, around 10pm, but instead of going home and getting a good night's rest before Phish the next two days, I was talked into going to The Camel to see two more bands.

There's not a whole lot to tell about the remainder of this night.  I had drank very little up to this point because I was driving, but when we got to the packed club to see the local Richmond Bands Black Girls and No BS Brass I knew I wouldn't be driving any more for the night so I had a few beers and mainly hung out at the bar, occasionally checking out the music.  From what I heard Black Girls sounded pretty good - kinda like a cross between Modest Mouse and Dr. Dog.  No BS played after them, but I just didn't have the energy or interest to fully enjoy it by then.  It was getting late and this was musical overload.  Unfortunately instead of getting to bed at a decent hour I stayed up too late, drank some more, and then still got up early the next morning for the drive down to Raleigh to see Phish.

Phish is a band I have seen about 45 times; my first show being in 1994 at Richmond's Classic Amphitheater.  At this point I don't really listen to Phish's music all that much during everyday life, although I still like to keep up with their setlists and read reviews of their shows.  More than anything else, the shows themselves are a good opportunity to hang out with friends who live too far away to get together on a regular basis.  Anyway Laura and I got an early start and arrived at our hotel in Raleigh shortly after noon, which allowed time for a nap.  Soon our friends joined us at the hotel with stories of a great show in Charlotte the night before and hilarious post-show adventures ("Mike Jordan...He Retired") and we were off to a couple bars for some pre-game drinking.  (Raleigh's Flying Saucer pub is awesome!).  Now a caveat: if liquor ever crosses my lips, as it did on this day in the form of Jameson Irish Whiskey, then you can forget about it.  So by showtime I was basically an idiot.  Yeah some good songs were played in the first set, including Peaches N' Regalia and Ballad of Curtis Lowe, 2nd set had Esther and Caspian, but towards the middle of the 2nd set I started to fade out a bit.  When they began Kill Devil Falls - a song I have no interest in even on the clearest of days - I was done both mentally and physically.  The long improv jam during Split Open and Melt, a highlight for most people, was lost on me.  I was tuckered out.  So that was how I experienced Raleigh unfortunately.

Fortunately we were able to sleep until about 10am on Sunday, which helped prepare me for the 3 hour drive to Portsmouth.  A quick side trip back to VA Beach for some home cooked food put me in the right mood for this night.  The venue Phish plays at in Portsmouth is one of my favorite places to see them.  I was looking forward to an easy going night at a cool venue seeing one of the world's best bands with a good group of friends.  Phish opened with Harpua and the crowd got pretty excited as a result (this was the first time it's opened a show since 1989, and I don't think it's been played that much to begin with).  Harpua is a fun song and it was special to hear it as an opener due to the mystique around it.  The band's dads all came out for a portion of the song (it was Father's day).  This light-hearted opener set a nice mood for the show, although it would get pretty dark and menacing later.  Timber Ho was another song I really liked in the first set.  In the 2nd set Sand was the definite highlight, with lots of high-energy jamming and an unexpected stop-start moment.  Walls of the Cave was also a standout song, and I particularly liked the Julius encore on this night.  Nonetheless, this show featured a lot of Trey falling back on signature guitar licks and riffs rather than the true off-the-cuff jamming that made shows from the past years so special.  It was still the heat...well played with a good choice of songs. 

We would use the next day, Monday, as a day off to relax and take our time getting home (traffic strikes again!!!) before resuming normal life, as it were.  We actually drove back into Portsmouth on Monday and lunched in the Olde Towne area - something I had completely missed seeing during the two Phish shows here.  The downtown area is a quaint and pretty part of Portsmouth with lots of nice architecture and cool looking bars and restaurants.  I had no idea this was here, only a couple blocks from the parking lot where we had hung out the day before!  There you have it.  The best overall nights of this four-show run were definitely The Hot Seats in VA Beach on Thursday and Phish on Sunday in Portsmouth.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Getting Ready to Record The Snowball Sessions

Soon I will be making lo-fi multi-tracked home recordings of some tune-sets and songs, to be tentatively titled The Snowball Sessions.  This process will require me to play banjo uke for chords/rhythm/backup, tenor banjo for lead melody, and uke-bass for bass parts. I was planning on using the free program Audacity to multi-track the recordings, but after learning about and experiencing Audacity's latency issues* I think I'll stick with the simple FourTrack app for the iPhone, using a Monster iSoniTalk Microphone.  I can still use Audacity to edit the bounced track once exported from FourTrack.

*When I played back the initial recordings I made with Audacity I thought it was my timing that was completely off, so it was reassuring to learn that latency is an issue with Audacity.  I know I already sound bad, but I didn't think it was that bad!

My goal is just to capture a snapshot in time of how I sound at this point - summer 2011 - on my current favorite tunes and songs to play.  Groove and simplicity is more important to me than variations and lots of notes.  I intend to keep it simple and fun by doing fairly basic, repetitive, skeletal renditions. My criteria for deciding whether or not a take is good or bad will not have anything to do with how ‘well’ or how ‘clean’ the it was played, but rather how much of a good time I had playing it. 

I've narrowed it down to 11 tune-sets and 5 songs.  Hopefully all of them will make the cut.

The Tunes

Arkansas Traveler > Soldier's Joy - These two tunes are very common standards but never get old.  They pair well together, both in the key of D, and focusing on them like this should force me to improve upon my arrangements of the tunes.
Kesh Jig > Swallowtail Jig - This is a no-brainer jig-set to include.  I've been enjoying playing both of these tunes recently and I think they will go well together.
Kitchen Girl > Over the Waterfall - Both of these tunes can go very fast, so that should be good.  I've only been playing Kitchen Girl for a couple months but I already can tell that it's one of my favorites.  I was struggling to find a good match for it but I think Over the Waterfall will suffice. 
Whalen's Breakdown > Critter's Gone to Texas - I need something in the key of C, and these two tunes are great.  They are both obscure and have a similar feel with an old timey sound, making nice additions to the mix.  Plus banjo uke will work well with the key of C.
Clouds Thicken > MN 6/8 Two-Step - I didn't know what to pair with Clouds Thicken, the funky jig written by Paul Rosen, but then it dawned on me that the tune I was pairing it with a few months ago - MN 6/8 Two-Step - is still the best choice.  Both of these jigs are quirky and flow well from one to the other.
Star Above the Garter > Road to Lisdoonvarna - I'm wanting to include 4 jig sets and I think these two will be good for that.  I don't know if they are normally paired together but I'm gonna. 
Frosty Battle of Aughrim > Almondo Boswell Polka - This would be an interesting pairing simply because it would be a combo of some mashup tunes and/or unique arrangements.  I might have to modify how I play Almondo - making it an AB tune rather than AABB - to make it work in this case.  I'm looking forward to recording this set.  It'll be good to have a Dminor tune - Frosty Battle - on there.
Johnny Mickey's > Tralee Jail - Tralee Jail is one of my favorites and it seems to go well with Johnny Mickey's if you put Johnny Mickey's first.  Tralee Jail is lots of fun and easy to play.  Johnny Mickey's is more difficult because of one passage in the B-part, but doable.
Jamie Allen > Road to Boston - I like these two tunes together and I'm excited to see how the recording of these two will turn out. 
Rakes of Mallow > Fraksetter's Waltz - I knew I wanted to include Rakes of Mallow but didn't have a good partner for it, then I was playing it and accidentally went into Fraksetter's Waltz and surprisingly that was it!
Camp Pleasant Jig > Sonny Brogan's Jig -  I think this will be a good pairing.  In keeping with my attempt to keep it simple, Sonny Brogan's is a pretty simple tune.  I need to experiment with the arrangement and come up with a few variations on this one to make it more interesting. 

The Songs

Galway Girl - This Steve Earle song has a great little Irish melody built into it.  It's one I like to play and I think I can record a decent version if I don't worry too much about precision.
Griselda - This is a good one.  I like the melody for this song and it's got some cool chord changes n' good lyrics.  What's not to like?
Memphis Flu - Here's another great song.  My version comes from the Two Man Gentlemen's recording of it, I guess.  I don't have the melody transcribed, so I'm challenging myself with writing a solo over the chord changes.  (It's very similar to Jesse James).  If I can do that this tune will definitely be on there.
Sandy Boys - I'm calling it Sandy Boys.  I've gathered together all my favorite interchangeable oldtime verses, up to 12 of them, and will sing them over some easy chord changes with some instrumental breaks in between.  I've found a very easy version of Sandy Boys and I think that might be enough of a bare bones to work with and the lyrics fit over the chord changes and melody.
Ambiguity Song - If I have a 5th song it will probably be this one from Camper Van Beethoven. It shouldn't be that hard to write a solo over the chord changes, I hope.

I imagine this process will take a few months to complete.  I'm not concerned with it being perfect. I do want to do my best though and capture some good versions of these songs and tunes.  One of the challenges will be laying down the bass parts.  I will need to write my own original bass lines in most cases, which could be fun, or could be a chore.  Then it's a matter of pulling them off.  I have done almost zero playing or practice on the uke-bass so far, so I will need to work on that some more to complete this project.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Contradance Music

I've never been to a contradance - not to dance and certainly not as a musician - and I don't know if I ever will.  Nonetheless, I have happened upon the style of music performed at contradances and I like it a lot.  To my ears, contradance tunes are the best of both worlds of oldtime and Irish music.  With Appalachian music, you have fiddlers trying to sound as "oldtime" and authentic as possible, mimicking the untrained musicians of lore who perhaps unintentionally created a definitive style.  Then with Irish music there's a lot of ornamentation and flashy, speedy, virtuoso playing, also with its own distinctive style to maintain. Very little crossover between those two styles for most folks.

All that gets put aside with contradance music.  I guess it could be thought of as more of a generic sound because you have musicians who draw on tunes from a variety of traditions.  Groove seems to be the main component rather than an adherence to authenticity.  The tunes are played loosely but cleanly primarily as a means of maintaining the beat.  In the hands of a contradance band, an Irish tune loses a little bit of its Irishness and an oldtime tunes loses some of its oldtimey nature, but in doing so the tune actually gains a fusion of rhythm and drive that often livens it up.

From what I understand the first commercially available recording of contradance music was not until the 1970's, although the history of playing this dance music goes back way before that. Still, there isn't a whole lot of tradition built up yet to get in the way of simply playing the tunes, whatever they may be.  Also, the instrumentation of a contradance band isn't as set in stone as more traditional forms of music and there appears to be more of any anything goes type attitude, so long as the structure of the tune falls into a set number of measures played at a fast clip.

Speaking of recordings here are some of the first ones that I've become aware of:

New England Tradition - Farewell to the HollowThis recording featuring the legendary Bob McQuillen on piano, April Limber (fiddle) and Pete Colby (banjo and autoharp) is available on Rhapsody, among other places.  The tunes mostly come from French-Canadian, Scottish, Irish, Cape Breton and English sources.  Pete Colby's banjo playing is worth pointing out. At first I thought it was a tenor banjo, but it's a 5-string.  He just has a very Irish way of playing it.

Another one I like, which also features piano player Bob McQuillen, is The Rhythm Rollers – Grand Right and Left.  I accidentally found this album on Rhapsody when searching for a recording of the Camp Pleasant Jig, and I knew immediately that I liked this music!  Bob's superb piano accompaniment is still there along with banjo, this time played by W.B. Reid.  Again I thought the banjo was a tenor banjo, but apparently it's a banjo guitar.  That's cool.  This album features a great selection of tunes and is the best overall contradance recording I have heard.

The Charlottesville area contradance band Floorplay has released a neat recording called Block Party featuring original jigs, reels, oldtime breakdowns, rags, klezmer and more, all of them written by band member Paul Rosen.  I really like the fun and playfulness of this band and transcriptions of all of their tunes can be found on their website, which is a nice bonus.  Take a listen and learn a couple yourself.  I've been playing Clouds Thicken and Critter's Gone to Texas from the album and I love both tunes.

The folks at The Portland Collection have put out two CD's of companion music to their two books of tunes as well as a two-disc set with 97 slightly slowed down tracks called A Portland Play Along Selection.  I have the Portland Play Along Selection, as well as both tunebooks.  The play along tunes are played at about 80% of their full speed, making them easy to learn and jam with .  I'm not an ear player, so I also have to look at the music in the Portland Collection Books for transcriptions, but I've gotten many great tunes out of these books and CD's combined.  The play along CD's also sound good enough to listen to for enjoyment alone.

I've heard of other classic contradance bands such as Yankee Ingenuity and Canterbury Country Dance Orchestra, as well as more contemporary and progressive bands like Elixir, but I have yet to acquire any of their recordings.  However, this tiny step into the world of contradance music has opened up a whole well of opportunity for future listening, learning and playing!  I'm sure there's a lot left to uncover.

Ultralight Tent - BearPaw Wilderness Designs

A couple months ago I got the idea that I wanted a super-light, super-compact two-person backpacking tent.  I did a lot of research, as I like to do when I get a hankering like this, and looked into virtually all of the ultralight makers that I could find, such as TarpTent, Go Lite, BearPaw and many more.  Any of those would have likely been good choices, but I chose Bear Paw Wilderness Designs for the following reasons: a) it is priced very reasonable especially compared to some of the others, b) it seemed to be the most compact design, and c) my correspondence with the owner John Stultz gave me the impression that they take great pride in their work and would do an excellent job.

Initially I was indecisive about which BearPaw model to get, so John patiently went over the different options with me.  I finally decided on the 2-person version of his AT tent, called the AT 2.  This tent is the ultimate in compact size and minimum weight, requiring just two trekking poles to put up - one at the front and one at the back.  (The other BearPaw tent I thought about getting was the PyraNet/PyraTent.  The PyraTent would have offered more ventilation with its removable canopy, but is basically two separate tents - mesh + nylon - requiring more space in your pack, and the pyramid design with one pole in the middle of the tent could cause problems from tossing and turning while sleeping.)

Back to the AT 2.  With two people it's very easy to set up.  My wife and I put it up in under five minutes the first time trying, just by looking at a picture of instructions needed.  I won't always be in a situation where I'll have trekking poles when using it, so I special ordered two poles from BearPaw for setup when trekking poles aren't handy.  (If you are a bicyclist for example, you will need these poles).  You can also tie the front and back top of the tent to overhanging tree limbs to hold it up without using poles at all.

The AT 2 packs down to a size of about 12x4 inches, or 8x8.  Maybe even smaller.  It weighs between 30 and 35 ounces (that's two pounds!).  It's wide enough to sleep two people comfortably, and unless you are 6'6" you should have extra room at the head or foot of it.

Now, with an ultralight tent like this you do sacrifice some things.  For example, I wouldn't want to be in this tent in a high wind because with just two poles holding it up it may not be as stable as a normal tent.  Also, the mesh around the bottom, while necessary for ventilation, could cause water to flood the inside of the tent during a heavy rainstorm because it didn't really seem to form a "bathtub" when we tried it out (this could be due to how we had it staked out).  The design could also present some challenges for beach camping; it seems like the poles would need a hard surface to keep the tent upright.  I'm also curious about the ventilation, as in how much condensation will build up in it.  I will know better after having actually spent a night in it. 

Here's a picture:

BearPaw Wilderness Designs AT 2 tent.
All in all I'm very pleased with the tent and BearPaw is a company that stands behind their product and is a pleasure to work with.  I intend to camp in the tent  by the end of July, if not sooner, and will post a followup after doing so.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Room for Improvement

One thing that happens when you attempt to play with other musicians is you became acutely aware of your own weaknesses.  I've often let this awareness lead to frustration and discouragement to the point where I've either temporarily lost my inspiration to play or I've avoided playing with others altogether.  However, another way to look at it is when you discover difficulties or limitations, treat these as areas to improve.

In my case I have a very long list of areas to improve.  The two most prominent areas are:
--I've never, ever, played anything by ear.  Not even Happy Birthday or Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.  Everything I've ever played has been played from reading the tab.  If I've ever played anything without looking at the tab it was because I memorized the tab and not because I was improvising or playing from within or whatever.
--I have absolutely no idea how to solo over chord changes.  For starters, I wouldn't know what the chords were unless they were written down or someone told me.  But even if I had the chord changes, I'd have no idea of how to improvise over them.

These weaknesses are because I have never spent any time on scales or exercises or developing my ear.  I picked up tab reading pretty quickly, that came easy to me, so I just started in on playing tunes from tab and completely skipped over the fundamentals.  I'm over four years into playing now and I'm realizing that if I am going to get serious about improving, or be able to play with others, I am going to have to change my approach and really work on some things.

Here are some things I want to work on:

Chord Tone Scale (CTS)
Peter Martin has some information and exercises available for the Chord Tone Scale or CTS.  CTS is basically taking the notes of the scale and playing them so that you are always hitting a note of the chord on the downbeat.  The trick to doing so is that if you are going from Low to High you leave out the 6th note of the scale (note E in the key of G for example) and if you are going from High to Low you leave out the 7th note of the scale (note F# in the key of G).  He's developed some exercises around CTS and I hope that by working on that I'll be able to improve my ability to solo over chord changes.  I have at least one other book with information of a similar nature so I intend to study that as well.  And while I'm doing these exercises I want to really concentrate and think about each note and its placement - what its role is in the scale and why it's being used where it is.

Backup Practice
I feel like my backup abilities have improved slightly since getting a banjo uke, but I still have a long, long way to go.  I want to work on some exercises and learn various ways to backup a tune, different patterns and rhythms and techniques.  I have some good instruction materials in this area and it's just a matter of applying those concepts.  For example, jig rhythm is rather hard to play.  But with some practice I'm sure I can improve even if it's just by doing some arpeggio related cross picking type stuff.

Tune Variations
Three times through is the standard amount of times through a tune, especially for a tune set.  I want to take Arkansas Traveler/Soldier's Joy and work up variations so that every time through each tune I'm playing it a little differently.  I have some material directly related to these two tunes that should help.  Then after having done that for these two tunes, I'd like to take some other tunes and come up with variations on my own.  This will of course be composed improv, but once I get a better understanding of the technique behind the variations, I should be better able to apply that on the spot to anything I am playing.

Building/Substituting Chords
I want to experiment with chord substitutions, such as when to replace a chord with its relative minor.  I also would like to learn more about the chords used within a key, and why they are the way they are.  Further, I'd like to experiment with the construction of those chords by combining different notes with the one and five chord tones to add to the expression possibilities. And lastly I'd like to work on partial chords, such as diads or drones, which hint at the chord but are kinda modal.  Plus other stuff I don't even know about yet!

Constructing A Chord Solo
A couple tunes come mind (Memphis Flu, Ambiguity Song) for which I know the chord changes but I have no melody line to play.  All I've been doing on these is strumming chords without playing any notes.  What I'd like to do is take some of the CTS concepts I'll be learning and apply those to the chord changes, trying to build a solo that adheres to the chords being used.  Again this would be a composed solo, but it would be a start.

Organize Irish and Oldtime Tunes
One other thing that I need to do, and this might be the most important thing to do in the short term, at least for my own preparedness, is to organize the tab for the Irish session and oldtime jam tunes that I've worked out so that I can have cheat sheets ready.  This will allow me to be better equipped to participate should I attend a jam or session.  I know that it's bogus to use the tab, but it sure makes it more fun for me than just sitting there not being able to contribute.  If I can get those organized in time I might be able to attend the Rosie Connolly's jam this Wednesday or the Cary St. Cafe jam this Sunday.

Friday, June 3, 2011

Bristol Rhythm vs. Floyd Fest

For the last six years I've attended the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Festival in Bristol TN/VA.  It's about a five-hour drive from my home in central Virginia, but, despite the lengthy drive, up until now there's never been any question about attending.  The Festival dates are always marked off the calendar and a hotel reserved months in advance.  The lineup has always been great, lodging is close by and affordable, the bars are welcoming with low prices on good beer, there's music all day long, and a unique mix of festivarians and local yokels makes for some hilarious people watching.  Often it's not even the headliners that I get excited for, but some of the smaller, grungier, retro and progressive string bands that they get.  For many years now this has been my all around favorite festival.

However, when the lineup was announced for this year's Rhythm and Roots I was a little disappointed.  I understand that they can't have the same acts back every year, but there's a short list of performers that I expect to see there most every time.  At the very least this includes The Hot Seats, Pokey LaFarge, Dr. Dog, The Two Man Gentlemen Band, Christabel and the Jons, Cutthroat Shamrock and Woody Pines.  Sadly, as far as I can tell, none of these performers are there this year.  So I'm really starting to question whether or not I should attend.  I would like to see Zoe Muth but I think she is coming to my local venue Ashland Coffee and Tea around that same time of year.

On the flipside, I've always overlooked Floyd Fest, held each year off the Blue Ridge Parkway in beautiful Floyd, VA, because I knew I'd be going to Bristol and didn't want to do both.  However I've heard good things about Floyd Fest and this year's lineup is very enticing.  Just on the weekend alone, Saturday and Sunday, they've got the following acts playing:  Hot Tuna, Donna the Buffalo, J.P. Harris and the Tough Choices, Dirk Powell, the Red Stick Ramblers, a workshop with Jorma Kaukonen and Larry Keel, Jackass Flats, "Yarn Plays The Dead", The Bloodroots Barter, The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, The Tony Rice Unit, The David Grisman Quintet, The Del McCoury Band and a jam session featuring members of the Tony Rice Unit and the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band.  That's a top notch list and I haven't even researched the lesser-knowns and/or those unfamiliar to me to see who else I might want to check out.  Plus, Floyd is a camp-out festival and I am more into camping now and less into stumbling around drunk, which is what inevitably happens at Bristol.  So it looks like the stars are lining up for a Floyd Fest this year instead of Bristol.  Tickets for Floyd are more expensive, but by the time you add in the Bristol hotel costs and bar tabs (ouch!) it evens out I'm sure.  Get out the hula hoops and flat-footing boards...Floyd Fest here we come!