Tuesday, October 29, 2013

UkeFest Virginia - This Weekend! (Nov. 1 and 2, 2013)

This weekend is the 2nd annual UkeFest Virginia - a festival in Richmond, VA celebrating the ukulele.  It takes place November 1st and 2nd at the Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen.
There are some interesting looking workshops on the schedule, such as “Early Jazz/Ragtime for Uke”, being taught by members of the Bumper Jacksons, and “Kentucky Old Time Style Uke” – also by the Bumper Jacksons, as well as “Advanced Chords for Uke” and “Arranging Music for the Uke”, both of which are being taught by Josh Kekoa.  Workshop tickets are only $15 each.

There will also be concerts throughout the weekend featuring the aforementioned Bumper Jacksons and Josh Kekoa.  The Aloha Boys, Jim and Liz Beloff, Ken Middleton, and local duo Sweet Fern will also perform.  In addition, UkeFest participants will have plenty of opportunities to jam!  What a great way to gain musical knowledge and inspiration, and meet other ukulele aficionados.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Plucking/Picking Exercises for Tenor Banjo/Mandolin

I'm not convinced that practicing finger exercises is necessary for playing traditional music on tenor banjo. The tunes themselves are the etudes, and if you practice tunes slowly and mindfully as you are learning them you incorporate picking exercises into your routine by default.

Still, every once in a while it's helpful to focus on scales and exercises specifically designed to improve technique and increase speed and accuracy.  Enda Scahill's Irish Tenor Banjo Tutors, Volumes I and II, are a great source for this type of instruction.  Below are two examples of exercises (out of many) from his Irish Banjo Tutor Volume II.

According to Enda, practicing these exercises will stretch out the fingers, improve their separation and independence from each other and strengthen the fingers.  I highly suggest you purchase his tutors if you do not have them already.

Friday, October 25, 2013

A Tune List for the Ashland Jam

The Ashland Jam that I host, where we play both Irish and Old-Time tunes, is going pretty strong.  Different assortments of people show up every time, and it’s never quite the same from one time to the next.  Anywhere from 8 to 15 people are usually there.  There’s a strong sense of the unknown, which is kinda' cool.

I love it when more advanced players with a wider base of tunes show up, but sometimes it’s up to me to provide the lead melody.  So, I’ve worked pretty hard over the past year and a half to build up a repertoire of about 100 tunes that I can lead on, even if it is just a basic take of the bare bones melody at a medium pace.

To improve upon the flow of the jam and hopefully make it more fun for all, I've created a tune list for others to use as a reference when making selections (with links to audio for learning by ear).  I’ve only included tunes that I expect to be able to play from memory on any given Saturday.  As the repertoire grows, more tunes will be added, while some may drop off.

That list can be found here.

Of course, when certain melody players are present, the unofficial list instantly widens and those players are welcome to draw from any of the hundreds of tunes available to them.  There’s no reason to stick to this list.  But, for rhythm players and those just starting out, I hope this list will be helpful.

Midnight Brewery 6/15/13
The above picture is from a special jam we had at Midnight Brewery this past June.  There were no shortage of melody players that day!  

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Mike Keyes' Irish Tenor Banjo Blog

If you’ve ever been on the Celtic section of the Mandolin Café forum, or the 4-String Banjo board on Banjo Hangout, chances are you’ve seen comments by, or perhaps even corresponded with, Mike Keyes.  I’ve never met Mike, but he did offer me some very helpful advice when I was buying my first instrument – a 1920’s Bacon and Day tenor banjo – back in 2006.

Mike Keyes
A few years ago Mike Keyes was doing the occasional article for Mel Bay’s online Mandolin Sessions publication and even had his own site where he wrote about Irish music and the Irish tenor banjo.  Both of those are now defunct, but in late July of this year Mike started up a new blog called, quite simply, Irish Tenor Banjo Blog, where he posts in-depth and intelligent instructional material about playing Irish music on the tenor banjo, with the beginner in mind.

There’s a wealth of information to be found on this blog, including tips on gaining speed, playing triplets, learning by ear, how to practice…even building your own banjo from commercially available parts!  Mike has studied with many of the experts in the field, including Enda Scahill, John Carty, Angelina Carberry, Gerry O'Connor and Martin Howley, so he knows what he's talking about.  

While I tend to focus on my experiences learning to play the GDAE tuned tenor banjo across a variety of genres, including Irish, Appalachian, Caribbean and early jazz, Mike’s blog is focused entirely on the Irish tenor banjo, with some side trips into the world of Celtic mandolin and tenor guitar.  He’s been updating the site rather frequently, so it’s worth bookmarking and checking back often!

Friday, October 11, 2013

Carnaval En Margarita by Lionel Belasco

Lionel Belasco
I thought I'd share this recording Laura and I made earlier this evening of Carnaval En Margarita by Lionel Belasco.  That's me on tenor banjo and Laura on baritone uke.  We got the tune from the Etcetera String Band, who did a whole album of early Creole/Caribbean dance music called Bonne Humeur.

According to the liner notes in Bonne Humeur, Lionel "Lanky" Belasco was probably born in Caracas, Venezuela in about 1882 and grew up in Venezuela and Trinidad.  He was classically trained, but preferred playing indigenous music.

He formed a string band which played Venezuelan waltzes, joropos, paseos and danzas, many of which he composed himself.  Carnaval En Margarita is a paseo that Belasco wrote.  Margarita is an island off the Venezuelan coast which Belasco visited.

More to come soon!  Maybe even a rag or two.

My Five Favorite Phish Shows (Among the ones I’ve seen)

I’ve been a fan of Phish for 20 good solid years.  Without bothering to figure out the exact total, I’d estimate that I’ve seen Phish about 45 times since 1994, maybe more, but not since 2011.  In honor of the fact that I’ll be seeing Phish again for the first time in more than 2 years when they return to Hampton next weekend, I’ve compiled this list of my five favorite Phish shows, of the ones I’ve seen.

This is a highly subjective list with much more emphasis on my recollection of how I felt about the show at the time, rather than based on an analysis of how it might have held up since then or in comparison to other performances.

12/31/95 – Madison Square Garden, New York City
This was the first and only time I saw Phish at MSG.  12/31/95 is well-documented by fans as being one of the best shows Phish has ever played, possibly the best show they had played up to that point.  I would agree with that, as I felt like I was witnessing Rock N’ Roll history at the time.  I distinctly remember there being a dog inside the venue and its owner saying something like “yeah, this is like my dog’s seventh show”, which took me aback because the dog had seen more shows than me.  At the end of the 3rd set I turned to the normal looking woman on my left and exclaimed “you might think it’s over but it ain’t over!”.  Not sure what I meant by that because the house lights were on and the show was definitely over.

11/22/97 – Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA
I went to both nights at Hampton that November, 11/21 and 11/22/97, and either one could have legitimately made my all-time top 5.  I chose the 2nd night because I remember thinking it was slightly better than the night before.  The way they really take things out there, like on Mike’s Song, Weekapaug, and especially during Halley’s Comet, is the stuff that made Fall 1997 such a legendary tour.  If this isn’t the pinnacle of their playing, it’s pretty darn close.  When they broke into Bouncin’ for the encore, instead of being cynical about it, I was truly loving that song as much as anything I had ever heard before.  I walked out of that show saying “if you didn’t like that (meaning the whole show) then you don’t like Phish!”

9/25/00 – Sandstone Amphitheater, Bonner Springs, KS
This show is memorable because my wife and I saw it during our honeymoon, although it was kind of a bizarro honeymoon because we hadn’t gotten married yet.  We did elope a few days later at the Vegas shows, but were celebrating our honeymoon in advance while in Kansas City.  Imagine trying to explain that around the morning table at the bed and breakfast we stayed at.  I recall going to a winery before the show, then later drinking that fancy wine directly out of the bottle in the parking lot and sharing it with some Phishy wooks we were hanging out with that day.  The show opened with the Beatles song Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey, which I believe is the only time it has ever been played outside of the White Album Halloween ’94 set.  It was pretty cold that night, but we claimed some “seats” near the front of the stage, so it was warm up there.  Not sure how others regard this show, but I liked it a lot.

3/1/03 – Greensboro Coliseum, Greensboro, NC
This was one of those magical nights where every note from start to finish seemed spotless.  You can blame it on a wicked combination of glowsticks and milk stout.  Perfect song selection and song order, nice mixture of tempos, moods and structure.  I recall, even as early as 2003, going into the show with doubts as to whether Phish was still capable of playing great shows like those of yore (you know - the 90’s), as well as wondering if they did play one of those golden shows would I even be able to recognize it as such?  Those concerns were allayed by this masterful performance.  Looking back now at the setlist, it belies the force within.

3/6/09 – Hampton Coliseum, Hampton, VA
The “comeback” show.  There was a distracting nervous energy surrounding this event which almost prevented me from including it in the top 5.  I can still feel the overwhelming adrenaline rush that everyone in Hampton Coliseum seemed to simultaneously exude, as Phish began playing the opening notes of Fluffhead to start the show.  It was an instant statement of confidence and reassurance that can’t really be expressed in words, but that we all intuitively absorbed.  My memories of this show are a little spotty, too much pre-show drinking away the butterflies, but Phish came out with something to prove and prove it they did.  Phish was back…maybe not better than ever, but still better than anybody else.

Waiting To Exhale

For the last year and a half or more I’ve been consumed with immersing myself in traditional music:  Irish jigs and reels, oldtime breakdowns, and more.  I’m not overly concerned with authenticity or style, but have put a lot of work into growing my knowledge, repertoire, rhythm and ability to participate in sessions and jams for these specific genres.  Recently, this quest has started to expand to include string ragtime and early Creole/Caribbean dance tunes.  

Now, I’m finally ready to exhale and bring it back full circle by taking another look at some songs by the bands that were favorites of mine long before this music playing obsession began.  Those bands would be Phish, The Grateful Dead and Ween.

When I first started playing tenor banjo I tried doing songs like Water in the Sky, Ripple and What Deaner Was Talking About, but found my 4-string banjo interpretations to be lacking.  Rather than muddle through poor renditions of my favorite songs, I was made hip to traditional music, which worked perfectly for tenor banjo, and the rest is history. 

I’m finally at a point where I can relax a bit when it comes to the traditional tunes, and increase my overall knowledge of music by trying to once again bring to life songs that have no business being played on tenor banjo!  If successful, not only will I add enjoyment and versatility to my playing, but I should become a better musician as a result. 

I’m wondering what songs might be good ones to start with?  For Phish, I was thinking maybe Wading in the Velvet Sea and Mountains in the Mist?  For The Grateful Dead perhaps Ship of Fools and trying Ripple again?  For Ween maybe starting with She Wanted to Leave and I Don’t Want It?  Last night I was fooling around with the vocal melody line to the Phish song Prince Caspian.  I moved it from G to F to pair it with a Caribbean song from the 1800’s called Belle Layotte.  It's a bare bones instrumental, but it kind of worked.  Here’s a sample:

Rather than trying a whole bunch of songs by different artists, I think for now I'll focus almost exclusively on Phish, The Grateful Dead and Ween, partly because it adds focus and, at least with Phish and The Dead, those are almost like individual genres unto themselves.  Hold on...I may need to make an exception for the Eamon O'Leary song Like A Dime from his Old Clump album.  That's just too good to pass up.  

Other suggestions? 

Monday, October 7, 2013

The 2013 Richmond Folk Festival - A Saturday Itinerary

The Richmond Folk Festival is a huge annual, free event for the City of Richmond, with around 200,000 people attending each year, requiring lots of walking and navigating through thick crowds of people, but where else can you hear the variety of music that this festival assembles? 
Alash Tuvan Throat Singers
This year there’s music from West Africa, throat singing from Siberia/Mongolia, Afro-Caribbean Garifuna music of Honduras, French-Canadian Québécois, Peruvian dance music, Cajun, Vietnamese and Newfoundland traditional music, Texas Swing, Portuguese Fado, Jamaican Reggae, Latin Jazz, a New Orleans brass band, Chicago blues, Gospel and much, much more.  Not to mention the numerous performers demonstrating our own Appalachian bluegrass and oldtime music.
The Dardanelles
The festival takes place over three days – Friday, Saturday and Sunday; October 11, 12 and 13 – but the proposed itinerary below focuses only on the Saturday schedule.  If you’re just going to go one day, Saturday is probably your best bet, if you can handle the massive throngs of folkies.  Note to those who don't like walking long distances quickly:  this itinerary focuses on performers first and logistics second, preferring to skip from stage to stage as needed rather than staying put in one place to watch whomever might be at that stage.
One could start Saturday at the biggest stage of them all – the Altria stage – for The Dardanelles, a trad ensemble from St. John’s, Newfoundland performing at noon.  When I visited Newfoundland in 2011, I noticed similarities to Irish traditional music, so it’ll be nice to see a group like this perform in a festival setting before a large crowd. 
Stooges Brass Band
Immediately following The Dardenelles, it might be worth sticking around the Altria stage for the following act, Abdoulaye Diabate and Super Mande at 1pm, who will present West African Griot music on kora, balafon, percussion and flute.  Although, first it may be tempting to head over to the MWV stage at 12:45pm for the Tuvan throat singing group called Alash
At 2pm there’s an accordion workshop at the Union First Market Bank/University of Richmond stage that looks compelling, but there's also the Stooges Brass Band at 2pm on the Community Foundation Stage.  At 3pm there will be a chance to hear the Knicely Family Band at the Virginia Folklife stage.  I’m a long-time fan of Danny Knicely through his work with Magraw Gap, James Leva and more, but I’ve never seen him with his family band. 
Yves Lambert Trio
The most interesting group performing at 4pm might be the Québécois act Yves Lambert Trio at the Union First Market Bank/University of Richmond stageQuébécois is a style of accordion and fiddle music from Montreal, Quebec, Canada that combines French and Celtic influences.  At 5pm it'll be hard to decide between Cheick Hamala Diabate on the Virginia Folklife stage or The Prusinowski Trio (Polish mazurkas and polkas) at the Community Foundation Stage.  I may choose Cheick Hamala Diabate because he has performed with Bela Fleck and plays both the n’goni (a stringed West African instrument that predates the banjo) and the American 5-string banjo.
Cheick Hamala Diabate (banjo)
Reggae legend Don Carlos plays from 5:30 to 6:30 in the Dance Pavilion, so due to the overlapping times you may have to join his set in progress.  After Don Carlos it might be best to catch your breath by staying put at the Dance Pavilion for the Latin Jazz group the Spanish Harlem Orchestra, who performs at 7pm.
Don Carlos
Finally, you can close out the Saturday schedule by seeing Aurelio Martinez at 8pm at the Community Foundation stage.  Considering my recent interest in Caribbean music, I’m hoping to learn more about Garifuna – a music from the Caribbean coasts of Belize and Honduras that Aurelio Martinez plays a modernized version of. 
Aurelio Martinez
That is just one itinerary for one day.  Several great performers, who will also be playing this same day, have been omitted.  Anyone could go and see an entirely different assortment of acts and still have a great time.  It may be worth coming back on Sunday to catch some of the ones you missed.  For a complete Richmond Folk Festival listing and schedule see here and here.