Friday, November 30, 2012

Playing Tunes, My Preferred Speed Is Slow

I enjoy playing AABB (or similarly structured) instrumental tunes at a relaxed tempo.  When you play at an unhurried, comfortable pace you enunciate better and you create a sense of space inside the tune.  A repeatable stream of single line melody notes, sparsely ornamented, falling into place.  Consistent but not quite repetitive.  Trancey, groovy, and hypnotic - with the potential to possess and take one to that alpha state.

I'm not too concerned with place of origin or style of the tunes I get.  They usually come from Ireland or Appalachia, sometimes Canada. This is traditional music in the sense that the tunes themselves are usually in the public domain and are rarely written by any one individual.  Seek the same thing that those that played these tunes before you sought; don't change it from how it was previously played, but don't sound the same either.

The playing of a tune is an incarnation, a rendering that could come out different the next time around.  If you have the sound in your head, sooner or later you'll find a way to do it.  Melody and rhythm will always be paramount.  I play what I can at (in) the moment and let the rest wait.  Hopefully my skeletal, slowed-down arrangements only simplify the tune without actually taking anything away.  I get more fun and satisfaction by playing that way, and that's what it's all about, right?

Thursday, November 29, 2012

New Album by The Murphy Beds - Eamon O'Leary and Jefferson Hamer

I lived in Colorado briefly from 1999 to 2001.  Musician Jefferson Hamer had a group there at that time called The Single Malt Band.  I recall seeing them in Boulder on more than one occasion.  I was reacquainted with Jefferson a few years ago in Bristol, TN when The Murphy Beds played at Bristol Rhythm and Roots.  At that time The Murphy Beds included Cleek Schrey and Ryan McGiver.

The Murphy Beds are now a duo with Jefferson Hamer (guitar, vocals) and Eamon O’Leary (bouzouki, vocals).  Eamon O’Leary is an accomplished Dublin-born musician who moved to New York City in the early 1990's where he has become an integral member of that city's trad scene.  He's also part of the Swannanoa Celtic Week Staff and is featured on the classic session recording Live At Mona’s.

Eamon and Jefferson got together in the spring of this year to record The Murphy Beds’ self-titled debut album, featuring 10 subdued yet lovely interpretations of Celtic and American traditional songs.  Their blend of acoustic guitar, bouzouki and vocal harmony is electrifying.  I'm finding it to be one of the most listenable albums of 2012.  You can listen to it yourself here:

And here’s a video of The Murphy Beds from the WKCR Pink Couch Sessions:

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

On Playing Music Left-Handed

One of the main reasons I chose the tenor banjo was because I’m left-handed*.  A 4-string banjo is easily converted to lefty – all you do is switch out the bridge and nut, and reverse the strings.  Everything else is the same.  There’s no 5th string to throw things off.  (*My tendency toward nonconformity and individuality may have also been a factor!). 

I’m pretty strongly left-handed – I eat lefty, throw lefty, golf lefty, use left-handed scissors.  My dominant hand was going to have to be the picking/strumming hand.  (I do throw a Frisbee with my right-hand; go figure!)  Now that I’ve been playing for a few years the decision to use my left hand to hold the pick has been validated by the realization that keeping rhythm is more important than hitting every note perfectly.
Lefty violin collision
Playing left-handed does have some limitations.  You don’t have the opportunity to play as many different instruments.  It’s not like you can just pick up anyone’s guitar, mandolin, ukulele, banjo or bass and fool around with it.  Going into a music store is no fun - with all those instruments that are strung “backwards” or upside down.  I also have to take note of where I position myself in a jam setting so I don’t bash headstocks with the right handed person sitting next to me.  Yes, being lefty can mess up the feng shui of a room.

However, I don’t think the process of learning to play is any more difficult as a lefty – taking lessons from a right handed person, figuring out chord shapes, reading tablature, and mentally reversing instructions that refer to “the right hand”.  It’s a right-handed world and lefties are already used to making these adjustments.  We’re probably a little more ambidextrous too – everything from automobiles to computer keyboards to can openers are made with a right handed person in mind.
Kermit's a lefty!
I recently got a really nice tenor guitar.  I often get asked by others if they can try it out.  Usually I’ll just hand it over and watch the look on the person’s face when he discovers that it’s a left-handed instrument and that I’ve been playing left-handed the whole time.  If I don’t feel like handing it over I’ll preface it by saying “OK, but you do know that it’s a lefty, right?”.  That usually stops them.

I did get to hear my tenor banjo being played in real time last year when a really good left-handed guitarist with mandolin experience came to our session for the first time.  I handed him my GDAE tuned banjo and asked him to play it so that I could finally get to hear it from the perspective of a listener and not the person making the sound.  I was pleased with what I heard! 

Being lefty is probably why all of my current instruments are custom orders from independent luthiers.  I like having the side position dots on the correct side, but more than that I like knowing that the instrument was made specifically for me.  It’s more expensive but also more personal.  If you’re left-handed and thinking of playing music, there’s no reason to not to do it the way that comes most natural to you!

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Old-Time Mandolin and Guitar Duo YouTube videos

A YouTube user named Dawn Cantrell has uploaded several great videos of old-time fiddle tunes on mandolin and guitar.  These include Julianne Johnson, Rock the Cradle Joe, Dry and Dusty, Seneca Square Dance, Red Apple Rag, Twin Sisters, Big Sciota, Fly Around My Pretty Little Miss/Angelina Baker, Liza Jane and many more.  It's fun to play along with these.  Here's the video for Julianne Johnson:

The mandolin (or mandola?) player does a nice little turnaround at the end of the B-part worth figuring out.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Session and Jam Manifesto

Each jam has its own sense of etiquette, but these are the points I strive to keep in mind at the Ashland session I co-host.

Traditional music is social.  Remember that it's just as much about being out for a coffee or a drink as it is about playing.  Consider it a successful day if a lot of fun and laughter was had, even if some incorrect notes were hit.

Keep it a friendly, accessible jam that attracts good players and actively welcomes beginners.  It's all about everyone playing and learning together - developing and honing skills and techniques.

We do both Irish tunes (jigs, reels) and old-time fiddle tunes, with the occasional Celtic or bluegrass song.  Keep the focus on those styles and don't allow it to drift off into additional kinds of music.

Encourage people to play by ear, but be sympathetic to those who still rely on sheet music. Encourage everyone to participate even on stuff they don't know.  Although it's OK to sit out if you like.

Place no restrictions on the number of similar instruments (guitar, bodhran...this is more of an Irish thing), and be liberal with your definition of "traditional" instruments (a plugged in uke bass is fine for example, as is a piano accordion playing old-time).  Do emphasize good timing and consistent pace.  Taste trumps speed/dexterity.

Continue to introduce new tunes and have others bring their favorite tunes to share.  Allow the character of the session to be slightly different each time based on who is there and what they bring to the table.

Participants should leave feeling motivated and empowered to learn more, wanting to improve and wanting to return!

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Banish Misfortune - A 3-Part Jig in D Mixolydian

I learned how to play Banish Misfortune earlier this year.  I used the term learned lightly because there's always room for improvement in Irish music, and there's always the chance you could forget a tune.  The Mixolydian mode is like a major scale with only one note different: you flatten the 7th note by a half step.  When your tonal center is D, the mixolydian scale is D, E, F#, G, A, B, C and D.  (If it were D-major the C natural would be a C sharp.).

Mixolydian is one of the most common modes played in traditional Irish music.  It will usually start with an A or a D.  I've often seen people look at the key signature of a D-Mixolydian tune and surmise that it's in the key of G.  But you have to look at the notes it starts and ends with or resolves to.

The D-Mixolydian scale still has a major sound because the 3rd note of the scale is F#, like in the D-major scale.  If you play backup, you can give it a more mysterious sound by leaving out the 3rd note of the chord and replacing it with another root or 5th note, or some other note to add color.

Mixolydian is often characterized by a "two chord" or "modal" sound - adjacent chords that you can think of as the home and contrast chords.  Many modal tunes can be played with just these two chords.  In D-mixolydian the home chord is D and the contrast chord is C.  Normally you would almost never play a chord with C as its root as part of a "D-tune", but finding a C chord in a tune in D is a big indicator that it is mixolydian, or at least has some mixolydian qualities (that prominent C-chord in the B-part of Staten Island Hornpipe comes to mind).

Remember that as part of the D-Mixolydian scale you changed the C# note to a C natural, so hence the C chord.  You might also find an A7 (the five) or an Aminor (relative minor to C) in there somewhere. Anyway, all this talk about modes and Mixolydian is probably making you feel sleepy, right?  Well here's a great video of the tune Banish Misfortune played by Ian Walsh.  Listen to it, get the sound in your head, and then find it on your instrument.  You don't need to know anything about theory to do that!

Good luck!

Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Dust Busters - Making the Legacy of Yesterday the Sound of Today

The Dust Busters are Eli Smith, Walker Shepard, and Craig Judelman.  They are young men, but the music they play is 80 to 100 years old, sometimes more.  American old time:  fiddle tunes, ballads, breakdowns, rags, blues, early country, minstrel songs.  If you lived in the South in the early part of the 20th century and played music for your own enjoyment, as a lot of folks did back then, you probably made music like this.

The Dust Busters performing at the Raccoon County Music Festival
Using old 78's, field recordings, and commercial recordings from a bygone era as their guide, The Dust Busters tackle these diverse American folk music styles as a string band.  They not only dust off these old tunes and songs, they inhabit them...time-traveling this music forward with as close to the original style as possible still intact.  As a contemporary band with an ardent focus on tradition, The Dust Busters create an opportunity for today's listeners to discover music that they might not have sought out otherwise.

On their new album Old Man Below, released on the prestigious Smithsonian Folkways label, the Dust Busters collaborated with their mentor and elder John Cohen, co-founder of the New Lost City Ramblers.  Back in the 1960's, when this music was not quite as much of a distant memory, The New Lost City Ramblers were the original musical archeologists – approaching folk music from an intellectual standpoint in an attempt to highlight and preserve its stylistic integrity.  The Dust Busters’ own interpretations of this music carries on that legacy.
Old Man Below was recorded in accordance with modern day standards of fidelity, but it still has a natural sound:  there is no over-dubbing and no reverb; everything was done live.  The 20 tracks come from a number of different sources, as shown in the track list information below.  The Dust Busters manage to honor the various individual styles of the sources while simultaneously bringing a sense of uniformity to the album as a whole.  All that aside, it’s just plain fun to listen to!  Old Man Below is definitely one of the most refreshing, and, ironically, original releases to come out this year in the world of old-time, folk or Americana music.

Track List:  The Dust Busters with John Cohen - Old Man Below
1.      The Honest Farmer
·         Source: John Carson, OKEH 40411 (1925). Vocals- Walker Shepard.
2.      Arkansas Traveler
·         Instrumental. Source: Various.
3.      Black Jack Daisy
·         Source: Dillard Chandler: The End of an Old Song, Folkways 2418 (1975); Vocals- John Cohen.
4.      Roving Gambler
·         Source: Rufus Crisp, unissued library of congress recording. Vocal Influence: Doug & Jack Wallin, Family Songs and Stories from the North Carolina Mountains, Smithsonian Folkways 40013 (1995). Vocals: Eli Smith.
5.      The Old Man Below
·         Source: Gaither Carlton on The Doc Watson Family, Smithsonian Folkways 40012 (1990). Vocals- Walker Shepard.
6.      Wimbush Rag
·         Instrumental. Source: Theo & Gus Clark, OKEH 45339 (1929).
7.      Because He Loved Her So
·         Source: Georgia Crackers, Okeh unissued, 1929; Released on Marimac 9110 (1986). Lead vocals- Craig Judelman. Harmony Vocals- Eli Smith.
8.      Barnyard Medley
·         Instrumental. Source: Hobart Smith, “What did the Buzzard say to the Crow,” In Sacred Trust, Smithsonian Folkways 40141 (2005); Doc Roberts & Asa Martin, “Rye Straw,” Gennett 7721 (1930); and WALKER’S VERSION’S OF “Old Hen Cackled.”
9.      Waltz of Roses
·         Source: Prince Albert Hunt, OREN 45375 (1929); Jimmie Rodgers. Vocals, Walker Shepard.
10. Cotton Pickers Drag
·         Instrumental. Source: The Grinnell Giggers, VICTOR 23632 (1930).
11. Combination Rag
·         Instrumental. Source: East Texas Serenaders, Columbia 15229 (1928).
12. A Lazy Farmer Boy
·         Source: Buster Carter and Preston Young, Columbia 15702D (1931). Vocals- John Cohen.
13. Free Little Bird
·         Source: The Lost Recording of Banjo Bill Cornett, FRC304 (2002); Dykes Magic Trio, Brunswick 129 (1927); Clarence Ashley and Doc Watson Original Folkways Recordings of Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley, 1960-1962, Smithsonian Folkways 40029 (1994). Vocals- Walker Shepard.
14. Arthritis Blues
·         Source: Butch Hawes on Lonesome Valley: A collection of American Folk Music, Folkways 2010 (1951). Lead Vocals- Eli Smith. Harmony Vocals- Walker Shepard.
15. Fort Smith Breakdown
·         Instrumental. Source: Luke Highnight and His Ozark Strutters, Vocalion 5339 (1928).
16. Johnny Booker (Old johnny booker wouldn’t do)
·         Source: Jerry Jordan, Supertone (SEARS) 9407 (1929). Vocals- John Cohen.
17. Two Soldiers
·         Source: Munroe Gevedon, Library of Congress field recordings 1556B/1557A (1937), Issued on The music of Kentucky, Vol. 2: Early American Rural Classics, 1927-37, Yazoo 2014 (1995). Vocals- Craig Judelman.
18. Baby, Your Time Ain’t Long
·         Source: Al Hopkins and his Buckle Busters, Brunkswick 183 (1927). Lead Vocals- Eli Smith. Tenor Vocals- Walker Shepard. Bass Vocals- Craig Judelman.
19. Yellow Rose of Texas
·         Source: Da Costa Woltz’s Southern Broadcasters, Gennett 6143. (1927) Vocals- Walker Shepard.
20. Saturday Night Waltz
·         Instrumental. Source: Fiddlin’ Bob Larkin and his Music Makers, OKEH 45229 (1928).

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Ashland's Center of the Universe Brewing Company to open November 16th and 17th

The Richmond, VA area seems to be in the midst of its own craft beer revolution.  Credit should probably go to the creative brewers at Hardywood Park for getting the ball rolling last year.  Soon after Hardywood came Goochland County’s Midnight Brewery, who are second to none when it comes to tasty session beers and drinkability.  Starting next week, another brewery will be joining the ranks:  Center of the Universe Brewing Company in Ashland. 

Center of the Universe (COTU) will celebrate its grand opening Friday, November 16th from 5-10pm and Saturday, November 17th from noon-6pm.  There will be music, food, games and of course lots of beer on hand!  You can avoid long lines for beer tickets by purchasing them in advance here:

COTU is located on the outskirts of town in the old Herald Progress building at 11293 Air Park Rd, 23005.  There, they have a sizable and welcoming tasting room where visitors will be able to hang out and enjoy pints, thanks to a Virginia law allowing on-site consumption that took effect this summer.  COTU's beer will also be available in some local shops and restaurants.

The brewing company was founded by two brothers – Chris and Phil Ray.  Chris is a major league baseball pitcher, most recently with the Cleveland Indians.  Phil has a background in engineering.  They were home brewing for about four-and-a-half years before deciding to take it to the next level.  Chris and Phil hired Mike Killelea, formerly of Legend Brewing and the current Chairman of the Virginia Craft Brewers Guild, to be head brewer.
Chris Ray, Phil Ray and Mike Killelea of COTU Brewing Co.
The brewery takes its name from Ashland’s self-proclaimed motto of being the Center of the Universe.

Chris, Phil and Mike are starting with 4 varieties of beer:
IPA – West Coast style with lots of hop flavor and hop aroma.
Pale Ale a classic Pale brewed with imported English 2-Row and a little Honey Malt.
Kolsch a light and easy drinking session beer modeled after the beers of Cologne, Germany with Pilsner Malt and imported German hops.
Altbier – a copper colored old German ale, medium bodied and nicely bittered.

I can’t wait to try these!