Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Midnight Brewery - Goochland, VA

Last Friday evening I visited Midnight Brewery, a new brewery tucked away in the Goochland County Industrial Park, near I-64 exit 173 in Rockville.  Smaller than a microbrewery, Midnight is considered a nanobrewery and uses a 3 barrel system to produce its beers.  Owner Trae Cairns currently offers two beers:  an Irish Red and a Kolsch-style ale called New Beginnings.  (He was out of the special Banana Pancake collaboration with Hardywood).  I sampled both.  The Kolsch was nice and crisp – a good summer time beer.  But I really liked the Irish Red - which Cairn calls the Rockville Red - it one-ups Smithwick’s! 

There’s a tasting room in the front office of Midnight Brewery’s 1,200 square foot warehouse, where you can also have growlers filled!  The brewery is a little hard to find, but once you turn on Granite Ridge Road it’ll be a short ways down on the right, in what looks like an office building.  Check Midnight’s Facebook page for tasting room hours. 

Midnight Brewery
2410 Granite Ridge Road
Rockville, VA  23146

Monday, May 21, 2012

Desert Island Discs

The other day on the Ricky Gervais Show they were talking about desert island discs - the eight records you would take to a desert island.  Karl Pilkington never got around to picking his eight, but it got me thinking about what mine would be.  (In my case it would be albums and not individual songs).
A few years ago, before I was trying to play traditional music (or any music), that list of 8 (or 10) would have been pretty straightforward.  First and foremost, I'd want to have CDs by the artists that have meant the most to me over the years - the bands for whom I have all of their albums and/or the ones I've seen the most in concert.  Such as Phish (Story of the Ghost), The Grateful Dead (Reckoning), Ween (The Mollusk), Medeski Martin and Wood (Shackman), John Prine (John Prine), Gillian Welch (the Harrow and the Harvest),  Dr. Dog (Easy Beat) and The Hot Seats (Live). In this case the album chosen would be almost arbitrary - serving as a memory of all the good times I've had listening to their music.  Next, there are those one-off albums...the ones that for some reason are all-time favorites by artists who I never could really get into other than that one recording.  Black Eyed Man by The Cowboy Junkies, Other Voices Other Rooms by Nanci Griffith, O'Cracker Where Art Thou by Cracker, Two Sevens Clash by Culture, More a Legend than a Band by The Flatlanders, and Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots by the Flaming Lips come to mind.

I'm already way over ten, but nowadays I could just as easily fill up the list with Irish and old-time music.  Since I'm trying to learn to play these (mostly) instrumental tunes, I tend to listen to this music as an aural aid with the end goal of being able to play it better, so YouTube and other field recordings of regular folks playing these tunes is often as helpful as anything else. Although my list would have to include the Ceili Bandits' Hangin' at the Crossroads, Rare Rags and String Band Blues by Adam Tanner and the Dirty Rag Mob, and perhaps even a music play-along recording like A Portland Play Along Selection, or maybe that classic Fuzzy Mountain String Band album I have yet to hear.  And don't forget Angelina Carberry -- ought to have some strictly tenor banjo music there.

I've realized that narrowing it down to 8 is not something I can do.  The end.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Music and Language

Languages are tools that fit their cultural niche.  The words in our vocabulary determine how we think.  Take, for example, the Pirahã - a group of hunter-gatherers who live along the Maici River in Brazil's Amazon region.  Their unwritten language consists of just eight consonants and three vowels. It lacks many of the grammatical characteristics found in other languages.  Yet the Pirahã communicate just fine, using a complex array of tones, stresses and syllable lengths to convey meaning.

Pirahã culture drives the Pirahã linguistic system.  The tribe has no terms for color and no words for numbers.  They have a limited ability to work with quantities greater than two.  They live in the immediate present, accepting as real only that which they can directly observe and experience.  They have no interest in what happened in the distant past to people not personally known to them.  They tell stories about events they have recently participated in, witnessed or been told about.  They have no collective memory that extends back more than one or two generations, no tradition of art or drawing, and no creation myths.  They are not concerned about the future.  They seldom plan ahead more than one day.  They do not preserve food or make objects for long term use.  All this might lead you to believe that their language (or lifestyle) is inferior, but it’s simply the product of their environment – a dangerous jungle habitat where they happen to live very happily.

Most of what is known about the Pirahã  comes from the work of Dan Everett, a linguist who has lived with and studied them for over 30 years.  He explains his findings in the book Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes; a book that I was reading when it dawned on me that the concept of culture driving language could be compared to the ethos behind traditional music.

Music is also a language.  Musical phrases begin with a tonic chord or note (the subject).  The phrase develops with the notes that follow the tonic, whether harmonious or conflicting (this is the verb).  Finally, the musical phrase comes to a resolution or cadence (the period). 

Like the Pirahã language, traditional music exists within a fairly rudimentary structure cultivated by its environs.  Proponents of Western classical music see this compression as evidence that folk music is inferior and therefore not to be taken seriously.  However - as in the Pirahã language’s use of complex tones, stresses and syllable lengths - development in traditional music occurs in the myriad ways in which one can perform a tune.  Spontaneity, knowledge, experience, tone, style, expression and interpretation all play a part.

Also like the Pirahã language, traditional music is an oral tradition learned predominantly by ear through listening to others and not through any formal intellectual analysis.  Repertory and phrasing are much more important than knowledge of music theory.  Reading off the page and knowing scales and modes (the grammar) is unnecessary and can sometimes even hinder a traditional musician.  Sheet music is simply short hand, expressing few of the nuances.  In other words, the music was already doing what it was doing long before engravers came along to try and notate it.  

With so much sheet music available these days via the online public domain, it’s very easy to defer to someone’s transcription as the “correct” way to play the tune.  But that is not the way to play or learn this music.  Something is lost in the transcription/translation.  I hope to get more comfortable with trusting my ear and, oddly enough, I think this knowledge of the Pirahã can help me gain that confidence.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Froggy Mountain Boys - Route 77

For several years now I’ve been following the career of globetrotting multi-instrumentalist and fiddler extraordinaire Aaron Lewis.  Formerly of Special Ed & the Shortbus (now The Hot Seats), Jackass Flats and other Richmond, VA bands, Aaron is currently based in Berlin and maintains a busy schedule traveling the world in various incarnations and ensembles.  (For example he and former bandmate Ben Belcher just finished a national tour supporting Thomas Dolby of She Blinded Me With Science fame).  One fine group Aaron is involved with is the Berlin-based five-piece country-gypsy jüggernaut The Froggy Mountain Boys.
Aaron Lewis
Earlier this year The Froggy Mountain Boys quietly released the studio album Route 77.  This is some of the happiest, good-timey, toe-tapping music you’ll ever hear!  Oozlin’ sounds of fiddle, banjo, bass, clarinet, guitar and more fiddle!  Mr. Lewis has done well to find this eclectic group of talented players to record and gig with.  Most impressive is the fact that Route 77 was recorded entirely live and acoustic with no overdubs in one day in October of 2011 in Berlin.  Listen for yourself here: stream Route 77 on BandCamp.
The Froggy Mountain Boys - Route 77 album cover
According to his website news, Aaron should be back in the states at, among other places, this year's Galax Fiddlers Convention, which I hope to attend.  Perhaps there I'll get to hear this fiddlin' fool in person once again.