Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Georgetown Session, St. John's NL - playing by ear

Attended the Tues night Georgestown neighborhood session last night at the Georgetown Pub in St. John's, Newfoundland. Went to listen, not to play, however I regret not bringing my banjo as during the hour I was there 4 or 5 tunes came up that I could have played along to. As a listener it probably wasn't the most cohesive session as all tunes are played slowly and by ear so everyone is encouraged to participate even if all you do is flub.

Even though I've been playing trad music for 5 years now I've never played anything by ear or from the heart. I suppose a session like this where you're not allowed to bring a tune book but at the same time you're given permission to fail would be good for me.

Lack of patience, wanting to play the tune the "right" way and fear of what others think I sound like has caused me to take the easy route of playing by sight from tab. I've done a better job than most of making this fake method sound like music but something about that Georgestown session has maybe made me want to try it the way you're supposed to. We'll see. My biggest fear with that has always been the risk of frustration and giving it up altogether when I know that I can play for my own enjoyment simply by reading along to the tab.

What I think I'll do is make recordings of the 100+ tunes I play by sight but not by ear and then try to play along with the recordings. It will take a beginner's mind to start from scratch like that, and perhaps another 5 years or more to get back to where I am now but hopefully it will be worth it. They say it's the journey and not the destination, right?

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Reels, Jigs and Waltzes Tune Book PDF

I'm about to embark on a trip to St. John's Newfoundland for the next week or so.  I've created a homemade tune book pdf of mandolin tab (AKA tenor banjo tab) to take along with me for playing while I'm there.  It contains a mixture of "reels" (4/4 or 2/4 time including hornpipes, polkas, schottisches, two-steps, rags, breakdowns), jigs (6/8 time) and waltzes (3/4 time including a mazurka). Basically these are my favorite tunes right now. I may do some busking in an area with a lot of foot traffic and see if I can make any drinking money!

Click on this link to download the tune book pdf.

My tenor banjo is tuned GDAE so my tab is the same as standard mandolin tablature.

The following tunes are included:

Farewell to Whiskey
Staten Island
Rakes of Mallow
Whalen’s Breakdown
Swamplake Breakdown
Sackett’s Harbor
Arkansas Traveler
Soldier’s Joy
Whiskey Before Breakfast
Temperance Reel
Eli Green’s Cakewalk
Kitchen Girl
Sligo Creek
Nail that Catfish to a Tree
Tralee Jail
Flop Eared Mule
Scotland the Brave
Golden Slippers
Johnny Mickey’s Polka
Road to Boston
Over the Waterfall
Horace Hanesworth
Big Scioty
Jump in the Well
Johnny Johnny Don’t Get Drunk
Locust Tree
Quince Dillon’s High D
Old Grey Cat
Keel Row
Glenburnie Rant
Cripple Creek
Cluck Old Hen
Frosty Battle of Aughrim
Almando’s Polka
Stone’s Rag
Walking Uptown Foxtrot

Banks of Lough Gowna
Lilting Banshee
Geese in the Bog
Pipe in the Hob
Star Above the Garter
Road to Lisdoonvarna
Fair Jenny’s Jig
Garry Owen
Andy’s Jig
Old Red Barn
Little Burnt Potato
Joys of Wedlock
Dancing Susan
The Butterfly
Kesh Jig
Swallowtail Jig
Clouds Thicken
Minnesota 6/8 Two Step
Camp Pleasant Jig
Sonny Brogan’s Jig

Black Velvet Waltz
Valse Clog
Cajun Walt
Uff Da! Waltz
Madame Sosthene
Ryerson’s Waltz
Grandpa’s Mazurka
Grandpa’s Waltz
Abner Juve’s Waltz
Johnny Homme’s Waltz
Valse Quadrille
Birch Hills Waltz

I noticed a type-O in Road to Lisdoonvarna - it should be an E in a couple places where I have a B shown, and a couple other tunes have some notes out of place I'm sure but for the most part this is fairly accurate.  Cheers.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Tenor Banjo Makers

There are several options for purchasing a tenor banjo. The most obvious route is going with a production model Gold Tone or Deering.  These companies both make decent, relatively inexpensive entry-level models.  Or you could try getting a vintage 1920’s Vega, Bacon & Day, Slingerland, Paramount or similar from a reputable dealer such as Vinnie Mondello, Bernunzio, Intermountain Guitar and Banjo or Spruce Tree Music.  There are also at least two well known makers in Ireland – Clareen and Boyle – who specialize in tenor banjos.

However, I wanted to point out some North American banjo makers I’m aware of who either make or have made custom tenor banjos: Tommy George, Brooks Masten, Noel Booth and Jason Romero.

Tommy George makes fine, hand-crafted banjos in Somerville, Tennessee.  Everything is crafted by hand using rasp, file, lathe, bandsaw and sanders.  George Banjos offers over 50 years of building experience to create individual instruments that stand apart from the standard models produced by factories.  

Brooks Masten of Brooks Banjos in Portland, Oregon is dedicated to old-world craftsmanship. Although he specializes in openback 5-string banjos, Brooks can make custom tenor banjos with his signature vintage look.  His banjo shop is a one-man operation and each banjo gets the special attention it deserves.

Instrument builder Noel Booth of Old Fiddle Road Banjo Works designs and builds banjos made with a combination of traditional and unusual woods.  He works out of a small shop in Balsam, North Carolina and can make you an original tenor banjo using a combination of historical and contemporary design.

Jason Romero makes his hand-built, finely crafted J. Romero Banjos in Horsefly, British Columbia.  Jason's banjos are playable works of art -- ever changing and evolving with just enough innovation to provide a tasteful alternative.  As with all the builders mentioned here, custom tenor banjo orders are welcome.
J. Romero Tenor Banjo
There are many advantages to having a custom instrument made. For banjos, the cost is not much more, and sometimes less, than a mass produced or vintage model.  Your dream instrument can be tailored just for you, with the perfect combination of materials and specs.  Plus there's just the coolness factor of having your very own banjo which will bring you that much closer to playing and sounding your best.  Let me know if there are any other North American tenor banjo makers who should be on this list.

Oh, and if you get a custom banjo you will also eventually want a custom gig bag for it.  I recommend Colorado Case or Glenn Cronkhite gig bags.  Good luck!

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Hiking Northern Virginia's Prince William Forest Park

The pictures below were taken by my wife Laura during a hike we took last month in Prince William Forest Park.  It was a hot July day, but on the shady trail it stayed fairly comfortable.

Typical path - South Valley Trail
Located in Northern Virginia near the Quantico Marine base, Prince William Forest Park is the largest protected natural area in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region, and features over 15,000 acres of piedmont forest.  A $5 entrance fee grants you access to the park for one week. Since it is right off I-95 exit 150, and in close proximity to densely populated areas, you'd think the park would get a lot of use but we've always found trail traffic to be very light.  In fact, on this last visit we only crossed paths with a couple other walkers during our 8-mile ramble. 

With over 37 miles of hiking trails, options are numerous. Maps are available at the visitor center and the rangers can help you plan your hike.  Soon after you leave your car and hit the trails the park can become surprisingly rustic.  This is no nature trail.  The scenery and conditions could often pass for a more moderate Appalachian Trail.  Of course it's Northern VA so you're never that far from a road or people, but it's easy to think you are somewhere much more remote.

Waterfall in distance
 For our route, we drove in to parking lot A and made a loop from there.  We walked along the South Valley Trail from Parking Lot A all the way to Mawavi Road.  The South Valley trail parallels a creek for much of the way and is probably the best overall trail in the park.  If you keep going past the intersection with High Meadows Trail, as we did, you'll come across a nice waterfall near the Mawavi Cabin Camp.  We stopped near the waterfall for a picnic lunch by the creek.

We continued walking on South Valley Trail, but turned right once we got to Mawavi Road, which is actually a gravel forest road.  Mawavi Road led to the paved "Scenic Drive" road, where we turned right and walked along the road until it met up with the Meadows Trail.  No cars, only bicyclists, were on the road.  Still, we were happy to get off the road and turned left onto Meadows Trail - a nice trail that takes you past the Taylor Farm Site.  We then turned right at Taylor Farm "Road" (it's more like a path).  That led us back to the South Valley Trail where we briefly re-tread some of the way we had been earlier until were back at the car.  About 8 miles altogether I estimate.

Prince William Forest Park also features 8 primitive campsites as part of its Chopawamsic Backcountry Area.  This is a separate part of the park and you have to get a permit from the visitor center to camp there.  You also can't drive in; you have to hike in a couple miles to get to your site.  This type of camping is very rare for Northern VA and I'm looking forward to checking it out.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Badge of Honor

(Originally written Thursday, July 12, 2oo1)

kick me white dog I’m stupid

how easily we forget

now that I’ve started I’d like to learn how to turn off the frightful glances and whispers which ring through my head then back down to laughter

then once more to a sight of spoken words more like yells really that stand for get back and

my wrist band is my badge of honor

and then it sinks back into the past and you stress out and let out a big sigh of relief until you have to

understand that you’re not being intimately recorded for playback in some time capsule but rather more for the purposes of courtesy postcards mailed from disguises

bless your heart and soul catsup

perturbed more so unlike before

hear ye hear ye is of the utmost concern

Saturday, August 6, 2011

You Need to Purchase Old-Time Festival Tunes for Fiddle & Mandolin by Dan Levenson

There is a school of thought in old-time music that to be legit one must primarily learn tunes first-hand by listening to field recordings of guru fiddlers or the occasional clawhammer banjo player.  There is also a preservationist attitude that to keep the music in its purest state it can only be passed down by ear and any other approach somehow dilutes it or takes away from the experience.  While there is some truth in that, and I respect people with that level of dedication, for the rest of us we simply want to play these fun, hypnotic tunes by whatever means possible.  For us, turning to a tunebook to get the jist of the melodic notes from the "dots" on a page is a perfectly acceptable method.  Especially if we happen to play an instrument other than fiddle or clawhammer banjo where the blueprint is perhaps more forgiving or open to interpretation. (Why can't a saxophone player do old-time, for example?).

Which brings me to what I think is quite possibly the best overall collection of old-time tunes that I've come across: Dan Levenson's Old-Time Festival Tunes for Fiddle & Mandolin.  (Note: there is a clawhammer banjo version of the book as well).  117 different tunes are covered; tunes that people actually play, written the way they play them!  Granted, all jams are different...if you traveled around the USA I'm sure you'd find that each community of jammers has their idiosyncrasies, core tunes, and ways of playing them.  But I'm quite certain that a good percentage of the tunes in this book are going to come up at any regional session, and if you play these versions, smile and enjoy yourself you'll fit in just fine.

Old-Time Festival Tunes for Fiddle & Mandolin is a spiral-bound book. Tunes are presented in standard notation and very legible tab; a plus for me as I am primarily a tab reader although I can also muddle through standard notation. (The tab is intended for the mandolin but also works for tenor banjo tuned GDAE, which is what I play.  Note I said tenor banjo tuned GDAE and not Irish tenor banjo although I do also play Irish tunes on my tenor banjo. Tunes like St. Anne's Reel and Staten Island Hornpipe.  Hey wait a minute those tunes are in this book!  What does that make them?  What does that make me? But I digress.)

There's actually two versions of notation for each selection - a basic version to help you get the melody under your fingers and an advanced ornamental version for when you're ready to tackle a more challenging take on the tune.  The tab version is different still - more than the basic notation but not as complex as the advanced notation. So if you can read both tab and sheet music then you actually have 3 written variations to draw from. The suggested chords are printed above the standard notation line. Concerning chord selection, Levenson explains that chords aren't as fixed as some might think (I agree) and admits to using ones that he thinks serve the tune the best even if the old timers might not have had these in their bag of tricks. However if you find that other chords work better then he encourages you to by all means use those.

Also included are two CDs where each tune is played through at a moderate speed.  These CD versions are similar enough to the written versions to let you hear how the tune sounds but they are not a note-for-note playing of what has been written. So, with the recordings you actually have a 4th version of each tune that you can work on by ear.  You'll appreciate this later even if you don't at first.  You don't have to stop there though. Go on YouTube, poke around the web, compare to other written sources, and use this book as a supplement to what you find.  Absorb as much as you can.

Ultimately the goal of a book like this is just to get you off the ground and playing this music your own way - a launch pad towards personal expression and/or playing with others. It shouldn't be taken too literally. There is no one definitive way to play any of these tunes.  The right way is the way you like it. So get out that Irish mandolin and learn some of these old-time festival tunes!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Hot Seats: Live! review, or The Hot Seats Make Sound Heard In Head

What do you do when for years you've had an idea in mind of what your favorite music might sound like and then along comes a band of charismatic, smartalecks who just so happen to make that same sound?  Such is the case for me with the Richmond, VA quintet The Hot Seats.  Just when you think it's honky-tonk it's bluegrass; just when you think it's bluegrass it's oldtime; just when you think it's oldtime it's ragtime; and just when you think it's ragtime it is, well, party time!

Live shows by The Hot Seats always seem to come and go in the blink of an eye.  Later on you ask yourself things like, "Did they really work in a cover of Frank Zappa's Take Your Clothes off When You Dance, and if so did I interpret the song literally or figuratively?"  Or, "Did a 6'8" real life Woody from Toy Story exclaim 'We're in the spirit world now' during a blazing fiddle tune?"  Memories aren't always clear.  One can't always be sure. Thankfully now we have an officially released, professionally mixed, live recording that offers at least a snippet of an idea of what that last Hot Seats show was probably like.  Or, I suppose, how it might sound the next time you see them play, warts and all.
Captured at Ashland Coffee and Tea in April 2011, "Live!" features 13 songs, many of them staples of the band's current repertoire, but contains no repeats from any previous studio albums.  Long-time fan favorites such as Same Old Man, Cheesy Beef Boogie, and Dill Pickle Rag made the cut, as well as newish numbers like Mule Wife, Peaches, and River Stay Away from My Door, plus the group's completely original take on John Prine's Sam Stone that hopefully they never tire of playing.  To name a few.

Sure, anyone familiar with The Hot Seats' live sets can probably think of many great songs that aren't on here.  But this was a one shot deal...the best music they could fit into one show, recorded live, on the fly, boiled down to the cream of the crop...50 minutes of no-filler Virginia goodness.  Long overdue. Candy for the ears.

The Hot Seats: Live! is now available from CD Baby.  Get it while it's beefy cheesy!

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

The Four Modes of Irish and Oldtime music – in a nutshell

The four most common modes in Irish and Oldtime music are Major, Minor, Mixolydian and Dorian.

Major (AKA “Ionian”)
Like the regular major scale
Steps = Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half
Example:  C to C on white piano keys

Minor (AKA “Aeolian”)
The natural minor scale; like the Major with a flattened third, sixth and seventh
Steps = Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole
Example:  A to A on white piano keys

Mixolydian (think of it as a major modal)
Like the Major with a flattened seventh note
Steps = Whole, Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole
Example: G to G on white piano keys
June Apple and Red Haired Boy are mixolydian tunes

Dorian (think of it as a minor modal)
Like the Minor with a raised sixth note
Steps = Whole, Half, Whole, Whole, Whole, Half, Whole
Example:  D to D on white piano keys
Ballydesmond Polka and Road to Lisdoonvarna are dorian tunes
Special TipMost oldtime jams stick to the keys of D-major, G-major, A-major and (occasionally) C-major.  If you know the notes in these 4 major scales, you also have the common minor, mixolydian and dorian modes covered.  Here’s why: The tonal center changes but the notes stay the same.

D-major, B-minor, A-mixolydian and E-dorian all use the same notes 

G-major, E-minor, D-mixolydian and A-dorian all use the same notes 

A-major, F#-minor, E-mixolydian and B-dorian all use the same notes:  

C-major, A-minor, G-mixolydian and D-dorian all use the same notes 

Forming chords in these modes
To form a standard 3-note chord in any of these modes, start on any note then select every other note after that until you’ve reached the 1-3-5 notes of the chord (it's hard for me to write this in a way that's clear).  But, for example, in the D-major mode (and B-minor, A-mixolydian and E-dorian modes) the notes used are D-E-F#-G-A-B-C#-D-E-F#-G-A-B, and so on.  To form a D chord in these modes, you use the notes D, F# and A.  (Do you see how we skipped the notes E and G to form this D chord?).  However, in the C-major mode, which also happens to use the same notes as the A-minor, G-mixolydian and D-dorian modes (C-D-E-F-G-A-B-C-D-E-F-G-A, and so on) to make a “D” chord you use the notes D, F and A.  We still skip the E and G notes, but notice how in this case the 3rd of the “D” chord is an F and not an F#.  By flattening the 3rd one half step like that it actually makes it a D-minor chord.  So in the modes of C-major, A-minor, G-mixolydian or D-dorian if the melody suggests a chord with D as the root, then you can assume that a D-minor chord would sound better than a D-major.  You can apply this formula to all chords.

This may be hard to grasp at first and even harder to implement on your instrument.  Although once you start to get a handle on the concept I think you’ll discover that Irish and Oldtime music is not as mysterious as it seems, and there isn’t as much to memorize as you might think.

Monday, August 1, 2011

Paddy in the Holler, 7/31/11 at Crossroads Coffee

Last week I noticed a post on the Richmond Folk Music Society's Facebook page about a performance by Paddy in the Holler at Crossroads Coffee and Ice Cream in Richmond, VA on Sunday, July 31, 2011.  I didn't know what this was but I was intrigued enough to check it out.
O'Flaherty (tenor banjo), Dailey (bodhran), Costa (fiddle)

It turns out Paddy in the Holler is a traditional music trio comprised of Patrick O'Flaherty, from Connemara, Ireland (a native Gaelic speaker), Mary Dailey, a West Virginia ballad singer, and Jimmy Costa, an old-time musician also from West Virginia.  I'm so glad I attended this performance because their music is exactly the kind of stuff I like to hear: a mixture of Irish and Appalachian folk trad music.   

I was pleased with the way the musicians began playing...merging from soundcheck into performance without so much as an introduction; letting the music speak for itself.   The setlist included traditional Irish (reels, hornpipes, airs, etc.), old American folk songs, stringband blues, songs sung in Gaelic, waltzes, fiddle tunes and more. 

Each musician played multiple instruments throughout the evening: Irish tenor banjo, bouzouki, mandolin and button accordion for Patrick O'Flaherty, guitar and bodhran (Irish frame drum) for Mary Dailey, and fiddle, clawhammer banjo and guitar for Jim Costa.  The different combinations of instruments - and the ease with which each musician played them - combined with the variety of material, kept me very interested throughout their two set performance.

In fact, I was surprised by how many tunes & songs I recognized, including Flowers of Edinburgh, Miss Mcleod's (AKA Hop High Ladies), Cold Frosty Morning, Hard Times Come Again No More, Red Haired Boy, Hills of Connemara, Drowsie Maggie, Turkey in the Straw, Minstrel Boy, Scotland the Brave, Bonaparte Crossing the Rhine and Ragtime Annie.  It's comforting to know that even musicians at this level still find enough enjoyment in these relatively common session and jam tunes to want to play them in a performance setting, rather than doing a more obscure repertoire.  It demonstrates the beauty and vitality that remains in these popular tunes.
O'Flaherty (mandolin), Dailey (guitar), Costa (ba

I was also glad to just have the opportunity to hang out for a while at Crossroads Coffee, a shop I rarely have the chance to visit.  Not enough good things can be said about this place.  It has a neighborhood feel, being a little removed from the main drag of Richmond, however if you sit there long enough you notice that an eclectic bunch of folks come through, giving it the feel of a coffee shop/cafe you might find in a more metropolitan area than Richmond.  The food at Crossroads is excellent with many choices ranging from your standard coffee shop fare (bagels, paninis, wraps) to more refined and foodie oriented options (Thai Peanut Rice Bowl), to shakes and other sweet treats.  Add an impressive beer list and overall good "juju" and you have a place that I wish I lived closer to so I could visit more often.  While characteristically busy this night, the staff always seemed jovial and never stressed (unlike some other places I can think of!).

Granted, for a musical performance the confines of Crossroads can be a little cramped as it's not really designed for this kind of thing, but the respectful crowd of folk music listeners and regular patrons there for a Sunday evening snack or beer/coffee made sure that everyone who wanted to could see and hear clearly.

Finally, I'd like to mention that Patrick O'Flaherty of Paddy in the Holler owns a pub in Lewisburg, WV called simply The Irish Pub. From looking at the website it appears that they have lots of good live music there, including Mr. O'Flaherty himself performing many nights of the week.  At only 3.5 hours from Richmond it might be worth a weekend visit some time.