Monday, November 21, 2011

New Belgium 1554 Enlightened Black Ale

Ft. Collins, Colorado's New Belgium Brewing Co. has made it to Central Virginia!  Since late August a limited number of their beers have been available in local stores and restaurants.  Fat Tire is the brew most closely associated with New Belgium, and the hype surrounding that amber ale preceded its Eastern arrival by several years.  However, I would venture to say that New Belgium's tastiest offering is the 1554 Enlightened Black Ale, a dark beer based on an old, obscure Belgian style.

The 1554 pours black, with roasted, malty overtones and a hint of chocolate.  Not too bitter or too sweet, and thankfully not too hoppy.  1554 also doesn't have a real pronounced Belgian character, or at least the character my taste buds seem to associate with Belgian beers - another plus. This unique flavor is due to that bygone recipe which supposedly dates back to the year it is named after.  To me 1554 seems like a not-so-distant relative to a dark lager or Schwarzbier.  Pick up a six-pack now at your local store.  In Ashland, the Caboose has been stocking it.  Cheers.

Friday, November 18, 2011

The 4-string banjo in Jamaican Mento

I submitted the following text to Deering Banjo Company for use in their newsletter.  I thought I would share it here since I find Mento music so interesting!

Banjo plays a primary role in Jamaica's national folk music known as mento - an indigenous fusion of the island’s African and European folk dance traditions.  Other forms of music, such as Cuban rumba and Trinidadian calypso, have also been and continue to be absorbed into the mento style - and vice versa.
Blue Glaze Mento Band, 2010, Nelson Chambers - banjo

Mento has a characteristic 3:3:2 rhythm in quadruple time with an emphasis on 4th beat in a bar of 4.  The songs are usually in major keys and key changes are not common.  Mento songs are secular and usually non-political in nature, however the lyrics are often humorous and surprisingly bawdy.  These are sung in both standard English and Jamaican patois. 

4-string banjo is the main instrument in mento.  Usually this is a tenor banjo tuned in some kind of fifths tuning, although not always to concert pitch.  If a tenor is not available, musicians will use a 5-string banjo and take off the 5th string - either capoed up or tuned in a "uke" tuning (essentially making it a plectrum banjo).  The most common mento instruments used to accompany a banjo include guitar, maracas and a rhumba box (also known as a marimbula).  

Jolly Boys album cover, 1990(?), Moses Deans - banjo
Due to its volume and sharp tone, the banjo's role in mento is both rhythm and lead.  Banjo players are given “breaks” between verses to improvise arpeggio-based solos that harmonize with the primary chords and suggest the rhythm.  These lead melodies often vary between eighth notes and quarter-note triplets creating a polyrhythmic banjo phrasing over the choppy upstroke of the guitar strum. 

One of the best and most influential mento banjo players was Moses Deans - an original member of The Jolly Boys, mento's best known group.  Moses Deans can be heard on the Jolly Boys' excellent late 80's to early 90's albums Pop 'N' Mento, Sunshine 'N' Water, and Beer Joint & Tailoring.  These recordings feature Allan Swymmer on lead vocals & bongo and a have a rustic, natural feel.  Moses Deans passed away around 1998.
Moses Deans
Another notable mento banjoist was Nelson chambers (October 10, 1944-November 14, 2010), co-founder of The Blue Glaze Mento Band.  Nelson Chambers' Caribbean banjo licks can be heard on Stanley Beckford's two essential mento albums - Plays Mento and Reggaemento from 2002 and 2004.  Nelson Chambers also performs on Blue Glaze’s outstanding new studio release We Will Wait, one of the best albums to come out in 2011 and the last recordings he would make before his death.

Nelson Chambers

Music enthusiasts are encouraged to seek out and listen to this joyful, accessible music and perhaps learn a tune or two from mento's extensive repertoire of Jamaican folk-lyric songs, which are custom made for tenor or plectrum banjo!

Thanks to Mike Garnice of the website, ethnomusicologist Daniel T. Neely, and musician Andrew Roblin for helping provide me with the information necessary to write this article.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Robin Shackleton of Sylvan Temple World Instruments

While researching drum makers for my Guide to Makers of Custom Made Bodhrans article, one luthier in particular stood out.  His name is Robin Shackleton of Sylvan Temple World Instruments in Vancouver Island, Bristish Columbia. 
Robin Shackleton - photo by rphl_lxndr
Robin makes gorgeous handmade drums and and is now starting to explore the world of stringed instruments, including ouds.  His one of a kind, custom instruments come from the forests of Vancouver Island. He salvages Aldar, Maple, Arbutus, Cypress, Yew, Oak and other kinds of trees from various burn and waste sites. The skins and hardware used are from sources as local and considerate as possible. Robin completes all processes of instrument creation and - due to the care given to each instrument - produces only a limited number each year.  Drum types include bodhrans, tars and other frame drums, plus djembes, doumbeks, darabukas, cajons, and more.  Customizations include the option of a adding a personal text, verse or mantra to your drum in runes or old languages.
A couple SylvanTemple bodhrans

SylvanTemple Oud - front

SylvanTemple Oud - back

The SylvanTemple doumbek I ordered
Robin also frequently gives instructional workshops around Comox Valley, BC on drum-making and drum-playing.  For his drum-making workshops, he does the prep work of turning and finishing the shell to your specs, but the rest is done together!  At the end of one of his 1-day workshops you are left with a new djembe and the knowledge of how to re-head, tune and care for it.  Follow up sessions are available.

As an experienced player and performer of Middle Eastern drumming, Robin's musical workshops allow rhythm enthusiasts to improve their skills while learning about various styles of drumming.  These sessions are open to anyone with an interest in rhythm who wants to experience first-hand the benefits and joys of the drum.  Doumbek, frame drum and general percussion instruction is offered. 

For more information visit or go to Robin's Facebook page. Also check out the Comox Drumming site -

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Six Water Grog's best albums of 2010 re-cap

It's November and soon I'll be compiling my best albums of 2011 list.  This has been a great year for music, with albums by stalwarts like Gillian Welch, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Del McCoury and Bill Frisell; newcomers Dawes and Floating Action, and the exotic sounds of Jamaican Mento and Afro-Cuban music sure to make the list.  But before I jump too far ahead let's look back at my best albums of 2010. This blog wasn't up and running in December 2010 so this will be the first time many readers have seen this.  For the most part I still agree with my rankings and opinions some 11 months later. 

1) Hammer No More the Fingers – Black Shark
Black Shark, the follow up to 2009's Looking for Bruce, is a definite step forward for this Durham, NC band. You won't find a more cohesive batch of songs on any release this year. It's not possible to pick a favorite track - every one could be a different person's favorite. At times there are hints of surf rock and 90's slacker.  Cryptic lyrics, bright guitar chords, aggressive bass lines and confident but humble drumming.  The parts – 3 musicians, 10 songs – make a surprisingly full whole. Tight, concise, econo jamming and the best album I heard in 2010. (Note – I had an advance review copy at the end of 2010. It actually came out in 2011 so I will probably mention it in some way on this year's list since 2011 will be the year people associate with this album).

2) Arcade Fire – The Suburbs
I had the Suburbs on repeat for quite some time after it came out this summer 2010. While I enjoyed Arcade Fire's critically acclaimed debut album Funeral, that album didn't quite jive with me. And then on the muddy sounding Neon Bible the songs weren't there, or if they were they were buried too deep in the mix. But The Suburbs hooked me right away. It's an incredibly well paced album that never wanes. It's long...over an hour...and it ebbs and flows over that time. Fully deserving of the mainstream attention it received, you don't have to bend your ear at all to see what makes this album so appealing.

3) Jesse McReynolds – Songs of the Grateful Dead
Forget that this is a tribute to Jerry Garcia and Robert Hunter. This is a great album period. It can stand on that fact alone. The essence of these songs was captured authentically in the studio, better even than the Dead ever did on a studio album. At the forefront is McReynolds' signature mandolin cross-picking style, and there are enough Garcia-esque guitar licks, courtesy of Stu Allen and David Nelson, to keep it real. McReynolds' singing voice seems perfectly matched to these songs which Garcia sang lead on originally. The tunes are lovingly played true to the style. Yet, as you listen to this album it takes on an identity of its own, moving beyond a collection of Grateful Dead covers toward being simply a classic album as if you always wanted to hear the songs this way. Natural born easy. 
4) Preservation Hall Jazz Band – An Album to Benefit Preservation Hall
Despite having a different guest artist on every track, this album is surprisingly consistent and a joy to listen to.  Normally a compilation like this wouldn't end up on my best of the year list. But song after song is delightful, even as it veers from one guest to another, including Tom Waits, Andrew Bird, Jim James, Amy Levre, Merle Haggard, Brandi Carlisle, and more. The strains of New Orleans jazz are played with more fervor and spunk than my novice ears would expect there to be, considering how many times these songs have been done in the past. It's chock full of standards, some that I was familiar with and some that were new to me. The songs on this album will always hold a special place with me from now on, no matter where or how I hear them.

5) Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three – Riverboat Soul
A potent, vibrant collection of old-timey sounding but mostly orginal songs that borrow themes and elements from tradition. You're not going to find new music that sounds like this anywhere else. A true songster, Pokey merges an intoxicating blend of ragtime, blues and stringband music, but there's something more to it than that. Whenever you see him live you feel like you're seeing something really special. Until now this X-faxtor hadn't really been captured on any of Pokey's records. But with Riverboat Soul we have a tangible example of the musical magic he and his band the South City Three are capable of. Pokey remains relatively obscure, however he is carving an influence in traditional music that is starting to be recognized.

6) Two Man Gentlemen Band – Dos Amigos, Una Fiesta
With Dos Amigos, Una Fiest, The Two Man Gentlemen band have finally perfected their musical chops, songwriting skills, and presentation. What we're left with is easily their most enjoyable album to date. The only disappointment is the noticeable lack of plectrum banjo, replaced by tenor guitar. Most listeners won't mind or notice this switch though.

7) The Hold Steady – Heaven is Whenever
More polished and with better production than any of their previous albums this is the best sounding album the Hold Steady has made. The songs themselves might not be as good, and it might not be as classic as some of their earlier work, but it's easier on the ears. And it's music that should be played LOUDLY. It basically hip-hop, Bad Religion style literate punk and beatnik poetry put to classic rock riffs. No individual song stands out as being extremely strong, but I found myself returning to this album a lot in 2010. This one might get loud...turn it up.

8) Dr. Dog – Shame, Shame
Shame, Shame is a great album, better than what almost any other band could put out. The Scott McMicken songs are particularly strong this time. My only complaint is that if you weren't paying close attention, you could mistake Shame, Shame for their previous album Fate, which sounded like their previous album, and so on. So basically they've been sitting at this plateau for a while now, dating all the way back to 2004's impeccable Easy Beat. Shame, Shame is more of a good thing, but I had such high hopes that it ultimately is a slight let down. A let down that still managed to be some of the best music of the year.

9) MGMT – Congratulations
After their first album Oracular Spectacular was such a rousing success, a lot of eyes were on MGMT to see what the next one would be like. Would they fall victim to the sophomore slump? Well, we can scratch our heads on that one because it feels like the verdict may still be out. You have to give them credit for going a different direction than what most of the public probably expected. Once you erase any expectations and just listen to it you're left with a trippy, ambitious attempt at making an artistic follow-up to a very popular first album.

10) Carl Broemel – All Birds Say
This slow moving, contemplative album from My Morning Jacket's lead guitarist and multi-instrumentalist snuck its way into my top 10.  I had to play it a few times before the unhurried groove and mellow mood sunk in. This is a quiet, under the radar, deeply personal release that shows there's much more to Broemel than bigtime rock n' roll gunslinger. It's perfect for both chilled-out late-night listening or on a lazy Sunday morning. You can return to it time and time again. At least one track from this album – the song Carried Away – has started to find its way into MMJ setlists, and we can be thankful for that. 

Honorable Mention:

The Hot Seats EP 2010
The Hot Seats have taken the string band sound a step farther in intensity without losing anything along the way. Only 7 tracks long (if you order it online) and clocking in at just 22 minutes, this isn't technically a full-length but it deserves mention because of the solid musicianship and overall impact. You can search far and wide and you will not find anyone playing old-time music with this level of sincerity and drive. Other young stringbands either play it too safe, or so haphazard and punkish that it comes off as hokey and contrived. It is the tradition for traditional music to evolve, and the Hot Seats know how to honor that tradition by bringing it into the modern era. This was the best old-time recording put out by anybody in 2010. And it covers a wide breadth – from straight up old-time tunes (Betsy Likens, Sugar Hill, Rocky Pallet) to rags (Plowboy Hop and Pig Ankle Rag) to stringband blues (Polecat Blues) to a minor-key Irish reel (Evite Gabriel). This is authentic, no holds barred, stringband music. For your health.

That's a re-cap of my best of 2010 albums list.  Look for my best of 2011 list in mid to late December.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Dictionary of Imaginary Places

The Dictionary of Imaginary Places, authored by Alberto Manguel and Gianni Guadalupi, is a 750+ page mock travel book of fictional places from the minds of storytellers - earthly locales an adventurous traveler could visit if only they existed.  Places such as Middle-Earth, Narnia, Oz, Hogwarts, Neverwhere, Atlantis, Xanadu, Shangri-La, Wonderland, Jurassic Park, Camelot, Avalon, Brigadoon, Pepperland and more.  

It is written in the tone of a guidebook.  It assumes all these make-believe lands occupy the same world and are accessible to one other.  Like a travel guide, brief descriptions of the geography, history and points of interest are included.  There are many maps and illustrations - all drawn in a consistent style - to supplement the text.  The authors frequently offer personal advice to aid potential visitors, such as  "Though they might be invited to join a Yahoo-hunt, visitors are best advised to avoid any contact with them". 

Visiting these places doesn't require a passport; it simply requires a sense of wonder.  As a travelogue of the unreal, the Dictionary of Imaginary Places not only opens the door to a whole new world of books and authors, but it is a handy resource for devising a mythological world of your own.  

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Phish Hampton/Winston-Salem '97 Box Set

I remember walking out of the 2nd night of Phish's Fall 1997 Hampton shows thinking "if you don’t like that you don’t like Phish”!  When the Hampton Comes Alive release came out several years ago, which chronicled the Fall 1998 run at Hampton, I couldn’t help but wonder why 1998 was chosen over the superior 1997 shows?  This hunger can now be sated, as Phish is releasing the complete shows from Hampton 11/21/97 and 11/22/97, plus 11/23/97 Winston-Salem in a 7-disc box set they are calling Hampton/Winston-Salem ’97.  When I recently wrote about the 11/22/97 show on this blog, I didn’t know that an official release was forthcoming.  I had been listening to a semi-decent audience recording that streams online.  Now, we can immerse ourselves in these recordings in pristine audio quality. 
Fall 1997 is generally considered Phish’s best tour – heralded in a way similar to the Grateful Dead’s famed May 1977 tour.  Hopefully musicologists are starting to overcome their built-in bias against Phish, and can finally examine the music for what it was – some of the most focused, intellectual, and well-executed improvisation – in any genre of music - the world had seen up ‘til then.  Hampton/Winston-Salem ’97 is an excellent place for that kind of study.  It is easily one of the best examples of this foursome at the pinnacle of their playing.  It doesn’t get much better than this!
Hampton Coliseum
Fall 1997 Phish is when all their musical training, including countless hours in the practice room, and years on the road honing their live show, came to fruition and blossomed into a world of music previously unexplored.  Using a new-found foundation of funk grooves to spearhead its creativity, Phish gladly took a seat at a table previously reserved for only the most elite of musical forebears and cooked up their own four-course meal, summoning exotic spices and flavors into existence and forever changing the role of improvisation in rock music.
Trey Anastasio, 1997
These are back-to-back (belly to belly) shows over three consecutive nights and only one song is repeated.  That song is Black-Eyed Katy, a new-at-the-time instrumental that would later develop into the song Moma Dance.  In the 11/22/97 show it was placed in the 2nd set, while on the next night in Winston-Salem Black-Eyed-Katy funked up the 1st set.  Besides that one repeat, there is approximately seven hours of unique music to soak up on this release.  If you’re a die-hard Phish fan then this is what you’ve been waiting for.  However, I encourage those who are new to Phish or who have been on the fence about the qualities of their music to use the release of these shows as an opportunity to dive right into the deep end of what amounted to be the most influential force in late 90’s live music.


11/21/97 Hampton Coliseum - Hampton, VA
Disc One
Set I:

1. Emotional Rescue > (17:44)
2. Split Open And Melt (13:44)
3. Beauty Of My Dreams (3:27)
4. Dogs Stole Things (4:48)
5. Punch You In The Eye > (9:13)
6. Lawn Boy > (3:45)
7. Chalk Dust Torture (9:16)
8. Prince Caspian (10:33)

Disc Two
Set II:

1. Ghost > (15:48)
2. AC/DC Bag > (25:49)
3. Slave To The Traffic Light (12:32)
4. Loving Cup (7:39)
5. Guyute (11:19)

11/22/97 Hampton Coliseum - Hampton, VA
Disc Three
Set I:

1. Mike's Song > (17:04)
2. I Am Hydrogen > (4:31)
3. Weekapaug Groove (14:52)
4. Harry Hood > (18:05)
5. Train Song (3:06)
6. Billy Breathes (7:05)
7. Frankenstein > (4:48)
8. Izabella (5:58)

Disc Four
set II:

1. Halley's Comet > (25:59)
2. Tweezer > (5:58)
3. Black-Eyed Katy > (12:41)
4. Piper > (7:53)
5. Run Like An Antelope (13:38)
6. Bouncing Around The Room > (3:52)
7. Tweezer Reprise (4:06)

11/23/97 Lawrence Joel Veteran's Memorial Coliseum - Winston-Salem, NC
Disc Five
set I:

1. My Soul (7:23)
2. Theme From The Bottom > (10:23)
3. Black-Eyed Katy (10:55)
4. Sparkle (4:02)
5. Twist > (10:21)
6. Stash > (17:03)
7. NICU (5:48)

Disc Six
set I, cont'd

1. Fluffhead > (15:39)
2. Character Zero (7:34)
set II:
3. Bathtub Gin > (31:57)
4. Down With Disease > (12:01)
5. Low Rider > (7:29)
6. Down With Disease (3:39)

Disc Seven
set II, cont'd

1. Bold As Love (7:57)
2. Julius (11:12)
filler: from 11/21/97 Hampton Soundcheck:
3. Hampton '97 Soundcheck Jam (17:53)
filler: from 11/23/97 Winston-Salem Soundcheck:
4. Back At The Chicken Shack (11:21)