Tag Archives: music

The Show Must Go On

18 Feb

I had the opportunity to see John Mellencamp in concert last night. For those not familiar, you’re dead to me. Ok, not so radical, but seriously, this guy has been around in the rock music scene forever, so you’d have to be either really living under a rock or something to not know him.

At the start of the show, he came out with the band, and they head off into some new material that I wasn’t familiar with – but three or four great songs with that familiar Mellencamp sound to them. The band – two guitarists, bass, drums, keyboardist that also played the accordion and a violinist – were tight and delivered that distinctive sound that he’s become associated with – interesting phrasings, mixes of major and minor chords, relaxed tempos, etc. That said, during this opening, clearly something was amiss with Big John’s voice – very raspy, very raw sounding. Since I had never seen him before, I was thinking that perhaps age wasn’t being kind to him, or the road, or something.

At the end of the 4th song, he stepped to the mic to greet the crowd and then said “Well, we talked this afternoon about cancelling this show because my throat is all fucked up. But then I said to everyone, ‘Hell no, we’re not cancelling. I can’t let those people down! Besides, I want to play.’ So folks, this is what we got. I sound like shit, but I’m here to play. If you can handle my croak, I can handle my croak.The band will rock and you guys will fill in when I can’t hit it. Deal?” Well, as you can imagine, the crowd went nuts.

Which made me like this guy even more. His music is all about “regular guy” real life, life in small town America, little Pink Houses for you and me, vacationing at the Gulf of Mexico, fighting authority (but authority always wins), thinking back on the good times and sitting and smiling. I love his songs – sing a few of them myself. And rather than being a diva and calling off the show because he has a scratchy throat, he just motored on through it and delivered for his fans.

The show must go on. A lesson for all of us.

As you were,

Stew

Apple Store Soho Presents Meet The Creators: Stephen King, John Mellencamp And T Bone Burnett

“Tribute Band” music – my outing to see Brit Floyd

24 Mar

A ton going on right now in my life and much, much to write about, but I’m going to go a topic at a time, so today’s topic is my outing last Thursday night to see Brit Floyd, ostensibly a “Pink Floyd Tribute Band” play the music of Pink Floyd at the Chicago Theater. I’ve never been a huge Pink Floyd fan – and in fact, it’s a topic of humor with my wife of late – we both realized that with Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin and a few other major acts, there are a lot of songs we know and music that we like, but don’t ask us the names of the songs, and don’t ask us to name our favorites, as we won’t be able to tell you.  Now that said, it is a wee bit easier with Pink Floyd – there’s a couple of major songs from The Wall (Another Brick …, Comfortably Numb), from Dark Side of The Moon (Money, Time, Wish you were here), etc.  But even those, if you come into them in the middle of the song, we don’t hit right away.  The game we play now is if we’re in the car listening to Classic Vinyl on Sirius XM, and a Pink Floyd/Led Zeppelin, etc. song comes on, is to cover the radio display and say “Ok name it” … and neither of us can.

ANYWAY (the linguistic version of when you realize you’re down a rabbit hole you didn’t intend to explore), my friends Beavis and Peter Pan started emailing when this show was announced, and I thought it would be a good way to both have a great night out with two good friends and also perhaps get to know this music better.

So, the whole “Tribute Band” thing seems to be something that has cropped up in the last 15 years or so – bands that specialize in the music of one famous act from the classic rock era – and now starting to extend into the 80s and 90s.  Most of these are bar bands, some of them go so far as to basically play characters that are intended to be the original members (can you imagine the arguments?  “I want to be Paul Stanley.”  “No, I do, I can do the New York accent better.”), complete with costumes.  And some even go further than that and play them in different eras.  A local Beatles tribute band, Modern English does that – starting out in classic “Ed Sullivan/Liverpool” dress of black suits and skinny ties, morphing into Sgt. Pepper costumes, and then into the White Album/psychedelic era wear and wigs, fake beards, etc.

As I said, for the most part, these are bar bands, or at best, are touring local festivals – like Modern English does all summer in Chicago doing every “Taste of” “4th of July Fest” etc. around.

That got me thinking – is this really a new phenomenon, this “Tribute Band” thing, or is it something that has gone on for a long time – and the analog to it popped up like stepping on a rake – for the most part, most “city symphony” orchestras (like the Chicago Symphony), are tribute bands but are tributes to Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, etc.  Now that said, really what they are is cover bands – playing  the music of others, where truly a “tribute band” does the music of one band/artist, etc.  But, it really isn’t something truly new.

So, on to Brit Floyd – so what makes Brit Floyd such a cut above other “tribute bands” that they sell out a 6500 seat theater in Chicago at ticket prices ranging from $45 to $120/seat?  Versus going and seeing “Journey to the 80s” an 80s tribute band with a hairy overweight guy screeching out his best Steve Perry falsetto?  Quality … and musicianship, through and through.  That and these guys WEREN’T playing characters.  Were they a band that only played the music of one artist/band?  Yes.  That’s where the similarity ends.

To give it an analog, Brit Floyd is the equivalent of seeing the CSO play Beethoven’s 9th symphony in its entirety, while some bar band Pink Floyd tributeers might be the equivalent of the local high school’s “B” level orchestra scratching out the first movement.  Unbelievably professional musicians, incredible staging and production values, and while they were faithful to the Pink Floyd music, they also made it their own by extending the songs deeply – “Another Brick In The Wall” goes from being a 4:15 album cut or a 3.5 minute radio play to an 8 minute jam with extended/expanded guitar solos, a unique ending, a deep/long beginning that worked into the start of the song, etc.  It was like that all evening.  And it was incredible.

That was some of the best rock music I’ve heard in a long time.  The guitarists were virtuosos – both playing and contributing incredible versions of David Gilmour’s soaring guitar solos.  They had two percussionists, an incredible group of female backup singers, etc.  And their vocals, while again true to the Pink Floyd genre and sound, were their own voices – they weren’t playing characters, or singing in affect accents or any of the other typical Tribute Band garbage you see in the bar bands.

As I age, and become more and more attached to music as my right brain outlet, both playing and listening, I have often wondered, “what is the future of rock music”?  An acquaintance of mine, Dean, who is a professional musician, playing everything from folk to rock to blues to jazz and multiple instruments, has of late been posing the question – “when did music make the turn from professionalism to production values?”  He promotes his gigs as “no auto tunes, backing tracks, loopers, or unnecessary electronics – just pure quality music.”  Versus seemingly anywhere you go to hear music these days, bands use backing tracks to add additional instruments, people, etc. that aren’t out there playing.

I’ve been thinking about that, and about, “what happens to the music we love when the artists die off or retire (or both)?”  Certainly there are these tribute bands in the bars, but I hope there is more “Brit Floyd” level acts forming up to cover and expand and interpret and make their own, the music we all know and love.  I, for certain, would pay to hear that.

Much more to come in the next week or two … lots happening.

But the train ride is at an end now, so …

(and pictures are below)

As you were,

Stew

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Sharpening the Axe

19 Mar

In Stephen Covey’s list of “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” he talks about “sharpening the saw” – which is his euphemism for actively learning.  He recommends continually putting yourself through education, training, reading books, listening to tapes, etc.  And while one most certainly could say that he included this one just to make sure his devotees had continued motivation to buy his stuff, nonetheless, I strongly believe that continual learning one of the keys to lifelong happiness as well as continued mental health and sharpness.

Which brings me to my topic – “Sharpening the Axe” – of late, I started taking guitar lessons again as part of my rededicated devotion and focus on playing my guitar (hence the “axe” reference) and music in 2014 that I shared in my post around the New Year.  Since the start of the year, musically anyway, I have …

– Rebuilt and reorganized my home-grown guitar songbook into something far more organized and scaleable.  I also printed 15 copies of it, with one designated as a gift for my pal Professor Troutstream, who is also getting his strum on again.

– Created a much more musically-inclined space for myself in our newly-remodeled basement, with all my guitar gear there, space to sit and play both by myself and with others, and also playing along with music on the surround sound stereo system down there.

– Bought one of my “dream guitars” – a candy-apple red Fender Stratocaster.  Now I’d love to say it’s an American Custom Shop Stratocaster that cost $2500 or more – nope, a Standard, built in Mexico. (For those that care about this stuff, maple neck, 50’s style headstock, three single coil standard pickups with a hot bridge pickup.) And red stratocasters have been played by my guitar idol/icons for ages – guys like Pete Townshend, Eric Clapton, Joe Walsh, Stevie Ray Vaughn.  Looks perfect and plays like an absolute dream.  Best value in guitars around – great action, sound, sustain, etc.  Not sure why I waited so long to get this.  But I love it.  Here’s Pete with his:

pete_red_stratocaster

And me with mine as I was unpacking it from the shipment box:

stew_strat

 

– And, in the last four weeks, I started back up with guitar lessons.

Over my lifetime, I’ve probably had 40 or so guitar lessons – I took guitar classes back in Jr. High from Mr. Elliott at Central  JH in Newton, IA – I think that was 7th and 8th grade.  Mr. Elliott taught me the basics but he also taught me to love the instrument and for that, I’m lifelong grateful to him.  After that, I took a handful of lessons here and there from various local folks, both officially and unofficially, and also my bandmates taught me stuff while I put down the rhythm with my bass guitar – amazing what you can learn just by watching.

About 15 years ago, when I picked guitar back up, I immediately started with lessons and quickly found that even though I was coming off a nearly 20-year hiatus from playing, that I was close to a better teacher than the teacher.  I gave that up, dabbled around in guitar books and such and online bits and pieces, then went through two more guitar teachers trying to find the right match.  One guy is a really accomplished Jazz teacher and well, he teaches Jazz guitar, which isn’t what I wanted, and another guy just really didn’t feel like much of a match.  A bigger issue is that I was struggling with articulating what I really wanted from this.

Finally, after thinking about it a lot, I figured it out – the handful of things I really wanted to learn were:

– finger style right hand picking on an acoustic guitar
– jazz and blues form rhythm guitar chord work and additional voicings and forms for chord work

But most important:

– how to solo as a blues and rock guitarist.

THAT, my friends is my holy grail.  I knew the basics – I had learned improvisation as a bass player back in high school at the hand of Mr. Omanson at Newton High Sschool.  It’s all just scales.  I even more or less knew several of the scales – minor and major pentatonics, minor and major straight scales, mixolydian scales, etc.  But I didn’t know how they translated to actually making a guitar solo sound good and sound coherent. Little things like root notes, bends, riffs, transitions from one pattern to the next, pattern extensions, etc.

I found a teacher near me by searching online, and read his website. Accomplished Blues and Rock player.  Good.  You Tube videos of his playing, great! Flexible schedules? Now we’re getting somewhere!  “I’ll teach you what you want to learn”.  Winner winner chicken dinner, ladies and gents!  I sent him an email describing my situation and he emailed right back – he thinks he could help – and the first lesson is free as he wanted to see if we had a match.

Well, happy to report we have a match. I learned more in that first 45 minute free session than I learned from all the guitar teachers I had since picking this back up.  I just had my third lesson last night and already he had me playing a solo over him playing along to a blues “jam track”.  DAMN!  Now this is progress!  I feel so energized by the learning, I’m having such a blast playing.  I play at least an hour a day as much as I can, and for the first time, I can hear the music in these scales. Blues songs are running on my mental iPod on a continuous 24 hour loop.

You know you’re primed for the learning experience when you can’t learn it fast enough.  That’s me right now.

Coming back to the central point and theme of the post here though – you’re never too old to pick up something and learn it.  Whether you’re just starting as a rank beginner, or you’re doing as I’m doing and going from a medium level to a more advanced level of knowledge or skill, there is no substitute for learning and for getting the learning from a competent educator or other source.  Your mind expands with every bit you learn.

Think about it.  What do you want to learn? Go learn it.

As you were,

Stew

Meet the New Year … same as the old year!

2 Jan

Ah, the ritual greeting of the New Year.  The calendar turns. You have to get used to writing a new date on checks (although who the hell writes many checks anymore what with e-banking).  Celebrations are had – champagne popped, fireworks shot off, Auld Lang Syne is sung, etc.  New laws are announced.  And people make New Year’s Resolutions.  That are promptly forgotten. 

I put on my Facebook wall yesterday that I’m not much for New Year’s Resolutions.  My feeling is if you’re going to commit to something, commit to it.  Why do you need a big milestone to do so?  That said, I made a rough list of things I want to do more and less of … that’s here:

– more guitar playing and singing. Perhaps some lessons too!
– more time spent on reading, less time on social media (yes, I said that.)
– more investment in learning to cook more inventively and more healthy cooking
– more eating healthy meals, less crap. Dabble in vegetarian/vegan meals.
– more talking and joking about bacon. Per above, less eating it.
– more exercise, less sloth. 
– more time spent with friends I don’t see often
– more time spent with family I don’t see often
– less worrying, more positive planning, less stress, more action
– NO big DIY home improvement projects (three were enough for 2014 – sheesh!) instead, finish all the little details on things that I’ve been wanting to finish.

And as I hopped on the train this morning, I thought to myself … and more writing in my blog.

As you know, my muse has been sparse to visit me this past year. I think after the challenges of 2012 I had with health and all, and then my focus in spring of 2013 of making a career change – something that found me but nonetheless took a ton of energy and more than 5 months to close the deal, I was sort of out of topics.  I hope that changes this year.  I’m going to make much more use of the features of WordPress to be able to post interesting content – photos, quotations, reposting of other blogs and more.  I’ll post more about food and cooking, and of course will use my observational capabilities to your enjoyment.  There’s quite a few folks on my train still to introduce you to, plus I’m commuting by bus from the train station to the office right now and that’s a bit of it’s own trip.  So, more “railroaded” posts to come.  I’ll also be traveling a ton for biz, so that’s a good ripe topic to mine as well.

A quick bit of observation for you this morning – it started snowing in Chicago the day before yesterday and it hasn’t let up yet.   That’s 36 hours of straight snowfall, and it might go all the way to 48 hours what with this lake effect thing that has kicked in and is just POURING snow from the sky.  That observation on its own isn’t remarkable.  We live in Chicago. Snow is what happens here in the winter and the lake effect is part of it.

But what is remarkable, always, is how Chicago just sucks it up and deals with it. Living in Iowa growing up, it snowed there too of course – and pretty much the streets were covered with packed ice and snow from mid-December through mid-February.  Highways would often be “tracked” versus clear, and well, that’s how it was.  They weren’t very effective in making it go away.  Here in Chicago on the other hand, fates of Mayoral careers (hello, Michael Bilandic, it’s Jane Byrne calling!) have hung in the balance.  It snows here, and by G-d the city just keeps on going.  Plows are rolling by constantly and a dried ocean of salt is poured on the streets to keep them from icing up.  Usually, within 4-6 hours of the end of a snow storm, the streets are completely clear of snow and ice from curb to curb.  The expressways generally only get wet and slushy during a snow – only when it’s really cold and therefore, the salt isn’t working well, do they get badly snow packed.  It takes an immense blizzard to stop this city.

And it just gets more beautiful with a layer of snow.  I can’t wait to be downtown today and look out at the city from my office windows.

So … Happy New Year, my dear readers.  Have a great day.  Here in Chicago, we’re having a snow day, but it’s not a Snow Day. 

Finding my muse again

22 Sep

It seems like I have lost my way again with Stew’s Brew – my blog.  My goals with this are and have always been to be an enjoyable creative outlet, and also, just plain to give me a way to stretch my mind.  I think with my new position at iProspect, I’m much more intellectually challenged than I was at iCrossing, and that’s manifesting itself in less time to write and well, less need to as well.

That said, this is mental exercise, and therefore, I really should do it.  I hate to say it but I’m at that age where if you don’t push, pull and stretch the mind a bit, you’re setting the seeds for issues that will manifest themselves in 20 years as mental decline.  I AM definitely pushing my mind a ton at work.  The new job presents a much broader set of challenges, as the chief/leader of three different offices of iProspect, and having to track the personnel issues, facilities issues, financial responsibilities, corporate communications of those offices, business development, and much more.  All are things I’ve managed before, but all are amplified with the fact that I’ve got three offices, and more than 100 people laddering up to me.

Another thing I found is that I was somewhat a victim of my own success – in the last six months, I had several posts that went more or less viral, collecting thousands of views as people shared them around – my post about the Boston bombing collected 10,000+ views in the space of a week or two – just amazing.  As people shared and reshared that post – the power of “viral” really banged home.  And ironically, the weight of that success sat on me – “how can I follow that up?” kept occuring to me.

The other thing that seemed to weigh my blog down was that I’d found an interesting rhythm in writing stories that were about 1000-1500 words long – which, if you’re measuring pages, are about two typewritten pages of text, single spaced.  The stories were longer, had more room to breathe, etc.  But the alternate reality of that is that a 1200 word post takes a couple of hours to write, edit, think about, etc.  I tend to write on the commuter train and on weekend mornings.  But I’m so busy right now with work that all of my train time tends to be eaten with work tasks – and usually in the evening, I’m too mentally fatigued to write a blog post.

So, onwards – my intent going forward with my blog is to get back to that thing that started me up.  I started this to enjoy writing.  My friend David Deal, blogger and social media expert extraordinaire, whom I credit for getting me started with blogging, helped me originally define my motivation – am I writing for an audience or am I writing for me?  Very simple.  I write for me – for the sheer joy of writing (yes, I know for many this is a chore, for me it is an enjoyable task).  It’s a bit like my guitar playing.  Do I enjoy playing for others? Yes, of course – that’s the best.  But I play and sing for me.  I do it because I love the sweet joy of making music.  And I write because I like the process of it.

So … here we are again.  I’m working to tap the muse.  I’m going to give short-forming a try – I’m going to also try more photojournalism – I’ve invested in a device for my camera that allows it to automatically push photos onto my laptop or mobile device, so I can share through that.  It’s time to shake things up a bit and try some different things.  I hope you enjoy it.  And well … if you don’t but I do, well, that’s good enough for me.  I’m not going to make the artificial pressure to “go viral” weigh this thing down.

Glad to be back.

As you were,

Stew

Pickin’ and Grinnin’ – Guitar Work

15 May

Shortly after I hit “Publish” on my last post, I realized I missed a key topic for our Sweet Home Alabama trip – playing guitar and singing with Chris “Coach”. Coach is a very talented self-taught guitarist and vocalist – he plays in a few iterations of various kinds – solo, with another guitarist, and then as guitarist for a local band in the Rainsville/Scottboro, AL area called The Big Band which plays at places like Margarita’s, Geno’s Live, etc. Chris and I found an instant chemistry when we went met for the first time in Cancun last year – and it was primarily over music. We got to talking and of course, since both of us play and sing, this was one of the first introductory topics that we covered. Later in that first afternoon, we were all sitting around the pool singing boozy renditions of old tunes we all know (the most memorable being “Cover of the Rolling Stone” by Doctor Hook) and a friendship was cemented.

Once we set our schedule to go to Alabama for our vacation the first week in May, we were already planning how we’d play together – I’d bring a guitar or two down with me, there was the possibility of me sitting in on one of his gigs, or we’d just sit and strum together and entertain our friends. The one thing we didn’t count on was me getting a nasty cold and upper respiratory infection and completely losing my voice – had not only no range other than a cracking croak (sounding somewhat like a frog going through puberty), but also didn’t have any breath capacity behind it. For a guy who loves to play and sing, this was torture, as it was one of the biggest things I was looking forward to on this trip – both playing and singing with Coach and also singing Karaoke at Brian’s karaoke night our first night in Rainsville.

Nonetheless, we made a go of it anyway – the Saturday night we were there, we got a big fire roaring in the firepit (after having obtained some properly dry wood), and then hauled out the guitars for a good strum – we played at least two hours outside, then the party moved indoors and Chris and I stayed up for another full hour playing some more. While I couldn’t sing much above a bare whisper, the hands were working fine, and I really enjoyed the play time.

The point of this post really isn’t to talk about that, but to talk about the joy of making music with others. Every person who has musical ability and either plays an instrument or sings knows what I mean – it is entirely one thing to sing and play solo, and that does have enormous enjoyment, but to make music with others – whether informally getting together and playing, or formally in some sort of organized group, band, choir, etc., is where there truly is a wonderful thing that happens. I liken music to team sports a bit. As a baseball player, you can go to the cages and hit against the machines all you want, but there is no better thrill than cranking a fastball off an imposing pitcher, dropping the bat and running hard for first base. So goes music.

My love of playing music, I’m sure (and my mom can probably fill in details more than me) dates long before I actually picked up a guitar or trombone. That said, my actual music education began, like it does for most, in 6th grade when I started playing trombone – then you move into 7th grade band and suddenly, you understand why, what you’re doing works. Even though that 7th grade band is awful and out of key, suddenly you hear how those notes you’ve been playing fit with all the other notes the others play and the result becomes music. In 7th grade, my guitar obsession truly began – although I had been dabbling with it for about a year at that point, with my sister receiving an acoustic guitar as a gift about then. I decided to learn bass guitar when I found out that the music for bass guitar generally mirrors that for trombone – learn the bass clef, learn how a tune goes and all you’re doing is moving your hands in a different way, versus blowing through a horn. That made learning bass very easy for me. I also truly learned guitar at that point by taking lessons through the school (Mr. Chas Elliot, thank you!), and then also from taking a handful of random lessons from some local guitarists (see my Rock and Roll Hall of Fame post for more on that). About spring of 7th grade, I was approached by another guy a year older than me who asked if I’d be interested in playing bass in the band that he and three other guys were starting up – I did, and the rest is history. Even though our repertoire was limited to just a few songs, man, we were making music! The first songs we could play were just Smoke on the Water (are there any young bands that don’t start with that? Ironically, now that I’m older, I’ve found that that song is actually quite complex, versus rudimentary.) and a variation on a I-IV-V fast blues riff that we somehow morphed into Roll Over Beethoven by Chuck Berry. Nonetheless, I still remember that first practice in a garage and how amazingly fun it was to make some rock and roll.

Through school, I also started playing bass guitar in Jazz band – and was in the “A” Jazz band throughout high school – we had a scorching rhythm section, anchored by my pal and drummer for my rock band, Jay (the Eyeguy) – still to this day, our Jazz shows when we were on the contest tour senior year are some of my best memories.  The joy of performance never, ever gets old.

Fast forward to being an adult – I picked up guitar again about 12 years ago, mostly out of a desire to have a hobby again that was less frustrating and far less expensive than golf. I found that years of music love had actually honed my abilities a bit, and after some refresher lessons – after a few lessons with a guy that specialized in beginning guitar players, I discovered that I was a better player than my teacher – I was off and playing again. Instead of being focused on bass guitar though, I bought an electric guitar and an amp. Shortly after, Robin, after figuring out that this wasn’t a passing fancy, bought me my pride and joy guitar – an Ovation round-back six string guitar. (I’m playing it in the shot above). These are unique because instead of a big wooden box, the back of the Ovation is a parabolic shaped plastic bowl with a spruce top affixed. They are generally all acoustic-electric guitars with built-in pickups, tuners etc. When they were introduced in the 1970s, they were considered very forward-looking guitar technology. Back when I was in high school, I badly wanted an Ovation acoustic guitar, and in fact, had saved enough to buy one – but, for whatever reason – popular idea, wanting to follow along with my friend Phil, etc., I spent the $300 or so I had squirrelled away on a bicycle – and well, I did ride that thing all over the state of Iowa and get in much better physical shape. But … I didn’t get the guitar of my dreams. Shortly before my birthday that year, Robin and I went to a Melissa Etheridge show at Chicago’s House of Blues and somehow found our way very close to the front. Melissa was playing a gorgeous Ovation with a round center sound hole (some ovations have small sound holes near the upper arch of the guitar) and a sunburst finish. I pointed it out to her and said “see that guitar? That’s the guitar I’ve always wanted.” Well, my birthday was a few weeks later, and by G-d, my lovely wife had done it – she had gone to Sam Ash Music, had picked out an Ovation (albeit from their “amateur” series versus the nearly-$5,000 pro series) that looked, and more importantly SOUNDED exactly like Ms. Etheridge’s guitar. I was in heaven.  I’ve since added the matching 12-string guitar to my collection as well.

Well, my interest from there took off – I started putting together large songbooks of the music I wanted to play, with lyrics and chords, I started “eating up” as much music as I could, and played for my friends who were a wonderful, if a bit boozy, audience to my sing-alongs. But, the missing link was playing along with others. On the great fun side, I inspired a dear friend, GASHM’s wife “1.1” to take up guitar on her own – and we had a lot of fun for awhile there. That said, her desired style of play is a lot different than mine – she was learning the instrument much as one would learn a piano – and well, I’m a strummer and singer (and a picker and a grinner and a lover and a sinner … ) – so we sort of stopped playing together. After suffering through a lot of neck and shoulder issues, she hasn’t played in quite a while. There are others that I play along with, however – “Zohan” – who is quite a good “strummer/singer” guitarist in my own vein, with a predilection to Creedence Clearwater Revival music – he and I play together ever few months, and we have a lot of fun doing it. He and I need to get a bit more focused on this –we could actually put together a set and perform if we both put our minds to it. Same with my friend Steve, who plays at a similar level as me, and has very similar musical interests. My brothers –in-law, Jon and Micah, are both solid players in their own right – with Micah just having picked it up in the last few years. Micah and I manage to get together for a strum fairly often and each time it offers a great brain break and mental stretching.

Interestingly, though where I’ve gotten the most “play along” satisfaction is when I get the treat of sitting in with someone who is clearly better than me – and there are a few of those folks in my life. First, my next door neighbor and spiritual “rudder”, RavMarc – who is a very accomplished folk singer and guitarist – his music tastes are more folk than my acoustic rock tastes, although we do find ways to collaborate. And then there’s two guys who are both better than me, and have perfectly matching tastes – my old work pal Rick, and now, Coach. Unfortunately, both live out of town. Rick and I were colleagues at another company for about 8 years and we discovered our mutual “playalong” compatibility when he was visiting me for a business trip. After that, we both schlepped our guitars to the Dominican Republic for a company fun trip and entertained not only our work colleagues, but pretty big crowds of folks at the resort as well. And, he invited me to sit in once at his standing gig at a bar in New York City, which was completely enjoyable for me. Probably less so for the folks in the audience. I hope we get to repeat our session sometime again. And now, most recently, Coach – Coach clearly knows his stuff both as a guitarist and as a singer and we discovered that our music styles are completely compatible. It was great to be able to play along with him, providing depth and texture with my rhythm guitar work while he was able to rip away at solos and also focus on his vocals. Hopefully in Alabama, that was first of more than few times where we can jam along together. I’m hoping we can both bring our “cheap beater” guitars to Mexico with us later this summer and repeat the jam up by the pool.

So, where does this arc lead us? Well, again, like sports, music is best made, at least in my view, in a team setting. You compliment each other’s strengths, compensate for each other’s weakness and the sum of the parts is greater than the whole. There’s no more fun, at least for this amateur musician, than to be part of a bigger sound, making music that others enjoy and sing along to. And, like sports, you find that one of the best ways to raise your game is to play with others that are of higher skill than you – it forces you to raise your stakes and learn more to be able to play along.

As you were,

Stew

Triple D/Rock Hall Road Trip – We’re back!

1 Apr

Well, we’re back from our epic Rock Hall/Triple D road trip – rolled in the driveway yesterday afternoon about 4:00 PM.  After writing the blog post from Wednesday, and that took me more than an hour in the evening, I decided to put off blogging about the trip until I got home – sorry about that!  And this morning as I sit here thinking about writing what I want to about this, I realize I have three core topics to cover – the Triple D restaurants, the Rock Hall (as those in Cleveland call the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame), and well, the reflections of what it’s like to travel with two awesome teenaged sons who truly both wanted to be on this trip, and truly enjoyed it and how special that is.

I do have to say that I’ve always loved road trips – we never flew on family vacations growing up.  For a family that had aviation in its DNA with my grandfather having been a pilot, because of where we lived, and the sheer cost of commercial air travel, I didn’t take my first commercial flight until I was around 11 or 12 and traveled with my mom to New Jersey to see my grandparents.  It was always the road.  And my folks did road trips right.  We weren’t one of those families that did the “let’s drive all night” thing.  The journey was always part of the destination.

We rarely drove more than about six or seven hours per day, either.  Our summer trips to New Jersey to see my grandparents included an overnight stopover in the Chicago area at our relatives, the Coxes – to hang and play with our first cousins, Tom and Doug, and then usually another overnight in Western or Central Pennsylvania.  Our Colorado trips always had a stop somewhere in Nebraska – Grand Island, York, North Platte, or Kansas – Salina or Lawrence.  About the only place we did the “straight through” drive was the years we went to Northern Minnesota and the fishing cabin.

Robin and I have done the same thing now as well – we’ve taken great driving trips with the family – twice to Cape Cod, twice to Greenwood Lake NY, once to Colorado, as well as countless driving trips to Iowa and Wisconsin.  We rarely cover more than 8 hours (although Colorado we did 12 hours in our first day, albiet with a full hour lunch stop at my mom’s in Newton, IA), we always made sure with the kids that we got to the hotel in time for an enjoyable dinner and a swim, etc.

On this trip, we drove 1040 miles and what was so fun about it was the trip WAS the destination.  Our first stop, about 2 1/2 hours out, was a Triple D restaurant.  That left about 4 hours of driving to Cleveland.  Cleveland to Dayton was another 3 hour run, then coming home yesterday, although the day’s total (like Wednesday) was about six hours, taking more than an hour break in West Lafayette at Triple XXX Drive In, as well as a 45 minute stop in Indianapolis to pee at the IMS Museum, and visit Mary Anne, our parking hostess for the 500 every year, really broke up the drive.

I come home having a great appreciation for a number of things:  1) My sons – more on that later, but they truly are great traveling companions.  They are funny, silly (different than funny), never putting on the sullen teenager act, they appreciate food the way I do, and we were all in sync the entire trip.  2)  Our country – this sounds strange, but the ease of which we can travel and cover great distances cannot be ignored.  While the highways can be smoother (and don’t get me started on the Republican’s goal to defund federal highway funding), and the traffic can be less, I nonetheless love traveling around our country and it truly is amazing that you can drive 1000 miles and really only tour around a small section of our country; 3) Music – if, besides eating, there was a single thing that defined this road trip, it had to be music.  We had a constant flow of great tunes playing, whether in the car or at the Rock Hall.  Between iPods/iTunes and Sirius Satellite Radio (Classic Vinyl was our favorite channel), this trip’s sound track was pure classic rock … with an hour-long dose of Jackopierce – the acoustic duo I recently discovered thanks to my pal Professor Troutstream.  4) Driving – while this is sort of a “well duh” item, let’s face it.  I love to drive.  I drove 18 of our 19 hours and never got sick of it.  Doesn’t hurt to have an awesome car to drive in my little VW GTI – that thing just eats miles and spits them out, all at 33 mpg going nearly 80 mph.  Awesome.

So, onwards.  I have a bunch of business travel this week, which means, inevitably, some serious downtime in which I’ll have time to write about the restaurants, about the Rock Hall, and the Air Force Museum, and about what it meant to me to travel with a pair of 16 year old boys who are both little kids and great grown men pals at the same time.

As always, the best part of a trip is often coming home.  Robin and Sprite were both very happy to have us home. We were done traveling yesterday.  But I’d do it again tomorrow if I could.

As you were,

Stew

Listen to the music!

3 Feb

Last Saturday evening, after dinner, we went to our friends Jason and Andrea’s house for drinks to celebrate Andrea’s birthday.  It was one of our “just gather” things we do with our friends- not a party.  No invitations, etc.  There were husbands and wives missing for various reasons – chasing kids, business travel, etc. Impromptu.  After the requisite cake and toasting, one couple went home for kid bedtimes (they being the only couple in this group with younger kids), another guy went off to pick up a daughter, and my wife and the remaining three women announced they were going to another’s house to watch chick flicks.

That left just Jason and me hanging out having a drink – and we were left with a binary choice – either put on some sort of man-flick like Pulp Fiction or whatnot, or, better yet, crank the tunes and listen to the music.  We went for the latter.

A back story – a few months ago, I posted about “Listening to Albums”  having been to a concert where Frampton played Frampton Comes Alive.  And how the concept of listening to an album has all but gone away.  Jason and I (and his wife Andrea, and my wife Robin) love to hang and just listen to music, and especially to albums.  Jason, like me, is a big music fan, and he’s an audiophile – meaning he has some serious stereo gear.  While my gear is old, it was very serious in its day, and still sounds great – hence we get into listening to the tunes.  We just hang out, grab drinks, put on a track or an album, listen to it, talk about it, lather, rinse, repeat.

We were marveling over what a treat it is to do this – and how for the most part, this isn’t something people do anymore.  We did it all the time as kids – you’d buy a new album and invite your friends over to listen to it.  You’d have a bit of a party and a major portion of that was “cranking the tunes” and listening to the music and being really into it.   We both came to the conclusion (between savoring the lead guitar parts in the acoustic version of Hotel California, where Joe Walsh squares up with Glenn Frye and they scorch out that harmonizing solo, and Boston’s Hitch a Ride, where Tom Scholz and Barry Gordreau do pretty much the same thing), that technology has changed the way people enjoy and consume music.

Back in the day (a phrase I hate, by the way, especially when some 22 year old says it – “really?  Back in the day?  Like what, 2 years ago?) – when we were in high school and college – you listened to tunes primarily at home.  Then in the late 70s and early 80s, car stereos became serious audio, and so, you added your car to that – but you still listened at home.  Then we added walkmans and other portable devices – now you could listen at home, in the car, walking around.  Layer into that streaming internet music (Spotify, Pandora, etc.), iTunes, MusicMatch on cable, Napster, iPods, Zunes, smartphones, etc. and suddenly our music is with us everywhere we go.

And the net result?  Music is not listened to anymore – it’s just a sound track for whatever else we’re doing.  Working? It’s on.  Driving – it’s on. Running or working out?  On. etc.etc.  This massive availability of music, however I think has killed off the activity of actually LISTENING to the music.  NOT multi-tasking.  Not watching video with it.  Turning down the volume of the input on the other senses, and turning up the volume on the music results in you really focusing on it.  You can hear how Joe Walsh, because he plays slide guitar so much is a bit lazy in his fingering runs and drags his fingers on the strings.  You can hear how Alex Lifeson of Rush plays with almost military like precision with his pick.  You can hear how Eddie Van Halen combines tapping, picking and other crazy techniques so that it comes out of his amp like a flood.  You can hear Geddy Lee’s right hand hitting the body of his bass on his solo in Red Barchetta.  And you can hear an acapella soloist in a song (one is not coming to mind) take breaths.

Like everything else, things are best when savored.  Your mama always told you – “don’t gulp your food!”  My grandmother had a plaque on her wall that said “Don’t hurry, don’t worry, and don’t forget to smell the flowers.”  Enjoying a fine meal means shutting off the other inputs and thinkiing about what you’re smelling and what you’re tasting.  Enjoying a fine painting in a museum, there’s no music.  There’s just good lighting and silence.  A place to sit and stare for a moment – walk up to it, walk back from it – look at it from differing angles.

And the same thing with music.  If you seriously fancy yourself as a music lover, then think about it.  When was the last time you actually sat and listened to music?  No TV, no laptop/iPad/iPhone/Droid, or even for that matter, conversation.  Think about what you’re hearing.  concentrate on hearing the parts – repeat the song and try to listen exclusively to one person or another, one instrument, etc. Savor it like a fine steak.  And be amazed.  Listen up.  Like we used to.

As you were,

Stew

Cover Band or “Old Favorite”? Does it matter?

5 Sep

In keeping with our favorite summer activity, live music, Thursday evening we went to see Lynyrd Skynyrd at Ravinia.  Ravinia, for those that don’t live in Chicago, is a wonderful outdoor concert venue with a Pavilion offering reserved seating to about 3000 people in the Pavilion (for a higher ticket price of course) and an additional 12,000 or so folks spread out on “the lawn” which is a beautiful wooded park – with speakers spread throughout.

We had lawn seats for Lynyrd Skynyrd – we were directly off the Pavilion so the sound we were hearing was straight off the stage sound system versus the lawn sound.  But sitting in the lawn, I could have been listening to a very good cover band versus the original – which of course got me to thinking:  All the touring bands under the names of the old faves are often just that – cover bands.  Which of course gets the next thought – “does that matter”?

Lynryd Skynyrd is probably less of a cover band than most these days – it stars four original players including Gary Rossington and Johnnie Van Zant.  We all know this band’s story – back in the late 70s, there was a tragic plane crash that killed three of the band’s original members, including lead singer Ronnie Van Zant – who really was the star and “sound” of the band.

We’ve seen lots of other “old fave/back in the day” touring acts in the last 8 years since this phenomena took hold including:

– Foreigner – one original member left:  Mick Jones:  That said, Foreigner is probably the best sounding of them all – and Mick Jones, while looking like father time himself, still riffs like a 30-year old and the band’s sound is stunning.

– Styx:  Two original members, Tommy Shaw and James Young, joined on stage by Chuck Panozzo on bass for a few numbers.  Tommy and James were the rockers of Styx, while Dennis DeYoung wanted to take the band into operatic “prog rock” back in the early 80s, which broke up the band.  These guys are the heart and soul of the Styx that I loved and the songs they play are primarily from Tommy Shaw and JY’s catalog, versus DDY songs.

– Boston: Only original member is Tom Scholz.  Still scorching.

– REO Speedwagon – two original members, Kevin Cronin, and the bass player (can’t remember his name).

– Kansas  – two original members

– Journey – two original members and a vocalist that was auditioned via You Tube and he is a Filipino guy who was a Steve Perry impressionist doing Karaoke until the band recruited him to be the Steve Perry impressionist doing live band Karaoke in front of a big live audience.  I haven’t heard them but I hear they are great.

And more …

And that’s the first tier.  These folks are still playing bigger venues, commanding decent ticket prices, and it still feels like a real rock show.  The second tier is where the cover band thing really starts kicking in.  Generally these acts are playing places like community festivals (Foghat played Buffalo Grove Days a few years ago and the year after was Starship – the smoking ruins of the old Jefferson Airplane/Jefferson Starship, etc.).   Most of these bands feature just one original member and it is usually only someone that was sort of part of the band’s soul.  Foghat’s original member was the bass player.  Starship’s was vocalist Mickey Thomas, who was the band’s front man in the 80s, but without the incredible vocals of Grace Slick, that band was pointless.

Of late, we’ve seen many good  cover acts as well – tribute bands to the Beatles including Chicago-based and nationally-touring American English, tribute bands to Pink Floyd, Journey, Foriegner, Kiss, etc. etc.  And all are great – and it is great fun to hear the music of your youth performed live.

Which of course brings me around to the point – are these cover bands or are they originals?  And, does it matter? Certainly, in the case of bands like Styx, Lynyrd Skynyrd, etc., you can make the point that they are current versions of the originals.   All businesses and let’s face it, rock bands ARE businesses, change out personnel, so it goes in music.  Foreigner, with Mick Jones at the helm, and considering he wrote most of their catalog, isn’t a cover band so much as a better version of the original.  While I’m no expert in contract law and intellectual property, clearly all these bands have a member who still owns rights to the band name and the music catalog and so they go.

On the subject of “does it matter”?  Well, depends on your perspective.  If you’re a music purist, I suppose it does.  But, if you’re like me, a music lover and a nostalgic soul, instead these bands are a walk through our youth.  And a damn enjoyable walk it is.

And while those first huge, loud chords of “Feels Like the First Time” by Foreigner slam through you, or you’re fist pumping your way through “Blue Collar Man” or “Fooling Yourself” with Tommy Shaw of Styx, savoring the incredible guitar solos of Boston, or yelling “Free Bird” with thousands of Lynyrd Skynyrd fans like I did Thursday night – you’re simply transported back to an earlier time.  And that’s all good.

Go see live music and support these touring 60 year olds.  Re-live your youth.  It’s good for the soul.

As you were,

Stew

Listening to Albums

13 Aug

This summer, I’ve had the unique, fun and nostalgic experience of hearing two of my favorite artists, play two of my all-time favorite albums end-to-end in concert.   First was Peter Frampton playing Frampton Comes Alive straight through on July 5th (great way to celebrate the night of our 25th reunion, by the way) and the second was last night with Steely Dan playing Aja all the way through.  Both were treats.  And trips.

Back in the day (and friends around my age will get this), that’s how we listened to music.  You slapped on an LP, or later, a CD and played it from start to finish – all the tracks.  Flip it when needed, change records if it were a multi-disc set, etc.  But you got to know the album and the artist through the rhythm of the album.

There were plenty of occasions where you wondered a bit, “now why did they put that track there?”, “how come they buried this uptempo hit song on side two in the middle”, etc. etc.  I’m sure there are people that are far more knowledgeable about the music business than I am, that understand the idea and rhythm of figuring out what order to put the tracks in.  But at the end of the day, that’s how you knew your music.  After a few listens through, you knew which track was next.

A good friend of mine, Jason, is a music aficionado, and we will frequently get together with his wife, Andrea and Robin and me and sit and listen to old favorite albums straight through.  It is a rare treat.  Some of my all time favorite albums – Supertramp’s Breakfast in America, Boston’s first album “Boston”, Styx’s Pieces of Eight, Aerosmith’s Toys in The Attic, Pink Floyd’s The Wall, Led Zepplin 4, The Eagles’  Hotel California, The Beatles’ White Album and Abbey Road, Steve Miller Band’s Book of Dreams, and of course the aforementioned Frampton Comes Alive, and Steely Dan’s Aja are just great works.  Yes, I love the songs individually, but there is an entirely different listening experience that comes from hearing the entire artist’s work, in the way that the artist intended it to be heard.

I guess this is a nostalgic post – in these days of iTunes downloads, YouTube videos, media sharing sites, Pandora, iPods, etc., this style of listening is entirely foreign to our kids in general. My kids, thankfully have gotten in the habit of buying CDs, not just tracks from iTunes (although with iTunes gift cards being a popular currency, there’s plenty of single-track buying being done), but I don’t think that they are in the habit of hearing the work striaght through.  The tracks get ripped to the computer, dropped into playlists, etc.  Thank goodness iTunes and iPods support album listening – because I’d be lost without that.

Overall, this has been a fantastic music spring/summer for us so far – in addition to seeing/hearing Steely Dan and Peter Frampton, we also have seen Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band, as well as Steve Miller Band and in a few weeks, we’ll be seeing Lynyrd Skynyrd (also at Ravinia).

As we were listening to Steely Dan – Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, play through Aja, Robin and I were talking about how we doubt our kids will ever have the experience of hearing the artists of their youth, touring in their 60s, while they are in their 40s or whatever, and enjoying the trip back to their youthful days.  Who of today’s artists have music that has that staying power?  Damn few!  Perhaps Kid Rock, Nickleback, Jason Mraz and a few others, but certainly not Katy Perry, Justin Bieber, and all the other autotuned acts.  That’s a bummer.

Anyway, my advice to you my dear friends, is put on an album.  Sit down with a beverage of your choice, put on an album from your favorite artist (in whatever format you have – vinyl, CD, iPod tracks, whatever) and with perhaps a loved one or two, and just listen.  Think about the rhythm of the tracks and how they work together.  If it’s an old favorite, try to remember what comes next.  And immerse  yourself in the music.  You’ll be glad you did.

As you were,


Stew
(and other album covers for nostalgia purposes …)

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