Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Session Beer: Cain's Dark Mild

This is the first in a series of posts on various session beers that I intend to spotlight.  What's a session beer? See below!

When traditional musicians get together to play Irish, Scottish or other Celtic music it is called a session.  Coincidentally(?), session is also a word used to describe a beer that is low in alcohol, flavorful, balanced and highly drinkable.   It should come as no surprise then that many of the best session beers come from the British Isles.  One such beer is Cain's Dark Mild from Robert Cain brewery in Liverpool - a dark pouring, malty, slightly sweet, lightly hopped, relatively flat mild ale with a roast flavor.

Cain's Dark Mild
I was first introduced to Cain's Dark Mild at Rosie Connolly's, an Irish pub in downtown Richmond, VA where, fortuitously, players of Irish trad gather the 2nd and 4th Wednesday of each month for a jam session.  The dark mild is an English style low-gravity ale that uses darker roasted malts and limited hops.  Notes of chocolate, caramel, nuts and toasted tones are usually present.  The color is dark brown to black.  At 3.2% ABV, with its dark color, malt forward taste and low IBU's, Cain's Dark Mild is the quintessential example of this style and may just be the perfect session beer...ideal for sipping on as you summon those jigs, reels and hornpipes.

Cain's is fast becoming my beer of choice when attending the Rosie's jam.  And just this Saturday I noticed that my local Ashland beer and wine store - The Caboose - has started carrying it in six-pack form.  That was the first time I had ever seen it in a store, so I picked up a six-pack and am glad to report that I enjoyed it just as much out of the can as on tap!  With its slightly sweet taste and low-alcohol content, Cain's provides fermented satisfaction without the wallop.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Six Water Grog's Best Concerts of 2011

Here are some of my favorite live music memories from 2011 in no particular order.  Sorry that I'm just now getting around to posting this, but late is better than not at all!

Vishten - October 2011 at In Your Ear Studios
I was fortunate to witness this neo-traditional Acadian group at a special post-Richmond Folk Festival evening at In Your Ear Studios, home of the Jam Inc concert series.  The friendly, house concert feel of this show made it more than simply a performance. Vishten takes Maritime folk music to a level of artistry by bringing out nuances that very few traditional musicians are privy to.  This concert was a peak experience from start to finish.

Dawes - September 2011 at Bristol Rhythm and Roots Piedmont Stage
Bristol Rhythm and Roots has been the setting for many great performances over the last decade, but this set by Dawes on the Piedmont Stage on the Saturday night of the festival may have been the best I have seen there.  I already knew Dawes wrote great songs and made great studio albums, but their stage presence, playing ability and delivery (on this my first time seeing them) really impressed me in that setting at that moment - coalescing into one of my favorite live music experiences of the year.

The Hot Seats
The Hot Seats - January 2011, Ashland Coffee and Tea
I have seen The Hot Seats many, many times since 2006, but their late January 2011 show at Ashland Coffee and Tea was my all-time favorite performance by these guys.  As is customary at this listening room, they got to do 2 sets starting promptly at 8pm. On this night they drew an especially jovial audience and played a well chosen, wide-ranging set list that covered the many facets of the their appeal.  My review of this show was one of the first things I wrote for this blog!

Hammer No More the Fingers
Hammer No More the Fingers - April 2011, MotorCo
Seeing this Durham, NC band on their home turf is always interesting, and there was a manic energy surrounding this sold out Black Shark CD release party.  The band lived up to the hype by delivering a smoking, spectacle of a show!  Musically, Hammer probably played better later in the year at Shakori Hills, but the exhilirating vibe in this cramped, indoor music hall on this night in April pushed it over the top.

Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba
Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba - October 2011, Richmond Folk Festival Altria Stage
The Richmond Folk Festival has become my most anticipated annual festival and this year's event was one of the best yet!  This set by Bassekou Kouyate and Ngoni Ba checked off more boxes than a typical set at this festival.  Not only was this music interesting because of its cultural significance, but it also packed a deep, powerful wallop on a universal got to "that place".  What place?  That place in your soul.  That place.

Gillian Welch and David Rawlings
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings - August 2011, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden
Gillian Welch is at another that is occupied by folks like Bob Dylan and Neil Young. Seriously.  There's a wink in her eye...something cosmic definitely oozes out of her Americana.  On this night, at this beautiful outdoor venue, an approaching storm threatened to prematurely end the 2nd set. Lightning and high winds peaked during the song I'll Fly Away, and it seemed like some in the audience wanted the show to end there.  However, as soon as that song ended the storm passed, leaving room for a fittingly psychedelic and reverb-drenched encore of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit"; a much more suitable ending to the night as far as I was concerned.  Also...I don't know if this was especially inspired or something he does all the time, but David Rawlings' solo on "Time the Revelator" was jaw-droppingly executed that evening.

Zoe Muth
Zoe Muth and the Lost High Rollers - September 2011, Ashland Coffee and Tea
As I've said before, Ashland Coffee and Tea is often a great place to see music.  Artists are treated very well there and love playing that room, and the audiences are always respectful and perceptive.  This environment can lead to a dry, stale performance if the performer isn't used to that level of attention, or it can be great if the performers embrace it.  Zoe and her band are probably more accustomed to playing honky tonks than listening rooms, but they quickly warmed to this venue's attributes.  I had just seen these guys play a couple sets the weekend prior at Bristol Rhythm, but this performance stood out above those.  It got really good after the shots of Irish whiskey kicked in...for both audience, ahem, and members of the band!  Could we please have another round?

Christabel and the Jons
Christabel and the Jons - September 2011 at Bristol Rhythm and Roots, State Line Bar & Grill Stage
I love Christabel and the Jons.  (BTW - have you heard their Christmas album?!).  A big part of my attraction to this band is Christabel's sex appeal, which is just the right mix of naughty and nice.  Growl.  But besides that I love the way they deliver their traditional country and hot jazz inspired originals, mixed with the occasional cover like Roly Poly or Honky Tonkin'.  A big part of that sound is delivered by master multi-instrumentalist Seth Hopper who holds his own on trumpet, fiddle, ukulele, mandolin and accordion.  Not all at one time though.

There you go!  Onward 2012.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Old Time Jams and Irish Sessions in Central Virginia

I live near Richmond, VA and fortunately there are many old-time jams and Irish sessions supported by a close-knit and very encouraging traditional music community.  Here are a few of the gatherings that take place on a regular basis.

Celebrating the music of Appalachia, Ireland and beyond, every 1st and 3rd Saturday from 10am to 1pm at Ashland Coffee and Tea, 100 N. Railroad Ave., Ashland, VA 23005!  I co-host with multi-instrumentalist and music instructor Jake Moore.  Think of it as an old-time jam that also plays Irish tunes!  Open to all, from novice to purty good.  Join the Facebook group.  Questions? Contact me.  For more information read this.

Irish Sessions
Rosie Connolly’s Seisiun – Long running Irish session in Richmond’s historic Shockoe Bottom.  Rosie Connolly’s is what I would consider an authentic Irish pub and this jam attracts some seasoned Celtic musicians.  Meets the 2nd and 4th Wednesdays from 8-11pm or so.  RosieConnolly’s Pub and Restaurant – 1548A East Main Street, Richmond, VA.  Rosies’s faces the 17th Street Farmers Market.  Next to Havana 59.

Rosie Connolly's seisiun
Blue and Grey Brewery Session - Fredericksburg.  This is a lively jam/performance consisting of pub songs (Star of the County Down, Dirty Old Town, Whiskey in the Jar, Tell Me Ma, etc.) and trad tunes like Lilting Banshee, The Butterfly, Rights of Man, and so on. This group is very friendly, social and casual. Musicians set up in the middle of Blue and Grey's Lee's Retreat brewpub and the restaurant's patrons seems to really enjoy the music.  1st Fridays from about 7:30 to 10:30pm, and the occasional Wednesday. 3300 Dill Smith Drive, Fredericksburg, VA 22408 in the Bowman Center across from the local fair grounds. About an hour north of Richmond, but only 40-45 minutes from Ashland!

Hiram Haines Celtic Session - Players and listeners of all levels are invited to this session where Celtic tunes of all kinds are played the second Saturday of each month at Hiram Haines Literary Coffee House in Petersburg.  Begins at 7 p.m. and lasts until... pretty late! This session strives to stay as close as possible to the traditional sessions you might enjoy in local pubs in Ireland, but also gives players who do not have a lot of "session experience" an opportunity to learn. For more information, visit the Facebook group called Hiram Haines Celtic Session.  Second Saturdays, 7 p.m. Hiram Haines Literary Coffee House12 Bank Street, Petersburg, VA.

Old Time Jams
Cary St. Cafe - This is the place to learn old-time music in Richmond.  A strictly "play-by-ear" environment where some of Richmond's best traditional musicians gather every Sunday.  Cary St. Cafe is a cool Deadhead bar with some of the best pub grub in town.  Newbies are advised to sit in the back row, play quietly, and try to grab a few notes as they fly by.  Every Sunday from 2-5pm.  Cary Street Café – 2631 West Cary Street, Richmond, VA.
Tripp and Jenny from the Cary St. jam
Jahnke Road - This super-sized jam seemingly has all the regional music covered - bluegrass, gospel, country...but old-time fiddlers, clawhammer banjoists and dulcimer players gather in an upstairs room to run through tunebook favorites in the venerable keys of D, G and A.  The second Tuesday of every month.  Jahnke Road Baptist Church, 6023 Jahnke Road, Richmond, VA.  Players are expected to make a small (optional) donation to a collection plate.

Rockwood Park - Attended mostly same group of folkies who are at the Jahnke Rd. old time jam.  This is held in a large room at a nature park and some people just come to listen.  The 4th Tuesday of the month from 7 - 9:30pm at The Nature Center at Chesterfield County’s Rockwood Park - 3401 Courthouse Road, Richmond, VA.

Ukulele Jam
River City Ukulele Society - These ukers works out of a songbook of about 40 classic songs.  The time is spent learning and practicing these songs with the goal of developing a repertoire that everyone will know and play in the same key.  Every 1st and 3rd Tuesday from 7 to 8:30pm at Sam Ash Music, 9110 West Broad Street, Richmond, VA.

For a complete list of jams in Central VA, please see Jim Mahone's Roots and Traditional Music Calendar.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Christian Hedwitschak Bodhrán on Order!

My wife has only been playing bodhrán since August but she is showing great progress - she's had lessons, plays along with me on banjo as well as with bodhrán videos and recordings, and has already joined in at some local public sessions and jams.  Just recently she submitted an order through Whistle and Drum for a custom Christian Hedwitschak bodhrán that will take a few months to complete. Made in Germany, Hedwitschak drums are among the best in the world and Christian was very patient and helpful as we mulled over his options before deciding on the customization that will work best for her.

The main specs are:
37x13cm size.
DRAGONSkin classic drum skin.
BasicLine tuning system integrated into inner frame.
"Green Fade to Black" fiddle bottom maple effect varnish.
Leather strip under drum skin.
Bodhrán maker Christian Hedwitschak

Integrated tuning system
Hedwitschak MOS with Green fade to Black veneer
This custom design borrows features from Christian's compact MOS (skin, veneer) and MHTF (tuning system) bodhráns, but with a slightly slimmer 13cm depth (no cut-out).  Besides the skill of the player, the sound of a bodhrán is largely determined by the tipper and skin; not so much by the diameter/depth.  Christian uses a special treating on his DRAGONSkins which gives them a creamy mid-range with huge amounts of bass.  Exactly the sound needed to balance out the treble sound of my tenor banjo.  Plus you can't beat the snazzy look of his drums!  Cardinal Puffin gets more and more real each day!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Learning Irish and Oldtime Fiddle Tunes by Ear

When I first started playing traditional music I went right down the path of learning from tablature and that's where I've stayed. I'm comfortable as long as I have a page in front of me, but get anxious when it's taken away. So, this year I have a goal of weaning myself off of lead sheets. Until recently I had no idea how to do that. But, I've been doing some research and experimenting and would like to share a little bit of the information I've gathered.

Wise Dog by Thunderpanda
The best way to learn a tune is constant exposure to it. Listen repeatedly until you know the sound of it by heart. If you can hum it you can play it. When you have listened so much that you can't get the tune out of your head, it's time to pick up your instrument.

Most fiddle tunes are in the keys of D, G or A, with D being the most common.  Start by plucking a D note in time with the tune. If D doesn't match up, try G. If G doesn't fit try an A note. Chances are, one of those three drone notes is going to be the home note or tonal center of the tune, and therefore the key. Most tunes end on this home note. So, if it sounds like the tune is ending on a D, that's probably the key.

Once you think you know the key, play around with the notes in that key to familiarize yourself with the ones you'll be using. For D tune the notes to be used tend to be D, E, F#, G, A, B, C#.  For a tune in G, you would use the notes G, A, B, C, D, E, F#. For A try the notes A, B, C#, D, E, F#, G#.
As you listen to the tune, pluck these notes until you start to identify the prominent ones. Listen for phrases which repeat in different places and certain note combinations you might recognize from other tunes.

Fiddle tunes usually have an 8 bar A part and an 8 bar B part, both of which are played twice before going on to the next one. As in, A, A, B, B.  The 8 bars can often be broken down into four distinct 2-bar phrases.  Phrase 1 states the theme and may resolve on the I or IV chord.  Phrase 2 "answers" that theme and may end on the V chord.  Phrase 3 basically echoes or repeats Phrase 1.  Phrase 4 is an ending that may or may not be similar to Phrase 2 but will almost always resolve to a I chord after the usual V chord.  It is common for the B part to have the same "Phrase 4" as the A part - meaning both parts usually end the same way.

Don't worry or be discouraged if you can only find one note - you only need one note at a time. Play that note each time it comes around in the tune. Try to determine if the next note is below, above, or if it was the same.   Listen as many times as needed. Take a guess. Start playing two-note pairs, going in whichever direction feels right. Include half steps and accidentals. Return to the recording frequently to refresh your ears. With that interval echoing in your mind it's easier to tell when you've matched it.  Boil the melody down to the bones of the tune. Edit out the unnecessary fills and ornaments.  Once you have a sequence of notes, play that sequence a few times so the fingers and ear start to learn it. Each time you complete a phrase, link it with what came before and repeat until it feels familiar.  It's OK to make mistakes - guessing wrong a lot is part of finding the tune.

If you're unsure as to whether you've come up with a reasonable sequence or version of the tune then take a break or work on something else. Come back to it tomorrow with fresh ears. You may have to relearn the same thing on day two that you struggled so hard to find on day one. That's part of the fun.  On day three, it will be easier. On day four, it will be easier still and you may find yourself playing slightly different notes that sound more correct than the ones that seemed OK a day or two before.

Learning by ear is an aural and physical process. The idea is to learn the essence of the tune rather than memorizing which note follows which, so that even if you goof up and have to noodle to recover, it's likely that you'll noodle in the right key and in the right way to continue to convey the tune until you can get back on track.  Of course, there is the matter of learning your instrument well enough to know where to instinctively find the notes you're hearing.  Memorizing scales and playing them in an even tempo will help get you there.  It also helps to practice playing simple tunes you can sing in your head: nursery rhymes, advertising jingles, or songs you heard growing up. What's important is that you figure out how to play them on your instrument.

Don't get discouraged.  It can take a month or more to pick out your first tune. Keep at it. Learning a tune by ear will get easier with practice and eventually you'll be able to concentrate on technique -adding back in all those fills, triplets, and other accoutrements - rather than simply trying to remember the tune.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Musical Influences

I'm still not to the point of hearing something and then playing it, so it would be premature for me to say that the musicians listed below are already direct influences on my playing. A more accurate statement would be to say that these are some artists that I aspire to have as influences.  If I could incorporate elements of each of these players I would consider that a success.  I may play tenor banjo but the way I look at it is the 12 notes I have to work with are the same as the 12 notes these folks use to craft their magic!

Jerry Garcia Acoustic Band
Jerry Garcia - guitar
Before I ever began playing an instrument, when I was just an obsessed listener, the Grateful Dead was my musical home base with Jerry Garcia as its lynch pin.  There was something joyful and effortless in Jerry's playing and singing that just drew me in.  Now that I am giving music a shot I have even more respect and understanding for Jerry's playing.  I'm especially intrigued by the way he could  arrange and improve old folk songs like Jackaroe or Peggy-O, or interpret a classic Dylan song.  Think of any song that Jerry covered and chances are his version either equaled or surpassed the original source.  Jerry's technique is rooted in bluegrass and folk and his seemingly effortless lines hide a level of complexity .  Suggested listening: The Grateful Dead - Reckoning, Garcia/Grisman - Shady Grove, Jerry Garcia Band - Jerry Garcia Band Live.

Norman Blake
Norman Blake - guitar and mandolin
My apologies to those whose idea of oldtime music is limited scratchy fiddle and clawhammer banjo.  To me Norman Blake is oldtime music.  A true folk musician, he embodies all the great characteristics of someone who has mastered the music of the people:  not that different from what you and I are doing, but yet somehow distinctive enough to ensure elite status in the traditional music world.  Norman's not as flashy or as technical as some of the guitar and mandolin flat-pickers, but perhaps that is precisely what makes him so endearing.  He kinda sticks in first position and just plays the tune.  While a lot of name brand players seem to be about playing as fast as possible with as many hot licks as possible, Norman's not afraid to slow it down and keep it simple, and manages to put in more as a result.  Suggested listening: Whiskey Before Breakfast, Natasha's Waltz.

The Ceili Bandits - Eoin, Yvonne and Quentin
The Ceili Bandits - Irish traditional music
In some ways I can attribute the Ceili Bandits (Yvonne Casey - fiddle, Eoin O'Neil - bouzouki, and Quentin Cooper - banjo, mandolin and more) as the group most responsible for inspiring me to play music in the first place. Little known outside of County Clare, the Ceili Bandits were the first traditional Irish music I was ever exposed to - we literally got off the plane on our first trip to Ireland, drove to the town we were staying in that night, and that evening saw the Ceili Bandits play one of their best gigs ever - the CD release party for Yvonne Casey's "solo" CD held at McGann's pub in Doolin! It would be a couple more years before I would decide to take up tenor banjo, but that evening planted the seed for sure!  Irish trad remains a main facet of the music I am trying to play and oddly I have yet to hear anyone do it better than these guys.  Recommended Listening: Yvonne Casey - Yvonne Casey, The Ceili Bandits - Hangin' at the Crossroads.

Linda Higginbotham w/ Brad Leftwich & Mark Ritchie
Linda Higginbotham - banjo uke
Linda Higginbotham plays the banjo uke as a rhythm instrument to accompany oldtime fiddle tunes, usually with her husband Brad Leftwich.  She plays the banjolele as if it were a little drum with strings, more percussive than tonal, driving the pace with rock solid timing. This style is deceptively simple, but when done right you create a seamless, mesmerizing yet energetic sound that gives the music an extra lift.  Linda provides a droning quality by continuously strumming “down-up-down-up” and hitting all the strings each way. Not as subtle as some backup techniques but oh so much fun to do!  The idea is to perfect this strum so it sounds effortless. Due to the 5ths tuning of tenor banjo this sound is more spread out on that instrument but you can employ most of the same ideas.  Suggested listening:  Brad Leftwich and the Humdingers - The Humdingers.

Moses Deans
Nelson Chambers
Moses Deans and Nelson Chambers - 4-string Mento banjo
I've only been listening to Jamaican Mento music a short while but it has had a profound effect on me.  Moses Deans of the Jolly Boys and Nelson Chambers of the Blue Glaze Mento Band are both now passed away, but I expect to be listening to their recordings for the rest of my life, trying to glean as much as I can from their elusive Caribbean rhythms and apreggiated solos.  I'm really hooked on this playing style and it's so cool to discover a whole new genre of music that uses tenor banjo as its main instrument.  I love the rustic, natural feel of Mento music, likening it to Jamaica's version of oldtime.  Suggested listening: The Jolly Boys - Pop 'N' Mento, Sunshine 'N' Water, and Beer Joint & Tailoring.  The Blue Glaze Mento Band - We Will Wait.

Bill Frisell
Bill Frisell - electric guitar
This may seem like an odd choice, but unlike a lot of jazzy players, Frisell keeps the melody going rather than simply soloing over the chord changes.  That impresses me.  I also like how he says that the people that influenced him the most were saxophone players, piano players, and orchestral music. It never was really guitar. So maybe an electric guitarist could be a main influence on me, a fledgling banjo player?  Frisell's rootsy jazz Americana style has a sophisticated, experimental bent, yet his playing always comes across as more internal than intellectual.  As an electric guitarist, he is afforded the luxury of being able to coax a lot of out of each well-chosen but spartan note. That is hard to duplicate on tenor banjo; the 4-string's quick decay makes you want to let loose a flurry of notes, but what can translate is Frisell's emotional touch and command of harmonics.  Suggested listening:  Bill Frisell - The Willies.

Angelina Carberry
John Carty
Angelina Carberry and John Carty - Irish tenor banjo
Irish tenor banjo is the style most closely associated with what I am attempting to do so I should also mention my two favorite Irish tenor banjoists - Angelina Carberry and John Carty.  I was turned onto these players shortly after getting a tenor banjo, however I'm only now starting to develop a real interest in exploring the trebles, triplets, slides, hammer-ons and other embellishments that give Irish banjo playing its flavor. Angelina Carberry's style has been described as "light handed and sparkling", and John Carty's style is old school 1920's New York - bouncy, rhythmic and melodic.  Now that I have a little more experience and a renewed motivation to learn, I plan on re-examining recordings by each of these artists to see what I can absorb.  Suggested listening:  Angelina Carberry - An Traidisun Beo, John Carty - I Will  If I Can.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Left Handed Kala uBass for Sale - $350

This item has been sold. 

I’m selling my left-handed Kala uBass.  Bought in 2011.  Only got around to playing it a few times.  It's a cool instrument, but as a tenor banjo player w/ no bass experience I naively underestimated the skill required to play bass properly.  So I’m willing to let it go for $350Includes gig bag!  If interested please contact me.

The Kala uBass is a 20" scale uke that sounds like an upright acoustic bass!  It was designed by Owen Holt of Road Toad Music.  It is tuned in 4ths (EADG) just like a regular bass.  It is strung with long-lasting polyurethane Pahoehoe strings.  As an alternative, Aquila makes Thundergut bass strings that are supposed to work well on the uBass.

·         Baritone uke body
·         Solid Spruce top (KA-UBASS-2-FS/LH)
·         Mahogany Laminate Back and Sides
·         Rosewood Fingerboard and Bridge
·         Produces the same Pitches as a standard bass guitar
·         Tuned EADG - standard bass tuning
·         Custom Hipshot Tuners
·         Passive Shadow Pickup System
·         20 inch scale
·         16 Frets
·         1 13/16 Inch Nut Width
·         Overall Length is 29.5 Inches
·         MSRP $499.00
·         Includes custom gig bag


Check out this video of a Mahogany uBass being played.