Tag Archives: rock

“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

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

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

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