Wednesday, May 22, 2024

My Ten Favorite Songs

I created a Spotify playlist to listen to while driving across the country from Virginia to Oregon. I don't know how many songs it has on it, but the playlist is over 38 hours long! This large collection of favorite songs by my favorite artists got me to thinking about what my ten favorite songs might be. So I went through the playlist and jotted down the names of songs that I thought might be candidates for the top ten. This initial run-thru came out to over 30 songs. So then I whittled it away to these final ten.

Half Moon Rising by Yonder Mountain String Band, from the album Elevation.

Brown Eyed Women by The Grateful Dead. Pretty much any version, but I guess the Europe '72 version is the standard.

Windfall by Son Volt from the album Trace. It could have also been Tear Stained Eye from the same CD.

Tangled Up in Blue. This is a Bob Dylan song, but I'm specifically thinking of the Jerry Garcia Band version from the 1991 live album entitled Jerry Garcia Band.

Galway Girl by Steve Earle from the album Transcendental Blues

What Deaner was Talking About by Ween from the Ween album Chocolate and Cheese.

To Live is to Fly. This is a Townes Van Zandt song, but I'm thinking of the Cowboy Junkies cover of this song found on their Black Eyed Man CD.

Good Guys and Bad Guys by Camper Van Beethoven from the album Camper Van Beethoven.

Ginseng Sullivan. This is a Norman Blake song and I love Norman's version from his album Back Home in Sulphur Springs. Of equal status is the Tony Rice take found on Manzanita. However, I would be omitting a primary booster of this song if didn't give Mike Gordon from Phish credit. I first heard Phish do it on a bootleg CD of their 12/31/93 show from Worcester, MA. I was already familiar with Norman Blake's music at the time and this connection sealed the deal!

Paradise by John Prine from his album John Prine. Honorable mention to every single other song from that same LP!

I must also list these five runner ups: A Horse in the Country by Cowboy Junkies, Golden by My Morning Jacket, Just Before the Evening by Leftover Salmon (Drew Emmitt), Truck Stop Girl by Little Feat (Lowell George), Desolation Row by Bob Dylan (as played by the Grateful Dead with Bobby spewing out the lyrics!), and In Tall Buildings by John Hartford.

Back to the ten favorite...I didn’t want to repeat artists, however the Grateful Dead/Jerry Garcia could have easily had a couple more besides Brown Eyed Women. Ship of Fools or Mission in the Rain, for example. 

Lastly, my favorite band is Phish. Phish is known for jamming more than songwriting, so I didn't want to fluff the list or undermine its credibility by arbitrarily including a Phish song in my list of ten favorite songs. But it wouldn't have been arbitrary. Evening Song, Friday, and All of These Dreams were all strong contenders. Yes, even Friday! Last word.

The Five Oregon Jambands I'm Most Excited About Seeing

Before I list the five Oregon bands that I'm most excited about seeing, I'd like to list ten bands that I would have been excited about seeing almost 25 years ago.

In 1999 I moved from Richmond, VA to Longmont, CO. Longmont is near Boulder and also not far away from Denver or Fort Collins. Music was thriving in Colorado at that time, and I'm sure it still is. At any point during the year 2000, my list of ten favorite bands to see live would have likely been these ten acts:

Phish, moe., String Cheese Incident, Yonder Mountain String Band, Leftover Salmon, Dark Star Orchestra, Sound Tribe Sector 9 (or just Sector 9 back then), The Big Wu, Strangefolk, and Ween.

This is still a few years before I would learn about My Morning Jacket. Anyway, except for Ween this is a pretty jamband-centric list. Before long I ended up moving back to Virginia and have the spent the last 20+ years here.

Of the above mentioned groups, the only local-to-Colorado bands were Leftover Salmon, String Cheese Incident and Yonder Mountain String Band, with YMSB being the most local of the three. When I first began seeing the Jeff Austin-led Yonder in October 1999, the jamgrass quartet was only about a year old and still playing small local venues such as Wolf Tongue in Nederland, Mountain Sun in Boulder, and Oskar Blues in Lyons. Good times. 

Now it's now all over again, and with a move to the PDX metro area just a few weeks away, these are the five young Oregon bands I am most excited about seeing!:

Spunj -
To me Spunj sounds like they are at Eggy or Magic Beans level. Maybe even better! Spunj kicks ass and I can't wait to see them live.

Bodhi Mojo - Earthy and hippie with an emphasis on song structure. Their annual campout festival looks great!

Yak Attack - Instrumental organic jam. Might take me back to the days of seeing Sector 9 at Tulagi in Boulder.

Lost Ox - Maybe the most psychedelic of this bunch.

Shafty - Portland's own Phish cover band.

These five are all different breeds of jambands, and most seem to embrace that identity. Spunj is actually from Eugene but I'm willing to make an overnight out of it if necessary. 

Things are different now than they were 25 years ago. For one thing I'm 50 years old and much less likely to stay out late on a weeknight, much less a weekend. A couple beers at a walking distance from home brewery and in bed by 9pm is more my style now. But I'm hoping to find some of that same youthful energy that I had back in Colorado all those years ago so that I can check out these bands in their natural environments. 

Being near Portland will also offer the opportunity to see touring acts in a brand new setting. For example, Jake Xerxes Fussell at Mississippi Studios in Portland. Other music-oriented hangouts include The Goodfoot, The Get Down, Laurelthirst Public House, The Landmark Saloon, various McMenamins branded places, and the Phish-themed Tomorrow's Verse brewery. 

Lots to check out!

Saturday, April 6, 2024

The Five Albums with the Biggest Influence on my Musical Taste


Grateful Dead - Reckoning

Phish - Junta

Yvonne Casey - Yvonne Casey

Sun Ra - Lanquidity

Tommy Guerrero - Lifeboats and Follies

Honorable Mention - Five More

Ween - The Mollusk

My Morning Jacket - It Still Moves

John Prine - John Prine

Grant Green - Blue Breakbeats

Tony Rice - Manzanita


Special Addendum - Must Add Two More

Merle Haggard - Back to the Barrooms

Culture - Two Sevens Clash

Tuesday, April 2, 2024

Ten Reasons Why Irish Music is the Right Choice (the Only Choice) for Me

If I was going to focus on one style of music to play it would have to be Irish music. In fact, I've come to the conclusion that Irish music might be the only choice for me. I'll be moving to the Portland, Oregon area in a few months and in anticipation of that I've been trying to get back into playing Irish tenor banjo. I haven't played much Irish music since 2018 but it's starting to come back. Here are some reasons why I think Irish music is/was the right choice in the first place and will the best choice going forward.

All Melody All The Time

If you play one of the melody instruments, such as I do, then in most situations you just play the melody in unison with the other instruments doing the same thing. You don’t have to solo or play chords. You just play the tune…same as the violin, tin whistle, concertina, accordion, flute, et cetera.

No Chords or Soloing

I’ve tried and failed to learn chords many times over. I will never be a New Orleans style tenor banjo player. I completely understand how chords are formed from a theory perspective, but that doesn’t mean that I know what the chord changes should be for any song in the world. So, it’s a relief not having to think about chords at all. Also, I have no interest in soloing like people do in bluegrass or jazz, therefore it’s another relief that in traditional Irish music you don’t have to ever solo.

My Instrument is one of the Instruments

I play tenor banjo. There are two main styles of music that the tenor banjo is a part of: New Orleans jazz and Irish trad. Of those two, Irish trad is the only viable option for me. While the banjo is often made fun of, it is also generally considered an acceptable instrument for participating in an Irish session. More accepted than showing up with a saxophone would be.

A Welcoming Community

If you understand the etiquette and how to interact with others, then your local Irish trad community can be a fairly built-in social group to be a part of. It’s a pretty insular crew and once you prove yourself to not be completely ignorant you are usually made to feel welcome simply because of your common interest. It’s sometimes more about your ability to hang than it is about your ability to play.

A Common Repertoire

Once you become familiar with the repertoire, the style, and the etiquette, you can pretty much go to any open Irish session and find common ground. At least that’s been my experience. Especially sessions that are accepting of learners/beginners.

The Music is Available in Tab and Notation

Those who can pick up tunes by ear definitely have an advantage, but the music to any well known Irish tune is going to be available for free online. You can usually also find it in mandolin tab, which works for Irish tenor banjo. Plus, it’s easy to find audio examples of almost any tune several times over so that you never have to just rely on the audio alone or the notation alone.

A Variety of Time Signatures and Rhythms

It’s not just 4/4 time. There are also jigs, slip jigs, polkas, and slides. Barn dances, marches, and hornpipes have a different feel as well. You cover a decent variety that way and get to play in time signatures that some genres completely ignore.

Play Alone or in a Group Setting

In Irish music the tune is the tune. One instrument playing the tune makes it complete. So it’s a great style of music for the hobbyist who plays tunes at home by themself. Of course in a group setting you have to listen closely and keep time with the other instruments, but what you played or learned at home by yourself (should) easily translate when playing along with other people.


Irish music is often played in public settings, but having participated in this environment I can tell you it doesn’t feel the same as performing for an audience on a stage as part of a band. For the part that I’m able to play along with - the instrumental tunes - the circle would be doing it the same whether there was anyone listening or not. The occasional song might break out and that may be the closest it gets to a performance, but in that case I am going to be sitting back and taking a break from playing. It’ll never be me signing the song!

The Tunes Themselves are the Practice

Once you get the basics down, the practice can be as simple as learning the tunes and building up speed playing them. There’s no need to work through a bunch of scales, etudes or exercises. In Irish music the learning and playing of the tunes usurps these other forms of preparation.

The Limitation of it Being a Specific Thing

There’s something to be said about limitations. Within the world of Irish music, there are hundreds of tunes you could learn, but for the most part a reel is a reel, a jig is a jig, and so on. It becomes less overwhelming when you view it as a specialty and hone in on the traditional repertoire. I can finally say "I play Irish tenor banjo" and leave it at that.

It’s Fairly Entry Level - You can be self taught

Some might disagree, but the fact that I can play it is proof that it is fairly entry level. It’s pretty much the only “genre” or option that I have for playing music. Anything else would be out of my depth, but Irish music I can kind of grasp. And yes, I’ve had some lessons but really for the most part you can learn it all yourself. It doesn’t require an understanding of music theory or even how to read music. In my case, I like to look at the music and I like knowing about modes such as Dorian and Mixolydian, but you don’t need any of that to play the music. 

AABB - Consistent Structure

There might be hundreds of tunes, but many of them follow an AABB structure, meaning a two-part tune. Play the A-part (first part) twice and then play the B-part (second part) twice. 16 bars each. Twice through the A-part and twice through the B-part equals one time through the tune. Play through the tune a total of three times and there you have it. I think this consistency stems from the music being of service to dancers who require this format.

It’s Non-Electric

No fussing with cables, pedals, amplifiers, microphones and so on. You just play your instrument!