Friday, November 29, 2013

Building a Ragtime Repertoire

If you get Steve Parker’s book Ragtime for Fiddle and Mandolin and Mel Bay's Favorite American Rags and Blues for Fiddle by Stacy Phillips, then you'll have your bases covered when it comes to sheet music for many of the common stringband rags such as Pig Ankle's Rag, Stone's Rag, Mineola Rag, Plowboy Hop, Whistling Rufus, Stone Mountain Wobble and many more.  However, I've also found some great raggy tunes from other books and sources.  For example...

April Verch’s book/CD The American Fiddle Method - Canadian Fiddle Styles contains the ragtime foxtrot Walking Up Town in the key of C.  I really started to love this tune after transcribing it to the key of G, which is the way it is played by Tom Cussen’s Irish traditional band Shaskeen on their album titled Walking Up Town.  It's a little easier to play in G so you can start with April Verch's sheet music and tweak it based on Shaskeen's version.

The Dix Bruce and Bruce Bollerud tune collection called Mandolin Uff Da! Let's Dance:: Scandinavian Fiddle Tunes and House Party Music is one of my favorite tunebooks, containing many great waltzes, schottiches and polkas.  It also contains two very fun rags – Mabel Rag Two-Step (which I prefer to play in D than the arrangement in F in the book) and Red Rooster Two Step (which is noteworthy because it’s a 3-part tune that changes keys…the first part sounds like a march, the second part sounds ethnic, and the third part is very raggy).  In addition Mandolin Uff Da! also has some tunes called Almondo's Polka and Sally's Hoppwaltz which also have ragtime elements.  You won't find these tunes anywhere else, and they really deserve to be played by more people.

Celestial Mountain Music’s All-In-One Jambook contains a country rag I like a lot called Saturday Night Breakdown.  Click here to listen to me playing this tune.  Janet Davis’ The Ultimate Mandolin Songbook has a transcription of Scott Joplin’s classic rag The Entertainer that almost makes this tune doable!

Paul Rosen of the Charlottesville, VA area contra dance band Floorplay has written many tunes that I’ve started to play, including Clouds Thicken, Critter’s Gone to Texas and Locust Tree.  Just last week I started to learn one he wrote called Elgin’s Rag, which has become my favorite rag.  Paul has posted the sheet music for all of the tunes on Floorplay’s Block Party album, including Elgin's Rag, here.

On a site called Old Time Mandolin there's the mandolin tab for B-flat Rag by the Madisonville String Band.  Paul Tyler transcribed Les Raber's version of Dill Pickle Rag for Oldtown School of Folk Music's Tune of the Week series.

There’s also a site called Dr. Fiddle with many transcriptions of rags, including Cumberland Blues by Doc Roberts and Duck Shoes Rag and Ruth’s Rag by the Grinnell Giggers.  Rags may be somewhat scarce, but with a little poking around you'll have more tunes in that syncopated style at your disposal.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Cabin A - new fireside field recordings by Cardinal Puffin

My wife Laura and I spent last weekend in a cabin in Spotsylvania County.  The idea was just to get away for a couple days and relax, read books and drink beer by the fire.  In addition, I thought it would be a good opportunity to play some of our current favorite songs and tunes without the distractions of everyday life getting in the way.  I like to periodically document our musical “progress”, so I kept the Olympus LS-14 on record whenever we were playing. 

Looking back, there were some definite flubs and missed notes, but we were able to work our way through over 15 tunes and songs, giving them all at least two takes each, and had a lot of fun doing it.  It we didn’t quite get it after three attempts, we moved on to something else.  The idea, as always, was to capture the sound we currently make, warts and all.  I played tenor banjo on all tracks.  Laura played baritone ukulele on the majority of them, but can be heard on bodhran on two tunes.

We are calling it Cabin A by Cardinal Puffin…Cardinal Puffin being the made up band name for the music we make together.  These are like field recordings.  I basically just split up the wav files as soon as I got back home and saved them as individual tracks.  No editing or sound engineering was done (quite obviously).  You can listen to it by clicking on the player below.  Below that is a track by track rundown.

Cardinal Puffin – Cabin A
Recorded November 23 and 24, 2013

Saturday Night Breakdown is a raggy little number in the key of C from the Leake County Revelers, although we got it from Celestial Mountain Music’s All-In-One Oldtime Jam Book/CD.

Good Guys and Bad Guys is a Camper Van Beethoven song.  I learned the little melodic bit in a lesson a few years ago, but only recently started playing it.

Johnny Mickey’s is an Irish polka, presumably written by a guy named Johnny Mickey.  I learned it from Steve Kaufman’s Four-Hour Celtic Workout, so my version is a bit watered down I’m sure.

Chinquapin Hunting is an oldtime fiddle tune.  This is Art Stamper’s version, but I memorized it second-hand from Celestial Mountain Music’s Celestial Slow Jam book/CD.  I love how this tune is in D but doesn’t require a D-chord in the B-part.

Brosna Slide is an Irish slide (slides like faster jigs in 12/8 time).  I actually just picked this one up by ear through going to sessions – for once the way you’re supposed to learn this music!  Laura plays bodhran here.

What Deaner Was Talking About is a song by Ween, one of my all-time favorite bands.  We also like to play the Ween song She Wanted To Leave, which I hope to share at a later date.

Coleman’s March is – I assume – an Appalachian tune but I’m not sure.  Marches also often have Celtic roots.  I kinda learned this one by ear as well.  When I look at the music I see notes that I’m not playing, so I prefer to just keep it simple and play it the way I play it.

Caroline is a Caribbean tune from the Etcetera Stringband’s Bonne Humeur CD.  A couple months ago I sent all 18 tracks from that album to a music transcriber named Nick Disebastian who put them all in mandolin tab.  I’m saving 3 or 4 of my favorite Caribbean/Creole numbers that album for a future project, but thought that Caroline would be a good one to include here.

Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots is a Flaming Lips song.  We were pretty heavy into a growler of red ale when we tried recording this, so all 3 takes were botched in some way.  Perhaps we should have rehearsed this song instead of trying it on the fly.  What you’re hearing is the first take, which ended up being the least butchered of the three.

Cha Bai comes from the Cape Verde islands and is included in John Philip Sousa’s 1890 book National Patriotic and Typical Airs of All Lands. However, we got it from The Rhythmia.  Nick Disebastian transcribed this for me, but we had never tried playing Cha Bai together until the day we recorded it!  For only having a quick practice, I think it came out pretty good.

My Darling Asleep was one of the first Irish tunes I ever tried to play, but it's taken me years to memorize it and I'll likely forget it again soon.  Even though it’s a very simple, repetitive melody, I always forget how it goes.  There were other jigs I could have chosen, but this one popped into my head and we actually played it halfway decent on this day.

The Banshee is an Irish reel.  I don’t necessarily play reels like “reels”; I just play them however I play them.  On the 2nd day in the cabin it was very cold and the wind was howling outside, so it made sense to play The Banshee.

Devil Town is a song by Daniel Johnston.  It’s an easy three chorder with just two verses, which makes it the perfect, drunken campfire song.  I added some impromptu lyrics from the Phish song Cavern to give it a third verse.

LandN Rag comes from Alex Hood and His Railroad Boys.  However, I got interested in trying it after hearing someone playing it on tenor banjo.  I’ve been learning quite a few rags lately, and I’m probably not as polished on LandN Rag as I am on some of the others, but LandN Rag it is!  In hindsight it might have been better to try Hawkins Rag instead.

Belle Layotte is a short little Caribbean tune in the key of F.  It’s another one from that Bonne Humeur album by the Etcetera Stringband.  It’s deceptively complex but also very hypnotic if you can get into the groove of it.  I’m not sure if we got there but we sure tried.  Laura played bodhran here partly because ukulele doesn't really work on this unusual melody.

Let me know what you think of the music!

Fredericksburg's Battlefield Brewery

Upon pulling up to The Pub, your first reaction might be this can’t be the home of Battlefield Brewery, can it?  Upon walking into The Pub, you still might be thinking this can’t be the home of Battlefield Brewery, can it?  But it is.  This friendly, working-class, blue collar bar and brewery located in a suburban strip mall in Fredericksburg, VA is home to some of the best tasting, no nonsense, craft beer made in Virginia.

There’s nothing pretentious about The Pub.  Apparently you can still smoke in there, and there always seems to be quite a few regulars at the bar doing just that.  The Pub is not a place where exciting things have to always be happening.  Everyone might just be sitting there quietly.  If your idea of a pleasant weekend afternoon is to be in a bar, reading the paper while smoking cigarettes and nursing a beer, occasionally conversing with those around you – or not, then The Pub/Battlefield Brewery might just be the place for you.
outside Battlefield Brewery (The Pub) - Fredericksburg, VA
If you can’t take the cigarette smoke you can just go in and have a growler filled of their Iwo Jima Red Ale, Chancellor Pale Ale, or one of the special beers they might have brewed.  My favorite is the Red Ale, which is every bit the equal to my other number one - the Irish Red produced by Midnight Brewery in Goochland.
Bar area - Battlefield Brewery
I used to hate it when all bars in Virginia were smoke-filled.  Now that most bars are smoke-free, the fact that smoking is still permitted/tolerated in The Pub ironically contributes to its understated coolness.  It’s a very casual atmosphere and if you saddle up to the bar, within a few minutes there’s a good chance that you will have made fast friends with the persons next to you and soon you might be calling the lady bartender by name.
Brewery area - Battlefield Brewery
If you’re in the Fredericksburg area I highly recommend checking out the Battlefield Brewery.  It’s an about-face from the overly trendy and puffed up breweries that you might be used to.  

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Valley Forge, Road to Malvern and many more fiddle tunes found on John Lamancusa's Old Time Fiddle Tunes site

John Lamancusa fiddle (middle)
A page that I return to frequently when  I want to play along with a fiddle tune and/or see a transcription of the melody is John Lamancusa's Old Time Fiddle Tunes site.

Over 350 tunes and counting have been collected and notated there.  The majority of it is old time fiddle tunes (including many of the crooked, weird and modal ones that make old time so much fun), but there's also some New England Contra Dance, Celtic jigs/polkas/hornpipes and waltzes...even some rare Southwestern Tohono O'odham music which is definitely worth checking out.

Tune names link to sheet music pdf files, the piano keys symbol links to a midi file, and better yet the vinyl record/music symbol links to a field recording or other audio source.  This site has helped me get a handle on tunes such as Valley Forge, Road to Malvern, Snake Hunt, Hunting the Buffalo, Old Time Billy in the Lowground, Down in Little Egypt, Santa Anna's Retreat and more.

I need to learn some of those Southwestern Bayou Seco and Gu-achi Fiddlers tunes he has notated!

Friday, November 15, 2013

Six Water Grog's Best Albums of the 1990's and 2000's

As 2009 came to a close I was inspired to make a list of my favorite albums of the 2000’s.  I also compiled a list of my favorites from the 1990’s while I was at it.  That was before this blog existed, but having recently come across those lists I’d like to share a new and improved top ten for each decade.

The early 1990’s was when I really started to seek out and listen to music seriously, although even back then my musical path didn’t exactly align with the critical zeitgeist.  In other words, you won’t find any Beck, Nirvana, Radiohead or rap on these lists, even though I did enjoy me some Pearl Jam, Dr. Dre, Bad Religion and Cypress Hill back then! 

For consistency, selections are limited to studio albums.  These are individual choices subject to change at any time.  Here’s how it stands today…

Six Water Grog’s Best Albums of the 2000’s (2000-2009)

Dr. Dog – Easy Beat (2004)
As an early fan of this band, I ordered this CD directly from Dr. Dog the moment it became available through mail order in the fall of 2004 and have not stopped listening to it since.  Subsequent Dr. Dog albums have ventured into this territory, but Easy Beat will always be my favorite by them.

The Flaming Lips – Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (2002)
I love how this album flows from one song to the next.  It’s artsy, trippy and dynamic.  Some prefer Soft Bulletin, but I heard Yoshimi before any other Flaming Lips albums, so it’s the tops for me. 

My Morning Jacket – It Still Moves (2003)
The first time I saw MMJ was in January 2004 -- a historic day in my musical life (Dr. Dog opened playing songs from Easy Beat several months before it was released).  I stayed up all night after the show listening to It Still Moves and transcribing the lyrics, and spent the next several weeks describing its virtues to anyone who would listen.

Yvonne Casey – Yvonne Casey (2004)
On the first night of our first ever visit to Ireland in November 2004 we happened to be staying in the village of Doolin where Yvonne Casey’s CD release party was taking place the next night.  Needless to say we went.  McGann’s was packed tighter than a Ween show at Alley Katz.  This was my first exposure to trad music and the world has not been the same since.  This album mixes Yvonne’s quintessential West Clare fiddle style with a sprinkling of more exotic influences such as ska and surf rock.  Purists and progressives alike can enjoy its peaty flavors.  With excellent support from Eoin O’Neill, Quentin Cooper, Ger Hoyne and more.

Cracker and Leftover Salmon – O' Cracker Where Art Thou (2003)
Snarky, cynical and slacker…this is the rootsy re-do that Cracker’s music had been unknowingly crying out for.  Basically a Cracker Best Of with David Lowery and Johnny Hickman backed by the “polyethnic Cajun slamgrass” jamband Lefover Salmon, these radio hits never sounded as good as the interpretations found here.

Phish – Headphones Jam (2004)
Phish are underrated as songwriters and composers, but on this blazing one-track 45+ minute improvised studio jam they do what they do best – let “the hose” run free.  With no live audience to play for, Phish takes listeners on a cerebral journey that is as good or better than any jam they ever came up with in concert.

Gillian Welch – Soul Journey (2003)
Soul Journey is right.  The underlying tinges of a Neil Young and Grateful Dead influenced cosmic consciousness really starts to shine-through on this album, which is more rocking than anything Gill and Dave have done before or since.  Sounding more like Son Volt than the Carter Family, Gillian taps into something transcendent here.

Bang on a Can Allstars – In C (2001)
In C never fails to inspire.  It’s another of those one-track, 45-minute albums that can go by in the blink of an eye.  It’s the perfect music to listen to while painting an abstract masterpiece or simply plunging the depths of the blank space that is the human psyche.  One always feels smarter after hearing this album…musical nutrition.

The Sadies – Favourite Colours (2004)
Dark, psychedelic and apocalyptic, Favourite Colours ironically evokes black and white visions of cold, wind swept prairies.  Eerie songs such as 1,000 Cities Falling (Part 1) and unsettling instrumental passages like The Curdled Journey ultimately go down as smooth as a fine bottle of Scotch.  The Canadian spelling of favorite and colors (with the “ou”) doesn’t hurt either.

Dawes – North Hills (2009)
Coming at the tail end of the decade, but signaling a new back-to-basics approach that retro rockers everywhere were quick to adopt, the North Hills was a great introduction to a band that has only gotten better on subsequent releases.  Dawes is a band you can really go deep with, once you realize that there are many layers to their quasi-easy listening sound.  I can see them playing this album live, in its entirety, many years down the road.

Six Water Grog’s Best Albums of the 90’s (1990-1999)

Cowboy Junkies – Black Eyed Man (1992)
Black Eyed Man is a slow burner which I have been returning to for over 20 years.  Oddly, I’ve never gotten into any other Cowboy Junkies albums, and yet this one has been a desert-island disc for as long as I've imagined such a thing. 

Ween – the Mollusk (1997)
From the moment I first heard The Mollusk, I knew it was chock full of awesome.  I was already listening to Ween’s 10 Golden Country Hits and Chocolate and Cheese, but The Mollusk resonated in a way those albums hadn’t.  I soon made it my mission to convert everyone I could to the words of the Golden Eel, proselytizing The Boognish.

Phish – Story of the Ghost (1998)
Phish is the only band with a nod in each decade.  Honestly, I could have chosen 1993’s Rift as well, but Story of the Ghost wins out because as a whole I think it works the best of any of Phish’s traditional studio albums.  Some of these songs, like the title track, were monstrous when played live, but whittled down to their essence in the studio the brilliance and structure of the song is still clear. 

Nanci Griffith – Other Voices Other Rooms (1993)
This might seem like an odd choice based on my other favorites, but this CD of Nanci Griffith interpreting other people’s songs really tugs at the heart strings.  It’s up there with the Cowboy Junkies’ Black Eyed Man as a long-time desert-island disc.  Other Voices, Other Rooms has remained a constant in a sea of musical change, with its rose faded only slightly over the last 20 years.

Medeski Martin and Wood – Shack Man (1996)
When it comes to the overall quality of a band's entire catalog of official releases, nobody ranks higher than Medeski Martin and Wood.  I knew a 1990’s era MMW CD was a shoo-in, and it’s really a tossup between Shack Man and Friday Afternoon in the Universe.  However, Shack Man prevails 6 days out of the week due to its unflinching grooviness.

Neil Young – Harvest Moon (1992)
If this album doesn’t make you want to dance across the living room floor with your significant other I don’t know what will.  Put Harvest Moon on, grab your sweetie and/or intoxicant of choice, and surrender to one of the most iconic musicians of the last 50 years on one of his most accessible, yet beautiful albums.

Steve Earle – The Mountain (1999)
“M-I-C-K-E-Y, M-O…you gotta put your hat on boy.  If you wanna be in the band you have to put your hat on”.  I don’t know what that statement means but it’s the first thing that came to mind when I thought about The Mountain.  Bluegrass isn’t one of my favorite genres, but this album transcends that distinction in a way that only the merger of Steve Earle and the Del McCoury Band can.  Campfire jammers the world over can thank Steve Earle for his contributions to their repertoire via The Mountain.

Son Volt – Trace (1995)
Uncle Tupelo and Wilco may be missing from these lists, but Son Volt’s first album is here to represent!  Trace is the only Son Volt album I’ve ever really listened to, but it’s a keeper.  I’m always ready for “switching it over to AM, searching for a truer sound”.

Tortoise – TNT (1998)
Tortoise succeeds where so many other post-rockers fail.  Classical, rock and jazz merge in a way that doesn’t even need to be written about, just listened to.  Does Tortoise want us to dance or gaze at our shoes?  I think a simple head bob will do.

Jerry Garcia/ David Grisman – Not for Kids Only (1993)
The Grateful Dead may not have ever gotten around to recording a studio album in the 90’s, but Jerry Garcia did re-connect with his old pal mandolinist David Grisman and together they put out some quality work this decade.  One shouldn’t mistake this as a bunch of outtakes from from Grisman’s archives; Not For Kids Only was actually conceived from the start as a children’s album that both the young and young-at-heart could enjoy.  Not for Kids Only turned out to be the best, and of course the most whimsical, of anything the two ever collaborated on.

Just missing the top tens but worthy of mention: Tom Waits - Mule Variations (1999), Bill Frisell - The Willies (2002), Ween - White Pepper (2000), Akira Satake - Cooler Heads Prevail (1997), Ensemble Modern Plays Frank Zappa: Greggery Peccary and Other Persuasions (2003), Billy Bragg and Wilco - Mermaid Avenue (1998), Hammer No More the Fingers - Looking for Bruce (2009), O'death - Broken Hymns, Limbs and Skin (2008), Adam Tanner - Rare Rags and Stringband Blues (2003).

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Wynntown Marshals - The Long Haul (It sounds like 1993, but for now it sounds like heaven)

Last Friday I noticed a post on No Depression about a Scottish band called The Wynntown Marshals.  The article enticed me to check out their new album The Long Haul.  I'm happy to say it’s one of the best albums I’ve heard this year.

As I listen to The Long Haul I keep waiting for the classic Uncle Tupelo song New Madrid to come up next.  I described it to a friend by stating:  “Whiskeytown and Uncle Tupelo had a baby and it’s called The Wynntown Marshals”. 

It’s as if The Wynntown Marshals are paying tribute to the great alt. country bands that came before them, while still writing and playing all original songs.  Shades of Magnolia Electric Co., The Hold Steady and The Sadies are also apparent.

When you take into account that this is a band from Edinburgh, Scotland, it’s even more impressive that The Wynntown Marshals have so convincingly absorbed a genre and sound that is distinctly American.  They out “son volt” Son Volt!  It may sound like 1993, but for now it sounds like heaven. 

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Live Music Re-cap – The Green Boys, Sweet Fern, Bumper Jacksons and more

The Green Boys (with Del McCoury)
I’ve seen some great music over the last 3 weeks, starting with The Green Boys on 10/25/13 at Ashland Coffee and Tea.  I’ve been to all three of The Green Boys' shows at Ashland Coffee and Tea, and this was definitely the best of the three.  They didn’t seem as nervous, were tighter than ever before, and kept things flowing at a steady pace.  The addition of drummer Jonathan Burkett for this gig helped complete their sound.
People's Blues of Richmond
The following day, Saturday 10/26/13, we headed down to Richmond to check out the first ever Boulevard Pumpkin Festival, not knowing that we were about to be exposed to a balls-to-the-wall, trippy as hell rock band called the People’s Blues of Richmond.  It was quite chilly this day, but PBR heated things up with their Zeppelin and Hendrix meets Dr. Dog influenced sound.  I wouldn’t call PBR derivative…they inhabit the influence of their rock and blues forebears.  I wasn't even going to the festival for the music – which is usually crappy at something like this - so seeing a band of this caliber was quite unexpected.  I’m not sure if I’m ready to see PBR inside a packed club though…not sure the eardrums could take it.
Sweet Fern - photo by Laura Fields
The following Friday, 11/1/13 was the UkeFest Virginia, which is kind of a kooky event, but one of our favorite local acts Sweet Fern was playing.  Sweet Fern is comprised of the lovely songstress Alison Self on ukulele and guitar, and master musician Josh Bearman who rotates through several stringed instruments during the course of a Sweet Fern set, including mandolin, clawhammer banjo, tenor banjo and guitar.  Sweet Fern’s charming combination of country duets, Carter family songs and jugband material went over well with the older UkeFest audience.  
The Bumper Jacksons
We were committed to returning to the UkeFest the next evening 11/2/13 because we had already bought tickets to see The Bumper Jacksons, a band I had heard good things about but had never seen.  I’m glad we went back because the Bumper Jacksons were great!  I loved, loved, loved the sound of Jess Eliot Myhre’s clarinet.  Although the she only played it on a few songs, it really brought to mind the sound of a 1920’s speakeasy.  Chris Ousley was very entertaining on ukulele, banjo, guitar and mouth horn – yes mouth horn!  It’s obvious that these two are well versed in traditional music, but still have a lot of fun with it.
Mia Friedman, Owen Marshall and Ari Friedman
Most recently, I got to see the Boston based sister duo Ari and Mia Friedman with Owen Marshall as they passed through Ashland on their current tour on 11/7/13.  Not only are they great musicians, with sort of a refined sense of folk music, but they are also great people that I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know this year over the course of their two visits to Ashland.  Despite a 10-hour drive to get to the venue and a small turnout, these professionals still gave a very warm performance.  I think I laugh more at Owen Marshall’s between song comments than any other musician’s on stage banter.  I hope more people come to see Ari, Mia and Owen next time.  You’re missing out if you don’t!

There’s aren't any shows coming up in the near future that I can think of, although I am looking forward to The Hot Seats at Ashland Coffee and Tea on December 28th!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

How Phish and Arcade Fire led me to Power, Corruption and Lies

For a few days in late October I got caught up in a type of music I had never before listened to…

You can blame it on the excitement of the upcoming release of Arcade Fire’s Reflektor – which was being described as equal parts Haitian rhythms and 80’s new wave dance music – and the anticipation of which album Phish would cover on Halloween – traditionally a classic rock album from the 1970’s.  This harmonic convergence drove me to type in the words “New Order” into my online music player.

I had no idea who or what New Order was (and still don’t really), but had heard them name-checked in an Arcade Fire interview on NPR.  My search brought up a list of New Order’s albums, and I strategically chose what looked to be their 2nd album – 1983’s Power, Corruption and Lies.  I instantly liked it.
On repeated listens to Power, Corruption and Lies I began imagining that what I was listening to was not a 30 year old album, but was, in fact, the new Arcade Fire album, if that makes any sense.  It was also somehow easy to imagine Phish covering it as their Halloween album.  It may not have the strong guitar lead or substance of other more obvious choices, but I don’t know that I’ve ever heard a song begging for a John Fishman lead vocal and the Phish treatment more than the album’s 2nd track, “We All Stand”.

My fascination with Power, Corruption and Lies was quick to rise, and, actually, quick to ebb after I heard the actual Arcade Fire album Reflektor – which was a bit of a hyped up letdown – and after Halloween came and went without Phish covering New Order.  Not that I ever really thought it was a possibility, but I still think that it could have worked really well as the Phish Halloween Costume.

After more than a week off from it, I revisited this New Order album today and yes I still dig it.  It's clinging to a small plot of land in my musical mind. “Our love is like the flowers, the rain and the sea and the hours”.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Ron Gentry's Ukulele Jamming Tips (applicable to all types of music jams)

The River City Ukulele Society is a ukulele enthusiast organization in Richmond, VA.  They hold open jam sessions at The Cultural Arts Center At Glen Allen on the first and third Tuesdays of each month.  Jam Leader Ron Gentry has distributed a list of ukulele jamming tips that actually can apply to all types of music jams regardless of whether it’s a ukulele jam or some other kind of music.  These "Tips" are just  They are intended as helpful hints to making jamming more enjoyable for all. 

Ukulele Jamming Tips
By Ron Gentry

Basic Tips
Be in tune before starting. Whenever in doubt use an electronic tuner.

Be on the right chord.
Learn the chord changes as quickly as possible.
As necessary, watch the left hand of someone who knows the chords.

Stay with the beat. Don’t rush, drag, or lose your place in the song

Watch your volume (No amplified instruments, except a U-Bass).
Allow the singer or person taking a “break” to be easily heard. If you can’t hear him/her, play quieter.
When it’s your turn, make sure you are heard.
Be aware that your instrument (especially banjo ukes) may not seem as loud to you as to someone in front of you.

When you lead a song, know the song “key” and all of the verses and chords.

When performing:
Keep your music stand as flat and low as possible.
Look up from your music as often as you can.
Smile and make eye contact with the audience.

Play songs out of the two River City Ukulele All Stars Tune Books or provide handout copies of the song(s) you are leading.

If you aren’t providing copies of the music, suggest songs easy enough for everyone to follow (4 chord limit).

Be aware of the common denominator of ability when picking tunes and tempos.

Whomever kicks off a song determines the key, tempo, and leads the group through the song, signaling who takes a “break” and when to end.

The person leading the song may sing it differently from the way you remember the song. You must listen and follow the leader…do not try to impose your version of the song.

If a vocal or an instrumental “break” starts late, listen for whether it is starting from the top, or from a later point in the song.

If players realize they are at different points in the song try to resolve it quickly, usually by falling in with the soloists even if he/she is mistaken.

If everyone but you gets lost, follow those who are lost.

When a singer doesn’t start a verse on time, keep playing the root or “I” chord and wait until the singer starts before going to the chord changes.

Use signals to help everyone end together; foot up, hold up instrument, end after one last chorus, or repeat of last line, or someone says “last time” or “turn it around”.  Listen for instrumental “licks” that signal ending, i.e. “shave and a haircut” lick.

Etiquette Stuff
When re-tuning or checking your tuning, wait your turn.
If someone is tuning, avoid any playing.
When everyone is finished playing, you shouldn’t play any notes you have left.
Refrain from noodling around on a tune between songs.

Thanks Ron!

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

I Found Some Blogs on the Musicology of the Grateful Dead

I’ve started to learn to sing and play the Grateful Dead song Ship of Fools on my tenor banjo.  I'm not there yet, but I think it’s going to be a cool song to do.  However, Ship of Fools has some pretty complex chords in it that are new to me.  So, I’ve been looking for a 2nd, more flowing and intuitive Grateful Dead song to also learn.  Yesterday it occurred to me that Dark Star might be a good candidate! 

That might seem like an odd choice.  Dark Star is the Grateful Dead’s most improvisational song – built around the A mixolydian mode with the chords A and G as its two primary (home and contrast) chords.  E minor as well.  The Grateful Dead would take this song out there on long, 30+ minute explorations.  Because of its lack of structure and minimal nature, Dark Star is very malleable.  It’s conceivable that someone playing it on a folk instrument – such as tenor banjo – could find enjoyment in interpreting a campfire version of this song.

Even if you're not prone to musical improvisation, you could sprinkle in a mixolydian traditional tune, such as Cluck Old Hen, as an instrumental break between verses to add some color.  Anyway, the point of this post is that last night I began searching online to see if anyone had transcribed the intro and main theme for Dark Star, so that I would have notation to work with when learning the melody that builds up to the first verse.  I didn’t find that notation, but I did find some cool blogs devoted to the musicology behind the Grateful Dead's songs and performances.

Like this post from The Grateful Dead World, about the Modal Basis of the Grateful Dead’s Songs and Jams.

My search also brought up some articles on a site called the Grateful Dead Guide about performances of Dark Star in 1968 and in 1971.  There are tons of other GD-related writings on this blog on a variety of subjects worth checking out.

Finally, I found this extensive essay on Tonal and Expressive Ambiguity in Dark Star by Graeme M. Boone.  It does include transcriptions of the vocal line and some of Garcia’s solos from Dark Star performances. 
Enjoy reading!

Friday, November 1, 2013

Phish Wears "WingSuit" on Halloween in Atlantic City

I closely monitored the Phish message boards in the days leading up to their Halloween show to see if news of which classic album they would be covering had leaked.  No definitive spoilers ever surfaced.  We would have to wait until the doors to Atlantic City's Boardwalk Hall opened at 6:30pm on 10/31/13 when folks entering the venue were handed a “Phishbill” with this announcement.
Phish - Boardwalk Hall - Atlantic City, NJ - 10/31/13 (photo from @PHISH_FTR)
Up until last night, Phish had played 6 Halloween concerts since 1994, and on all of those occasions the 2nd of 3 sets has been a cover of a classic album by another band as their “musical costume”, including The Beatles’ White Album, Talking Heads’ Remain in Light and the Velvet Underground’s Loaded.  Rumors this year included Eat A Peach by the Allman Brothers, On the Road by Traffic, and The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway by Genesis.  These all turned out to be bunk.

As fans entered the show they were informed however, via the Phishbill, that Phish would be playing their own, as yet unreleased album, tentatively titled Wingsuit.  This probably explains why very little new material had been introduced thus far in 2013 during the summer and fall tours…Phish was waiting to unleash 12 brand new songs for the first time on Halloween night.  When I found this out I immediately ordered the webcast.
Phishbill cover - Wingsuit
Phish seemed unusually nervous in what was sort of an obligatory 1st set.  I enjoyed the “Phishy” songs like Poor Heart, Silent in the Morning and Mound, and would like to have seen more of those instead of the somewhat generic rockers like Back on the Train and Kill Devil Falls.  Maybe those loping Americana type songs help alleviate the jitters?  I dunno.  I wasn’t too concerned about the 1st set anyway, as the focus was obviously on what was about to happen in the 2nd set of the night.

After a break where the webcast displayed some hilarious pictures of fans in the costume contest, Phish came back on to play the Wingsuit portion of the show.  I’m a natural skeptic and wasn’t initially sold on the 1st 3 songs.  It also seemed like the crowd in the Boardwalk Hall wasn’t quite on board with it either, but it’s hard to be sure from the webcast.  Phish is a band that relies on familiarity and crowd interaction; it’s tough to do that with never before heard songs.  Then things started to change. 

The 4th song Monica hooked me in and I began to really warm to the idea of what Phish was laying on us…this was going to go down in Phishtory as one of their ballsiest performances ever.  All new material that none of us even knew they were writing, being introduced as the musical costume in the 2nd set of a Halloween show???  What if it flopped?  How could it flop?
Phishbill - Wingsuit song list
I began second-guessing my first impressions of the first 3 songs and wanted to go back and listen to them again, but there was no chance of that in the moment, because the songs just kept coming...each one distinct from the last.  From song 4 all the way to the very end, with the possible exception of the last song You Never Know, I was very impressed by the Wingsuit songs.  I loved the fresh arrangements that sounded foreign yet familiar, and the stripped down, acoustic portions of the set requiring a different stage setup. 

It was obvious that Phish had really been working on this music to get it ready for performance, taking great care to definitively present these debut renditions.  Almost all classic Phish styles were represented, from proggy composed pieces, to funky groove numbers, to quirky acoustic folk ditties, to psychedelic jam vehicles...even one called Winterqueen that had a catchy Caribbean vibe to it.

Apparently the 12 songs that were played as Wingsuit are part of a larger batch of about 25 that they are preparing to take into the studio as soon as the Atlantic City run is done on 11/2.  The final album, if it does end up being called Wingsuit, will likely contain some, but maybe not all of the songs performed during this Halloween set, and could contain additional songs which were not debuted on this night. 

What I heard on the webcast gives me great confidence that after 30 years as a band, Phish is still a vital, creative ensemble that is not only constantly reexamining and breaking new ground within its past body of work, but is also still pushing forward with new compositions that expand upon its vast repertoire.  Wingsuit has the potential to be a great album.  I hope Phish jumps right back on these songs and plays some of them again over the next two nights before the Fall tour is over, to give them even more of a work out before heading into the studio.