Monday, October 27, 2014

Mon Oct 27 2014

Lesson prep today is particularly fun, as it involves getting the electric guitar part to "Nowhere Man" together. This is one of the places where the "Beatles Complete Scores" really kind of falls down on the job. It doesn't take into account that both George and John played it in "unison" on their brand new pale blue Strats (they had sent Mal down the street to buy them), through 2 little amps with one mic set up between them recording both. So that slightly 12-string-ish sound is really just variations in their tuning, phrasing, and timing. And certainly in the case of that very first swept arpeggio in bar 8 they are clearly playing 2 different chord voicings (there's a dominant 7 buried in there) that I have never been quite able to untangle. Add to that the incredible Abbey Road compression that no stomp box can ever recreate and you get a sound that I can only hint at, but never duplicate.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Sun Oct 26 2014

Big wind storm last night. I actually had 2 social occasions to attend. For the early one it was mostly just a rainy Seattle evening. By the time I got to the second, which was not so far from home, the wind was picking up. As the party progressed we began to notice a bit of a relentless roar outside. We were watching our host's travelogue, when suddenly the electricity went out. I was disappointed not to see the rest of the images and hear the rest of the stories, but hanging out and talking by candlelight was a lot of fun. The drive home was a minor adventure, as I had to detour my way around a number of downed trees along my route.

Mostly nice out today. Walked down to Fremont for a bit of exercise, as well as diversion. Walking more or less the route I tried to drive on my way home last night, I got to observe the aftermath of the storm. A lot of broken and downed trees.

Hung out at the café to read more of the Muddy Waters bio.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

July 11, 1951. Maybe not quite “national holiday” material, but definitely a date worth taking note of. In Chicago on that day Muddy Waters and his band went into the studio to record a number of sides. Muddy’s biographer refers to this day as Independence Day for the harmonica.
Previously, he [Little Walter] played his harp into a microphone that, like a vocal, went directly to the tape recorder. On this session, he plugged into an amplifier and had the engineer mike that instead. He could manipulate the amp and have that mediating sound recorded instead of his harp directly. The difference is night and day, akin to the change Muddy achieved on electric guitar. The harmonica was about to move from the country to the city. It was a revolution.
This is the place where you can say, utterly without irony, “and the rest is history.”

The result is She Moves Me, and you can hear the difference right away. The harmonica sound that we associate with Chicago for the first time. No impudent Little Walter? No Charlie Musselwhite, no Paul Butterfield, no blues harmonica as we no it.

This also meant that Jimmy Rogers had to sit out the session, because the studio amp only had 2 inputs, and Muddy and Walter had them locked up. Rogers was not particularly fond or Walter, and I don’t imagine this helped. Neither did the fact that after the recording of She Moves Me, Walter grabbed Jimmy’s guitar, plugged it in, and they recorded Still A Fool with Walter playing guitar.

These two pieces, for me, mark a turning point. A sound that had never quite been heard before. Until then electric had pretty much just been acoustic country blues but louder. Now it was something entirely different. And the last funny thing about this session is who the drummer was. They were cutting She Moves Me. Muddy is quoted:
My drummer wasn’t doing nuthin’, just dum-chik-dum, but he couldn’t hold it there to save his damn life, and Leonard Chess knew where it was, so Leonard told him, “Get the fuck out of the way. I’ll do that.”
The result is, by almost any measure, some of the strangest drumming ever. I have always noticed it and thought, “what possessed them?” Now I know. The record company owner and record producer jumped in and played in place of the drummer. And yet I can’t really imagine any other way to play it. We never talked about historical precedents or any such thing, but when Undercover Blues Band first began rehearsing our version of Two Trains Runnin’ (basically, Still A Fool), Bill’s instant response was to go to the bass drum and built everything from that. It is simply the only right way to play that groove.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Sat Oct 25 2014

I lost a lot of my musical influences early, mostly through their inability to take care of themselves. Sad. Stupid. Now I am at an age where the ones who avoided that fate are growing old and passing away as part of the natural order of things. That’s a different kind of sad. We actually got to keep Jack for a few extra years, thanks to a borrowed liver. He was only 10 years older than me, but it feels like I’ve lost one of my Grandparents in Music.

I brought home "Fresh Cream" shortly after it was released in late 1966. I bought it largely because "that guy from The Yardbirds" played guitar on it. It was a perplexing album. Side One was kind of hippy/psychedelic and Side Two was what I would later understand as covers of blues standards. I have mentioned before in this journal how instrumental this album was in pointing me toward the music I love most in the world. Figuring out “Fresh Cream” was an effort. Right from that first chord of I Feel Free, it had a sound that was unlike anything I had heard. Loving it took some work for me. I couldn't ignore the prodigious talent of the entire band, and Clapton's guitar sound was nothing short of revolutionary. Then some months later someone in our little group of wannabe musicians got hold of a UK pressing of the album, and at the end of side one was something that didn't appear on the US version. We dropped the needle on it. We all experience a handful of moments where the rest of our lives can be described as before and after that experience. This was one of them: Spoonful. Not the long-winded jam-fest Spoonful of “Wheels of Fire” – not knocking it, as it has virtues of its own, and is a veritable master class in the art of collective improvisation – but the studio version, which is one of the most powerful recordings I have encountered to this day, for almost the opposite reason. The passion that is bubbling just under the surface, with these three still-young players riding the wave. Absolutely remarkable.

Cream did a lot of great stuff in its short lifetime, but if this recording of Spoonful had been all they had ever produced, we would remain in their debt. At the time, being a guitar player, it was all about Clapton’s sound and Clapton’s impeccable phrasing. And I wasn’t wrong. But over time I came to realize that there were three things that made this recording so magnificent, and allowed Clapton to shine in this way. 1) Jack Bruce, 2) Jack Bruce, and 3) Jack Bruce. That harmonica that sets up the incredible dynamic contrasts of the recording. That voice… oh that voice. And that unsurpassed musical and understated bass playing.


~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

And now from the "Well, I Didn't See That Coming" Department: I was checking my calendar to look at my schedule for the weekend, and found this notation at the top of tomorrow’s date:

Cream at Madison Garden – October 26 2005

This was, as it turned out, the last time they ever played together. I cashed in some miles and flew to New York just to see this show. The attached note includes the setlist, which was:
  1. I’m So Glad
  2. Spoonful
  3. Outside Woman Blues
  4. Pressed Rat and Wart Hog
  5. Sleepy Time Time
  6. Tales of Brave Ulysses
  7. NSU
  8. Badge
  9. Politician
  10. Sweet Wine
  11. Rollin’ and Tumblin’
  12. Stormy Monday
  13. Deserted Cities of the Heart
  14. Born Under a Bad Sign
  15. We’re Going Wrong
  16. Crossroads
  17. Sitting on Top of the World
  18. White Room
  19. Toad
  • Sunshine of Your Love

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Thu Oct 23 2014

My sleep pattern for many years has been pretty much the same: Go to bed. Question whether or not I’m really sleepy. Nearly instantly fall asleep. Sleep soundly for 3-5 hours. Wake up. I know it is early, too early to consider getting up, but I can’t resist checking the clock to find out just how “too early”. Lay about wondering if I’ll every get back to sleep. Fall asleep. This is where my dreams tend to take place. I seem to go in and out of waking, and often feel as if I never really went back to sleep. The passage of time and the fact that I am occasionally actually roused by my alarm clock tend to indicate that I have been asleep. Just very, very busy.

Last night, after a day that was probably more stressful than I gave it credit for – first physical in a long time and wondering what it might turn up – I climbed into bed pretty early, about 10:30. The plan was to read for a while, but the cat was demanding attention and in the end I just decided to turn off the light. When I awoke it was 3:30. As usual, I had my doubts that I’d be able to get back to sleep, and as usual, it didn’t take long.

There is this phenomenon in Guitar Craft referred to as the “course dream”. It tends to be very vivid, and in content relates in some way to a Guitar Craft course. Sometimes it is highly specific, or it could be much more abstract in that way that dreams can be. But they are unmistakable. And they are often recognizable from within the dream; not so much “lucid” in the sense that I know I’m dreaming per se, but a kind of feeling of “oh look, I’m back here again.” For me they tend to come most frequently as a course somewhere in the world is approaching, or while one is going on. I have no particular philosophy on the existence of the collective unconscious within a group. I just observe that my experience has always been that when a lot of people are intensely focused on a project or a course, it can spill over into my dreams, even if I am not directly involved.

So I wonder what is going on today, because last night’s was a doozy. There are no specific courses or projects taking place, although something is always going on at one stage or another. The Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists project in Argentina completed earlier in the week. There is an “at-a-distance” course sponsored by the group in Europe beginning in a couple of weeks. So there is certainly stuff “in the air”.

This morning’s dream was so vivid, and so chaotic, that on several occasions I actually found myself kind of “rebooting” by waking up. I’m not totally convinced that these periods of “waking up” weren’t still contained within the dream, although a couple of times the purring cat at the bottom of the bed pinning my feet down served as a kind of reality check. But whether real or nested in the dream, these moments of waking up had the feel of getting me out of some kind of closed loop within the dream. Never seemed to be very successful from that perspective. I’d just reenter into another insoluble dilemma.

One specific moment: a rehearsal of the Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists. A smallish ensemble, perhaps 25-30 players, arranged in a deep U shape, with me at the top of the line on the right. We are sitting in Silence, waiting for the spirit to move, as it were, and the music to begin. I realize I have a Stratocaster strapped on and a small amplifier to my left. I squat down in front of the amp, turn it up, and unleash a powerful but controlled Hendrix-esque barrage of feedback. The other players look a little nonplussed. Some timidly join on their acoustic guitars. From my spot in front of the amplifier it takes an intentional and consistent effort to hear anything beyond myself. After some time I start to hear singing voices. Not a bad thing, necessarily, but in this case it is clear that the majority of the group has decided to treat this as “Curt is making a joke, so let’s join in and make it even more ridiculous.” Robert has a look of something between exasperation and disappointment on his face, and summarily signals for an end.

This was but a small moment in an Epic. I spent much of the rest of the dream in search of my missing acoustic guitar, encountering many adventures and misadventures along the way. In some cases, hilarity ensued.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Wed Oct 22 2014

First physical in at least 7 years.

Let’s see… I could stand to lose a couple of pounds. Check. I’m overdue for another colonoscopy. Saw that coming. I have a small hernia. That’s new news. Nothing much to do but know that it’s there, unless I feel like volunteering for surgery (I think not). Blood pressure borderline. Mild signs of water retention call salt intake into question. Could be related. Something to watch. Need to check bp regularly. Tetanus now up to date, and inoculated for Whooping Cough (if I hadn’t witnessed the stuff sweeping through schools last year, that one would never have occurred to me). Blood drawn for the usual tests. I can check the results online in a day or two. Other than that, everything was “good”, “perfect”, “yes”.

Basically, I’m 61. And considering my mother never made it to 61, I’m feeling extraordinarily fortunate.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Tue Oct 21 2014

Flirting with turning on the heat today. The ever-so-slight chill is beginning to feel like the norm rather than just a dip. And the cat, whose weight continues to be a concern, looks like he’s cold. May begin by putting it on low in the bathroom and see if that helps to take a little of the edge off. Plus, if there’s one room in the house I want warm, it’s the bathroom. Don’t like heating the bedroom if I can help it. I sleep better under a pile of blankets than in a heated room. The office/living room is logically next, but the heat is so inefficient there that I generally opt for another layer of clothing until I just can’t hold out any longer. We’ll see. It’s not like it’s ever all that cold here anyway.

I wonder if I cause occasional blips on the homeland security radar. Specifically thinking about emails and social media postings that reference Afghanistan or “bicycling to Afghanistan”. In 1987 when the Soviet Union was enjoying their own little Vietnam there, I began writing a rock/funk tune with my then-wife that was called Be A Man In Afghanistan. It never quite came together. While that piece didn’t materialize, its elements and themes would not leave me alone. That year we moved to NYC, and in January 1988 these bits and pieces began to realign themselves into a trio composition for the Guitar Craft repertoire. Bicycling to Afghanistan was worked out in about a million performances in the dining hall of the Claymont mansion, got its public debut in a show at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, and then a few days later was included in a show we taped for VH-1 which ultimately aired on Easter 1988. It has been in and out of the Guitar Craft repertoire ever since, showing up on numerous albums over the years.

The upshot… to this day I receive a lot of electronic correspondence that references Bicycling to Afghanistan, sometimes shortened to the innocuous “Bicycling” or “BtA”, but often just referred to as “Afghanistan”. “Hey Curt, I have a question about the middle of Afghanistan”, “Hey Curt, my group is working on Afghanistan, is there a score available?” It seems logical that it would make the little HSA bots at least twitch for a moment. Back in the early days of email, my aol handle was “afghancurt”. That’s gone, but there are still a couple user names out there for pretty big companies that include a reference. I have often considered changing them, but then I realize that the one thing you can’t generally change is your user name, and so it would involve closing the account and recreating a new one, and so far my response when it gets to that point is “screw it.”

From some time in 1972 until the end of the Vietnam War in 1975 I had a couple of FBI agents that turned up everywhere I went. I wasn’t actually their assignment, I’m pretty sure. I made some noise at anti-war marches, but never crossed any serious legal lines. However I was often in proximity to their assignments, was questioned by them on several occasions, and kind of found myself on a “might-be-a-joke-but-it-might-not” first name basis with them. So I suspect there are now some digitized reports with my name on them.

Assuming “blogger” is monitored, perhaps today’s entry will give some drone something to do for about 2 minutes. In any case… NOW HEAR THIS: my first student of the day arrives shortly. We will be reviewing “Guitar 1” in the A and F# sections of Bicycling to Afghanistan, moving on to the Eb section, and probably even getting into the C section (that last phrase could get a different kind of attention if taken out of context).

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Continued to work with Commit A Crime yesterday. I have a lot of blues-related music in my library, and for many songs this allows me to hear a variety of arrangements and treatments. I mentioned the other day that in order to avoid Stevie Ray Vaughn associations I’m already inclined to work with the “London Sessions” version, which is a little faster and more of a jump. Both the original Wolf version and the live SRV have that deep in the back of the pocket feel. Looking around for any other recordings I might consult, I came up with a surprise. James Blood Ulmer. Missed it earlier because it is understandably labeled “jazz”. It’s from a fairly recent album and actually has more of a familial relationship to the London version, but another notch faster. Fun. Yesterday working on the song I saw that if I’m going to take it on it is going to be another Wang Dang Doodle-style task. The words aren’t as twisted and difficult, thankfully. The trick is detaching the voice from the hands, maintaining the rhythmic figure on the guitar while singing with a natural and believable phrasing. This is going to take some time. We shall see. With the new arrangement of Wang Dang Doodle it was pretty much impossible, until it wasn’t. Hoping this will be similar.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

As of bedtime tonight it is no food, only water or coffee or tea (with no milk or sugar), until tomorrow afternoon. I have my first physical in probably 7 years, and some of the likely blood tests require a fast of 8-12 hours. With a 2:30 appointment the cut-off will happen somewhere in the middle of the night. So tomorrow with be an interesting day. I am pretty sure that the Great Cholesterol Scare of 2007 was the result of no one at UW Medicine telling me I needed to fast before my physical. When they told me my cholesterol was high and started hinting that we might want to consider medication to control it, I rebelled. I did some modifications to my diet, and made sure that regular exercise was part of my routine, and when they rechecked it 6 months later it was right in line. A miracle! Maybe. Maybe not. When I scheduled the second blood test they mentioned the fast thing (to which my response was, “Hmmm, I don’t remember being told that the last time. I wonder…”). No harm. Resulted in a somewhat better diet and much better exercise habits, which can only be good.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Sun Oct 19 2014

Beautiful sunny day, and remarkably warm for mid-October. Upper 70s, which is kind of weird, but not complaining. Went for a long walk, and worked up a good sweat, which felt good. I've been a little sedentary of late, I'm afraid. The whole time I was out, I had this nagging feeling that it was getting late, even though I knew it was just early and middle afternoon, and I had no particular place I needed to be. After stopping at the library to drop off the Wolf bio and pick up the Muddy bio, I headed to a café in Ballard and sat outside facing south, enjoying the sun and the first chapter of the book. Only then did I recognize that at this time of the year the sun never gets very high over the southern horizon (and in 6 weeks it will barely make it). So the light has a perpetual “late afternoon” angle to it, and hence the feel.

This morning I jumped on the Howlin’ Wolf tune, Commit A Crime, based on the sweet version from the London Sessions. I hadn’t really thought of it seriously before this, in part because Stevie Ray Vaughn did a massively smoking live version of it. I try to stay away from pieces that are too closely associated with guitar gods. Especially Stratocaster slinging guitar gods. Too much distraction, and it tends to take away from the material. So now I’m listening to Wolf and Hubert to see if there is a way to make it my own, rather than a Stevie cover. Fun to play with no matter what. Even more than Killing Floor, I think this lick is Hubert Sumlin at his absolute best.

Moving on to the Muddy Waters biography, written by the same author as the Wolf bio. As I was walking I put early Muddy on my iPod, both the Lomax stuff from down in Mississippi in 1941 and the early Chess stuff. Whenever I listen to Muddy, especially very early and very late Muddy, I recognize where my primary blues aesthetic comes from. Somewhere in the middle he kind of loses me for a while. Not that he was ever under any obligation to me. I was listening to the recording from the 1960 Newport Festival, and this is the quintessential “Chicago Blues” band, the one that Butterfield and everybody else latched onto and ran with. But for me it loses a little of the emotional content. Then, of course, in his later years when Johnny Winter got hold of him, I think he may have surpassed even his younger self. I’ll take the version of Mannish Boy from “Hard Again” or “The Last Waltz” over pretty much anything he did in his entire lifetime.

We’ll see how this assessment holds up as I read and listen in the next couple of weeks.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Sat Oct 18 2014

When I was young, my initial introduction to the founders and pioneers of the blues idiom was through the rock bands I liked. The first Cream album alone exposed me to Robert Johnson, Skip James, Willie Dixon, Muddy Waters, and (though it took more than 40 years for this penny to drop) Isaiah Ross. I wasn’t looking for “The Blues”, I just liked what I liked and was curious enough to dig into the names that appeared under the song titles. I was also very fortunate to live in a place with a superb library system, where I could often find recordings by these mysterious characters. In many cases these LPs or reel-to-reel tapes couldn’t be checked out, so I would sit for hours back in a corner of the Arlington County Central Library hunkered down with headphones trying to memorize what I was hearing.

I bought the “London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions” when it came out, specifically because Clapton’s name featured prominently on the cover, along with Steve Winwood and the Rolling Stones rhythm section. In my maturing as a music lover, my interest in those kinds of collaborations has waned. It seems to be almost a cliché for blues giants in their declining years to put out albums collaborating with younger players. And it really doesn’t make any difference how genuine and earnest the intention, the result is generally kind of watered down and uninteresting. The 4th disk of the Hooker retrospective box set is full of these, and while they are not awful (at least most of them), it rarely feels like anything has been gained. So now I almost always go straight to the source, the earliest recordings I can find, so that I can plug into that energy, and then move forward from there.

Yesterday, after all these years, I went ahead and picked up the “London Sessions” from iTunes. The description in the Wolf bio was compelling enough to pique my curiosity after all these years. And I have been very pleasantly surprised. The music for the most part stands on its own merit, rather than just being a reflection of early glory. Wolf was 61 when it was recorded and had already had 3 heart attacks (including a small one in London during the project). A sobering thought for me as I type this at the age of 61.

From the description of the recording process in the bio, my esteem for Clapton goes up (if that is possible). First of all, Marshall Chess didn’t want to spend the money to fly Hubert Sumlin out, to which Clapton’s response was “no Hubert, no me.” Then, as things were a little testy and weird in the studio, as Wolf was trying to work out what his relationship to all the huge rock stars and this big name/big money production team was going to be, this:
The next day, the band was working on The Red Rooster when Clapton did something insightful. Dayron (the producer) said, “He handed the guitar over to Wolf and said, ‘Man, you’ve gotta show us how to do this. Could you play the basic lick so that we can learn the song?’ And Wolf looked at him like he was crazy. He was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ And [Clapton] said, ‘No man. We want to get the feel right for it.’ And Wolf said, ‘Okay.’ And he took up a guitar, which was his own. If I remember correctly, it was an old Sears Silvertone guitar, and he started playing slide. The ice was broken. … At that point, the space opened up.”
When you listen to the recording, it is very clear that the intention of the players is to support Wolf and his music, not to imprint their personalities and style onto it. And it really kind of works. Clapton’s playing is wonderfully subtle and understated, and since all biographical information would suggest he was pretty much drunk 24 hours a day at that time, that much more remarkable. The record contains the strangest arrangement of Wang Dang Doodle yet. It is kind of a cover of the Koko Taylor version, but Wolfified. That would make it Wolf’s interpretation of Koko’s interpretation of Wolf’s interpretation of Willie Dixon. Kind of the way it goes, and part of the fun/frustration of searching for the origins these pieces. The timing of the vocals, particularly in the first verse, is completely baffling to me. If I ever did anything even remotely that fearless, I’d consider myself a success.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

What a funny and incomprehensible thing my personal state is. I never quite know where it is coming from, and even when I do know there ain’t much I can do about it. Yesterday, after the morning conference call, I had an open day. Oh boy! I can get some good solid practice in! Nothing doing. My energy and attention completely scattered, no enthusiasm and very little interest. I still practiced, and I still got a lot of good work done. I’ve been around the block often enough that I know that if I let my moods dictate what I do, or feel I can only work when “my heart is in it”, all hope is lost. It just wasn’t the joyful experience I imagined I was letting myself in for. Then this morning I had a couple of free hours before my students began arriving, so I casually sat down and picked up where I had left off. It was like someone flipped on the electricity. I was cranking away, feeling good, discovering with ease all the things that yesterday I had been scratching and fighting for, only to do badly. What had changed? No idea. I was secretly hoping my students would call to cancel. That didn’t happen. In fact, the lessons were quite good. Riding, I think, on the morning energy. Afterward I was able to hop back into it until I absolutely had to take a break.

What weird creatures we are.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

So here’s a thought. Howlin’ Wolf’s mother was a religious zealot who wanted nothing to do with him because he played the Devil’s music. When, as a grown man, he tracked her down, she refused to him let him help her because his money was dirty. When Wolf was in the hospital dying, and his wife got his mother on the phone, she refused to talk to her, or to come to Chicago to be with him.

Yay religion.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Thu Oct 16 2014

Watched “The Search for Robert Johnson” last night. Twice, in fact; once while I was making and eating dinner, and then again because I saw that I was missing some details along the way. It’s a British documentary (yup, British) from 1991, with John Hammond (Jr) narrating, traveling around Mississippi looking for people who knew the man. Kind of hokey, a little contrived, and didn’t really do much to demystify the story, but some good stuff. Especially seeing the real Willie Mae hearing the recording of Love In Vain Blues for the first time. Nice to see Honeyboy Edwards and Johnny Shines in the flesh. Poor Honeyboy is pretty old and shaky, but still sings well. Not sure how reliable his memory is. Interesting that he doesn’t repeat the story so often attributed to him about Johnson's death, in which he supposedly smacked the bottle of whiskey out of Johnson’s hand, admonishing him never to drink liquor from a bottle he didn’t open himself. Still, the less dramatic version actually felt truer and sadder, especially the part where Hammond asked if anyone had taken him to a doctor, and the response was “no, because doctors need money.”

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

First lesson with a new student: always fun, and at the same time always a little nerve-racking. A good challenge. Interestingly, this one had seen The Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists at Washington Hall. Cool. So I went in with a certain cred, which probably helps. Her friend had found my postcard down at the café, so that was money well spent. It’s a dance. I need to swiftly ascertain what I have to work with, and what the student’s aspirations are. A lot of times I then have to deal with the gaping chasm between the two. Not so much today on that front, thankfully. While the particular aims vary from student to student, it is all the same basic ball of wax. I can’t just run everyone through the same routine and process, but in the end it is kind of like a room with a whole bunch of doors. Which door works for this student?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Suddenly sunlight, accompanied by a very friendly temperature. Didn’t see that coming. Had some errands that I had planned to drive, but the weather suggested otherwise. Walked up the hill for an overdue haircut, then down to the bank and the grocery store with a stop off at a café where I sat in the sun with an Americano and the Wolf biography. Pretty perfect. On a not unrelated subject, I came home and bought the “London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions” on iTunes.

Late afternoon Skype lesson and then an evening for myself. Why couldn’t the weekly blues jam be on Thursday?

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Wed Oct 15 2014

Words I actually spoke in a guitar lesson yesterday: “That Pythagoras was a hell of a guy.” Interesting to watch pennies drop when working with music theory in the form of fretboard knowledge.

Now, about today… how exactly did Wednesday turn into a 14-hour marathon? I originally thought I might be able to make it down to the blues jam at Ould Triangle tonight, but it looks like I won’t be making dinner until 9pm. That’s not so unusual on Wednesdays. But this week the last hole in my schedule big enough for a meal before that comes at about 1pm, which makes that whole evening meal thing a lot less optional. If I have a substantial afternoon meal, then it’s easier to get away with grabbing something on the fly in the evening. Never say never, but I’m thinking “unlikely” this week. We’ll see. I really do need to get out and play more, as entertaining as practice is (I’m weird that way). Igor got a note from Darrell’s Tavern about a blues night they are setting up for the weekend after New Years, wondering about Undercover Blues Band. Waiting to see what Bill’s schedule is going to be over the holidays. But I think Igor and I might do it no matter what, with Peterson or someone else on drums.

Going back to the very beginning of this incarnation of the Blog/Journal on September 3, this is the question kind of started it all. If UBB isn’t really UBB unless all 3 of us are present, which is the way it feels to me, then what about putting together a band that can maintain its identity even when subs are necessary. Bill tends to go out on tour pretty regularly – he just has 2 weeks downtime after the King Crimson tour before he heads out again with Peter Buck. Igor is in about 10 bands, which means that scheduling is always going to be tricky business. That more or less leaves me as the linchpin. This is not a role I’ve ever been comfortable with. It kind of feeds my narcissism, which may ironically be why I resist it. Hard to fight the big head, so one easy strategy is to avoid situations that support it.

On the other hand I had a possible band name, if I were to use the “Curt Golden and ______” formula, appear yesterday and I am letting it digest today to see if it still sounds like a good idea. One virtue it has is that it comes with a theme song that would make a great break tune.

Pondering. But right now I have a long day ahead of me.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Mon Oct 13 2014

At the mobile office.

Haven’t typed those words in a long time. Back in the days of the Guitar Craft Diaries, Seattle Circle Diaries, and never ending website updates, coming down here to the café with my computer to work was a slightly ritualistic practice for me. Basically it got me out of the house, where there are myriad minor and mundane distractions, to get my writing or research done. Since then my home/office routine has become a little more regular, and tends to involve more guitar practice than writing. Plus, when I do leave the house I generally try to do so on foot or bike, which means that getting to and from where ever takes up the bulk of the time and is in fact kind of the point, rather than hanging out at the destination. But I had an open morning, and some reading to do, so getting out made sense. Ergo, here I am. Now to the actual work.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

I have to say that while the location, layout, general atmosphere, and of course the coffee, still make this my favorite hangout, the quality of the music has deteriorated significantly since the days I worked here regularly. You still get the sense that it is what the baristas want to hear, and not something canned or prescribed. It’s just that in the early days the prevailing personal taste of the staff had a lot more in common with mine. I suppose the upside is less distraction for me.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Okay, playing music has gotten me to some pretty interesting and wonderful places in my life. It has also gotten me into some pretty questionable places and situations, and a few downright dangerous ones. But no musician’s war story I can personally pull up comes close to this shit. I first heard of Sam Lay as the drummer for the Butterfield Blues Band. He also played on “Highway 61 Revisited” and was in the band for Dylan’s infamous electric Newport gig. But before that he was in Wolf’s band. Here, he has been fined by Wolf for arriving late.
Getting Lay angry was unwise since he packed a snub-nosed .38. Wolf, too, carried a pistol but didn’t hold on to it at gigs. “When he come in, what Wolf would do is open the cylinder, take the bullets and stick ‘em in his pocket, and hand the gun to the club owner,” Lay said. “He didn’t want it in his possession while he was there.”

Wolf exchanged heated words with Lay about the fine. “He jumps all up and bangs on the table,” Lay said. “So when he did, I just stepped back from him a couple of steps. … I didn’t know nothing else to do. I just whipped that snub out and cocked that hammer back. Everybody broke and run … so I reached down there and got my other $10 and I left.”
Fast forward a couple of days, Wolf and Lay meet in the lobby of Lay’s apartment building.
“You know what he asked me? He tells me, ‘You got a clean white shirt and still got your uniform?’ I said ‘Yeah, Wolf, I still got it. I didn’t have no reason to get rid of it.’ ” Lay was back in the band.
Just another day in the life.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Sun Oct 12 2014

An interesting clash of my two selves this morning, the “up all night” musician guy and that other “up early every morning” guy. I was out late last night to see Urban Achievers in a very strange gig at a private party in a totally amazing venue in Burien. Feeling a little protective, I stayed to help roadie the band after the gig. Not that they were in any danger, in that sense, other than the psychic assaults coming from the very drunk audience of partiers. After making our escape we stopped off for tacos at what is evidently their go-to late night snackery in the south end. It was close to 3am before I got to bed. Naturally, I was awake at the usual time, c. 7am. It being Sunday, gave myself permission to roll over and go back to sleep for another hour or so. So, basically, not a boatload of sleep last night. I did have an unusual Sunday  lesson rescheduled from yesterday to 11am this morning, so I did need to be up, alert, and on the ball.

Began by sitting quietly, sending good wishes to the team beginning to assemble in Mendoza for the Orchestra of Crafty Guitarists. Then checked my email and found the official list of participants in the project, and responded with formal good wishes. Cup of coffee, and I had about 90 minutes before the student arrived. I knew more or less what I wanted to work with him on, so I just took a couple of minutes to review the material, and then got down to practicing my own stuff. Still early enough on a Sunday morning that I didn’t want to try my neighbor’s good nature, so I went for “barely amplified”, working on the material from the last week to make sure it is all solid. Sleep-deprived or not, I was on fire, to the point where when my student hadn’t showed up at 11:03am I found myself kind of hoping something had come up – not wishing for anything serious of course, but perhaps an errant alarm clock. I’m not proud of that. But then he came up the walk and I had to change gears. Very good lesson, for both of us, I think.

The sun made an unscheduled appearance, and I need to keep up with regular and preferably daily exercise. So I took a walk to the grocery store, running the Bill Broonzy lyrics to Key to the Highway as I went. Loud enough to be my real voice, but not so loud that it would bother anyone’s Sunday… at least not for long, as I kept up a brisk pace. Home as the sun again exited, in time for the home town team’s football game and a little clerical work.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Fri Oct 10 2014

I think the most difficult thing for me in my role as a teacher is resisting the urge to try to make the process easier (translation, “less painful”) for the student. I pat myself on the back for being compassionate, but in fact it is neither possible nor useful. There are times when a discouraged student needs a little cheering up, often accomplished in the form of a diversion, and I think that is fair. But wishing I could give them a pass on the work they clearly need to do and the resistances they need to overcome does no one any good.

Seattle Circle Guitar School conference via skype first thing this morning. Could easily have gone a second hour. Much to do. After that, a day of no external obligations. Housework and laundry in the morning. Not originally part of the plan, but the cat horked a big ol’ hairball on the bed, and so it was immediately deemed laundry day.

For the afternoon, guitar practice. Little Walter’s rendition of Key to the Highway popped up on the iPod in shuffle mode while I was out for a walk the other day, and I did some looking into it. Clapton has been doing it pretty steadily since Derek and the Dominos, which makes it a tad obvious for my taste, but I really like the song and it rather suits my voice. Listening to other versions I have, it is pretty clear that Clapton’s is derived from Freddy King, and that Freddy’s version comes from Little Walter. Each with their own personal touch of course. Don’t know about the chronology of the King version, but the artistic lineage seems pretty clear.

Then I pulled up Big Bill Broonzy, and that was an epiphany. A subtly different feel, both musically and in content. It still has a pretty bouncy feel and tempo, but it’s not the rocker that it has become. And there are two verses at the end that change things considerably. Had to call in my resident decoder of garbled lyrics, Barry Stock, to unmask one word, and he found some interesting history to go behind it. So my sense was that if I am going to bring this into my repertoire, that’s the version I’m going to move from. Eight-bar blues are fun, and I slip into and around those changes pretty effortlessly. Put in some time in the afternoon establishing the base-line melody I’ll work from, and getting comfortable with the lyrics, and by the end moved it up from the “potential” list to “current and available”. The fast track. We’ll see how ambitious that was.

Took myself out to supper last night at the neighborhood pub, where I continued reading the Wolf bio. My favorite bartender was working. I like his taste in music, which is pretty wide ranging, but thoughtful. Last night he had a blues playlist working (probably Spotify or Pandora or something) which was a nice bit of synchronicity. Some RL Burnside came up, which of course caught my ear. I said, “Robert, is this your playlist or an online channel?” He said, “sounds like Burnside.” Okay, a bartender conversant in Mississippi hill country blues singers. I knew I liked him for a reason.

Walking home, I pulled up Wolf’s version of Sitting on Top of the World. This is a song that has gone through so many changes in its history. Country versions. Bluegrass versions. Blues versions. I don’t know how you could pinpoint a definitive version. So I think all you can do is identify significant ones. I am back and forth with this one. In Undercover Blues Band we definitely jumped off from the Cream rendition. In this ongoing reevaluation I’ve been feeling as though if I’m going to play it I need to start afresh. I really don’t have Jack Bruce pipes, for one thing. The Wolf version gave me some ideas, which I think I’m going to explore next.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Thu Oct 09 2014

I notice that clicking sound that I associate with the elements on the stove either heating up or cooling down. I go into the kitchen to make sure I didn't leave something on. One of the burners is glowing bright red. So bright that I can barely look at it. So hot that I'm having difficulty getting near enough to the stove to reach out and turn it off. It is at this point that I realize that my subconscious has overplayed its hand. I am actually still in bed, and dreaming, and the easiest way to solve this problem is to wake up.

John’s birthday today. Don’t really get much worked up by that kind of stuff, but use it as an excuse to remember. Beatles on the stereo all day. Except when it’s Howlin’ Wolf.

Overcast, foggy, with a definite hint of chill in the air today. Drove out to do some errands that I could have as easily walked to. Little pang of guilt about that.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Tue Oct 07 2014

Saw King Crimson last night. Pretty incredible. After the show, hanging out with the gang and having a drink, I tried to avoid commenting on it, as I wanted to let it sink in for a while. But I did make some remarks that were really, really hard on the sound folks. In fact, I’m not sure how much of the problem was the mix, and how much was simply the room, so I’m feeling a little bit guilty having gone off about them like that. But the sound was pretty atrocious in my corner of the audience. So I had to work more than I wanted to, to hear what was going on. It was worth the effort. This is a really great incarnation of the band. I’ll be interested to see if it goes further. Robert has been publicly noncommittal about future plans. As cool as it was, you sort of had the sense that they were just getting going. Great to hear some of the older and more obscure stuff; Sailor’s Tale, The Letters, Pictures of a City. I had been doing my best not to read much about the previous shows so that I could be surprised, and all 3 of those did, as well as One More Red Nightmare! No Discipline-era stuff.

This struck me as grown up music. Not old. Definitely not nostalgic. But music played by grownups for grownups. I tried to compare it to going to the symphony, but that would require too many qualifications – I’ve been to way too many concerts where the orchestra is just phoning it in. These guys were definitely not doing that. I’ll have to ponder this observation a little more.

The three drummer front was actually my favorite thing of all. A really strange idea that totally worked for me. The three clearly did a lot of work. During Pictures of a City was the first place I actually grasped what was happening. A tom-tom roll cascade began with Pat on stage right, and whizzed across the stage through Bill and ended with Gavin on stage left. I actually laughed out loud. I think some of my audience neighbors thought that was a weird thing for me to do during that song, but screw them. I was delighted. Once I saw that, I started to pay closer attention and it was pretty great. The multiple drummers weren’t really additive. It wasn’t like drums but 3 times as loud. To me it felt like it gave each of the players an incredible amount of space to work. And the listening was audible. At one point I had my eyes closed, just taking it in. When I opened them up, I realized that only Bill was drumming, and the other 2 were tacit. I had no idea. I didn’t hear the absence of 2 drummers.

Joked in a text with Bill that the frontline made the backline look like chumps who hadn’t done their homework. Total hyperbole, of course, but it really felt to me that what the drummers were doing was actually revolutionary.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Thu Oct 02 2014

Made my decision about a new doctor. In the end, it’s all kind of dart board technology. But on the basis of a couple of recommendations, I called. And on the basis of generally good vibes from the phone call, made the first appointment. First physical for probably 10 years, so it’s about time. The sun was out and the weather lovely, and nothing on the calendar until the afternoon, so feeling full of myself for being such a good boy and actually taking action on the doctor front, I treated myself to a bike ride punctuated by a little reading out in front of the café and a quick stop at the grocery store on the way back.

Sitting in the sun, sipping an Americano, reading the Wolf bio where we are still pretty early in his life, I came across this sentence:

“Wolf’s unusual voice was a gift of nature that he worked hard to develop.”

Made a mental note of the page number (this is not a kindle book), and continued. It goes on to quote Wolf’s [cousin? Half-sister? In Mississippi in the 20s and 30s folks were often called upon to raise the kids of distant relatives, and it’s kind of hard to keep track] who said that Wolf “started with his voice – trying to grow it.”

This is more or less the thing that I have been looking at and pondering out loud over in the blog these last couple of weeks. On Tuesday I posed a question about whether [picture of a teenaged Jimmy Hendricks, best guess mid-1950s] was destined to become [picture of Jimi Hendrix performing in the Grand Ballroom of the Washington Hilton on March 10 1968]. A mistake to use the word “destiny” in that question. A little poetic license that introduced an element I have absolutely no qualifications in.

My friend Rick put up a comment on that post, averring that he was indeed destined to become what he became, and that you can see it in the photo of the youth. I kind of get that. But I have to wonder if that is something you can only see knowing what we know now. Every time the Seattle Circle Guitar School goes into a classroom of elementary school aged kids and straps guitars on them for the first time, we see this kind of pose being struck, and with genuine enthusiasm. I choose to maintain the attitude that any one of them could be the next Hendrix. Maybe this guy:

Or maybe one of them?

The thing about the observation that “Wolf’s unusual voice was a gift of nature that he worked hard to develop,” that rings so true for me is not the notion of a “gift of nature” but rather the fact that he worked hard. When you read the personal accounts of people who knew Hendrix before (and after, for that matter) he was that guy, one of the things that jumps out was that he practiced all the time. He was hardly ever seen without a guitar. I don’t know anything about destiny, but I am pretty sure that the kid posing in the front yard in Seattle, no matter what his god-given potential, would never have become what he became if he hadn’t been willing to put in the work.

I have known some amazing musicians in my life. Some of them seemed quite gifted. But every one of them was the hardest worker I have ever met. 

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ 

ps: Just in case I ever thought that Willie Dixon was just being gross in the last verse of Wang Dang Doodle, describing the jukes that he, Wolf, and Willie Brown were regularly performing at in the 1930’s, Son House said:
“Them country balls were rough! They were critical, man! They'd start off good, you know. Everybody happy, dancing and then they'd start to getting louder and louder. The women would be dipping that snuff and swallowing that snuff spit along with that corn whiskey, and they'd start to mixing fast, and oh, brother! They'd start something then!”
In other words, when the fish scent filled the air there really was snuff juice everywhere.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Wed Oct 01 2014

Autumn definitely in the air. Not exactly cold yet, and the sun is more or less out today, but there is a certain quality, and yesterday I caught my first whiff of a wood stove in action in the neighborhood. The cat’s favorite wintertime warm spot has also been called into active duty.

(see also: blog wallpaper)
My one really early morning lesson of the week had me up before dawn. I was already awake but in that doze-zone where I go in and out of a series of vaguely thematically related dreams, and I was frankly happy to get up and away from all that. Exhausting. A lesson focused on counting, which is actually a pretty great way to begin the day.

A large chunk of “personal time” between this morning and the bulk of my lesson schedule later in the day. Several pieces of business to take care of, unfortunately a little further flung than I can do on foot or bicycle. Hoping that the Howlin’ Wolf bio I have on hold at the library, which has been tagged as “in transit” since Monday, will actually get to the shelf this morning. I’m fresh out of reading material.

My call on Monday for recommendations of general practitioners got me 2 in Ballard, one a specific doctor and the other a clinic a friend has had good results with. I like the idea of having my go-to physician walking distance from home. Not sure quite how to proceed in choosing one. Part of me thinks that since I have a little time this afternoon I should just walk in to both and talk to them, an approach that would be way outside of my comfort zone. Probably more likely to call them and see if they are willing to set up a preliminary consultation or something like that. We’ll see. Maybe my feet will take over while I’m down in the neighborhood.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
“Snapping and bending strings with his fingers or making them sob and moan … he attacked the neck of his instrument like a hound dog shaking a stick. An astounding showman, he beat his guitar like a drum, played it between his legs or behind his head, rode it like a pony, and threw it up in the air and spun it, all while maintaining that driving beat…”
description of Charlie Patton (1891-1934)
from Moanin’ at Midnight. The Life and Times of Howlin’ Wolf

Picked up the Howlin’ Wolf bio. Only a couple of chapters in so far, covering background about life in Mississippi in the early 20th century and Burnette’s earliest years. Fair read. Too many sentences along the lines of, “But as in every Eden, there was a snake in the tree, a worm in the apple: the racial caste system that kept black people from getting ahead.” Gag. But I’ll live. It does quote the best description I know of country music, equally applicable to the blues:

"Three chords and the truth."