Saturday, January 25, 2020

20 Years Ago, These Were My 10 Favorite Jambands

In the year 2000 I was living in the Boulder/Fort Collins/Denver area of Colorado. These would have been my ten favorite jambands.

The Big Wu
The Big Wu
This Minnesota band had a heady allure, cultivating a strong following in CO perhaps because of their underdog quality. First of all, they wrote good original songs that you wanted to hear. The Big Wu's setlists rotated through this strong original repertoire and were of course peppered with choice covers. They did a great version of Foolish Heart by The Grateful Dead, for example. On the downside, The Big Wu could be frustratingly inconsistent. On their off nights they more closely resembled your local bar band than an act ready for prime time. I always like them though. There was a "Jerry" quality to their flubbed lyrics and inconsistency.

Keller Williams
Keller Williams
Back then it seemed like Keller Williams could read your mind. I guess that meant he had his finger on the pulse. Keller was always extremely present at his shows, playing directly to the mood of the room. For covers, he pulled from everywhere but my favorites at the time had to be Dinah Moe Humm (Frank Zappa), Thirsty In the Rain (Peter Rowan), and Still Wishing to Course (Camper Van Beethoven). Keller's album Best Feeling proved he could write quality songs, and not just novelty numbers like Portapotty.

Strangefolk had an original sound, powered by Reid Genauer's lyrics and songs. They were a jamband for sure, but it was sorta "jam-lite" and always with a focus on the song. Kind of like a more jammy Jayhawks but way less risk taking than Phish at the time. I don't think Strangefolk ever ventured down the twenty-minute jam road for example, but they knew what they were doing and wore the Burlington, VT brand pretty well. Reid had a great charisma and delivery that brought everything up another notch. Lead guitarist Jon Trafton played with a tasteful, understated style that hopefully didn't go unnoticed. Strangefolk's Weightless In Water CD is a classic album of the genre.

Leftover Salmon
Leftover Salmon
Polyethnic, Cajun Slamgrass was the name of the game. Leftover Salmon, along with String Cheese Incident, embodied the thriving Colorado music scene of that age - soon to be joined by Yonder Mountain String Band. The draw was strong. Many of my favorite live music experiences from the mid-90's to early 2000's were at Leftover Salmon shows. They brought the party, but it also stimulated the bluegrass jones. With Vince Herman, Drew Emitt and Mark Vann (banjo) you had three strong showmen who delivered - in unexpected ways - every single time.

Dark Star Orchestra
Dark Star Orchestra
I was pretty up on my Grateful Dead trivia back then, so going to see a band that recreated entire concerts song for song was quite appealing. It didn't really feel like just a cover band. With John Kadlecik at the controls it felt like a real thing. People, including me, used to actually trade DSO tapes (or burned CDs). As someone who only got to see the Grateful Dead a few times in '94 and '95, it was fun interacting with the true Deadheads in attendance who had lived it. As a student of setlists and characteristics of different playing styles ('73 vs '77 vs early '80's vs late '80's) it was usually possible to guess the correct year by the 3rd of 4th song. That was part of the fun too.

String Cheese Incident
String Cheese Incident
These guys were a big deal to me back then. And when I look back now I realize how unique SCI was and continues to be. Sure they adopted a Phish-like marketing/touring aesthetic but (in spite or or as part of that) they chose a cover repertoire that was untouched at the time. Shows could include covers of Lonesome Fiddle Blues (Vassar Clements), Lands End (Tim O'brien), Mauna Bowa (Jean Luc Ponty), Birdland (Mahavishnu Orchestra), Blackberry Blossom (bluegrass standard), All Blues (Miles Davis), Impressions (John Coltrane), and more. And that's just the instrumentals! The originals in SCI's repertoire never carried the weight of say Phish or moe.'s songs, but the islandy bluegrass shades of their originals helped propagate String Cheese's lighthearted hippie hula hoop image. They started playing venues like The Fillmore and Red Rocks while I was living in Colorado.

I saw moe. a lot from 1996 through 2001 and they crushed it every single time during that stretch. moe. seemed to focus more on originals than their peers. Their songs employed shifting time signatures, quirky lyrics, twin lead guitar, epic jams, and hooky choruses. Between Al, Chuck and Rob you had three songwriters each with their own distinct style. Chuck's being more classic rock leaning, Al's bending toward country and alternative, and Rob toggling between massive anthems and barroom ballads. No Doy holds up as one of the definitive jamband albums, with Headseed and Tin Cans and Car Tires not far behind. moe. songs such as Rebubula, Timmy Tucker, Mexico, Spine of a Dog, Moth, Buster, Recreational Chemistry, Brent Black, Nebraska and Akimbo (the list goes on) are firmly planted and growing up to be redwoods of the forest, or at least spruce.

Sector 9 (Sound Tribe Sector 9, STS9)
When I first started seeing Sector 9 they were simply called Sector 9. The Sound Tribe part hadn't been added yet. Even if the name part was still evolving, Sector 9 the band arrived on the scene fully formed with their own crystal-infused pre-Y2K Mayan mythology giving them an advantage. These guys were no joke and were far removed from the wacky, party vibe of the other jambands. This was before they started using a lot of laptops. No fault in the use of technology, but I liked the organic purity of the pre-computer sound which focused on guitarist Hunter Brown's simple yet fascinating gift for melody, David Phipps' sophisticated piano accents, David Murphy's elemental bass-lines, and Zach Velmer and Jefree Lerner's propelling drums/percussion. Their spirit rubbed off on me.

Yonder Mountain String Band
Yonder Mountain String Band
During the brief two years I lived in Colorado - 1999 to 2001 - YMSB was king for me. And continued to be well into the mid-2000's even after I moved back to VA. There were four, count 'em four, strong songwriters in the band - Jeff Austin, Adam Aijala, Ben Kaufmann, and Dave Johnston. YMSB was a bluegrass lineup of reckless mandolin, flatpicked guitar, standup bass and 5-string banjo. But they were the most aware bluegrass band the world had yet to see that the time, fully aware of not just the bluegrass traditional world of their predecessors, but also of the performance style that had made bands like Phish or The Grateful Dead such huge successes. As Jeff Austin once said, "If we can put out enough energy to sustain a crowd without drums, and show them they can still dance their asses off, well, we've achieved our goal." Leftover Salmon and String Cheese Incident might have dabbled in bluegrass, but Yonder made bluegrass their home base and then branched out from there. Yonder paved the way for artists like Billy Strings.

Of all the bands on this list, Phish is the only the one that remains a favorite. The favorite. Even as my tastes continue to morph and evolve down different pathways on a 25+ year long daily basis, Phish stays top of mind. I speak of them in the present tense, not the past tense.

Phish seems to have really, really studied music, and their songs have complexities and characteristics that puts them in a league of their own. We're talking Beatles type stuff here and beyond (Classical music, jazz, et cetera). Many different Phish songs seem like they were written to be mini-genres designed to fulfill a specific niche in the human psyche. There are always certain moments in a song - whether written out or composed on the spot - that feel like they are designed to go straight to the heart (or loins, or jugular) and grab you in an emotional way that you didn't think possible.

There's a level of technical precision coupled with group-mind, collective improvisation in Phish that isn't present in any other bands. Phish has the chops, creativity, synchronicity and desire to work in unison as a four-headed beast. No matter how out there Phish's jams get there's always a sense of direction and cohesion to them. Plus, they rehearse like crazy and treat each show - each moment of each show - as if it were the most important one they have ever played.

From the time Page joined the band in 1985 (?), Phish has always been the same four guys. No lineup changes. Beside a few very early recordings, any time you listen to Phish you know you are hearing Trey, Mike, Page and Fishman.  Four distinct instruments - guitar, bass, keyboards and drums. In effect, this is a classic if somewhat minimalist lineup with each of the instruments represented at a virtuoso level, making it very easy to focus on each individual's contribution to the overall sound. And when you're at the Phish show you get to watch one of our era's best visual artists - lighting director Chris Kuroda - at work.

Phish has a charismatic leader in guitarist Trey Anastasio, an incredibly inventive, driven, prolific and motivational musician. Iconic. Having a guy like Trey in the band definitely has inspired the other members to push their skills to that same level, to the point that there are no noticeable weak links among the four members of Phish. In fact, you'd have a hard time finding a band where a drummer has as much of an influence on the outcome of a concert as Jon Fishman does.

A critique that is often made alludes to the fact that Phish can be lacking in the lyrics department. I wholeheartedly disagree. Even if I don't always find meaning in their words, I almost always find ultimate acceptance in a way that is more hard fought and rewarding than things which otherwise may have been more accessible at first glance. 

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Dandelion Puff: Constructing and Deconstructing a Melody

The A-Part (similar to Venus In Furs)
On Monday morning I sung a melody into my phone's voice recorder that in hindsight bears some resemblance to the Velvet Underground song Venus In Furs. I didn't give myself a chance to work on this melody until Wednesday morning when I had about ten minutes to review it before leaving for work. During those ten minutes I was able to locate and transcribe the musical notes on a keyboard based on the intervals I had sung.

The musical notes I happened to choose were: G G G C D C D Bb G.

I don't think in terms of chords or harmony, but I do think in terms of scales - the major scale specifically. So as soon as I transcribe notes like this I like to find out which major scale(s) they might conform to.

By analyzing the notes in this little melody I came to the conclusion that these notes could fit into either the Bb major sale (Bb C D Eb F G A) or the F major scale (F G A Bb C D E). Using numeric scale notes, my G G G C D C D Bb G melody was either 6 6 6 2 3 2 3 1 6 or 2 2 2 5 6 5 6 4 2. (It wasn't until I started writing this post that I realized it could also be Eb major as well: Eb F G Ab Bb C D.

The B-Part (loosely based on the 12/29/19 Bathtub Gin jam)
I like for my tunes to have at least two alternating sections. So after transcribing this melody I tried out a sequence of notes based on something that Trey Anastasio played during Bathtub Gin on 12/29/19 that I had already been messing around with by ear. 

In recent years Trey has developed a knack for landing on simple, fleeting melodies during "Type II" improvs. Phish songs like Light, Ghost, Tweezer and Carini are prime places for these. Just beyond eleven minutes into this version of Bathtub Gin, Trey - prompted by Page - comes up with an interesting melody of this sort. It only goes around for a few bars but it was enough for me to make note of it and by New Year's Eve I was playing my own thing based on that sound.

The musical notes I used for this melody were: G Bb C D, G Bb C F D, F D C D C Bb C G.  

Note that all of the notes from my first melody (G C D and Bb) are found in this B-part melody. That was a happy coincidence. The only additional note in the B-part melody was F, but that note is found in both the Bb major scale and the F major scale that I spoke about above. So just like in the A-part, my scale here is ambiguous (to me at least). It could still be either B-flat or F. (or, as I realize now, E-flat).

The thing about these little melodies that Trey happens upon during Phish jams is that they sound great in the context of the jam, but after being isolated it is sometimes difficult to find something to pair them with. They almost paint themselves into a corner. That had been the case with this Bathtub Gin melody. I had been sitting on it for a week without successfully coming up with something to go with it. But as soon as I matched it up with my "Venus In Furs" style A-part it seemed to jive.

Transposing the A-Part
I started playing these A and B parts together and instantly knew that I had a new tune. The parts fit well together. The only thing that nagged at me was how both melodies were using a lot of the same notes, and/or were living under the same piano keys or banjo frets. I wanted a bit more flavor there. Then I remembered how I had analyzed my A-part melody to discover that the first note of the melody (G) could either be note 6 of the Bb scale or note 2 of the F scale. 

So what if I assume for a moment that the scale I'm in is Bb, but move my A-part melody from starting on note 6 of that scale (G) to note 2 of that scale (C)? Now the notes in my A-part melody switch from G G G C D C D Bb G to C C C F G F G Eb C. Boom! I'm definitely not in the key of F anymore but all of these notes still fit into the key of Bb! Remember that B-flat major scale is Bb C D Eb F A. The only note I'm not using is the 7th one: A.

My tune was basically done and ready to be recorded at this point. I had an A-part and a B-part, and each conformed to the same major scale: the B-flat major scale in this case. But, even cooler, I wasn't really even hovering around the note Bb as the tonal center for much of the tune. It's got more of a minor feel, meaning that in music theory it's probably more like the G aeolian or C dorian scale. That's getting a little heavy for me though. I only think in terms of the major scale.

About Those (Mississippi) Half-Steps
This is basically the process I go through almost any time I write a tune. My A-parts and B-parts (or C-parts) often come from different, unrelated sources. In order to pair them I try to put them into the same universe. Unless I am purposefully trying to write something "out", "blue" or exotic, I otherwise like for my A-parts and B-parts to each utilize notes from the same major scale. The same universe, if you will. In this case that universe was the notes of the Bb major scale: Bb C D Eb F G A. It's all relative though, man.

A neat thing to know about the major scale is that it's mostly whole steps. There are only two places in the whole scale where notes are going to be directly adjacent on your fretboard. These are called semi-tones or half-steps. These half-steps are always between notes 3 and 4 of the scale, and between notes 7 and 1 of the scale (or 7 and 8 of the scale in music theory, if I'm not mistaken, but I don't think about it that way). In the Bb major scale the half-steps are found from A to Bb (7 to 1) and from D to Eb (3 to 4). Anywhere else in the scale is a whole step.

Me, I'm A Part of Your Circle of Friends
I like to think of a scale as being continuous. 
Bb C D Eb F G A Bb C D Eb F G A Bb C D Eb F G A Bb C D Eb F G A Bb C D Eb F G A Bb..... and so on.

You can also start on any note of the major scale. That is when a scale is called a mode.
G A Bb C D Eb F G A Bb C D Eb F G A Bb C D Eb F G A Bb C D Eb F G A B C D Eb F G..... and so on.

Once you get going both of the above sequences start to look pretty darn similar. In fact, they quickly become exactly that same. If you start getting too loopy you might get lost. That's OK because the half-steps can bring you back whenever you want. The half steps in your melody are the guideposts, the major clues helping to provide direction. (My tunes don't have definitive chords as far as I'm concerned. I only hear and think in terms of melody, so my scale knowledge and where this melody falls within the major scale is all I have to go on. For example I know that an Eb chord in this scale contains the notes Eb, G and Bb. No duh, right? I just have no idea if or when that or any chord should be used under the melody, nor do I care. If I really had to think about it I would conclude that any number of scalar notes could be used to harmonize with the melody note, each with their own peculiar coloring. Who can say which one sounds better than the other? I don't have a preference.)

Name That Tune
I already expected my next tune title to be either Fungie (after the Dingle dolphin) or Dandelion (after the bard character in the Witcher). I went with Dandelion, which became Dandelion Puff.

To re-cap, Monday I hummed a melody that is similar to Venus In Furs. Wednesday morning I transcribed that melody. Wednesday evening I paired it with a stray melody I had played by ear the prior week based on something I heard during the Phish 12/29/19 Bathtub Gin. Once paired together I realized that the intervals being used allowed for one of the parts to be shifted to different notes within the same universe, or scale. After that, done!

Here's a recording made last night over a quick drum machine "beat" that I spent mere seconds assembling. I used a baritone ukulele because I like the way it sounds on that instrument.