Friday, November 21, 2014

Fri Nov 21 2014

Spent a good part of my available energy this week being my own IT guy, and there is very little rewarding in that. You finally get it right, as you must, but there is nothing in way of a sense of satisfaction or having contributed anything of quality to the Universe. It’s gotta be done, so you do it. Then… nothing. Kind of a “now, where was I before I was so rudely interrupted?” feeling.

Undercover Blues Band rehearsal this afternoon. Definitely the highlight of my week. Had that great “second rehearsal” feel. Still loose and energetic, but beginning to find our legs again. We played (not necessarily in this order):

•    Warmup 12-bar blues in E
•    Don’t Go No Farther
•    Taxi Blues
•    Boom Boom
•    The Same Thing
•    Two Trains Running
•    Dust My Broom
•    First Train Home
•    Key to the Highway
•    The Red Rooster
•    Mean Town Blues

The warmup on a blues in E was pretty typical of this band. We arrive. We set up. While setting up and tuning and generally getting ready, we gab about whatever is current and relevant. Someone starts playing. Everyone falls in. Something no one planned happens. Lovely. Don’t Go No Farther was a review from last week. Tried a couple of variations, and then found our way back to where we began. The order after that is not so clear in my mind, but those are the pieces for sure.

Key to the Highway is new for us. It’s swingier arrangement than the Little Walter/Derek and the Dominoes version. More Broonzy-fied, including the Broonzy verses at the end. Felt good, and it suits my voice. The arrangement isn’t quite there, but it has potential. Igor made the suggestion that I play something more reminiscent of a horn section, in a call and response with the voice, rather than straight rhythm guitar. I’ll put a little time into this tomorrow.

I pulled out Mean Town Blues at the end of rehearsal. It has been out of the mix for some time, but I really miss it. It boogies hard, and really resonates for me. Took a few minutes to reassemble the feel and the arrangement. A couple of changes from the way we used to play it. I wanted the instrumental bash in between verses 2 and 3 rather than 3 and 4. It’s a small thing but it changes the flow. We also experimented with an idea I had the other day. The piece is very high energy right from the first note, and the solo section has always been up a notch from there, and for me that is a strain. So rather than kick it up at that moment, we worked with taking it way down. Igor and I let the tonic note/chord ring and Bill keeps the groove but takes it way down. I improvise with Bill beginning dynamically down, with lots of space, and then as it builds up Igor slides back in at the right moment and we push it up to a climax and back into the driving groove as we go back to the verses. This just made me incredibly happy.

Dynamics seem to be a theme that is emerging for this incarnation of the band. Very satisfying. The feeling as we packed up and went our separate ways was, “We’re back!”

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thu Nov 20 2014

At the beginning of their lesson yesterday morning, Mary Beth and Taylor showed me the ear training app they have on their iPhone. Very cool. And proof that at my essence I’m a blues guy. One of the tests was to identify what type of chord was played. It’s a vaguely piano-ish sound used, and quite clear and audible. The chord sounded. I immediately said, “dominant 7th.” Mary Beth looked at the display, and replied, “It says half-diminished.” I said, “Same thing.” I mean, seriously, why would I play a simple dominant 7th when a 9th chord is just sitting there waiting for me?

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

Had a conversation with Igor and Bill during the Undercover Blues Band rehearsal last Friday that I really wish a number of my students had been able to witness. I was introducing one of the new pieces I’ve been working on, so I needed to show them the form in a hurry.

I said, “It’s in D. At least I think it is, until I hear myself singing. We may have to change that,” and then I began playing the little rhythmic/harmonic figure that goes through the first half of the verse. They fell in. We just repeated it for a minute or two, giving the two of them an opportunity to figure out what the feel of the piece is, and to find their own way into it. Then I said (more or less) this:
“Okay, it’s the I chord for three bars. In Bar 4 we go to V for one bar, then back to I for two more bars. We stop on the downbeat of Bar 7, for 6 beats. There will be a vocal fill there. We come back in after the break, on IV for two bars, back to I for two bars, then V for a bar, stop with a IV chord on the downbeat of next bar, for 4 beats (another vocal fill), and then come back with a 2-bar I-IV-I-V turnaround. Two verses, and then a guitar solo. During the solo we just revert to a straight up 12-bar blues. Solo will be 2 or 3 choruses, and then we’re back for 1 more verse, in the original form. Out at the end of that verse.”
I showed them the intro I’ve been working on, counted it in, and we played it. Down in one take, except that I hadn’t told them about the specific rhythmic kicks on the final bar. We took a minute to work that out, I counted it in and we played it again. Bill said it was too short. Always better than the alternative. We’ll have to review it at tomorrow’s rehearsal, but basically we got it.

I am fairly certain that my students often feel my insistence that they learn at least a little something about harmony is kind of a bother. Why say “I IV I V” when “C F C G” is more specific. But it’s not. The beauty of that conversation was that I was able to communicate everything necessary to play the piece. For Bill, who is a well trained and experienced all around musician who happens to be playing drums in this group, the chord names are unhelpful. But the form is significant. I could have been specific about the chords. But if I had said that in Bar 4 we go to A7, it is only information. In a piece of music, going to the V chord has a very specific significance. In a blues tune, going to the V chord in Bar 4 is an unusual thing to do, so this is something that immediately stands out for us, and commands our attention. Bill doesn’t care that it’s an A7, and to tell the truth neither do Igor and I. But it’s a V chord where we wouldn’t ordinarily expect it, and that is something that is going to catch the ear, and we need to pay attention. Relationships are universal, names are transitory. In terms of understanding the song, this is informationally rich.

Plus, if after that first runthrough I had realized that the key of D was totally wrong for my voice and we had needed to transpose it on the fly, relationships are transferrable. In a chord name world, if we had needed to take it down to C for my voice, the conversation would have been, “Okay, instead of D7 play C7, instead of A7 play G7, and where we used to play G7s, make them F7s.” In my world the conversation would have been, “Okay, let’s try that in C and see if it suits my voice better. 1-2-3-4…”

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Sun Nov 16 2014

Some time in 1949, during the early days of Atlantic Records, the company's founder Ahmet Ertegun had a highly significant encounter with a seasoned executive from one of the major record companies. The fledgling record man was quizzing his more experienced colleague on various aspects of music-biz lore and practice, and Ertegun asked the veteran about artists’ royalties. “You mean you're giving these artists royalties?” the man from the major replied, aghast. “You're going to ruin the business for all of us.”

from “Boogie Man. The Adventures of John Lee Hooker in the American Twentieth Century”
by Charles Shaar Murray

Friday, November 14, 2014

Fri Nov 14 2014

First rehearsal for Undercover Blues Band in way, way too long. Lots of fun. No pressure, beyond the pressure we each of us puts on ourselves. Kept it loose and jammy, while we found our feet. Called tunes from the old repertoire, except for Don’t Go No Farther which I presented for the first time. It took off immediately. This is what we played. The order is my best recollection:

•    Wang Dang Doodle
•    It Hurts Me Too
•    Don't Go No Farther
•    Walkin' Blues
•    Deep Elem Blues
•    How Blue Can You Get?
•    Built For Comfort
•    Sound the Bell

I’m a little bit hoarse this evening, but happy and hoarse. Singing is one thing that I really cannot practice at home. Even though my neighbors would probably be understanding, and I would of course wait until I knew the place was pretty empty, it is kind of hard to cut loose in full out shout in my living room. Best I can do at home is work at memorizing lyrics, and then touch on matters of voice/guitar coordination and a bit of phrasing in an attenuated voice. So my singing was the weakest part of the music today, at least for me. Sometimes I hate hearing it. But it will get back.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Thu Nov 13 2014

Jimi's blues were always authentic, but his rendition of Machine Gun at the Isle of Wight is completely heartbreaking.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Tue Nov 11 2014

In addition to being a little more conscientious about what I eat, monitoring my blood pressure, and following up on the matters suggested by my doctor, for the past weeks I have been endeavoring to get a full 8 hours of sleep at night. Evidently this is recommended. Who knew? As someone who has rarely slept more than 6 hours a night at any time in his adult life, it is a bit of a change. Partly a matter of attitude adjustment, as it makes me feel like something of a slacker. But I think I am getting at least a handle on it. One trick for me is to pick up the extra couple of hours on the “bedtime” side of the equation whenever possible. Sleeping later in the morning really doesn’t work for me. My inner voice chiding me for “burning daylight” kicks in, and then I’m in a bad mood for the rest of the day. The truth is that if I am home there is very little that I do after 11pm that is particularly productive. Reading, of course. But the chances are pretty good I’m just watching dopey TV, so going to bed early actually feeds my “what a good boy I am” predilections. Then, if I do stay up later, I get to query myself on whether or not it’s for a good reason. Sometimes it is, and so there you go.

The jury is out, but I think I’m slowly learning to like the extra sleep.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

January 2. Hmmm. Perhaps we should dub it “Hair of the Hair of the Dog Night.”

The Undercover Blues Band gig coming up on January 2 has me taking a more practical approach to practicing. Fewer scales, more tunes, basically. The gig is a good motivator, but to be honest what I am most looking forward to is the weekly rehearsals on Friday afternoons for the next few weeks. Although it is absolutely true that “rehearsing” without gigs to work toward gets old after a while, with this particular group that threshold it pretty high. So it will be fun to have a few weeks of playing largely for the joy of playing before we need to get down to more serious business. And if history is any indication, some material will come out of this playful end of the process that probably wouldn’t have happened in purely gig-prep mode.

Pulled up the recordings of the gig we did for friends and family down in Igor’s basement back in November 2010 (yup, almost exactly 4 years ago) and it remains remarkably listenable to me. No idea what its objective value is to the disinterested listener, but I hear a lot of good stuff, and I am not generally a big fan of my own playing. Yesterday, Mean Town Blues came blasting back into my consciousness. It goes back to my earliest days as a player. In the 2010 show it kind of came up spontaneously, as we had not been including it in rehearsals, and the performance has got a great feel and spirit. A little too fast (performance over-enthusiasm) and one fabulously excruciating moment where I knew exactly what I was reaching for but missed completely. More or less takes the wind out of my listening enthusiasm. But that is the hazard of playing music with an improvisational component. And the fun. Well, fun when it works. For the rest of the time you need to develop the skill of shaking it off quickly and moving on. I think it may be time to bring this one back into active service. It’s not Hooker, but it is a definite nod to Hooker’s boogie, without resorting to the more clich├ęd pieces. It is a piece I feel very directly, so it doesn’t have that sense of “here I am reminding the audience of someone else.”

Then there’s this approach. There is a recording of Dr. Ross performing Hobo Blues live in a club in Chicago, where he introduces it by saying, “I have another friend of mine, John Lee Hooker, he put this record out, but I do it just as good as he does.” And he does. Why not? Neither one of them ever hoboed anywhere anyhow. It’s all a matter of selling the song.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Thu Nov 06 2014

“Hooker doesn’t so much dislike rehearsals as disdainfully refuse to recognize even the simple fact of their existence.”

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Wed Nov 05 2014

13th Floor Elevators back in heavy rotation on the stereo. Not sure what it means when I find myself drawn back to this music. It certainly hearkens to a more innocent time, although that may be just the nostalgia of selective memory. There is also an element of melancholia associated with them. It is very apparent in the achingly beautiful Splash, but I wonder if my associations aren’t also colored by my familiarity with Roky’s life and circumstances. I do love the proto-psychedelic stuff. Funny, though, I am actually always a little surprised when Fire Engine comes on, as my connection to that song is more via bootlegs of Television at CBGB. Anyway…

Long time no journal, it seems. Most of the past week has been ordinary in a day-to-day sort of way. A lot of energy on non-critical but also non-ignorable medical issues following up on my physical a couple of weeks ago. I just scheduled one of those “procedures” that us old folks need to endure from time to time. The mood of these past few days has been the product, I think, of the arrival of my home blood pressure monitor. Getting into the habit of checking my blood pressure several times a day. This is a bit of overkill, and I’ll probably default to a daily check before too long. I just wanted to get the hang of the thing, as well as looking at how results might vary at different times of the day and under different circumstances. It’s basically all over the map. I was tempted to include the chart I created (Excel spreadsheet, to be precise), but convinced myself that not only would that be TMI, but also TDS (too damned sad). Add to this some experiments with dietary adjustments (oh boy, bland food) and making sure that I don’t fall into slackerdom on the exercise front, as the season begins to make the sedentary indoor lifestyle a bit more appealing, and I’ve been a little distracted.

Business remains good, so no complaints in that regard. Money concerns are largely transitory. Credit cards suddenly clogged with airline tickets for the February course in Mexico (reimbursable, so it’s just a blip) and a trip back east to visit the family. The cat’s health also is a concern.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

On the upside, Undercover Blues Band accepted a gig for January 2. It has been over a year since we last performed. Bill is back from his touring duties, at least for now, so we’ll be able to rehearse once a week for the next couple of months. This will allow us to work back into performance trim without a sense of hurry. We have a more intensive schedule the week before the gig, where we will put together the set as a whole, and with this trio that would be sufficient if it needed to be. But with the extra time we will have the opportunity to really see where we are right now.

This is one of the great virtues of this band. We are very good at assessing what is working for us at any given moment, and what isn’t, and as far as I can tell we are utterly unromantic about the implication of those judgments. When something is working, it is abundantly clear. It is the same when something isn’t working. It doesn’t really matter who voices the observation. 99% of the time we all already know it to be true. And, speaking for myself, if I’m not noticing it, it kind of doesn’t matter. I trust Bill and Igor’s assessment. If a change might bring a piece back to life, we try it. If not, we drop it. I have never once felt any remorse or even a tinge of hurt feelings within this process. That is a truly remarkable quality in a group.

With the work I’ve been doing I’ll have a few new pieces to float, and see if they resonate for the group as a whole. So we have lot’s of options. I’m thinking that Don’t Go No Farther and Key To The Highway are definite candidates. We are looking to have an abundance of material available, so that if it turns into a 2-set gig (there are only 2 bands on the bill) we can do that.

Finished the Muddy biography. Moving on to John Lee Hooker. The only bio I found for him seems to get mixed reviews, but as long as the basic data is buried in there, I’ll find it. I think this will wrap up the Blues Dude Bio cycle. Of the ones I’ve read, Skip James’ remains the best, and probably the scariest: I’d Rather Be The Devil: Skip James and the Blues. Definitely recommended, but uplifting it ain’t.

Then there's this. Yikes. Howlin' Wolf unloads on Son House: